“House of Ife” at the Bush Theatre

Given its subject matter, Beru Tessema’s debut play is remarkably enjoyable. An estranged family struggling with the death of the titular character through drug addiction sounds grim. But Tessema’s confident comedy skills add well-placed lighter touches. And an exciting ear for dialogue gives this straightforward domestic drama its own originality.

This is a family with secrets, that’s haunted by grief, but the strong bonds between its members are the focus. Establishing a trio of bickering siblings is well done from the start – and great fun. Taking the lead is an adorable younger brother, Yosi, whose performance by Michael Workeye is the standout for the whole show.

Michael Workeye in House of Ife at the Bush Theatre
Michael Workeye

The deceased Ife’s sisters show us different sides of grief, and the performances by Yohanna Ephrem and Karla-Simone Spence make a good contrast. The parents bring yet more insight through their Ethiopian heritage and the father doing “God’s work” (while starting a new family) back in Addis Ababa. There are strong performances again, this time from Jude Akuwudike and Sarah Priddy.

With so much ground to cover – the family history and big issues – it might not be surprising that Tessema addresses topics thinly. Questions of belonging, of culture and of religion from five different perspectives are explored – but not that deeply. Ife’s addiction isn’t examined enough, leading to this pivotal offstage figure feeling sketchy.

Instead the show’s strengths come from comic observations and the tension between generations. Director Lynette Linton’s close work, with the steady flow of conversations between the parents, the children, and the whole family, are always engrossing. The pacing is excellent, with loud arguments and quiet reflection nicely balanced. An explosive final scene provides a worthy payoff for all the care and attention taken.

Until 11 June 2022

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Bonnie & Clyde The Musical” at the Arts Theatre

Frank Wildhorn and Don Black’s score for this 2011 musical sounds exemplary. With consistently strong songs and smart lyrics, this is a show that can hold its head high. While not all the numbers feel as if they belong in a story about criminals – and the sense of time and place for these depression era degenerates isn’t convincing – there is barely a weak number to be heard.

The entire cast enjoys this solid material. The production has fine leads, with Frances Mayli McCann and Jordan Luke Gage taking the title roles. Given the stronger written part, Gage’s acting impresses. Director Nick Winston’s production is a quality affair. Although small, the venue feels appropriate for the show and the design from Philip Witcomb is neat, if far from lavish.

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Natalie McQueen and George Maguire

Problems arise with Ivan Menchell’s book and the characterisations here. Time spent on Bonnie and Clyde, looking at their motivations and insecurities, is rewarding. But secondary roles – Clyde’s brother and his wife, as well as a law man who holds a torch for Bonnie – are poor. The performers – George Maguire, Natalie McQueen and Cleve September – sound good, but the roles are written either too comic or too sincere. These issues are worse when it comes to the crime couple’s parents.

Such poor parts are an especial shame, since focusing on how others feel and are affected by Bonnie and Clyde is the show’s smart move. Taking criminals as your protagonists in any drama must be handled sensitively. This show generally avoids the danger, as aspirations for fame seem silly and both fall into violence in a convincingly chaotic fashion. If there’s a little too much sympathy for the gangsters, the show never leaves us in any doubt about how destructive they are. And it really does sound great along the way.

Until 10 July 2022

www.bonnieandclydemusical.com

Photos by Richard Davenport

“Straight Line Crazy” at the Bridge Theatre

You might not think town planning is the most interesting subject for a play, but David Hare makes the most of it. Tackling the career of Robert Moses, ‘the man who built New York’, Hare elaborates themes of the state versus the individual, as well as the nature of aspiration and ambition, in this tale of parks, recreation and roads.

The history is interesting – honestly – but the key to Straight Line Crazy is character. Hare’s biography of Moses is what makes his play. And it provides a stellar role as the starchitect Moses for Ralph Fiennes.

On the side of the angels

Fiennes has the charisma to depict the maverick Moses, making him suitably magnetic as well as complex. That this is a man with a mission is an understatement. The drive to constantly build kept Moses in motion for 30 years. But his desire to improve the lot of many, by giving them access to fresh air and the countryside, is more complicated than it seems.

Using the methods of the devil

Moses stopped at little to get what he wanted. Fiennes conveys the astounding arrogance of the man convincingly. A viciousness that disregards how anybody else feels is enforced relentlessly, and the performance is suitably powerful. But, too often, Hare treats imperiousness as a joke. And the punchlines are poor.

The show is hampered by some unstable accents (even Fiennes’) and too many characters are simply shadowed by the central role. Moses’ assistants (played by Samuel Barnett and Siobhán Cullen) are an effort to correct this fault but aren’t well-rounded characters.  Even Danny Webb’s crowd-pleasing Governor is only an amusing foil.

Ralph Fiennes and Danny Webb

There are more problems I’m afraid, which even Nicholas Hytner’s confident direction cannot hide. After the interval we only see more of the same. Yes, Moses faces objections to his plan of driving a road through Washington Square Park. But getting so much building done was never going to be easy. An obsession with cars starts to be questioned. And Hare highlights that the plans’ new opponents are middle class – claiming they are more organised and powerful than the big business names Moses took on earlier in his career.

The conflict is, dramatically, a repetition. We’ve seen the arrogance and determination already. Attempts to highlight the personal toll Moses’ work took arrive too late. Like the traffic on the roads Moses was obsessed with constructing, Straight Line Crazy just doesn’t go anywhere.

Until 18 June 2022

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“The Straw Chair” at the Finborough Theatre

There’s a lot going on in Sue Glover’s historical drama. The true history of an imprisoned noblewoman is told alongside the story of a newly married missionary and his young wife. Meanwhile the setting, a remote island steeped in paganism, elaborates on themes of religion and power. If the script is disjointed – an odd mix of romance and intrigue – The Straw Chair is always interesting.

First the location (the jail of Lady Rachel Grange as well as the parish needing a priest), the Hebridean island of St Kilda, is a character it its own right. Embodied by the only local we meet, Oona, played with great charm by Jenny Lee, there is a lot of anthropological detail. Might the role have a touch more drama? Should we be suspicious of Oona’s role as jailer? Nonetheless, her love of the island is evocative.

To hell, to Hades, to Kilda

For Lady Rachel, kidnapped and carted off to a house with only one chair, it is understandable and amusing that she hates St Kilda. In a commanding performance, Siobhan Redmond makes this great character fascinating as she plays with degrees of madness. She isn’t a figure of sympathy – her snobbery ensures that – but, as a mix of Mrs Rochester and Lady Macbeth, Redmond ensures the character has the required magnetism. It is to the credit of all, not least director Polly Creed, that the role doesn’t swamp the play.

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Finlay Bain and Rori Hawthorn

Lady Rachel’s relationship with the newly wed Isabel could be elaborated on. It’s another strong performance – from Rori Hawthorn – but I wonder if the young woman is too naïve – and her growing affection for the island a little pat? The character is fuller when it comes to her relationship with her husband, the missionary Aneas, a role that benefits from a final strong performance, this time from Finlay Bain. The “rigid piety” of the aspiring churchman is offset by a convincing sense of religiosity and a nervousness around his young wife that Bain depicts expertly.

The play’s conclusion is wilfully frustrating. We don’t know what will happen to Lady Rachel or the couple whose marriage is tumultuous – little bodes well despite Bain and Hawthorn’s chemistry. And the minister’s conversion to Lady Rachel’s cause is so quick that it seems clumsy. This trip to this island feels rushed, but it is still a journey worth making.

Until 14 May 2022

www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

Photos by Carla Joy Evans

“The Sh*t” at the Bush Theatre

Kenny Emson’s play tells the story of a youth worker, Eric, and his client, Daniel. The script is detailed and tidy, qualities reflected in Alexander Ferris’ admirable direction. The performances are excellent.

Eric and Daniel meet often (I’m not quite sure your average troubled youth gets this much quality attention) and the drama of their developing and turbulent relationship is effective, if predictable.

Eric’s troubled past is expected, too. And doesn’t quite explain his connection with the younger man. But Lladel Bryant’s performance in the role is exceptional – the growing care and exasperation he feels with Daniel is believable and moving.

The writing for Emson’s younger character is better. Daniel provokes and challenges not just his youth worker but the audience. Dillon Scott-Lewis brings out the intelligence and humour of the role and allows Daniel to be vulnerable as well as angry.

It is a little too easy to see The Sh*t as a two-hander that aches to be expanded. Eric’s boss is a voiceover performed by Samantha Béart and, while Bryant does his best, these scenes are poor. Maybe the idea was that having an offstage manager would provide a Big Brother scenario – but both the role and the arguments need to be stronger.

Eric’s despair and rage against the system – and its scorecard assessments of people – may be naïve, but it is powerful. The recurring question of how Daniel rates with “managing feelings” – a score that Eric doesn’t reveal – is worth considering with regards to all three characters. The scope to develop and focus on this theme is clear.

Until 23 April 2022

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Photo by Ant Robling

“I Know I Know I Know” at the Southwark Playhouse

Confidently written and well performed, Flora Wilson Brown’s new play is an intelligent and sensitive examination of sexual abuse. This ambitious work is worth checking out, despite not being an easy play for two reasons.

First, the subject matter is tough. We hear the story of a young woman who was groomed by a pop star, only later revealing the truth now that he is famous. Meanwhile, the musician is travelling to a wedding with an old friend, so the audience sees him in a very different light. It’s a neat way of challenging preconceptions, further aided by surprising humour on Wilson Brown’s part.

With both extended scenes delivered at the same time, I Know I Know I Know is dense viewing that makes demands on the audience. But the results are worth it. The dialogue overlaps in a marvellous fashion. Aided by Harry Tennison’s direction, there are explosive connections from the simplest words. As the moods of the three characters in the piece change, the script has a tense, flowing energy.

I Know I Know I Know isn’t perfect. Victoria Maytom’s set is an unhappy affair that doesn’t help the audience work out what’s going on and seems like an obstacle course for the performers. Anna Short’s sound design is effective but lacks the subtlety of the script. The lighting, from Ryan Day, is more appropriate – drawing the audience in and out of the action with an ebb and flow that fits the piece.

I know I know I know credit Ellie Kurttz
Ethan Moorhouse and Martha Watson Allpress

Wilson Brown’s well-written roles produce great performances. Well done to Martha Watson Allpress and Ethan Moorhouse, who play friends from university whose lives have become very different. They both have their problems. Watson Allpress brings a febrile energy to her role, while Moorhouse reveals his rock star character’s demons gradually. The key is that both are likeable – she has a wit to warm to, and he brings charm appropriate to the character’s success.

It is the victim, Alice, who is the focus of the show, and this proves a triumph for Wilson Brown and performer Hannah Khalique-Brown. There’s a lot of detail about Alice’s trauma; how the affair started and developed as well as how it has affected her. But this is written and delivered with a balanced approach that avoids sensationalism. Alice is a character whose honesty we never doubt (it must have been tempting to introduce scepticism for the sake of drama?). That Alice is still in love with the man who had been so terrible to her is haunting.

Wilson Brown has to skim around some of the interesting points that make her characters well rounded. And the play’s resolution, while emotional, feels truncated. But the piece is weighty and easily intense enough to impress. The age gap between the characters isn’t as great as they themselves seem to think, and that we aren’t dealing with some seedy Saville type is an important point. The play succeeds in bringing fresh insight to an important topic.

Until 16 April 2022

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Ellie Kurttz

“Sad” at the Omnibus Theatre

There are solid performances and Marie McCarthy’s careful direction to enjoy at Victoria Willing’s new play. Unfortunately, the script is not a success. Aimless and indulgent, its baby-boomer characters become a bore.

It’s brave of Willing to make her heroine Gloria (who suffers from seasonal affective disorder) unsympathetic. It’s a big part for Debra Baker, who is faultless. But it’s hard to make someone moaning for 90 minutes interesting.

Even worse, there’s little insight into Gloria’s problems. She is grieving for her mother and dissatisfied that her life hasn’t turned out as planned. There’s a mass of detail that is messy and it is too confusing for us to feel sorry for her.

The play becomes distracted with subplots about Gloria’s affair, her best mate from Slovakia and… the housing crisis. These provide difficult roles for her husband and friend, who Kevin N Golding and Izabella Urbanowicz tackle with skill. Desperate efforts to provide back stories that add depth to both roles fail and intrude further on the main story. And there’s a dire role as the next-door neighbour for Lucas Hare, who tackles some terrible dialogue bravely. 

Debra-Baker-in-Sad-at-the-Omnibus-Theatre-Clapham
Debra Baker

Some of the scenes might work as stand-alone sketches but, joined together, Sad amounts to less than the sum of its parts. Is there a lust for something random I’m missing here? There are plenty of coincidences in the piece. Gloria is supposed to captivate (and, goodness, Baker tries) as a former punk and free spirit. Lucid dreams and mentions of storytelling intrigue – she’s even writing a memoir, albeit one even she knows isn’t very interesting. It’s a shame some of this isn’t elaborated on. If some kind of crazy is the aim, Willing needs more originality.

Worst of all, the play is flagged as a comedy. And it took me far too long to work out why. A handful of lame one-liners and deadpan remarks indicate the intention to be funny. This seems to be the only excuse for Hare’s character (or that someone in local government really pissed off Willing). This creepy, clichéd council official is odd rather than comical. I’ve seldom seen a more humourless play, despite the efforts of those on stage.

Until 30 April 2022

www.omnibus-clapham.org

Photo by Dan Tsantilis

“Project Dictator” at the New Diorama Theatre

It’s not uncommon for a night at the theatre to combine comedy and tragedy. But Rhum + Clay’s new show moves from laughs to trauma particularly well. So well, it makes Project Dictator difficult to write about. This is one of those shows that knowing too much about might spoil. 

Co-directors and performers Julian Spooner and Matt Wells take their audience on a theatrical journey full of smart surprises. Assisted with direction by Hamish MacDougall, and joined onstage by composer and musician Khaled Kurbeh, Project Dictator has lot to say and plenty of ideas. The show is well executed throughout.

project-dictator-inset-at-the-new-diorama-theatre-credit-Cesare-De-Giglio

So, what’s going on? We start with a serious play within the play…but performed as a farce. An earnest writer and performer, Jeremy, is an appealing character. There’s the kind of observation – and panegyric to democracy – we expect. Gently mocking, not least artists like themselves, Spooner and Wells show strong comedy skills. A little slapstick goes a long way.

There are more laughs as Jeremy’s single cast member, a supernumerary who finds his voice, takes over. With a power struggle onstage, and calling on the crowd, we get the dictator the title promises. There’s a lot of audience participation here – be prepared to read out loud, dance in your seat and even draw. Jeremy shares my feelings about a fourth wall, and I can’t say I enjoyed all this. But, unlike a lot of audience participation, it is very well done and has a point.

This dictator wants more fun…but very deliberately the show doesn’t become funnier. At what point do you notice a sinister edge? The satire becomes keener, and that participation has an aim – to highlight how easy complicity with a charismatic figure can be.  The tone is more provocative and, had the show ended here, I’d have still been happy.

There’s a final surprise though, where Project Dictator becomes very dark indeed. It turns out what we’ve seen is the performance of comedians who get into trouble with a real regime. Stripped and hooded, after their anarchy, the curtain rises again on a chillingly controlled mime show. Forced to perform, and showing their fear, will a final act of rebellion occur? Now that I won’t reveal.

Until 30 April 2022

www.newdiorama.com

Photos by Cesare De Giglio

“Anyone Can Whistle” at the Southwark Playhouse

Not even Stephen Sondheim got it right every time. This 1964 musical has the feel of being penned by a tyro, albeit one who is a genius. While responding to a spirit of counter-culture this revival, directed by Georgie Rankcom, adds confusion.

It’s sacrilegious to criticise Sondheim (and rightly so). Thankfully many faults can be allocated to Arthur Laurents’ book. After all, there are lots of good songs here you will probably recognise.

Anyone Can Whistle has a “rundown town” that manufactures a religious miracle for financial gain. But surprisingly little is done with this idea. At the same time, inmates from a mental asylum called, ahem, the Cookie Jar, run amuck. Surprise! It’s hard to tell who is really insane. There’s an odd lack of satire as the show aims to be a parable and ends up simplistic and tiresome.

The production doesn’t iron out the show’s problems (which would be tough). Attempts at audience participation are ham-fisted and the humour poorly delivered (too many jokes are rushed). There’s no sense of place or time and, with accents all over the place, it seems safe to say that’s deliberate. But the piece is stuck in its period, preoccupied with adolescent rebellion, vague protest and forms of therapy.

Rankcom does a good job working with the traverse stage and Lisa Stevens’ choreography is admirably energetic. But the performances are too broad and there are problems with hearing lines clearly enough. What fun Sondheim’s lyrics possess is often lost.

Alex Young, as the town’s mayor, is a notable exception to all the production’s problems. Like her character, Young is a woman who can handle a crowd, and she adds laughs as well as silliness, which helps in a piece that takes itself surprisingly seriously.

Chrystine Symone

Other performances need more nuance – how much this could be injected despite the script is open to debate. Our hero and heroine, J Bowden Hapgood and Nurse Fay Apple, performed with determination by Jordan Broatch and Chrystine Symone, are flat and their romance unconvincing. Is the somewhat flippant view of mental illness that comes with the show’s simplicity the problem? Even if it doesn’t make you uncomfortable, it has repercussions for their love affair that Broatch and Symone’s undoubtable charm cannot save. This too-brief encounter comes across as odd. We only learn catchphrases for characters.

The societal critiques in Anyone Can Whistle and the topic of mental health have an appeal. Rankcom and his cast respond with genuine enthusiasm to challenging the mainstream. It’s nice so see this inspiration. But, as the work itself is immature, the production becomes tarnished with the same quality. Enthusing an audience about such a hotchpotch of ideas, while not exactly needing a miracle, turns out to be a leap of faith too far.

Until 7 May 2022

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Danny With A Camera

“Diary of a Somebody” at the Seven Dials Playhouse

Few doubt Joe Orton’s plays are brilliant and important. But to judge from his diaries, which John Lahr uses for this play, he was a pretty awful person. Lahr’s strategy for success, shared in this admirable revival, is to make someone so unpleasant good company – at least for a couple of hours.

George Kemp takes the lead as Orton and has no choice but to carry the show. It’s Orton’s voice, after all – monotonously so – and Kemp manages to bring an impish humour to proceedings. Orton’s self-presentation is so forceful, with so little self-doubt, that the show teeters towards repetition.

To the credit of Lahr (and Orton), there’s no censorship of any kind here – the idea that this is a political or philosophical point is interesting. Orton’s offensive approach to sex tourism isn’t hidden, and his misogyny, racism and arrogance throughout are uncomfortable. How much a wicked sense of humour excuses any of this is up to you.

Almost despite Orton, Diary of a Somebody is really the story of two men. Orton’s partner (and killer) Kenneth Halliwell is awarded a detailed depiction, performed here by Toby Osmond. The play’s emotional moments are effective. Osmond makes sure his character’s struggles with mental health receive more sympathy from the audience than they did from Orton.

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George Kemp, Sorcha Kennedy, Ryan Rajan Mal,Toby Osmond, Jemma Churchill and Jamie Zubairi

The couple are joined by Jemma Churchill, Sorcha Kennedy, Ryan Rajan Mal and Jamie Zubairi playing all the other characters. Marshalled efficiently by director Nico Rao Pimparé, it is the ensemble that makes the show digestible. Playing Orton and Halliwell’s neighbours is fun for both women. Delivering the brilliant letters Orton wrote under the pseudonym of Edna Welthorpe is a highlight for Churchill, and Zubairi’s Kenneth Williams is a pleasure.

“No fucking asterisks”

Maybe Orton was too honest for his own good (or, at least, for his reputation). He wanted to make sure his work and life contained “no fucking asterisks”. We can all appreciate that. But there’s a strong sense from Lahr’s work that these diaries were always meant to be seen. How suspicious does that make us? Orton never hid them from Halliwell, for a start, and the latter’s sense of being “an extra” in his former protégé’s “epic” became a tragedy for both men. Orton’s tone is often pompous, if fascinating – credit again to Kemp for ensuring a light touch to their delivery. It’s easy to admire this play and production, if not their subject.

Until 3 April 2022

www.sevendials.co.uk

Photos by Brittain Photography