“Boys on the Verge of Tears” at the Soho Theatre

For lovers of new writing, the Verity Bargate award is a big deal. Selected from 1500 entries by prestigious judges, this year’s winner from Sam Grabiner is fantastic piece full of ambition and a sense of adventure.

Set entirely in a gents toilet (Ashley Martin-Davis’s set could win another award) the piece is made up of “movements” – pun surely intended – that show the ages of men: from childhood, as teens at school, out on the town, and through to old age.

The conceit is even more audacious than it sounds. Themes and ideas recur and reflect on one another. A dad waiting for his boy finds a parallel to a sick man being helped by his new stepson. Scenarios are in flow, pretty much untethered by specific date or place.

There are 39 characters, most of them substantial, and only five performers so the number of roles they take is incredible. There are stumbles, but impressively few. Discrepancies in age or contrasts with scenes we’ve just watched are used to great effect. 

It’s interesting to pick out favourite roles from such a great selection.

Boys-on-the-Verge-of-Tears-photo-Marc-Brenner

Tom Espiner is stunning in the penultimate scene as a dying man, giving a hugely sensitive performance. Matthew Beard is great as leery teen, Jack, who despite being pretty disgusting is oddly endearing. Maanuv Thiara and David Carlyle have a smashing scene as characters who name themselves Maureen Lipman and Vanessa Feltz, delivering brilliant lines worthy of stand-up comedy. Finally, Calvin Demba might well steal the show as a young man who has been attacked: his concussion is convincing and the character’s fate dramatic.

In truth, all the performers balance humour and a sense of concern brilliantly.

The dialogue is a huge achievement, with different ages, classes, and various degrees of intoxication, all written assuredly. Grabiner gets considerable tension out of variety and director James Macdonald draws this out with skill. Be it offensive jokes or violence, even the shocking lack of hand washing, there’s a tension between sympathy and anxiety time and time again.

There are effortful moments. There are self-conscious tries to shock, obvious attempts to be experimental, and scenes that shout a message. But note: the piece succeeds in shocking, the experiments are interesting (two cleaners working in silence proves strangely fascinating), and Grabiner’s ideas about the body and our relationships to it are worth hearing.

While many of the circumstances or issues raised could be ticked off a list, Boys on the Verge of Tears is full of unpredictable moments. There are touches of whimsy, the surreal, and even horror. It seems Grabiner could write for any genre. And let’s not forget costume supervisor Zoe Thomas-Webb, who is kept very busy. All the scenes are strong and if some might not be missed, that’s interesting too, making me think of Alice Birch’s [Blank], with 100 scenes that can be selected for each production. It’s easy to see a bright future for both play and writer. This one is a five-star winner.

Until 18 May 2024

www.sohotheatre.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Ushers: The Front of House Musical” at The Other Palace

Director Max Reynolds has a great venue for his tenth anniversary revival of this funny show. With the scenario taking us behind the scenes of a fictional West End hit, downstairs at The Other Palace has a clubby feel that’s perfect for a piece full of insider jokes sure to appeal to a theatre crowd.

We see the romances and dreams of strong characters as they work with confectionary and merchandise, answering the same questions repeatedly, and clean up the audience mess. Two struggle with their relationship, another two fall in love, and a fifth is a fangirl searching for the leading man of her dreams (look out Michael Ball). It’s all tongue in cheek, and sweet, with neat roles for Bethany Amber Perrins (pictured top), Luke Bayer, Christopher Foley, Cleve September and Danielle Rose.

Daniel Page in "Ushers" at The Other Palace
Daniel Page

This is a strong cast, it’s great to have the chance to see them up close, and they all have strong voices and excellent comedy skills. Credit to Reynolds for getting the most out of them and the material. But the star of the show is Daniel Page who brings his pantomime skills to the role of villainous theatre manager Robin. He’s the one behind all the upselling, robbing the punters you might say, obsessed with sales figures and spend per head. It’s a joy to see a performer having so much fun in a role, making every line work and getting so many laughs.

In truth, the cast are funnier than the jokes. In particular, Amber Perrins makes the cooky Rosie hilarious when the character could be annoying. And the singing is better than the songs. While the music by Yiannis Koutsakos is solid enough, his lyrics (also credited to James Oban and James Rottger) are clumsy. Rottger’s book is strangely loose given how clear the structure is. These are problems. But what’s going on has such charm, they matter less than usual.

For full disclosure, I’ve worked front of house myself. I suspect many in the audience, let alone the cast and creatives here, have too. There’s a lot that is recognizable although, cleverly, the show is harsher about the theatre owners than it is about the public (it could be a lot meaner). But all the industry jokes and contemporary references are a hoot. While the show might not have the widest appeal, it knows its audience and serves its customers well. Don’t just see it once, go twice. And buy a t-shirt.

Until 19 May 2024

www.theotherpalace.co.uk

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Wilton’s Music Hall

If you saw Flabbergast Theatre’s production of Macbeth last year, its new show should interest. The company has plenty of energy and ambition. And seeing how its emphasis on movement works with a Shakespearean comedy, rather than a tragedy, is intriguing. Regrettably, the result is disappointing.

Nearly everything about the show is exaggerated. There’s no doubting the commitment this entails. Every movement, each gesture, all the lines, are deliberately stylised. The cast of eight dance and clown around the stage. It looks exhausting. Declamatory all of the time, they shout most of the lines, or lean into odd pronunciation. The effort is incredible. But what is the outcome?

The first to suffer are the play’s quartet of Athenian lovers, whose story is robbed of romance and becomes unbalanced. Elliot Pritchard and Nadav Burstein, as Lysander and Demetrius, dominate Helena and Hermia, played by Vyte Garriga and Paulina Krzeczkowska. At times, their fighting drowns out all dialogue. Director Henry Maynard presumably wants to emphasise comedy – and there are laughs – but the jokes are limited and repetitious, a fault that runs through the whole production.

Next, the fairies. We can at least hear Titania clearly, as Reanne Black delivers her lines well. There’s also puppetry – a collection of skulls used to good effect. Krystian Godlewski’s Oberon has his moments; presenting a majestic figure as part-animal part-child is interesting (I’m less keen on the mankini and the stilts). Meanwhile, Lennie Longworth makes an appealing Puck. Both performers have a physicality and vocal skills that impress. But all the aggrandisement distracts, grates and, finally, becomes monotonous.

Of course, everyone takes multiple roles – they really do work hard. And when it comes to the amateur actors staging their own play (wearing masks throughout), the transformations are remarkable. Taking the lead and giving it his all is Simon Gleave as Bottom. But while it’s clear that the style of the show suits the character, you might guess the problem coming. We’ve already seen so many wild gestures and heard so many strange noises that it is hard not to get tired of them by the time Bottom is in the (literal) spotlight.

Gleave also performs as a grotesque Egeus. With Theseus and Hippolyta ditched, he is the sole authority figure. Maybe…the idea is that there isn’t a contrast between the characters. That all the roles – lovers, fathers, kings and queens, are performative. This might also account for how much miming and mimicking goes on. It’s not just the mortals who are fools here. But that’s just a guess. The overall impression is confusing, as if a technique has been pursued regardless of how funny or engaging it really is, or what it might add to the play.

Until 20 April 2024

www.wiltons.org.uk

Photo by Michael Lynch

“Gunter” at the Royal Court Theatre

Dirty Hare Productions presents a new and different kind of historical story. As with, say, Underdog: The Other Other Brontë, currently showing at the National Theatre, Emilia by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, or even the musical Six, the aim is to focus on the neglected stories of women. It might be hard to see these shows as a genre – they are all so different – but they do share an honesty about the difficulty of such a project that is exciting and appealing.

Co-created by Lydia Higman, Julia Grogan and Rachel Lemon, the titular subject is a young girl from the Oxfordshire countryside who was “bewitched” and whose case was brought to trial in 1605. But the facts are scant and, predictably, focus on her father. So, what to do? Of course, theatre is great for bringing such stories to life. And the telling here is innovative and experimental… because it has to be.

"Gunter' at the Royal Court Theatre credit Alex Brenner
Lydia Higman

Higman is an historian and appears as such, acting as a kind of narrator who amiably guides the audience. Then she takes to the guitar! As a composer, her music is a big part of the show, with a variety of genres cleverly utilised. Grogan also performs, joined by Hannah Jarrett-Scott and Norah Lopez Holden, who all have fantastic singing voices and tackle an impressive variety of roles.

"Gunter' at the Royal Court Theatre credit Alex Brenner
Hannah Jarrett-Scott as James I

Lopez Holden takes the part of Anne Gunter, showing a youngster who’s confused as well as frightened. Jarrett-Scott plays ‘the other’ Gunter – the father – with a suitably bluff aggression. It’s clear he takes advantage of his daughter, but how much he believes her to be a genuine victim must be an open question. Jarrett-Scott also has a star turn as a paranoid James I (a fantastic interpretation of the monarch). Alongside other characters, Grogan appears as one of the accused, Elizabeth Gregory, whose story is powerful. The acting is strong, but the show is all about its approach: a little crazy, always energetic and inspiringly experimental.

You never quite know what’s coming next. Or how anyone will speak: the script moves from early modern details to contemporary speech, with a lot of swearing. Or how anyone will move. Aline David’s choreography is punk-inspired one moment and then suitably otherworldly. As well as singing, there are plenty of props, many very simple, such as balloons, on an increasingly messy stage. And some strong puppetry is aided by Amy Daniels’ excellent lighting design.

At times the wild changes in mood or incongruities are disconcerting. That’s the point, of course. And some touches might annoy or even confuse (the variety of accents puzzled me). But there is a twist to the story that makes this fragmentary approach especially appropriate… we don’t know what happened to Anne. Although frustrating, it proves the show’s point: she is lost to history. A final poetic touch acts as a powerful tribute to Gunter that feels fully appropriate. 

Until 25 April 2024

www.royalcourt.com

Photos by Alex Brenner

“The Power of Sail” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Paul Grellong’s strong play works well as both a think piece and a thriller. Set in Harvard, a professor who invites a right-wing speaker to a prestigious symposium causes predictable trouble that escalates into tragedy. With the help of director Dominic Dromgoole, and a crack cast, this quality affair is a success.

First the debate, and top marks for topicality. Arguments for and against the invitation are set out well. Free speech versus the feelings of students is only one angle. Our professor, Charles Nichols, wants to defeat the Neo-Nazi believing that the answer to hate speech is more speech. But Nichols is a narcissist, full of pride and privilege, even if we don’t doubt he’s one of the good guys. Julian Ovenden is perfectly cast in the lead and does a great job. The arguments are clear, presented with a cool passion, while there are just enough hints that something else is going on.

The-Power-of-Sail-at-the-Menier-Chocolate-Factory-Julian-Ovenden-and-Giles-Terera-by-Manuel-Harlan
Julian Ovenden and Giles Terera

Students past and present argue with him, providing neat roles for Michael Benz, Katie Bernstein and Giles Terera. There is more to each than meets the eye. Meanwhile the Dean, played by Tanya Franks, isn’t happy either as her friend Nichols is turning into her biggest problem. Franks is perfect at showing underlying tension, making us wonder if her problems are personal or political. It turns out everyone here has other agendas.

The-Power-of-Sail-at-the-Menier-Chocolate-Factory-Katie-Bernstein-and-Tanya-Franks-by-Manuel-Harlan
Katie Bernstein and Tanya Franks

As motives come to light, the play contains twists. OK, there aren’t any gasp out loud moments. And moving the action back and forth in time might be a bit clearer. But the sense of disappointment over some characters or a wish to cheer others on is real and shows how smart the writing is. Plus, all those extras complicate the debate in an intelligent way.

Campus dramas can be rarefied. The Power of Sail doesn’t quite escape that problem and, although Dromgoole keeps the pace quick, in general the characters are too naïve. How caught up everyone is in their own world might be explored, how their actions have wider consequences emphasised, instead everyone just seems a little out of touch. Nonetheless, what could be a dry subject, although important, is made dramatic and the production impresses.

Until 12 May 2024

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Underdog: The Other Other Brontë” at the National Theatre

Playwright Sarah Gordon’s new go at literary revisionism is fun. Although hardly obscure, the Brontë in the title here is Anne and the play looks at her life and work. The twist is that our narrator is her more famous sister, Charlotte, and despite her humorous protestations, she wants to be the hero.

The result is that we learn a lot about the “little voice” of seemingly “cute” Anne alongside Charlotte and don’t forget, Emily, and their no-good brother Branwell. But there’s another layer too – a surprising source of jokes – as Charlotte addresses her readers in the present day and we learn how important her reputation is to her.

“one mask for all three of us”

Taking the roles of Anne, Emily and their brother, Rhiannon Clements, Adele James and James Phoon all distinguish themselves well and make the most out of Gordon’s comedy without overplaying it. It’s not their fault this is Gemma Whelan’s show. As Charlotte, she is by far the most vivid character, with the best lines. She is ruthless, unapologetic, and very funny. She is selfish but her struggles are moving. While Anne and Charlotte are keen on the anonymity of pseudonyms – “one mask for all three of us” – Charlotte wants fame.

Rhiannon-Clements-in-Underdog-at-the-National-Theatre-credit-Isha-Shah
Rhiannon Clements

As well as plenty of laughs from hearty doses of good Yorkshire common sense and hindsight, director Natalie Ibu’s staging is witty. Four fellas help with the action and add comic touches (Nick Blakeley’s Elizabeth Gaskell is a good one). Even Grace Smart’s set gets smiles, surprising from the start, and the revolving floor is used to great effect.

There’s every attempt to make the story modern with mention of gatekeepers, toxicity, and victimhood. Charlotte is prone to “lash out” and wants to be “in the room” with literary greats. None of this jars because the strategy is so fully embraced. Maybe a bit too much of the humour comes from swearing; the irony of these writers being inarticulate wears a little thin.

Adele-James-in-Underdog-at-the-National-Theatre-credit-Isha-Shah
Adele James

When things get serious, the play is less successful. Emily and Anne’s deaths are both moving but even Charlotte says things are happening too quickly. Those addresses to the audience become starker. Turns out it really was about Charlotte all along. Final remarks about a writer’s legacy stumble. But there’s a lot of fun along the way.

All those big questions about family loyalty, sibling dynamics, women in history and literature, or even what power books can have, are raised. It’s all interesting. And if everything is addressed thinly, that’s not necessarily bad; a light touch can be effective, this revision is told well, and the show is thoroughly entertaining.

Until 25 May 2024

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Isha Shah

“The Long Run” at the New Diorama Theatre

You are probably going to cry by the end of Katie Arnstein’s play. After all, it’s about her time in the waiting room of Derby Royal Hospital while her mother undergoes chemotherapy. Arnstein sets out the shock of finding out someone you love is ill, and making sure we admire her mum, swiftly. But the surprise is that The Long Run is “a comedy about cancer”. The thrill and the joy of this fantastic show is how laugh-out-loud funny it is.

Arnstein is a good comedian with her quirky look at life and sharp eye on pop culture making strong foundations for plenty of great gags. And she has a great line in insults. But as Arnstein performs her piece, it’s clear the key is her delivery. Keen to point out that she is not the hero of the show, unafraid of making a fool of herself, she gets grumpy with others in the waiting room and acts like a toddler. With just the right amount of self-deprecation, Arnstein has the kind of charm most of us can only dream about – she is adorable and a pleasure to spend time with.

Working with director Bec Martin, the pacing of the show is impressive – there’s no room for self-indulgence in this race against cancer. Time is taken not just for punchlines but also important lessons. You don’t “beat” cancer; you just get time and treatment… if you are fortunate. And if that sounds grim it’s also a brave admission. Could the idea even be liberating? That time in the waiting room wasn’t wasted – it provides real insight.

There’s another surprise waiting as Arnstein has another story to tell. An old man called George is using the waiting room to train as a runner – his squeaky shoes annoy her! An uneasy friendship leads to his tear-jerking story. Again, the focus moves from Arnstein, and Martin does a great job as George’s London marathon is recounted and gets the whole theatre on side. It’s quite something to leave a play about cancer with a smile on your face and a spring in your step. Catch The Long Run while you can.

Until 13 April 2024

www.newdiorama.com

Photo by Ali Wright

“The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” at the Marylebone Theatre

Laurence Boswell’s adaptation of a Dostoyevsky short story, into a monologue for Greg Hicks, is undoubtedly high quality. It’s always worth a trip to see Hicks, who is one of the most commanding performers around. The delivery is magnetic and matched by Boswell’s confident direction. But the overt profundity of the piece might be a turn-off, unless you’re a big fan of theatre with a message.

The dream in question occurs on the night our nameless narrator is about to kill himself. Hicks and Boswell set the scene for depression with relative restraint. We don’t have to like or trust our storyteller. Updating the action and location isn’t a bad idea either; we’re in 21st-century London and all the anxiety on stage is recognizable. It’s intriguing and all aided by Loren Elstein’s excellent design, which uses shadows and projections.

It’s when the dream starts that problems occur. While the production continues strong, Ben Ormerod and Gary Sefton’s work on lighting and sound is great, the allegory of a paradise visited is pretty standard stuff. The island, described as Eden, peopled by “children of the sun”, is easy to locate in a 19th-century imagination. Subsequent concerns about corruption and colonialism are also dated and too swiftly addressed.

That’s not to say ideas about loving one another, or listening to each other, aren’t important… just that they aren’t dramatic in themselves. There are some neat nods to theatricality towards the end, including a great reveal of the props that have been used, and even a joke (just the one): what we’re watching is usually a “guerrilla gig” and it’s nice to be indoors! But it isn’t a surprise that a vision is proselytized or a message of hope ignored. While Hicks is strong to the end, the play is more of a sermon than a show.

Until 20 April 2024

www.marylebonetheatre.com

Photo by Mark Senior

“Opening Night” at the Gielgud Theatre

Big names make this new musical exciting. Superstar director Ivo van Hove is joined by singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright and national treasure Sheridan Smith. Not forgetting the name John Cassavetes, the filmmaker whose work the show is based on. Opening Night joins new openings, such as Hadestown and Standing at the Sky’s Edge, in striving for originality: it impresses and intrigues, even if it isn’t entirely successful.

The story is simple enough: a documentary crew is filming the rehearsals of a new Broadway show. That said, interval eavesdropping suggests many in the audience found it hard to follow, because the lines between characters and their roles are blurred. Aging star Myrtle (Smith) is being directed and starring next to old flames. And the producer is in love with her. Meanwhile, the play they are rehearsing is about a mature woman who is desperate for love and struggling with her personal life.

Still, a show within a show is an old trope, even if it isn’t normally played out like this. There’s an awful lot about the nature of reality – Van Hove is far from subtle. So, I guess it’s not so much the story as the way it’s told. There’s a lot of live recording (as usual, Jan Versweyveld’s work is clever), but it’s a shame the recent production of Sunset Boulevard is so fresh in people’s minds. And a red curtain obscures the action a lot of the time. To be generous, it’s surely supposed to be frustrating. There is a conflict between screen and stage that reflects the source material. It is a matter of taste as to how interesting you think this is… it might sound academic.

Sheridan-Smith-and-Shira-Haas-in-Opening-Night-credit-Jan-Versweyveld
Sheridan Smith and Shira Haas

It’s down to Smith to provide emotion and that she does. This is a raw performance, sometimes difficult to watch. Myrtle is an alcoholic and has a breakdown during the show, which includes violent hallucinations about a young fan she sees die. This ghostly role, taken by Shira Haas, is paired with the play within a play’s author, an older woman, performed by Nicola Hughes. Van Hove pivots the story on the theme of “the ages of woman” – not a bad idea, but one that becomes clear too late in the action.

The songs are good, especially those for women. Smith sounds terrific, as does Hughes, who provides a brilliant finale for act one. But I’m not sure there’s enough music to please the musical theatre crowd. And it’s hard to escape the idea that everything would sound better if Wainwright sang it himself.

There’s another strong female part for Amy Lennox as the wife of director Manny (she might have the best number as well). But all the fellas are a sorry state. Not that the performances aren’t committed – Hadley Fraser, John Marquez and Benjamin Walker are all great. But all these self-obsessed neurotics are tough to take. Maybe it links to another problem – the play within the play doesn’t seem very good! We can understand why Myrtle is struggling. None of it appears worth the effort.

Struggling artists are, mostly, interesting only to themselves. To be fair, a song from the director reminds them how lucky they are to do the job. So why does the number sound hollow? The show’s surprisingly happy finale – about, of all things, the magic of theatre – also rings false. It’s hard to escape the idea that the show is about irony …and very little else.

Until 27 July 2024

www.OpeningNightMusical.com

Photos by Jan Versweyveld

“Don’t. Make. Tea” at the Soho Theatre

As a disability-led theatre company, Birds of Paradise has a kind of licence to make jokes about the topic of its new play. The humour in Rob Drummond’s piece about a benefits claim that goes wrong is dark, outrageous and very funny. But it’s the use made of the jokes that really impresses. Don’t. Make. Tea. is strong satire that raises important questions intelligently.

The first smart move is to set the play in the future, with an AI called Able and live sign language on a giant TV. Of course, it all makes the production accessible at the same time. But Drummond pretends to imagine a future utopia (bet you didn’t see that coming) in ‘Accessible Britain’. The authorities have listened and changed the welfare state for the better.

Up for assessment is Chris, who suffers from a degenerative condition. Her interrogator is beardy social worker Ralph. The questions could be more frustrating than funny, but director Robert Softley Gale keeps the tone light with strict pacing. The performers, Gillian Dean and Neil John Gibson respectively, are great. Gibson stays the right side of parody, while Dean makes sure her character wins admiration. The bureaucracy is familiar, the spin put on the new system believable. Sighing and groaning as we go along, tension mounts and… well, the poster does say benefit assessments can be a killer.

Making Chris violent is just one of many good twists. It turns out she was a detective! And even though we’ve been told her condition can include hallucinations, it’s still a surprise when she’s joined by the technology. Richard Conlon and Emery Hunter appear and ham it up for all they’re worth – two extremely enjoyable performances – also taking us closer to Chris and her desperation. Conlon delivers his deadpan lines perfectly, reminding Chris that she’s the hero, while Hunter signing is brilliantly funny.

A final twist is less successful. Ralph’s fiancée comes to check on him and the debate that follow is blunt and a little rushed. That said, Nicola Chegwin, who takes this role, is a good stage drunk (always tricky) and the questions raised are thought-provoking. It’s just that so much has already been covered in a more entertaining way. One of the tricks in the assessment that trips up Chris is showing a sense of humour – people with a disability aren’t allowed one! The success of the comedy in Don’t. Make. Tea means nobody on stage would pass that test. Yet another delicious irony in this smart, laugh-out-loud show.

Until 6 April 2024

www.sohotheatre.com

Photo by Andy Catlin