Tag Archives: Arcola Theatre

“Surrender” at the Arcola Theatre

Sophie Swithinbank’s 2022 play, Bacon, was one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve enjoyed in a long time. So expectations for this new work, co-created with its solo performer, Phoebe Ladenburg, are high. The writing is complex, arguably too dense for some tastes, but its poetry is stunning. And there’s a strength to the storytelling that impresses. This script really grips.

The scenario seems simple. A traumatic event has led us to a meeting between a mother in prison and the daughter she neglected. The moments when Ladenburg talks to the child are, predictably, moving. But there’s much more from both writer and performer, enhanced by their joint direction. First up is an aggressive awareness that this story is the stuff of true crime drama…and we, the audience, should examine our sense of schadenfreude.

soften, listen

More scenes and characters are introduced: police and prison guards, friends and colleagues of the mother and, as she was an actress, there’s an audition. What the carefully interwoven scenes have in common is how they all judge this woman. Her own request that we “soften, listen” to the story is also a challenge.

Apart from a voice over for her mother-in-law, this is all a one-way conversation, an incredibly difficult task for a performer that Ladenburg makes look easy. And she is careful to leave plenty of room for us to suspect the character, to distrust a lot of what she says.

endless debts

This woman knows she is charming, and Ladenburg has a firm grip on some lighter comic moments. But while the seriousness of events is never questioned, what really went on is. Did her audition actually happen? Is this just an imaginary meeting between mother and daughter? The suggestion is that her sleep deprivation reached a dangerous degree. From here, big questions arise about the expectations around women and motherhood. The text tightens, the poetry escalates, as the mother tries to acknowledge and somehow free herself from the “endless debts” she owes her daughter.

Swithinbank’s gets the most from her accomplished script through excellent design work from Stacey Nurse and Dominic Brennan, whose lighting and sound sculpt the show. The lights rise for direct addresses to the audience, while there’s a black out when the action becomes confused. Sound echoes around the mother, disorienting or showing her distress. Startlingly, the character is sometimes in control of effects, at other moments they seem to take her by surprise. It is a theatrical thrill to see a team at the top of their game. Surrender is a big win.

Until 13 July 2024 then Summerhall in Edinburgh on 1 to 26 August 2024


Photo credit Production of Surrender

“The Book Of Grace” at the Arcola Theatre

In Suzan-Lori’s Parks’ excellent play, honourably discharged US soldier Buddy returns to his estranged family. One of a trio of fantastic characters, Buddy is superbly performed by Daniel Francis-Swaby who, appropriately for his role, is a strong orator. Buddy is counting “strikes” against his father and against “the man”, and we all know nothing good happens after the third one. Parks plots brilliantly making this cerebral also a thriller. Francis-Swaby reveals how disturbed his character is with skill. Director Femi Elufowoju jr makes the most of the script and cast to make sure not a single ball pitched is missed.

Peter De Jersey and Daniel Francis-Swaby

The subject of Buddy’s anger, guilty of “unspeakable” acts never specified, is his father Vet, an unhinged border guard played with passion by Peter De Jersey. Vet’s obsession with the “fence” he patrols (the play dates from 2010) comes close to comical. But Parks explains its importance with conviction. Despite being a terrifying figure, De Jersey makes Vet vulnerable; when he snarls about “my home” the delivery expertly conveys his fear as much as his anger. The play scores as a family drama as much as it provides insights into American politics. Vet is scary, every moment with him is a roller coaster, and his instability provides the play with many twists.

Ellena Vincent

Vet’s victim, and the heart of the piece, is his wife Grace, whose scrapbook of good news stories gives the play its title. Bearing in mind her husband has dug a grave for her in the garden, her optimism surrounding family reconciliation might seem misplaced. Yet a commanding performance from Ellena Vincent means we believe in Grace’s quest for positivity and her taste for Cat Steven’s Peace Song doesn’t seem silly…it is important. The book, another device that allows Parks to structure the play so well, becomes a precious object; its fate is painful. But living up to the virtue Grace is named for provides optimism, insight, and a home run for a play that is both bleak and brilliant.

Until 3 June 2024


Photos by Alex Brenner

“When You Pass Over My Tomb” at the Arcola Theatre

Sergio Blanco’s play is a challenge. There’s the subject matter – assisted suicide and necrophilia – alongside the technique of ‘autofiction’. Plenty of people have little time for any of this, but ‘death and desire’ are the building blocks of theatre. Being proudly, even defiantly, contrary earns the play and the production respect.

Several levels of narration are constructed, though Blanco would prefer the term ‘engineered’ (we know this… because he tells us). The actors present themselves as their own ghosts. One also takes the part of a writer called Sergio. They work through the script with the air of a rehearsal, commenting as they go. Theatricality is exposed and played with, and everyone acknowledges we can’t trust anything that’s going on. In fact, they make quite a big deal about that.

It is all very funny. Securing the humour is to the credit of Blanco’s translator and director Daniel Goldman, whose work is commendable. Creating an air of spontaneity, with plenty of silly touches, yet admitting how contrived the whole thing is, makes for quite the juggling act. As with the writing, the direction has rigour but also a lightness. That’s a tough call with a backdrop of big – and distasteful – questions. When should you be allowed to take your own life? And can you really say what happens to your body afterwards? Have you guessed ‘the ick’ yet?

None of this can be easy for the performers, who all do a superb job. Al Nedjari takes the lead, performing as the ‘ghost of Al’ and ‘Sergio’. He pretends to direct the action with lots of expert audience engagement. Danny Scheinmann plays a doctor in a Swiss clinic who reads out ‘case studies’ of necrophilia and never questions Sergio’s wish to end his life (nobody mentions illness). Charlie MacGechan takes the role of Khalid, a necrophiliac (imprisoned, conveniently, next to a graveyard) who agrees to – wait for it – have sex with Sergio’s corpse. The performances veer between relaxed and taut, suggesting comedy and trauma; they are always riveting.

There are intimations the play will become darker. Because it’s not just the subject matter that is unsettling – our grip on reality, truth and lies is questioned incessantly. As the stories develop, they become more serious, politics is introduced, we hear a lot about the loss of loved ones. The cast have deeply emotive scenes. But a sense of freedom, even fun, is fought for. It returns in an odd epilogue that sums up the mind-boggling yet memorable nature of the whole show.

The script is crammed with references, including to Blanco’s own work (which could easily try the patience). Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein starts to dominate. Suggesting this is the key would be dangerous. But maybe the play, like the monster, is made up of many elements? Which makes Blanco… Frankenstein? Yet Nedjari takes pains to make his character endearing, even romantic, and, in the end, very moving. Is it Sergio’s unexplained death wish or hubris that brings a tear to the eye? The play shows a misguided omnipotence – it is only the world Sergio creates that he can control, and even that power is an open question.

Until 2 March 2024


Photo by Alex Brenner

“Don’t Destroy Me” at the Arcola Theatre

A quality production adds interest to this play by Michael Hastings, despite its flaws. Written in 1956, Don’t Destroy Me is a family drama and coming-of-age story that reveals a society undergoing change. There’s plenty going on but, unfortunately, what really ends up fascinating is the young playwright’s struggles with his script.

While it is worthwhile to see kitchen-sink concerns via a working-class Jewish family the perspective isn’t elaborated on very much. And while there are interesting characters – that are well performed – it isn’t clear whose story this really is. The script lacks focus, and even strong direction from Tricia Thorns cannot add this.

There is no doubt you’ll enjoy the performance from Paul Rider as the patriarch with problems, Leo. Symbolic of his generation, he is “busted up by war”. But neither his story of immigration, his loss of faith, nor his self-medication with alcohol, are explored enough. Leo is in a loveless marriage with Shani, whose affair with her neighbour George (made superbly sinister by Timothy O’Hara) is an oddly open secret. Rider gives an emotive performance but it’s hard to feel for Leo. I wonder if Hastings disliked his creation?

Into this unhappy family arrives Leo’s son, Sammy, who has been living with his aunt. Is this our hero? The role marks a professional debut for Eddie Boyce who can be proud of their performance. But the character puzzles. We know teenagers can be tempestuous. But Sammy’s rebellion arrives too swiftly. And his loss of religion, seemingly at the moment a Rabbi he requested to meet arrives, is baffling. A lot rests on Sammy’s shoulders, and Boyce does well. But the writing isn’t strong enough. Maybe, here, Hastings was too close to his character?

Sammy isn’t the only odd one in the house. Upstairs are a mother and daughter through whom Hastings highlights mental health. Again, there’s strong work from the cast. Nell Williams plays the young Suki and makes her endearing. Alix Dunmore takes the part of her mother and works hard, carefully dropping the character’s posh voice when under stress. But the serious problems both have are handled frostily. There’s even the suggestion they’re faking. Articulacy battles with how serious these delusions are. Then Suki inexplicably transforms into a voice of wisdom for Sammy, which left me scratching my head. Both women are exaggerated so that they appear eccentric rather than troubled. Their lyrical dialogue is so laboured they become tiresome.

Considering what’s going on in this boarding house, Don’t Destroy Me should devastate any residual nostalgia for 1950s. The work might well have been shocking when it was written. But how much credit should Hastings get for that, now? The play fits neatly into a history of post-war theatre and is interesting for a social historian but is dramatically unwieldly and unrewarding. I’m grateful to have seen it, and everyone involved has done a good job. But I can’t recommend it to others.

Until 3 February 2024


Photo by Phil Gammon

“Gentlemen” at the Arcola Theatre

Originally scheduled to open just before the pandemic lockdown, Matt Parvin’s play about ‘woke’ culture at a university is still topical and dramatic subject matter. Irreconcilable positions seem depressingly current and can make for good dark comedy. But the gap caused by Covid has made the arguments here feel worn and, regrettably, the piece ends up predictable.


Laddish Greg is the obvious bully. Parvin spends time on the character’s working-class origins and as a result creates the most believable figure. Taking the role, Charlie Beck manages to convey that Greg is neither as clever or as funny as he thinks he is – a neat manoeuvre – while suggesting both his determination and vulnerability.


Trying, and failing, to handle Greg is the college welfare officer, played by Edward Judge. He’s an ineffective liberal it is too easy to mock, and there are too many jokes about him being close to the age of the students. It’s a great credit to Judge that he handles the weak humour so well and makes the character sympathetic.


The twist is that Greg’s victim, Casper, a bisexual student he is said to have assaulted, has a plan. Here Issam Al Ghussain goes from “waiting meekly” to downright scary and he does both well. In a move to strike fear into the hearts of Daily Mail readers, he declares war: “When I get triggered, I pull a trigger”. He complains to the college, organises protests and speaks to the press…all to prove a point.


Of course, some exaggeration is necessary. It might be bold to air common complaints about political correctness. Or show offensive tropes about bisexuality. Presumably the idea is to feed into fears in order to expose them. But when plot and prejudices are silly there isn’t much challenge to the audience. Unfortunately for Parvin, the ideas here don’t surprise anymore. 


There are some clumsy stumbles, too. I don’t believe the boys would undress in front of the welfare officer (or be allowed to) – you can see the plot point too soon. The consideration of class is uneven – we need to know more about the other characters. And class would be a concern (however superficial); it’s tough to imagine Casper wouldn’t pepper sentences with the word intersectionality. In general, it’s hard to believe all three – whose intelligence is established – wouldn’t work out what was going on from the start.


On a positive note, careful performances do the actors credit. Richard Speir’s direction is confident and unrushed. And a scene after the interval, a dream sequence for Casper, is intriguing: here is the only suggestion that Casper is motivated by fear. Otherwise, Casper is just angry. And it is a great shame there is even the chance we can dismiss the character so simply.

Topicality is good and challenging views is admirable. And playwrights aren’t obliged to provide answers. But Gentlemen has too many silly fears and familiar tropes as targets to be effective, while it fails to raise its own, new, questions.

Until 28 October 2023


“Worth” at the Arcola Theatre

Joanne Lau’s dark comedy is set before the funeral of the mother of four estranged siblings. The unexpected news that the quartet’s inheritance has disappeared starts a frantic search for cash hidden around the home. As family secrets are uncovered, along with currency, the play becomes bleak.

Lau’s idea is tidy, and she sets up the scenario well. But tackling a cycle of abuse, from the mother to her children and then grandchild, ends up rushed. Adding the topic of immigration proves another challenge, and Lau’s considerations end up thin.

Tackling all this with humour is an admirable move but adds further complications. Lau isn’t shy about pushing the play into tastelessness – which is brave. And there’s a strict assessment of the siblings’ competition over how much each suffered. But although the play has laughs, the humour is predictable. Mentions of one character’s offstage wife, or bedwetting, or how the children were beaten with electric cables, all come to play a part. Similarly, the escalation with how crazy everyone starts to become can be seen a long way off. It all ends up very grim. Director Mingyu Lin keeps the action tight so that events are pacey, but the piece needs more surprises.

The script’s strengths come with its closely observed characters, which lead to neat performances. The siblings are distinct and show the effects of their childhood in different ways. Arthur Lee makes a convincing psychopath as Jacob. Sara Chia-Jewell has a tougher job as the highly strung youngest child, May. Having moved to America and found religion, much of the competition over misery rests on her shoulders. Stephen Hoo does well in the play’s most harrowing scene as the insecure yet successful Ted, while the always-apologising Penny makes a great role for Jennifer Lim, who has a firm grasp of the play’s comedy and a strong stage presence.

Leo Buckley

There’s also an interesting role for Leo Buckley, who plays Penny’s child, Anthony, with skill. Lau writes this young part especially well – taking care to moderate how petulant he is and making him a foil for his elders while still being a rounded role. The characters are written well and make Worth entertaining, but what Lau does with them just isn’t enough.

Until 29 April 2023


Photos by Ikin Yum

“The Dance of Death” at the Arcola Theatre

Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new version of August Strindberg’s play about mortality and marriage is terse and startling. The warring couple we watch torment each other are more than mouthpieces for speculation about the meaning of life – they are entertaining, too. And not shy of expletives. A view of existence as “funny as well as tragic” permeates so thoroughly that director Mehmet Ergen’s production intoxicates.

Lenkiewicz’s contribution is original. Her full-blown embrace of Strindberg’s humour is as dark as can be. Wondering whether to celebrate their Pearl anniversary, Alice and Edgar’s viciousness towards each other is bizarrely creative. Their venom gets laughs and contains a strange respect. 

The degree of farce in Strindberg’s world view – the idea that life may have no meaning and is “preposterous – is highlighted. Ergen’s direction must deal with this absurdity, including the unsettling idea that we cannot quite believe what anyone says. But being discombobulated is part of Alice and Edgar’s game. Like the play, their psychodrama is a contest full of the unexpected.

One thing that doesn’t surprise is the fantastic performances from the leads. The always excellent Hilton McRae and Lindsay Duncan are superb. McRae makes his bullish Army man imposing, but so independent and spirited that he still impresses. Duncan shows incredible subtlety while delivering the bluntest lines – viciousness drips from her mouth. While we feel sympathy for her life with her abusive husband, we can see she is a “devil, too”. Both performers show incredible control as the “bile that infects the air” is delivered in a frequently calm, almost deadpan, manner that works as comedy while reflecting chilling desperation.

Emily Bruni and Lindsay Duncan

A third role in The Dance of Death, Alice’s cousin, is skilfully portrayed by Emily Bruni. It’s hard not to see the character as overshadowed by the those who play with her – especially since why Alice and Edgar use her is at the back of our minds more than her predicament. Nonetheless, the cruelty behind the play is continually enforced by what happens to Bruni’s character.

Resignation – about all life as much as its end – in The Dance of Death is active, a powerful force. There’s plenty of fantasy, including the deliberate misconstruction of narratives, capably enhanced by lighting and sound design from David Howe and Daniel Balfour respectively. The play should be impossibly grim, but with humour and glimpses of humanity there are surprisingly consoling moments. I wouldn’t want to get an invitation to that anniversary party – these guys are frightening company – but I think it will go ahead. As for getting a ticket to see the show – that is a must.

Until 23 July 2022


Photo by Alex Brenner

“Scab” at the Arcola Theatre

Theatregoers continue to be spoilt for monologues, but in a crowded field this script by Luke Stapleton is credible and safe to recommend: Scab is thought-provoking and entertaining, with an exceptional performance from Conor Lowson that should not be missed.

The young man we meet, who Lowson makes engaging throughout, is an unwilling Samaritan to Keith, an injured old man who is suffering from dementia. Coming to know Keith’s estranged daughter Carla and helping with the construction of a boat, establishes themes of family, aging and trauma that Stapleton makes intriguing.

Despite the broad Northern accents there might be less sense of place than intended. The plentiful details in the script focus on food – these are good (and having sold ice creams I can confirm Solero’s are for a sophisticated clientele). But more diversity would be welcome to locate Scab in place and time.

More seriously, if you like your writing neat, there are loose ends here. We learn about Keith’s past but are still in doubt as to the motivation and pain of others. Stapleton has created characters we want to know more about – well done – but it’s disappointing that mystery remains despite a strong finale.

Nonetheless, there’s an impressive imagination behind the script. And some vivid imagery that mixes the mundane and the magical in a distinctive fashion. The performance of the text, with crudity and invitations to marvel at beauty, is hugely impressive…if not always for the best reasons.

Director Jamie Biddle appreciates speed is important to Stapleton’s work. A rapid delivery shows a stream of consciousness and brings naturalism, aiding conversations between characters. Lowson delivers all this very well – for sheer speed he cannot fail to impress. But I wonder if, rather than waiting for the audience to accustom themselves to the pace, it could be slower at first? That said, reservations about the breakneck speed fade when taking into account performance conditions.

While the main theatre is closed for renovations, the Arcola’s outdoor tent proves an unforgiving venue. It may be Covid Safe but it is far from soundproof. With a queue for the local roof top bar going past the theatre, and partygoers drinking while they wait, it felt like Lowson was pretty much acting in the street. All the more credit for such a committed performance – a nuanced delivery with fantastic energy. Lowson didn’t flinch despite conditions – both he and Scab won my admiration as a result.

Until 21 August 2021


“Nine Lives” from the Arcola Theatre

Zodwa Nyoni’s excellent monologue, currently available on YouTube, is easy to recommend. Impeccably directed by Alex Chisholm, with a fantastic performance from Lladel Bryant, the recording is rough and ready. But Nyoni’s encompassing vision, full of humanity and poetry, make this one of those shows you feel everyone should see.

The story of a young man, Ishmael, seeking refuge from Zimbabwe because he is gay proves compelling. Bryant’s performance makes the character always approachable; even as Nyoni reveals traumatic “nightmares of the past” and during the painful wait for his fate to be decided in the UK (“limbo comes with every morning”).

Aided by effective lighting and sound design (credit to Jonathan Girling and Ed Clarke) Bryant, with just a suitcase, shows complex emotions revolving around the wish for a simple life. A range of extra characters, including his flatmate and his friend Becs, give Bryant the chance to further impress and add texture to his story. That Ishmael still faces homophobia – being “excluded by the excluded” – leads to a different kind of fund-raising appeal for this show: viewers are directed to the UK Lesbian & Gay Immigration Group.

Nyoni sees a bigger picture behind the main story – which is why her play seems so vital. A strong sense of community within Nine Lives comes with the repeated refrain: “some of us”. Recalling Zimbabwe, and the lives of those persecuted there, then drawing out the problems faced by refugees, expands the story with skill. This modest show becomes powerful and important by being perfectly formed and beautifully nurtured.

"Hunger" at the Arcola Theatre

This adaptation of Knut Hamsun’s 1890 novel has clever moves and clear decisions. As we follow its starving character, a student and writer who struggles as a “loser and misfit” in a big city, the direction from Fay Lomas has smart touches. The staging is inventive, the design by Anna Kezia Williams and Rajiv Pattani well used, while tight choreography creates considerable momentum. Pain is effectively portrayed, and highlighting the mental health problems that arise from malnutrition proves enlightening. A case that this tale of a down-and-out could occur any time and any place is obviously the point. Lomas works to show just that – and it’s a job well done.

There’s no doubt the piece serves as a brilliant showcase for a talented quartet of performers. Archie Backhouse, Katie Eldred and Jessica Tomlinson act as the population of a whole town; they cannot fail to impress as you lose count of the ages and accents depicted. They even manage to make a few named characters vivid, despite the brevity of the roles. With the unnamed lead, Hunger makes an exciting vehicle for Kwami Odoom who brings a great presence to the stage and intelligent responses to his task. It’s a thrill for the audience too – there’s a sense of seeing a big talent for the first time and the hope we’ll be able to boast about it one day!

Kwami Odoom in Hunger at the Arcola Theatre photographed by Alex Brenner
Kwami Odoom

Much of the production’s clarity comes from Amanda Lomas’s adaptation. For a plotless novel that explores psychology through a first-person narrative, her decisions seem sensible, if conservative. Unlike Hamsun, Lomas provides a hero for us to focus on – the play’s lead is far more sympathetic than in the book. The most distressing and controversial scenes are passed over: the character chews on orange peel rather than a bone and his relations with women are made less problematic. We’re given more background, a sense of his age and a more carefully chartered descent into poverty that work well dramatically and serve a broadly political purpose.

Lomas has created a more even experience than that of reading the book. She has an eye on an audience rather than an existential axe to grind. Hamsun was obsessed with pride and religion – both have a small part here as they don’t fit with the programme. And it has to be admitted that there’s a disappointing lack of intensity for a novel famed for just that quality. The character’s ego and his rants against God end up a little lost. Thankfully, it’s possible to argue that the production’s aims are served by toning both down. We’re presented with a story about poverty made universal and powerful by theatre makers with a strong sense of purpose.

Until 21 December 2019


Photos by Alex Brenner