Tag Archives: Arcola Theatre

“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

"Anna Bella Eema" at the Arcola Theatre

While firmly rooted in the tradition of fairy tales, this 2007 piece, from experimental theatre maker Lisa D’Amour, balances magic and madness with startling originality. It will not be to all tastes, but the complexity and ambition of the text demand respect.

In a trailer park facing demolition, the housebound Irene and her daughter Annabella are joined by the title character, a golem that the youngster creates as she begins puberty. Both of the human characters tell stories that start out whacky and become truly insane. Their small world is crowded with monsters and metamorphosis. Mental illness is a topic the audience is challenged into addressing: someone should help this family… shouldn’t they? And there’s another ‘M’ – motherhood – packing the play’s emotional punch and, for my money, producing its finest moments. Many of the tales told are funny, a few provide insight into the real world and some are frustratingly opaque.

Adding to the bizarre feel, there’s a cappella singing, and percussion from kitchen equipment, with a score by Chris Sidorfsky that matches D’Amour’s otherworldly interests. You don’t often get a lullaby for a lycanthrope, after all. 

Beverly Rudd as Irene in Anna Bella Eema at the Arcola Theatre
Beverly Rudd

As you can guess, nothing here is easy for the talented trio performing. The wonderful Beverly Rudd leads the way, grounding the show as a charismatic agoraphobic. The daughter is played by Gabrielle Brooks, who gives a tremendous performance as a young girl old before her time. Brooks’ suggestions of the wild, that D’Amour becomes fixated with, are superb. By no means least, Natasha Cottriall performs as the mythic creation, along with many smaller roles, bringing grace as well as ethereal vocals to the show.

Performing actions as they narrate them makes the demands on all the actors heavier – a lot of what occurs is supernatural – which is where director Jessica Lazar really shines. With a text that’s as much a poem as a play, it takes a close study to aid the audience and I, for one, am grateful that Lazar allows us time to absorb some of what is on offer.

Because Anna Bella Eemareally does have a lot going on, and not just in terms of topics: the imagery is wonderfully rich, the ground covered metaphorically immense and D’Amour’s imagination awe-inspiring. The perspectives that the author describes as “prismatic” in her introduction make the play a mind boggler from the beginning. And we’re warned by Irene that time and reality merge in her trailer – there’s a lot of this. 

By the time we get to a dream sequence for Annabella – with racoons, foxes and wolves – the show is in danger of becoming repetitive and exhausting. In the finale, the impact of reality is little explored, making the ending for Annabella unclear. Asking a lot from an audience is an author’s prerogative. But there’s surely an irony that, unlike the fairy tales that are such an inspiration, regrettably, this show lacks universal appeal.

Until 12 October 2019


Photos by Holly Revell

“Riot Act” at the Arcola Theatre

What are you doing this Sunday? If possible, make a date to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots with some superb theatre. Alexis Gregory’s hour-long verbatim show has been racking up five-star reviews since it premiered last year. It’s easy to see why: it’s full of fascinating, impeccably told stories with an inspiring sense of urgency.

Through interviews with a trio of men, Gregory garners a surprisingly detailed insight into gay life in America and the UK over three decades. From the night of the Stonewall Riots, to the life of an avant-garde drag queen, to an activist against HIV/AIDS, this is a qualitative approach that counts as oral history as much as theatrical entertainment. You may learn a lot – or take comfort in having a story similar to your own heard. Either way, there is a fitting sense of pride taken in what these men have overcome and achieved.

It isn’t that unusual to see gay history on the London stage, certainly not the fringe. But Gregory’s skill, ably backed by Rikki Beadle-Blair’s direction, gets us close to the real deal here. The duo’s respect for the men is contagious and illustrated in the confident candour on offer. Each man’s own words are given their due, focused by the experience of collaborating on the project and honed into a text by Gregory.

There’s a lot of wisdom here, as well as a good few laughs along the way. But it’s also a salutary reminder of a generation lost because of the AIDS crisis that makes preserving the lessons from survivors all the more important. While the overall tone to Riot Act is suitably celebratory – noting progress – there’s agitation, too. How fragile those fought-for rights really are is highlighted. The show acts as a warning and a blueprint for action as much as a walk down memory lane.

Until 30 June 2019


“Keith?’ at the Arcola Theatre

If there was ever a time ripe for lampooning, we’re living through it now. So thanks to Patrick Marmion for having a go with his new play. The effort isn’t an unquestionable success but there are some good jokes in this tale of a Dionysus of our day. As the god points out our problems, there’s satire and a touch of farce. You should laugh, even if it’s all too predictable to really lose yourself in.

The trouble is, if you set out to write a play that toyed with being risqué, it would probably end up like this one. There’s a startup millionaire turned hippy, his radical feminist ex-wife in trouble for transphobia and their entitled snowflake daughter who brings back a Muslim fiancé from her voluntary work. All pretty easy targets. There’s plenty of potential, of course – especially when it’s staged in North London – and some good lines. But you do know what’s coming next. And the characters are too flat even for caricatures.

Marmion’s self-consciously clever move is to subtitle the work ‘Moliere Rewired’. He says he has eviscerated the French writer although, if anything, the Puckish lead and sub plot with twins make the inspiration more Shakespearean. Still, there’s a fine Tartuffe type in our titular hero, a god disguised as a South African gun runner turned Buddhist monk. And Joseph Millson gives a strong performance in the lead: he has the charisma to give the role depth, the presence to make the incredible work and the confidence to give the jokes time to build.

Sara Powell and Natalie Klamar

Millson adds a conviction that the show lacks overall. Director Oscar Pearce rushes through the work as if speed might guarantee humour. The racing delivery, of Sara Powell and Natalie Klamar especially, is impressive but the jokes need more room. Pearce is more hampered by the script’s other shortcoming – it’s very static, more of a radio play than anything, with only one visual gag (well done to Aki Omoshaybi here). The dance at the end is a good idea.

Along with a checklist for crazy characters, Marmion’s strategy of trying to offend everyone equally is a tried and tested one. Regardless of age, gender or religion you’ll probably find a joke at your expense and I suppose that the Brazilian cleaner with a dust allergy (a nice turn from Lizzie Winkler) might cover class, too. Making light of weighty issues can be useful and I doubt Marmion would revel in really offending anyone – there’s no malice in the piece and, as it becomes sillier and funnier, there are glimpses of charm. It’s just a shame that Keith? is too calculated to really win you over and never crazy enough to really make you think anew.

Until 9 March 2019


Photos by Idil Sukan

“A Hero of Our Time” at the Arcola Theatre

Director Vladimir Shcherban, of Belarus Free Theatre fame, only founded HUNCHtheatre in May this year and already has a hit with this startling adaptation of Mikhail Lermontov’s 1839 novel. Inspired by the Russian literary great’s experimentation, Shcherban stages only part of the book and isn’t shy of crazy touches, balancing Romanticism with modernism. In a romantic competition between military men for a princess, exaggerated passion and masculinity may be mocked, but the “passions, yearning and regrets” Lermontov explores are present and correct.

Oliver Bennett, who adapted the text with Shcherban, takes the part of Pechorin. The role is a fantastic creation that’s full of contradictions. Possessing a “rare sagacity”, Bennett does justice to the character’s epigrams, then drops cynicism for soul-searching in the blink of an eye. Bennett is a verbal virtuoso, delivery a manic narration that combines angst and deadpan humour. Pechorin’s competition is Grushnitsky (well, he’s outclassed from the start, really) played wonderfully by James Marlowe, who matches Bennett’s physicality throughout and gives the character great depth. Taking bites out of a lemon is the least of these guy’s achievements – and it’s more apposite than you can imagine.

The two women in the piece are played by Scarlett Saunders: Pechorin’s mistress, depicted with delicious faux-sophistication, and Princess Mary, whose attention the men fight over. Saunders is especially impressive if you consider that most of the time she’s reacting to the men’s descriptions of her character. This is an insistence that shows Shcherban’s brave grasp on his text; what we might consider a sexist shortcoming in the original is preserved to be lambasted.

As the fight for Mary develops from jest to deadly earnest, whether either man cares for her is carefully left open. Mary’s actions just have to fit with their strategy. A witty segment that has a film of Saunders lip-syncing to Whitney Houston is a case in point – it gives rise to a discussion about Kevin Costner’s status (clever, but might I suggest Britney Spears’ Toxic would have been good, too?). Of course, none of Lermontov’s characters come out of their adventures as heroes but, importantly Mary’s fate is highlighted with appropriate sadness. Along with its humour, a particularly sour taste emanates from the show’s finale – Shcherban has cooked up a wonderfully flavourful piece.

Until 15 December 2018


Photo by Oleg Katchinsky

“The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives” at the Arcola Theatre

This theatrical trip to Nigeria, via Dalston, comes courtesy of Rotimi Babatunde’s adaptation of Lola Shoneyin’s prize-winning novel. It’s the story of Bolanle, played with precision by Marcy Dolapo Oni, who becomes the titular patriarch’s fourth spouse and inadvertently exposes a conspiracy that has shaped many lives. The story is dramatic but proves surprisingly funny, with a frank sense of humour that makes the show stand out.

Bolale’s “fellow inmates” in Baba Segei’s house are a terrific – in many senses of the word – trio. Taking seniority, there’s an unforgettable performance from Jumoké Fashola as the formidable first wife. Joined by Christine Oshunniyi and Layo-Christina Akinlude, all three define their characters with clarity and make the most of powerful monologues that deserve close study. Doubling roles, they join an ensemble that spoils the audience for talent, including a scene-stealing performance from Diana Yekinni.

Not only do the performers transport us to a very different world – they also sound great. As well as driving the plot with forceful direction, Femi Elufowoju Jr is the production’s musical director, and he infuses the show with sound. I’ve no knowledge of African music but it’s wonderful to hear emotion on stage mirrored with such dramatic efficacy.

But what of Baba Segi himself? The play revolves around him and provides a tremendous role for the appropriately charismatic Patrice Naiambana. A polygamist who is offered wives by desperate families and who values women on whether or not they can provide him with children is not instantly appealing. Using the audience’s incredulity about the character’s ignorance gets some great laughs. And the way he is manipulated by women becomes a source of satisfaction. In my own ignorance of African theatre, one reference point is Restoration Comedy – this show is every bit as funny as the best of them. But there is a more serious approach to character here and, underneath the jokes at his expense, Naiambana still makes you care for the man. As Bolanle says, you may not miss Baba Segi himself when you leave, but you won’t forget him and you will remember this play with fondness.

Until 21 July 2018


Photo by Idil Sukan