Tag Archives: Barbican Theatre

“My Neighbour Totoro” at the Barbican Theatre

This smash hit production, winner of six Olivier Awards last year, is back. It’s easy to appreciate why it’s packing them in as the staging is superb. Retaining the feel of its Japanese source material, the show is just that little bit different for London. And the atmosphere is great. Suitable for theatregoers from the age of six, hearing the audience’s delight is almost as much fun as what’s on stage.

An adaptation of the legendary Studio Ghibli’s animation, the story is very simple: two young sisters move to the country when their mother becomes ill (don’t worry – nothing that bad happens). In their new home, they meet a spirit of the woods who comes to comfort and help them… even if he is noisy and smells like mud.

While there are more sad moments that you might expect, the story impresses with its light touch – both the characters and the audience are enchanted by the titular creature. Mei Mac and Ami Okumura Jones give energetic performances as the girls and get a lot of laughs. And they can deliver when it comes to big emotions – having a toddler temper tantrum is a hard act to pull off!

Director Phelim McDermott brings it all the stage with fantastic style. The puppets, designed and directed by Basil Twist, are very big and look very cuddly. It’s possible you might be tempted to buy a toy version helpfully on sale at the theatre. The sets are also fantastic. As well as an appropriate paper-inspired aesthetic, the family home opens up and splits apart to great effect. The house itself can be considered part of the incredible movement direction for the show, credited to You-Ri Yamanaka. An impressive troupe makes the magic happen. Operating as stagehands as well as puppeteers, they are cast as spirits with touches of humour and they provide remarkable personality (considering they’re mostly dressed in black with their faces covered). They don’t compete with the props or puppetry – they complement them.

It’s the pace of the show that sets it apart. There are plenty of slower moments when we’re invited just to enjoy the spectacle. Time is allowed to appreciate Jessica Hung Han Yun and Tamykha Patterson’s gorgeous lighting design, while Nicole T Chang’s work (credited for sound effects and as soundscape designer) adds atmosphere. These almost contemplative moments might try the patience of adults more than children. This isn’t the first show I’ve seen where those being naughty were old enough to know better! But the ones that matter – the real fans – love it. It is great to hear them, and Tortoro, roar.

Until 23 March 2024


“A Strange Loop” at the Barbican Theatre

Michael R Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning musical is one of the most anticipated pieces of theatre this year. First produced off-Broadway in 2019, it has arrived in London relatively quickly along with rhapsodic reviews. With an exciting score, it is riotously funny, provocative and extremely clever. Although you might say that A Strange Loop is extreme all-round.

If you’ve heard about the show already, it will probably be about its meta-theatricality, which we’ve seen before, but maybe not to this extent. A Strange Loop is a musical about writing not one but two musicals. Usher (our hero goes by his job title) is a young, impoverished composer, who has taken on ghost-writing a Tyler Perry-style show for cash while also working on a personal project about… himself.

Here’s where the big theme of identity comes in. The show’s title comes from cognitive science and a theory about our conception of the ‘I’ – that our construction of ‘self’ is illusory. Yet there’s plenty of reality for Usher, who sings about being black, gay, feminine, poor and plus-size, plus the size of his penis. A lot of this is amusing and, when it comes to his troubled sex and family life, also moving. But if it sounds like a lot… well, it is.

Plenty in A Strange Loop is close to the bone. There is a rawness to the observations about race and sex that makes the writing and central performance from Kyle Ramar Freeman hugely impressive. As well as sounding fantastic while singing the complex, dense songs, Ramar Freeman’s acting is incredible. And the part is huge – he’s only offstage for the quickest of costume changes.

Kyle Ramar Freeman

Usher is joined by his ’thoughts’ – six more performers are needed to do justice to the complexity of this character! But they are more than a great-sounding chorus for an internal dialogue, taking on the roles of imaginary characters and people in Usher’s life. And note, the ‘thoughts’ don’t just play Usher’s family – they play the stereotyped versions of them in Usher’s head. This can be confusing, so credit to director Stephen Brackett for making the show as clear as can be, but those layers are part of the point. Jackson is ruthless when it comes to stereotypes. The fact that A Strange Loop is very rude isn’t the only thing that makes it uncomfortable.

Thinking of complaining? There are some genuinely shocking lyrics and situations. So much so that the humour is a tough call at times. Does it all go too far (even some of the characters ask for it to stop)? But Jackson uses upsetting instances of homophobia and racism intelligently. Whatever criticism you think about the music or attitude – Jackson has it covered, not least in a brilliant scene where the ‘thoughts’ transform into the ‘Second Coming of Sondheim Society’ to criticise his work.

Jackson’s is a harsh look at gay and black culture, neither of which seem to offer Usher any kind of support. Lyrics are often sung to tunes whose jauntiness seems cruel, but the beef can’t be said to be superficial. The arguments, as well as the jokes, are detailed, flooding out from the script in a way that is astonishingly accomplished. Praise again to all the performers for managing so well – not a single number is easy to perform. Yes, Jackson is way ahead of us, but it seems that is a lonely place to be. A vein of sorrow, alongside anger, runs through the piece.

So how much of the show’s appeal comes from extremes? Aside from the fact that we seldom see characters like Usher represented on stage, the frankness with which issues are tackled is remarkable. A Strange Loop is a show you want to start again as soon as it has finished. But is that just because it is so complex? Time will tell. It’s hard to get over the surprise of hearing lyrics like “the second wave feminist in me is at war with the dick-sucking black gay man”, let alone finding yourself humming it on the way home.

Until 9 September 2023


Photos by Marc Brenner

“The Encounter” from The Barbican

There are tricks from the start in this show from director and performer Simon McBurney and his renowned theatre company Complicité. A special introduction to the live broadcast reminds us that this is an event from four years ago. McBurney addresses us now, “confined at home”, and is careful to point out we’re missing how theatre evolves. The point isn’t just a painful reminder, it addresses the show’s key theme of time, indicating we’re dealing with a keen intellect who has plenty to say.

Continuing to be transparent with the trickery of the technology he uses forms a long introduction on stage as well. McBurney takes us through the effects that can be achieved as his audience, online and in the theatre, wear headphones. Interesting and funny; showing us what he can do to fool our brains doesn’t make the sound effects less effective. It endears him to the audience as a character and aids that all important complicity – the “common imagination” which powers theatre… and so much more.

The Encounter

Based on Loren McIntyre’s 1969 travels to an isolated tribe in the Amazon, all the playing with reality has a point. It takes us quickly to questions of how communities create stories that shape us and argues that time and communication might be very different from what we in the west are used to. The suggestion of telepathy comes through ceremony and drug use within a story containing considerable danger and excitement as well as plenty to think about.

The Encounter is fascinating, although it doesn’t wear its learning lightly. When it comes to McBurney’s own story telling it might be better, simpler. That sounds odd when we just have one man on a stage – although McBurney is keen to acknowledge his sound operators and there’s also some impressive lighting (from Paul Anderson). And don’t be fooled into thinking it is all about sound, this is a physical tour de force with plenty of running around and explosions of rage. The caveats are minor: overlapping dialogue, while making a point about the “cacophony” of communication, hinders just that. And relating the story to McBurney’s own life, with the voice of his daughter frequently interrupting, is driven by theory rather than drama. Nonetheless, both ideas and execution are mind expanding and the show rightly acclaimed.

Available until 25 May 2020

To support visit www.complicite.org

“Measure for Measure” from Cheek by Jowl

Such is Cheek by Jowl’s international reputation that tickets for its infrequent London appearances can be tricky to obtain. I remember trying and failing to see this show back in 1994, so generously offering it online during lockdown is especially welcome. Even better, the production lives up to expectations – this is the best Measure for Measure I’ve seen.

There are no gauche touches to make the piece contemporary. Any claims for the universality of Shakespeare benefit as a result. Director Declan Donnellan sets the story of Duke Vincentio, who dons a disguise to observe the goings on in Vienna, in a setting full of police and prisoners making the most of the play’s debates over justice, law, states and rulers.

This violent, often frightening, city can be recognised as now but could be anytime and anywhere. A sense of surveillance (without the trace of a CCTV camera) is ingrained in every curious or scared look. Obeying and resisting power struggles in each scene. Donnellan even manages the play’s considerable religious content expertly – moments of prayer become potent.

Performed in Russian, it has to be said that some of the surtitles come across as a little odd. And the recording isn’t of the highest standard. While Nick Ormerod’s design of red cubes on a bare stage still looks great, the way the cast moves around as a group – ushering in scenes, creating the sense of both chorus and mob – is clearly lost. It does makes you want to see the real thing even more.

The acting is magnificent. Donnellan utilises his ensemble to such perfection that every performance is of consequence. Without disrespect to other productions, I can’t remember being struck by the character of Barnardine before – here, Igor Teplov’s performance makes it a memorable role. The seedy side of city life is conveyed with Alexander Feklistov’s grubby Lucio and Alexey Rakhmanov’s menacing Pompey.

The siblings faced with the play’s famous dilemma are made compelling and very human heroes. As Claudio, Petr Rykov brings a passion to the affair that has landed him in jail (aided by excellent work from Anastasia Lebedeva) along with an animality that invigorates the stage. As for Anna Vardevanian’s Isabella, trying to free her brother – her performance is stupendous: full of defiance, intelligence and also horror, she makes the role intensely moving. Andrei Kuzichev plays their adversary Angelo, the merciless hypocrite left in charge, with a creepy edge – he sniffs Isabella’s chair when she leaves – that becomes all the more frightening for the character’s intelligence.

All this is great, but Donnellan’s masterstroke is to bring to the fore a role often seen as only a catalyst: this is the Duke’s Measure for Measure. Taking the role, Alexander Arsentyev’s Vincentio is nervous at first – could his problem really be life in the public eye? The Duke makes for a pretty useless disguised Friar and the show gets some humour out of this. Arsentyev seems barely off stage. The focus is his journey as a politician, and the production’s emphasis on the public during the final scene proves electric. The conclusion has a transformative power that transcends the resolution of plot. That other characters become something like pawns in a sick game, how they will recover from Vincenzio’s experiment rendered an open question that adds a troubling edge to what we’re been watching. Conversations with Shakespeare that are this confrontational, let alone performed with such excellence, are seldom seen – check this one out while you can.


Photo by Johan Persson

“The Tempest” at the Barbican

If you ever needed a reason to forgive computer company Intel for its annoyingly catchy ad jingle then its collaboration with the RSC is it. A large team, working with designer Stephen Brimson Lewis, has added ground- breaking effects to Gregory Doran’s production of Shakespeare’s late romance, and the result is a big theatrical event.
It’s a good choice of play to unleash the clever technical trickery on. From the shipwreck that sends Prospero’s enemies into his territory, the island becomes awash with projections. And spirits really do melt into air in the case of Ariel, played by Mark Quartley, as a live motion capture suit is employed on stage for the first time. The resulting imagery is appropriate and surely becomes more and more impressive if you understand how difficult it all is. Even so, the designers might be a tad aggrieved to know that all eyes are really on the live actor. Quartley gives a sensitive performance of remarkable physicality that doesn’t really need assistance.

The tech goes to town with the masque that Prospero conjures, its design based on Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones’ work, so that part of the play that can drag looks great. But again, beyond the spectacle, it’s the basics of the show that really work. A large cast of spirits add immeasurably and this is truly an island “full of noises” with a strong score composed by Paul Englishby that combines a variety of genres.
There’s a glitch in the application, too. The autochthonous Caliban could be the key to the island but he isn’t granted any modern magic. This rationale makes sense but it makes the character out of place, with no link to his inheritance – surely a missed opportunity? It’s a game performance from Joe Dixon, but the monster costume, the only foot Brimson Lewis puts wrong, suggests the aim is to get some laughs – what else can an actor do if he gets given a fish as a prop?

The key ingredient isn’t the intel inside but Simon Russell Beale’s performance as Prospero. Directed as a family drama, the relationship with Jenny Rainsford’s Miranda – an excellent performance – is deeply moving. Similarly, as his treacherous brother, Jonathan Broadbent makes a role often forgotten memorable. A complex relationship with Ariel, suggesting a substitute son, is also explored.

Russell Beale can be magisterial with ease but focuses on Prospero’s neurotic moments. The all-powerful magus sees his plan on a knife-edge, adding excitement to the production. This Prospero has many a mini breakdown, as the tension of plotting gets the better of him – at one point he even screams, and the prospect of changing overwhelms him. Doran was clearly sensitive to the possible drawbacks of a high-tech collaboration. Never losing sight of the fine cast here, his supervision shows a calm hand at the helm.

Until 18 August 2017


Photo by Topher McGrillis

“King Lear” at the Barbican

Gregory Doran and Antony Sher consistently turn out gold-standard work for the RSC. Their latest offering from Stratford is Shakespeare’s tragic monarch – a big challenge no matter how good your credentials – and they deliver in predictably impeccable style. Here, Lear is presented as a pagan priest. With Celtic touches from designerNiki Turner and an imperiousness from Sher that few could match, exhortations to the gods make a lot of sense. And there are plenty of well-used supernumeraries: Lear’s “insolent retinue” of Knights are out in force, while the unwashed masses that the king has neglected are there from the start. The additions, on top of traditional foundations, ensure interest and create a grand scale.

Despite Doran’s keen eye on the extras, Sher’s Lear has been allowed to overpower the production. The rest of the cast includes some fine performances, but other roles struggle to make a mark. One exception is Antony Byrne’s Kent, whose transformation into Caius is so fine that you almost believe he’s unrecognisable. Another is Paapa Essiedu’s Edmund. The parallel plot of the elderly Gloucester’s trials and his bastard son’s betrayal is delivered with intelligence and vigour. Essiedu joins the list of ones to watch.

As for Sher in the title role, while it has to be admitted that he takes few gambles, his delivery never fails. This is a physically frail old king, whose movements seem limited and difficult. Oddly, this fails to generate the sympathy you might expect and means tension slacks at some points when Lear should still seem capable of violent assault. But it’s a classy affair with key speeches marked out (it’s easy to imagine the pages turned down in a copy of the text), and Sher always sounds splendid. His charismatic presence further consolidates our monumental impression of this colossal production.

Until 23 December 2016


Photo by Ellie Kurttz

“Table Top Shakespeare” at the Barbican

Shakespeare with a cast of condiments sounds simply daft. Presented on a desk, as advertised, bottles and objects make their entrances and exits, standing in for the characters, controlled by a single performer who retells the plot of the play. That all this is perilously close to parody can’t be lost on Forced Entertainment, the company responsible for hosting the whole of Shakespeare’s canon in this fashion. There’s a reverential air to the hour-long retellings that raises an ironic smile. But against the odds, it’s all strangely compelling and affords an insight into the plays that makes it a tremendous theatrical experience in its own right.

The performance I attended was Richard II. The monarch was a bottle of water, his attendants salt and pepper pots. Terry O’Connor recounted events slowly and carefully, occasionally pointing out famous lines. The retelling isn’t as neutral as it seems – alongside O’Connor’s engaging and clear delivery – there’s a subtle commentary added. Forced Entertainment’s technique exposes the mechanics of the play’s construction, which proves enlightening. Bereft of alarums and excursions, it’s an intense experience. The objects, empowered by your imagination, hold attention with surprising force – I don’t think I have ever felt so much for the role of Richard’s queen – here a cut-glass vase. Brilliantly simple and simply brilliant.

Until 6 March 2016


“Henry V” at the Barbican

Reprising his role as Hal, after last year’s turn in Henry IV Parts I & II, Alex Hassell ascends to the throne in a Christmas treat for Londoners from the RSC. Gregory Doran directs, offering a fulsome and classy production. Hassell is a suitably thorough performer. Strongest when showing the nervousness of a new monarch dwelling on the morality of war, his transformation into a convincing martial leader is a carefully paced achievement.

Doran’s populous show looks and sounds great. There’s an exhibition about the gorgeous lighting, designed by Tim Mitchell, in the Barbican’s foyer space. Period instruments and a beautifully sung Te Deum (performed by Helena Raeburn) are highlights. Most memorable is an avuncular performance from Oliver Ford Davies as the chorus. Placed to the fore, his humorous calls to our imagination give the show a surprising intimacy and his modesty makes a pleasant foil to the production’s grandeur.

This is a long Henry V. Scenes of light relief are given plenty of time: one section of Act 3 Scene 2, often discarded, has not just an Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman but also a Welshman thrown together for fun (Joshua Richards’ Fluellen is satisfying throughout the show). And Doran wants to address the peace as much as the war – perhaps a little more than Shakespeare can be bothered with. The romance between Henry and Kate is rather dragged out (despite Jennifer Kirby’s charming Katherine) and Jane Lapotaire’s Queen Isobel takes centre stage for a speech on the state of France that is, again, sometimes skipped. Even though you might be left agreeing with productions that condense the action, this luxury edition of the show drips quality.

Until 19 December 2015. The King and Country four play cycle of productions, including Richard II, will be performed in January 2016.


Photo by Keith Pattison

“‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore” at the Barbican

The Cheek By Jowl theatre company can’t come to London often enough for my liking – its visits are anticipated events. Touring to the Barbican for the last few years, this month it stages Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi and revives its 2011 production of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore. The latter is a vivid adaptation of the bloody incest tragedy, filled with modern choreography and startling music. And it revels in the horror and gore.

Ford doesn’t hold back. Nor does director Declan Donnellan, who towers over the show, or designer Nick Ormerod, who has created eye-popping imagery. Set in the teenage Annabella’s bedroom, with its vampire posters and red décor (she even drinks cranberry juice), this is the scene of her coupling with her brother Giovanni, a nuptial night from hell with her husband Soranzo and the many schemes that fill the play. The bed is always centre-stage: cavorted on, plotted on, the locale for sex and violence. With red sheets, of course.

Donnellan’s committed cast gives exhaustive performances. Orlando James and Eve Ponsonby are the siblings and their delivery of the text, combined with their physicality, is impressive. Ponsonby does particularly well when it comes to her character’s eventual remorse and fear, while James excels as Giovanni moves from “unsteady youth” to avenging madman. Maximelien Seweryn’s Soranzo and his servant, Will Alexander’s Vasques, make a virile team. Smaller female roles, increased in importance, make the big difference in this particular production. Annabella’s servant, played by Nicola Sanderson, becomes a key role as a foil to the tragedy. Ruth Everett is superb as Soranzo’s spurned lover, an appropriately overblown performance that includes a masterclass in moans.

With Cheek By Jowl on board, the play becomes strangely sexy. Tableaux that summarise Ford’s world view, and make a virtue of unsubtlety, make for startling theatre. The production is frank and brutal. It creates a real sense of the danger surrounding lust. There are moments of excess (I am not sure a stripper was called for) but this is another fine production from master theatremakers. With a clear, boldly abbreviated text, it’s precisely directed and full of memorable imagery.

Until 26 April 2014


Written 13 April 2014 for The London Magazine

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Barbican

Justly world famous for its work on War Horse, the Handspring Puppet Company has joined forces again with director Tom Morris for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that visits the Barbican this week. But what to do with a play that contains a donkey instead of a horse? Handspring’s solution is so audacious it caused audible gasps from a school party in the audience. Joey the noble stallion, this ass ain’t. And, without spoiling the surprise, the ingenious and mischievous approach sums up the spirit of this superb production.

A transformed Bottom, performed superbly by Miltos Yerolemou, leads workmen looking a little like East End hipsters, who are the funniest I’ve seen. Fast and loose with the text, these joyous “hempen homespuns” are the flashiest point in a thoughtful show that reworks the play from the ground up with the puppetry provoking depth and insight. One note, this is a production that benefits from a close knowledge of the play – although the rewards are too numerous to make any excuse for this warning.

The puppeteer actors are tremendous. Of particular note are a hilarious Hermia (Akiya Henry) and the stunning Saskia Portway who takes on the roles of Hippolyta and Titania. But this is a true ensemble piece, with most of the cast on stage most of the time, and Morris ensures that the puppetry infuses rather then overpowers the show.

And yet the puppetry is revelatory. Simple materials belie Handspring’s ambition, a challenge to the audience, to see how minimal they can be. Puck is an assortment of objects, engendered by no fewer than three performers. Planks of wood are given life by the whole cast, like some giant Cornelia Parker sculpture, to form the forest outside Athens, making it a living character in the piece.

Introducing a sense of animism is the show’s master strategy. The idea that spirits inhabit all kinds of objects makes this fairy world more vivid than we are used to: a dangerous, serious place that is magical and mysteriously real. Fly to get a ticket.

Until 15 February 2014


Written 11 February 2014 for The London Magazine