Tag Archives: Bill Buckhurst

"Ghost Quartet" at the Boulevard Theatre

Here’s another new theatre for London, and a particularly stylish one – it’s clear that cash has been splashed on this refit of the Comic Strip’s one-time home in Walker’s Court, Soho. Still a little seedy outside, the theatre is one of the comfiest I’ve visited and the first year of programming from artistic director Rachel Edwards looks like a good mix. First up is a deceptively modest affair, a song cycle for four performers from Dave Malloy that’s a stylish American import aimed at a sophisticated clientele.

While there may be a Halloween connection, Edgar Allen Poe interests Malloy as much as ghosts. The piece takes in so many different kinds of relationships, around the themes of love and loss, with so many references, it ends up quite dizzying. Malloy cites the concept album as an inspiration, with track numbers announced to the audience, but any concept seems loose. There is a unifying story buried here, a love triangle with two sisters, but the focus isn’t clear. The story spans time and space and even seems to be connected to the Arabian Nights! It all becomes a little too confusing to actually enjoy. While fluid identities may be exciting to explore, they don’t aid any narrative here. And unrelated songs, while often musical highlights, don’t help either. As for the score, it’s eclectic to the point of bewildering. You expect a few scraped strings given the title but there are moments when Malloy gets carried away with the weird that aren’t so wonderful. And he isn’t scared of lyrics devoid of poetry, which is fine, but occasional imagery that could be described as baroque adds to an inconsistent feel.

Zubin Varla in Ghost Quartet at the Boulevard Theatre
Zubin Varla

If these are problems – and you could easily defend or revel in the compositions’ diversity – the cast take them in their stride. The Boulevard Theatre has recruited some serious talent that really delivers. Zubin Varla serves as a commanding presence and sounds fantastic, while ‘cellist Niccolò Curradi leads the music. Both Carly Bawden and Maimuna Memon play plenty of instruments and their voices are remarkable; Memon is especially good when it comes to creepy, Bawden a natural at puzzled innocence as past lives come into focus. The whole cast makes the more outlandish moments of the stories feel grounded and, when it comes to audience participation – of which there’s rather a lot – shows yet more expertise.

Carly Bowden and Maimuna Memon in Ghost Quartet at the Boulevard Theatre
Carly Bowden and Maimuna Memon

A lot of Ghost Quartet is wilfully quirky. It’s a quality that clearly appeals to director Bill Buckhurst. Again, that audience participation comes into play, with drinks and musical instruments handed out to the crowd prompting a chaotic feel. The benefits include keeping an audience engaged – it’s impossible to know what’s coming next, and it feels original and is often funny. But being so obviously ‘challenging’ can come across as contrived – to the point of being smug. Nonetheless, the show is undoubtedly an excellent choice for the venue; Buckhurst makes the most of its intimacy and clubby atmosphere, while Emma Chapman has fun with an impressive lighting rig. While I can’t imagine many falling in love with Ghost Quartet, it is a natural choice that makes a super start for the Boulevard Theatre.

Until 4 January 2019


Photos by Marc Brenner

“Barbarians” at the former Central Saint Martins College

The Tooting Arts Club, a company that revels in having no permanent home, had enormous success last year with its staging of Sweeney Todd, first in a pie-and-mash shop and then next door to the Queen’s Theatre. Back in town, with Bill Buckhurst’s accomplished revival of Barrie Keeffe’s trilogy of short plays, it has now taken over a former art school. It’s fair to say that the work – dealing with youth unemployment, football hooliganism and racial violence – hits harder than most West End fare.

Following Paul, Jan and Louis as they dabble in petty crime, before finding factory jobs and then going their separate ways, is pretty depressing. Keeffe injects a lot of humour, which the performers respond to eagerly, but the frustration and fear that fill their adolescence doesn’t make for comfortable viewing. The plays may be 40 years old but, apart from some fun with a themed bar, they are sadly still relevant. These three may seem a little more naïve than teenagers today, but they’re probably just less well connected – the absence of mobile phones is noticeable.

Killing Time is the first one-act play. We get to know the boys in a relatively light-hearted way as they make trouble while on the dole. There’s a great use of the space as they sit with the audience and scamper around tables, along with some extremely offensive language. Josh Williams’ Louis engenders most sympathy. Having completed a course, he may be an expert on refrigeration, but he can master little else. Abide With Me is set outside the FA cup final, as the trio wait for tickets, predictably let down by an adult in their lives. Their search for belonging is palpable, whether as military cadets or football fans: “the best army there is,” says Thomas Coombes’ Paul in a performance that brims with aggression.

For the finale, In The City, we’ve moved from Lewisham, via Wembley to the Notting Hill Carnival. The boys are older, although I hesitate to use the word grown up. Jan (Jake Davies) has become a soldier, whose terror at his imminent departure to Northern Ireland informs an impressive monologue. A chance encounter with Louis results in a senseless and disturbing attack – the threat of violence hangs over all three plays, and when it arrives it shocks to the core. There’s a lot to praise about Barbarians, not least three excellent performances, but this powerful and insightful show comes with a warning.

Until 7 November 2015


Photo by Cesare De Giglio

“Sweeney Todd” at Harrington’s Pie & Mash Shop

Stephen Sondheim’s wonderful musical about the demon barber of Fleet Street, a psychotic shaver whose murdered customers were put into pies by Mrs Lovett, is always worth going to see. Staging it in a real pie shop is a stroke of genius. Believe it or not, you even pick up your tickets for the show in the barbers across the road.

More than on being on trend with immersive theatre, the staging goes to the heart of the production company’s ambitions: The Tooting Arts Club aims to unite theatre with the community in inspired fashion, and has created a very special event.

Harrington’s Pie and Mash Shop, close to Tooting Broadway Tube, was established in 1908 and is still family run. It’s a tiny place with the kind of basic design beloved of hipster photographers. There’s nowhere to hide and, with only a trio of musicians accompanying, the weight on the cast to make this show work is huge. With director Bill Buckhurst’s help, the production rockets higher than the sales of Mrs Lovett’s pies. Standing on the tables, chatting to the crowd, each performer works incredibly hard. The singing, against the stripped-back score, in such a confined space, is awe-inspiring and the acting skills hard to beat.

Jeremy Secomb makes a superb Todd. Respect to him for playing it really scary, as it would be easier to go for the laughs in a space like this. Secomb provides the grim depth the character deserves and his voice is superb. The hugely talented Siobhán McCarthy plays his accomplice in crime, Lovett, with excellent comic skill. There are few chances to applaud during Sweeney Todd  – clapping seems like an interruption – it’s hard not to with McCarthy’s numbers.

Sweeney Todd usually soaks up a plentiful cast, with lots of extras for those big London crowd scenes, but here we have just six other performers, all of whom are wonderful. Grace Chapman and Nadim Naaman play the charming young couple Johanna and Anthony, Duncan Smith and Ian Mowat are excellent as the villainous men in power, and Joseph Taylor is great as the young Toby. Special mention to Kiara Jay, who seems to be everywhere, though credited as performing just two roles. The whole ensemble revels in the extraordinary buzz around the setting.

What does the unique setting add? To be honest, less than you want to admit. And it has to be said that it’s incredibly uncomfortable; crammed onto a bench with a twisted neck all night. But if you like your musicals up close and personal you can’t get more intimate than just 32 seats. The staging is a huge achievement but the real boast is the excellent production itself.

Until 29 November 2014


Photo by Bronwen Sharp