Tag Archives: Duchess Theatre

“Cruise” from stream.theatre

A strong performance from the talented Jack Holden is the highlight of his self-penned monologue. Cruise is an Aids drama and a panegyric to a lost Soho that is uneven but admirable.

Through the framework of a telephone call to London’s Switchboard helpline, we hear the story of Michael – a “veteran” survivor of HIV – told to young Jack. It’s a sensible device that forms a connection between generations of gay men, and Holden performs both roles well. Regrettably, the younger character is unconvincing and naïve.

Michael’s story, however, is fascinating. As one of the first to contract HIV, after a doctor tells him he has four years to live, he believes his days are literally numbered. Determined to live “wilder than before”, he takes a tour of Soho in the 1980s, which includes a vivid cast of characters that allow Holden to shine.

The pace – if not the delivery – is frequently breathless, which proves tiring in a long monologue: more control is needed from director Bronagh Lagan. And, while the use of songs within the story is strong, John Elliott and Max Pappenheim’s sound design is uncharacteristically overpowering.

The writing conveys a strong sense of place and it’s entertaining to meet drag queen Jackie – a “smashed mirror of femininity” – as well as Lady Lennox with her “origin story tombola”. Holden has some interesting, if studied, turns of phrase that save a script with a few too many clichés. It’s a shame that attempts at humour aren’t more successful.

The script’s patchy quality comes to the fore when Holden deals with the club scene. Sections that show Michael’s love of music are excellent: the energy and poetry are phenomenal, the filming superb and, if you’ve missed dancing during lockdown, these passages will articulate why.

The rest of Holden’s history lesson is competent but lacking the same passion, even with moments – such as the death of Michael’s partner – that should be moving.

The filming of Cruise, using lots of space in Shoreditch Town Hall and including Jai Morjaria’s lighting design, is one of the best I’ve seen during lockdown. But it’s still a relief to know that a stage production is planned – at the Duchess Theatre from 18 May. This online screening, so close (hopefully) to a return to the stage, could serve as an interesting comparison. I wouldn’t be surprised if a live performance of Holden’s calibre irons out some reservations and it is certainly something to look forward to.

Until 25 April 2021


“The Play That Goes Wrong” at the Duchess Theatre

Mischief Theatre’s hugely successful comedy started out on the fringe and is now a West End and Broadway stalwart. Running strong since 2014, the scenario of an amateur company, the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, trying and failing to stage a murder mystery, seems so brilliant it’s a surprise it’s new. Plenty of jokes inspired by the title are ready and waiting. Add that this spoof of The Mousetrap cleverly uses gentle, family-friendly humour – you don’t even need English as a first language – and the hit status is easy to explain.

Slavishly following the lines while being forced into ever sillier improvisation, the poor players go from one disaster to the next yet, of course, the show must go on. There’s no shortage of jokes, although there is a lot of repetition. Those based on mistakes from the script are less funny, but the slapstick is spot on. There are plenty of wince-inducing moments – especially for the two actresses that end up trying to play the female lead (Katie Bernstein and Meg Mortell) – and real surprises at all the acrobatics on offer.

The jokes around the try-hard performers work, too, complete with their awe-struck realisation that they are performing to a crowd, Alastair Kirton’s nice-but-dim Max is very good here. Their thrill and nerves at being on stage adds an endearing element. When the director, another expert performance from Patrick Warner, who has introduced himself with misplaced optimism, breaks down, pointing out it’s not a pantomime (no prize for guessing the next line), it’s funny but also sweet. The show’s authors Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, who are also performers themselves, strike an appealing tone with an eye on engaging with a crowd.

There is a danger with any long-running show that things get flabby. The Play That Goes Wrong is so highly choreographed by director Mark Bell it’s pretty safe from this. But some jokes are dragged out, making you wonder if the running time is increasing. The cast are great and incredibly hard working – the action starts as soon as the auditorium opens. Yet it is the death trap set, designed by Nigel Hook, that is the star. It’s a real technical marvel that provides thrills, spills, and the best laughs. The atmosphere is great and the crowd leaves well and truly pleased.

Booking until April 2019


Photo by Alastair Muir

“Bakersfield Mist” at the Duchess Theatre

Stephen Sachs’ sprightly, award-winning comedy Bakersfield Mist is inspired by true events, namely the inspection of a newly discovered Jackson Pollock painting in a trailer park. It’s a light look at the art world while, naturally, encompassing broader issues about how we evaluate our lives.

The idea that a masterpiece could be found by someone as rough and ready as Maude (Kathleen Turner) is enough to prejudice curatorial star and snob Lionel (Ian McDiarmid). The suicidal ex-barmaid and stuffy expat academic are another variation on that old theme of the ‘odd couple’. Of course, there’s more to both characters than meets the eye. Plunged into each other’s worlds, they find common ground in their passionate beliefs and integrity, which relegate the painting’s authenticity to a sub plot. A battle of wits and wills, full of twists and turns, ensues.

Given recent American plays that have been wowing the critics, Bakersfield Mist might strike one as a little tame. But it’s conscientiously crafted and, if contrived, has more than enough ideas to its credit. Its brevity, running at just over 80 minutes, as well as Polly Teale’s sure-handed direction, leave you wanting more. Sachs has been given a gift with this cast, who bring out the best in the text and glide over more than a few flaws.

Indeed, the actors are outstanding: McDiarmid reveals his comic skills playing a pretty ridiculous Englishman, and does well to bring out what depth there is in his character to command the stage. Turner has real star appeal. As the underdog, a good deal of Maude’s battle is won for the actress by Sachs’s writing, but she combines terrific timing with a real sense of her character’s desperation, which skillfully engages the audience. Personal authenticity is a theme applied with a brush that’s a little too broad at times, but the performances in this Anglo-American double act more than stand up to scrutiny.

Until 30 August 2014

Written 29 May 2014 for The London Magazine

“Fences” at the Duchess Theatre

A new production of August Wilson’s play Fences opened at the Duchess Theatre last night following a successful run in Bath that has already earned it strong reviews. A family drama, set in Pittsburgh in 1957, it focuses on the patriarch Troy Maxson, a fascinating creation, depicted by Lenny Henry in a performance that is not to be missed.

Now well established as a serious actor, Henry gives a thoughtful, hard-working performance that plumbs the depths of this unsympathetic character. Troy is almost a tyrant, sometimes despicable, but his determination to turn his life around after time in jail, and awareness of his responsibilities makes you grudgingly respect him. Henry brings out the man’s vulnerability, and deals superbly with Wilson’s wry humour – Troy is charismatic and imminently watchable.

Troy is also an ordinary, working class, man. His struggles and aspirations provide the insight into African-American experience Wilson dedicated his work to. A talented sportsman who feels racism prevented his career, Troy is a disciplinarian driven by disappointment. Relations with his sons (played admirably by Peter Bankolé and Ashley Zhangazha) are on a knife-edge. More complex still is that with his disabled brother, a veteran with religious delusions, an enigmatic part played with conviction by Ako Mitchel.

Wilson’s play feels strangely timeless. It was written in 1983 yet sits well alongside Miller, even O’Neill; all three American greats wrote works that are hefty, lengthy and never afraid of metaphors. Although director Paulette Randall could pick up the pace at times, the production is a quality affair with a serious tone that earns respect.

The heart of the play is strong enough to keep it very much alive, embodied by the role of Troy’s wife, Rose. In this part Tanya Moodie gives a tremendous performance, formidable yet bowed by Troy’s force, Rose’s plight and passion are truly moving. As her husband’s legacy is examined in the final act, it’s Rose you really want to hear from. Wilson leaves you wanting more – a sure sign of success.

Until 14 September 2013


Photo by Nobby Clark

Written 27 June 2013 for The London Magazine

“Our Boys” at the Duchess Theatre

Jonathan Lewis’s Our Boys is nearly 20 years old – but it’s aging very well indeed. Set in a military hospital, and based on the author’s own experiences as a Potential Officer, it’s a rites-of-passage drama about young soldiers recovering from serious trauma. Our Boys is a well-crafted and traditional affair of simple, effective story telling.

A performer himself, Lewis has created the kind of roles that actors love since each character develops almost on cue. We know that these young men will bare their souls, but with each revelation the play gains in power. Lewis never slips into patronising his creations, while director David Grindley has marshalled his impressive cast into a believable cohort.

Lewis Reeves has to be singled out. As the most physically injured solider, his painful route to recovery is deeply moving and wonderfully performed. Jolyon Coy plays P.O. Menzies who shares the ward with the men he may one day command, with sensitive conviction. Laurence Fox gives a tremendous performance as Joe, a natural leader who delivers the most dramatic, genuinely shocking scene with steely skill.

The earthy humour of the piece may wear thin, but Lewis uses it to bond the play and it’s delivered well enough. Our Boys isn’t free of cliché but, after all, our insecurities are pretty universal and seeing them in these young men under pressure has tremendous power. The disastrous drinking game they play shows the best and the worst of characters we have learnt to care for: they really have become Our Boys, a fact that shows the strength of the play and the performances.

Until 15 December 2012

Photo by Geraint Lewis

Written 4 October 2012 for The London Magazine

“Butley” at the Duchess Theatre

Butley is in trouble. The eponymous anti-hero of Simon Gray’s play has left his wife, is being deserted by his friends, and his career as a university lecturer is full of petty politics and pesky students. Lindsey Posner’s impeccably directed production of this comedy classic is the West End’s funniest play. To use a critical cliché, the English tutor would no doubt condemn – it’s unmissable.

Butley has an egalitarian edge that makes him likeable – he’s nasty to everyone. His dowdy colleague Edna (the wonderful Penny Downie) has her high ideals about collegiate life mocked mercilessly. Anyone who has ever hated work will understand Butley’s boredom; his desperation makes him a mid-life everyman and his wit makes him adorable. He deserves to be punched – but you know he’d come back with a killer line.

Butley’s passion for his “creepy” prodigy and now colleague, Joseph, played with intelligent nuance by Martin Hutson, is flirtatiously ambiguous. It’s unconvincing that someone as brutally honest as Butley would be a repressed homosexual (text excised from performance makes this explicit) but love is at the heart of this couple’s relationship. As moving as it is entertaining, it makes Butley an original examination of male friendship.

Being friends with Butley is worth it. Manic, indolent, fey and mendacious, the title role is performed mercurially by Dominic West – this is a landmark performance for him. Gray’s creation is an Ambrose Bierce of the stage, yet West does him justice with a comic ability that makes the shocks, spills and laughter flow, just like the whisky Butley downs. Performance and play are something to celebrate – I’ll drink to them both.

Until 27 August 2011


Photo by Tristram Kenton

Written 13 June 2011 for The London Magazine

“Sign of the Times” at the Duchess Theatre

Humour and sentiment can be an uncomfortable mix. The secret of Tim Firth’s successful career, from Neville’s Island to the recent Calendar Girls, is that he combines them so well. Sign of the Times shows off this talent on an intimate scale – its heartwarming stuff with plenty of laughs.

Matthew Kelly plays Frank, Director of Installations at a sign manufacturer who is given the added responsibility of looking after Alan (Gerard Kearn) who is on work experience. Like many an intern, Alan is getting a raw deal here – he wanted work experience on the set of Emmerdale but instead is stuck on top of an office roof with a bore.

This is a comedy about a generation gap with the age-old twist of who is actually learning most from whom. Young Alan’s creativity strikes a chord with the older man, who is a frustrated writer. No matter how bad the spy thrillers he dictates during breaks are, we are touched by the sincerity of his efforts – he has a “burning burn” to write and who can argue with that! And the inspiration to do more with his life comes at the perfect time – the sign they are currently erecting spells out the end of his career.

Three years later, the roles are reversed. Alan is now the eager Trainee Assistant Deputy Manager explaining Frank’s new job to him with corporate mnemonics ripe for satire. It’s Frank’s turn to inspire and remind the youth of the courage he once had, saving him from electrocution along the way.

Sign of the Times started as a one-act play and there are moments when Firth’s extension seems contrived. Frank’s story reminds us that postponing retirement age entails problems, but that isn’t where the strength of the story really lies.

Firth writes great characters and in Sign of the Times they get the performances they deserve. Kelly is fully in control of the stage, charming even when pompous and endearing in his enthusiasm, and Kearns (who may be recognised from Shameless) makes a great West End debut. Both actors are spot on with their comic timing and make Sign of the Times well worth seeing.

Until 28 May 2011


Photo by Simon Annand

Written 14 March 2011 for The London Magazine

“The Fantasticks” at the Duchess Theatre

The Fantasticks is the simplest of stories, staged minimally to emphasise theatricality and dealing with universals. Archetypal characters and situations are presented with comedy and tragedy painted broadly. If you want to sound clever you can say it uses the oldest performance traditions, with a narrator as chorus and drawing on commedia dell’arte. It is designed to appeal to all and, as the success of its songs by Harvey Schmidt, along with its 50-year run in New York indicates, it does so.
Boy meets girl and they fall in love. Cue glitter. There seems to be an obstacle – their warring fathers. Overcome this and the result is more glitter. A further set of problems to confirm this love is the real thing and you have a finale that includes (you guessed it) glitter. There really is a lot of glitter.

The book and lyrics by Tom Jones are far more knowing than this outline suggests. His reference is as much Pyramus and Thisbe performed by the rude mechanicals as Romeo and Juliet. It is a surprise, therefore, that Amon Miyamoto’s production is so heavy handed when it comes to sentiment. An observation that the production is ‘avant garde’ gets the biggest laugh of the evening, as the black jutting stage and mawkish choreography are jarring. As is the audience participation with those sitting on stage drafted into the action. It may prove some point for the director but it does little for the show.

Unfortunately this overdose of sincerity seems to have made an impression on the younger members of the cast. Luke Brady and Lorna Want have great voices but look as if they are trying too hard. Hadley Fraser shares this problem when he comes to deliver the play’s numerous homely truths as The Narrator but he also gets the chance to show great comic talent when he plays the bandit El Gallo. Clive Rowe and David Burt seem to make getting laughs easy work. They are wonderful together. Likewise Paul Hunter and Edward Petherbridge who are conscripted in a plot to bring the lovers together. From the moment of their wonderful entrance on stage they are laugh-out-loud funny. Petherbridge really is fantastic and is in total control of the audience.

The Fantasticks is a joyous celebration of the power of your imagination. You have to be hard hearted indeed not to love such an appealing show even if it is essential to revel in the incredible and let yourself go. And why not? Sometimes it is great to take things with a pinch of salt. Or maybe a pinch of glitter.

Photo by Dan Tsantilis

Written 11 June 2010 for The London Magazine