Tag Archives: Finborough Theatre

“Playfight” from the Finborough Theatre

Julia Grogan’s provocative new drama is the exciting winner of the ETPEP Prize and has been given an online rehearsed reading that downright demands a full production soon. A startlingly bold coming-of-age story with very serious concerns (and extremely frank content), Playfight comes close to a jeremiad and must be any parents’ nightmare.

The play’s three school friends talk bluntly about sex, death, love and religion. There’s humour of a kind here, although deadpan responses are relied on too much. First loves and a deep desire to work out what is “normal” prove touching. And it’s never in doubt that the characters of Kiera, Zainab and Lucy are “full of promise”. That potential is a fact that makes the play extremly depressing.

As well as orgasms and excitement about the future, it is the issues Grogan highlights that dominate. And these are truly shocking. Alongside teenage troubles with faith and sexuality (we expect that, right?) relationships to sex are seriously skewed. The acceptance of hard-core pornography and violence is disturbing. “Shame, blame and guilt” don’t just belong to Lucy’s church. Self-harming, homophobia and alcoholic parents seem almost tacked on as a grim backdrop to everyday life – it is physical violence that destroys all three young lives.

The performers – Robyn Cara, Hannah Millward and Helen Monks – work wonders with their character’s emotional ups and downs. There’s no lack of drama, so the generally underplayed tone and tight control shown in Blanche McIntyre’s direction are essential. Extra credit, of course, comes from the fact that the performers are working in isolation. Even though the piece has plenty of scenes that are phone calls, it’s impossible not to imagine how much more effective it would be – let’s hope will be – on a stage.

Playfight isn’t perfect. A central motif of an oak tree is over-burdened metaphorically and an attempt at basing some metaphysical speculation around its age fails to convince (although I’d love to see what a set designer could add). The much-discussed small-town setting is too vague, so what impact this might have had on the characters gets lost. The powerful energy in the play escalates with such rapidity that conclusion lacks control. But maybe that was the intention? Grogan’s work left me uncomfortably breathless and a play this urgent, aiming to spark so much debate, deserves a wide audience.

Until 8 April 2021


“Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels” from the Finborough Theatre

Presented daily throughout February, Athena Stevens’ play is now available to watch online in its entirety. And watch it you should. What’s exciting about the project are its bite-sized episodes, impossible in a theatre, that are carefully crafted to grow and build. So, watch slowly and take your time.

‘1’ is young woman in a relationship with an older man and ‘A’ is his long-standing female friend. It’s the dynamics between the two women that fascinate. The length of the project means that their relationship can be explored in detail. As thoughts and motives fluctuate, Stevens keeps us questioning her characters’ self-knowledge – what they really think of themselves, of each other and whether they might be complicit in the unhealthy relationships going on here.

This is a triangle of love and friendship where we only hear from two participants. The man they discuss is a vivid character. But Stevens escapes from many clichés by making the show a two-hander. Maybe it’s a little too easy to dislike the guy? And so quickly! But the gaslighting of both women is effectively oppressive and increasingly disturbing. As the show develops, Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels is tough going – and that’s a compliment.

Late Night Staring At High Res Pixels
Evelyn Lockley

The meaty roles are gifts to actors, and director Lily McLeish – despite working under lockdown conditions – helps the performers to shine. Stevens takes the role of ‘A’ and gives a suitably confident depiction of a woman who’s easy to admire. Evelyn Lockley gives a powerful performance as ‘1’, skilfully dealing with the questions of fragility and how needy or demanding (those are the accusations!) she might actually be.

The power of the characters possibly detracts from broader issues the show hopes to raise. Might they involve us in particulars a little too much? Stevens spends less time on a drama of a photograph ‘1’ sends of herself topless than might be expected. Questions about how the picture might be abusive are rushed towards the end of the series. But the impact of a man who cannot (will not?) see women as equals is stirring.

Having helped during lockdown with releases of previous shows such as Joan Clegg and It is Easy to be Dead, The Finborough Theatre will release new work online during 2021. Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels is a strong start. Unlike many a theatre project, it uses the online format and the way we view online to its advantage. Watch in small doses and its efficacy is sure to impress.

Until 1 April 2021


“I Wish To Die Singing” from the Finborough Theatre

The November online offering from Neil McPherson’s venue is his own piece about the Armenian Genocide. With the help of director Tommo Fowler, the theatre becomes a classroom and a place of campaigning as the audience is given a history lesson and left with a call to action.

The past first. McPherson’s use of eyewitness reports to events in Turkey in 1915 is skilled, showing just enough of life before the atrocities. Suggesting a flavour of the rich Armenian culture, the voices of children are balanced with those of adult survivors looking back.

The best deliveries come from Bevan Celestine, Tamar Karabetyan and Kate Binchy (especially strong as a missionary) who each bring a tear to the eye more than once. It should be stressed that much of what we hear is stomach-churning. Quite rightly, McPherson does not shy away from detailing the swift, sudden massacres or the “hopeless exile” of a “relocation” Armenians were forced to make – walking into the desert to their deaths.

McPherson and Fowler understand context is especially important when dealing with a subject matter less well known than it should be. Their solution is highly effective: the whole show is led by Jilly Bond, who plays an approachable narrator capably filling in details.

As for the history, I Wish To Die Singing aims to be more than a lecture in a theatre. Debate about the definition of a genocide leads to roll call of countries that recognise what happened and those that refute facts. Adding commentary up to the date of recording, including insulting tweets the theatre received, brings an immediacy to the show that can still be sensed.

Until 31 December 2020


Photo by Doug Mackie

“Joan Clegg” from the Finborough Theatre

Highlighting its strong reputation for rediscovering classic plays, this lockdown offering from Neil McPherson’s treasured venue had not been performed in London since 1944 when it was revived last year. Expert director David Gilmore shows us what we’ve been missing with a production of the highest quality.

It’s easy to see St. John Ervine’s 1913 piece as an English version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. The honesty about an unhappy marriage must have been just as shocking to Edwardian audiences as the Norwegian’s work. The frustrated, intelligent and independent Joan is a nice match for Ibsen’s Nora. And Joan is a similarly great role for an actress – here, Alix Dunmore embraces the opportunity to her credit, steely and dignified with a melancholy regret sustained throughout.

Ervine’s writing is solid. If the plot plods and there are some laughs at the outdated sexual politics, Joan Clegg is a robust piece. The inspiration of Ibsen runs deep – an attention to detail that naturalism insists on means the play stands on its own, rooted in a particular time and place. Gilmore does well to nurture these culturally specific touches, supported by performances from Victoria Lennox and Sidney Livingstone, as the mother-in-law and the husband’s manager. A sense of social constraints is strong but never over-stated.

As for that “absolute rotter” of a husband, Henry, that he isn’t a total turn-off is more to the credit of Brian Martin’s performance than the writing. Henry’s stubborn arrogance as his lies – and Joan – catch him out provides drama, despite being predictable. With Henry around it’s too obvious that Joan’s cry of “I demand as much as I give” isn’t going to be heeded. Her independence is a bit too much of a relief for a modern audience. But hearing about Joan’s life, over a century later, is powerful and stylish thanks to fine work from Gilmore and Dunmore.

Until 5 August 2020


Photo by Doug Mackie

“It Is Easy To Be Dead” from the Finborough Theatre

One of the smallest venues in London – surely in desperate need of the donations requested while making this production available online – the Finborough’s prestigious reputation is lived up to in artistic director Neil McPherson’s play. Taking the life of World War I soldier Charles Hamilton Sorley, it makes appropriate viewing during the weekend of VE day: a moving tribute to lives lost in any war and – in particular –to one admirably independent, and therefore challenging, young man.

First seen in 2016 and justly receiving critical acclaim, including a nomination for an Olivier Award, McPherson’s play mingles the poetry and letters of his subject confidently, and director Max Key complements his careful editing. The same expert touch comes with the show’s music, directed by Elizabeth Rossiter, who performs on piano accompanying tenor Hugh Benson.

McPherson’s structuring of the play could serve as a lesson to many. Time is taken for us to get to know the subject, one so full of life before his death at the age of 20. When the war comes it is all the more powerful and Key deals well with battle scenes that contain only one man. The projections used throughout the show are frequently lost in this recording, but it is easy to imagine the mounting power as we see the faces and fates of so many of the people mentioned.

It is Easy to be Dead at the Finborough Theatre
Jenny Lee and Tom Marshall

There’s a strong sense of period, which never feels forced, shown at its best with the acting of Jenny Lee and Tom Marshall, as Sorley’s parents. Both give beautiful, restrained, performances of roles well filled out. The brief scene of their final goodbye to Charles is brilliant. And debates over whether to publish another “dead public school boy” show the cool intelligence their son inherited. Gratitude that they, and subsequently McPherson with his play, pursued their commemorative project grows.

It Is Easy To Be Dead is a major role for Alexander Knox as Sorley – its success rests on his shoulders. Winning from the start with a schoolboy wish to leave “custom on the shelf”, humour and touches of romance are all conveyed, along with plenty of additional characters. But Knox’s real skill is allowing the true star to be the play’s subject.

Sorley’s words draw us into the action and make us care for him enormously, but it is his common sense – over sentiment and even patriotism – that really impresses. Calling the conflict the “joke of the century”, claiming that of 12 million combatants only 12 really want to fight, his fury against “deliberate hypocrisy” (and critique of Rupert Brooke) are refreshing and much needed. As a final tribute, Knox’s readings of Sorley’s poems do them justice – surely a poet could wish no finer tribute.

Available until 7 July 2020


Photos by Scott Rylander

“A Lesson from Aloes” at the Finborough Theatre

Janet Suzman’s revival of South African master-playwright Athol Fugard’s 1978 play is a masterclass in direction. There’s plenty to learn from this play about political activists suffering under the Apartheid regime, while Suzman’s sure hand is theatrically educative. And, although enjoyment can’t be said to be an aim of the piece, the performances prove gratifying despite the bleak content.

Dawid Minnaar and Janine Ulfane play a devoted couple, Piet and Gladys, whose lives have been traumatised by a visit from the security forces. Minnaar makes Piet a noble figure, possibly to a fault, and skilfully carries us through a deal of poetry quoting, potted personal history and philosophising on plants that might have dragged in lesser hands. Ulfane’s role as the prim and proper wife who has suffered a breakdown is more interesting. Intense from the start, Gladys’s anxiety only lets up when she shows a shockingly vicious streak. The character’s fragility weighs heavily on the play – it comes close to exhausting – but Suzman and Ulfane refuse to back down.

Most of the play is spent waiting for the arrival of Piet’s friend and political comrade, Steve. Suzman’s pacing is superb; that the couple are “flattering time with too much attention” is palpable yet the momentum is swift. Steve’s arrival, after the show’s interval, brings further energy and another strong performance, this time from David Rubin. The news of his approaching exile to the UK and the spectre of a police informer who played a part in his imprisonment provide further dynamics to puzzle over, while Rubin generates care for his character with remarkable speed.

A Lesson from Aloes is a play of ideas and emotions that may prove too static for some tastes. But, for a precise look at people under pressure, and a detailed insight into history, it is admirable. Fugard’s control of theme and plot are matched flawlessly by Suzman. And ideas about home, hope and hell, all of which can teach us much, are presented to perfection.

Until 23 March 2019


Photo by Alixandra Fazzina

“Square Rounds” at the Finborough Theatre

Examining conflict through science, in particular the chemistry behind World War I, Tony Harrison’s 1992 play is full of fascinating history. The research behind weaponry and drawn-out moral questions are consistently interesting: the work of Fritz Haber on both fertilisers and poisoned gas – and the Maxim brothers’ inventions – are stuff it’s unlikely you learned at school. Combined with a background of Imperialism and societal change (from women at work to spiritualism), Square Rounds is epic, even before you consider it is written in verse.

Introducing rhyme almost from the start, Harrison’s text cannot fail to impress. The use of language is joyous, which sometimes feels discordant given the subject matter. Rather, taking on science – pointing out its magical overtones – the lines issue a challenge as the lyrical work matches Rationalism with cunning and a ruthless edge. The play is remarkably cold, chilling at times, as it lays bare the inevitability of arms races or ironically sets out arguments for mad weapons in a logical fashion.

Gracy Goldman
Gracy Goldman

Some heart is added to the play with the relationship of Haber and his wife Clara Immerwahr, also a scientist, who argues against her husband’s collaboration with the Kaiser. It’s the strongest scene and has the best performances, from Philippa Quinn (pictured top) and Gracy Goldman, respectively. The production boasts all-female performers – a bold casting decision and a clever one – there are several scenes where the action is more layered as a result. The cast also doubles up effectively, and the multiple roles are tackled well, especially by Letty Thomas. The performers are not helped by an insistence on using the accents of various German and American characters. True, much is made of nationhood in the script, even some puns, but the delivery here is too broad and the result sounds forced. Thankfully, the technique isn’t adopted for a scene set in modern-day China (I told you the play was epic) and the result is much happier.

The question of accents aside – surely a misjudgement – director Jimmy Walters has a good go at matching Harrison’s wit and imagination. The production is clear and concise, the use of music more hit than miss, the set (from Daisy Blower), with its connotations of magic acts, is clever. If not quite the revival a play this strong deserves (it was originally staged at the National Theatre’s Olivier and its ambition calls out for a large venue), there’s plenty of talent to make this opportunity to see such an original piece worthwhile. There’s quite rightly a lot of commemoration of World War I in this anniversary year, but little of it has a perspective this novel or long-sighted.

Until 29 September 2018


Photos by S R Taylor Photography

“Checkpoint Chana” at the Finborough Theatre

With its topical subject matter and sharp dialogue, it’s easy to see why, having started at this venue’s ‘Vibrant Festival’ of new writing, Jeff Page’s play has graduated into a full production. It’s a shame that questionable decisions have resulted in underdeveloped potential.

Bev is a poetry professor whose latest work has provoked accusations of anti-Semitism. While this should provide plenty of debate, none of the issues around censorship, Zionism or social justice warriors gets much airing. Bev isn’t clear why comparing an Israeli soldier to a Nazi upsets people. Really? Why make her blunder so black and white? And, even if her position is indefensible, defending it poorly makes for bad drama.

The play focuses instead on Bev and her problems. Her father dies (a plot line that goes nowhere) and she’s an alcoholic with mental health issues. All rich material for Geraldine Somerville, who takes the part and does very well with it. It’s a brave move to make Bev so unsympathetic, but don’t her boozed-up delusions of grandeur also make it too tempting to just feel sorry for her – and then dismiss her opinions?

Bev’s interactions with others present further gripes. The intense relationship with her PA (do poets have PAs?) is clichéd and unconvincing, although Ulrika Krishnamurti tries her best with it all. Bev is interviewed, far too briefly, by possibly the worst journalist in the world, then has a heart-to-heart with a lighting technician at a poetry gig. Again, credit to Matt Mella and Nathaniel Wade in these parts, but both roles are too truncated.

The biggest frustration comes from glimpses of the dry wit within the text. There are some lovely acerbic observations on life in north London, leading up to an explosion from Bev – why all this fuss about a poem? My sympathies if you were thinking that all along. For whatever reason, director Manuel Bau stamps on any humour and the play is duller for this. Maybe the subject matter was deemed too serious for laughs? But, as Bev points out, artists should take risks, and Checkpoint Chana is puzzlingly timid all around.

Playing Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays until 20 March 2018


Photo by Samuel Kirkman

“Into The Numbers” at the Finborough Theatre

The celebrated American playwright Christopher Chen uses the work and death of scholar Iris Chang to create a complex philosophical play. Structured around a book tour for Chang’s best-seller The Rape of Nanking, billed as detailing the forgotten holocaust of World War II, the play follows the tragic journey towards the author’s suicide. The piece is powerful and demanding.

Elizabeth Chan gives a superb performance in the lead role, reflecting Chang’s articulacy and fragility. Presented as a series of lectures, interviews, and then visits to her therapist, as an insight into mental health Chen’s writing is disturbing and poignant. The roles of the host, husband and doctor are all played by Timothy Knightly – a remarkable performance – and the drama escalates skilfully, evoking Chang’s increasing pain, paranoia and grasp on reality.

Both the story of Nanking and the effect studying such trauma had on Chang are embodied in a series of mystical encounters: with a Japanese soldier, an anonymous victim, and real-life heroine, Minnie Vautrin. The massacre’s moral importance, dramatically essential as Chang becomes “trapped” by her work, is depicted with respectful conviction by all. And the direction from Georgie Staight is impeccable throughout (aided by Matt Cater’s lighting). But these scenes from “another dimension” are less successful. A trio of performers struggles with such token appearances and some ponderous moments. While our attachment to Chang deepens, these forays into philosophical speculation pale.

The text is full of complicated concepts, some of which are surely dead ends, and it would be helpful to point those out more clearly: a representative for modern Japan proves a particular stumbling block. But Chen’s ambition is bracing and the considerations of monism, evil and time are all fascinating. There’s nothing patronising, and I confess some of the ideas were over my head even before having them expressed through the prism of mental illness. If occasionally laboured, Into The Numbers is impressively intellectual, layered and invigorating. Just make sure you’ve blown away any Christmas cobwebs from your brain before trying to tackle this one.

Until 27 January 2018


Photos by Scott Rylander

“The Busy World Is Hushed” at the Finborough Theatre

Neil McPherson’s programming consistently brings exciting plays to London, and his venue has another European premiere to boast about. Keith Bunin’s piece has the surprisingly contemporary scenario of a Church minister encouraging a gay relationship for her son. From this starting point, there is a sensitive and intelligent examination of relationships and religion that makes it easy to see why the play was acclaimed off-Broadway.

Kazia Pelka plays Hannah, a scholar and woman of the cloth, who is working on a book about a newly discovered gospel with the help of her assistant, Brandt. The potential for a new perspective on religion enthuses Hannah but is delivered by the play itself rather than any fictional manuscript. Bunin’s key achievement is to make the theological discussion fresh and interesting. The text is aided by Pelka’s calm delivery and the patience of director Paul Higgins – there’s a lot to think about here and we are given time to follow the arguments. It’s interesting and never heavy handed.

Michael James and Mateo Oxley
Michael James and Mateo Oxley

The illness of Brandt’s father provides an emotional backdrop for a practical discussion of faith that is impressively clear sighted, while allowing Mateo Oxley to shine with a heart-breaking performance. At the same time, his burgeoning relationship with Hannah’s son, Thomas, is depicted with an understated affection. Here, both Oxley and Michael James create a great sense of chemistry and inculcate our sincere hope that their romance will work out.

Bunin stumbles slightly with this final character of Thomas, whose mental instability proves a distraction. James’s considerable charisma keeps us watching this unappealing twentysomething, but such callow eccentricity is trying. The weaker characterisation is, arguably, a price worth paying for a twist here. It’s this doubting Thomas who turns out to be the intolerant one. Hannah isn’t a saint – their relationship, “twisted in knots”, is depicted with such meticulous detail it becomes painful to watch. But the inflexibility comes from the demands of youth, leading to a fraught denouement that makes the play one of those rare pieces that subtly challenges an audience to change its mind.

Until 25 November 2017


Photos by Scott Rylander