Tag Archives: Gate Theatre

“Bootycandy” at the Gate Theatre

Robert O’Hara’s semi-autobiographical play is original and adventurous. To say Bootycandy is the story of a gay African American boy growing up in the 1980s belies how many surprises the show has. This is theatre that takes huge risks, crediting its audience with intelligence, and confident in its meta-theatricality.

Veering wildly from scene to scene, concessions to a conventional story come with the character of Sutter and his family. Sutter’s growth is literal – he first appears as a small boy and becomes an increasingly central, and powerful, figure. Taking the role, Prince Kundai impresses throughout.

Nonetheless, presented as a collection of sketches – or maybe memories – there is the danger of the piece being disjointed and confusing. Credit to director Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu, who ensures a coherent atmosphere. And, thankfully, every strangely isolated scene is superb – give each a star and the rating for this show would be off the scale.

DK Fashola

A scene of women talking on the phone is a highlight for Bimpé Pacheco and DK Fashola, Luke Wilson’s drag queen pastor is superb and a monologue for Roly Botha truly extraordinary. These are tremendous performances, each aided by Malik Nashad Sharpe’s superb work as director of movement. Dance is integral to Bootycandy: the physicality – at every moment – is enthralling.

Roly Botha

A queer ‘lens’ here is flipped as O’Hara examines his community and Sutter’s interactions with a heterosexual world. The play’s most vivid characters are women (a mother and grandmother). And there is a fixation with straight men that gets very dark indeed.

The scenes are funny, sexy, and scary – sometimes all three at the same time. And none of this is as it first seems. It’s possible what we are watching is a collection of ‘works in progress’ by playwrights at a conference. So, is Bootycandy being constructed before our eyes? Even the cast starts to question what on earth is going on!

There isn’t one key to the undoubtable success of this show – why would there be when we are presented with so many ideas and perspectives? But Fynn-Aiduenu creates an impression of spontaneity that works to great effect, generating a tremendous energy that powers the show and ensures Bootycandy hits a sweet spot.

Until 11 March 2023


Photos by Ali Wright

“A Sudden Violent Burst of Rain” at the Gate Theatre

With magical sheep whose wool makes the rain and a trip to a king’s castle, playwright Sami Ibrahim blends elements of a fairy tale with a story of immigration. The mix is productive and, benefitting from a strong production directed by Yasmin Hafesji, deserves acclaim. Just don’t get too comfortable as you settle down for this yarn.

As the Gate Theatre’s first production in its new Camden home, Hafesji enhances the intimacy of the venue. Inside, the audience is very close to the in-the-round action so a snug sense of settling down to hear a story is cleverly fostered. With several trunks that contain surprise props, Ryan Dawson Laight’s design is great, providing an air of improvisation that adds dynamism.

Samuel Tracy

But an excellent trio of actors as story tellers is the key to success here. Sara Hazemi takes the role of Elif, an illegal immigrant in a strange land, exploited but retaining dignity and independence. Princess Khumalo is her daughter (at various ages) as well as The Landowner (the least successfully written role) and is especially good at injecting some humour. Samuel Tracy plays, mostly, Elif’s suitor – a character who is, admirably, not simply her seducer. The characters are all brought to life well. The cast excels when it comes to creating the air of a story in progress – the actors bring a sense of urgency to a script that plays with timelessness.

The gravity of the story increases – after all, immigration isn’t a fairy tale. Elif’s attempts to shape narratives (past, present and future) are contradicted by other characters. There’s a sinking feeling around encounters with bureaucracy or attempts at betterment. And there are moments of frustration – including a long fantasia delivered impeccably by Hazemi- that have great energy. It isn’t Ibrahim’s fault that the play becomes predictable. Indeed, it adds weight to his argument. We expect fairy tales to have a happy ending. That this one doesn’t is a bold move.

Until 5 November 2022


Photos by Craig Fuller

“Dear Elizabeth” at Theatro Technis

Theatregoers get used to professionalism and perfection. This blog is full of questions about choices and quibbles about generally (very) good shows. So the idea of a production with the cast coming cold to the script – with different performers every night – has a peculiar appeal. A deliberate move away from polish is novel and oddly exciting.

Visiting North London from the Gate Theatre, Dear Elizabeth is a presentation of letters between American poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. It is love story, of sorts, that takes the decades and complexities of an original romance in its stride. But the performers don’t know what the letters contain or what the ending will be. The result is a sense of adventure – and fun.

Game for the challenge the night I attended were performers Martins Imhangbe and Roberta Livingston. The run will pair an established actor with a recent graduate – a nice idea. But I suspect the readings will generally remind those of us who hate the idea of speaking aloud that actors – through their training – are a different breed! Imhangbe and Livingston were both assured and charismatic, and showing how much they were enjoying themselves proved contagious. Receiving packages of letters – including instructions – and props throughout, they always had the audience on their side.

Of course, there were more stumbles over words than usual. But with beautiful speaking voices and some magical ability to inject emotion into phrases off the bat, we almost need reminding that Imhangbe and Livingston hadn’t seen the text before. And here is where the skill behind the show comes in – that spontaneity is cleverly controlled.

Only the cast is unprepared! The carefully constructed script by Sarah Ruhl bring us close to the poets’ lives and love affairs with ease. All kinds of topics – focusing on health and work – are skilfully covered, providing considerable insight. And Ruhl has a careful eye on the ethical implications of her project with a brilliant section that has Bishop criticising Lowell for using another person’s biography in his art. 

Director Ellen McDougall, with the aid of designers Moi Tran, Jessica Hung Han Yun and Jon Nicholls (set, lighting and sound, respectively) retains a surprising degree of control. Paying special attention to the pace of the performance, factoring in time for the actors to work out what the hell they do next, without pausing the action, is brilliantly done. 

The performers and audience are together in taking cues at the same time – the music and lighting point us towards responses simultaneously. The concept behind Dear Elizabeth only goes part of the way to ensure the evening is a success. But making theatre so immediate – so in the moment – is especially timely after we’ve missed the stage for so long. The show also reminds us how varied the talents behind any production are. And I hope all involved take this blog as a kind of thank-you letter.

Until 18 September 2021


“Prayer” from the Gate Theatre

Hands up, I like theatre sets that are expensive, literally flashy and preferably moving. But this online project from award-winning designer Rosie Elnile is impressive for the opposite reasons. From her work with Ellen McDougall in Notting Hill, Elnile has taken the lockdown as an opportunity. And that’s the first recommendation to check out her project.

Creating a digital space to explore and enjoy, Elnile takes us into her thinking about set design with a collection of writings, poems and pictures that have inspired her, along with commentary to listen to, provoke and educate. The thinking is deep, questioning the fundamentals and ramifications of her discipline.

It is striking, and topical, how concerned with the broadest of cultural trends and theories Elnile is. Also, how politically correct. The later isn’t intended to be derogatory… why wouldn’t you want to be right about politics? The environment and all manner of power structures are considered as Elnile makes structures of her own. The concerns are eye-opening, if anxiety producing. The happier point is that Elnile’s practice is energised by the problems. There is woe… but get up and go, too.

The project is original: Elnile is quick to describe Prayer as unfinished and clear that the work shows “impossible models”. And we’re used to perfection in the theatre! But both factors engender idealism and new thinking, centring on the process of making rather than an outcome. Prayer becomes a personal piece: Elnile’s artworks are presented and there’s a strong sense of commitments and passions.

Among all the caveats and concerns – which taught me a deal – there’s one point I’d take issue with. Describing prayer as a “kind of surrender” is interesting. But is Elnile doing justice to her achievements? As well as prayers of submission, there are also prayers of resolution. It is clear Elnile can problematise, with a steely eye on history and politics. But there is also resolve… for the future. The idea that design should facilitate care and compassion proves, well, exciting. The tone of the piece is meditative, but it is also motivating.

Until 24 July 2020


“Suzy Storck” from the Gate Theatre

It’s never comfortable to fall back on critical clichés, especially when a show is kindly offered during current circumstances, but one is applicable to this production. Although its merits are clear, Magali Mougel’s play, rendered into English by Chris Campbell, is surely lost in translation.

As the titular character struggles with her claustrophobic life – and three children she never wanted to have – there’s a strong tension between post-natal depression and, well, depression full stop. Such a bold look at the expectations and “obligations” women face is bracing. The outcome is not for the faint of heart. And, if the plot is simple, the play’s structure enlivens it enough.

The title role provides a strong part for Caoilfhionn Dunne, who grabs it for its considerable worth and doesn’t allow excuses for her character’s actions. While the role of her husband is less well written, Jonah Russell makes him intriguing. Director Jean-Pierre Baro has clearly worked hard on the scenes of the couple together and these provide highlights.

It’s with two accompanying characters that cracks start to show. Kate Duchêne gets the chance to shine when she performs as Suzy’s infuriated and vicious mother, Madame Storck. But when Duchêne also narrates, and is joined in this task by Theo Solomon, the play’s style starts to grate. Although both Duchêne and Solomon have a strong stage presence, it isn’t clear what these roles add.

Baro’s production has atmosphere (aided by some strong lighting design from Christopher Nairne) and there’s a great moment where the audience helps clear up kids’ toys. But Mougel’s obsession with routine, reflected in quantifying action and an interesting take on muscle memory, leads to too much repetition. The only scene with any humour is of a job interview (another small role that Duchêne does well with), and the constant use of the characters’ full names seems a puzzling affectation. The strange staccato delivery of some lines, presumably also linked to an obsession with repetition, is arresting but again overused and effortful. Suzie Storck ends up intense but also, painfully, self-conscious.

Until 30 June 2020


“The Human Voice” at the Gate Theatre

Sarah Beaton’s design for this new version of Jean Cocteau’s play sets the audience outside the action. We view the exterior of a woman’s flat and glimpse her inside; brilliantly conveying the piece’s novel construction and its theme of isolation. For The Human Voice is only half a conversation, a telephone call between two lovers breaking up when we hear only one. And although just half of the story is heard, that’s more than equal to making this show a must see.

Just how we hear the one-sided story is the production’s next smart move. Headphones are worn throughout by each audience member. Masterminded by Mike Winship, there’s a creepy quality to the technology. Simultaneously increasing intimacy, it also distances us: we can hear every breath, including recollections of the couple’s closest moments. But is this a crossed line we’re eavesdropping on? Or are we the person on the other end of the line being spoken to?

So far, so clever. Underneath these flashy touches is solid work on the text and direction – both from Daniel Raggett. A whole play with Cocteau’s concept, even if only an hour long, must pose peculiar problems, far more than a regular monologue, for its solo star. Tension is the key, a note taken by the performer Leanne Best, who plunges us into her character’s anxiety with frightening efficiency. When the call becomes interrupted, her panic is contagious. As lies and truths fall over one another, Best never loses her grip.

Raggett takes care not to overstress any modern updating to this 1930 play – he doesn’t need to, we’re surely all aware of our reliance on our phones – a temptation many theatre makers would fall for. To see the complications of the “invisible line” that the technology creates in such detail is salutary. To make a drama of such intensity, so full of forensic insight and fundamental truths, is exciting. High quality work all around – pick up your phone and book a ticket.

Until 6 October 2018


Photo by Ikin Yum

“Diary Of A Madman” at the Gate Theatre

Al Smith’s play, inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s short story, is a triumphant commission from the Gate, already praised for its premiere at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. Using schizophrenia to touch on plenty of issues, the play’s often very funny humour turns on a knife (well, a screwdriver) to create something truly gripping. Christopher Haydon’s direction is swift and sure, while a strong cast is clearly determined to make the most of this bracing piece.

Smith’s updating of the story is a neat affair. Set at the Forth Bridge, our hero, Pop Sheeran, is the latest in a family tasked with continually repainting the national monument, now owned by a global corporation. Times are changing. Liam Brennan takes the lead, giving a well-paced performance as an appealing figure with a  movingly delusional mental illness.

Talk of identity, national and professional, is instigated by the arrival of a young Englishman (Guy Clark does a super job here), which might feel contrived and portentous but isn’t. Modern life and sexual politics are quickly addressed, yet there’s real insight. If there are routes that could be explored further, credit to Smith for staying so evenly on track.

Lois Chimimba and Louise McMenemy
Lois Chimimba and Louise McMenemy

Firmly rooting the play in a community works wonders. This is a family drama as well. Deborah Arnott contributes immeasurably to a convincing portrait of marriage as Pop’s wife. Louise McMenemy brings depth to her role as their daughter. A neighbour and friend, a part to which Lois Chimimba brings hugely confident comic timing, gives us two young girls growing up – their sassy dialogue is a delight.

Laughter and insanity isn’t a new combination. Smith highlights discomfort about the connection but, more, utilises the humour impressively. A puppet of Greyfriars Bobby rewrites a tourist legend in a creepily memorable comedy scene. And, at the risk of too many spoilers, the finale at a fancy dress party themed on Scottish heroes is a damn clever move. The path towards Pop’s breakdown is so skilfully written, it’s as pleasurable as it is painful to watch.

Until 24 September 2016


Photos by Iona Firouzabadi

“The Chronicles Of Kalki” at the Gate Theatre

Aditi Brennan Kapil’s play is a teenage drama with an unusual twist: Kalki, a new arrival at school, might just be the tenth incarnation of Vishnu. When she disappears just as mysteriously as she arrived, a police investigation ensues, creating an intriguing and entertaining piece that’s easy to recommend.

The Chronicles of Kalki at the Gate Theatre. Angela Terence (Girl One), Amrita Acharia (Kalki), Jordan Loughran (Girl Two). Photo credit - Helen Murray (4)
Angela Terence, Amrita Acharia and Jordan Loughran

With taut direction by Alex Brown, the chronicles zip along with humour, mystery and edginess. Kalki takes her schoolmates shoplifting and to a house party, injecting danger and a confidence into their lives that inspire a renegade status. She’s not the kind of girl you’d want you daughter to hang out with, but she’s hard to resist. If, as in my school, religious instruction was entirely C of E, this “Hindu window” can be a little confusing but it’s always interesting.

Engaging, well-performed roles secure the work. Angela Terence and Jordan Loughran play Kalki’s young friends: their relationship convincing in its insecurity. A capable Trevor Michael Georges is the amiable policeman tasked with questioning the girls about Kalki’s disappearance and he serves as a foil to their youth. Appropriately, Amrita Acharia is the centre of attention, giving a divine performance: sexy and dangerous, elemental and charismatic. A skittish short play, with dialogue as mercurial as its title character, The Chronicles of Kalki are more convincing than you’d think possible, creating a rich and memorable evening.

Until 31 January 2015


Photos by Helen Murray

“The Body of an American” at the Gate Theatre

The Body of an American, which opened last night at the Gate Theatre, is an intriguing docudrama. Written by Dan O’Brien, it explores his friendship with the war reporter and photographer Paul Watson. Focusing on Watson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a butchered American soldier in Mogadishu in 1993, O’Brien’s questioning of the older man’s motivation is matched by an examination of his own life and work.

The play and production are ingenious. William Gaminara and Damien Molony perform as Paul and Dan, but they also share each other’s lines (this works better than it sounds), as well as taking on a host of minor roles. Performed in traverse, photographs by both men are projected and create a companion dialogue.

While impeccably directly by the talented James Dacre, the piece comes perilously close to being overwhelming. What makes it so absorbing is that it seems such a collaboration between writer and subject. The latter’s memoir is credited as an inspiration and his voice is rendered so convincingly by O’Brien that he almost becomes dominant. But it’s really two stories. O’Brien reveals much of himself: like his friend he is haunted by events, and he skilfully creates an uneasy question as to the reliability of his ‘reporting’.

The terrifying events and atrocities that make up Watson’s work naturally make better drama. The fact that the stakes are so different are always acknowledged – think Hemingway meets Henry James – but the imbalance between the jobs leaves you questioning your own position. O’Brien’s struggle to make sense of Watson’s life, and make a play about it, creates a link with us all. His blend of passion and perspicacity makes this an unusual play that’s well worth watching.

Until 14 February 2014


Photo by Simon Dutson

Written 21 January 2014 for The London Magazine

“Dances of Death” at the Gate Theatre

Watching the intricacies of close relationships has an extra charge in the wonderful intimacy of the Gate Theatre. Opening last night, Dances of Death, shows us a marriage long disintegrated into a conjugal competition that is sure to provoke any audience. Howard Brenton’s new version of Strindberg’s influential classic condenses two plays into one evening to create a riveting night of theatre.

At first it seems as if we’re in for a comedy, as Edgar and his wife of 30 years, Alice, bluntly admit their misery, and settle down to a squabbling card game that neither enjoys – they have other games to play of a more sinister kind. Forced to join them is Kurt (Christopher Ravenscroft), whose crime of being matchmaker to the pair is something they have never forgiven him for.

Michael Pennington and Linda Marlowe establish the main characters with skilful speed. Their continuing contest is convincing, despite obscure motivations and bizarre behaviour. Pennington is marvellous at the captain of a military camp on a remote island; an impressive fabulator, rolling his eyes in a drunken stupor, and a boorish bully with a mischievous edge. Best of all, his depiction of physical illness is superb. Marlowe has a harder task, with a more ambiguous character whose past as an actress gives the whole piece a theatrical air. The performance fits the role, but director Tom Littler shows a questionable bravery in allowing some hands-on-forehead histrionics.

Poor Kurt’s punishment continues into the second play. It’s here that the production is most successful. As Edgar and Alice’s child, performed with a knowing theatricality that makes her very much her mother’s daughter, Eleanor Wyld makes a believable temptress. The innocent “sheep” now is Kurt’s son (a moving performance from Edward Franklin) and as the constraints in their society start to reveal themselves more clearly through the young couple’s relationship, the play starts to matter to us more. Littler’s pacing is bold and James Perkins’ design utilises Strindberg’s paintings to great effect.

It’s still a struggle to really appreciate Edgar and Alice’s relationship – a final admission of affection seems dismissed. The most interesting relationship in Dances of Death is that between its authors – this new version sees two writers, both with very individual voices, somewhat at odds. Brenton’s muscular approach matches Strindberg’s radicalism in many ways and both are visionary artists (interestingly, like Strindberg, Brenton also paints), but Strindberg’s politics are not well served. The writers’ union, like the one on stage, seems uncomfortable, though never less than fascinating.

Until 6 July 2013


Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 7 June 2013 for The London Magazine