Tag Archives: Hampstead Theatre

“The Memory of Water” at the Hampstead Theatre

As part of the “Hampstead Originals” season, celebrating significant pieces that started off at the venue, this new production reminds us why Shelagh Stephenson’s 1996 play is popular. A satisfying comedy drama and a gift to performers, The Memory of Water has plenty to please.

Within the scenario of three sisters together before their mother’s funeral, Stephenson injects a surprising amount of comedy with a superb ear for dialogue and strong characters. Take your pick from doctor Mary, health food entrepreneur Teresa or the troubled, younger, Catherine. Each has an appeal. And there are three top notch performances to enjoy – from Laura Rogers, Lucy Black and Carolina Main – each a careful detailed study.

The Memory of Water at the Hampstead Theatre
Lucy Black, Carolina Main and Laura Rogers

There are good jokes, inappropriate reactions and a down to earth humour that is great fun. Stephenson examines sibling relations with confidence and risqué insight. Meanwhile the theme of memory proves stimulating (if not particularly subtle when it comes to Mary’s research into amnesia) as the sisters’ recollections of their past, and their mother, diverge.

After the interval, The Memory of Water gets bolder and darker. Painful truths and shocking secrets are revealed. The grief within the play becomes multi-layered. And we start to take Catherine’s health problems more seriously. Harsh words are spoken and the action is frequently gripping.

It is with quieter moments that director Alice Hamilton’s command of the play is clearest. While the comedy is strong (with Catherine’s tantrums, Teresa’s neurosis and Mary’s deadpan lines) it’s the pacing of more dramatic scenes that really impresses. Ever alert to the space the text needs, and aided by Johanna Town’s lighting design, Hamilton guides the audience magnificently. Given Sam Yates’ success with the venue’s previous show, Hampstead Theatre is clearly a home for directing talent.

The Memory of Water at the Hampstead Theatre
Kulvinder Ghir and Adam James

While there’s no doubt that The Memory of Water is a play focused on women, and their relationships with one another, Stephenson deals just as well with the men we meet. Indeed, even the girls’ father, long dead, is a vivid presence. Again, there are great roles for Teresa’s husband and Mary’s married lover that Kulvinder Ghir and Adam James do well with.

A final strength with The Memory of Water comes from the ghostly role of the girls’ mother, Vi. Played by Lizzy McInnerny, with a particularly fine study of her character’s accent, her interactions with Rogers were my favourite scenes. Vi is far more than a foil for her daughter: gifted her own voice, showing us a previous generation, and adding a twist to what we have seen. Vi is funny and hurt while her maternal legacy and suffering from Alzheimer’s takes us to the heart of the play’s theme. Stephenson’s description of the cruel disease, that Vi feels “broken into islands”, is brilliant and moving. As Vi’s influence on her daughters becomes clearer, McInnerny becomes magisterial. Despite Mary’s request, Vi is “never” really going to leave her daughter; like the play, she is a woman to remember.

Until 16 October 2021


Photos by Helen Murray

“The Two Character Play” at Hampstead Theatre

What a play. This late work from Tennessee Williams, which premiered at Hampstead back in 1967, is a mind-blowing exploration of fear and metatheatricality. And what a production. Director Sam Yates and accomplished performers Kate O’Flynn and Zubin Varla command this hugely complex script. Yates makes a strong argument for Williams’ vision and his precocious eccentricities, making them theatrically compelling and appropriately terrifying.

The scenario is far from simple. Two actor siblings, struggling in many ways, perform a play within a play. Felice and Clare are vivid creations, like the roles they adopt. But as The Two Character Play we watch carries on, it reflects, mimics and then – maybe – shapes their lives. Felice has written the piece, but it is changing as they they both perform it. Oh, and it has no end. Don’t worry, nobody is more confused than the characters themselves.

The brother and sister in the play are trapped at home – I did wonder if the play was chosen for staging during lockdown – while Felice and Clare are trapped in the theatre (quite literally). The claustrophobia is intense and grows as we learn about all four characters. Trauma and phobia multiply. The use of stage – which seems simply huge one moment and confining the next – is brilliant.

Kate O’Flynn and Zubin Varla

Williams’ language is a wonder. The poetic imagery, so full of the senses, means some lines stun. And the metatheatrical references, handled with bravado, include addressing the “stranger than strange” audience and speaking stage directions out loud. Clare’s live ‘edit’ of the script is signalled by a key played on the piano; O’Flynn even approaching the instrument becomes charged.

Yates brings just the right amount of lucidity to proceedings. With themes common to Williams’ plays, there’s a suggestion of self-parody that is often funny. O’Flynn has an exquisite delivery of some deadpan lines. Best of all, a sense of spontaneity is injected into a script that you could easily argue is contrived. Rather, the script itself seems alive!

Make no mistake – the mood is forbidding. Williams used dreams in his work throughout his life. But here we have a nightmare. Fear of performing is only the start as the characters’ lives, and their show, descend into darkness. Improvisations are fraught as the story unfolds to becomes more and more disturbing. Varla makes Felice a hugely sympathetic character – his performance is deeply moving. But the show is downright scary with a last half hour full of tension… and a gun.

All this drama is brought to the stage magnificently by Yates. With all manner of lighting and sound effects (Lee Curran and Dan Balfour) along with live video recording and projections (Akhila Krishnan). And Rosanna Vize’s set is perfect for the destabilising, fluid script. The Two Character Play is like being inside the minds of several mad people. Taking us into that condition makes unforgettable, amazing theatre.

Until 28 August 2021


Photos by Marc Brenner

“The Dumb Waiter” at the Hampstead Theatre

First praise here goes to whoever prepared this venue for a socially distanced audience. Instead of depressing signs telling you where not to sit, photographs from previous performances are used on empty seats. What a lovely, colourful, touch. A nod to heritage is appropriate, given Hampstead Theatre’s 60th anniversary celebrations, which this Harold Pinter classic is a part of. And I get to say that I sat next to Anna Maxwell Martin in the theatre… kind of.

Of course, any theatre deserves praise for putting on a show at the moment. But getting to see this short piece, between long lockdowns and tier adjustments, is especially welcome as it is directed by the talented Alice Hamilton. It’s a story of hired killers, waiting for… something. Hamilton’s direction is confident and expert, respecting Pinter’s nuance and drama and appreciative of the playwright but not intimidated by him.

Shane Zaza and Alec Newman in The Dumb Waiter at Hampstead Theatre credit Helen Maybanks
Shane Zaza and Alec Newman

Hamilton has secured fine performances from a talented duo: Alec Newman plays “senior partner” Ben, seemingly in charge of Shane Zaza’s Gus. Seemingly, as he knows as little about what is going on as his more anxious colleague. Through their skilled performances, the audience shares their confusion. A vague sense that whatever organisation they work for, and the enigmatic Wilson who is in charge, is being “tightened up” is compounded by bizarre messages the two men receive. What’s going on, and what’s happened previously, is never fully revealed, but glances at the men’s history prove chilling.

The production never overplays the more surreal touches from Pinter. That someone is playing “games” with Ben and Gus becomes more sinister as a result. The sense of menace is aided by James Perkins’ set, the “windowless dump” all action takes place in. We’ve all spent a little too long indoors lately, but under Hamilton’s steely control the claustrophobic tension in The Dumb Waiter builds marvellously – this is a director very much in charge.

Until 20 January 2020


“#AIWW: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei” from #HampsteadTheatreAtHome

This collaboration with China’s most famous contemporary artist, Ai Weiwei, marked something of coup for Hampstead Theatre back in 2013. Adapting the account in Barnaby Martin’s book, Hanging Man, playwright Howard Brenton’s clearly political and cleverly dramatic account of Weiwei’s Kafkaesque detention in 2011 is surprisingly entertaining and serves its subject admirably.

Weiwei is the star of the piece – convincingly so – and the show makes a terrific role for Benedict Wong, who conveys the artist’s magnetism perfectly, while also making him an approachable figure. Aided by Christopher Goh, Andrew Koji, Orion Lee and David Lee-Jones, as those who imprison him, his captors are given an identity and humanity, while the discussions about his art are exciting.

Director James MacDonald works hard to inject energy – this is, after all, a show about a man locked in a room. But the idea behind Ashley Martin Davis’ set – a giant packing case that might hold artwork, with accompanying supernumeraries and crew acting as unconvincing galleristas – feels unnecessary. Likewise, touches of the metatheatrical are forced: the suggestion that the imprisonment becomes the artist’s “greatest work”, not lost on those in power during a rare moment of perspicacity, is too unsubtle. And scenes that show the politicians behind events, with uncomfortably sinister roles for Junix Inocian and David Tse, are low points. These scenes are a marked contrast to the authenticity Wong and the source material bring.

The surprise comes with the humour in the piece. There are plenty of laughs at how crazed Weiwei’s interrogations were. Accused of murder, immorality, but ultimately being a “swindler”, it’s almost a shame those imprisoning him aren’t given a stronger argument… for the sake of the drama rather than Weiwei, of course. The tension of his awful imprisonment is conveyed, and Wong does very well with this. And Brenton gives the interrogations an impressive poetic touch, as repeated accusations contain a rhyme if no reason. But it’s Weiwei’s cool spirit – best reflected in that wry humour – that shows him unbroken and inspirational.


Until 3 May 2020

Photo by Stephen Cummiskey

“Drawing the Line” from #HampsteadTheatreAtHome

The history and politics of the Indian Partition may be messy as well as tragic, but this play about the five weeks leading up to independence by Howard Benton, first seen in 2014, is a neat one. The “impossible task” of dividing a subcontinent and the creation of Pakistan is made into a traditional, efficient and fascinating drama.

The sensible move is to make such a global event a personal story, focusing on Cyril Radcliffe the judge who literally drew the lines on the map. It makes a starring role that (the sadly late) Tom Beard shines with and gives the audience an effective focus. Beard makes a fine narrator with a character that’s engaging and self-deprecating. There’s a believable touch of ego behind a likeable man. That this unusual innocent abroad knows “bugger all about India” is historically awful, but it endears him as a dramatic character. As pressure mounts Beard gets better and better, showing Radcliffe’s vulnerability and determination. As it dawns on him that that he is a “patsy”, and a lonely one at that, we are shown an honourable man it is hard not to feel for.

There are problems with the other characters – a collection of famous historical figures – that the cast struggles with valiantly. While the future Pakistani leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Silas Carson, pictured top) comes across as too manic, Indian’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru is too much the consummate politician. Louis Mountbatten, last Viceroy of India, and his wife are given a lot of work to do and, while Andrew Havill and Lucy Black give strong performances, it’s difficult to care about their characters. The staff helping these (too self-consciously) political giants prove more interesting: there is strong work from Nikesh Patel and Brendan Patricks, whose characters work for Radcliffe but have partisan agendas and follow their own consciences.

Benton generally keeps anecdote to a minimum with some surprisingly light touches. With Howard Davies’ skilful direction, the action is clear and interest never flags. Davies also excels at creating a sense of tension with minimal staging or effects. The only slip comes with Radcliffe’s reading of the Bhagavad Gita, a potentially interesting thread that seems bungled, with a brief appearance by Krishna himself.

Understandably, Drawing the Line struggles for a conclusion. The aim of an “honourable end to Empire”, given hindsight, can’t create much tension. But Brenton isn’t scared of scandal or conspiracy and he uses both well. There’s the militant Gandhi and the Mountbattens’ private lives to spice things up. How much both really influenced or could have changed events seems open questions: flippant as both titbits may appear, they make for good theatre.


Available until 19 April 2020

Photos by Catherine Ashmore

“Wonderland” from #HampsteadTheatreAtHome

This second online offering from Hampstead Theatre shows Britain in a different kind of crisis than the coronavirus we currently face – The Miners’ Strike of 1983. Although it’s always clear where the show’s heart rests, presenting events from the perspective of both workers and government creates problems. But playwright Beth Steel’s achievement is to convey a sense of those times as epoch making, giving the history a palpable urgency in a play full of passion.

There’s real heart in Steel’s depictions of the miners and it makes the story engrossing. Starting off slow, showing work underground, during the strike both tension and emotion build well. Performances from Paul Brennen as the ‘Colonel’ of a mine and a pitman who disagrees with the strike, played by Gunnar Cauthery, are highlights. If the roles of two young apprentices, Jimmy and Malcolm, seem less secured, with their motivations and characters more confused, there are further strong performances from Ben-Ryan Davies and David Moorst. Steel is strong at showing a blend of comradery, with humour and machismo, alongside revealing the craft behind the graft. It makes Wonderland powerful stuff.

When it comes to the politicians and businessmen on the other side of the strike, what is mined is conspiracy rather than character. The result is a selection of stark portrayals that, even if they are accurate, mean performances struggle. Michael Cochrane has a good go as Ian ‘Butcher’ MacGregor, Chairman of the Coal Board, which is an interesting role, surely written as too naïve. The parts for Transport Secretary Nicholas Ridley and that of David Hart, whose role in events is understandably confusing, are too villainous (likewise any police shown). It’s left to the ‘wet’ Energy Secretary Peter Walker to present any kind of balance and, while Andrew Havill, who takes the part, does a good job, he isn’t given enough to work with.

There are moments when director Edward Hall could help more: a scene of political debate disappears into the pit as it’s getting interesting and a tragic finale, which enforces the dangers of mining and has some of Steel’s finest writing, is sacrificed for the sake of action. Yet Hall deals with all the incident Steel crams in – and it’s a lot – with commendable efficiently. The set from Ashley Martin Davis, mining lifts and all, is excellent and well used. There’s valuable support from lighting designer Peter Mumford and composer Simon Slater, whose ‘theme tune’ for the miners is highly effective. The commitment behind the show shines out as the injustice of “proud working men treated like dogs”, victims of ideology and political machination, are exposed with conviction.


Available until 12 April 2020

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Wild” from #HampsteadTheatreAtHome

The first of three free streamed recordings on offer, Mike Bartlett’s 2016 play takes inspiration from Edward Snowden and revelations of government spying on its citizens. This superb play shows Bartlett’s characteristically calculated skill and cool intelligence.

Handled impeccably by director James Macdonald, for a while, Wild looks like a modest two-hander. The Snowden character, renamed Andrew, meets his contact from what we assume is WikiLeaks in a Russian hotel room. What happens to a man right after he becomes the world’s biggest ever whistleblower? It’s a smart little twist and what follows is often clever, and funny, provoking plenty to debate.

The next move is to make ‘George’, sent to represent Julian Assange, quite bonkers. Andrew’s rescuer arrives in tottering high heels and with plenty of provisos, making a great role for Caolifhionn Dunne, who gets a lot of laughs. If the performance seems a bit broad on a screen, it’s clear it would inject energy on a static stage.

Questioning Andrew’s actions and motivations, playing with the espionage surrounding the situation (which also introduces considerable threat) continues when another George appears. This time played by John Mackay, whose dour presentation is just as good as Dunne’s mania. The play takes on a surreal paranoia with simple effectiveness. 

In the role of Andrew, Jack Farthing’s response shows how carefully his performance has been prepared; increasing the panic nicely and adding an intriguing depth to the role. Yet the play still has an economy to it that’s impressive. Only later does extravagance arrive.

Bartlett is not a playwright shy of exaggeration and this comes into its own in Wild. Conspiracy theories pile up, moving tantalisingly close to spiralling out of control, and, as the arguments become more abstract, Bartlett’s tone turns impassioned and aggressive. Both of the Georges become demonic figures, whose power is undoubted, while Farthing makes his character’s lot lamentable. 

For final praise, there’s a plot spoiler. Designer Miriam Buether (with a consulting illusionist, Ben Hart, also credited) provides a set with a surprise – it collapses and the floor rotates 90 degrees. As a literal metaphor for Andrew’s disorientation it may not be subtle – but it’s brilliant theatre and leaves a stunning impression.


Available until 5 April 2020

Photos by Stephen Cummiskey

"I and You" at the Hampstead Theatre via Instagram

While not being able to visit the theatre, or blog about it, is low on the list of most people’s problems right now, any glimpse at a big part of my normal life is welcome. I’m grateful to Hampstead Theatre for streaming this play, first seen on its stage last October, and a chance to get as close to theatre as is currently possible.

Lauren Gunderson’s two-hander has its teenage characters occupied with death and art. Caroline is waiting for a liver transplant, trapped in her room for health reasons, while Anthony from her school is assigned to work on a poetry project with her. It’s serious stuff, but not as heavy as it sounds. Gunderson has a nice way of lightening the themes with some surprisingly gentle comedy. 

The performers, Maisie Williams and Zach Wyatt, are good with the jokes and Gunderson’s strong characters are a gift to them. Williams makes Caroline’s self-definition as “small and mighty” believable – the character is abrasive and obnoxious, but above all appealingly honest. It’s no small achievement to see past the illness to get a well-rounded role: her hatred of the “kittens and winky faces” people send her on social media, as well as her obvious intelligence, come through. And surely you have to admire someone who names their cat Bitter. Wyatt has a harder job but also does well: Anthony’s enthusiasm for the poetry of Walt Whitman feels forced, but it’s easy to see how it would have worked better on a stage than on a screen. For a lot of the piece, there’s too much of the teacher about him for someone who is supposed to be Caroline’s peer.

There are other problems, although all are mitigated by Edward Hall’s skilful direction. Claiming I and You is too shouty might be subjective, but there are clunky touches around sudden love and pain. We can pass over Caroline’s knowledge of a poem she supposedly hasn’t read, but her enthusiasm waxes and wanes too abruptly. And, while the budding friendship between the two youngsters is mostly touching, a potential romance feels superfluous. The play’s twist, which has potential, arrives a little too late and feels underexplored.

Nonetheless, this is a work of focus and skill. Gunderson has a strong ear for speech. The kids’ project is on pronouns, and proves thought-provoking, while Caroline’s dialogue, with its “prefaces” and “postscripts”, is fascinating. While there’s plenty of talk of collages, and how strange they can be, Gunderson’s work is far from bricolage and all the better for it. Caroline’s artwork focuses on close-up photography – the beauty that most of us miss – a quality shared with detailed moments in the text. I look forward to seeing Gunderson’s work live at some point and promise I’ll attend whatever show she, or Hampstead Theatre, has on as soon as I can.

Available @hampstead_theatre on Instagram until Sunday 20 March 2020

Photo by Manual Harlan

“The Phlebotomist” at the Hampstead Theatre

There is a great excitement around playwright Ella Road and her first impressive play. After a sell-out premiere last year and a transfer from the venue’s studio space into the main house – with an Olivier nomination under its belt – congratulations are in order. Road’s ear for dialogue is sure and the production strong. It’s a shame that control of the subject matter is lost in this sci-fi romance. Ultimately, the genre ends up manipulating the writer, rather than the other way around.

The scenario is that a system of genetic ratings based on blood tests changes our not-too-distant future. Road has no shortage of ideas, and a series of films crowds the show with news reports or fake adverts. But none of this is particularly novel or hard to foresee, so the play as a whole becomes predictable. While the testing is initially to assist in healthcare, its application in jobs, dating and then eugenics appears quickly. Each could be the focus of a play in its own right but, crammed together, the topics feel thinly explored. There are too many questions and some silly inconsistencies, while tacking on environmental concerns doesn’t help either. There’s a reason sci-fi has so much detail – without the geeky touches, the future world we find ourselves in fails to convince.

Road escalates outrage at a steady rate but with little change of pace in the structure of her scenes, so the show feels slow. By the time we’ve got the legalisation of “post-natal abortion”, attempts to challenge the audience feel more than desperate – they are naïve. Tasteless or provocative? That might depend on your view of human nature. But it seems fair to suggest it’s a dramatic own goal to curtail a plot about the fight again “rateism” so quickly. Only one figure (and a couple of news snippets) attempts to challenge this nightmarish system. A subplot about dealing in blood is carefully contained as a matter of financial corruption. The characters are worryingly lacking in morality or even agency.

For all the problems with the plot, the production is good. Road benefits from ambitious direction from Sam Yates and a superb cast that laps up her well-written lines. Mark Lambert makes for an intriguing impartial observer in his role as a hospital porter. Kiza Deen does sterling work as a protestor who develops Hodgkin disease during the course of the play. The Phlebotomist is essentially a love story between Angus – played by Rory Fleck Byrne, who reveals his character marvellously – and Bea. She holds the occupation that gives the play its title, and the role shows Road’s strengths. A brilliant performance from Jade Anouka – who demands both our sympathy and revulsion – makes her the highlight of the night.

Until 20 April 2019


Photo by Marc Brenner

“Cost of Living” at the Hampstead Theatre

Edward Hall’s venue has a strong reputation for bringing American plays to our shore. Taking directorial charge of this one is clever move, as is getting Martyna Majok’s play over here so quickly – it only won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama last year – because the piece hits the jackpot. It’s the kind of play you really want to win big.

As a story focusing on people with disabilities, Cost of Living answers an urgent need for diversity and representation on the stage. Nobody should knock that, but Hall also knows a fundamentally strong play when he sees one. Following John and Ani, who both need constant care, it is true that some issues raised about the health system and class are more relevant to an American audience… one hopes. But this is a play so full of life, of pain and of love, that it is impossible not to get caught up in.

Jack Hunter and Emily Barber

First taking John, a wealthy grad student, performed superbly by Jack Hunter, and his carer Jess, their scenes are full of wit and tension with the non-disabled Jess as the focus. Her poverty and personality are conveyed with great skill by Emily Barber, who clearly appreciates how Majok is guiding the audience.

An even more complex relationship is that between Eddie (Adrian Lester) and his ex-wife Ani, who was injured in a car crash. The story of her death prologues the play, with a moving meditation on grief that could stand alone as a brilliant monologue. The balance between “glum” events and the play’s humour shows Majok’s skills further. The dialogue throughout is stunning in its naturalism. For a conclusion, both Lester and Barber excel again as the hope that the play never ceases to include is allowed as a final note.

The central scene, which I’d put money on as being the germ of the piece, is something else. Ani (played marvellously by Katy Sullivan) is being bathed by Eddie. Starting with an intense intimacy, this is a sex scene the likes of which you’ve probably never witnessed before on stage. The tenderness is moving, the atmosphere electric and the insight profound. To embody her theme that the smallest mistakes can change – and end – lives, Majok then produces a shocker. Truly, I’ve never heard such gasps from an audience. An unforgettable moment of theatre is what gets you awards, and it makes Cost of Living a priceless play.

Until 9 March 2019


Photo by Manuel Harlan