This debut play from actor Ian Hallard is a charming comedy about love in lockdown. As the middle-aged Rosalind and Richard get to know one another, over Zoom chats and then a drunken dinner IRL, we get to fall in love with two quirky characters who both have enormous appeal. And not just because Rosalind wants to be a National Trust volunteer, which makes her my kind of woman. Hallard has enough observations on our times, on middle-class life and on modern romance to make the show jolly. Awkward chuckles abound – the two never catch each other’s references, and there are laugh-out-loud jokes about aubergines and Arlene Foster (now there’s a combination).
The show is driven by the fantastic chemistry between Hallard and his co-star Sara Crowe. I can pat myself on the back for praising their previous performance in the show Tonight at 8.30. With director Khadifa Wong’s help, the performers’ generosity to one another is clear and aids the show immeasurably. Hallard has written two convincing back stories (that win considerable sympathy) but it is Crowe who gets to surprise. Rosalind is a “late starter” with a little ruthless streak that makes a good twist for such a gentle comedy. Her journey of self-discovery is portrayed with such skill that the play’s tidy ending leaves you wishing her well for adventures that are sure to follow.
Theatre can never have enough thrillers for my liking so playwright Christopher Adams’ trip into my favourite genre is welcome. Setting his murder mystery amidst the sleazy ‘chem sex’ scene makes it topical. Touching themes of addiction and ageism make it serious. And movement director Natasha Harrison’s work should please a theatre crowd. But at heart Tumulus is a good thriller; with a solid plot, that unfolds nicely, and satisfying twists and turns, it makes for a hugely entertaining hour.
Let’s not knock the show’s arty touches. Sound effects are mostly provided by the cast – radio drama style – while minimal props are moved around balletically. It all adds atmosphere, by turns appropriately noirish and drug induced, as well as giving the cast a chance to shine. And director Matt Steinberg never allows the powerful sound and lighting design (from Christopher Nairne and Nick Manning respectively) to overwhelm the story. A dead body has been found on Hampstead Heath, dismissed by all as an overdose – part of an epidemic affecting young gay men – but the victim’s kind-of-boyfriend, Anthony, has his suspicions.
The clever twist lies with our unusual amateur detective who drives the show with his narration. Anthony, played with vigour and intelligence by Ciarán Owens, has demons and flaws as all sleuthing heroes must and they are depicted viscerally here. Addicted to drugs, slowly realizing how much the young man he was occasionally seeing meant to him, hallucinations are the instigation to his investigation. Ghostly visitations add a spooky edge to the show, made effective by the performance from Harry Lister Smith. He plays the ghost of the first victim, another former partner of Antony’s and a further young man in danger, flipping roles with consummate skill. The same technique, and ability, is seen with Ian Hallard’s performance of even more characters as he jumps between being a therapist, different party guests and even a dog walker who found the body. Hallard distinguishes each role carefully and makes the whole thing look effortless thereby aiding Steinberg’s success in keeping the whole show tight and speedy.
There’s still more to praise as Tumulus is also a funny play. Humour and suspense are a tricky combination and Adams does falter at times with a little too much repetition and a search for lyricism he doesn’t quite master. But with keen observations the laughs focusing on London life, which nicely root the action in time and place, are impressive. Hallard has some lovely comic touches and Owens a wryness around his character’s pretentions that adds depth. This take on the gumshoe anti-hero is compulsive stuff with careful nods to tradition that prove witty as well as aiding tension. Adams has a thorough knowledge of the genre – that includes the necessity for novelty – and he delivers. On all counts Tumulus adds up a great show.
On the day of the London marathon, an award for endurance is deserved by director Tom Littler, the mastermind behind this revival of one-act plays by Noël Coward. Presented as three trilogies – that you can happily attend separately and in any order – the chance to see these seldom performed works classes as a Theatrical Event. With nine actors preforming 75 roles, everyone should agree it deserves those capital letters.
The groups differ from Coward’s original selection but still showcase his writing perfectly. As a comedian, Coward is seldom bettered, his plays full of wit and delicious satire driven by great observations. But we also have Coward as a writer of romance, with insight into the power and pain of love. And he’s an artist full of original ideas. Littler’s skill is to treat each text seriously, to understand the complexity of its construction, and every play benefits from this intelligence and respect. See one, or even better see all three; it’s tough to recommend a favourite but here are some highlights based on the groups as titled.
This set stars with a sparkling comedy. Suffice to say the scenario of a group of actors trying to perform as a charity committee is as funny as it sounds. Theatrical back-biting and pretentions abound and nearly every line gets a chuckle. The whole ensemble appears and shows how even their abilities are. In subsequent plays, Boadicea Ricketts and Ben Wiggins fill a variety of smaller parts, but their roles here reveal them both as strong performers.
Musical hall veterans The Red Peppers make an appearance in the second play, the roles are ably performed by Rosemary Ashe and Jeremy Rose. But the piece hasn’t dated as well – a regional variety show isn’t something many people have experienced and it’s unclear how much respect we are supposed to have for our leading couple. But what comes next is unmissable: Still Life is the play that became Brief Encounter. It’s full of familiar characters, jokes and lines. Littler brings an admirable freshness to the piece and garners superb performances from Nick Waring and Miranda Foster as the star-crossed couple who sacrifice passion for the sake of their marriages. The chemistry between the two is so fantastic that it is transporting to watch them.
Waring and Foster flex their comic skills in Ways And Means as a scheming couple down on their luck. It may be slight but it’s still pleasing. Another strong pairing comes with Ian Hallard and Sarah Crowe. First, there’s a take on Brief Encounter that’s purely for comedy with love at first sight, on the dance floor, followed by an oh-so civilised discussion about what to do next and a suitably cynical end.
The confirmation of Hallard and Crowe’s comic skills is clear, but later, in Shadow Play, they perform as a couple with marital problems that tugs at the heart strings. For all the cut-glass accents and wealthy posturing that often gets a laugh, both performers remind us that these are people we can relate to. A love gone cold and a struggle to remember happier times come together in a review of their relationship via a sleeping pill-induced dream that shows a surprisingly surreal Coward. The singing and score are startlingly contemporary. The whole piece is a revelation.
This set boasts two comedies and a fine drama. For Family Album, Coward’s target is the hypocrisy surrounding funerals. Victorian vibes through a stunning wardrobe make it a good place to mention the consistently strong work from costume designer Emily Stuart. The satire is biting and musical director Stefan Bednardczyk serves as a scene-stealing butler. Again, it’s the music Bednardczyk plays that provides the surprise, with songs serving to show snatches of memory and fleeting moods in a bold manner. There’s more comedy with Hands Across the Sea, a personal favourite, where Coward takes aim at the Britishers’ attitude to their own colonial cousins: it’s bright, snappy and eminently quotable.
As a finale, a psychiatrist is driven mad by love in another drama of infidelity that is riven with tension. Foster and Waring are paired again, and the result is explosive. Their intelligent characters are full of “clear cold sense” in a play of surprisingly raw emotion. The unexpected makes for a theme of much presented here. As with all the offerings in Tonight at 8.30,this is a humbling demonstration of Coward’s talents, produced and performed by an impeccable team.
You’d be excused for an arched eyebrow over the revival of Mart Crowley’s inspirational 1968 play. So much has changed since this iconic gay text threw a spotlight on a small section of a marginalised community that the play is bound to feel dated. Thankfully, while some jokes do feel old, a couple inexcusably so, Adam Penford’s pacey revival, with the help of a superb cast, makes this a lively night out that stands up well.
A birthday party is hosted by the initially charming Michael, whose demons get the better of him as he concocts a painful game – forcing people to telephone their one true love – with the seeming aim of making his guests as miserable as he is. Ian Hallard makes the most of this meaty role, showing a vicious edge that is riveting while never alienating the audience.
Hallard’s chemistry with his old roommate Alan, who makes a surprise appearance with predictable comedy results, is well studied. When this closeted character, ably handled by John Hopkins, breaks down it’s still a shock. All the more credit as the conservative fiction Alan hides behind seems especially weak. Both Hopkins and Hallard do well to preserve the drama here.
The unhappy birthday celebrations are for Harold, played by Mark Gatiss, who makes an appearance as the first act closes. Too clever for anybody’s good, especially Michael’s, Harold’s waspish remarks cut deep and Gatiss makes each one go a long way, balancing humour and emotional perception no matter how short each line. It’s a cumbersome role, with touches of a narrator, that’s cleverly made light work of.
As for the rest of the guests, the ensemble is one you would invite to any production. They include a top-notch comedy turn from James Holmes as the effeminate Emory, ably abetted by Bernard (Greg Lockett) and the excellent Daniel Boys as the studious Donald, who superbly anchors the play. A troubled couple, whose affection for one another is sincere, are made convincing by Ben Mansfield and Nathan Nolan. Even Jack Derges as a hustler hired as a present for the night gets laughs out of a slim part.
With the exception of Hallard’s role, all the parts are pretty thin. Crowley’s desire to express a spectrum of characters and opinions gets the better of him and never quite works. More credit to the cast. The plot could be generously described as functional. The production, though, makes the play more than the sum of is parts – full of memorable touches and great laughs – and it’s an achievement worth celebrating.
Last night’s press evening for the Darker Purpose Theatre Company’s King Lear was filled with emotion. It’s a collaboration between young director Lewis Reynolds and seasoned RSC pro David Ryall in the lead role. Sadly, a course of chemotherapy has left the well-respected actor’s memory so affected that he carried a copy of the text as an aid.
Ill health has not diminished Ryall’s commanding stage presence or the wonderful timbre of his voice but it seems unfair to review a performance that was clearly – no matter how brave and generous – an effort. Nonetheless, Reynold’s intelligent production offers much to the discerning theatregoer. The direction is considered and confident and handles staging in the round particularly well. It’s also remarkably calm and quiet, serving as an interesting comparison with the National Theatre’s current blockbuster show.
Reynold’s emphasis is on the “madmen and fools” of the play, and Ryan Wichert stands out as a spirited fool, putting a megaphone to great use, while Dominic Kelly gives a sterling performance as his Edgar takes on the persona of Poor Tom. Tension between these two roles is brought out and it was one of the few productions in which I actually missed the fool after his sudden departure.
Although not all of the performances are as even as might be wished, there’s good work from the wicked sisters Goneril and Regan, with Wendy Morgan developing her role nicely and Nikki Leigh Scott joined in convincing villainy by Ian Hallard as Cornwall.
The production also has the coup of seeing Ryall joined by two of his daughters. Imogen Ryall appears in the small role of the Doctor and Charlie Ryall is Cordelia. Both give understated performances in keeping with the tone of the evening – and powerful as a result. Concern for their father’s health has an extra, unwished for, charge given the circumstances. Sincere wishes for Mr Ryall’s quick recovery.