Tag Archives: Isabella Laughland

“BU21” at the Trafalgar Studios

Stuart Slade’s new play, which has transferred from Theatre 503, imagines the aftermath of a passenger jet shot down over Fulham. Forget the how and why – details given only feed our fears ­– instead this is a long hard look at the effect of trauma on a personal and national level, as a group of survivors meet for therapy sessions and press reporting of events looms large. Frank monologues addressed to the audience contain a brutal, often startling, humour.

When it comes to thinking about our reaction to big events, Slade’s cynicism is refreshing and the lack of sentiment is a worthwhile corrective. The only patriotism here is sham: an opportunist happy with 15 minutes of fame that Graham O’Mara plays and manages to make intriguing despite objectionable arguments. Nobody really recovers from their trauma, a fact that makes three well-written roles for women (with hugely impressive performances from Florence Roberts, Roxana Lupu and Isabella Laughland) all the more moving. Admissions of selfishness bring us close to them. The language of the corporate meeting and the counselling session are both cleverly manipulated for laughs.

Less successfully are the audience’s motives questioned and our prejudices challenged. Why would we watch this ‘misery-porn’? And do we assume a Muslim character (played by Clive Keene, in fine form) is guilty? Bearing the burden here is Alexander Forsyth’s character, a particular obnoxious banker who breaks the fourth wall, haranguing us for buying a ticket in an appropriately overblown manner. Director Dan Pick obliges the pushy aspects of Slade’s writing with lots of raised lights to make sure there’s nowhere for the audience to hide. But the desire to be confrontational creates unconvincing moments. Too many assumptions are made about the audience and twists don’t have the impact wished for.

A lot of BU21 is tough and the manner harsh. Using laughter as the cure for trauma means the jokes are close to the bone. Such humour is revelled in, in keeping with the confrontational spirit of the piece and, while I can’t imagine this would bother Slade, it approaches a word seldom used – tasteless. But for all the flashiness, the combination of calculated insight with strong characters, impeccably performed, makes this a hot and cold affair that intrigues and stimulates.

Until 18 February 2017


Photo by David Monteith-Hodge

“The Same Deep Water As Me” at the Donmar Warehouse

Following the success of Nick Payne’s award-winning Constellations, Josie Rourke, artistic director at the Donmar, has the coup of presenting his new play, The Same Deep Water As Me. Set in a ‘no-win-no-fee’ lawyers’ office in Luton, it’s a departure for the young writer, moving from intimate personal dramas into the wider world of work. Payne tackles big issues with humour and intelligence and deserves great success.

Superbly directed by John Crowley, the play’s plot, an attempt to swindle large companies via insurance claims, serves to explore the theme of lying. The rather desperate Kevin suggests the idea to his old school friend Andrew, who has made good as a lawyer. In a bravura performance, Daniel Mays takes the lead, deceiving his character’s older colleague Barry and renewing an attachment to his first love, now Kevin’s wife, Jennifer (a charming Niky Wardley). Payne’s strong characterisations emerge as they become embroiled in the scam.

There are some marvellous one-liners here, some of the funniest you’ll hear on stage in London at the moment, and the delivery from Marc Wotton’s Mephistophelean Kevin is superb. Nuanced observations on class are used to particularly great effect when a claim is contested in court: Peter Forbes and Monica Dolan play a sleek legal establishment magnificently and Isabella Laughland’s cameo as a lorry driver is arresting (if a shockingly small role for such a talented actress).

Payne’s writing has a strange modesty that makes for a unique voice – a joke denied a punch line, unstated emotions suggested with restraint – and surely many a dramatist would have opted for the more dramatic criminal court instead of a civil one? Playing down has a purpose: raising questions about access to justice is topical but, providing a further satisfying weight, a Kantian universalizability shows that this is deep water we really are all in together.

Until 28 September 2013


Photo by Johan Persson

Written 12 August 2013 for The London Magazine

“Hard Feelings” at the Finborough Theatre

The Finborough Theatre is very much on trend with its latest production: Hard Feelings by Doug Lucie taps into current interest in the 1980s, the latest decade to receive a revival. First performed in 1982, set the year before, and not seen in London for nearly twenty-five years, dates are to the fore as we inevitably question recent history, drawing parallels and noting differences.

Following a group of friends after college, it’s a soundly constructed drama, if a touch lengthy, with plenty of comedy. Rusty and Annie have hopes to take the town, in music and modelling, and Jesse Fox and Margaret Clunie show great comic talents in these roles. Nick Blakeley is commendable as the “amendable” Baz, concerned to secure the roof over his head, and in thrall to Viv, whose parents own the house in the gentrified part of Brixton this privileged group are slumming it in.

Jane is the only member of the group immune to superficial obsessions and with some kind of career plan. Zora Bishop plays the role appropriately earnestly. With riots on the doorstep, and the idea of being an “extremist” carrying very different connotations to now, her boyfriend Tone, introduces some heavy-handed politics. This role is the play’s biggest problem and, despite a passionate performance, Callum Turner understandably struggles in the part. Tone’s attempts to “re-educate” this “nest of vipers” are arrogant and his analyses simplistic: in short he’s a frightful bore.

Designer Stephanie Williams has done a superb job with the 80s fashion on show, (notably in advance of the V&A’s Club to Catwalk exhibition) and director James Hillier has marshalled his young cast, for whom the early 1980s must feel medieval, admirably.

It’s the performance and the role of Viv that gets Hard Feelings a whole-hearted recommendation. Lucie has written a fascinating character with a satisfying depth that the talented Isabella Laughland really contributes to. Happy with her parents property investment, “sitting on their money watching it grow”, she starts out observing, “I’d rather watch it grow in Chelsea”. Fair enough. But Viv’s development, into something unhinged and formidably power crazed, is handled superbly – Laughland is magnetic, as she becomes a landlady not for turning.

Until 6 July 2013


Written 14 June 2013 for The London Magazine

“The Last of the Haussmans” at the National Theatre

What a cast: making a return to the stage after over a decade, national treasure Julie Walters is joined at the National Theatre by the equally superb Helen McCrory and Rory Kinnear. You might think their presence in any play should be enough, but even these performers can’t hide the problems in new playwright Stephen Beresford’s debut, The Last of the Haussmans.

The story of an old hippy, Judy – played by Walters with great energy – and her discontented family, starts well: it’s a gentle comedy, with Chekhovian spirit and naughtiness on the right side of rude. Kinnear is captivating and McCrory wonderfully deadpan, while her long-suffering daughter, played by Isabella Laughland, does remarkably well to hold her own against the more experienced thespians.

But after the interval Beresford’s attempts to add a serious edge fall flat. It seems we have another play about the baby boomer generation, and the disgruntled offspring’s desperation for property, but this now familiar theme feels tacked on and unconvincing. There is little exploration of what Judy’s politics were – surely more than just something to laugh at – and the sheer self-centeredness of her children beggars belief.

Director Howard Davies and the cast’s comic skills fail to hide the one-dimensionality of Beresford’s characters. Following her script, Walter’s portrayal becomes slightly too broad and the fate of the children a touch sordid. Ultimately, the family’s demise fails to move or hold real interest. At the risk of sounding uncharitable, it’s probably no bad thing that they are, indeed, the last of the Haussmans.

Until 10 October 2012


Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 22 June 2012 for The London Magazine

“Greenland” at the National Theatre

Over population is just one of the huge problems facing the natural world. It’s an irony that the National Theatre’s new play about the environment, Greenland, suffers from a similar issue. With four writers having contributed, the play is a disaster in itself.

Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne have all attempted to address the issue of climate change. The idea of making Greenland a collaborative event is ambitious, and I guess all aimed at inspiring a Big Conversation reflected in a series of after show events. The writer’s stories are supposedly interwoven to scope out the effects of climate change and how we react to the threat. Unfortunately the stories don’t so much interweave as unravel. Even worse, none of them is that interesting.

The future, it seems, is not just bleak, but boring. Director Bijan Sheibani paces his production far too quickly. Maybe sleight of hand started to look like a good idea during rehearsals, but the problems of this script aren’t going to disappear just because you race through it. There’s quite a bag of tricks on display: wind machines, a rain curtain, and plenty of things dropping dramatically on to the stage. The National Theatre’s always excellent production department is to be praised, but for hard work rather than results.

Nobody doubts the environment is an urgent issue but there’s always the danger that you are talking to the converted. One of Greenland‘s faults is to not just preach to the choir but to shout at it. And shout in a rather unpleasant tone. It feels as if the National Theatre’s audience is to blame for the world’s woes with its greed (mostly for coffee) and its ignorance (particular concerning the capital of Mali). Even worse, Greenland is remarkably uninformative. You will learn nothing new here and that is shocking omission.

A large cast wonder haplessly around the stage and can do little to save things. Only Amanda Lawrence gives a stand-out performance and manages to bring some humour and warmth to proceedings. And it’s good to see some young talent on the stage, Isabella Laughland and Sam Swann deal ably with their roles as young activists and it’s a shame they don’t have more to do.

There is little hope in Greenland. The aimed-for humour points a finger at activists and the complacent but only hits home ironically – “this eco stuff is making you unhappy,” says an exasperated mother to her campaigning daughter. We know just how she feels. The prevailing feeling is one of anger, justified but hardly constructive. The preaching tone taken might make you angry, too. But, sadly, for the wrong reasons.

Until 2 April 2011


Photo by Helen Warner

Written 3 February 2011 for The London Magazine

“Wanderlust” at the Royal Court

Nick Payne’s great new play Wanderlust is about love and sex – the absence and surfeit of both, the differences between them, and where the two overlap. The Royal Court has spotted great new writing yet again. This play is very funny and deeply moving.

Tim and his school friend Michelle begin to experiment with sex as a favour (unrequited love for him makes her oblige his anxious curiosity). James Musgrave and Isabella Laughland are instantly believable as the confused teens. The great thing here is that, unlike most 15 year olds on stage these days, they aren’t violent or mentally ill. They are touchingly real as a result. We really hope they don’t develop the same problems as their elders.

Tim’s father Alan is more desperate for sex than his teenage son. Forced abstinence has resulted in a strain that Stuart McQuarrie performs with endearing charm. Even overweight middle-aged men need a sex life (trust me on this) but, given the chance to explore his darker side, he can’t even remember to take his socks off.

Alan’s attachment to hosiery might explain his wife’s lack of interest in the bedroom, but Joy turns out to be aptly named. Dutifully exploring her sexuality to save her marriage results in a transformation Pippa Hayward achieves quite miraculously. From being, “tired, worn out and uptight” she becomes a radiant, sexy woman hoping to start again.

Payne has a refreshing take on the glamour that surrounds sex and youth. We don’t have to put up with kitchen sinks or the fabulously wealthy: his milieu is the middle classes. The humour isn’t gentle and can be painfully embarrassing, but this writing has a great deal of heart. Yet the play avoids sentimentality. While a tear comes easily to the eye, the emotions are complex and engaging. This is a tender tale of socks and sex that is not to be missed.

Until 9 October 2010


Photo by Sheila Burnett

Written 18 September 2010