Tag Archives: James Hillier

“Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell” at the Coach and Horses

As sites for shows go this one is a scoop. Seeing Keith Waterhouse’s play about journalist Jeffrey Bernard in the pub he frequented adds immeasurably to this fine production, directed and adapted by James Hillier. Soho is almost a character in the play – after Bernard moved there, he said he “never looked forward” – and joining him for a lock-in at such a historic location is a thrill.

Of course, a pub isn’t the perfect performance space. Hillier and his company, Defibrillator, have experience that proves essential. Robert Bathurst takes the role and holds court– talk about art imitating life – basking in the attention and the atmosphere. The odd drunk outside could almost have been planned, it fits the night so well.

The feeling is intimate, which suits the piece’s elegiac tone. Afterall, the “unwell” of the title is an understatement, and these reminiscences focus on mortality. Bernard’s addictions to alcohol and gambling took their toll, and his self-awareness is admirable, but also sad. The production is careful not to glamourise. Bathurst’s performance, almost nervous at first, reflects his character’s disappointments and brave face.  

None of which is to say that the Bernard depicted here is a maudlin drunk or as unpleasant as his stories suggest. Despite all the vodka downed, his spirit is unreformed – this show is fun. The jokes are well-written, a trick is brilliantly executed, and Bathurst’s delivery is impeccable. The characters we hear about lead to wicked impersonations. But, above all, it’s the jokes that Bernard makes at his own expense that saves him in our eyes. He may have been a bad gambler, but it’s an easy tip to recommend this show. Odds on, you’ll love it.

Monday–Wednesday until 20 November 2023


Photo by Tom Howard

“Influence” at Collective Theatre

Waiting for this new play from Stockroom to start is more interesting than usual – the audience are invited to pop their secrets on a postcard. It’s clear the revelations are going to play some part in what comes next – a performance that seems like a magic show that everyone gets involved with.

The framework is a magician telling the story of his family, a grandfather who trod the musical hall boards and a Harry Potter-loving nephew who died tragically young. Of course, the stakes are raised – there’s going to be a dangerous stunt never performed before! And more audience participation than I’ve ever seen – nearly half the crowd end up doing something or other.

Put together, the storytelling and magic make a great showcase for Kit Young. Along with ‘dad jokes’ and generally strong comedy skills, Young balances a convivial air with sinister touches. As for the tricks, many deliberately old fashioned, even hammy, they are perfectly delivered and very entertaining. Consultant Scott Penrose deserves a lot of credit for the work here, but Young really is magic, a natural showman with plenty of charisma.

Young is playing a part too, of course…when it comes to sleights of hand – you might forget this is a play with clever writers behind it: Georgia Crowther, Chris York and Maheni Arthur worked together as part of Stockroom’s writers room. References to Chekhov intrigue, while bringing out a parallel between the conjurer’s art and contemporary social media is interesting, if a touch strained. What really impresses is how details shape our perception – the odd fact is mixed in with a lot of misdirection. It’s great to try and spot, and fun when you fail to.

Under director James Hillier’s careful hand, the finale is terrific. Far too good to spoil – even if that means some credit can’t be given where it’s due. Not one but two twists arrive… and quickly! Set up by this talented team, our expectations, especially regarding all that participation, are used against us and we see how much influence they have had: the play makes its point and is a lot of fun along the way.

Until 2 December 2023


Photo by Hanna Kovacs

“Foxes” at Theatre503

Dexter Flanders’ carefully modest play is an impressive character-driven family drama. Shortlisted for the Alfred Fagon Award, Foxes is a winning piece that is easy to recommend.

Daniel’s church-going family opens its home and heart to his pregnant girlfriend Meera when she is rejected by her Muslim parents. But the family is torn apart when Daniel comes out as gay. It’s the play’s next move that really surprises.

The plot is part of Flanders’ skill and strategy to question the nature of acceptance – and what we compromise on to gain it. Presenting complex, contradictory emotions makes this debut play mature.

It seems a shame to define the strong characters in Foxes in relation to David – they are all so good. Arch yet adorable Meera and her sister-in-law Deena are brilliantly elaborated by director James Hillier and performers July Namir and Tosin Alabi. They don’t just present arguments, but are recognisable people that you care for.

July Namir and Michael Fatogun in FOXES credit Adiam Yemane
July Namir and Michael Fatogun

Both young women light up the stage. As a stark contrast, Anyebe Godwin, playing the man in Daniel’s life, does a brilliant job of showing the dark toll that living in the closet has taken on a bright young man. His clandestine existence gives the play its title.

Tosin Alabi and Anyebe Godwin in FOXES credit Adiam Yemane
Tosin Alabi and Anyebe Godwin

What I suspect is the origin of the play – Daniel’s coming out scene – is another highlight. The scene is stunning. Not least for Doreene Blackstock, who plays Daniel’s mother with such ferocity and tenderness.

Michael Fatogun and Doreene Blackstock in FOXES credit Adiam Yemane
Michael Fatogun and Doreene Blackstock

So, Flanders can write characters. The off-stage father who all mourn is further proof – he is a tangible presence. But it’s the central role, played by Michael Fatogun, who really grabs the attention. Confusion isn’t easy to show on stage, but Fatogun manages to convey the trauma and elation of his first gay kiss brilliantly. Throughout, Daniel’s youthful bravado and sensitive intelligence are made clear. It’s a performance, and a role, to dream about.

Breaking up Flanders’ short scenes might be handled better by Hillier, as Foxes is slightly longer than needed. The production’s projections are impressive but feel unnecessary. And I’d welcome a stronger sense of place than Flanders provides. But these are minor quibbles against a strong show.

Chances for Daniel to change, through several scenes in Act Three, build momentum nicely. A series of potential conclusions impress – and depress – by turn. How will Daniel and his family solve their dilemma? Dexter appreciates that any happy ending is going to be messy. How many lies will each character put up with? One certain truth is that everyone should see this play

Until 23 October 2021


Photos by Adiam Yemane

“Sunnymead Court” at the Tristan Bates Theatre

Gemma Lawrence’s new play, impeccably directed by James Hillier, is a love story set during lockdown. References to the recent hot – and a bit boring – summer abound. Lawrence conveys the frustrations and problems of this period, notably working from home. Impressive detail includes a character moving back to her family… and her homophobic parent.

Love across the balconies of a London estate adds charm and hope. The obstacles faced by two women are surmounted by humour, drama and a dash of chance. The characters grab your sympathy straight away, impressively, for different reasons. They make great roles for Lawrence as Marie, who is joined by Remmie Milner as Stella, whose complementary energy makes a neat contrast.

My heart sank at first, as Marie starts out with her back to the audience staring at a computer. I didn’t come into the theatre (even one so welcoming, thanks to its lovely staff) to stare at a screen! But Lawrence’s close study of Marie’s anxiety is cleverly developed and has a relevance far beyond our current conditions.

Marie takes to isolation dangerously easily. Living online, and working too much, her relationship to her own body (from food consumed to routines followed) becomes troubled. Stella sees the problem, too: technology means we can “hide ourselves in our pockets”, while a joyous scene of dancing has Milner conveying the thrill of a “full” body experience. All this is, surely, a trend lockdown has exacerbated, rather than created. That debate aside, Lawrence highlights a concerning mental health trend with heartfelt sensitivity.

Importantly, for theatre lovers at least, is how this relationship to the body is conveyed on stage. With the actors apparently controlling Will Monks’ lighting, both become increasingly physically involved in the performance of the story. From glances at one another – anxious then often cheeky – to more and more movement, a sense of complicity is skilfully developed.

Lawrence uses her characters’ anxieties, and the problems of our times, to create a story that should appeal long after this summer is over.

Until 3 October 2020


Photo by Jack Holden

“The Height of the Storm”at Wyndham’s Theatre

The new hit from French playwright Florian Zeller, translated as usual by Christopher Hampton, treads familiar ground. It intelligently manipulates audience expectations and is expertly theatrical– to his credit, you can’t imagine Zeller’s work in any other medium. As with hisprevious play, The Father, dementia and the impact on a family of that awful disease are the subject matter. But the love story of a devoted couple, André and Madeleine, one of whom dies, means The Height of the Storm can mine the  depths of even more emotion.

Zeller’s writing seems a gift to directors, and Jonathan Kent’s work here is faultless and attractive to performers. Amanda Drew and Anna Madeley play the daughters of the piece impeccably, never overstating their characters’ differences. And there are two strong performances from James Hillier and Lucy Cohu as strangers who flit between supporting and threatening the family. But the play belongs to André and Madeleine, played by Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins – two masterclasses not to be missed. Pryce gives a tender performance detailing the fears of old age, while Atkins magnificently develops her role’s carefully revealed depths. Together their devotion as a couple is utterly convincing and incredibly moving.

While set in Zeller’s typically sophisticated milieu (André is a man of letters and Anthony Ward’s design of his house is retro-boho-chic), the rawness of grief removes us from the urbane characters that can sometimes feel foreign in his plays. The twist is a painful one – we don’t really know whether it’s André or Madeleine who has died. The confusion isn’t just because of André’s dementia. When the couple talk to one another it isn’t clear if the scene is a flashback or a grief-stricken fantasy, and they both refer to the other dying. So, Zeller presents us with both scenarios and the awful question of what would be ‘best’ arises – for you or your partner to die first? And which of your parents could cope best on their own?

Some may find Zeller’s approach opaque, but his skill at crafting the confusion is brilliant. The Height of the Storm opens up a debate about the end of our lives that is urgent and, in privileging the perspective of the elderly, an important contribution. We are taken to the heart of the drama and the issue at the same time and asked to confront both in a personal fashion. The finale emphasises the couple’s love. It reminds us of their agency as well as what is at stake. And, if you haven’t been crying already, you will be by the end.

Until 1 December 2018


Photos by Hugo Glendinning

“A Lie of the Mind” at the Southwark Playhouse

Sam Shepard’s award-winning 1985 play is a slow-burning, haunting family drama. After a brutal act of domestic violence, Beth is left brain damaged and her husband Jake unhinged. Their families, aiming to care for them, become increasingly irrational, unlocking the play’s momentum and considerable dramatic power.

Gethin Anthony and Alexandra Dowling acquit themselves well as Jake and Beth. These are difficult roles and the temptation for shrillness isn’t fully controlled. Shepard is averse to sentimentality and makes it a struggle to empathise with these damaged figures. Nonetheless, Anthony and Dowling convey their characters as repositories of cumulative pain.

Gethin Anthony, Mike Lonsdale and Alexandra Dowling
Gethin Anthony, Robert Lonsdale and Alexandra Dowling

The couple’s siblings have problems too. Initially overshadowed by Jake’s instability, his brother and sister, played by Michael Fox and Laura Rogers, do well to build their roles, acting as foils for the increasing oddity around them. Meanwhile, Robert Lonsdale gives a cracking performance as Beth’s consoling and then avenging brother. Caught up in a maelstrom of metaphor, Lonsdale gives the role clarity.

Best of all are the older characters, portrayed with conviction and welcome humour by a skilled trio so that the play’s dated gender relations create fewer snags here. Shepard is too sophisticated to blame the parents for the sins or woes of the children, but a legacy of emotional repression is clear. Nancy Crane and Kate Fahy play the mothers – far too keen to have their kids back at home and infantilised. John Stahl gives a strong performance as Beth’s irascible father, whose tirade against ageing is one of the play’s finest moments.

Marshalling all this – and it’s a lot – is James Hillier’s direction. Some of Shepard’s dark humour isn’t transmitted and a firmer hand on histrionics with a little more work on accents would be welcome. But Hillier has created a stylish show, aided by live music from James Marples. The production appreciates Shepard’s extremes, giving his Americana a back seat to examine the topical subject of mental health. It’s a solid revival of a fascinating play.

Until 27 May 2017


Photos by Lidia Crisafulli

“Torn” at the Royal Court

The upstairs auditorium at Sloane Square has been stripped back (I didn’t even know the space had windows) by designer Ultz, for Nathaniel Martello-White’s new play. The gathering of an extended family to discuss their painful past is part community meeting part trial, with memories explored and dissected.

Their shared secret is a painful one – the childhood abuse of Angel, who has convened this conference. The play is full of discomforting observations on race and aspiration, offering insight into the impact of abuse on a whole family. Traces of neglect that go back a generation, and anger and confusion carried forward, are painfully rendered and cumulatively overpowering.

Credit to director Richard Twyman, aided by a superb cast, for marshalling a show that, even at 90 minutes long, feels mammoth. Seated in a circle for a lot of the play, we can look anywhere at any time for a committed performance. Franc Ashman, Lorna Brown, Kirsty Bushell and Indra Ové are equally praiseworthy as the four sisters but, if there is a lead credit, Adelle Leonce as Angel fully deserves it. The men in the cast are strong too, with James Hillier grabbing attention as Angel’s stepfather.

With a touch too much backstory for some characters and at least one superfluous subplot, the play’s construction feels overworked. But its formal qualities are adventurous and memorable. Scenes are not presented chronologically. Action and dialogue overlap. Who is remembering what is seldom pinned down. As if all that weren’t demanding enough, there’s some odd language, including clunky flights of fancy, with group discussions interspersed with internal dialogues, one-to-one fights and characters moving back in time to younger stages of life.  Various cast members also adopt the role of the grandmother (confusing if you didn’t sneak a peek at the programme before hand).

I was reminded of a video installation, which is one of the character’s jobs, such as Ragnar Kjartansson’s multi-screen show at the Barbican: the audience decides which character to follow. Or a party game played in the piece, where characters making animal noises have to ‘zone in’ on their designated partner. There’s a fine line between all this being engaging and being just a turn off. At times, Torn appears simply obtuse. It’s the author’s prerogative to decide how much aid he gives an audience. I confess I could have done with a little more help here.

Until 15 October 2016


Photo by Helen Maybanks

“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 Hotel Plays” at the Grange Holborn Hotel

Tennessee Williams spent so much of his later life living in and writing about hotels that staging his plays in one seems so obvious, so very neat, that it’s instantly appealing. Site-specific theatre has to be special stuff to excite, and this thrilling trilogy of short works does just that at the Grange Holborn Hotel.

The Hotel PlaysGreen Eyes, The Travelling Companion and Sunburst – afford glimpses into tawdry, lonely lives: a young couple arguing on their honeymoon, an ageing homosexual writer with his unwilling escort, and an elderly lady held hostage in her room by staff turned ineffectual thieves. Being late works by Williams, they are peopled by extreme characters and bold to the point of being blunt.

Clare Latham and Matt Milne

These are difficult roles to pull off (and unfortunately the accents prove too much of a challenge) but all the cast manage to establish their characters with commendable speed. John Guerrasio does particularly well as what is surely a merciless self-portrait by Williams – a “much too much” homosexual writer with a camp performance that has an eye on the stereotype the author must have seen himself becoming. His co-star, Laurence Dobiesz, also impresses as a fragile hustler who becomes intoxicated during the short duration of the play. But the best and bravest performances come in the first work, with Clare Latham and Matt Milne playing newlyweds acting out trauma with a sado-masochistic twist.

The Grange Holborn Hotel may not be the most charismatic property, but all credit to its farsighted management for cooperating with the Defibrillator Theatre Company. Staging the plays in the hotel adds immeasurably to them. Performed in rotation, you can hear the arguments from one as you sit in the room above watching another, with careful supervision from a trio of directors (James Hillier, Anthony Banks and Robert Hastie) who embrace the claustrophobia of the setting. This evening of morbidly powerful vignettes is captivating theatre – incredibly intimate and excruciatingly voyeuristic.

Until 27 October 2012

Photo by Simon Annand

Written 9 October 2012 for The London Magazine