Tag Archives: Joe Harmston

“Howerd’s End” at The Golden Goose Theatre

As you’d expect from a show about the legendary comedian Frankie Howerd, Mark Farrelly’s play has lots of laughs. The material, after all, is excellent. But, as a gay man in the public eye before the decriminalisation of homosexuality, Howerd’s story is more than just fun. With a clever twist and psychological insight, Howerd’s End is moving as well as funny.

Farrelly’s script works hard. I suspect it has been long in the making. Covering “sex, death and existential philosophy” is a lot on top of the biography. Ultimately, only two out of three succeed – fanciful digressions on time and mortality prove far-fetched and self-consciously poetic. Whimsy is what we want, but it doesn’t mix well with Weltanschauung.

Thankfully, when it comes to Howerd’s loves and legacy the piece is excellent.

The clever move is to make the play as much about Howerd’s partner, Dennis Heymer, as the man himself. The comic is a ghostly visitation the other can command. Making demands that would never have been met during their life together results in time travel through a difficult relationship. Farrelly knows the “broken-hearted clown” story is too common ground (although Howerd’s troubles were particularly dark). So, we are given a hero in Dennis who energises the play, being free of Howerd’s self-loathing and angry that a fear of intimacy has blighted life.

As for the delivery of this, often painful, love story – it really is superb.

Simon Cartwright’s impersonation of Howerd is remarkable. For a time I wondered if an uncanny physical resemblance was the key but it’s really down to mannerisms being spot on. Like his subject, Cartwright can make you titter with just a raised, suitably bushy, eyebrow.

Howerd could work a crowd like nobody else. Everyone here, including director Joe Harmston, has learned lessons from him. But none so more than Farrelly, who also takes the role of Dennis and draws in the audience expertly.

In character, Farrelly holds his own for comedy but adds an exasperation that raises the drama. That the men had the “tools for joy” in their lives, yet were not happy, isn’t played for innuendo – it’s simply very sad.

As a writer, Farrelly uses the audience, too, drawing us into a final fantasy that is sweet and romantic. Brilliantly, we all end up cooperating as witnesses… to a happy ending for Frank and Dennis that has a funny magic all its own.

Until 31 October 2020


Photo by Jacky Summerfield

“The Rubenstein Kiss” at the Southwark Playhouse

Inspired by the case of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were executed for treason in 1953, James Phillips’ play about politics and betrayal is a weighty drama. Creating a fictional parallel to real life events focuses the themes of individual responsibility and ideology. Setting the action over three decades allows an extrapolation on the legacy of events. This new production from director Joe Harmston makes the most of viewing two generations – the traitors and their children – resulting in a strong revival of a rich and complex play.

Harmston’s direction is luxurious. It feels as if equal time is given to the three couples: Jakob and Esther Rubenstein, her brother David and his wife Rachel and also their heirs, Matthew and Anna. The stories mingle effectively. Harmston might make a little too much fuss over scene changes and his traverse staging add less than desired but the issues of loyalty and hope are clear, while justice is done to a text full of argument and emotion. Best of all, Harmston has secured tremendous performances from his cast.

Ruby Bentall and Henry Proffit play the lead couple and inject an impressive energy into their political discussions. Sean Rigby takes the part of Esther’s brother and betrayer. Rigby develops his role well as the character becomes “haunted” by unwanted fame and he is ably supported by Eva-Jane Willis as Rachel who is consistently superb. The four are convincing as a family unit and the love each couple have for one another is utterly compelling. It’s a bit of a puzzle why the younger roles end up in a sexual relationship as well, surely an unnecessary complication? Nonetheless, Katie Eldred saves her weaker written character of Anna, whose suicide attempt is poorly handled by Phillips. And Dario Coates is excellent as Matthew, the impassioned son of the Rubensteins, who decides to fight to clear the family name.

Dario Coates (Matthew) & Katie Eldred (Anna)

The influence of Arthur Miller and his McCarthy inspired 1953 drama The Crucible lies heavy on the text – it is explicitly referenced and cerebrally employed. Proffit makes Jakob a powerful surrogate for Miller’s hero John Proctor. Stephen Billington’s FBI Agent, who interrogates and then tries to save Jakob and Esther, is an efficient take on the previous play’s Reverend Hale and points us towards interesting questions. The fanatics vision is brought into focus; Bantall’s eyes as she faces her martyrdom in the electric chair are mesmerising. Phillips appreciates that the “gift of empathy”, discussed as an inspiration that can cross generations, is also a danger and can be poisonous. The Rubenstein Kiss provides salutary insight reached through care and intelligence.

Until 13 April 2019


Photos by Scott Rylander