Tag Archives: King’s Head Theatre

“Tender Napalm” at the King’s Head Theatre

With a series of exciting monologues last year, prolific playwright Philip Ridley had a good lockdown. But I’m not alone in wanting Ridley’s work back on stage. This expert revival of a real gem is a thrilling treat.

Tender Napalm is a romance, told with startling originality. The memories and fantasies of a couple swing from love to hate. The stories they concoct between them are gripping – passionate and violent.

Tales you’d “hardly believe” feature unicorns, UFOs and a common or garden tsunami! In suggesting spontaneity, while delivering Ridley’s poetic lines, performers Adeline Waby and Jaz Hutchins are superb.

Kit Hinchcliffe’s minimal design is a perfect blank canvas for colourful displays of imagination. A potentially static piece, Sam Angell’s bold work as movement director is strong. The occasionally childlike movements are particularly unsettling.

What is poisoning the relationship we watch, the motive for a kind of therapeutic exercise, is surely the death of a child. Ridley isn’t explicit: emotions, like the scenarios, are fluid. But whatever is wrong creates increasing tension.

Yet tenderness is present too. It’s in allowing the care between the characters to show that Hutchins and Waby excel. A change of pace towards the end of the piece is exquisitely handled.

Director Max Harrison has a thorough appreciation of Ridley’s brilliant text. Best of all, Harrison balances a peculiar dark humour with Ridley’s astonishing imagination. The “universe of dreams” this production provides a view of is, in all senses of the word, fantastic.

Until 20 November 2021


Photo by Mark Senior

“Southern Belles” at the King’s Head Theatre

The headline show of this venue’s Queer Season, this is an evening of two one-act plays by Tennessee Williams. While celebrating their iconic writer, the programme is a triumph for promoting its director, Jamie Armitage. Williams isn’t easy to control, putting directors under a glaring spotlight, but Armitage turns that around to examine the author himself.

First up is Something Unspoken, easily seen as classic Williams territory. A grand dame of the American South and her long-standing secretary are a couple skirting around their unacknowledged intimacy, with pathos and humour, that makes a riveting confrontation. Annabel Leventon takes the lead as the wealthy Cornelia Scott and excels with the acid one-liners. Fiona Marr is moving as the companion for this formidable matron, a timid figure next to her iron lady. The sentiment and silence that prove so fecund for Williams are balanced perfectly by Armitage. The high quality is evident in its subplot, the election for presidency of the Daughters of the Confederacy – easily dismissed as a joke, both actresses parallel the tension in their relationship with Scott’s failure to secure the position.

Luke Mullins and George Fletcher

And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens is the more notable piece. We’re told it’s the only work in the Williams canon to contain openly gay characters. Armitage has secured similarly strong performances, with Luke Mullins performing as Candy, a transvestite who pursues a straight sailor, played by George Fletcher. It’s undoubtedly fascinating, but there is a marked drop in standard. Candy is too much the focus of the writing, which might be forgiven if it didn’t make the piece slow, repetitive and predictable. A pathetic figure in the true meaning of the word, Mullins manages – against the odds – to carve out some dignity for the character. But there is little tension in the piece, despite it being more action packed, as Williams’ own self-loathing clouds his judgement.

There’s a trade off with this second short – a balance between theatre history, its potential as a documentary of sorts and the author’s biography and bias – that make it interesting to watch rather than enjoyable. But, on the whole, the plays complement one another nicely. They illustrate a past experience of lesbian and gay life. But they also present us with the author as we know him and then offer new insight into his writing. Showing Williams both in control and then with a degree of abandon makes this a treat for his fans.

Until 24 August 2019


Photos by Scott Rylander

“The Good Landlord” at the King’s Head Theatre

This play’s première early in the year at the Vault Festival was a fraught affair, given the recent death of its talented writer Michael Ross. Having collaborated on the play with Metamorph Theatre, the author’s absence for finishing touches was clear. But also obvious, thankfully, was the play’s potential. The story of a London flat with cheap rent because its tenants are to be watched by cameras is topical and challenging. The script is a sharp comedy with clever content. And now, given more time, its quality shines through.

Director Cat Robey deserves much of the praise. The production is sharper, pacier and generally more confident. The plot comes to the fore as flatmates Tom and Ed react to being recorded – we want to know what happens next. The balance between the serious themes in Ross’s writing – relative poverty, pervasive technology and the painful issue of body image – are all deftly handled. The characters feel grounded, a delicious mix of introverts to root for and extroverts you can laugh it (although I suppose that might be the other way around for some!). A quartet of strong performances come into their own with the aid of Ross’s witty and intelligent lines creating interesting characters just the right side of satire.

Rupert Sadler gives a strong performance, having bedded down into his role as Ed. Initially calmer than in the show’s first outing, Ed’s desperation to keep living in the flat develops nicely into a mania. And his fascination with the “all-mighty, all-seeing” landlord leads to a clever play with masculinity that does the text justice. Above all, Sadler is funny throughout. Likewise, Phoebe Batteson-Brown shows her tremendous comic skills with a performance of great assurance – don’t miss a single move she makes as the scary estate agent Clarissa, for each intense twitch is worth a laugh. While these two characters aim at conventional success, Ross points out that their grasp on reality is thin; flights of fancy Ed and Clarissa embark on are deliciously delivered highlights.

Joining the team is Sophia Eleni, playing Clarissa’s PA, who skives off work to become a voyeur of the guys. There’s still room for growth here, as the role connects to an examination of working life that fascinated Ross and could be developed. Nonetheless, Eleni makes a sweet love interest for the landlord’s more reluctant tenant Tom, played by Theo Ancient. Having recently toured Ross’ The Shy Manifesto, Ancient knows the author’s work intimately and it really shows. Tom is a fascinating mix of insecurity and confidence, a balance of sensitivity with an intelligence that doesn’t suffer fools.

The Good Landlord is still a work in progress (according the company’s hand out). But the improvement here is commendable and the show is on the way to becoming a fringe hit. The plan now is to take the play to Edinburgh next year and good luck to the team. Follow @M_MorphTheatre for news. I don’t give stars on this blog, for fear of being too reductive, but this is a firm four with no small amount of confidence that a sought-after fifth is on the way. 

Until 16 July 2019


“This Island’s Mine” at the King’s Head Theatre

Landmark is the label given to Philip Osment’s play, which premiered with the Gay Sweatshop in 1988. Undoubtedly, the piece makes for interesting history: early Pride marches, the role of the press in forming prejudice against AIDS and campaigns during the miners’ strike are all covered. It’s a play of valuable lessons. But theatre can’t just be a historical excursion. The key to the success of this first ever revival, by director Philip Wilson, is to allow the play to inspire today, by bringing out its universal power.

These tales of the city contain men and women of all ages and classes, going back and forth in time, with surprises in store as to how they interweave. Osment is an exemplary chronicler of London; locations are used effectively, rooting the play. For sure, too much is tackled at times, especially when bringing broader political struggles into the play. And some connections between the characters fit less well than others; a production of The Tempest forms one pivot but any aims of injecting anger with the rage of Caliban sit uneasily in a piece trying hard to be positive. Yet overwhelmingly, the rich themes of lives and loves, family and community, make for captivating stories.

Rachel Summers and Corey Montague-Sholay

The fictional biographies presented are respectfully delivered by Wilson and his cast. Connor Bannister, whose character’s coming out story is one focus, and Jane Bertish, taking the role of an elderly Jewish woman who fled World War II, give strong performances that form the backbone of the show. The rest of the cast all impress by taking on multiple roles, swooping ages, nationalities and genders, often with wit. There’s a lovely turn from Corey Montague-Sholey as a young actor and a ten year old boy, while Rachel Summers does well with four roles including an aged Russian aristocrat in exile. The show’s considerable humour is best served by Theo Fraser Steele who tackles the part of middle aged Martin with waspish panache.

Theo Frazer Steele and Connor Bannister

Osment’s text is marked by attention to detail. So much so that it’s occasionally overpowering, if often beautiful. That characters also narrate their own actions, interestingly a technique seen recently in The Inheritance, isn’t to all tastes – it can be long winded – but it proves a boon to performers here and Wilson adds some lovely theatrical touches that prevent the piece from becoming too static. And the play is remarkable democratic, even a cat gets attention, as gay life in many forms is celebrated. Race and sexuality, along with gay parenting and marriages of convenience are all addressed. Osment’s play reflects life’s complexity to an impressive degree, his opposition of fate to “patterns of coincidence” provokes thought and sentiment in equal measure. Admittedly meandering at times, This Island’s Mine has both tragedy and comedy to recognize and inspire an audience; the play’s success boils down to superb storytelling, excellently delivered.

Until 8 June 2019


Illustration by Curtis Holder, Photos by Mark Douet

“Outlying Islands” at the King’s Head Theatre

Theatregoers should give thanks to Atticist Productions – and get a ticket, of course – for this new production of David Greig’s 2002 work, last seen in London at its Royal Court première. Carefully directed by Jessica Lazar, it delivers a quartet of fabulous performances. And what a play! Lyrically beautiful, intellectually stimulating and full of the unexpected, this is a long overdue revival.

It’s exciting not to know what’s coming next and makes avoiding spoilers important. Especially given a plot that seems so simple: two ornithologists studying on a remote island before World War II. Greig doesn’t make it clear how big a part the owner of the island and his niece will play – at first, they seem amusingly stereotyped (Ken Drury does a lovely job here). But, by wittily toying with expectations of a period piece, the play consistently surprises as events and characters develop with a magical touch and delightful richness.

Suffice to say that there’s plenty of sex and death in this Edenic location. Tom Machell gives a suitably magnetic performance as lead toff twitcher Robert. The character’s free thinking results in plenty of challenging statements. His colleague and chum John may play second fiddle – reminding us of decency and that a boat will be coming to collect them at some point – but Jack McMillan’s performance is first class. It’s a wonderful study of confused youth and contradictions. By no means least is Rose Wardlaw’s sensitive portrayal of Ellen, a woman who finds herself connected to life and the future in an unexpected manner.

Rose Wardlaw

Isolated from society and with work-altering body clocks, the play moves to examine love, time and limits. That emotions develop is seen by Robert as a scientific phenomenon, something to take notes on, while John reminds us how painful romance can be. Lazar allows the chilly observations and warm emotions they’re due, ensuring both of the text’s temperatures can be felt. Greig’s insights into time are philosophically invigorating, while the boundaries of convention, temporarily absent, lead artfully to yet more questions.

Take religion, Christianity vs Paganism, a theme Drury does so well to explicate. The theme gives an ethereal feel to the show, aided by strong sound and lighting design from Christopher Preece and David Doyle, respectively. Or the parodic forms of ritual we encounter, such as those surrounding feeding (there’s only one table on the island and let’s just say it’s used for more than one kind of communion). Compared with the birds being recorded, Outlying Islands asks how rooted in the animalistic we all are. Like a scientist studying nature, the same precise control allows Greig to examine men. An attempt at natural history in the form of theatre, it makes for fascinating viewing.

Until 2 February 2019


Photos by Clive Barda

“The Unbuilt City” at the King’s Head Theatre

This is a disappointing play from the talented American writer Keith Bunin, who so impressed last year with The Busy World Is Hushed at the Finborough Theatre. The Unbuilt Cityis a two-hander featuring an academic trying to acquire the archive of an aged philanthropist. The plot is too low-stakes to engage, the characters too predictable to excite and, although the play has plenty of ideas, none is sufficiently explored.

The scenario has echoes of Henry James’ The Aspen Papers. And, like James’ novella, this is a cerebral affair. The archives treasure consists of a plan for a utopian New York. The poetic potential of such idealism is interesting, and the excitement about the famous ‘paper architect’ of the plan is conveyed effectively. Along the way, we ruminate on inequality, history and memory, with some lyrical moments and a strong sense of what it’s like to love a city. But the play gets bogged down in its fireside wisdom, displaying a sentimental streak that’s lazy and results in platitudes.

Many faults could be excused if the characters convinced. While I found the dialogue credible for such an erudite couple, their rapport is minimal and poorly developed. Jonathan Chambers plays struggling writer Jonah with his heart on his sleeve, robbing us of what little tension is written for the role. Sandra Dickinson has a more interesting part as the heiress Claudia and there are moments when she is moving. She seems severely hampered by her costume, which could be easily remedied. More seriously, the character is again played as too likeable, so her reminiscing seems sweet and something to indulge rather than consider seriously.

It’s hard to believe Claudia wants, let alone needs, to be “three or four steps ahead” of Jonah in negotiations over her estate. Bunin calls a ceasefire before a battle of wills even begins. Director Glen Walford aims to remedy the play’s static quality, understandably, but her efforts fail. The delivery is rushed in an effort to generate energy and the cast roams about the cramped stage inexplicably. It all makes for an uncomfortable production of a floundering script.

Until 30 June 2018


Photo by PND Photography

“Tumble Tuck” at the King’s Head Theatre

Diving into the start of a season of plays written by women and presented under the title ‘Who Runs the World?’, this hour-long show – written by and featuring Sarah Milton – goes swimmingly well as we follow young Daisy in and around the pool during her first competitive race. With family and friends all portrayed by Milton, it’s a bravura performance with plenty of laughs, serious topics and a dramatic trauma. There’s undoubtedly too much going on, but the mood swings mirror teenage life uncannily and the skill behind the show should make it a gold-medal winner.

Milton’s ability as a writer can best be seen with the allowance she makes for an audience’s more sophisticated responses to the authentic young voices we hear. It’s a space in the text that director Tom Wright is sympathetic to. Whether it’s Daisy’s laugh-out-loud insensitivity or comments from adults that we understand the motivation for more than she does, this is a look at a Millennial mind-set that patronises neither young nor old. It’s disappointing that a central plot, around a criminal boyfriend, isn’t elaborated. And overall Daisy’s youth results in observations on life that are predictable and pat; the good will built up towards the character has to save the show. Thankfully, there is plenty of it.

Milton’s skills as a performer are highly impressive, having created a strong central role and some lovely cameos for herself she really delivers. The split-second changes between characters are impressive, if showy. The comedy skills feel instinctive – her timing a joy to watch. But what really makes the performance special is the way the crowd is worked. Wright creates moments when Daisy is removed from us despite her narration – caught up in the cleansing power of swimming or a revealing nightmare. But most of the time Daisy appeals directly and Milton is superb at this: creating intimacy, engendering confidences and truly winning hearts. Let’s hope medals follow.

Until 12 May 2018


Photo by Alex Brenner

“Ballistic” at the King’s Head Theatre

Given its depressingly topical subject matter, it feels obligatory to reveal the plot of Alex Packer’s assured debut play. Which is a shame, since getting to know its protagonist, and following him to an unexpectedly harrowing end, is a cleverly plotted journey that’s well executed. This is a strong one-man show with a performance from Mark Conway that’s well worth watching. But not everyone wants to see a play about violence, misogyny and mental health, all of which qualify for trigger warnings.

So, with another spoiler alert – because the gradually revealed surprise is the best thing here – this is a tale of a loner college student on a murderous campus rampage. Conway takes us from sympathising with the character, to worrying about him, then being afraid of him. Encouraged by Anna Marsland’s skilful direction, we often cringe with, but also laugh at the future mass murderer, as if conniving with his bullying. And attempts by his best friend prove futile, raising questions of how tolerant and capable of assisting any of us would be. It’s a shame this dark sense of complicity isn’t pushed further.

The role of social media, to both humiliate and validate, is rightly explored by Packer but it comes too close to providing an explanation for subsequent behaviour – too easy. Introducing internet pornography and computer gaming is predictable and any connection to what happens is at best risible, at worst lazy thinking. When it comes to gaming, some poetry is introduced – a nice idea that doesn’t quite work but further confirms Packer’s potential. Yet, ultimately, our nameless subject is a little too naïve, especially as a college student. Conway and Marsland make all this compelling to watch. But the character is reduced to a specimen observed and finally, too comfortably, removed from us.

Until 17 March 2018


Photo by Tom Packer

“East” at the King’s Head Theatre

This is a play for the more adventurous. Steven Berkoff’s East returns to its original London venue after 43 years and, courtesy of its clear influence on in-yer-face theatre, feels startlingly contemporary. With meta touches and strong physical performances, including plenty of mime, there’s lots to excite anyone with a keen interest in the stage.

A paean to life in working-class London, Berkoff presents an impressive psychogeography for a quintet of characters. The violence, racism and antisemitism exposed are all unpleasant. But I suspect the sexism here will upset the most. Even when celebrating sexuality and enjoying a crude, ruthless satire, the objectification of women is relentless.

With Berkoff’s reluctance to embrace a traditional narrative, scenes are told and retold from different perspectives. The time of the action slips mischievously between the 1950s and 1970s with some good jokes around this potentially stuffy technique. As for the five characters – personality shifts as much as it develops. Remarkably, none of this is as confusing as it sounds… you just might not like it if you fancy a good story.

An attempt to extend the already quirky time span in the final scene is a slip on the part of director Jessica Lazar – nice try, though. And there are moments when the staging doesn’t take into account the sight lines – disappointing in such a small space. Both criticisms pale when the performances Lazar nurtures from her cast are taken into account.

Debra Penny and Russell Barnett do well in arguably the hardest roles – Berkoff seems toughest on the older generation. With youthful characters, even when unappealing, their energy is exciting: a vitality embraced by Boadicea Ricketts and James Craze, who play a couple in love (or at least lust). The play’s real partnership comes from Craze, as Mike, and his friend Les. A brilliant combination of physicality and comedy marks an astounding professional debut for Jack Condon. Casting directors don’t often get a mention, but Stephen Moore has struck gold here.

Any risk of upset through its confrontational themes or downright rudeness wouldn’t bother Berkoff – the number of expletives tells you that much. And, quite rightly, Lazar doesn’t shy away from any uncomfortable moments. Whether a string of obscenities goes too far is a matter of taste, but sheer repetition makes a couple of scenes tiresome. Overall, though, the play’s appeal rests on its language, which is full of flashes of startling brilliance. Frequently appropriating Shakespeare alongside Cockney rhyming slang creates so much depth and resonance that the “witty verbiage spewing” from every “gutter mouth” has to be heard to be believed.

Until 3 February 2018


Photo by Alex Brenner

“Coming Clean” at the King’s Head Theatre

Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s revival of Kevin Elyot’s first play offers a glimpse of a writer working up to big things. Written 12 years before the success of My Night With Reg, this 1982 piece has style behind a stumbling structure and a forthright voice that wins respect. It’s the story of an open relationship – between Tony and Greg – threatened by the latter’s affair with their young cleaner Robert, in which Elyot worked hard to present a view of gay life at a particular moment in time.

The play has enough explicit sexual reference to still shock. The pre-AIDS epidemic sexual escapades get the best of Elyot’s humour and sharp lines from erudite characters abound. The cast are good with Elyot’s jokes, especially Elliot Hadley, who plays the couple’s camp friend with the skill of a stand-up comedian. Tom Lambert’s Robert, who upsets Tony and Greg’s agreement to have only casual flings, is also strong, working his wide-eyed naivety and toying with a glint of mischief that it’s a shame Elyot didn’t explore further.

Elliot Hadley & Tom Lambert
Elliot Hadley & Tom Lambert

Coming Clean aims at big emotions with poetic yearnings. But both depend on the central couple, and Elyot doesn’t give enough to deliver this. Jason Nwoga plays Greg with a cool air that makes his character believable and rounded but it’s a thinly written role. Lee Knight’s Tony has a convincingly acidic quality that makes him too unappealing. As a result, Knight struggles in lighter scenes, making the humour overwrought. When real feelings are called for, a great performance is produced. The confession that the open relationship is never what Tony wanted isn’t much of a revelation, but Knight makes it moving.

Spreadbury-Maher shows an intelligent appreciation of Elyot’s writing throughout, he makes the most of what is really a minor work. Coming Clean takes too long to get to its simple points, dragging out a slim plot to arrive at an uninteresting conclusion. It is predictable and, while the repartee is bright, the characters are dull. Maybe My Night With Reg hangs over the play too heavily, leading to inevitable disappointment? The key might be to come clean to the play itself, in an effort to appreciate its qualities in the same spirit as this admirable cast and creative team.

Until 26 August 2017


Photo by Paul Nicholas Dyke