Tag Archives: King’s Head Theatre

“Turning the Screw” at the King’s Head Theatre 

It’s a brave play that tries to tackle the awful subject of paedophilia with any kind of nuance. There are queasy moments in Kevin Kelly’s fictionalized account of composer Benjamin Britten and schoolboy singer David Hemmings. Director Tim McArthur’s bumpy production doesn’t always match the slickness of the script. But the piece is both provocative and thought-provoking.

The action takes us behind the scenes of the opera The Turn of the Screw. It helps a lot to know the history beforehand. Both the play and Gary Tushaw, who does well in the role of Britten, show The Great Man’s power and charisma at work. It’s clear separating the art from the artist is not a new dilemma. But, admirably, Kelly wants to show us many sides of the story and McArthur aids his project.

Efforts to protect Britten and his “divine” art are heady. Two roles, for Jo Wickham and Jonathan Clarkson, as his assistant and producer, are under-written but serve to show Britten’s prestige and status. Less successfully, there’s the man who most admires Britten, his life partner Peter Pears. It’s an unhappy role for Simon Willmont as avowals of love and dismissal of “passing infatuations” ring hollow.

Then we come to Britten’s victims. The play (and in real life Hemmings) is clear that behavior was “inappropriate” rather than criminal, leaving the audience to judge morality. But Hemmings, despite a good performance from Liam Watson, is written as too mature. There are too many questions left hanging: the character’s class, or “rough edges”, and the absence of his parents. One great touch, which McArthur gets a lot from, is that Hemmings narrates and helps as a stage hand; his reactions are always worth watching.

Hemmings is seen as a threat rather than a victim, taking us to the most interesting but also flawed parts of the play. As tense rehearsals progress, parallels are drawn between fiction and fact. So, the ambiguity between characters in the opera infects real life. Britten even makes mistakes over Hemmings’ name. It’s a shame the idea isn’t explored more. Meanwhile Britten’s troubles are credited to the illegality of homosexuality. The point is problematic, even nonsensical. The history here is crammed in. And there’s a dream sequence that, as well as being executed poorly, creates too much sympathy for Britten and is crying out to be cut.

While it might seem the play struggles to determine a focus, flip-flopping between Britten, his entourage and Hemmings, it seems more accurate to suggest Kelly doesn’t want one – he provides lots of perspectives. A cool tone for such an emotive subject is an interesting idea. But in the end, this strength becomes Turning the Screw’s weakness. Hemming’s story is truncated and another boy, a ghostly figure who haunts the composer, needs urgent elaboration. Despite trying, the piece is weighted too much to Britten for comfort.

Until 10 March 2024


“Exhibitionists” at the King’s Head Theatre

A new year and a new theatre! The new home for this stellar fringe venue, pretty much behind the pub it takes its name from, is a great start to 2024. And it is commendable that the inaugural production is a new play, written by Shaun McKenna and Andrew Van Sickle. The piece can be generously described as safe – a romantic comedy (of sorts) with an eye on the LGBTQ audience that the King’s Head Theatre admirably serves.

The aim is light entertainment, the inspiration (we’re told) screwball comedies from the 1930s and 40s. There are touches of Alan Ayckbourn too, but the play might best be thought of as an openly gay version of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. These are solid sources and the idea of updating them isn’t bad. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise that the play doesn’t live up to them… it’s a big ask after all.

Ex-lovers, Conor and Robbie, who meet again at an art exhibition, had long experimented with an open relationship. They run off together, leaving their new, younger, boyfriends Mal and Rayyan bereft, before a predictable and improbable ending. The problem isn’t that we can guess what happens next – it’s that the dialogue doesn’t sparkle. There’s little wit and the jokes are lacking.

It’s interesting that the younger characters are better written. Or maybe they are just more interesting? At least, it’s a neat point that they behave less like children than the older men. But it’s a shame some less savoury points from McKenna and Van Sickle’s old-fashioned inspiration have been retained – Conor and Robbie’s attitude to waiting staff and the domestic violence in the play do not sit well with trying to make people laugh nowadays. To be fair, there are some attempts at satire that are topical. An unhappy role for a Norwegian hotelier (performed valiantly by Øystein Lode) and new age therapy (using a spoon!) should be easy targets. And Instagram of course. But there isn’t enough originality here and the jokes continue to be poor.

While the play itself leaves a lot of be desired, praise is deserved when it comes to the production. The five cast members all have a tough job but each manage to make their lines light, even when the jokes don’t land. Ashley D Gayle and Robert Rees convince as a couple who have known each other a long time, even if it is hard to care about their characters. Rolando Montecalvo and Jake Mitchell-Jones both have a clear idea of what the piece is trying to do, even if the material limits them. Credit to director Bronagh Lagan who keeps the action tight, touches of farce are handled particularly well, and ensures the show at least has the energy that the script lacks.

Until 10 February 2024


Photo by Geraint Lewis

“Cyanide at 5” at the King’s Head Theatre

Tom Stoppard fans might venture out to this clever two-hander to see how the playwright Pavel Kohout influenced his work. But the piece deserves a larger audience, as its excellent script debates art and history – and the interaction between the two – with economy and emotional power.

The scenario is simple – an ‘I’m your biggest fan’ kind of visit to a wealthy novelist. There’s suspense, as it’s clear the intense Irene isn’t simply nervous about meeting an author, while the urbane writer Zofia has something to hide. Peter Kavanagh’s tense direction (aided by some classy lighting) has touches of Hitchcock of Highsmith. What’s not to like already?

The power play between the two women is exciting. These are meaty roles that Lise-Ann McLaughlin and Philippa Heimann clearly relish. I’m not sure Irene needs such a strong accent (she has spent most of her life in the UK), but the delivery is good. And Zofia’s frailty doesn’t quite convince, despite an excellent performance from McLaughlin. But this is solid work on characters that could be defined solely by issues, and both performers make them full of life with a palpable sense of their histories. There are also great twists for both, as Kohout plays with who we feel sorry for, or admire, more.

“A voice to her scream”

So, lots to praise. But neither the craftsmanship nor the production’s strengths form the best part of Cyanide at 5! The real satisfaction comes from an intelligent script with a surprisingly light examination of the role of art, alongside a powerful insight into the history of the Holocaust. Kohout isn’t intimidated by either big topic. Zofia defends her book’s profitability because she gave a voice to a victim – but most of her defence is less lyrical. The big concern is authenticity. Yet we’re asked to think about the publishing industry and celebrity alongside how books affect their readers.

As for the power of art, Zofia’s book – and its questioned status as fiction – comes into dramatic conflict with real life. Irene was a refugee, smuggled out of wartime Poland. Zofia has become rich but has lost a lot. Irene’s dangerous anger is overpowering… is it fair? And how well does Zofia’s justification for her carefully revealed actions work? Kohout’s open-ended conclusion is fitting, given the sophistication of emotions and arguments presented.

Until 26 November 2022


Photo by Tara Kelly

“Mediocre White Male” and “Bi Bi Baileigh” at the King’s Head Theatre

These two, out of five, shows in the BOYS! BOYS! BOYS! season are part of a program with the billing “bi-boys, bad boys, biographies and bodies”. Both are enjoyable explorations of masculinity.

Mediocre White Male

This strong monologue, written by performer Will Close with Joe Von Malachowksi, develops and twists with skill. The character performs at a tourist attraction, reciting the same lines over the years, inviting questions about history while telling us about his own past. There are two stories then – both about the kind of men described by the title. How much does the past enforce the present? The script and production are well paced. Although less than an hour, the minutes – in a play keen to consider time – go remarkably quickly.

Avoiding too many plot spoilers, the show starts like a stand-up routine with a bold number of bad jokes but turns into something very different. The direction is focused, the design stripped back. This guy doesn’t seem too bad, if a little too stupid; you might even be lulled into sympathy for him. Feeling a generation gap when you are only 30 must be tough! There’s a sting – as you’ll probably expect – but if a touch predictable, this is a tale well told.

Until 2 September 2022

Bi Bi Baileigh

Slight if sweet, writer and performer Isaac Verrall’s show suffers by comparison with Mediocre White Male but still has merit. The twenty something character, whose love life we learn all about, is appealing but not quite as funny as he could be (the best line comes from Trixie Mattel). Verrall’s performance is energetic but nervous – there are stumbles. The lighting and sound design can be tightened. But Verrall is great with the crowd, using the theatre’s seats and getting us on his side. There is a strong sense of character and place in the piece.

Bi Bi Baileigh isn’t exactly rambling… but could benefit from more structure. Two date scenes are a good idea, and well written, but aren’t quite enough to pivot even a short show. There’s strong observation about casual homophobia and loneliness without being maudlin – well done. If the twist about an unexpected encounter arrives too late, there’s a useful message about sexual fluidity that isn’t heard often enough.

Until 10 September 2022


“Freud’s Last Session” at the King’s Head Theatre

As a battle between great minds, Mark St Germain’s play tackles big issues. Arguments are handled well and the performances in this UK première are strong. If debate is what you want, this off-Broadway hit has plenty.

It’s a meeting between arch atheist Sigmund Freud and the “most reluctant convert” to religion, CS Lewis, so it’s no surprise that the hot topic is the existence of God. To bring out the arguments around theodicy there are two world wars to discuss alongside both men’s troubles, including Freud’s cancer and his wish to end his life.

One problem it’s easy to see coming is the amount of exposition needed. St Germain presents discussion clearly and in context – elegantly so. But there’s still an amount of exposition it’s obvious the men themselves wouldn’t need. There’s a touch too much of “So, you’ve read my…” along with keywords to anchor the audience.

Freud's Last Session at the King's Head Theatre credit Alex Brenner

As an intellectual tennis match, the production is, inevitably, static. Wisely, Brad Caleb Lee’s design doesn’t shy away from this. Peter Darney’s direction keeps the ball moving, including suggestions of action aided by Sam Glossop’s sound design: an air raid is particularly effective.

That potential bombing allows us to see Lewis still traumatised by his experiences in World War I. It’s a great moment for Séan Browne, who takes the part. As with Julian Bird’s Freud, these are admirable, controlled performances never overplaying their characters’ fame. 

Freud’s illness – performed brilliantly by Bird – is difficult to watch. There’s a visceral quality to the pain that might be the most memorable thing about the play. Credit where it’s due – St Germain shows both sides of a complex argument well. But it’s the acting that made the show for me: strong studies that make legendary figures and powerful discussions feel alive.

Until 12 February 2022


Photo by Alex Brenner

“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