Tag Archives: Michael Ross

“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


“The Good Landlord”at the Vault Festival

Crammed to capacity with topicality, this sharp comedy full of serious concerns makes a smart debut show for Metamorph Theatre. It’s the story of two generation renters offered a cheap deal on a flat with a view of Big Ben. The catch is that their new home is full of security cameras. Hilarity and debate follow as Tom and Ed cope, in very different ways, with a live feed to the apartment’s eponymous owner.

Phoebe Batteson-Brown

Driving the show’s comedy is a great performance by Phoebe Batteson-Brown. Playing the brilliant role of an estate agent, there’s a fantastic mix of corporate double-think that plays with being believable and is delivered with deliciously manic touches. There’s a good part, too, for Tiwalade Ibirogba-Olulode as a secretary who sneaks a look at, and falls for, one of the flat’s spied-on occupiers.  A more understated performance makes for a useful contrast and means Ibirogba-Olulode anchors the play.

Tiwalade Ibirogba Olulode

As our heroes, the carefully – and creepily – selected tenants, both Maximillian Davey and Rupert Sadler do a good job of conveying a host of big issues with a light touch. Alongside considerations of technology and privacy, which have a nifty parallel to Ed’s obsession with spies (Sadler delivers this adorably), there’s queasy voyeurism and a consideration of body issues. The hang-ups Davey’s Tom is so quickly labelled with are carefully left open in a sensitive portrayal. Sadler’s strategy is different. He goes all out for comedy with Ed’s toe-curling exhibitionism. This works – he gets the laughs – but it’s testament to the writing that Ed could clearly be a more desperate and edgy character. 

As well as effective work with her cast, director Cat Robey deserves applause for her strong staging of the show in the round, which cleverly conjures up the idea of a panopticon. It’s nobody’s fault that the venue is so far from the des-res. the action takes place in, but it does jar. Maybe some really good landlord would allow an immersive production in a penthouse development still for sale? Given the satire here, probably not! Robey’s direction shows a firm eye for detail and an admirable appreciation of the text.

The script itself is a painful one to critique as its author died so suddenly and so recently. The Good Landlord started as a devised piece that Michael Ross wrote after workshops with the company and it feels that some work remains to be done. Ross was not available for final rehearsals, and it is distressing to wonder about last-minute changes he might have made. As it stands, the play is a little too compact and bijou – scenes need unpacking and developing. But the comedy is great, the dialogue superb. And there are fascinating ideas – the guys as “products” for a voyeuristic project, or “ornaments” for the flat – that are sure to linger. Despite its many merits, there’s a sense of mortgage rather than completion with The Good Landlord. It’s with hope, best wishes, and some confidence given the clear talent here, that this new company moves up the theatre ladder to even bigger things.

Until 10 February 2019


Photos by Ali Wright

“The Shy Manifesto” at the Greenwich Theatre

This wonderful monologue from Michael Ross is on a national tour. Let’s hope the play is showing near you as attendance is thoroughly recommended. It’s part-presentation, akin to a school debate, and also a tender story about youth that’s full of topical relevance. The trials – and joys – of being shy become moving, thought-provoking and funny in a brilliant script.

The production is a bitter-sweet triumph because of its author’s sudden death from cancer this year. While the show is hugely enjoyable, it’s hard not to regret future works we are now deprived of. That Ross missed seeing the show performed is cruel. That those involved have done such a good job is of some consolation.

With The Shy Manifesto’s hero, Callum, Ross has written a fine creation who works well theatrically and makes a great role for Theo Ancient. It’s impossible not to warm to this keen-to-quote teen, who Ancient makes such a charming, flawed figure. Engendering complicity with the audience from the start, Callum’s world view is engrossing, his insecurities and his fate at an end-of-term party affectingly emotional. Ancient moves from cowed moments to bold exuberance, as director Cat Robey paces the show expertly. Robey does particularly well in energising the script with complementary musical accompaniment and lighting. These skills combine to take us into Callum’s Bournemouth bedroom world completely, to make his worries our own and likewise his hopes for the future, be they to stay true to himself or to live around the corner from the British Museum.

Ross hasn’t just penned an unusually good teen drama. His writing reveals facts sometimes lost on our hero, which creates a delicious subtext for the audience. His crush on new boy Gilbert is just one example. It’s fascinating to explore the theme of ‘shycons’ (brilliant term) who are idolised by the introverted. And while evoking a young voice so expertly, there’s a spirit of individualism that should give pause whatever your age. Callum’s questions may be raised in a naïve fashion – he’s 17, after all – but that doesn’t make them less important. Ross uses a young narrator to point out what should be obvious, sometimes unacceptable, to all; and to challenge, frequently in a surprising fashion, some easily accepted assumptions.

Alongside this is a great comedy. Callum’s intellectual pretentions, including his contagious love of words, remind us not to take him too seriously, and it’s a talent to make the vocabulary hilarious all by itself. And the cast of extras we meet – each performed with the help of a single prop (with one notable exception) and seen only through Callum’s eyes – are all worth a joke or three. Ross was an accomplished craftsman and a distinctive voice, his writing full of compassion, intelligence and humour. The Shy Manifesto proclaims these qualities loudly.

On tour until 4 March 2019


Photo by Anthony Hollis

“One Write Stand” by the Front of House Theatre Company

Those who serve at the National Theatre have created a chance to reveal their other talents with their own company that shows us what they really want to do. Along with several productions under their belt, a night of new writing is becoming an annual event. There’s undoubtedly a friends and family feel – it’s a bit like gate crashing a good party – and an atmosphere this supportive has a special attraction.

The first half of the evening presents three short plays that struggle with their time slots. Gavin J Innes does best with his two-hander, a scenario of a drugs test for an athlete, which works well as a sketch. The next two efforts, Solicitation Games by Carl Blades and Selfhood by Aaron Gordon, take on bigger subjects – sex and race – and have lots of ideas but fall down when they introduce third characters, despite the valiant efforts of the performers.

Innes also directs his play. Along with Neil Gordon and Elliott Bornemann, who take charge of the other two, there is a common flaw here (easily corrected). Each play is just a little too slow: laughs laboured, drama drawn out, so problems in the scripts are elaborated rather than eased over. And it should be noted that quieter performances often have more impact: Omar Austin does well as the ‘Zen’-like character caught between two feuding sisters in Selfhood.

Omar Austin in Selfhood

On to the second half. Michael Ross’s Brutalism, set in a high-rise block and concerning gentrification, shows writing of the highest quality. Not a line is wasted, and the lead, Amy Beckett, knows it –she has great fun with the comedy in her role as a social worker-turned-propertydeveloper. It’s a delicious conceit that makes you want more. The twist is a surreal one that could have real bite. But it arrives too quickly, leaving the feeling of a fuller play truncated and puzzling. To end the evening on a real high is I Heart Mary by Emma Bentley. Director Courtney Larkin is full of ideas, while a trio of performers – Mauricia Lewis, Olivia Seaton-Hill and Tricia Wey – is boosted by the crowd. The trick is simple: this a sketch about working in the customer service industry. Plenty of jokes ring true and hit home, while the frustrations are depicted sincerely and the piece doesn’t patronise. Preaching to the choir maybe, but it’s contagiously effective.

4 November 2018


Photos by Alex Grey

“Work makes you Free” at the Vault Festival

This is an exceptional piece of writing from Michael Ross. Four characters deliver interweaving monologues about their working lives, creating intelligent, stimulating drama, brimming with a satire that’s very, very funny.

The four different jobs mean everyone in the audience can quickly identify with a character. There’s a high-flying MP and a wealthy banker who live for their work. Their grasping ambition and thoughtless cynicism are expertly depicted by Nicholas Stafford and Emily Bates. Next is an aspiring singer-songwriter called Kirsty, who works in a Job Centre – a role Miranda Evans makes easily recognisable. And finally there’s an actress (sorry, ‘Theatre Practitioner’), who’s happy on the dole while she works on what she really loves. We’ve all seen her type having coffee at the Young Vic and Laura Pieters tackles the part superbly. So there’s material aplenty for lots of laughs and all is well delivered. But what impresses most is Ross’s even hand: nobody escapes his wit, and you may find your allegiances shift from the character you originally warmed to.

The play is perfectly formed, which is not to say it’s easy to deliver. Director James McKendrick juggles the ideas and the action expertly. He injects the energy a show of talking heads needs, mostly via lighting design and, while there are a couple of stumbles due to the fast pace, McKendrick is right to keep the speed vigorous. Arguably, the play’s dark humour isn’t fully plumbed with the role of Kirsty – the break-up with her boyfriend is potentially comic – but all four performers do justice to the complex rhythm of the piece.

There’s a fifth job to consider – that of the playwright. A delightful twist, playing with meta-theatricality, confirms Ross’s mastery. Connections between characters form cleverly revealed plot points, with topical content on trolling and mental health, and a lot of broken dreams that make the play quietly moving. Alongside all the fun, this is a political play of great maturity. There’s a fiery anger at the stupidity and hypocrisy of shaping our identity around what we do, provoking thoughts that labour away long after the work on stage is over.

Until 25 February 2018


Photo by Robert Piwko

“Happy to Help” at the Park Theatre

This new comedy by Michael Ross is as bright and sparkling as anything on the market. The subject – target, rather – is the big business of supermarkets, the play as thought provoking as it is funny.
A mega store built on former farmland is unwitting host to the UK boss of ‘Frisca’ supermarkets, with Tony masquerading as a shelf stacker, having been put “back in the trenches” by the chain’s American owner. The Toffy Brit meets his match in store manager Vicky, and the laughs come quicker than sales at Christmas time.

Vicky is a gem of a role for the brilliant Katherine Kotz. The Cruella de Vil of Costcutters, the Lady Macbeth of Morrisons, Kotz lands every line perfectly. Director Roxy Cook does well to lavish time here. It’s possible other scenes could have been slowed down, but the comedy skills of all are impressive. With a plot twist that reveals how carefully constructed Kotz’s character is, this is one of the finest performances, and roles, I’ve seen in a long time.

 Jonny Weldon, Rachel Marwood and Charles Armstrong
Jonny Weldon, Rachel Marwood and Charles Armstrong

Superbly supported by Charles Armstrong as the disarmingly affable Tony, there are further fine performances from Ben Mann and Jonny Weldon as two youngsters struggling to find their place in the (supermarket) world. Dreams are dashed and characters corrupted among the dairy aisles. Completing the cast are the excellent David Bauckham, as the big boss jetting in from the States at the first suspicion of Union activity, and Rachel Marwood, who’s in charge of Tony’s induction both when watching a corporate video and then in the pub – a scene that balances tension and laughs to great effect.

The mix of everyday lives and crap jobs, superbly observed, is deftly combined with big themes of corporate and personal responsibility. Ross’s social conscience is razor sharp, the delivery of facts, figures and argument, impeccable and inventive. But it’s Ross’s skill as a satirist, the ability to deal so well with exaggeration, that should make the show a hit: rules and situations seem ridiculous until you realise they already exist or are close to happening.

The comedy here is bold, adventurous and downright clever. As Orwellian doublethink is applied to the corporate world, the results are seriously funny.

Until 9 July 2016


Photos by David Monteith-Hodge

“Protect and Survive” at the Vault Festival

Michael Ross’ comedy drama takes us back to the 1980s and is a brilliant satire about that dire decade. The observations are spot on (there’s even a reference to Clannad) making this short play about three teenagers exploring a nuclear bunker full of laughs. Impressively, as local country boy Jack provides a dangerous adventure for London siblings Kirsty and Charlie, the jokes turn pitch black in the blink of an eye.

Our couple from the capital are blissfully recognisable. With a knowing eye on their “cosmopolitan identity politics”, Ross makes his subject more than just nostalgia. Kirsty has a realistically thin sophistication that Carla Rose renders superbly. Charlie is fantastically funny, his every line worth quoting – bourgeois is “French for Daily Mail reader” – and delivered gleefully by Josh Husselbee.
Protect and Survive VAULT image 2
The central role is Jack, performed with care by Karl Mercer, who injects an intriguing childlike quality into his character. Twisted fantasies become all the more shocking and have a comic edge – some of the situations really shouldn’t this funny, and it’s a gift to make people laugh and then feel slightly ashamed for doing so.

There’s an interesting twist too – a parallel drawn between the danger and paranoia of the Cold War and that surrounding the AIDS crisis – an idea that deserves further exploration. Andrew Pritchard’s direction makes great use of the space (including a lovely scene with torches), which, although uncomfortable and smelly, is perfect for the underground locale of the play. But it’s Ross’s humour that makes the play really exciting. Intelligent and genuinely subversive, this comedy has an energy that indicates how much the writer has to say.

Until 6 March 2016


Photos by Andrew Pritchard

“Write Here Write Now” by Front Of House Theatre Company

It’s a cliché that ‘resting’ actors work as bar staff and ushers in theatres and, predictably, the National Theatre attracts writers, directors and performers whose work you don’t get to see on its stages – yet. An enterprising group, all of whom work at the NT, have set up their own company to showcase their capabilities, creating the best theatre atmosphere I’ve experienced in a long time.

An evening of five short plays show their efforts so far this year. All are energetically performed and cover an impressive variety of styles and subject matter. Michael Ross’s Preoccupied – a superb treat – mixes the politics of the housing crisis with a supernatural twist so effective it got a scream from more than one audience member. Winning performances from Katherine-Ellen Kotz and Karl Mercer show how pin-sharp Ross’s writing is.

Surrender is a tight two-hander by Aaron Gordon, ably performed by Kate Griffin and Luke Gray, that skillfully juggles humour with a serious topic. A similar mix of jokes and tragedy is combined in Katie-Ann McDonough’s We Grew Up in the Back of a Van; a whimsical take on an Irish childhood, brilliantly performed by Emily Carewe-Jefferies and Charlton O’Connor.

Finlay Bain stars in his own piece, Living A Little, a crowd-pleasing Men Behaving Badly sketch with zombies thrown in! And if you think that’s odd, Jill Davy’s Science Experiment is a sci-fi farce that has Ross Virgo as the only human, while Jill Davy, Laurie Harrington and Katie Overstall perform as various planetary bodies.

Perhaps the strongest pieces were the shorter ones, with less time spent spinning scenarios and more emphasis on powerful themes. But there’s no doubt about the talent here: fine writing, brimming with original ideas and great performances. If talent spotting is your thing, keep in touch with Front of House on Twitter. And be nice to the staff next time you order your interval drinks.

15 March 2015

Photo by Patricia Oliveira

“That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” at the Barons Court Theatre

”Fame, fame, fatal fame.” Morrissey’s desire for celebrity, which he sang about in 1985, is one now widely embraced. The Smiths singer imagined embellishing his autobiography in order to boost his creative credentials. Is this a step many of us would make in order to acquire fame? And if we did this, what would the toll be on our loved ones and ourselves?

Michael Ross’s new play, That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore, poses this question of how we narrate our life stories with intelligence and wit. Mark Elias plays Leon Shepherd, a stand-up comedian driven to the edge of sanity while waiting for his big break. Elias conveys his desperation and then astonishment as a series of figures begin to appear from his wardrobe to perform their own stand-up routines.

These ghosts from his past are presented to him by Pete Picton, a delightfully Faustian figure who poses as an experienced comedian and clearly thinks little of Leon’s efforts, despite his own jokes coming from another age. He introduces Leon’s mother (Sacha Walker) and drama teacher (Isabel Carr), whose performances as radical feminist and visionary pedagogue are well-observed caricatures.

Both women seem to have left a scar but, as the plot thickens, we learn that Leon may have a darker secret. The next guest is his old partner Jimmy. Julian Farrance plays the role as a foil to Leon. He possesses the confidence Leon lacks and, while his comedy routine plays around with the truth, he has a sincerity that makes us question his old partner’s story. It’s a suspicion confirmed as Tony Rowden’s Inspector of Police arrives to cap off the wonderfully surreal proceedings – let’s just say a glove puppet is involved.

This is a well-constructed and thought provoking play. At only an hour long, it leaves you wanting more with a resolution that seems too short. There is great ambition here – it takes courage to write and perform consciously bad jokes that will unsettle an audience. Ross’s knowing remarks about the construction of comedy and performance show us we are in safe hands though. There is a sensitive, somewhat maudlin touch here that leaves a lasting impression.

Until 23 May 2010

Photo by Radjan Wahera

Written 19 May 2010 for The London Magazine