Tag Archives: Old Red Lion Theatre

“Nuclear War/Buried/Graceland” at the Old Red Lion Theatre

This trilogy of plays, marked by diversity and connected by a morbid streak, is an uneven but bold effort at very serious theatre for this Islington venue and its artistic director, Alexander Knott.

First up, Buried is the true story of the playwright David Spencer’s father, who was buried alive during World War II. And you do need to know that before you sit down. Presenting a stream of consciousness, recounting a tough life in horrific circumstances, the monologue ends up more confusing than powerful. The performance, by the subject’s grandson James Demaine, is impressive. With quick changes of accents and emotions, the skill is clear. Directors Knott and Ryan Hutton show considerable resourcefulness. But there’s an air of a talent showcase that creates a barrier to being involved in this powerful story.

James Demaine in "Buried" (Credit Charles Flint Photography)
James Demaine in “Buried”

Next is a short sketch, with a mention of war, by Max Saunders-Singer, that shows a teacher having a suicidal breakdown in his classroom. Anthony Cozens takes the role and does well with the audience participation that proves essential to the piece. But relying on the crowd to feed lines proves painful. Despite a firm hand from director Sonnie Beckett, the piece is unclear as to how serious it wants to be. And it’s in questionable taste. Some people don’t want to see a pornographic film projected in the theatre – no matter how blurred.

Anthony Cozens in Graceland (credit Charles Flint Photography)
Anthony Cozens in “Graceland”

The lead attraction, thankfully, makes a superb finale. The first revival of Simon Stephens’ Nuclear War since its premiere at the Royal Court in 2017 reminds us of this exceptional piece. A meditation on grief and mindfulness, it takes in ideas theoretical, astronomical and balletic! Equally cerebral and earthy, it’s mind blowing and moving. Marked by experimentation and abstraction – in stark contrast to the others, which have plenty of biography – the emotion it engenders is remarkable. And the biggest praise is that I liked this production more than the original!

Knott’s decision to present a two-hander (Stephens doesn’t specify the number of performers) makes the action clearer, while retaining a fluid rhythm. Assisted by Lewie Watson, and with movement direction by Georgia Richardson, the precision and musicality of the text is brought out – a tap dancing section is quite brilliant. The performances, from Zoë Grain and Freya Sharp, are flawless. Often speaking in tandem and using the venue’s intimacy to great effect, this is expert work. It’s not a case of saving the show – the play makes up the bulk of the production – but Nuclear War is more than enough all on its own.

Until 21 March 2020


Photos by Charles Flint

"Last Orders" at the Old Red Lion

This show starts with a good old-fashioned ghost story. It’s a monologue, impeccably delivered by Reece Connolly, about a meeting with the supernatural that fits nicely into the genre’s venerable traditions. I could listen to this kind of quality story-telling all night. But although there is a similar scene later, where the past is dramatised for us, this project expands the theme of encounters in a different direction by showing experiments into the paranormal by new company The Knock Knock Club. The mix might make for a show more hotchpotch than haunting, but Last Orders is great entertainment.

The experimentation is literal – the company spent an after-hours night in the Old Red Lion pub with a ghost hunter, visiting the theatre we sit in (known for props mysteriously disappearing), the bar (where furniture has apparently moved of its own accord) and cellar (once used as a morgue). Their findings are presented in an appealing, open fashion with nice theatrical flair – never underestimate how effective candles and torches can be. Or billiard balls. Caroline Buckley and Christopher Keegan complete the trio and build up a great rapport with the audience.

As a thorough unbeliever, I wasn’t convinced by what unfolded but I made sure to take along a friend who’s more credulous, (sorry, open-minded). He’s even been to a séance. I giggled and he gasped, so there’s something to please everyone. More prosaically, the company could have spent more time explaining their Ghost Hunter’s equipment, would benefit from better presentation of photographs and could detail their evening more (including theories that debunk ghosts). The material is too good for just 70 minutes and the atmosphere too convivial to end so quickly.

If the docu-theatre angle is a little thin, a good night out is the bigger aim. The comedy here is super. From an effort to interview Rolo, the pub dog, to Connolly tackling his fear of the Ouija board – willing to sacrifice himself for fringe theatre, Knock Knock’s crew don’t take themselves too seriously and the result is a lot of laughs. Basing the show at a much-loved venue is sure to pique interest and the company is wise to give us a rundown of historical drinkers and lots of great stories. Of course, there are no ghosts, let alone the crowd of spectres expected. The brilliant line, “We’re going to need a bigger planchette”, proves unfounded. But it is a great line! Last Orders may be more funny than frightening, but it’s the best closing time in a pub I’ve ever been to.

Until 26 October 2019


“Circa” at the Old Red Lion Theatre

As this is his first full-length play, it’s tempting to assume that Tom Ratcliffe is a young man. Regardless, his writing contains prodigious insight. There are so many intelligent observations in Circa that it might be thought of as a wise play, one that stays with you and makes you think. Following one man at three different life stages to explore the theme of loneliness, Ratcliffe seems capable of writing for any age, with dialogue that is consistently strong and often funny. Issues that could have hashtags and heavy debates about heteronormativity are delivered with ease. The neat conceit of covering three decades in its protagonist’s life is ultimately mishandled, and the play ends terribly but, with the aid of director Andrew Twyman, Circa is a particularly impressive failure.

As a young man, our hero encounters sexual violence. In his 30s he tries to settle down, no matter what the compromise. Then in later life he ends up dating online. All this is sensitively performed by Daniel Abelson, Thomas Flynn and Antony Gabriel. And they are ably supported by Joseph Rowe as two very different love interests. Twyman’s efforts to provide space for all this are admirable but there are too many issues touched on too quickly. While the play isn’t without surprises (which includes a fantastic role for the excellent Jenna Fincken), the tone is too insistently melancholic.

The biggest problem is also Ratcliffe’s boldest move – to take us strangely out of time and focus on characters. The isolated emphasis on emotional motivation in the play is sharp, but other considerations are too stripped back. It leads to confusion and a disappointingly hollow feel as a whole. There’s little background for our hero, more but not much for some of his sexual encounters. For all the time we spend with the guy, and the three performer’s efforts to make him appealing, the poor fellow doesn’t even get a name. It’s an interesting point of contrast – many plays with gay characters take obsessive care over the community’s history while here the past seems deliberately avoided. It makes Circa novel but, as the title indicates, it also makes positioning the play in time a frustrating, distracting difficulty. Ratcliffe could argue that it is not his focus – fair enough – but he contradicts himself; with a final scene set in the future in which the piece crashes to a conclusion. The idea that the problem of loneliness is getting (inevitably?) worse is sprung on us with surprising ineptitude. A piece that felt so personal flares out pointlessly and ends up insubstantial. It’s a shock when so much else about the play is admirable.

Until 30 March 2019


Photo by Lidia Crisafulli.

“I am of Ireland” at the Old Red Lion Theatre

State of the nation plays have their admirers but the aims of large narratives and big claims can backfire horribly. Seamus Finnegan’s new play, presenting a history of the troubles in Northern Ireland alongside contemporary politics in the Republic, falls victim to its ambitions on both counts. The collection of brief vignettes are unsatisfying in isolation and fail to cohere into a big picture.

Amongst many plots mangled we meet old friends at a funeral, a family coming to terms with their daughter’s vocation as a nun and a priest stabbed in a racist attack. All rammed together in a breathless effort to examine history, sectarianism, the church and immigration. Arguably any of these stories could be developed, but each contains improbabilities, most notably a former terrorist surprised by the amnesty in the peace process.

It’s a shame the brief scenes deny the cast the chance to shine. In particular the hard work of Shenagh Govan, entering and exiting at speed, is wasted. Angus Castle-Doughty and Richard Fish do well playing various psychopaths and Euan Macnaughton struggles valiantly recounting a life as a terrorist. But these are brief moments not worth the wait. All the performers take on many roles but rather than impress, several casting decisions come across as desperate (if Jerome Ngonadi as a Mother Superior was supposed to be a joke I am afraid nobody was laughing).

Ken McClymont’s direction does nothing to aid the play. Adding songs and constantly moving around chairs between scenes becomes interminable. And some cheap costumes don’t help either. A final problem is Finnegan’s dialogue: full of facts characters must know and downright nonsense, Finnegan can’t even reveal a location without being florid. The vocabulary is unconvincing – someone uses the word harlot sincerely. When all else fails, a character is made to scream. The subject of Ireland and religion should be a fruitful one for a playwright but this is theatrical purgatory.

Until 30 June 2018


Photo by Michael Robinson

“Plastic” at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Plays with verse can divide an audience but, when written as well as this sound piece by Kenneth Emson, they can command attention and respect. Starting with the poetry of football, this new piece develops from a slightly dull, if sensitive, inspection of playground politics and young love into a powerful drama of teenage psychopathy. Emson doesn’t have much new to say about his subject matter – school can be tough and, increasingly, violent – but he does write about it all very effectively.

Aided by Josh Roche’s tight direction and four strong performances, Plastic is a powerful look at toxic masculinity and a twisty thriller. There’s a love story that confounds expectations, well performed by Mark Weinman as a former schoolboy football star, and Madison Clare as his younger girlfriend, Lisa. The only woman in the piece, Clare deserves special credit for bringing as much complexity to her character as possible. Another couple are best mates Jack and Ben, whose unpopularity at school leads to homophobic bullying and the play’s disturbing finale. Again, the outcome is surprising and both Louis Greatorix and Thomas Coombes, who take the parts, are sympathetic and scary by turns and engagingly believable.

Obsessed with pivotal events, the play looks at the moments that lives change and people become defined by their past. From the start we are looking back – note that only two characters wear school uniforms, and there’s some meta-theatricality as recall becomes contested, especially around Lisa, who is the community’s “dark secret”. But going to and fro in time, in one instance to an imagined future, becomes confusing. It doesn’t help that much dialogue seems addressed to one of designer Sophie Thomas’ admittedly stylish light bulbs. Stockists’ details please.

With his look at the young white working class, Emson treads a fine line – it’s clear we’re all supposed to go to college and make sure we don’t have kids too early. Condemning the “shitty little town” that is the play’s location needs substantiating, since presenting staying there as an unquestionable tragedy is overplayed. Thankfully, the emotional depth of the characters is satisfying and the plotting strong. Attention to detail and careful performances, leading to explosive violence superbly handled by Roche, make the conclusion of Plastic fantastic.

Until 21 April 2018


Photo by Mathew Foster

“The Moor” at the Old Red Lion Theatre

If you’re looking for a good little thriller for these long dark nights this new play by Catherine Lucie serves smart chills. It’s the story of Bronagh, a new mother in an unhappy relationship, who lives an isolated existence and suffers a mental breakdown after a drunken night that is connected – possibly – to a disappearance.

It’s a twisty plot, not to be spoiled, but it’s clear from the start, as she struggles with dreams, myths and memories, that Bronagh is not a reliable narrator. How much and how consciously she manipulates recollections remains the tantalising open question. Psychology and a suggestion of the supernatural are all juggled well by director Blythe Stewart, with the aid of Holly Pigott’s superb set of rotating screens, and some nicely creepy aural contributions from Anna Clock.

There’s some physics, too, via a book Bronagh has read that seems, understandably, to have further addled her brain. This is an interesting avenue that needs clearer elaboration to help the audience a bit. The dialogue isn’t flawless (there’s a ‘gee whizz’), and both male roles could have more depth – a policeman investigating the missing person lacks a dangerous edge. The seeds are there and I wonder if some editing has been too ruthless? Meanwhile, Bronagh’s partner is too generic a “bad sort” and too gullible. Both roles are well performed, by Pat Magnanti and Oliver Britten respectively, but the play is short and they could have easily been extended.

In the lead role Jill McAusland does an excellent job with a fascinating character. Is Bronagh “not clever enough” or really a “clever clogs”? She is frightened one moment and calculating the next. Sympathetic and scary is a tough call for a performer but McAusland makes you care about the character a great deal. Lucie mixes mental health and domestic abuse issues to great effect, making this a thought-provoking piece. But above all, it is a great yarn, deserving of all those words that make a thriller: intense, taut, engrossing, exciting and entertaining. This play gets a star for each.

Until 3 March 2018


Photo by The Other Richard

“Mrs Orwell” at the Southwark Playhouse

Tony Cox’s play, a sell-out at the Old Red Lion Theatre, should enjoy continued success with this transfer south of the river. A careful mix of literary biography and period detail, it’s a calm and stately piece, with Jimmy Walters’ direction adding to the air of polished professionalism.

As George Orwell lies dying in a far from down-and-out hospital room, he declares his love for the young and glamorous Sonia Brownell. The proposal is that she becomes his “literary widow” as much as wife and, to the quaint surprise of all, she accepts.

Orwell’s eccentricity is utilised for entertainment. With the exception of a brief Marquis de Sade moment it’s all endearingly old-fashioned. And there’s masses of name dropping fun as Lucian Freud draws Orwell’s portrait and starts an affair with Sonia. Freud makes a lovely cameo for Edmund Digby Jones who doesn’t hold back on the Bohemian flair – all the better as a foil to “Grumpy George”.

Cressida Bonas takes the title role, while Peter Hamilton Dyer as Orwell is really the focus. His is a careful study – his depiction of tuberculosis impressive, while conveying insecurities, intelligence and flashes of rage. The perfectly cast Bonas feels like a natural in the part – you can easily imagine her at the Café Royal. It’s a shame we run out of time for Sonia’s character to develop. What she’ll do as Orwell’s executor is full of dramatic potential.

Disappointingly, the play falls apart at Orwell’s death. There’s a bizarre rant from his publisher (played by Robert Stocks), left sweating in the scrabble to send us away with some facts. It’s a clumsy lapse of confidence to end a pleasantly nostalgic and convincing glimpse at literary genius in a bygone age.

Until 23 September 2017


Photo by Samuel Taylor

“Talk Radio” at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Theatre loves finding relevance in older plays and it’s easy to see why a revival of Eric Bogosian’s 1987 play is a candidate. One night with a ‘shock jock’ on US talk radio is a great scenario and the combination of free speech as a credo, with neo-Nazi’s and loons leaping on board, can’t help but feel prescient. It’s a relief, in a sense, to be reminded that hate speech is nothing new; as the play’s lead actor Matthew Jure notes in the programme, these phone-in shows were the proud parents of Twitter trolls. There are plenty of salient observations and much to ponder on.

It’s a shame neither the play nor production lives up to its potential. While Jure’s DJ, Barry Champlain, specialises in cutting off callers, Bogosian himself leaves too much hanging. There’s a hoax bomb threat, a love affair and an impromptu visit from a caller (a role Ceallach Spellman does well with), but no storyline feels resolved. Maybe there’s not enough for the supporting cast to work with: monologues from Barry’s colleagues, played by Molly McNerney and George Turvey, are the only chance they have to stand out. Director Sean Turner doesn’t inject enough energy, so there’s little sense of the drama of live broadcast and the script’s humour is blunted. And, while Max Dorey’s design is impressive, it proves impractical.

Another dead end is Barry’s history, a mythology created by the radio station manager. We need to see a lot more of Andy Secombe, who plays this part – his is the only character who develops past cliché. And the idea of Barry as a fraud could have been explored much earlier, since his real agenda and his delusions of grandeur form the kernel of the play. Jure conveys desperation and malice well and makes a final breakdown moving, but he’s sorely lacking in charisma (after all, Barry has fans). Instead, there’s only contrariness – quickly boring and frequently silly – and anger. Talk Radio has fallen for Barry’s own nemesis – taking things too seriously – leading to listeners tuning in and dropping off.

Until 23 September 2017


Photo by Cameron Harle

“Benighted” at the Old Red Lion Theatre

A spooky story is fine Christmas fare. Plenty of the necessary ingredients for chilling spines are present in this J.B. Priestley story, with two sets of travellers seeking shelter in an isolated house on one of those dark and stormy nights. Economically adapted for the stage by Duncan Gates, the director is Stephen Whitson, and the two join forces to create two or three jump-in-your-seat moments – all the more admirable given that the raw material is a world away from Priestley’s strongest work.

Harrie Hayes, Tom Machell and Matt Maltby play three bright young things whose car breaks down as thunder claps overhead. All do well to flesh out their characters and control the humour that comes with those RP accents, though only Maltby’s role, as Roger Penderel, really has enough meat on it to allow him to shine. More thunder and more arrivals: a businessman and his chorus-girl fiancée, parts Ross Forder and Jessica Bay work hard on but are flatly written. The unwilling hosts for these travellers are just as clichéd, but here Forder, joined by Michael Sadler playing his brother and servant, gets to show off a strong transformation. A violent secret in the attic comes as a lightning flash – Priestley’s social commentary at last – as we meet Roger’s alter ego, like himself a damaged war veteran but, in this case, a dangerous one.

Benighted is especially interesting for fans (or students) of Priestley. Plenty of the playwright’s later preoccupations are nascent: social justice, class, the passage of time. The voice that we recognise as Priestley’s is present but says little that is coherent. Despite Gates’ and Whitson’s noble efforts, the characters are slim and the treatment of themes so peremptory that the show is never more than flawed fun.

Until 7 January 2017


Photo by Chris Gardner

“If We Got Some More Cocaine I Could Show You How I Love You” at the Old Red Lion Theatre

London’s fringe theatres have a commendable number of plays that appeal to a gay audience. But, let’s be honest, too many have a historical focus, while gratuitous nudity often compensates for a lack of imagination. At the risk of offending playwright John O’Donovan who may not welcome any such comparison – this piece is well written by any standard – the unusual gay romance his accomplished debut work explores is a more sophisticated affair with a strong, contemporary feel.

The action takes place on a roof, impressively rendered by designer Georgia de Grey, onto which two young men make a bungled escape after a drug-fuelled burglary. These aren’t your stock gay characters. Free of angst about sexuality, the story is about all the other things in their lives. O’Donovan skilfully reveals the extent of their troubles as working-class lads living in a small town in County Clare, while showing how profound their affection for one another really is.

Mikey is a fighter, maybe just a common thug, struggling to show emotion behind bravado. Alan Mahon brings out the roles charisma, delivers the jokes well and shows the writing’s subtlety. The object of Mikey’s affection is Casey, not quite the victim he first appears (there’s a lovely twist here), and a role that Ammar Duffus develops beautifully. Both actors make the offstage families that O’Donovan describes vivid – a sure sign of strong writing – and the chemistry between them, as they struggle to establish a partly covert relationship, is terrific.

The couple’s musings on life are frank, funny and, considering how much cocaine they snort, wise. There’s a strong dose of realism, well balanced by director Thomas Martin, and tension too, as the police circle the roof, Casey makes plans to fly away from his problems and Mikey has to come down to earth and face his future. It’s the tight dialogue around the potential and problems of escaping provincial life that ring true. This cleverly modest play will speak to a wider audience than you might suspect.

Until 24 September 2016


Photo by Claudia Marinaro