Tag Archives: Park Theatre

Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] at the Park Theatre

You might remember our former Prime Minister’s appeal for Cool Britannia pop stars, or that the man himself was once in a band. But a musical about Tony Blair is still a crazy idea. Which is partly the point of this gloriously mad show from Harry Hill and Steve Brown. Tony! must be seen to be believed.

This trip through Blair’s life and career is crammed with jokes, from simply awful puns to references and catchphrases. But note that you need be a specific age to appreciate the show. The interval saw some frantic Googling and puzzled under-40s.

As a history of New Labour as much as one man, Hill and Brown are so keen not to eulogise their subject that they end up a touch fanatical. The show isn’t scared of offending anyone – which a lot of people commend – and some of the jokes are jaw-droppingly tasteless.

Tony is presented as a grinning idiot. Charlie Baker does well in the lead role. Howard Samuels’ Peter Mandelson is predictably Mephistophelean, but drives the action effectively and gets to do a trick with a balloon. Just how much Holly Sumpton’s Cherie gets out of a Liverpudlian twang is a constant surprise. There are so many cameos I lost count, but I won’t forget Madison Swan’s perfect Princess Diana in a hurry. The joke is that the production is rough, ready and self-referential – I’ve never seen so many bad wigs – and the technique is effective if you have a good memory.

Unfortunately, the musical performances are underwhelming. As for the songs themselves, your toe might tap and the mix of pop pastiche is enlivened by ballroom variations that could be made more of with a bigger band. Tony! is more a revue than a musical, which is fine, but some of the singing is just poor.

It’s Hill and Brown who end up the stars. As well as their comedy careers, they produced the underrated I Can’t Sing and their distinctive sense of humour has a great surreal touch. Combining satire with silliness, you can never quite guess what’s coming next. A lot of it is crazy, some of it cheap and nasty, but I did laugh a lot.

It’s a shame the production doesn’t end happily. But then neither does any career in politics. How to handle the war in Iraq is a concern literally voiced by characters. Inspired by music hall, numbers for Osama bin Laden, Colonel Gaddafi and George Bush aren’t a bad idea. Director Peter Rowe’s efforts to speed up the pace are wise, but the laughs dry up. It’s a shame, really. There’s plenty of talent and clear intention, but it all goes a bit wrong. Now what does that remind me of?

Until 9 July 2022

www.parktheatre.co.uk

Photo by Mark Douet

“Ghosts of the Titanic” at the Park Theatre

It’s impressive to give the story of the world’s most famous shipwreck a new twist. Ron Hutchinson’s solid play speculates that the iceberg didn’t exist and creates a conspiracy theory involving corrupt bankers and businessmen. This is a topical spin on fake news being as old as newspapers themselves but, above all, Ghosts of the Titanic is a cracking thriller.

There are two newshounds here – an ambulance-chasing reporter and his hard-nosed editor. The characters are written well and superbly performed by John Hopkins and Lizzy McInnerny. The cynicism around the making of the news is thought-provoking. Do we really believe the ship’s band played on as death approached?

The power of words and narrative continues as we encounter representatives of the law (well, a Pinkerton private eye) and the medical profession (it’s a good plot twist, so I’ll avoid details). Both characters, performed capably by Sarah Ridgeway and Clive Brill, have comic touches. The humour shows Hutchinson’s skills but, to my taste, dampens tension.

Walking with the dead

Even when there are exaggerated moments, all the characters are entertaining. But, aware that conspiracies can become tiresome, flimsy affairs, Hutchinson makes sure there’s strong emotion powering the show. We follow a grieving heroine – a big part for Genevieve Gaunt, who is seldom off stage and always captures attention. And we get our information from an engineer (an impassioned performance from Fergal McElherron).

Both the grief this tragedy engendered and its status as a defining event in history are handled well. There is a sense of responsibility that saves sensational moments from becoming disrespectful. Gaunt’s sensitive yet determined character wobbles, but is ultimately convincing. The strong plot moves along expertly, with Eoin O’Callaghan’s firm direction showing its strength in making flashback scenes clear. In short, the story is good and the story telling is expert.

Until 2 April 2022

www.parktheatre.co.uk

Photos by Piers Foley

“Cratchit” at the Park Theatre

‘Tis the theatrical season for Christmas carols. If you’re looking for something a little less traditional, then Alexander Knott’s new play is worth treating yourself too.

Cratchit is a spin on the Dickens classic. It uses the same characters and there are still ghosts. Bob, Scrooge’s clerk, is the focus. While the miserly master is haunted, Cratchit has his own problems to deal with.

Expanding on the poverty Dickens has already written about with legendary skill isn’t wholly successful. But taking a minor role in the original means there’s plenty of room to expand and Knott takes advantage of this.

We see an avuncular Bob at first. The surprise is that he likes a drink. John Dagleish is excellent with the audience and has fantastic charm. As Cratchit’s problems grow, the character darkens. The “painted smile” puts on as part of a cowering servility hides a good deal of anger. There are powerful moments dealing with fear and depression. And it’s a shock to see him contemplate suicide.

The role is an excellent showcase for a performer. Taking on other characters, including Scrooge, Dagleish’s acting is of the highest quality. Likewise, his co-star Freya Sharp who offers admirable support in a variety of roles.

John-Dagleish-and-Freya-Sharp-in-Cratchit-at-the-Park-Theatre-credit-Charles-Flint-Photography
John Dagleish and Freya Sharp

The script is competent, it holds attention. Knott’s own clever direction helps a great deal. It’s all going very well until the ghosts arrive. They are more future focused, fair enough, and come with surprises I won’t ruin. But the glimpses at life that restore Bob’s faith in Christmas are so rushed, they become nonsensical. Knott doesn’t give himself, his audience, or his ideas enough time.

Dagleish keeps up the good work. There is more for Sharp to do – and she does it well. And Emily Bestow’s set comes into its own – the design gets a big tick even if I’m not sure about why we visit the places evoked. If some parts of Cratchit disappoint, there’s a lot of enjoy.

Until 8 January 2022

www.parktheatre.co.uk

Photos by Charles Flint

“When Darkness Falls” at the Park Theatre

The promise of a spine-chilling ghost story is always welcome, and this show has not one but five spooky tales, which surely counts as good value.

The spectres range from the 17th century to the present day, framed within the device of a local Guernsey historian, one John Blondel, vlogging. There’s a lot of history – including witch hunts and pirates – that will have you Googling background stories afterwards. The carefully constructed script, from Paul Morrissey and James Milton, plays with setting up connections between the stories well.

Morrissey and Milton want just the right amount of sensation to distinguish the narrator, Blondel’s vlog guest, from your average journalist. They have their reasons. A newspaper’s approach to ghost stories is said to be “short, cheap, generic, repetitive” – avoiding all that creates a script that is a solid, traditional affair. If the dialogue isn’t shy of clichés, they are justified in adding to the atmosphere.

In short, the tales are good. And the telling is even better. These aren’t easy roles. Blondel is presented, at first, as a too-predictable sceptic. Attempts to lighten the mood are a misstep on Morrissey and Milton’s part. And a potential plot spoiler…

When-Darkness-Falls-credit-Pamela-Raith
Will Barton and Alex Phelps

‘The Speaker’ is a little too obviously otherworldly. This isn’t really hidden (should it be?). Don’t worry, as there are more than enough twists to come.

While the characters aren’t perfect, the performances are. Will Barton works hard as Blondel suggesting an underlying fear with great skill. Participating in the stories – as a character as well as a commentator – impresses further. As The Speaker, Alex Phelps mixes vulnerability with a delicious sense of menace, and manages to vary a performance that could all too easily be static. Above all, Phelps is a great storyteller.

Further aiding effectiveness is Morrissey’s direction and some particularly strong sound design from Daniel Higgott. Wind, whistles and screaming might not be particularly original, but they work. Even better, Higgott appreciates the power of silence and uses it to create tension very well indeed. Excitement and interest are present throughout this quality show. Chilling spines is harder but, if When Darkness Falls doesn’t quite manage that, it is still sure to entertain.

Until 4 September 2021

www.parktheatre.co.uk

Photos by Pamela Raith

“Jury” from the Park Theatre

Yet another venue missed by many during the lockdown is Jez Bond’s Finsbury Park theatre. But while the stage lights are off, work has still been going on. This entertaining new play from Martin Murphy, part of a creative learning programme forced online, is the result.

Written to be performed as a conference call, the format may be already over-familiar but it works well enough. Jury is distinguished by its ambition and subject matter. If the comedy and drama aren’t as well balanced as they might be, it’s a lot more interesting than its real-life equivalent.

The scenario first: this Zoom call is a serious one. Twelve members of the public are called to a high-profile criminal trial. The pressure social distancing has placed on the justice system, added to by a time limit on deliberations, adds topicality. If the comedy tone, like some of the characters, tackles the problem lightly, the issue is well-worth remembering.

Of the 12 characters we meet, many are too broadly depicted and their prejudices a touch too transparent. Possibly, the wish to distinguish a large number of people quickly preoccupied Murphy. Nonetheless, Sara Odeen-Isbister’s heavily accented Ukranian Anya is naughtily funny. And Stefania Jardim’s Jal is great value, too. It’s all held together nicely by the increasingly exasperated foreperson Mel, played by Jacquie Cassidy. Maria Thomas manages to inject some drama with her character, Keenan, talking the most sense. It’s a shame Eileen Christie’s character of Pat is the only one to have serious moments alongside nice comic touches.

As for the show’s ambition, anyone who has to deal with calls of this kind is sure to be impressed by the rehearsal process, let alone the final outcome. Director Amy Allen, with help from video editor Akeal Iqbal, highlight the flaws and problems of the technology with a natural touch. The action is swift and exciting. This is one conference call that isn’t so frustrating you want it to be over as soon as possible.

Until 2 September

parktheatre.co.uk

“La Cage aux Folles [The Play]” at the Park Theatre

Jean Poiret’s French comedy of manners with a drag twist has never been translated into English before. That’s a surprise given its enormous stage success, along with the two films and hit musical it has spawned. Thankfully, director Jez Bond thought the lack a shame – I agree – and has recruited Simon Callow to produce a script that works a treat.

There are bold decisions behind the production, namely, to make the show gloriously old-fashioned. Time and place – the French Riviera in the early 1970s – are enforced; there’s even a reference to the UK joining the EU. As a result, there are plenty of attitudes that seem archaic. The play makes for an interesting history lesson, if you want one, just in case anyone forgets Drag can be political. And you might find the role of Jacob the servant (which Syrus Lowe tackles well) intriguing. If a lot of the gender politics is worlds away from being “woke”, maybe it’s best to just shrug and feel smug that things are better now.

There’s nothing serious about La Cage aux Folles. It only makes sense to judge it as silly and this is good nonsense. The plot is clear while crazy touches build well. The jokes are good, although in truth it’s the performers rather than the lines that get the laughs. No matter, it’s a fun evening and all the more credit to Bond and his cast.

La Cage aux Folles at the Park Theatre  By Jean Poiret. Photo by Mark Douet
Michael Matus and Paul Hunter

Paul Hunter and Michael Matus play the flamboyant couple, performer and owner of the titular nightclub, with assurance. Their insults and rows are enjoyable and both performers make the most of every moment. Arthur Hughes is good as their son, Laurent, whose future marriage drives the plot: it’s a tricky role that needs to introduce an amount of restraint to proceedings. There’s also strong support from Mark Cameron and Simon Hepworth.

The fun doesn’t increase quite as much as you might hope. As our heroes meet their conservative future family, hosting them for a disastrous dinner party, the second act feels skimpy. Female characters get a raw deal. But Hunter and Matus keep up the energy with some quick transformations adding fun. Remarkably, the play manages to escape the shadow of its famous progeny to show itself as a fine farce in its own right.

Until 21 March 2020

www.parktheatre.co.uk

Photos by Mark Douet

"Fast" at the Park Theatre

Kate Barton’s play is a thriller with serious ideas behind it. A fasting ‘cure’ for all diseases, practised by ‘Dr’ Linda Hazzard – did the name warn nobody? – illustrates the historical popularity of dangerous diets and our continued fascination with true crime. Both factors make this story from 1910 resonate with a contemporary audience. And just as pleasingly, Barton skilfully highlights the sinister to present an effective, even camp, frightener that is thoroughly entertaining.

Jordon Stevens & Natasha Cowley in "Fast" at the Park Theatre
Jordon Stevens & Natasha Cowley

There is a problem with the doctor’s victims, two English sisters who come across as too gullible. While Natasha Cowley and Jordon Stevens do a good job, especially as their characters succumb to lunatic Linda’s “beautiful treatment”, these well-off walking well aren’t credible. That they really existed, and went off on a whim to be starved, doesn’t help the drama (the phrase “you couldn’t make it up” springs to mind). I suspect Barton knows this; she tries hard to add colour to the roles but mentions of suffrage and Picasso ring hollow and attempts at humour fall flat. It’s only the horror of the situation that grips.

Daniel Norford in "Fast" at the Park Theatre
Daniel Norford in “Fast” at the Park Theatre

Thankfully, Fast has plenty going for its other protagonists. Daniel Norford has a lovely role as a reporter determined to expose what’s going on. Barton juggles the “muck-raking” hack’s – and the media’s – mixed motives when it comes to sensationalism and misogyny. The introduction of court room scenes is expertly handled. Eventually, Norford makes a convincingly heroic figure – and it’s nice to see a press man cast as such.

The play’s success comes down to its villain. Barton maintains an element of eccentricity to Hazzard that works well in the hands of Caroline Lawrie, who isn’t scared of exaggerating. A flair for the theatrical is delivered as impressively as Lawrie’s scary stare. She even manages to make moving the set around spooky and stage manages the action by being in charge of the lights!

As well as Ben Bull and Dan Bywater’s excellent lighting design, director Kate Valentine’s production boasts a great soundtrack (well done David Chilton) and plenty of tension. Maybe, given its subject matter, Fast shouldn’t be quite so much fun. But just how delicious a story this horrible can be, a fact lost on neither the newspapers of the day or Barton, is food for thought in its own right. 

Until 9 November 2019

www.parktheatre.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

"Black Chiffon" at the Park Theatre

A big hit back in 1949, this psychological drama by Lesley Storm has been revived by director Clive Brill. It’s a quality production and the writing of a high standard. But there’s no escaping that this is a period piece with ideas trapped in their own time.

When a well-off housewife becomes a petty thief a “mind specialist” is called in to help with her legal defence. As a whydunit, it’s an effective premise, if a little simple, and Sharp gives us a close study of family friction that’s nicely delivered by Jack Staddon and Eva Feiler as the son and daughter. It turns out the former is “locked together emotionally” with his mother, a position both were driven to by a jealous patriarch. As the wicked father figure, Ian Kelly has a good go, but the “frightening presence” he is supposed to have cast over wife and son isn’t convincing – he is too sorry a figure to have caused much tension.

Ian Kelly and Abigail Cruttenden in "Black Chiffon" at the Park Theatre
Ian Kelly and Abigail Cruttenden

There’s a lot of RP accents and stiff upper lips (all delivered well) that raise smiles surely not intended by Storm. But that isn’t the big problem. The encounters between our nouveau klepto Alicia and her doctor, handled spryly enough by Nicholas Murchie, are focal points that prove myopic. A diagnosis of empty-nest syndrome is arrived at ridiculously quickly. Psychiatrists as all-seeing saviours may have been novel for Storm’s audience, but the idea just seems odd nowadays. A further twist, motivated by Alicia’s will to sacrifice herself for her family, comes as no surprise. It’s not so much an upper-middle-class obsession with privacy as the doctor’s admiration of such that seems silly.

Unless you’re particularly interested in post-war theatre Black Chiffon only has one big attraction: a star turn from Abigail Cruttenden in the lead role. She gives Alicia a dignity that’s believable and makes you care about the character. Better still, she is wonderfully natural; understated yet emotionally intense, with period touches kept under control. There are tricks here that many a performer in an historical drama could learn from and, although it’s a close call, Cruttenden makes the show worth seeing.

Until 12 October 2019

www.ParkTheatre.co.uk

Photos by Mark Douet

“Gently Down The Stream” at the Park Theatre

A world première from Martin Sherman, directed by Sean Mathias, counts as a coup for this North London venue. The 80-year-old playwright’s latest piece is a careful meditation on age and, through the prism of an older artist’s affair with a young man, gives us a little gay history that ripples out to touch the most profound human experiences. It is crisp, rich and wonderfully well written.

In Beau, an older gentleman from the Southern States who becomes our hero, Sherman has written a great creation. Recognisable yet full of surprises and depth, he makes a great role for Jonathan Hyde. A series of beautifully written monologues about Beau’s life make the play worth watching all on their own. In a sense, these are all ‘war stories’, as a personal history that starts before World War II follows the course of gay rights. Sherman’s skill and Mathias’ tactful handling of these scenes banish any sense of them as contrived and Hyde gives a performance of great tenderness and subtlety. Careful about exaggerating any stereotypical touches, Hyde’s is a truly great performance.

We’re on less sure ground with the play’s younger characters. Rufus, who starts an affair with Beau, suffers from bi-polar disorder so a ‘manic energy’ is called for. But discussion of his health, which should be a central concern – mental health is a major issue among young gay men – is shied away from. Rufus’ next partner is a ‘performance artist’ and even less well defined. The idea behind his occupation is clearly to form a sense of legacy between gay artists, but it ends up just being a source of humour. Ben Allen and Harry Lawtey try hard in both roles, and they make them engaging, but the idealised friendship that develops pushes credibility too far and the jokes about youth seem too carefully planned. Ultimately, the other two characters pale next to the gloriously vivid Beau.

A “thirst for the past” exhibited by both young men shouldn’t be the surprise it is to Beau. History, a form of self-narrative, can surely be added to the list of things people need and seek. Theatre testifies to and answers this search. A close, recent, parallel is Matthew Lopez’s masterpiece The Inheritance. The works make for an interesting compare-and-contrast that, for most, will focus on duration. Sherman packs almost as much into his hour and half as Lopez does in nearly seven. A sense of urgency in the writing is balanced by Mathias’ steady hand, so not a moment feels rushed. And there’s a lot less misery here – more a sense of hope that comes from experience and a wry eye. Maybe wisdom provokes brevity as much as wit? Sherman is clearly gifted with all three qualities.

Until 16 March 2019

www.parktheatre.co.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Rosenbaum’s Rescue” at the Park Theatre

The fate of Denmark’s Jews during World War II is a starting point in A Bodin Saphir’s play. But it’s relatively recent investigations into events that become the focal point. And the debate, between a survivor and a historian – two men whose personal lives are intimately connected – makes this a play about family history as well. These three strands are worked with varying degrees of success to make a cautiously written debut play that’s for the most part impressive, but seldom inspired.

The history – of a mass evacuation that occurred with remarkably little loss of life – is summarised efficiently. It’s important as well as interesting and given immediacy by seeing its long-reaching effects on the lives of Abraham and Lars. Up next, revising what has become a pillar of Danish national identity has great potential as a story – it’s a smart insight, ripe for our times, that ‘post-truth’ is nothing new – but it ends up dramatically clunky. Lars, the academic casting suspicion on the “miracle” of a modern exodus, seems to be the world’s worst historian. Denying the possibility of interpretation, he’s eager to ignore detail in his search for the “whole truth”. The character is impossible to believe and the role leaves Neil McCaul as merely a mouthpiece for ideas.

David Bamber as Abraham has a happier time pursuing the drama of a man of faith pitted against facts. Trouble is, for all director Kate Fahy’s admirable efforts to keep the piece focused, this feels like another play, rather than a component of an argument already established. Bamber is convincing – even in a scene where Abraham becomes a surprising villain, as parallels are drawn with the issue of immigration today. Let’s hope we’d all agree about the dangers of a right-wing resurgence in Europe, but the topic is badly shoe-horned into this play.

Dorothea Myer-Bennett & Julia Swift

With the family drama we’re on surer ground. Again, there are tyro touches when it comes to drawing Lars’ daughter, Sara. She’s just your average former scientist turned performing arts reviewer and aspiring novelist (how’s that for fleshing out a character?). And she’s also that person you only meet in a play who instantly offers up a definition for a word they’ve just used. Nonetheless, Julia Swift does a superb job in the role, making you want to hear more from the character and see her generation’s perspective. And the play’s strongest feature is the relationship between Abraham and his wife, played to perfection by Dorothea Myer-Bennett. Providing some much-needed humour, the marriage anchors the play and confirms the fundamental promise of Bodin Saphir’s writing.

Until 9 February 2019

www.parktheatre.co.uk

Photos by Mark Douet