Tag Archives: Park Theatre

“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

“The Rise and Fall of Little Voice” at the Park Theatre

This misguided new production of Jim Cartwright’s excellent play is a disappointment. Given the much-loved 1998 film, expectations on any revival are bound to be a heavy burden. But the characters of Little Voice, a reclusive singer impressionist, and her mother, the inimitable Mari, were written for the stage. Director Tom Latter makes a mess of allowing us the luxury of seeing them live.

Rafaella Hutchinson takes the lead and should be pleased with her performance. She might portray Little Voice’s meekness a little more, but the character’s fear and anger are convincing. Hutchinson’s singing voice is strong, although the impersonations get stuck at Judy Garland. It ends up pleasing – rather than amazing – to see her character move from bedroom to stage, so Hutchinson’s talent feels wasted.

The problem is that the play is horribly rushed. Hutchinson stands her ground against Latter’s speedy approach, but the rest of the cast suffers. Kevin McMonagle, as the budding promoter hoping to exploit young talent, becomes shrill and annoying. And while Linford Johnson, as the love interest Billy, has good chemistry with Hutchinson, the scenes between them both are too brief to enjoy.

Sally George as Mari
Sally George as Mari

Worse still is the fate of Mari. It’s understandable that she delivers some lines at a cracking speed – it shows how smart she is. But the character is then undermined. Latter, and his partner-in-crime associate director Anita Dobson, interpret a facility for language as mistakes. So Mari’s plays on words become malapropisms and we end up laughing at her, rather than with her. It’s all a special shame since Sally George has the stage presence needed for the role – and when tensions between mother and daughter reach a crisis point, she gives a moving performance. But we are unprepared to appreciate how desperate Mari is, or how much self-knowledge she possesses. A patronising tone, seen throughout the production, leaves the play without rise or fall, as if watching it on a flat screen.

Until 15 September 2018

www.parktheatre.co.uk

Photo by Scarlett Casciello (top) and Ali Wright (inset)

“Vincent River” at the Park Theatre

This welcome revival of Philip Ridley’s play from the year 2000 benefits from the sound direction of Robert Chevara. Confident with the superb storytelling, Chevara gives the text space, expertly judging time for vivid images to linger. Elements of a mystery story in this tale of an encounter between a bereaved mother and an enigmatic stranger add a more conventional element to the piece than is common with Ridley, and, again, Chevara makes the most of this – the plot is gripping. But Ridley’s dark imaginings are present, too, with the account of a vicious hate crime and the grief at its aftermath portrayed with startling originality.

Louise Jameson and Thomas Mahy take the roles of Anita and Davey, connected by the murder of Vincent. As the frequently angry mourning mother, Jameson is superb, conveying a moving, mounting pain as the play progresses. She’s initially suspicious of Davey’s motives for seeking her out, and the tension between the two is riveting. In this enigmatic role, Mahy seems a little trapped by his accent and doesn’t fully explore the dangerous eroticism of the character – Ridley’s suggestions of precocious sexuality are disturbing – yet the performance is full of nervous energy and always exciting, especially with the expert unravelling of his secrets.

Thomas Mahy
Thomas Mahy

The ideas about bodies, families, and memory – each so poetically conveyed – make Ridley’s writing the star of the show. An obsession with geography, with descriptions of places and their history, creates a visceral sense of East London and community. Toxic relationships battle with affection and romance throughout. Ridley’s descriptions of desire and the body, with such a tangible sense of fragility arising from the violence and illness in the play, are brilliant. Recounting trauma is common enough in theatre, but the stories Ridley’s protagonists tell each other have a therapeutic quality of intense emotion. A “mosaic of hands” in an artwork described by Davey might be a metaphor for how Ridley works. The result is a play of peculiar power.

Until 14 April 2018

www.parktheatre.co.uk

Photos by David Monteith Hodge

“Loot” at the Park Theatre

Don’t simply label this as a farce: Joe Orton’s 1964 masterpiece has a superb revival under the capable aegis of director Michael Fentiman, who has a careful eye on the play’s complexity. The crazed mix of Wildean epigrams, social satire, viscous comment and, OK, farce, are all present, correct and very funny.

Set on the day of a funeral, and just after a bank robbery, events descend into chaos orchestrated to show authority as absurd and human nature as venal. Ian Redford plays an innocent mourning husband and Christopher Fulford a bizarre police inspector who comes calling. They deliver the dense lines well, although both have the challenge of elevating their roles above stock characters – the play’s diabolical overtones arrive late, but there’s plenty of fun along the way.

An unholy trinity of characters is the play’s real focus. A genocidal nurse, fanatical in her Roman Catholicism and acquisition of husbands, makes a great role for Sinéad Matthews, who appreciates how broad the part needs to be played. San Frenchum and Calvin Demba produce great work as partners-in-crime Hal and his “baby” Dennis: the chemistry between them is electric and they manage to be at once clueless and callous. Bad enough to keep a priest dispensing penance for 24 hours, their stolen cash, destined for investment in a brothel, ends up stashed in Hal’s mother’s coffin. Which means treating the corpse – performed by Anah Ruddin, who deserves her applause when she rises from the casket to take a bow – with a still-shocking disdain.

Fentiman preserves Loot’s 1960s feel, conveying an anarchic streak that belies the sophistication of the text. Of course, Orton’s play can’t shock as it once did (our cynicism towards the establishment is set in stone, although a couple of comments about women and Pakistani girls did draw intakes of breath), but the sense of confrontation is bracing. Both play and production are, appropriately, “perfectly scandalous”.

Until 24 September 2017

www.parktheatre.co.uk

Photo by Darren Bell