Tag Archives: Riverside Studios

“Othello” at the Riverside Studios

It’s easy to read Shakespeare’s tragedy as a play about its villain, Iago, as much as the title character. But this new version from director Sinéad Rushe has three performers against one! Michael C. Fox, Orlando James and Jeremy Neumark Jones all play Iago and embrace the project as a team. The idea is interesting and the result exciting. 

The trio aren’t taking turns as Iago, they appear on stage, mostly, at the same time. They alternate the lines, or speak in unison. The results fascinate. It’s especially effective for soliloquies, suggesting an internal dialogue. And it aids Iago’s often feeble arguments as the three gang up on victims. The idea also works well for crowded fight scenes or when Cassio is drunk. Iago, the “demi-devil”, becomes supernatural as he can be in so many places at the same time. 

“Dull not device by coldness and delay”

The production even takes advice from Iago! The abridgement prevents distraction from the concept. And a good deal of passionate torment is clear from all characters. Rushe has a firm hand and bold approach that makes action clear and focused. There is an imbalance – how could there not be – and, of course, it helps to know the play well. But the focus is intentional, the idea proves fruitful and the execution is strong.

Martins Imhangbe and Rose Riley

It should be stressed, the production has an excellent Othello: Martins Imhangbe is dignified and moving. Imhangbe brings admirable restraint to the role and is a powerful stage presence. His Desdemona – Rose Riley – is great too, passionate and making every line fresh. Fine performances from Rachel-Leah Hosker and Ryan O’Doherty, taking four roles between them with apparent ease, also deserve mention. 

Surprisingly, the eye-catching triple casting of Iago isn’t the only highlight of the show. Just as impressive is how this Othello sounds. Not only is the delivery of the lines accomplished, the sound design from Ali Taie is super. A variety of effects startle, intrigue, and aid the audience. We even get to see how some are achieved: there’s a great sea crossing scene and each Iago makes a show of using their microphones. To top it all, original music from Fox, including a gorgeous Willow Song beautifully sung by Riley, is excellent, once again providing pace and emotion. There isn’t a dull moment with the device in this production.

Until 29 October 2023


Photos by Mark Douet

“Flowers for Mrs Harris” at the Riverside Studios

A lot of this musical, about a charlady with a dream, is admittedly simplistic. The story is thin – the eponymous heroine works to buy a dress from Christian Dior – while the characters, including clients and haute couturiers, are a bit silly. The music and lyrics, from Richard Taylor and Rachel Wagstaff, share a sentimentality that’s not to all tastes. But it is effective. And since the show isn’t scared of a cliché, let’s add another: Flowers for Mrs Harris is incredibly moving. By the end there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

There are problems with the source material, a novel by Paul Gallico, that Wagstaff’s competent book can’t overcome. This is a patronising view of post-war poverty that is uncomfortable. Observations on class are so blunt they are crass – I’ve seldom heard so many dropped aitches or calls for cups of tea. Ada Harris’ dream doesn’t make much sense, but efforts to explain a gown as a symbol and regard the dress as a work of art lead to some of the best songs and make sure the audience cares about her quest.

This is a show that aims to be heart-warming and really wants you to care – each character gets the chance to show the best of themselves. It’s easy to praise the fact that our lead is an older woman – a widow with no children – as we don’t see them as a focus often enough. It’s a demanding role that tests even the incredible Jenna Russell’s abilities. Mrs Harris is so unselfish she is hard to believe. That people help her so much doesn’t quite fit with the idea that she is invisible. Nonetheless, Russell manages to give Ada some edge, with flashes of frustration, and makes the character’s charisma clear.

Bronagh Lagan’s direction and Nik Corrall’s clever set make the show feel full, and the standards are high. The production is, however, a little too long. It lacks the zip of Chichester Festival Theatre’s version (although, having seen that online, the comparison isn’t quite fair). Some of the plot twists are good but drag. Take the on-stage presence of Ada’s deceased husband Albert – a role Hal Fowler has a grand go at. Having the two talk and sing packs an emotional punch, but do we need to see Albert so many times to know Ada that is lonely?

It’s the strong contrasts in Flowers For Mrs Harris that make the show winning. While there is a claim that “nothing is out of reach”, final comfort for its character comes with simple flowers. And, while there are many grand gestures, there’s also reticence and modesty. You might claim the such qualities as particularly British – they are certainly appealing and make the musical just that little bit different. The morals are twee, even conservative with a small c, but a show that makes you go ‘ahh’ so often must be doing something right.

Until 25 November 2023


“Persona” at the Riverside Studios

Closed for the last five years due to a major redevelopment, it’s a warm welcome back to Hammersmith’s fantastic arts centre. The newly spacious foyer is needed for everything that’s going on – films, music and cabaret as well as theatre. The refurbishment is tasteful but not flashy, as is the food on offer. And the drinks coasters are sweet. First up for play-goers is Paul Schoolman’s credible adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s film, which has the earth harp as a surprise factor in its success.

While there are pleasant projections throughout the show (courtesy of P J McEvoy), it’s a smart move when bringing a famous film to the stage to focus on sound rather than sight. With its strings stretching over the audience, the earth harp (played by William Close on the night I visited – and by Catrin Meek by the time you read this) makes an extraordinary noise. How it works, especially when the body of the instrument is used, is beyond me, but it has a special theatricality, and going along just to hear it is highly recommended.

What’s going on next to the harp is worth watching, though. The story is presented by Schoolman as a retelling of Bergman’s script, including some notes, guaranteeing interest for cinephiles. Alice Krige and Nobuhle Mngcwengi give strong performances as a nurse called Alma and her patient, Elizabet, an actress who has willed herself into silent paralysis. Bergman’s psychologising has a dated air and, if you wanted to see it as ultimately reductive (both women’s troubles seem to boil down to maternity), then I might not argue. But that doesn’t detract from Krige’s achievement in creating a character we come to feel so close to. The same goes for Mngcwengi, who conveys her role while speaking so little.

While there aren’t real conversations in Persona, the interactions are far from one-sided. As Alma reveals her darkest secrets, Schoolman’s narrator and Elizabet absorb them like a spooky Greek chorus. Recalling that ‘persona’ is a term for a theatrical mask, all three characters play with the roles they adopt and abandon. It may just be mind games or the human condition stripped back and given a theatrical flourish, but it shows strong work from Schoolman as a director – and Krige does especially well to present the artificiality of what’s going on with a natural touch.

Fascinating as it is, this journey into the “landscape of the mind” isn’t for everyone and has a wilfully opaque air. You can credit Schoolman for preserving the feel of Bergman’s film while managing to make it work theatrically – well done. But that still isn’t a guarantee you’ll enjoy it. By the time we get to the women referred to as “I, me, us, we”, as their identities slide and elide, no matter how good a job the team does, such destabilising of the ‘self’ may start to confuse more than excite.

Until 23 February 2020


Photo by Pamela Raith

“Hutch” at the Riverside Studios

Hutch is the story of Leslie Hutchinson, a hugely successful cabaret and recording artist of the jazz age who was once the toast of London. The Grenada-born lover of Cole Porter and Edwina Mountbatten, his is a story of racism, sex and scandal played out to a fantastic soundtrack. The material is a gift, but its adaptation by Joe Evans into a play with music is a frustrating disappointment. Hutch’s life cries out to be dramatised, but it deserves better than this.

Evans seems to have got too close to his material: there‘s not enough background and little sense of period. Using Cole Porter’s lyrics adds some neat ironic touches, but it often seems forced and simply interrupts the music – these are great songs and we don’t get to hear them properly

Director Linnie Reedman goes for an informal party feel – starting well with the Halbwelt Kultur cabaret making a giggling guest appearance that gets the crowd going – rather than attempting big musical productions. Fair enough but, with the exception of a lovely solo by Alma Fournier-Carballo, there isn’t enough time to successfully create an atmosphere.

The relationship between Porter and Hutch, presented at one point as an abstract division between composition and interpretation, sounds fascinating but is glanced over. Instead it seems we’re supposed to be shocked by their relationship and the Mountbattens’ open marriage. Even worse, the racism Hutch was a victim of receives only tokenistic mention.

Sid Phoenix as ColePorter

The cast do their best but cannot save the show. Janna Yngwe does a terrific turn as Jessie Matthews and Nell Mooney’s performance as a long-suffering Mrs Porter is thoughtful. Sid Phoenix makes Porter a rakish, arrogant figure who commands the stage – something of a problem since all eyes should really be on Hutch. In the title role, Sheldon Green isn’t given the chance to convey the charisma that we are constantly told he possesses. Still at college, Green’s performance, like the show itself, is one of potential wasted.

Until 8 June 2013


Photos by John Watts

Written 20 May 2013 for The London Magazine

“Mies Julie” at the Riverside Studios

South African director and writer Yael Farber has brought her Mies Julie from Cape Town – via the Edinburgh Festival and considerable critical acclaim along the way – to the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. Farber’s wonderfully free adaptation of Strindberg’s drama of sex and class, the 1888 Miss Julie, adds the toxic politics of present day South Africa to create an explosive mix.

The majority of the adaptation is inspired. The action is set on a farm besieged by ‘squatters’ aiming to oust the white Boer owners, Miss Julie and her father. The homestead is staffed by John and his mother Christine, who has a mystical, ancestral bond with the land. The racist connotations of Julie’s decision to dance with and then sleep with John add to the intensity of Strindberg’s writing, which can baffle a modern audience. And yet while this potent layer of politics benefits the play by amplifying each character’s desires, it becomes monotone. Mixing the personal with the political fascinates, but Farber falters in successfully conducting what starts as an orchestral piece, unfortunately reducing it to a single note.

Yet the execution of Mies Julie is fantastic. Aided by a soundscape (created by Daniel and Matthew Pencer) that includes traditional music performed by Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa and Thoko Ntshinga, who also plays Christine, the play’s atmosphere is magnificently oppressive. Better still are the central performances from servant and mistress Bongile Mantsai and Hilda Cronje: the chemistry between these two is electric, their balletic movements captivating amidst the show’s hysteria and gore. The games they play are deeply erotic and for the most part capable of carrying the portentous burden placed upon them. It’s impossible to take your eyes off Mantsai and Cronje as they travel to the play’s depressing, bloody conclusion.

Until 19 May 2013


Photo by William Burdett Coutts

Written 12 March 2013 for The London Magazine

“Troilus and Cressida” at the Riverside Studios

The World Shakespeare festival, which this new production of Troilus and Cressida at the Riverside Studio includes, has made audiences more familiar with radical versions of the canon. But this co-production between the RSC and the renowned American company, The Wooster Group, is staged in such a bizarre fashion, the play becomes confusing and alienating. It doesn’t help that the actors interact with videos mounted on big poles as they perform. This gives rise to seemingly erratic movements which have been prompted by the videos. Frankly, makes the whole show downright odd.

Co-directors Elizabeth LeCompte and Mark Ravenhill set Shakespeare’s Trojan war love story in an unspecified location with Native Americans against contemporary British soldiers. Sort of. The Trojans have futuristic costumes (by Folkert De Jong) and the British troops have a tendency to don drag. You certainly won’t be bored, but there is no balance – the play is made into a puzzle. It’s true that Troilus and Cressida is full of contradictions, but this company is obsessed with abandoning any coherence: the ideas and delivery may be eye-catching, but they add little humour or, more importantly, drama.

It is the actors who suffer most by this treatment with their performances reduced to bizarre cameos. Marin Ireland and Scott Shepherd deliver the title roles in a deliberately monotonous, stylised, fashion. Among the Trojans only Greg Mehrten’s Pandarus manages to break this spell by the force of his stage presence. The British contingent do better (maybe their delivery is more familiar), but Aidan Kelly’s WWF-inspired Ajax and Zubin Varla’s Thersites stubbornly reject any subtlety and quickly become annoying. Scott Handy has a better night of it as an asthmatic Ulysses, but his brief appearance as Helen is such bizarre casting, it jars. Most damning of all, Shakespeare’s text is delivered so differently that comprehension suffers. Whatever points that LeCompte and Ravenhill wish to make are unclear. Most of the plot is lost as well.

Until 8 September 2012


Photo by Hugo Glendinning

Written 31 August 2012 for The London Magazine

“Mary Rose” at the Riverside Studios

J M Barrie’s 1920 ghost story Mary Rose feels like a very Victorian affair, as it comes from an age when people investigated the paranormal ‘scientifically’ and theorised about “strange and inexplicable” matters. In Matthew Parker’s new production at the Riverside Studios, such ideas are presented well; the sound of radio waves and the flash of photography echo research into spectral presences. This is something different from the average chills and thrills ghost story and makes an interesting and refreshing change.

For our heroine Mary Rose, the world is full of ghosts but, even when they abduct her, they aren’t that scary. As the story travels through time, including a visit to his former home by Mary Rose’s son, we might get a goose bump, but this is really a story not of horror but about loss. Parker has a large group of mourning spirits accompanying the action. They sing and dance to composer Maria Haik Escudero’s score and even help to change the set – which is at least useful. The execution of the ensemble leaves much to be desired as the bizarre movements become so laboured that they break the spell of what could have been an intriguing idea.

When the ghosts are absent, Mary Rose styles itself as a gentle drawing-room comedy. Again there are problems with the older cast members playing this too broadly but the leads manage a slightly mocking tone well. Jessie Cave, of Harry Potter fame, brings her considerable talents to the challenging title role, embodying Mary Rose’s otherworldly quality wonderfully. Carsten Hayes plays her fiancé, who develops nicely from a “larky” young man into an abandoned husband. These performances are impressive. As are Parker’s admirable ambitions for the show. Despite its flaws, Mary Rose manages to rise above the level of a period curiosity.

Until 28 April 2012


Photo by Laura Harling

Written 2 April 2012 for The London Magazine

“A Round-Heeled Woman” at the Riverside Studios

When retired school teacher Jane Juska placed a personal ad in the New York Review of Books she didn’t waste words: “Before I turn 67 – next March – I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me.”

And so began Juska’s third-age escapades, brought to the stage by Jane Prowse in an adaptation of Juska’s bestselling memoir, that sparkles with wit and wisdom.

Sharon Gless stars as Juska, self-proclaimed ‘round-heeled woman’, a term for a lady of easy virtue it would be good to see in use more often. After many years of celibacy, embarking on a sex life is a fraught process, necessarily a little crude, but presented lightly with laugh-out-loud gags. Gless is an expert in comedy, endearing when she directly addresses the audience, and moving when she faces pitfalls.

Accompanying Gless, Jane Bertish and Beth Cordingly expertly double as her friends and, from the past, her mother and Miss Mackenzie, an Anthony Trollope heroine. When it comes to books, you can’t fault Juska’s taste, though mention of Trollope gives rise to some predictable misunderstandings.

A Round-Heeled Woman is about a search for far more than sex, though. Juska is as direct about her difficulties as a single parent and her emotional needs as she is about her libido. Her relationship with her son (Michael Thomson is wonderful) is deeply moving.

For all its bluntness, A Round-Heeled Woman has a saccharine, self-help feel that might set British teeth on edge. But Gless’s joyous performance takes this taste away and emphasises its life-affirming message in a rewarding manner.

Until 25 November 2011


Written 20 October 2011 for The London Magazine

“Halcyon Days” at the Riverside Studios

Halcyon Days, the story of strangers who meet on an Internet suicide forum, is a surprising comedy. Writer and director Shoji Kokami takes what could be an earnest, morbid subject matter, and handles it so imaginatively that this potentially grim tale is rendered funny, even bawdy at times.

Kokami presents the story, not as reportage on an Internet phenomenon, but as a real life drama, toying with the fantasies his characters invent in the process. Mark Rawlings plays Hello Kitty, a closet homosexual seeking a flamboyant suicide as an end to his debts. He meets the delusional Masa, performed with intensity by Dan Ford, who is suffering from information overload, and believes that his own suicide could save the world.

This odd couple are joined by a counsellor called Kazumi, a character brought to life by Abigail Boyd, in a skilfully layered performance. Followed everywhere by a ghost (Joe Morrow, making an impressively impish London debut), Kazumi’s intention is to help the men but it’s clear she has issues of her own. A therapy session like no other ensues as the cast prepare a play about a lonely ogre and his friends – it’s deliciously mad stuff ‘yet there is method in’t’.

The blackest of humour pervades Halcyon Days, but there are also touches of farce. Aya Ogawa’s translation of Kokami’s play reveals puns a Carry On film would be proud of, and Rawlings does an especially great job playing up to them. But the halcyon referred to here is a sleeping drug: for all the fun that they are having, the characters are in no Arcadia. They have responsibilities in the real world, all revealed at a clever tempo to ensure that they are misfits that matter to us.

Halcyon Days has an elegiac streak that is central to Kokami’s precise pacing. As the cast gaze at the beauty of the night sky, they learn lessons about themselves and the world. Theirs is a trip to the dark side of the moon well worth watching.

Until 18 September 2011


Photo by Gerald Nino

Written 26 August 2011 for The London Magazine