Tag Archives: Site-specific Theatre

“The Time Machine” at The London Library

Inspired by the HG Wells novel, this immersive show has the huge benefit of being staged in The London Library. Playwright Jonathan Holloway’s new story unfolds in the gorgeous reading rooms and wonderful bookstacks. Admittedly, it’s a slight on the show that its main attraction is a bibliophile’s dream locale, but director Natasha Rickman and her team at Creation Theatre really do showcase the building magnificently.

Small groups are led around by an individual time traveller and mine – performed by Paul (PK) Taylor – was excellent, being good at engaging those who wanted interaction and leaving alone those who did not. Injecting a sense of urgency, even spookiness, he even managed to cover up a technical hitch for a good while. Joined for a couple of scenes by Graeme Rose as a computer who reminded me of a Gilbert and George artwork, the two did well with an anarchic streak that is the best of Holloway’s script.

The Time Machine at The London Library
Graeme Rose

There’s a cheeky humour to the show that I felt growing on me. With the idea that things are being changed constantly – including our socks – by illegal time travellers, there are plenty of smart lines. Playing with the past, especially with famous authors, should appeal to the audience, while claiming that the first instance of time travel was in New York nightclub Studio 54 (and playing Donna Summer in the library) is a great idea. It’s a shame it all gets more serious.

The Time Machine has a lot of important things to say. Wells would no doubt approve. But doom and gloom about the future mean this machine stalls. A “torrent of information” we’re exposed to is delivered well and bite-sized gobbets of science and philosophy are digestible enough. But too many scenarios of Armageddon arrive – each a cliché and fuelled, you guessed it, by conspiracies. Maybe we just don’t need more talk of epidemics right now but, rather than feeling topical, the show feels tired.

The Time Machine at The London Library
Funlola Olufunwa

Taylor keeps up the energy (joined by Sarah Edwardson and Funlola Olufunwa with two underwritten roles that they try hard with), and there’s a real effort to introduce passion and urgency. But a lot of what’s said becomes silly and the show’s originality evaporates. When it comes to imagining the future, this feels like old news. The only safe prediction should be an increase in membership for The London Library.

Until 5 April 2020

Photos by Richard Budd


“The Wider Earth” at the Natural History Museum

Most peoples’ ideas about Charles Darwin, in part thanks to £10 notes, relate to an old, bearded figure of wisdom. The first clever move in this new play by David Morton is to focus on the younger Darwin – a far more approachable character – and tell the tale of his voyage on HMS Beagle when he was only 22. It’s an adventure story, if not quite swash-buckling, juggling excitement and information, aimed at those aged ten and up.

The story is supplemented with background debate on the subject of slavery and made weighty with a lot of discussion about Darwin and religion. Both topics are interesting and, of course, valid – but it makes that age guidance important. Some complicated arguments are laid out, and laid out well, but note that they are wordy and demanding. The “terrifying thought” of natural selection, again plotted competently, can’t carry much dramatic impact without the cultural context, and establishing a period feel could have been elaborated.

Hosting the show at the Natural History Museum, in a new, specially constructed theatre, makes for an appropriate setting rather than one the show actually uses: the production comes from Australia, via New York, and is clearly designed to travel. Morton, working alongside designer Aaron Barton, has a clever revolving set for his cast to climb around, and some excellent projections, making the production feel satisfyingly expensive. There’s a convincing sense of travel ­– appropriate to a story that circumnavigates the world – and, when the text allows, the action is swift.

Bradley Foster and Jack Parry-Jones

As a director, Morton runs a tight ship and the cast is strong. Led by Bradley Foster, who makes an endearing Darwin throughout, there are strong turns from Melissa Vaughan as his fiancée Emma Wedgwood and Andrew Bridgmont as his tutor, John Stevens Henslow, both of whom have to tackle some vaguely patronising dialogue, presumably aimed at making Darwin relatable. The most interesting roles go to Jack Parry-Jones, as Captain FitzRoy, who manages to inject a good deal of tension, and Marcello Cruz as a missionary returning to his home of Tierra del Fuego in a fictional subplot that threatens to overwhelm that show at one point. Darwin cuts a rather impassive figure in too many scenes. There’s a frustratingly slim sense of the man. But thankfully, the true emphasis in the show is on a sense of wonder, which Foster continually captures. His amazement and confusion at the natural world inject a sense of investigation that could shape many a future career. Alongside the charming creations of the Dead Puppet Society, Darwin’s encounters with animals have a sense of wide-eyed fascination that is contagious and inspiring.

Until 24 February 2019


Photos by Mark Douet

“Brief Encounter” at the Empire Cinema

Seeing Emma Rice’s adaptation of Noel Coward’s film back in 2008 has long stayed in my memory – this is the story of a doomed romance that makes you fall in love with the theatre. Rice’s invention, changing Coward’s piece in many ways, as well as her passion and creativity, all make this an unmissable revival. The celebration at its return seems to have skewed the production slightly – put simply, it’s too funny – but the sense of triumph that it is back is one I wholeheartedly share.

The setting for the show is the cinema that hosted the movie’s premiere back in 1946, and the interactions between projected films and actors that occur throughout are breathtaking. But this isn’t a show of gimmicks. Rather, imagination is the key: from when Alec and Laura rise from seats amongst the audience to recount their love at first sight, leading to their painful goodbye, Rice adds music, acrobatics and witty theatricality at any opportunity – not a scene goes by without a memorable moment.

The couple, who contemplate rather than consummate their love, are well played by Jim Sturgeon and Isabella Pollen. Rice recasts the story to focus more on Laura in impressively empowering fashion, and Pollen conveys her character’s inner turmoil. Strong performances from two other couples, designed to show love at different stages of life, share the stage with Rice elaborating them all from Coward’s original. Lucy Tackeray and Dean Nolan delight as an older courting pair, a delicious combination of entendre and genuine passion. Beverly Rudd and Jos Slovick have roles as younger lovers and are similarly endearing. Slovick’s musical skills impress, and both get a lot of laughs.

Jos Slovick & Beverly Rudd
Jos Slovick & Beverly Rudd

The sense of taboo that drove Coward’s writing has disappeared and the story lacks its original tension as a result. It’s still moving – but Rice wants romance and she delivers it. There are so many beautiful moments in the production that hearts skip many a beat and it is the beauty of this Brief Encounter rather than its tragedy that we carry away with us.

Until 2 September 2018


Photo by Steve Tanner

“Dracula” at Sutton House

Tea Break Theatre’s time travelling version of Bram Stoker’s classic starts with a touch of tour guiding that suits its setting in Hackney’s most historic house. As we’re ushered into the gorgeous Great Chamber, it soon becomes clear that our room steward is batty (sorry) and that this National Trust property has a problem with vampires.

A tiny plot spoiler – the cast is among us from the start and the immersive action begins in the present day. Going back in time, as the evening unfolds, is a good idea but these modern mirrors of Stoker’s characters ring hollow and the performers get off to a shaky start. Jon-Paul Rowden’s Van Helsing suffers most, as his role is reduced in dignity and never recovers. Some of the cast grow into their parts nicely: Jennifer Tyler is great when she gets her fangs and Louise Wilcox gives a committed performance as Elizabeth Renfield. The satisfying exception is Angela Nesi, playing Dr Jane Seward, who is terrific from start to finish.

Director Katharine Armitage is excited by the idea of circularity and uses it to take us through the story. The strongest moment manoeuvres the audience into a circle, surrounded by the chanting undead, and another sketch of a scene has us join hands in a séance. But the majority of the evening needs more crowd control. Even for a small group following an abridged story, focus is lost on both plot and emotional involvement – it’s too tempting to see who is creeping around and slamming the doors.

Turning out the lights never fails to give a thrill, so you can’t blame Armitage for using the trick often. And the chance to be face to face with a vampire (a strong scene for Tyler) is a good idea for an immersive show. Yet if you are a big fan of horror, or a die-hard devotee of this theatrical style, I doubt the efforts here will amaze: the production just isn’t scary or interactive enough. But this Dracula is a fun night with some good ideas behind it, and it ends in a suitably bloody tableau, with a thoughtful twist that illustrates the show’s intelligence.

Until 4 November 2017


Photo by John Wilson

“Macbeth” at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden

Iris Theatre is celebrating its ten year anniversary, at the so-called ‘Actors’ Church’, with a production of Shakespeare’s Scottish play that is ambitious, adventurous and immersive. Director Daniel Winder shows an energetic appetite for the play that is infectious and gets the most out of his talented team.

The production goes all out for the supernatural, with creepy costumes by Anna Sances and a satanic angle that gains potency from being performed in a church. And there’s no shortage of gore either: the Macduff family massacre comes with a PG warning. Having Macbeth attend is a great idea and his frenzied attack a shocker.

David Hywel Baynes, making a welcome return to both the company and the UK, takes the title role and is joined by Iris Theatre stalwart Nick Howard-Brown as Banquo. The two command the various spaces, of church and gardens, that the audience travel around scene by scene.

As well as displaying technical prowess, Hywel Baynes’ interpretation of the murdering monarch is also strong. Joined by Mogali Masuku as his wife – making a professional debut that’s a resounding success – we see Macbeth manipulated, then degenerate into a man drunk and dribbling with blood lust. Masuku’s Lady Macbeth is frightening and sexy (look out for Stephen Boyce’s roving eye when playing Duncan) but then scared by her spouse. It’s an emotional journey from both performers that is well delivered.

There’s good supporting work from the whole cast, but sometimes a danger of distraction in how many roles just six performers tackle. Matt Stubbs is a convincingly virile Macduff and transforms into a hired assassin superbly, and some of the doubling is interesting (Masuku also plays ones of the witches), but focus can be lost with all the changes – the production feels trapped by its small headcount.

The biggest commendation goes to set designer Alice Channon – despite the fact that her ideas cause problems. The outdoor spaces are strictly sectioned off – a bold move with a promenade performance since an audience is seldom as nimble as hoped. The start of too many scenes might be missed. But the idea is great: slowly filing past a tableau of the Macbeths’ bedroom on the way to the interval and the audience rushing into the church for the finale are electric moments.

Taking Hieronymus Bosch as inspiration is a brilliant move – providing an intelligent period aura and surreal chills. The subsequent Bosch-Banquo-banquet makes less sense than it should (more a psychological crisis than a point about Macbeth’s leadership) but it looks stunning. Amorphous sculptures, with a touch of Eva Hesse, contain loud speakers playing composer Filipe Gomes’ impressive contribution to the evening – indicative of designers taking any opportunity to make a mark. There are flaws, yes, but also exciting work.

Until 29 July 2017


Photo by Nick Rutter

“Killer” at Shoreditch Town Hall

Here’s a combination to die for: a favourite writer, Philip Ridley, with one of the most exciting directors around, Jamie Lloyd. It’s a team that makes sense, full of irreverence and a keen intelligence. I’m guessing Lloyd is a long-term fan, excited by the chance to direct a revival of Ridley’s first hit, The Pitchfork Disney, alongside this latest piece. Killer is a short work, with a touch more whimsy than we might expect, but Ridley’s brilliant lyricism and imagination are in full flow. Using clever ‘binaural’ headphones, worn by the audience throughout, adds an immersive angle that should increase the show’s appeal even further.

The piece is a trilogy of tales of the unexpected; the theme of killing is loosely applied – metamorphosis just as much a focus, with people changing both consciously and miraculously. From gangland initiations, mass murderers and a man on the run from a psychopath, it’s Ridley’s inimitable humour that excites. The way he plays with genres shows a skill that many aspire to. Making the most basic stuff of fiction original again, the insane sounds sensible and nightmares funny. The voices we hear in all three monologues are from John MacMillan. We only get to see him twice, crouched over as we enter the first basement space, and a glimpse of him as a desperate man in the finale, but the voices he creates in our head complement the vivid imagery of the text. Technology aside, Macmillan’s performance is astonishing.

With a script this strong and this well delivered you might question the need for the headphones and a damp basement location that smells a bit. Yet the technology works well and is well used, with admirable restraint. Combined with pitch-black darkness and spooky lighting (Azusa Ono), there are genuinely scary moments – it’s good to have someone to hold hands with. Even odder is half hearing, over your headphones, a room full of people laughing like drains at some very funny lines as our author applies the admirable art of allusive alliteration. Ridley’s writing is strong enough to immerse us all by itself.

Until 8 April 2017


Photo by Matt Humphrey

“dreamplay” at The Vaults

August Strindberg’s 1901 play is widely regarded as being impossible to stage. Of course, that’s never stopped people from trying. The latest effort comes from BAZ Productions, headed by director Sarah Bedi. Crammed with memorable snippets, this ambitious adaptation is free enough to pin down themes precisely. And if it’s deep and meaningful questions you like, these are packed in with forceful proficiency.

From the grunts and screams that open the show – with a character from heaven visiting Earth to observe mankind’s suffering – it’s obvious that audience members need an open mind. A committed cast (Colin Hurley, Michelle Luther, Jade Ogugua and Jack Wilkinson) are sure to win respect. Each of the disconnected scenes is entered at full pitch, slipping speedily into the surreal. It must be exhausting to perform. It’s pretty tough to watch.

There are fine touches here, including great work from Luther, whose movement is controlled by the playing of a cello, and a gorgeous scene of couples proposing marriage that really nails the fluidity of dreams. And a visit to a classroom (get ready to sing along) is the best of the production’s comic touches, sliding effectively into a claustrophobic nightmare. Unfortunately, each scene is just a little too long. Although dreams do, after all, recur, there’s a great deal of repetition. And while it makes sense to break down that fourth wall, the technique is overplayed.

It is sound that holds the show together. The music of super talented cellist Laura Moody, along with a variety of noises made by the cast (appropriate to situations, from the mundane to the supernatural), create an aural landscape that uses the venue perfectly. While expertise in the use of sound is the show’s triumph, navigating the promenade audience through the same space is its biggest failing. Even with an intimate 70-strong audience, too much time is taken moving between scenes, breaking the spell and waking you from the dream. This may be very practical criticism for a play that is so boldly abstract, but the impact is significant.

Until 1 October 2016


Photo by Cesare De Giglio

“The Comedy of Errors” at Gray’s Inn Hall

Antic Disposition’s coup, of staging its new piece in this historic banqueting space, is just one good reason to see this show. This is the very venue Shakespeare’s lightest comedy – with its two set of twins causing havoc through repeatedly mistaken identities – is first recorded as having been performed in (check out the Tudor portraits on the back wall). But the production has further merits. A spin is provided by Some Like It Hot, Billy Wilder’s film, with action set in a hotel. The Dromio characters don bellboy outfits, the Duke is a gangster and there’s a band thrown in. You certainly get your money’s worth.

It’s a cast of actor musicians led by a Marilyn Monroesque courtesan (Susie Broadbent), which adds immeasurably to the show. I’d happily have heard the numbers for longer. Delivery of the lines is a touch slow on the part of joint directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero. Maybe there are too many ideas crammed in? The action is speedy, though, with lots of madcap running around. And there’s a nun with a ukulele – never a bad thing. Smaller roles blossom: Doctor Pinch becomes a magician performing at the hotel (Philip Mansfield is the beneficiary of this role) while the merchant (that bit with the gold chain that can drag on) is rendered gloriously shrill by Paul Sloss – the character is described as a “shrew” so why not.

William de Coverly and Paul Sloss
William de Coverly and Paul Sloss

The leads are athletic, with both Antipholus roles even looking alike: William de Coverly and Alex Hooper dash about full of righteous indignation and further impress by hinting how their characters’ different life stories would have made them very different men. In the servant roles of Dromio, Keith Higinbotham and Andrew Venning get even more laughs, vying with one another for the comedy edge. I’d suggest Higinbotham wins – by a chin strap – if only because Venning labours his funniest scene (although his trumpet playing is superb).

Andrew Venning and Keith Higinbotham
Andrew Venning and Keith Higinbotham

Ellie Anne Lowe holds her own against this male quartet, amiably aided by Giovanna Ryan. There’s less attempt to adapt these ladies of Syracuse, but the roles are well thought out. Love is the theme, after all there are three married couples at the end, and Lowe makes her marriage convincing. If the whole production is more romantic than raucous, it’s a fair price for such charm.

Until 1 September 2016


Photos by Scott Rylander

“Much Ado About Nothing” at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden

Damp weather did nothing to deter the Iris Theatre Company last night at the opening of its summer season. Comfortably resident at ‘The Actors’ Church’, it always expertly navigates the grounds and building for its promenade performances. Director Amy Draper’s production of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy is no exception, and proves funny and heart-warming, whatever the weather.

The best thing about Iris Theatre’s shows sounds boring – that you can hear every word. This is no small achievement when actors are unmiked, outdoors and competing with all and sundry in the Piazza. While the declamatory acting style can be off-putting, Draper’s performers make exaggeration work for them, emphasising the tricks and tales, including nasty plots, our four lovers have to endure.

This is a stripped-back show, with only seven in the cast, and you might wish for more, even though the ensemble delivers. Jennifer Clement is particularly hard working: despite plenty of costume changes, she’s never breathless and has terrific comedy skills. Emma McDonald benefits from the economy, performing as a sweet Hero, and then ordering the audience about as a belligerent Dogberry, the “ass” heading up the Prince’s Watch. Abbreviating this sometimes-tiresome bunch into a Keystone Cops couple really works, and their marshalling the audience around the grounds is clever stuff.

Anne-Marie Piazza is a brilliant police officer alongside McDonald, climbing lampposts and stealing snacks from the crowd. Yet this isn’t her main achievement – her Beatrice is top notch. Funny, bike riding, accordion playing… is there nothing the woman cannot do? Joined by Nick Howard-Brown (another natural comedian) as a charming Benedick, the querulous couple’s bickering and courtship is the highlight of this speedy, accomplished and appealing show.

Until 22 July 2016


Photo by Hannah Barton

“Barbarians” at the former Central Saint Martins College

The Tooting Arts Club, a company that revels in having no permanent home, had enormous success last year with its staging of Sweeney Todd, first in a pie-and-mash shop and then next door to the Queen’s Theatre. Back in town, with Bill Buckhurst’s accomplished revival of Barrie Keeffe’s trilogy of short plays, it has now taken over a former art school. It’s fair to say that the work – dealing with youth unemployment, football hooliganism and racial violence – hits harder than most West End fare.

Following Paul, Jan and Louis as they dabble in petty crime, before finding factory jobs and then going their separate ways, is pretty depressing. Keeffe injects a lot of humour, which the performers respond to eagerly, but the frustration and fear that fill their adolescence doesn’t make for comfortable viewing. The plays may be 40 years old but, apart from some fun with a themed bar, they are sadly still relevant. These three may seem a little more naïve than teenagers today, but they’re probably just less well connected – the absence of mobile phones is noticeable.

Killing Time is the first one-act play. We get to know the boys in a relatively light-hearted way as they make trouble while on the dole. There’s a great use of the space as they sit with the audience and scamper around tables, along with some extremely offensive language. Josh Williams’ Louis engenders most sympathy. Having completed a course, he may be an expert on refrigeration, but he can master little else. Abide With Me is set outside the FA cup final, as the trio wait for tickets, predictably let down by an adult in their lives. Their search for belonging is palpable, whether as military cadets or football fans: “the best army there is,” says Thomas Coombes’ Paul in a performance that brims with aggression.

For the finale, In The City, we’ve moved from Lewisham, via Wembley to the Notting Hill Carnival. The boys are older, although I hesitate to use the word grown up. Jan (Jake Davies) has become a soldier, whose terror at his imminent departure to Northern Ireland informs an impressive monologue. A chance encounter with Louis results in a senseless and disturbing attack – the threat of violence hangs over all three plays, and when it arrives it shocks to the core. There’s a lot to praise about Barbarians, not least three excellent performances, but this powerful and insightful show comes with a warning.

Until 7 November 2015


Photo by Cesare De Giglio