Tag Archives: Soho Theatre

“Boys on the Verge of Tears” at the Soho Theatre

For lovers of new writing, the Verity Bargate award is a big deal. Selected from 1500 entries by prestigious judges, this year’s winner from Sam Grabiner is fantastic piece full of ambition and a sense of adventure.

Set entirely in a gents toilet (Ashley Martin-Davis’s set could win another award) the piece is made up of “movements” – pun surely intended – that show the ages of men: from childhood, as teens at school, out on the town, and through to old age.

The conceit is even more audacious than it sounds. Themes and ideas recur and reflect on one another. A dad waiting for his boy finds a parallel to a sick man being helped by his new stepson. Scenarios are in flow, pretty much untethered by specific date or place.

There are 39 characters, most of them substantial, and only five performers so the number of roles they take is incredible. There are stumbles, but impressively few. Discrepancies in age or contrasts with scenes we’ve just watched are used to great effect. 

It’s interesting to pick out favourite roles from such a great selection.


Tom Espiner is stunning in the penultimate scene as a dying man, giving a hugely sensitive performance. Matthew Beard is great as leery teen, Jack, who despite being pretty disgusting is oddly endearing. Maanuv Thiara and David Carlyle have a smashing scene as characters who name themselves Maureen Lipman and Vanessa Feltz, delivering brilliant lines worthy of stand-up comedy. Finally, Calvin Demba might well steal the show as a young man who has been attacked: his concussion is convincing and the character’s fate dramatic.

In truth, all the performers balance humour and a sense of concern brilliantly.

The dialogue is a huge achievement, with different ages, classes, and various degrees of intoxication, all written assuredly. Grabiner gets considerable tension out of variety and director James Macdonald draws this out with skill. Be it offensive jokes or violence, even the shocking lack of hand washing, there’s a tension between sympathy and anxiety time and time again.

There are effortful moments. There are self-conscious tries to shock, obvious attempts to be experimental, and scenes that shout a message. But note: the piece succeeds in shocking, the experiments are interesting (two cleaners working in silence proves strangely fascinating), and Grabiner’s ideas about the body and our relationships to it are worth hearing.

While many of the circumstances or issues raised could be ticked off a list, Boys on the Verge of Tears is full of unpredictable moments. There are touches of whimsy, the surreal, and even horror. It seems Grabiner could write for any genre. And let’s not forget costume supervisor Zoe Thomas-Webb, who is kept very busy. All the scenes are strong and if some might not be missed, that’s interesting too, making me think of Alice Birch’s [Blank], with 100 scenes that can be selected for each production. It’s easy to see a bright future for both play and writer. This one is a five-star winner.

Until 18 May 2024


Photos by Marc Brenner

“Don’t. Make. Tea” at the Soho Theatre

As a disability-led theatre company, Birds of Paradise has a kind of licence to make jokes about the topic of its new play. The humour in Rob Drummond’s piece about a benefits claim that goes wrong is dark, outrageous and very funny. But it’s the use made of the jokes that really impresses. Don’t. Make. Tea. is strong satire that raises important questions intelligently.

The first smart move is to set the play in the future, with an AI called Able and live sign language on a giant TV. Of course, it all makes the production accessible at the same time. But Drummond pretends to imagine a future utopia (bet you didn’t see that coming) in ‘Accessible Britain’. The authorities have listened and changed the welfare state for the better.

Up for assessment is Chris, who suffers from a degenerative condition. Her interrogator is beardy social worker Ralph. The questions could be more frustrating than funny, but director Robert Softley Gale keeps the tone light with strict pacing. The performers, Gillian Dean and Neil John Gibson respectively, are great. Gibson stays the right side of parody, while Dean makes sure her character wins admiration. The bureaucracy is familiar, the spin put on the new system believable. Sighing and groaning as we go along, tension mounts and… well, the poster does say benefit assessments can be a killer.

Making Chris violent is just one of many good twists. It turns out she was a detective! And even though we’ve been told her condition can include hallucinations, it’s still a surprise when she’s joined by the technology. Richard Conlon and Emery Hunter appear and ham it up for all they’re worth – two extremely enjoyable performances – also taking us closer to Chris and her desperation. Conlon delivers his deadpan lines perfectly, reminding Chris that she’s the hero, while Hunter signing is brilliantly funny.

A final twist is less successful. Ralph’s fiancée comes to check on him and the debate that follow is blunt and a little rushed. That said, Nicola Chegwin, who takes this role, is a good stage drunk (always tricky) and the questions raised are thought-provoking. It’s just that so much has already been covered in a more entertaining way. One of the tricks in the assessment that trips up Chris is showing a sense of humour – people with a disability aren’t allowed one! The success of the comedy in Don’t. Make. Tea means nobody on stage would pass that test. Yet another delicious irony in this smart, laugh-out-loud show.

Until 6 April 2024


Photo by Andy Catlin

“Boy Parts” at the Soho Theatre

Gillian Greer’s adaptation of Eliza Clark’s novel has a lot to offer – above all a fantastic solo performance from Aimée Kelly. Tension is crammed into the story of a disturbed art photographer, who may be or may not be a serial killer. Not a moment of its 80 minutes is dull. I’m just not sure Boy Parts as challenging as it should be.

Kelly makes our antiheroine Irina hold attention with an acerbic tongue and plenty of extreme views. There’s no doubt about her contempt for people, and her lust for the young men she shoots is uncomfortable to watch. Kelly handles the script’s dark humour with considerable control – and then the next moment gives you goosebumps.

Yet, do Irina’s mental health problems make the play too easy? We are never sure if the dark fantasies are really enacted. Or what role self-medication in the form of drink and alcohol plays. An unreliable narrator can be a great device but, in a one-person show, other perspectives are especially tricky. Maybe the ideas are disturbing enough. But is there the danger we dismiss Irina?

The twist of having a female photographer exploiting men is an interesting one, especially the question about the very possibility of her being a threat. The chills are here, the language visceral. But there’s a snag again. We might wonder how much the work is being shaped by a curator Irina wants to please – and, of course, this gallery owner is a man. And many ideas feel rushed. That Irene dismisses her personal security, her self-esteem, even being abused, all shock – how could they not? – but each needs expanding on.

The production itself is strong. Sara Joyce’s direction is firm, and the show looks great. Peter Butler’s set recalls an exhibition space and benefits the video work from Hayley Egan. The whole show is aided by Christopher Nairne’s cinematic lighting design. But, with all this, we’re moving into the territory of style over substance. Boy Parts is crammed and yet feels fleeting. The show has great moments but doesn’t add up to much.

Until 25 November 2023


Photo by Joe Twigg

“Sap” at the Soho Theatre

This fringe hit is a remarkably accomplished play from Rafaella Marcus. As a debut, it’s tempting to be inspired by its botanical references and write that there’s potential for growth. But, in truth, Sap is a show in full bloom that easily deserves five-star status.

Beginning with strong comedy that endears its central character, Daphne, to an audience, a gripping plot and intelligent script places mythology in the modern world to examine attitudes towards bisexuality and the effects of sexual violence.

The observational jokes that start the show are strong, with work life and Daphne’s sexuality creating complicity with the audience. Direct addresses prove to be one of the many highlights of Jessica Lazar’s superb direction. There is an undertone of what’s to come – Daphne is sensitive and stressed, a frank overthinker who shares too much – conveyed brilliantly in Jessica Clark’s stunning performance in the role.

It’s always impressive when a playwright changes the mood of their work, but let’s not forget that it’s hard. Marcus moves the tone of Sap with a skill that seems effortless. The plot twist in the play made the whole audience groan on the night I saw it – a fantastic moment of theatre. And what comes after the unusual twist is deeply disturbing, as well as original.

Clark is joined by Rebecca Banatvala, who plays several other characters and provides sterling support. Banatvala is especially good as the play’s male antagonist – a lawyer “spat out” of a cloistered quadrangle (what a phrase! You just know him, don’t you?). The script is marvellous, full of vivid imagery and ideas without being overpowering, and not a word could be pruned. Poetry and myth are used sparingly and to great effect.

The physical reaction to Daphne’s anxiety and a series of attacks that she suffers recalls the metamorphosis of her namesake – she feels bark enclosing her body, trapping but also protecting her. It’s a brilliant idea that is enhanced by Lazar’s use of movement. Just as impressive, the conceit isn’t overused – the idea builds powerfully and culminates in a scene that is another theatrical highlight, however harrowing.

The problem of depicting violence towards women is handled with innovation and intelligent. There is a strong sense that Daphne’s insecurities, as well as the biphobia she is subjected too, have created a woman who feels unworthy of the love offered to her. In fact, despite her faults, we can see that she is a “glorious” character – her girlfriend is right when she calls her this, and glorious is a word that can be applied to whole show.

Until 22 April 2023


Photo by David Monteith-Hodge

“Evening Conversations” at the Soho Theatre

Writer and performer Sudha Bhuchar’s new piece is like a cosy chat, maybe a work in progress for friends, with an impromptu feel. But the ruminations on Bhuchar’s life and career are structured around her sons and contain a lot of careful thought. Bringing intergenerational views, along with plenty of her own, to the stage makes the show interesting and entertaining.

Bhuchar is one cool mother. She even swears. Her rapport with the audience is fantastic and let’s hope her erudite offspring know how lucky they are. As Bhuchar adopts the voices of ‘The Sons’ (I’m sure the notes she holds capitalise that) she has fun but doesn’t condescend. Ever get a sense of awe around super smart Gen Z’s? Even if we all understand they don’t know everything. Bhuchar strikes the perfect balance between listening and questioning.

The lockdown chats Bhuchar was inspired by are serious. Deep Meaningful Conversations (inevitably abbreviated) that raise and contribute to issues around race, aspiration, and expectation. The show is moving, from her family history of immigration, to tackling current fears including austerity and climate change. And there are surprises – the younger perspectives on identity and politics display plenty of originality.

Along with insight, Evening Conversations is funny. Who rolls their eyes most – the boys or their mum – is a close call. A calm confidence makes the gentle jokes here a pleasure. Bhuchar describes the multiculturalism that is part of her life as “convivial” – a word that could be applied, if not sum up, her show. With “no story and nothing happening” this piece forces us into the moment. An appropriate aim for a yoga practitioner like Bhuchar. And that moment is both wise and charming.

Until 12 November 2022


Photo by Harry Elletson

“Brown Boys Swim” at the Soho Theatre

Karim Khan’s play deserves the acclaim it received at this year’s Edinburgh Festival and it’s easy to recommend seeing this London transfer. The story of two school friends learning to swim so that they can attend a pool party starts out charming, takes on the issue of racism boldly and has a big sting at the end.

The play serves as an excellent showcase for the talents of Anish Roy and Varun Raj, who play Mohsen and Kash respectively. Both boys are smart but very different – the performers show this skilfully. Kash’s bravado means Raj can bring some humour to the show, while Mohsen’s sensitivity and diffidence are clear from Roy’s performance. There are laughs, ahhhs and a real sense of getting to know these guys.

The friendship is endearing and makes a clever vehicle for showing the everyday racism Khan investigates. It is heart-breaking to see how teenage insecurities are enhanced by stereotyping. That prejudice infuses their lives is clear to both characters, and their discussions on how to deal with it provide engaging arguments. Khan’s highlighting exclusion – how that engenders privilege – is instructive.

The accomplished script is matched by an excellent production. John Hoggarth’s direction has bold moments that create the sensations of swimming in a poetic fashion. And the show is paced perfectly, allowing time to breathe between some very short scenes. The lighting by James Bailey is excellent at complementing quick changes of setting and tone, and James Button’s design is exemplary – a simple set with two benches that takes us to mosque, gym, bus and, of course, swimming pool.

As for the twist at the end of Brown Boys Swim, I don’t want to ruin it. But a cruel revelation brings home the affection between the boys and makes a case for how deep the consequences of racism are. Khan, like his characters, has an eye on the future that makes the ending of his short play painful but sure to live long in the memory.

Until 15 October 2022


Photo by Geraint Lewis

“The Ministry of Lesbian Affairs” at the Soho Theatre

Iman Qureshi’s queer musical comedy deserves to be a big hit. It’s funny and the songs, performed by the seven-strong titular choir, sound great. Plus, it’s Queer in proud, heart-warming fashion – addressing the concerns of a community with sensitivity and intelligence.

Director Hannah Hauer-King and the cast have a firm grasp on one-liners and wry observations guaranteed to make you laugh out loud. But the play’s strength comes with its diverse group characters – who are lovely to get to know.

The choir is led by Connie, an Owl (Older Wiser Lesbian!), full of eccentric appeal that enables Shuna Snow to make the character a starring role. There are great gags for Dina from Qatar, discovering her sexuality despite her grim husband, and more laughs for the frisky Ellie. In these roles Lara Sawalha and Fanta Barrie excel. There’s burgeoning romance for Fi and Brig (further strong performances from Kiruna Stamell and Mariah Louca). And the choir has new arrivals in a long-standing couple, Ana and Lori, whose squabbles are great fun for Claudia Jolly and Kibong Tanji to perform.

These women are all terrific – a joy to watch and listen to. Inclusion is the name of the game as the group bond and are selected to perform at Pride. Hurrah! And if the play had ended here, I’d have been, simply, very happy.

Up to the interval, The Ministry of Lesbian Affairs has a humour and sweetness that reminded me of the current Netflix hit, Heartstopper. The latter is a teen drama, of course, and Qureshi is writing for adults (with an adult wit). But there’s a similar sense of ‘Queer Joy’, a concern for Representation with a capital R and confident, admirable characters not just defined by their sexuality.

Qureshi doesn’t just want to make us laugh. The second half of her play is much more serious. Hauer-King (one half of Damsel Productions) handles this shift expertly, especially with scenes of potential violence, and the cast members further impress with their aptitude for real drama. That investment in the characters pays off as relationships end, therapy is sought out and the adorable Dina’s fate becomes a cause for concern. 

An upset at the Pride event raises the issue of including transwomen in the choir, allowing Louca and Stamell a brilliant scene that deftly lays out this contentious issue. We are shown the importance of language and how essential safe spaces – like the choir itself – are. Qureshi provides so much debate there’s a danger of falling into some of the clichés she has earlier lampooned. But her points are important and well made. Thankfully, a love for the characters created and a palpable sense of community provides an uplifting end.

Until 11 June 2022


Photo by Helen Murray

“Shedding a Skin” at the Soho Theatre

EM Forster fans, as I am, are sure to adore Amanda Wilkin’s play. The story of Myah’s journey to find herself and a place in her community has a broad appeal reminiscent of Forster’s dictum to “only connect”. Like the novelist Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Wilkin adopts the maxim to our own times and uses it for her purposes. What good company Wilkin keeps.

To be clear, Shedding a Skin had me hooked before the thought of Forster entered my head. Myah is a great creation from the start. As her “triad” of work, love and home collapses – seeing her storm out of a “corporate hell hole” in style, and end her relationship and tenancy – it’s impossible not to feel empathy for her troubles. Especially when all problems are related with a great sense of humour.

Plenty of Myah’s appeal comes from the fantastic performance Wilkin herself gives. Embodying the “bit of a nerd”, who giggles too loudly and overshares, with such charm, her firm comedic skill and strong stage presence hold the attention. This is a relatively long monologue that really speeds by.

Surprisingly, Myah isn’t even the heroine of the show. Her new flat mate, the elderly Mildred, is carefully depicted and becomes a tangible presence. Dealing with a card of “house rules” and plenty of forthright opinions provides laughs. And, as the story unfolds, Mildred is developed marvellously – from a figure that reminds Myah of her childhood into someone who connects her to heritage and community. What could have been just a foil becomes an inspiration.

Further reasons for the success of this Verity Bargate Award-winning script are down to Elayce Ismail’s firm direction – the show’s pace is strong without feeling rushed – and Rosanna Vize’s clever set of blinds and fabrics that are slowly stripped away. Shedding – mostly of expectations it seems – sounds painful, but is made celebratory by the production.

Short voiceovers punctuate Myah’s narrative, retelling instances of resolution and defiance in different parts of the world. Certainly evocative, coming progressively closer geographically to the action on stage, the additions are arguably unnecessary. Myah and the deep truths that Wilkin appreciates are enough for me. The search for connections and empathy between generations, races and sexualities is a stirring endeavour that had me in happy tears by the end of the show.

Until 17 July with a live streamed performance on the 15th July 2021


Photo by Helen Murray

“Typical” from the Soho Theatre

Based on real events, Ryan Calais Cameron’s play about the death of a Black man in police custody is powerful and important. Even the suggestion that such events deserve the show’s title is stirring. As for the work of director Anastasia Osei-Kuffour and her star Richard Blackwood – it is exemplary.

The poetry of Typical is key to the show’s success – it sold out at the Edinburgh Festival and received rave reviews on its London transfer. Cameron’s ability with words deserves further antonyms to his play’s title. And Blackwood’s delivery of the script is a revelation – in this specially filmed version, he handles rhythm with at first playfulness and then power. Also excellent is the show’s pacing, which Osei-Kuffour and her camera crew do so well with, ensuring every minute of this hour-long performance is essential.

Time is taken to establish Blackwood’s character. In his engaging performance, we come to know a man who jokes that he is “a hazard”. He’s got bad taste in music and good ideas about the design of a toaster. Appealing and believable, his plans for a night out and learning about his friends and family are endearing.

It doesn’t take long before attempts to have fun go wrong. The fact that there’s no plot spoiler here is depressing… but the drama still works. Indeed, tension mounts as our hero – and that’s the best word – struggles to keep his cool in the face of ‘casual’ racism that becomes violent. It would be good if the woman we meet had more personality, but Cameron makes a point about the sexual stereotypes that surround black men concisely and powerfully.

A subsequent fight and then encounter with the police (all the more frustrating as it takes place in a hospital) brings us to a final third. It’s a section that deserves the trigger warning that comes with the show. It is a further tribute to Blackwood that it is physically uncomfortable to watch. Inspired by events surrounding a former paratrooper who died in 1998, Typical is dedicated to Christopher Alder. This outstanding show serves as a moving tribute to him and the many more men and women who have died in police custody.


Photo by Franklyn Rogers

“What Girls Are Made Of” at the Soho Theatre

Many dream of being a rock star at some point in their youth but for Cora Bissett, when just out of school in Fife, it actually happened. Her band, Darlingheart, had a contract and backed big Britpop names…for a short time at least. This play looks back at that success, and its consequences, using Bissett’s diaries. With the help of musicians Emma Smith, Simon Donaldson and Harry Ward, who brilliantly take on cameo roles as well as accompanying her, Bissett sings and narrates her biography like a true star.

It turns out that the big break came at a high cost. And since this is real life on stage, the price is prosaic and predictable; the band work hard and are ripped off. They split up and attempts at a new direction for Bissett fail; she ends up broke and busking, feeling a failure twice over. This is not a new tale for creative folk. And Bissett’s own editing, alighting on moments of personal significance, leads to a disjointed feel to the action that could be fine tuned. Thankfully, Bissett’s telling saves the show. With some neat theatrical touches from director Orlan O’Loughlin, and strong sound design from Michael John McCarthy, the winning tone throughout is of warmth and honesty; mistakes so freely admitted are easy to forgive.

While Bissett’s aim to is explain what made her the woman she is today – her family as much as her career, a task achieved with moving integrity – we could do with seeing more of her in the present. The more recent story of her finding love and being a mother as well as taking control of her creativity could be elaborated on. For the truth is that Bissett gets more interesting as she grows up. Less of the nostalgia and more of what she she wants for her and her child’s future would be welcome. The success of the show at the Edinburgh Festival and a world tour show that Bissett has enormous appeal as a performer. As the rousing final number proves, forget young dreams;  it’s right now that Bissett is really cool.

Until 28 September 2019


Photo by Mihaela Bodlovic