Tag Archives: Southwark Playhouse

“Doctor Faustus” at the Southwark Playhouse

Christopher Marlowe’s play is always a fiendish one to stage – with ‘Enter Devils’ as a stage direction, how could it not be? But this new updated production is excellent and confirms that shows from Lazarus Theatre are must-sees.

There may be rough moments and the show is, literally, messy. But, alongside plenty of blood and a paper-strewn stage, the direction and adaptation by Ricky Dukes is as neat and tidy as you could wish. A hugely impressive number of ideas push the play to its limits and preserve it at the same time.

“Mark the show”

Dukes exploits the theatricality of Marlowe’s text – this is a show full of shows. Faustus learns about space in a brilliant scene that mimics a modern Planetarium display. The famous encounter with the Seven Deadly Sins takes on the air of a burlesque. Oh, and the Pope dances the hokey cokey.

It’s all a bit mad and there’s a surprising amount of humour. The spirits that are conjured up have some singularly effective make-up around their mouths (take note of when it appears) and come and go with a curtain reveal. Even the blood Faustus signs his name with is fake, and no attempt is made to hide that. Which raises the question – does Faustus really get what he has traded his soul for? 

That Faustus might be cheated of his wishes is frightening. Is it all just in his head? And that isn’t the only scary thing about the production (that make-up again!). With some fantastic sound and lighting design (bravo, Stuart Glover and Sam Glossop) as the clock ticks down to the devil claiming his bounty, there is considerable tension. The final scene left me, as well as Faustus, gasping.

“Faustus must be damned”

A lot of the production’s success is down to taking the play’s religiosity seriously (no mean feat, nowadays). Faustus’ denial of God, his refusal to repent despite repeated opportunities, builds magnificently. We have a battle of minds and ego that is used to structure the show. And Dukes puts proper emphasis on what really damns the man – his despair.

Doctor-Faustus-Lazarus-Theatre-at-Southwark-Playhouse-credit-Charles-Flint-inset
David Angland

All this praise and no word yet on a strong cast… sorry about that. Dukes makes this an ensemble show, with the performers mostly playing a variety of small roles and allegorical figures. If Candis Butler Jones stands out as Lucifer, well, the devil always has the best lines. Hamish Somers and Rachel Kelly also impress as particularly hard working: their appearances as Good and Evil Angels is an essential part of providing a framework for the adaptation.

The shows leads are fantastic. David Angland takes the part of Mephistopheles with a fastidiousness that adds chills. There’s a wicked sense of humour and careful reminders of what’s at stake. As Faustus’ sprit servant, he’s never too familiar – Angland shows an effective contempt for the Doctor. But, of course, it’s Faustus’ show and, taking the lead, Jamie O’Neill could be forgiven for the sin of pride.

O’Neill doesn’t leave the stage during the entire 90 minutes. While managing to convey plenty of awe, as well as passion and fear, this is a remarkably restrained performance. Every movement is measured, and Faustus seldom acts without thinking. And that’s important – Faustus is an intellectual and this is a cerebral play. That this aloof doctor can also connect to the audience and show increasing desperation is a fantastic achievement, making O’Neill heavenly casting for an out-of- this-world show.

Until 1 October 2022

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Charles Flint

“Yeast Nation (The Triumph of Life)” at the Southwark Playhouse

If quirky is what you want Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’ show can’t be beaten. A “bio-historical musical” set in primordial soup, its characters really are yeast and the conflict revolves around how they evolve. So, top marks for crazy. The score tries hard and the production is enthusiastic. But the musical is, ultimately, just an oddity.

Credit where it’s due – the ideas are fine. With hints of Greek tragedy and Shakespeare, the oldest yeast (a king, of course) battles against change. As the organisms encounter greed, ambition and love – for the first time in history – the chance to examine abstract concepts is embraced.

Regrettably, adding meta-theatrical touches proves distracting and predictable. It leads to a weak role for a narrator character, who comes too close to a very odd schoolteacher despite valiant efforts from Sarah Slimani. Being both self-consciously silly and serious is an interesting mix, but not a successful one. The joke of taking such absurdity as profound ends up repetitive.

A focus on romance (which buoys the second act) allows the performers who become the first multi-cellular organism (Stephen Lewis Johnston and Hannah Nuttall) a chance to shine. But despite plenty of spirit the show drags. The originality is only single-cell deep – we always know what’s coming next and it doesn’t come quickly enough.

Hollman and Kotis are too keen to tell a “dark tale”. Maybe the fear is that serious questions are needed to justify the bizarre premise? Maybe it’s part of the joke? Either way, the best of the humour comes from the production. There’s strong work from Shane Convery and Mari McGinlay as ‘the Wise’ and ‘the Sly’ as well an unwitting accomplice to courtly intrigue, played by Marisa Harris. All three performances are committed.

It’s director Benji Sperring’s work that shows Yeast Nation in the best light – inventive touches that add charm and fun too often missing from the script and lyrics. Lucie Pankhurst’s work on movement is strong, suggesting amoebas in a fashion that proves oddly hypnotic. In addition, while it probably shouldn’t – and while I can’t explain why – setting the whole thing in Yorkshire adds immeasurably. After all, why not? The accents become the anarchic touch the piece itself craves for but misses.

Until 27 August 2022

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photo by Claire Bilyard

“I Know I Know I Know” at the Southwark Playhouse

Confidently written and well performed, Flora Wilson Brown’s new play is an intelligent and sensitive examination of sexual abuse. This ambitious work is worth checking out, despite not being an easy play for two reasons.

First, the subject matter is tough. We hear the story of a young woman who was groomed by a pop star, only later revealing the truth now that he is famous. Meanwhile, the musician is travelling to a wedding with an old friend, so the audience sees him in a very different light. It’s a neat way of challenging preconceptions, further aided by surprising humour on Wilson Brown’s part.

With both extended scenes delivered at the same time, I Know I Know I Know is dense viewing that makes demands on the audience. But the results are worth it. The dialogue overlaps in a marvellous fashion. Aided by Harry Tennison’s direction, there are explosive connections from the simplest words. As the moods of the three characters in the piece change, the script has a tense, flowing energy.

I Know I Know I Know isn’t perfect. Victoria Maytom’s set is an unhappy affair that doesn’t help the audience work out what’s going on and seems like an obstacle course for the performers. Anna Short’s sound design is effective but lacks the subtlety of the script. The lighting, from Ryan Day, is more appropriate – drawing the audience in and out of the action with an ebb and flow that fits the piece.

I know I know I know credit Ellie Kurttz
Ethan Moorhouse and Martha Watson Allpress

Wilson Brown’s well-written roles produce great performances. Well done to Martha Watson Allpress and Ethan Moorhouse, who play friends from university whose lives have become very different. They both have their problems. Watson Allpress brings a febrile energy to her role, while Moorhouse reveals his rock star character’s demons gradually. The key is that both are likeable – she has a wit to warm to, and he brings charm appropriate to the character’s success.

It is the victim, Alice, who is the focus of the show, and this proves a triumph for Wilson Brown and performer Hannah Khalique-Brown. There’s a lot of detail about Alice’s trauma; how the affair started and developed as well as how it has affected her. But this is written and delivered with a balanced approach that avoids sensationalism. Alice is a character whose honesty we never doubt (it must have been tempting to introduce scepticism for the sake of drama?). That Alice is still in love with the man who had been so terrible to her is haunting.

Wilson Brown has to skim around some of the interesting points that make her characters well rounded. And the play’s resolution, while emotional, feels truncated. But the piece is weighty and easily intense enough to impress. The age gap between the characters isn’t as great as they themselves seem to think, and that we aren’t dealing with some seedy Saville type is an important point. The play succeeds in bringing fresh insight to an important topic.

Until 16 April 2022

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Ellie Kurttz

“Anyone Can Whistle” at the Southwark Playhouse

Not even Stephen Sondheim got it right every time. This 1964 musical has the feel of being penned by a tyro, albeit one who is a genius. While responding to a spirit of counter-culture this revival, directed by Georgie Rankcom, adds confusion.

It’s sacrilegious to criticise Sondheim (and rightly so). Thankfully many faults can be allocated to Arthur Laurents’ book. After all, there are lots of good songs here you will probably recognise.

Anyone Can Whistle has a “rundown town” that manufactures a religious miracle for financial gain. But surprisingly little is done with this idea. At the same time, inmates from a mental asylum called, ahem, the Cookie Jar, run amuck. Surprise! It’s hard to tell who is really insane. There’s an odd lack of satire as the show aims to be a parable and ends up simplistic and tiresome.

The production doesn’t iron out the show’s problems (which would be tough). Attempts at audience participation are ham-fisted and the humour poorly delivered (too many jokes are rushed). There’s no sense of place or time and, with accents all over the place, it seems safe to say that’s deliberate. But the piece is stuck in its period, preoccupied with adolescent rebellion, vague protest and forms of therapy.

Rankcom does a good job working with the traverse stage and Lisa Stevens’ choreography is admirably energetic. But the performances are too broad and there are problems with hearing lines clearly enough. What fun Sondheim’s lyrics possess is often lost.

Alex Young, as the town’s mayor, is a notable exception to all the production’s problems. Like her character, Young is a woman who can handle a crowd, and she adds laughs as well as silliness, which helps in a piece that takes itself surprisingly seriously.

Chrystine Symone

Other performances need more nuance – how much this could be injected despite the script is open to debate. Our hero and heroine, J Bowden Hapgood and Nurse Fay Apple, performed with determination by Jordan Broatch and Chrystine Symone, are flat and their romance unconvincing. Is the somewhat flippant view of mental illness that comes with the show’s simplicity the problem? Even if it doesn’t make you uncomfortable, it has repercussions for their love affair that Broatch and Symone’s undoubtable charm cannot save. This too-brief encounter comes across as odd. We only learn catchphrases for characters.

The societal critiques in Anyone Can Whistle and the topic of mental health have an appeal. Rankcom and his cast respond with genuine enthusiasm to challenging the mainstream. It’s nice so see this inspiration. But, as the work itself is immature, the production becomes tarnished with the same quality. Enthusing an audience about such a hotchpotch of ideas, while not exactly needing a miracle, turns out to be a leap of faith too far.

Until 7 May 2022

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Danny With A Camera

“The Woods” at the Southwark Playhouse

David Mamet’s 1977 play is a romantic drama – just a very fancy one. The script is clever and, in this revival, carefully managed by director Russell Bolam. Allusions are dense, the angst extreme and the sexual politics wretched. If you aren’t a Mamet fan, it can prove tiresome. There’s an easy misanthropy behind the story of a couple falling out of love in a romantic cabin, even if the ideas spouted are highbrow. Is it obvious I’m not sold?

But I’d still recommend this show unreservedly – because the two performances here are fantastic.

Watching Sam Frenchum as Nicholas and Francesca Carpanini as Ruth isn’t pleasant. As a gushing hippy away from the city, she is frankly annoying. Nor does her mistaken idea that ursine partner is “serene” generate much sympathy. Meanwhile, Nicholas’ mansplaining isn’t going to win him many admirers.

The anxiety both characters share is carefully revealed, especially by Frenchum, while Carpanini triumphs in showing Ruth’s desperation. And this is all despite Mamet’s exaggerations… let’s just say that the idea of alienation has a witty twist.

Nobody could make light work of the dark atmosphere Mamet insists on, or the secrets toyed with so effortfully. Nonetheless, these actors – and Bolam – understand the play’s undeniable dynamism. Watching the characters develop and respond to events and revelations is the highlight. Both actors bring intensity to their roles at just the right moments. From who you find more annoying to when you start to get scared, it’s all effective drama and very well performed.

Frencham manages to make the existential speculation here feel as natural as it can, and Carpanini proves an effective foil (it isn’t her fault that her character is only a point of contrast). If The Woods doesn’t move you emotionally, it will still make you think.

A final point of praise seems appropriate and serves as a bit of a spoiler. There is violence in the play and this is brought to the stage with such skill that it should come with a warning (I thought something had gone horribly wrong at one point). It’s overall technically brilliant, undoubtedly impressive, but somehow remains cold.

Until 26 March 2022

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Pamela Raith

“Tokyo Rose” at the Southwark Playhouse

Maryhee Yoon and Cara Baldwin have a strong true story for their new musical. Framed around the trial of Iva Toguri, accused of treason for broadcasting Japanese propaganda during World War II, Tokyo Rose has plenty of potential. Regrettably, the telling of the tale has too many problems.

Maya Britto makes an appealing lead in the title role. Yoon and Baldwin do well with the character and the dilemma of an American stranded in Japan, trying to hold on to her identity. A mixture of naivety and conviction makes Toguri endearing and Britto has a strong voice.

There’s the fascinating idea that, with her prisoner of war colleague Major Cousens, the radio show Toguri presents will subvert propaganda. Humour will be used to fight a war from inside Japan. But the radio show we hear too little of just isn’t funny.

Maya Britto in Tokyo Rose
Maya Britto

The idea gets lost in a dense biography. The central scenes of the trial are good. But the show’s book (with additional work from William Patrick Harrison, Hannah Benson and Jonathan Man) makes the plot cumbersome. As director, Benson’s efforts to make the show speedy add a nervous energy.

There are more serious issues. Harrison’s music has dramatic moments and drives action well enough. The score is admirably diverse. But too many sentimental songs are a drag. And the music is consistently upstaged by poor lyrics – clumsy and frequently clichéd.

A hard-working cast does its best, although its work as a chorus needs tightening. Performers impress by taking on lots of roles. Lucy Park is a highlight in several male parts: she gets to inject some humour and has a strong scene after America drops the atom bomb. Credit to all for tackling Benson and Amelia Kinu Muus’ ambitious choreography, even if success is mixed.

As a final disappointment, Toguri’s long struggle for justice results in Tokyo Rose wilting. There’s a fiery spirit to the show with the suggestion that America, rather than the unfairly-treated Toguri, should be on trial. But this is abandoned for a bland end. Letters get delivered in a rush and Britto struggles to portray her character ageing. There’s little sense of triumph or achievement for our heroine – or the show.

Until 16 October 2021

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Steve Gregson

“Salomé” at the Southwark Playhouse

Lazarus Theatre Company’s exemplary production of Oscar Wilde’s infamous play benefits from Ricky Dukes’ forceful directorial vision and strong performances from a committed cast.

The production is exemplary in the sense that it suggests how to deal with a difficult text. More like a poem than a play, Salomé is hard work. Even nowadays we can see why Wilde’s morbid, exaggerated language was once thought unhealthy…it’s kind of, well, sickly. The production makes the action as clear and concise as possible. Mostly doing justice to the poetry (with the exception of added expletives) there’s even a sense of humour, which the text itself notably lacks.

Salome, Lazarus - Pauline Babula
Pauline Babula

Further credit for Dukes comes with efforts to recreate the sense of scandal the play once engendered. Young Salomé’s bargain with her step-father is made explicitly erotic with sexual tension and exploitation equally highlighted. This is achieved in sophisticated fashion thanks in part to the casting of Herod and his wife (Jamie O’Neill and Pauline Babula) who give subtle performances suggesting the power play between them as well as their characters’ individual lust for sex or power.

Games play a big part. The famous dance becomes a creepy parody of childhood fun – a brilliant move – with tag and hide-and-seek making it queasy to watch. Desire is consistently identified as dangerous – creating tension and getting to the heart of Wilde’s obsessions.

Salome, Lazarus - Fred Thomas
Fred Thomas

Further provocation comes with the casting of the leads, surely deliberately removed from the ‘blind’ casting we usually applaud. There’s a charge – and a challenge – from having a Prince Salome and a Jokanaan, explicitly praised for the whiteness of his skin, performed by a black man. The expectations of the audience (and author) are questioned. That said, what really gives the production power are the detailed and skilled performances. In the title role, Fred Thomas mixes arrogance and fear with desperation, managing to make this murderer surprisingly sympathetic.

Riveting as Thomas is, especially in the harrowing finale, eyes should really be on Prince Plockey who takes the part of the Baptist. Plockey brings a power to the prophet that makes you understand why he is feared. A continual stately procession around the table that is Sorcha Corcoran’s clever set design mounts in power. The focus Plockey brings to this pacing is fantastic and each announcement from the doomed figure creates a sense of dread fitting to the text’s doom-laden tone. Salomé is Jokanaan and Plockey’s show which, despite the title, is exactly as it should be.

Until 11 September 2021

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Adam Trigg

“John & Jen” at the Southwark Playhouse

Deceptively simple and slow burning, the cumulative power of Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald’s musical benefits from Guy Retallack’s direction in this strong revival. The production is clear about the show’s complexity and the performances, from Rachel Tucker and Lewis Cornay, are full of fire.

John & Jen is a family drama with a novel structure – the second act is a nice twist if you are new to the piece. Suffice to say that we follow characters through different ages and stages of their relationships. It’s a gift for Tucker and Cornay, who portray their roles from toddlers to teens and adults to remarkable effect, and not least with their singing. To express such different ages while always sounding great is a very special skill.

Lewis Cornay in John & Jen Photo Danny Kaan
Lewis Cornay

Greenwald and Lippa’s book tackles plenty. There’s the usual coming-of-age angle as well as politics that point to cultural divides, domestic abuse and toxic masculinity. It should be too much. But Retallack’s strategy is a light touch that makes interpretation surprisingly open. Picking a major concern is deliberately tricky – down to each member of the audience. The clever juggling act seems grown up to me – again, aided by Tucker and Cornay’s acting talent. 

Smart stuff, then, but sometimes cold? Though you warm to the characters, and the short scenes showing changes in their relationship ring true, the show is tricky to love. The level of accomplished professionalism – clear in Lippa’s score and Greenwald’s lyrics – lacks inspiration. There’s a hint of careful manipulation, albeit effectively employed, with refrains that come back to haunt or lines repeated with a sting. And there’s a saccharine streak that two or three funny numbers do not balance out. Tucker and Cornay are strong comedians, too – I really can’t praise them enough – but, despite a few laughs, the overall effect is soppy. 

Rachel Tucker in Jonh & Jen Photo Danny Kaan
Rachel Tucker

While there is plenty of detailed Americana, a sense of specific place is lacking. Presumably, Lippa and Greenwald wanted to make the show resonate with a large audience. But for British viewers I’m betting the attraction for this production will come with the performances.  Seeing West End stars Tucker and Cornay in the small space at Southwark is a huge treat. Both add an impressive weight to the score with powerful voices that intoxicate (the singing is sometimes more impressive than the songs). Along with superb musical direction from Chris Ma, the show sounds simply fantastic. Five-star performances in a four-star musical but, without doubt, a show to see.

Until 21 August 2021

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Danny Kaan

“Staircase” at the Southwark Playhouse

As an early example of representing homosexuality on stage, Charles Dyer’s 1966 play is noteworthy. The piece had success in the West End and on Broadway, despite censorship.  This revival directed by Tricia Thorns serves as a tribute to the playwright, who died this year, but only manages to confirm the play’s historical interest. 

As a study of Harry and Charlie, two “small time backstreet hairdressers”, together for twenty years, the promise is an insight into lives not usually recounted. And a reminder of crueler times – the men have to hide their relationship and Charlie is in trouble with the law after an impromptu drag performance. The business is in danger too, since Harry has alopecia (although the best barber I ever had was bald). Unfortunately the men’s love-hate relationship has more hate than romance and is difficult to care about.

Even now it’s unusual to see older gay men on stage and the talk of age being a “smelly thing” is thought-provoking. The dialogue is often interesting, especially Harry’s “silver flow of oratory”. The mix of slang and obscure references is stimulating. The convoluted descriptions are articulate, yet I found it hard to decide how funny Staircase is supposed to be. 

There’s plenty of detail in Dyer’s script but the delivery raises questions. Paul Rider, who takes the better written part of Harry, is more confident and entertaining to watch. John Sackville does well with his character’s vanity and a suggestion of serious delusions (are both characters on stage different personas of one man?) but is too fraught and uncomfortable throughout. Dyer’s play on names and the briefest of suicide scenes create confusion. Thorns’ unflinching direction maintains the bickering relentlessly. Despite all the pain and loneliness, and the potentially serious outcomes, the men’s arguments become tiresome quibbles. Staircase never ascends beyond being a dated curiosity.

Until 17 July 2021

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photo by Phil Gammon

“Public Domain” from the Southwark Playhouse

With so much of our lives spent online, a musical about the internet seems apposite to our lockdown times. The twist for this show, from Francesca Forristal and Jordan Paul Clarke, is that it is a verbatim piece. All the words spoken or sung are taken from the internet. The result is a snapshot of a recognisably confusing world, refocused and clarified with considerable talent.

Forristal and Clarke are a gifted duo. Their music is pop-inspired, electronic and generally perky. While sampled speech is not to my personal taste, it is integrated well. Blissfully, the show is streamed live. That more than makes up for some technical glitches on the first night. Forristal and Clarke’s voices are strong, their acting, taking on different characters, commendable. Adam Lenson’s direction aids clarity.

The subject matter is wildly ambitious. And there are missteps. Like plenty of online content an edit would help. Touching on Facebook’s treatment of outsourced employees makes for a great number but is an issue that needs more time. Similarly, the topic of censorship feels tacked on – it deserves a show all of its own.

Francesca Forristal in Public Domain Photo The Other Richard
Francesca Forristal

Overall though, the book for Public Domain is impressive. The words, chosen for interest and importance rather than inherent musicality, flow remarkably well. Focus comes, first, from two fictional YouTubers (SwaggyWan and Millies Fitness). Made from several sources, they are credible creations that show us the positive and negative approaches to life online. Both prove funny and moving and leave you wanting to subscribe.

There’s another ‘pairing’ in the show: those YouTubers alongside Facebook mogul Mark Zuckberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. Television interviews or congressional hearings (which might remind you of the Donmar’s show, Committee) provide insight into a very different world from the struggling influences. It’s a strong, thought-provoking, contrast that works well.

Jordan Paul Clarke in Public Domain Photo The Other Richard
Jordan Paul Clarke

When it comes to how these different sets of people are presented, Forristal and Clarke gain further respect. The music provides a sincerity and emotive power to plenty of glib comments (it’s the internet, remember). Due attention is paid to the positives of the social networking; it helps people feel “a little less alone” and an unexpected finale emphasises this important point. Yet an underlying cynicism shows an intelligent approach. No matter what happens, our YouTubers want you to follow them!

The web is worldwide but at their best, Forristal and Clarke catch most by casting a narrow net. It’s easy to imagine Public Domain as a project as much as a finished piece. The subjects covered are so topical, further versions could surely be developed. And I know I’d watch.

Until 16 January 2021

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by The Other Richard