Tag Archives: Southwark Playhouse

“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

“The Fabulist Fox Sister” from the Southwark Playhouse

The life of Kate Fox, the 19th-century “mother of all mediums”, makes a rich subject matter for this very funny monologue with music. Writer and performer Michael Conley imagines Fox’s final audience as she reveals her seances were really just theatre all along.

Always brash, Conley’s version of Fox as a straight-talking New Yorker is liberated by being at the end of her long career. It’s a simple device used effectively to give us a lot of history as well as an air of recklessness that adds a touch of the unexpected. When Kate proclaims,

“Fuck it, I’m retiring”

It means you’re never quite sure what will be revealed next.

Fox’s life, “famous before famous meant disposable”, was remarkable. And, along with playful period detail, the twisted justification for exploiting “rich guys with dead kids” provides some weight to the show that director Adam Lenson does well to highlight. Still, it’s really Conley’s depiction of Fox that adds the spirit to this spiritualist.

Conley’s script is full of good jokes. Fox’s mother being so stupid she couldn’t understand buttons really tickled me. Along with sibling rivalry (hence the title) and Kate’s love of one particular spirit – Jim Beam – word play, repetition and dead pan asides are all expertly delivered. Even Kate’s deliberately bad jokes get laughs: that’s when you know Conley has great comic skills.

The Fabulist Fox Sister is aided by jolly, very catchy tunes from Luke Bateman, who has a clever ear for using period touches. The songs are consistently strong, only once disappointing when a serious tone is attempted. In every other case the music adds considerably to amusement.

“believe in something”

Conley makes Fox funny but more than a figure of fun. An enormous ego, totally devoid of sensitivity toward others, which should make her revolting means her presence fills the stage. That Kate and her sisters sometimes believed their own lies adds a melancholy touch to the show. But there’s a whimsy to both script and music that works superbly. Conley makes you believe that Fox could have pulled off her incredible career. If nothing else, you end up believing in her. And having a lot of fun along the way.

Until 6 December 2020

www.ffsmusical.com

Photos by Jane Hobson

“The Poltergeist” from the Southwark Playhouse

Tramp Productions continue to thrill fans of Philip Ridley during lockdown. While it’s hoped that the playwright’s cancelled show, The Beast of Blue Yonder, goes ahead one day, The Beast Will Rise web series was fantastic. Now another new monologue has been filmed for an exciting live stream.

The recording benefits from its location, albeit sadly empty, because of the extra space. In an excellent performance, energetically directed by Wiebke Green, Joseph Potter makes his character appropriately expansive. The extra room, after so much filming from homes, suits the energy of this latest creation from Ridley – an artist called Sasha.

The action centres on Sasha at his niece’s birthday party, an event he describes as a “new circle of hell”. But this is hardly the apocalyptic setting for otherworldly events Ridley often specialises in. East London is described with the playwright’s usual skill, detail and beauty. But it’s mundane Ilford that low-key events occur in. Don’t worry though, there’s nothing tame about this play’s spirit.

It’s a marvel to see how Ridley fleshes out characters who never appear; The Poltergeist becomes a family drama despite being a monologue. For Sasha, his family looks like a pretty Monet painting but is really a Damien Hirst installation. Yet it becomes clear a despised sister-in-law is just trying hard to be nice. And niece Robin is a kindred spirit whose “beautiful and scary” artwork could well summarise the feel of the whole play.

“beautiful and scary”

The Poltergeist isn’t scary because of the supernatural but since Sasha is so damaged. Potter conveys the character’s pain wonderfully, with anxiety keeping the audience on edge. Alongside an addiction to painkillers, Sasha’s grip on reality is blurred by his powerful imagination and his paranoia. So much life seems like a film set to him. A brief brush with fame and personal grief have caused profound damage.

Ridley challenges us to retain the sympathy Sasha deserves. It’s a challenge Potter’s performance doesn’t shy away from. Irascible, “sneering at everyone” and potentially violent, it’s easy to see this prodigy as spoilt and literally destructive. But Sasha still wins hearts, how?

A strong romance allows light into the play and a touch of stability in Sasha’s life. The relationship with his partner Chet is a constant presence. This being Ridley, the affair is sharp with sometimes painful truths. But the love is sincere and supportive.  Vividly rendered in Potter’s asides, Chet calls Sasha a “force of nature” – it’s hard to disagree. The outcome is a touch more hope than many of Ridley’s plays offer. Another surprising move from this master playwright, and a welcome one.

Until 21 November 2020

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

“The Last Five Years” at the Southwark Playhouse

After having its run cut short by the lockdown, this return to the stage – for this five-star show – is especially welcome. This is a superb production of a fantastic musical.

Director Jonathan O’Boyle and his talented performers Molly Lynch and Oli Higginson, as the couple, Cathy and Jamie whose romance we follow, all get the most from Jason Robert Brown’s superb writing.

The story’s structure is original: Cathy’s tale plays backwards (we start by seeing the marriage end) and alternates with Jamie, who begins by falling in love. Showing us such highs and lows, flipping back and forth from song to song, is explicated and elaborated magnificently by O’Boyle.

The interaction between Lynch and Higginson – which is mostly ignoring one another – as they sing about different times in their lives, creates a layered, often ghostly, effect. A moment when Jamie reaches for Cathy’s hand, which she is oblivious to, results in shivers. Even smarter, both performers take turns on a piano, starting or ending each other’s numbers to startling effect. A revolving stage, part of Lee Newby’s set, adds further sophistication.

Sam Spencer-Lane’s choreography places extra demands on both cast members which, along with sounding great, they live up to. Again, some of the imagery created is almost spectral, as if each can see the other in their imagination but fail to really communicate. 

Lynch brings a credible fragility to her sympathetic character that proves moving. We are on her side from the start. It was a worry whether she would manage lighter numbers but, thankfully, these have a satisfactory comedy to them. Lynch works wonders with a ukulele and that revolving stage.

Each time I see The Last Five Years I like Jamie a little less. The character seems more arrogant and selfish as I age! And Jamie objectifies Cathy something rotten. Countering this, Higginson’s performance is often charming and energetic, as well as always heartfelt. There’s an edge that makes me suspect Higginson doesn’t like Jamie much either… I hope so.

George Dyer’s musical direction is also impressive (the percussion sometimes a little heavy). And I wonder if the show was originally conceived for a proscenium stage, understandably altered for extra socially distanced capacity? I’d certainly recommend you don’t sit to the sides. So, the production isn’t perfect… but it’s pretty close, and one of the best shows in years.  

Until 14 November 2020

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photo by Pamela Raith

“Bound” from the Southwark Playhouse

The Elephant & Castle venue’s fund-raising offering during the Covid-19 lockdown is impressive. There are four projects: Shakespeare, the musical Wasted, weekly monologues from Philip Ridley and this play from Bear Trap Theatre, which originally ran in 2011.

Written by Jesse Briton, who successfully packs a lot in to just 80 minutes, it is the story of ‘cursed’ fishing trip by Devon trawlermen. A troubled industry is the backdrop to an increasingly dangerous trip journey, which makes the show exciting.

Also directing the show, with help from lighting designer Seth Rook Williams, Briton conveys the peril faced – and the storm itself – with the simplest of means. It’s the kind of show that makes you love live theatre. And the recording, which has a static camera, is the kind I’m starting to prefer, as it’s far more authentic.

Drama doesn’t just come from the sea. Briton’s characters are impressive, if not uniformly developed. Bound shows a man’s world that diverges slightly from the toxic masculinity often seen on stage. Regardless of the arguments, big and small, there is a strong sense of care and affection – and a powerful undertow of a claustrophobic community burdened by its history.

While the cast might vary a little more in age, all do a good job with their distinctive roles. Joe Darke does especially well with Graham, who provides a good deal of the show’s many lighter moments. The older men are the source of plenty of jokes, so it is to the credit of actors James Crocker and Alan Devally that their moving story lines are still so strong. And Daniel Foxsmith is excellent as the most complicated character, Reece, who is a mix of unappealing politics and good common sense.

It isn’t all plain sailing. An outsider to the group, a Polish agency worker, is a role with a lot riding on it; Thomas Bennett works hard, but the character feels too naïve and Briton falters when it comes to showing English as a second language. The character of Woods, the skipper, is made compelling by John McKeever’s performance, but really needs plumping out.

The moral dilemma that leads to the play’s finale arrives too late and is ill prepared. Even worse, it isn’t really strong enough – there’s little sense that these brave men would take any other course of action, no matter how awful the outcome. But Briton’s direction bridges problems in his script. With the help of associate director Joe Dark, the movement work here is excellent. Best of all, songs – performed by a cast who turn out to be excellent singers – bind the show in ship-shape fashion.

Available until the theatre is open again at https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/streaming/

"You Stupid Darkness!" at the Southwark Playhouse

Super smart and far from monochrome, this transfer from Plymouth of Sam Steiner’s play proves to be the first must-see London show of 2020. It’s funny and moving, while quietly bold touches guide a sense of purpose delivered with impressive confidence.

Set in a helpline call centre in catastrophic times, you don’t need to have worked as a Samaritan to suspect the staff on stage are dubiously qualified. But, while this odd bunch might be amusingly ill-suited to deliver the care they offer, the hugely talented Steiner is an excellent listener. His ear for dialogue results in fantastic conversations, many one-sided, that are both comedic and emotional – a combination that makes the piece both delightful and intriguing.

Andrew Finnigan Lydia Larson Andy Rush and Jenni Maitland in You Stupid Darkness Credit Ali Wright
Andrew Finnigan, Lydia Larson, Andy Rush and Jenni Maitland

The recognisable characters, with well-developed personalities and problems, play a big part in the piece’s success. The performances do the writing justice. The group is run by Frances, as irrepressibly perky as she is heavily pregnant, beautifully depicted by Jenni Maitland. Chatty Angie first appears to be a comedy foil, but Lydia Larson ensures considerable emotional impact from her. A well-written teenage role that Andrew Finnigan is perfect for, and a depressed older man that Andy Rush makes appealing, complete a quartet who are eminently easy to watch. From traumatic calls to simple pleasures from a story-telling caller named Merlin, moments of tension and relaxation are magically sculpted with fantastic talent.

We could be in a superior sitcom were it not for the dark surround Steiner crafts. Our heroes face big problems – that they always carry gas masks tells you that much! This is not just a charity on its last legs, but a society facing its demise. Yet, in a daring move, we never know the specifics of the apocalypse being faced. Of course, it’s hard not to presume an environmental disaster, but that’s never stated. Maybe it’s an interesting, naturalistic, observation? But sparing details can frustrate viewers – it takes guts. The focus is everyday lives: the way Steiner understates this dystopia keeps the audience on its toes.

You Stupid Darkness! goes well beyond your average dark comedy to become a play about hope. Director James Grieve does an excellent job of giving the script room to develop. Time is needed for hope to show itself – now we see why insisting that the odds faced remain unknown is important. The final scene of keeping calm and carrying on is profoundly moving by embodying those very qualities; the play gets quieter and more controlled as conditions worsen. Motivating the skill this takes, and surely the key to what makes the play so winning, reveals the humble realisation from a playwright who has written a five-star banger of a play – that listening to stories might be just as important as telling them.

Until 22 February 2020

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Ali Wright