Tag Archives: Southwark Playhouse

“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 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

“Afterglow” at the Southwark Playhouse

A huge success off-Broadway, S Asher Gelman’s play has the open marriage of Alex and Josh tested by a younger man called Darius. The play has the qualifications for a strong fringe show, with close character studies and an invitation to discussion in the bar afterwards. It clearly struck a chord in New York with a record-breaking run and it will be interesting to see if it excites London. For – with best wishes extended to a quality production – the play plods and its characters annoy. Despite all its transparent efforts to be sexy, bold and brave – might we Brits like our sex a bit less serious?

Afterglow is earnest. Attempts at jokes are made but are poor and contrived. Director Tom O’Brien tries a light touch at times, and the show certainly looks stylish, but goodness how important this threesome-that-goes-wrong thinks it is. The talented actors – Jesse Fox, Sean Hart and Danny Mahoney – each make the most of their roles, fighting hard to inject humour and pathos, but what roles to tackle. Each man’s solipsism reaches ridiculous levels: Alex wants space and Josh needs attention. Clearly a little self-knowledge is a dangerous thing, as both think admitting their faults excuses them. Meanwhile, Darius wants to be good, primarily to live up to the etymology of his name. Ultimately, they all wallow in self-pity over a drama of their own making.

Danny Mahoney, Jesse Fox and Sean Hart

Gelman could surely be more generous with his creations. It’s their explicit approach to feelings, rather than the play’s considerable amount of nudity, that is of note. Explaining every emotion – without subtlety or ambiguity – becomes tiring. And there’s only ever facile lip service to how someone else feels. The dialogue sounds like a bad therapy session. Maybe it’s accurate, or possibly satirical, but it makes caring about this self-obsessed crew next to impossible.

That the play wants to look at a social trend is fair enough and, if media coverage is anything to go, by the topic seems to qualify. But, alongside some predictable waffle about the “illusion of choice” facing gay men nowadays, we all know this story will end in tears. There’s an interesting attempt to focus the play, many themes found in gay plays are absent, but the result is little sense of a world outside the bedroom. Darius’ finances make an incongruous exception that could have been explored more. Quite simply, too little happens here. Alex’s observation that nobody has written a fairy tale for polyamory isn’t news (if Gelman had tried just that, perhaps he might have challenged us more). And, like many a story that sounds risqué, Afterglow is ultimately conservative. Arguably, that’s the biggest turn off.

Until 20 July 2019

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Darren Bell

“The Rubenstein Kiss” at the Southwark Playhouse

Inspired by the case of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were executed for treason in 1953, James Phillips’ play about politics and betrayal is a weighty drama. Creating a fictional parallel to real life events focuses the themes of individual responsibility and ideology. Setting the action over three decades allows an extrapolation on the legacy of events. This new production from director Joe Harmston makes the most of viewing two generations – the traitors and their children – resulting in a strong revival of a rich and complex play.

Harmston’s direction is luxurious. It feels as if equal time is given to the three couples: Jakob and Esther Rubenstein, her brother David and his wife Rachel and also their heirs, Matthew and Anna. The stories mingle effectively. Harmston might make a little too much fuss over scene changes and his traverse staging add less than desired but the issues of loyalty and hope are clear, while justice is done to a text full of argument and emotion. Best of all, Harmston has secured tremendous performances from his cast.

Ruby Bentall and Henry Proffit play the lead couple and inject an impressive energy into their political discussions. Sean Rigby takes the part of Esther’s brother and betrayer. Rigby develops his role well as the character becomes “haunted” by unwanted fame and he is ably supported by Eva-Jane Willis as Rachel who is consistently superb. The four are convincing as a family unit and the love each couple have for one another is utterly compelling. It’s a bit of a puzzle why the younger roles end up in a sexual relationship as well, surely an unnecessary complication? Nonetheless, Katie Eldred saves her weaker written character of Anna, whose suicide attempt is poorly handled by Phillips. And Dario Coates is excellent as Matthew, the impassioned son of the Rubensteins, who decides to fight to clear the family name.

Dario Coates (Matthew) & Katie Eldred (Anna)

The influence of Arthur Miller and his McCarthy inspired 1953 drama The Crucible lies heavy on the text – it is explicitly referenced and cerebrally employed. Proffit makes Jakob a powerful surrogate for Miller’s hero John Proctor. Stephen Billington’s FBI Agent, who interrogates and then tries to save Jakob and Esther, is an efficient take on the previous play’s Reverend Hale and points us towards interesting questions. The fanatics vision is brought into focus; Bantall’s eyes as she faces her martyrdom in the electric chair are mesmerising. Phillips appreciates that the “gift of empathy”, discussed as an inspiration that can cross generations, is also a danger and can be poisonous. The Rubenstein Kiss provides salutary insight reached through care and intelligence.

Until 13 April 2019

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Scott Rylander

“Wasted” at the Southwark Playhouse

It’s not the fault of this strong show, a rock musical about the Brontë family, that it’s playing at the same time as another new piece called Six, which recasts the wives of Henry VIII as a pop group. Both musicals infuse history with a modern sensibility – and a lot of attitude – so maybe the more the merrier. To be clear, both shows are strong and exhibit exciting new promise from British talent, and comparisons shouldn’t be overstated as the pieces have different ambitions. But while Six is sharp and snappy, feeling like an exciting breakthrough, Wasted overreaches and comes a bit of a cropper.

The performances are all excellent. Natasha J Barnes takes the lead as Charlotte, dealing well with the clumsy flashback device of an interview and really belting out the songs. Molly Lynch is a prim and proper Anne, who also sounds great. Siobhan Athwal’s Emily, an eye-catching and committed mix of Kate Bush and Lady Gaga, proves hugely appealing. And the show has a lot of Branwell, performed with a deal of charisma by Matthew Jacobs Morgan. There’s some dissonance in the direction from Adam Lenson; it’s not quite clear how funny Wasted is supposed to be. Athwal gets a lot of laughs and Branwell is primed for them, yet the piece consistently veers towards gravity, even grimness.

There’s a great score from Christopher Ash. Heavy on rock, with plenty of passion delivered courtesy of Barnes and Lynch, with a bit of punk thrown in, Ash writes the best kind of pastiche. A comedy number for Emily recalls Kate Bush very cleverly while Jacobs Morgan’s smoother vocals are utilised well. Yet each song is just that little bit too long, too emphatic and too insistent. And Ash is not well served by the lyrics from Carl Miller, which seldom rise above the pedestrian. Miller gets a lot of information in, but there’s more prose than poetry here and attempts at humour are poor.

Tackling all four lives proves too much. It’s not that the show is too long but that Miller’s book becomes repetitive. The doom and gloom of the Brontës’ lives takes too much of the first act. And then they die. Fitting in a couple of songs about their work along the way is probably essential (although these are the weakest numbers). Presenting Branwell’s death as so literally a the result of his sisters’ success, then Emily’s collapse because of cruel critics, proves frustrating. Trying to tie all this together is the title – that the family saw their lives as wasted in one way or another – which isn’t quite enough. The show itself couldn’t be described as a waste in any way. But several ideas need reconsidering to give its subjects, and the talents of its cast and crew, a proper outing.

Until 6 October 2019

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photo by Helen Maybanks

“Bring It On” at the Southwark Playhouse

Part of an exciting summer season, the British Theatre Academy has chosen this latest musical production wisely. A high-school drama about cheerleading seems just a sensible pick. But add the name of Lin-Manuel Miranda and you should, rightly, attract a wide audience. In fact, there are no slouches behind this show: music and lyrics also come from Tom Kitt and Amanda Green, the book is by Jeff Whitty of Avenue Q fame. Given such a roster, this is a five-star show that demands respect for being firmly aimed at a younger crowd while still appealing to all.

From the Academy’s point of view, Bring It On also serves as a great showcase for the young talent it nurtures. Even the immaturity of some voices is easily excused. Under the vigorous direction and ambitious choreography of Ewan Jones, the energy and professionalism of all is admirable.

Robyn McIntyre plays Campbell, a hugely demanding role that really is the lead as she guides the show from start to finish. Forced to change schools suddenly, Campbell leaves her old friends (strong comedy parts for Isabella Pappas and Clair Gleave) for a poorer neighbourhood. The move is masterminded by her nemesis Eva (think ‘All About’ Eve Harrington) whose great number Sydnie Hocknell makes the most of. Now the former most popular girl in school has only Bridget for company – a role Kristine Kruse makes a delight – but she was just the team mascot… until now. The stage is set for plenty of self-development.

Campbell catastrophises as only a teen can, and a good deal of fun is had over the perceived high stakes of student life. The new school, complete with cleverly handled differences in teen argot, has no cheerleading culture. Turning this around, with the aim of winning a coveted championship, creates new friends including Danielle, played with star style by Chisara Agor. It won’t be a surprise to see many of this cast go on to have successful careers, but I would put money on seeing Agor again soon.

The pop songs here are good enough to be chart toppers and impressive in their variety. The lyrics are bright and frequently bold. The story itself, based on a movie, is predictable but fun. The sentimentality, updated with a discussion about self-esteem, manages to be sincere. There are some important injections of realism, mentions of race and privilege, that add great power. And a lovely twist at the end elevates the show into a real triumph.

Until 1 September 2018

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Eliza Wilmot

“For King and Country” at the Southwark Playhouse

Dilated Theatre’s production of John Wilson’s 1964 play is timely in two ways. The story of a soldier on trial for desertion, it’s a thought-provoking commemoration of World War I during this anniversary year. And, since hindsight tells us many such cases were surely victims of PTSD, staging the play at a time when awareness of mental health is increasing means that a pretty standard court room drama provides input into a topical concern.

The play stages a conventional legal battle, but one that is well written and that director Paul Tomlinson does justice to, with some flashbacks of fighting to inject energy and well-used music. Extra tension comes as defence lawyer Lieutenant Hargreaves plays the “dangerous game” of defending Private Hamp, who left his post, although he has no explanation of why. Will the case save a life or set a precedent that will damage the Army and the war effort?

The lead roles make excellent showcases. Lloyd Everitt is the perfect English gent as the sensitive advocate with a stiff upper lip. And Adam Lawrence, who plays Hamp, carries off the tricky job of making him believable. There can’t be many people so incapable of lying. There’s a fine ensemble, each of whom Tomlinson gets solid work from, and just enough nuance for each character.

One thing that is different about the piece is the role of religion, with faith a questioning force for good that matches Hargreaves’ more secular viewpoint. Indeed, religion takes over, becoming a genuine moral compass that orientates the play. It’s a lot for Eugene Simon in the role of the Padre to shoulder, but he puts on an impressive show, adding plenty of emotion to the arguments and power to the text’s most original feature.

Until 21 July 2018

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photo by Alex Brenner