Tag Archives: Theatre 503

“Foxes” at Theatre503

Dexter Flanders’ carefully modest play is an impressive character-driven family drama. Shortlisted for the Alfred Fagon Award, Foxes is a winning piece that is easy to recommend.

Daniel’s church-going family opens its home and heart to his pregnant girlfriend Meera when she is rejected by her Muslim parents. But the family is torn apart when Daniel comes out as gay. It’s the play’s next move that really surprises.

The plot is part of Flanders’ skill and strategy to question the nature of acceptance – and what we compromise on to gain it. Presenting complex, contradictory emotions makes this debut play mature.

It seems a shame to define the strong characters in Foxes in relation to David – they are all so good. Arch yet adorable Meera and her sister-in-law Deena are brilliantly elaborated by director James Hillier and performers July Namir and Tosin Alabi. They don’t just present arguments, but are recognisable people that you care for.

July Namir and Michael Fatogun in FOXES credit Adiam Yemane
July Namir and Michael Fatogun

Both young women light up the stage. As a stark contrast, Anyebe Godwin, playing the man in Daniel’s life, does a brilliant job of showing the dark toll that living in the closet has taken on a bright young man. His clandestine existence gives the play its title.

Tosin Alabi and Anyebe Godwin in FOXES credit Adiam Yemane
Tosin Alabi and Anyebe Godwin

What I suspect is the origin of the play – Daniel’s coming out scene – is another highlight. The scene is stunning. Not least for Doreene Blackstock, who plays Daniel’s mother with such ferocity and tenderness.

Michael Fatogun and Doreene Blackstock in FOXES credit Adiam Yemane
Michael Fatogun and Doreene Blackstock

So, Flanders can write characters. The off-stage father who all mourn is further proof – he is a tangible presence. But it’s the central role, played by Michael Fatogun, who really grabs the attention. Confusion isn’t easy to show on stage, but Fatogun manages to convey the trauma and elation of his first gay kiss brilliantly. Throughout, Daniel’s youthful bravado and sensitive intelligence are made clear. It’s a performance, and a role, to dream about.

Breaking up Flanders’ short scenes might be handled better by Hillier, as Foxes is slightly longer than needed. The production’s projections are impressive but feel unnecessary. And I’d welcome a stronger sense of place than Flanders provides. But these are minor quibbles against a strong show.

Chances for Daniel to change, through several scenes in Act Three, build momentum nicely. A series of potential conclusions impress – and depress – by turn. How will Daniel and his family solve their dilemma? Dexter appreciates that any happy ending is going to be messy. How many lies will each character put up with? One certain truth is that everyone should see this play

Until 23 October 2021


Photos by Adiam Yemane

“J’ouvert” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Although the Notting Hill carnival has been cancelled for the second year running, theatre-goers can get closer than ever to the spirit of the event with Yasmin Joseph’s play.

Using the specific term to describe the street party element of Carnival, Joseph opens up interesting topics, from cultural history to issues around class, gender, and race. 

It’s not easy to raise so many issues so well. And Joseph doesn’t shy away from controversial tensions within and between groups that show complex legacies and lives. Expertly marshalled by director Rebekah Murrell, we’re given time to consider thoughts so skilfully provoked.

This all sounds serious. And J’ouvert is… As we follow two friends around for the day, there is plenty of menace and pain. Nadine is preparing to compete as a dancer and Jade about to give her first speech as an activist. Joseph balances a concern for heritage, where Nadine communes with the past (scenes that aid the show’s pace), and Jade’s passion for a better future (which ends, sorry for the spoiler, in a barn-storming speech). Both women’s passions add to the tension and, meanwhile, they are pursued by lechers and censorious relatives. But J’ouvert is also very funny.

“Fear and joy”

In the spirit of release that characterises Carnival, plenty of the problems addressed benefit from Joseph’s ability as a comedic writer. There are throwaway observations that have spark and sometimes a spike, and there’s a line in insults that would make many of a stand-up comic envious. Having her cast impersonate men of different ages provides more than one highlight. And with such chances in the script, the cast proves thrilling.

Taking a third character first, Annice Boparai’s Nisha is a fine target for humour. As she campaigns to improve the area (she has badges), to label her as ‘woke’ is easy enough. But both Boparai and Joseph add skilfully to the role, showing us a character who is lost, vulnerable and genuinely well-meaning. It’s a part full of surprises that reflects the play’s combination of troubles and jokes.

There’s no question that, as Nadine and Jade, Gabrielle Brooks and Sapphire Joy have the appropriate star quality for these great parts. And these are fantastic performances. But note how cleverly Joseph flips the focus between the two. Is a link to ghosts our focus or a burgeoning political consciousness? Of course, with a play this good it is both.

Originally seen at the Theatre 503, the fear that the show might feel lost on a West End stage must have crossed minds. But that doesn’t happen for a moment. Aided by Zuyane Russell as a DJ, the palpable energy in this production is fantastic. Bearing in mind we only see four performers, dance and personality fill the theatre admirably. J’ouvert is a play to celebrate.

Until 3 July 2021


"Out of Sorts" at Theatre 503

As winner of the International Playwriting Award, the figures surrounding Danusia Samal’s new work are impressive – it was selected out of 2,055 scripts from 49 countries. While judging so many plays must be hard, it’s easy to see why the panel chose this one. A firmly rooted story of modern London life, with drama from the dilemmas facing a young Muslim woman caught between “two worlds that do not mix”, Samal balances humour and pathos with skill and assurance.

It’s clever that our heroine Zara, impeccably performed by Nalân Burgess, isn’t entirely sympathetic. Zara’s parents, from whom she hides her Westernised life, deserve more from her. They are, at best, a source of fun for Zara and her flatmate, Alice, another satisfying part that’s developed well by Emma Denly. Samal presents Millennials that are easily recognised, maybe a little too harshly judged and good fun. There are scene-stealing lines, too, from younger sister Fatima, a role that Oznur Cifci makes her own, confirming Samal’s comedy skills.

The writing often shows an impressively light touch that director Tanuja Amarasuriya handles well and uses to counterpoise the play’s big themes. For, alongside considerations of race, immigration and class, it becomes clear that Zara’s problems aren’t just a clash of cultures. Some home truths from Alice’s boyfriend (a role that, like Zara’s father, falters compared to the women, despite the actors’ commendable efforts) leads to a homecoming that brings a focus on mental health issues. The plotting may not be sophisticated, the action is possibly rushed, but Samal’s leading characters are beautifully crafted and utterly engrossing.

Out of Sorts comes back to the conventional family – a traditionalism that Samal brings to sympathetic fruition in a detailed two-hander finale. Here’s a moving scene that gets the best out of Myriam Acharki as Zara’s mother, who shows hidden depths. It’s no surprise Samal is a performer herself – she’s written enviable roles that really sing. If the conclusion shows a cautious streak (and as a choice of competition winner the play itself is a conservative choice), Samal’s skills are clear. Remember that safe bets pay off.

Until 2 November 2019


Photo by Helen Murray

“The Amber Trap” at Theatre 503

Here’s a strange situation – writing a review you don’t really want anyone to read. Because much of the success of Tabitha Mortiboy’s new play, staged with customary skill by Damsel Productions, comes with the journey it takes and the twist it contains. Do see it for that alone, as surprises in the theatre are memorable treats.

The Amber Trap opens on a gentle romance. Katie and Hope are lovers who work together in a small shop, and Oliva Rose Smith and Fanta Barrie make the young couple a pleasure to watch. Obviously, you know the course of this true love will get bumpy and, when gap-year would-be medic Michael arrives, youthful, keen and cute, it seems we’re in for a coming-of-age story. Here, the questioning of sexuality is nicely written and handled with sensitivity, yet might have a surer grasp of its comic potential.

Things become more serious and thought provoking – but not quickly. Director Hannah Hauer-King respects the text and doesn’t rush, lulling us into a false sense of security. The care Hauer-King takes is clear and convincing. In truth, the play isn’t quite long enough. The role of the shop’s manager, an older, soon-to-be divorcee, becomes a bit of a puzzle and proves a part that Jenny Bolt has to struggle with. But Hauer-King gives the show weight, with judicious pacing that demands pauses for thought.

The thinking that creeps up on us is a serious point – which should occupy us all, but often doesn’t – that shows Mortiboy has her finger on the pulse of debate. The play reveals Michael’s male, heterosexual gaze on the female, gay couple. I’m a little too squeamish to enjoy Mortiboy’s heavy metaphor with an eyeball, but it’s effective (just ask George Bataille). And the point that Michael demands control, with a chilling infantile glee, is important. His view of the women is on a spectrum of cheap thrills and insulting disbelief, while his crush on Hope becomes increasingly menacing.

Misha Butler

Michael’s impact on the couple is scary and all too real, and Katie and Hope’s responses of, respectively, fear and anger are on the nose. Rose Smith’s powerful reaction to a cheeky kiss Michael steals is salutary – this is not an act to dismiss (were you tempted to?). But it’s the role of Michael that is Mortiboy’s key move. His slight physicality, youth and status as the new arrival at work – all of which Misha Butler, who takes the part, carries well – cannot diminish his privileged position among the women. Michael’s sense of entitlement may be exaggerated for dramatic effect – and arguably the action turns nasty too quickly and too close to the end of the play – but, as his instability becomes obvious and his toxicity infectious, the bold structure makes the piece original, disturbing and rather brilliant.

Until 18 May 2019


Photos by The Other Richard

“Cuzco” at Theatre 503

Even in a city as cosmopolitan as London, the chance to see contemporary European plays doesn’t come along often enough. This work, from Víctor Sánchez Rodríguez, went down well in Spain. Although it is a hard play to warm to, it is intriguing, has a distinctive voice and the production is first class.

The scenario – a couple taking a trip to Peru to save their relationship – is discordantly low stakes, given how much mileage Rodríguez hopes to get out of it. As both the characters become increasingly odd, observations on how “tourism perverts everything”, plenty of colonial guilt and a dash of both Marx and mythology become far-fetched and forced… yet, always interesting.

As for the couple, who (as usual for plays nowadays) are unnamed, they seem mismatched from the start. While the woman hates travel, the holiday changes her the most. She is smart and interesting and Dilek Rose gives a strong performance in the part; although how funny the play should be seems to be an unresolved issue. Her boyfriend is all passive aggression and place names. While Gareth Kieran Jones does well when emotion is called for, and saves a final uncharacteristic tirade that comes too close to ridiculous, his character is far too dull for her.

Criticism of William Gregory’s translation is difficult without a knowledge of the source, but it’s clear Rodríguez writing is heavy handed. A good deal of speech is bizarrely grandiose. And a lot of clichés slip in towards the end that make for uncomfortable listening. Further credit to the performers for making some deadened lines really live. After all, worrying about the “bourgeoisie self-contemplation of our drama” doesn’t really trip off the tongue.

Despite reservations, Cuzco is a trip worth taking. It’s a different view on plenty of issues that preoccupy British playwrights; there’s a good take on privilege for a start. And superb work from director Kate O’Connor, injecting a carefully controlled momentum, makes the play convincing throughout. Best of all is the sound design from Max Pappenheim, which supports the play brilliantly, providing an hallucinatory tone that fits the mention of a “suffocated howl” the characters experience to perfection.

Until 16 February 2019


Photo by Holly Lucas

“Caterpillar” at Theatre 503

Alison Carr’s new play is a finalist for this venue’s Playwriting Award – reason enough to recommend it. And it’s clear why judges were keen; this is a carefully written, cleverly modest drama of motherhood and mental health that poses important questions, albeit a touch too slowly.

Carr benefits from a classy production: a trio of strong performances, solid direction from Yasmeen Arden and skilful lighting design from Ben Jacobs. The story of Claire visiting her recuperating mother Maeve in the family-run B&B turns into a tale not about an elderly relative but the wellbeing of the younger generation. Both Judith Amsenga and Tricia Kelly depict Carr’s strong characters wisely: there’s just enough sassy humour in Kelly’s affable landlady, while Amsenga brilliantly controls Claire’s flares of anger and panic. These are strong, well-written roles.

Alan Mahon as Simon
Alan Mahon as Simon

Although the guest house is supposed to be closed, a competitor in the annual ‘Birdman’ hang-gliding competition arrives in the middle of the night. Simon comes with a backstory about his hopeful flight off a cliff being a memorial to a dead girlfriend. Impressively, metaphors are kept under control and the character serves as more than a foil to Claire’s depression. It’s a third role containing subtlety that, again, gets a superb performance, this time from Alan Mahon.

There are twists in Caterpillar that ensure you leave the theatre with plenty to think about. But the play spends too long pupating. Startling questions arrive late, so they can be little explored – particularly with Simon’s character. The finale is grim, but shocking rather than moving. While it’s commendable to tackle the subjects of suicide and self-harm without sensation, the structure of the play ends up uneven. Carr’s turns of phrase and a good deal of humour make these flaws easy to ignore, but they stop the play from really taking flight.

Until 22 September 2018


Photos by The Other Richard

“Reared” at Theatre 503

John Fitzpatrick’s new play is an intimate family drama with an old-fashioned kitchen sink feel that’s crammed with contemporary concerns. There are three generations of women, and insights into their different stages of life. Along with nice comic touches, Reared is always entertaining and often endearing, but also too rambling.

Entering a house “full of secrets”, which Fitzpatrick has fun revealing, we follow Caitlin’s pregnancy, learn of her mother’s post-natal depression, and see the demise into dementia of grandmother Nora. I’m guessing a point of reference is Lady Macbeth – she’s Caitlin’s audition piece for drama school – and all three women show a steely determination that some (not I!) might characterise as unfeminine. But if this is a point we are supposed to take away, Fitzpatrick need to be more explicit. Nonetheless, these are strong roles for Shelley Atkinson, Paddy Glynn and Danielle Phillips, who all acquit themselves well. A series of touching scenes, full of frankness and humour (the comedy especially well handled by Atkinson), are thoughtfully directed by Sarah Davey-Hull.

Two pretty flaky male characters are under-developed (although well performed by Daniel Crossley and Rohan Nedd) – apart from a few jokes it’s a wonder what they are doing in the play. Another issue is a timid overarching structure, which leads to a conspicuous lack of tension, despite the dramatic topics covered. Too many stories are set up without exploration, let alone resolution, and important events are passed over, especially the fate of Caitlin’s child. Given the connection engendered by such strong characters, that feels a little like cheating. Even if many moments are strong, Reared comes too close to being a series of sketches rather than a fully grown play.

Until 28 April 2018


Photo by The Other Richard

“BU21” at the Trafalgar Studios

Stuart Slade’s new play, which has transferred from Theatre 503, imagines the aftermath of a passenger jet shot down over Fulham. Forget the how and why – details given only feed our fears ­– instead this is a long hard look at the effect of trauma on a personal and national level, as a group of survivors meet for therapy sessions and press reporting of events looms large. Frank monologues addressed to the audience contain a brutal, often startling, humour.

When it comes to thinking about our reaction to big events, Slade’s cynicism is refreshing and the lack of sentiment is a worthwhile corrective. The only patriotism here is sham: an opportunist happy with 15 minutes of fame that Graham O’Mara plays and manages to make intriguing despite objectionable arguments. Nobody really recovers from their trauma, a fact that makes three well-written roles for women (with hugely impressive performances from Florence Roberts, Roxana Lupu and Isabella Laughland) all the more moving. Admissions of selfishness bring us close to them. The language of the corporate meeting and the counselling session are both cleverly manipulated for laughs.

Less successfully are the audience’s motives questioned and our prejudices challenged. Why would we watch this ‘misery-porn’? And do we assume a Muslim character (played by Clive Keene, in fine form) is guilty? Bearing the burden here is Alexander Forsyth’s character, a particular obnoxious banker who breaks the fourth wall, haranguing us for buying a ticket in an appropriately overblown manner. Director Dan Pick obliges the pushy aspects of Slade’s writing with lots of raised lights to make sure there’s nowhere for the audience to hide. But the desire to be confrontational creates unconvincing moments. Too many assumptions are made about the audience and twists don’t have the impact wished for.

A lot of BU21 is tough and the manner harsh. Using laughter as the cure for trauma means the jokes are close to the bone. Such humour is revelled in, in keeping with the confrontational spirit of the piece and, while I can’t imagine this would bother Slade, it approaches a word seldom used – tasteless. But for all the flashiness, the combination of calculated insight with strong characters, impeccably performed, makes this a hot and cold affair that intrigues and stimulates.

Until 18 February 2017


Photo by David Monteith-Hodge

“A Handful Of Stars” at the Trafalgar Studios

Theatre 503’s well-received revival of Billy Roche’s A Handful Of Stars has transferred to the equally intimate Trafalgar Studios 2. This bleak coming-of-age story produces some excellent performances and has an impressive, understated quality.

Paul Robinson’s sensitive direction builds a quiet tension and reflects the play’s brooding desperation. Young friends Jimmy and Tony, played by Ciarán Owens and Brian Fenton, live in a small town with little to do except play pool and no aspirations other than joining a members-only snooker club. Tony comes to accept his future but Jimmy becomes wild and goes on the rampage.

Left Keith Duffy (Stapler) and right Michael O'Hagan (Paddy) in A Handful of Stars at Theatre503 Photographer Richard Davenport
Keith Duffy

The play is full of well-drawn and well-acted characters. Boyzone and Coronation Street star Keith Duffy understandably features in the promotion of the show. Duffy is good, confident and full of charisma, but his part, as a boxer at the end of his career, is one of the smallest. Joining him as foils for the youngsters are the elderly Paddy (Michael O’Hagan) and the miserly Conway (Colm Gormley). Pontificating and gossiping, both add a wary edge when dealing with Jimmy.

In a play very much about men, Maureen O’Connell holds her own as Linda, briefly Jimmy’s girlfriend, who further reveals his emotional inadequacy. Jimmy dwells on a haunting memory of brief affection between his parents that proves the key to all these young lives lack.
The relationship between Jimmy and Tony is skilfully depicted, their teenage banter mixed with a subtly suggested insecurity. Fenton’s gawky Tony is torn between fear of, and for, his friend. The show relies on the character of Jimmy, and Owens gives a sterling performance. A wild one in a familiar mould, through Roche’s skilful writing he is sure to connect with many who can remember a disappointed youth.

Until 25 July 2014


Photos by Richard Davenport

Written 2 July 2014 for The London Magazine

“Our Share of Tomorrow” at Theatre 503

A big success at the Edinburgh Fringe, Our Share of Tomorrow has arrived in London, to the Theatre 503 in Battersea. The piece, written and directed by Dan Sherer, comes from the Real Circumstances Company, and has a trio of characters mourning for loves lost.

Real Circumstance aim for ‘new ways of playmaking’; their rehearsal process develops the content of the play with the cast, includes improvisation and works towards a final text that has poetic ambitions. The process results in a particular kind of emotional realism from the characters we see on stage.

Cleo is grieving for her mother, journeying to meet a man who doesn’t know she is his child, and befriended by a father figure estranged from his own daughter. The dramatic potential is potent, the commitment from the cast so clear, the result is peculiarly intense. Tamsin Joanna Kennand gives a moving performance as a fragile youngster, and is joined by Jot Davies and David Tarkenter, who both possess a fantastic raw energy.

Some extra touches, such as undertones of sexual abuse, are a little overblown. And the structure of the piece, moving back and forth in time, adds less than it should to the character dynamics. But the work as a whole has a beautiful economy, exemplified by James Cotterill’s fantastic design, and an admirably swift pace that makes it compelling.

Until 6 July 2013


Photo by Michael Nabarro

Written 20 June 2013 for The London Magazine