Tag Archives: Trafalgar Studios

“A Taste of Honey” at the Trafalgar Studios

More than 60 years after the play’s premiere, and three years since he first directed it at the National Theatre, Bijan Sheibani’s new revival continues to show that Shelagh Delaney’s superb play is as fresh as you could wish.

Sheibani adds a sophisticated flourish to the production with an on-stage three-piece band and music from Benjamin Kwasi Burrell. Popular songs provide introductions to characters and ease the play’s episodic structure. Although sometimes elegiac, the music adds an energy to the show that, despite my admiration for the text, is admittedly needed.

Gemma Dobson and Jodie Prenger in 'A Taste of Honey'
Gemma Dobson and Jodie Prenger

As well as putting some soul into Salford, Sheibani’s close knowledge of the piece has led to sharp performances that do justice to Delaney’s wonderful characters. Jodie Prenger is great as the wicked mother Helen: razer sharp and brutally honest, she’s funny and smart even if you wouldn’t want her as a family member. Gemma Dobson plays her daughter Jo with bold intelligence. Refusing to make the character too sympathetic, she’s a brittle teenager who is frequently unappealing. The bickering matches between the two women are a highlight but the humour is controlled; A Taste of Honey isn’t a comedy no matter how funny both women are. Moments of hope, fear and pain are all regularly glimpsed and then hidden with frightening speed.

Durone Stokes and Gemma Dobson in "A Taste of Honey" credit Marc Brenner
Durone Stokes and Gemma Dobson

Performances from the men in both women’s lives are just as good. Durone Stokes makes a dashing love interest for Jo, while Tom Varey plays Helen’s new husband just the right side of villain. Stuart Thompson may have the trickiest role as Geof – Delaney’s precocity gets the better of her characterisation here, it’s amazing to think she wrote the play at 19 – but his performance is still one to be proud of.

That the play is concerned with Northern working-class lives still feels unusual. Treating its central female characters as intelligent and complicated remains depressingly rare. While rooted in its time and place, Sheibani’s production shows a play that’s still for today; a piece he makes it easy to relate to, while never compromising on Delaney’s distinctive voice.

Until 29 February 2020


Photos by Marc Brenner

“A Guide For The Homesick” at the Trafalgar Studios

There’s a good story within Ken Urban’s play. Bear with me, as the opening isn’t promising: a one-night stand between two men in a foreign city who begin to reveal their dark secrets. As you might guess, it’s contrived, predictable and a little silly. But, as themes of betrayal are exposed, the fine line between friendship and romantic love is explored. As the play develops to include a global look at LGBT rights, it gets better and better.

The two main characters here are not appealing. It’s not that they’ve done anything bad, as becomes apparent all too quickly, but because their privilege brings their remorse perilously close to indulgence. Maybe Urban is making a point here? The characters ring true enough, their virtue-signalling as empty as any cynic might wish. But their self-obsession borders on the incredible. It takes two fine performances to flesh the characters out.

It’s easy to see the roles’ attraction for both Clifford Samuel and Douglas Booth, who take the parts of Teddy and Jeremy, respectively. Under the careful direction of Jonathan O’Boyle, they excel. Both are careful studies: Booth’s character is full of nervous energy and Samuel’s a false confidence. Better still, the backstories of the men who now haunt Teddy and Jeremy mean switching into new roles – accomplished in fine style. Booth has a good line on tortured mania, while Samuel is stunning as a happy man whose life is destroyed.

It is the stories of these other men, Nicholas and Eddie, that are really interesting. We need to know more of Eddie’s mental health, not least how this relates to Teddy’s feelings for him. And it would be good to explore Jeremy’s motivations for becoming an aid worker in Africa more deeply. But the plight of Nicholas as a gay man in Uganda, which is where most of the play’s impact lies, makes A Guide For The Homesick an urgent call to action. The role of the American right in the rise of homophobia is mentioned more than once and the questions of responsibility that fill the play become forceful. There’s an uncomfortable balance between the two traumatic stories, while both make the angst of our moaning main protagonists pale. Again, how much Urban intends this highlighting of first world problems is an open question, but it’s a fascinating one that, after a false start, makes the play one to ponder.

Until 24 November 2018


Photo by Helen-Maybanks

“Misty” at the Trafalgar Studios

There are two sides to Arinzé Kene’s hit transfer from the Bush Theatre. It’s the story of a young criminal who attacks someone on a night bus. And it’s the story of Kene himself, writing the show and defending his art. While one character is on the run from the police and ruminating about the home he may be forced to leave, our author is questioning whether his story perpetuates stereotypes and angry at the responsibility writers of colour are burdened with. Mixing the stories together makes for an original work whose rave reviews testify to its popularity.

The show’s novelty, all the more impressive now that it’s in the West End, is to combine songs, poetry and spoken word. It’s called ‘gig theatre’, and director Omar Elerian deserves praise here, as it would be easy to feel lost. And designer Rajha Shakiry, working with lighting and video from Jackie Shemesh and Daniel Denton respectively, produces visuals worthy of any art gallery. Along with the singing and acting skills of Kene himself, there’s a suspicion that performance and production are slightly better than the play. No matter, as the show works superbly.

Misty is unmissable for its central performance: Kene has real star quality. This isn’t a one-man show, and there’s strong support from musicians Adrian McLeod and Shiloh Coke, who also appear as friends of the playwright. And a superb role for a child actor as Kene’s older sister (not sure why). But all eyes are on Kene and there’s seemingly nothing he can’t do, whether cry or laugh. His physicality is remarkable and his singing voice unique.

Back to that parallel narrative – the making of the play and the story itself. My preference was for the simpler. The tale of Kene’s intriguing friend is moving, in particular scenes imagined with his sister. When it comes to the process of making the play, the issues raised are valid and important. But that this introspection becomes anguished and intrusive – which is part of the point – is nonetheless frustrating. The traditional narrative could be developed so easily – omitted details are much needed – and it would have been great to see more. But that’s another demand on the writer, hopefully sincerely motivated on my part. Kene’s point is about artistic freedom and, given the achievement here, it’s difficult to argue with him.

Until 20 October 2018


Photo by Helen Murray.

“Dust” at the Trafalgar Studios

It’s peculiar to see a play that is powerful, deals with important issues and is brilliantly performed yet still requires that people should think seriously before watching it. But dealing with suicide in such a frank, indeed brutal, manner, no matter how well intentioned this project from Millie Thomas and her director Sara Joyce is, needs to be approached with caution.

Thomas is both writer and performer. As the former, her device is to present the character of Alice, who after a long battle with mental health has taken her own life, as a ghost. The idea stumbles at times; so close to some existential thought experiment it proves a distraction. Alice’s increasing confusion about her state forms an oppressive undertow to the play. But using the suicide’s frequent fantasy dispels the myth that people are seriously motivated by selfishness or a form of revenge when they act so desperately. And Thomas’s characterisation is carefully planned – Alice is not a sympathetic creation. A touch too generic a Millennial, she shocks with her sexual frankness and is basically spoilt. Care is taken avoid any “reason” for Alice’s depression – there’s no backstory of trauma or tensions in her young life. It’s a lesson I wish I’d been taught years ago as I struggled not to dismiss the condition of a bright and beautiful friend with no “cause” to suffer. A wicked sense of humour and intelligence aren’t enough to stop you being angry at Alice. It all adds up to a performance that is uncomfortable and confrontational. Joyce embraces the fits and starts in the script, making Dust remarkably unforgiving and consistently interesting.

It is as a performer that Thomas truly excels. Taking on the roles of friends and family who Alice visits, she switches genders and ages with astonishing speed. We instantly know which character she is depicting. The delivery is faultless. It’s only at the end that Thomas’s judgement might be questioned. After reliving the tragedy from not one but multiple perspectives – with so much sadness and anger it is exhausting – Thomas cuts short the clapping to appeal for The Samaritans. In keeping with her spirit, here’s a link. But Thomas is wrong to curtail the applause for herself – I’ve seldom seen a performance that deserves it more.

Until 13 October 2018


Photo by Richard Southgate

“Lonely Planet” at the Trafalgar Studios

Steven Dietz’s 1993 play is a moving story of the AIDS crisis that works hard to provide an original perspective into the tragedy. It’s a quiet two-hander, understated to a fault, which focuses on friends rather than lovers, with a strong poetic vein that makes it elegiac and thoughtful.

Carl and Jody use make believe to protect themselves from the world outside the map shop that the play is wholly set in. Carl pretends he has the jobs of friends who have died while he mysteriously collects old chairs. Jody lies about having an HIV test. Both men use fantasy entirely transparently so, when truths escape, they have a haunting quality.

There’s whimsy in Dietz’s script that increases its novelty. Inspiration for the humour is credited to Eugène Ionesco (he wrote Les Chaises, read by both characters) and another similarity comes with an aversion to exposition. Both are factors that can excite but also create frustrations – if you come to the play cold it would take a while to work out what is going on. But Ian Brown’s direction appreciates the show’s delicate tone: his sympathetic approach and control increasing its credibility.

Dietz’s dialogue is nimble. There are plenty of ear-catching moments such as Carl’s “3am thoughts” or his questioning “the worth of me”. But the metaphors are uncomfortable: those chairs again I am afraid, each taken from the house clearance of a departed friend. And Jody’s ruminations on maps, with cartographers deciding on “acceptable distortions”. It’s all far too heavy handed.

Thankfully, the characters prove a saving grace for Lonely Planet. Reprising roles from the production’s première at the Tabard Theatre last year, Alexander McMorran plays Jody and Aaron Vodovoz is Carl. The performers’ close studies do the roles justice, propelling the script through some shaky moments. Just as their relationship is intriguing, both men are personalities you warm to and would like to know better. These are gay men who are proud, if not loud, and given authentic voices with interesting things to say.

Until 7 July 2018


Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

“The Grinning Man” at the Trafalgar Studios

The theatre world often fantasises about the next big British musical, and a home-grown piece is always something to celebrate, so this work, spearheaded by composer and lyricist team Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler, has arrived from Bristol to the West End like a dream. The Grinning Man is original, polished and has a sense of integrity that, while making its success cultish rather than mainstream, wins respect.

The story is a fairy tale, heavy on the Gothic, but for grownups. Set in a familiar work, although with surprisingly little satire, our eponymous hero was disfigured as a child and is now a circus freak show. It’s a star role that Louis Maskell delivers with conviction. With a blind girlfriend and sinister adopted father in tow (Sanne Den Besten and Sean Kingsley), the much sung about “ugly beautiful” appearance of this charismatic changeling alters society for the better. The colourful royal family, with a strong quartet of performances from Julie Atherton, David Bardsley, Amanda Wilkin and Mark Anderson, all fall under his (inexplicable) spell. The only one on stage who seems immune is a villainous jester, for my money the lead of the show, brilliantly portrayed by Julian Bleach and winning most of the laughs.

The tale is as good as any by the Grimms. It’s based on a novel by Victor Hugo, and writer Carl Grose tackles it well. But the swearing, nymphomania and a bizarre incest plot make it adults only. It’s something of a puzzle – the temptation to appeal to a larger audience must have been great. A bigger problem is that the score only interests by including some bizarre electronic sounds and the songs aren’t catchy enough. While the dialogue is good, the lyrics, from Phillips, Teitler, Grose and also the show’s director Tom Morris, are too often uninspired.

Yet the production itself is an unreserved triumph. There’s fascinating movement and choreography from Jane Gibson and Lynne Page, accompanying Morris’s strong direction. And when it comes to portraying the worlds of circus and court, Jon Bausor’s design is magnificent. There’s a lot of puppetry, superb in design and execution, complemented by sets that are like a trip to Pollock’s toy shop. Topping it all, with a range of influences from steam punk to Gormenghast, are terrific costumes by Jean Chan. It’s the attention to detail, the look of the show, that puts smiles on faces.

Until 5 May 2018


Photo by Helen Maybanks

“Le Grand Mort” at the Trafalgar Studios

Playwright and lyricist Stephen Clark’s last work has received a posthumous premiere under the scrupulous guidance of his friend, director Christopher Renshaw. The play is a dark fantasia on sex and death that has two strangers playing with ideas of intimacy and oblivion over a nice dish of pasta.

The main attraction is the casting of Julian Clary as a host with homicidal tendencies. Clary is to be applauded for trying something so different – his character is a model of repression, maybe never quite scary enough, whose vulnerability develops in fits and starts, and he makes a good stab at depicting a brittle, intelligent and traumatised man. All while cooking on stage.

Yet Clary is a Comedy Great (capital letters, please) and everyone wants him to be funny. The humour in the opening monologue contains flashes of excitement. And yes, like Just A Minute, which Clary contributes to, there’s a passage without repetition, deviation or hesitation that would make Nicholas Parsons proud. Trouble is, the comedy overshadows the play’s serious intentions.

As for the play’s dinner guest, with desires and a history just as troubled as the chef’s, it’s a role James Nelson-Joyce excels in. Exuding confidence and complexes, he even makes his character’s bizarre chat-up lines convincing. The trouble is, both characters are too close to being simply vehicles for ideas.

Leaving aside the weaker scenes of the couple’s meeting –flashbacks both performers handle well – the challenge is Clark’s verbose articulacy. The style works for monologues: written in verse, the language is entertaining and its extravagance engaging. But when the men converse it starts to sound silly, laboured and insincere. Some outrageous comments – mostly focusing on necrophilia – are contrived and don’t fit with the play’s larger concerns. Several ideas, mixing pop culture with high-brow flights of fancy are far-fetched. It’s a shame to speculate that some excesses might have been avoided had the much-missed playwright been at rehearsals.

Until 28 October


Photo by Scott Rylander

“Apologia” at the Trafalgar Studios

Here’s an example of a good play made great by a lead performance. Alexi Kaye Campbell’s 1992 piece, about an older woman who is said to have chosen a career in academia over her family, is proficient: the dialogue is strong and debating points clear. But this traditional piece, with its dinner party scenario, influenced by Chekhov and Ibsen, really scores high because the legendary Stockard Channing takes the role of its heroine, Kristin Miller.

As Kristin’s family assemble for a birthday dinner – one it is all too obvious will be a disaster – a history of emotional hunger is combined with delicious humour. The lines are good… but Channing makes them land with magnificently understated sarcasm. She gets laughs from monosyllabic answers and even raised eyebrows. Director Jamie Lloyd injects his usual energy into proceedings and it’s all highly enjoyable.\

It’s a shame nobody can compete with Kristin. Her elder son, played by Joseph Millson, seems resigned and then simply angry. One daughter-in-law, an actress who won’t admit she stars in a soap opera, comes across as simply tiresome and it’s an unforgiving role for Freema Agyeman. More interesting is the character of future in-law Trudi, played by Laura Carmichael, who is challenged with meeting Kristin for the first time. Trudi is perky, apolitical and a Christian – it’s like shooting ducks in a barrel. If this play is a battle of the generations – and younger characters frequently question the idealism of their elders’ activism – the odds seem pretty stacked to me.

Channing gets even more impressive in the play’s second, much darker, act. A second son, again played by Millson, suffers from depression and makes for a heartfelt scene. But the accusations against Kristin are too long and too feeble. A well-written cruel streak adds dramatic tension but is in questionable taste. A fairer perspective comes from Trudi, a character cleverly developed, and the defence of a “witness” in the form of her old friend (a strong performance from Des Barrit). And so Kaye Campbell provides resolution. If you suspect it’s a little too pat, it’s delivered with such skill that all is forgiven.

Until 18 November 2017


Photo by Marc Brenner

“Out There On Fried Meat Ridge Rd.,” at the Trafalgar Studios

Fried Meat Ridge Road isn’t the kind of place you readily visit and it has taken some desperate house hunting on the part of Mitch, expertly played by Robert Moloney, to end up here. Laid off from his job in a spork factory (they have to be made somewhere) Mitch finds himself alone in Appalachia, with only a degree in Disposable Cutlery Technology to his name and about to become motel roommates with an oddball called JD. Their budding bromance makes for fantastic comedy. JD may be a “bizarre red neck” but he’s a funny one, and assisted by Harry Burton’s sharp direction this short play guarantees long laughs.

A slice of rural Americana, with any audience prejudice cleverly subverted, the neighbours are fun too and cover plenty of comedy bases. Marlene and Tommy are a painter and poet making their lives more complex with drugs and affairs, providing a skilful riff on pretension that performers Melanie Gray and Alex Ferns do well with. The motel’s owner, Flip, is also more than your standard hick. Michael Wade might further explore some of his role’s surprises but, like all the cast, his comic timing is finely tuned. And the more out there the whole thing gets – there’s a dance number, a destroyed gazebo, and a shoot-out with the local sheriff – the better the show becomes. Like JD himself, it’s just the right kind of crazy.

There is a pilot TV show feel to things, but this won’t stop your enjoyment of the jokes – imagine a sitcom with enough well-polished stories to become a treasured box set. What’s really special, however, is playwright Kevin Stevenson’s performance of his lead role. An adorable bear of a man, his charm crosses over into his character, with a naivety that makes JD appealing and thought-provoking. The character’s openness, generosity and vulnerability are all funny, but these qualities are also strengths. JD has some secret help – let’s just say his family history means he’s well connected – leading to a sweet twist that means you leave the show on a divine high. Stevenson’s ability to make sincerity convincing and funny is miraculous.

Until 3 June 2017


Photo by Gavin Watson

“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