Tag Archives: Tristan Bates Theatre

“Sunnymead Court” at the Tristan Bates Theatre

Gemma Lawrence’s new play, impeccably directed by James Hillier, is a love story set during lockdown. References to the recent hot – and a bit boring – summer abound. Lawrence conveys the frustrations and problems of this period, notably working from home. Impressive detail includes a character moving back to her family… and her homophobic parent.

Love across the balconies of a London estate adds charm and hope. The obstacles faced by two women are surmounted by humour, drama and a dash of chance. The characters grab your sympathy straight away, impressively, for different reasons. They make great roles for Lawrence as Marie, who is joined by Remmie Milner as Stella, whose complementary energy makes a neat contrast.

My heart sank at first, as Marie starts out with her back to the audience staring at a computer. I didn’t come into the theatre (even one so welcoming, thanks to its lovely staff) to stare at a screen! But Lawrence’s close study of Marie’s anxiety is cleverly developed and has a relevance far beyond our current conditions.

Marie takes to isolation dangerously easily. Living online, and working too much, her relationship to her own body (from food consumed to routines followed) becomes troubled. Stella sees the problem, too: technology means we can “hide ourselves in our pockets”, while a joyous scene of dancing has Milner conveying the thrill of a “full” body experience. All this is, surely, a trend lockdown has exacerbated, rather than created. That debate aside, Lawrence highlights a concerning mental health trend with heartfelt sensitivity.

Importantly, for theatre lovers at least, is how this relationship to the body is conveyed on stage. With the actors apparently controlling Will Monks’ lighting, both become increasingly physically involved in the performance of the story. From glances at one another – anxious then often cheeky – to more and more movement, a sense of complicity is skilfully developed.

Lawrence uses her characters’ anxieties, and the problems of our times, to create a story that should appeal long after this summer is over.

Until 3 October 2020


Photo by Jack Holden

"Dutchman" at the Tristan Bates Theatre

An encounter between a white woman and black man on a subway train is the simple scenario for this short play by Amiri Baraka. But from this, the writer previously known as LeRoi Jones, an important and controversial figure in African American literature, creates a dizzyingly complex text. Race, class and gender are all addressed in a piece that overflows with eroticism, polemic and violence.

As much a poem as a play, the figure of Lula, the woman who starts chatting up a random stranger, is a puzzle from the start. The contradictions don’t let up as the danger in the play increases. You could see Lula as an allegory, complete with an appetite for apples, as she moves from “party talk” to interrogating “manhood”. Truly repulsive – she’s insulting, self-aggrandising and morbid – she is purposefully difficult to watch. It is a mammoth role and taking the part Cheska Hill-Wood does well to keep up to speed with this most mercurial of figures. Most of what she says is so awful (the play is from 1964 and the vocabulary used is of that time), it can’t be easy to deliver and it is difficult to listen to.

As her “prey” Clay, James Barnes has just as tough a job and is similarly exemplary. Barnes has to move from being intrigued to provoked – his arousal at this oddest of women rising and falling – to a finale of explosive rage that is frightening. And all this in under an hour. Barnes carefully reveals his character’s depth as Clay’s own poetry unfolds. The suggestion that the character is a black Baudelaire, cruelly dismissed by Lula, comes to reverberate through the text in a fascinating manner that Barnes always factors in. 

Kaitlin Argeaux, working with associate director Sheila Nortley, aids the central performers with a tightly controlled ensemble who make up other passengers. There are moments when you just pity them for being in the same carriage. And the role played by these fellow travellers in the shocking conclusion is, at least to me, a step too far. Dutchman is a piece crammed with argument and fuelled by an anger that doesn’t make it clear or easy. It’s so dense it becomes a text to read as much as a play to see. It’s only the strong performances that ensure this is a production worth watching.

Until 26 October 2019


Photo by Diana Patient

"Mites" at the Tristan Bates Theatre

James Mannion’s neat new play succeeds on two fronts. As the story of Ruth and her mental breakdown, it’s a boldly irreverent take on psychosis that, with trippy touches, takes the audience up close to paranoia. Abandoned by her husband, and living in designer Cecilia Trono’s creepily dirty set, Ruth’s treatment by the men in her life provides a sub text with risqué humour. Secondly, Mites is a dark, absurdist comedy: as Ruth chats with her (talking) cat and mistakes a murderous pest control officer for her husband, the plot is full of impossibilities, with jokes that entertain as much as raise questions. The play is crazy all around and mightily good for just that reason. 

There’s a recklessness to the humour here that belies Mannion’s skill and the precision of his director Marcus Marsh. It’s a joy to hear how cleverly the oddly antiquated language is used (one of my favourites is the neglected word hullabaloo), while Marsh’s control over the action, quite literally in terms of keeping movement in check, is superb. For all the antics, there’s restraint. It would be too easy to run around shouting, but Mites isn’t a farce – the humour is original and bold with its own distinct pace.

George Howard and Claire Marie Hall in "Mites"
George Howard and Claire Marie Hall

You can see this control in the performances, too. Take George Howard’s Ken – the true psychopath here. He’s an opportunist at first and his rambling lies (yes, they do include a rhinoceros) are delivered with such charm as to make him almost appealing. In the play’s central, and craziest, scene – I won’t spoil the surprise – we see Howard take on another bonkers role with great skill.

Richard Henderson and Claire Marie Hall in "Mites"
Richard Henderson and Claire Marie Hall

With the other two roles, a query nags over the casting. Although I should stress that the performers do a great job, there’s a suspicion that both characters should be played much older. Richard Henderson is brilliantly dead pan as Bartholomew ‘the cat’ and is equally skilled in a second identity. And Claire Marie Hall is excellent in the lead role: good at creating sympathy for Ruth and fantastic when it comes to suggesting a darker edge to the part. But, with more than a few references to age, bolstered by a morbid streak in the piece, it seems a missed opportunity not to have senior performers on board. It’s easy to see how several scenes, especially Mannion’s pointed notes on misogyny (so frequently linked to age), could benefit. You may think that a performer’s date of birth is a moot point. But it’s exciting to note how an already strong play could have easily been made even more provocative. Mites has legs – lots of them – and I urge you to catch it.

Until 26 October 2019


Photos by Lidia Crisafulli

“My One True Friend” at the Tristan Bates Theatre

Set in the 1970s, in what was then Rhodesia, Alexander Matthews’ play is both a family drama and a piece about racism. The style of writing is interesting, and the performances are good. Unfortunately, My One True Friend falls short dramatically.

There isn’t enough tension in the play. It’s understandable that director Antony Law uses voiceovers in scenes about the country’s dangerous curfews. But while this action may work on the page it fails on stage. Instead we’ve a warring family, led by a matriarch called Lady L, whose problems aren’t clear. And a dilemma, of sorts, for long-suffering servant Kapenie. In both cases, the characters are too poorly developed. Kapenie is a saintly figure, described as “serene”, which is exactly what Mensah Bediako, who takes the role, delivers. Meanwhile, Lady L’s lament that she has become “just an old woman with a sharp tongue”, ignoring her awful racism, is painfully close to the truth. Like Bediako, Suzanna Hamilton makes the part watchable. Both performers add some dynamism, but neither is given much to work with.

Lucy Lowe, Theo Bamber and Suzanna Hamilton
Lucy Lowe, Theo Bamber and Suzanna Hamilton

Instead of plot or character, it is language that interests Matthews and here he offers plenty. That’s not just a reference to how verbose the text is. Alongside plenty of philosophical buzzwords, characters speak about the structure of their argument as they go, explaining their rhetorical strategy with a mix of logic and psychology. The result is engaging, if a little odd.

It must be stressed that the delivery of this sometimes overwhelming verbiage is good. Theo Bamber and Lucy Lowe, as Lady L’s children, have a petulant edge and turn their arguments into dangerous games. More seriously, in outlining his persuasive techniques to get his grandfather to emigrate to America with him, Joseph Rowe makes his role feel urgent and his character inspiring.

The text is wonderfully detailed and clear to a fault; Matthews fights against nuance with a compulsion. And the technique provides genuine insight. But the tone is dry and demands a lot from an audience. It doesn’t have to be like this: the scene of Lady L’s birthday party, with the help of a little punch, is potentially funny (a PoMo take on a drawing room comedy?). It’s a shame Law didn’t pursue this variety. Ironically for a piece with so much talk, Matthews needs to give us more: in back stories for characters and historic information about what’s going on outside the house. Epitomising the problem is a horribly truncated finale – almost a bad joke, with no sense of resolution. We end up learning and feeling too little, with the sense of a play that needs to be a lot longer and say much more

Until 14 September 2019


Photos by Mark Senior

“The Gulf” at the Tristan Bates Theatre

This work from Audrey Cefaly won the Edgerton Foundation new American play award and receives its European premiere under the careful direction of Matthew Gould. The Gulfis an artful, confidently quiet two-hander that examines a dying romance with powerful realism.

The lovers, well performed by Anna Acton and Louisa Lytton, are Betty and Kendra and it’s a case of opposites attracting. If you side with one party, it could well be revealing. And there’s the potential to take some of their wisdom away with you. Describing herself as “delightful”, Betty is a dreamer with a head full of plans and ambition. A bit of a snob, maybe, and with a secret to hide, Acton conveys all of her character’s complexity in satisfying style. Lytton’s Kendra is, appropriately, more charismatic. She describes herself as “a beast”, but obtuse is the better word used – living in the here and now there seems more awareness, a deeper intelligence, and Acton’s skill lies in revealing this.

Some snags may have arisen in the play’s move to the UK. It’s not quite obvious how old the women are, if indeed that matters, so when they talk about going to college it isn’t clear how mature a student each would be. In both instances, how dissatisfied they are, or should be, with small-town life could also be made more explicit. Finally, in my ignorance of geography, I’m not sure how much peril the women are in when their boat breaks down or whether Betty’s subsequent hysteria is justified or a telling revelation of character.

Quibbles aside, Cefaly’s writing of emotional intimacy is accomplished, exploring deep inside a relationship. Gould never upsets the tension or overplays the suggestion of physical violence, while the chemistry between the two is perfectly portrayed. Such a character-driven piece, with relatively low stakes and little plot, will not excite everyone but, as a close study, clear in purpose and execution, the play is impressive.

Until 5 May 2018


Photo by Rachael Cummings

“Edward II” at the Tristan Bates Theatre

Lazarus Theatre’s production of Christopher Marlowe’s play has much to recommend it. Director Ricky Dukes’ 90-minute adaptation shows a sharp intelligence: practical, dramatically effective and unwilling to patronising the audience. The story of the gay king’s disastrous reign benefits from strong visuals: Dukes and his designer Sorcha Corcoran, working with Ben Jacobs on lighting, produce some marvellous imagery within this tiny space. The creativity and imagination here is the stuff that makes the fringe so great.

The nine-strong ensemble stays on stage throughout and proves a disciplined crew. Making up a rebellious peerage, the actors ensure that confrontations with the King bristle with anger. Andrew Gallo and Jamie O’Neill are especially strong as the brothers Mortimer, with the latter detailing his treachery with a mix of violence and intrigue.

Luke Ward-Wilkinson takes the title role and goes for a fey monarch who is impish and petulant. Arguably, this cheats the play of some tension (conflicts seems a foregone conclusion). And it also short changes Edward’s relationship to his wife – a shame, since Lakesha Cammock makes a very fine Queen Isabella. But Ward-Wilkinson’s decision is committed and consistent, getting humour out of the role as well as passion. It’s also brave. Dukes’ vision for Edward’s notorious assassination is nightmarish, kinky and demands a lot from his cast. The ensemble are all in their pants, with disposable aprons and gloves. Believe me, it’s creepy. The addition of masks goes too far, only causing confusion – are the same characters in disguise and, if so, why bother? But this is not a scene you’re likely to forget in a hurry.

The finale is certainly memorable with Ward-Wilkison naked and sprayed with blood from the ceiling – another memorable tableau. Yet the real strengths of the production are simpler: tight directorial control and technically strong delivery all round. Dukes and his team have produced a piece of remarkable clarity. It may be too blunt for some tastes, but you can’t argue with its force or the skill on stage.

Until 9 September 2017


Photo by Adam Trigg

“The Doppel Gang” at the Tristan Bates Theatre

What a good idea. A failing theatre troupe, finding unperformed scripts by the Marx Brothers, decides to masquerade as the comedy greats… for one night only. Suspending disbelief is part of the fun. Seeing the character’s troubles and rehearsals provides behind-the-scenes mayhem and, with accomplished comedy writing, the whole thing is hugely entertaining.

There are some problems, the most obvious coming from the production. Terence Mann’s direction is slow, with time often wasted moving things around between scenes. Mann seems enamoured of background music and, even worse, recorded dialogue that sucks the life out of scenes painfully quickly.

Jordan Moore and Peter Stone
Jordan Moore and Peter Stone

With my sympathies, the cast mime their lines well. But they are a lot better when they speak out loud. Jake Urry makes a credible spiv impresario, despite the role really needing more mature casting, while Rachel Hartley makes you want to see more of her character. As the tired comedy duo forced to take over the show, Peter Stone and Jordan Moore have a great chemistry – both can boast a natural stage presence – and Moore deserves special praise for bravely taking on the iconic figure of Groucho Marx with such care.

Playwright Dominic Hedges, with nerves of steel, replicates the Marx material well. But the real story here is backstage and this could have been elaborated on much more. The material has potential, as do the characters who all beg to be fleshed out further. Two examples: it wouldn’t hurt to know earlier on where and when the play was set, and a romantic subplot suffers from too little development too late.

If this sounds like a lot of criticism, many points are relatively easy to implement. The cast can clearly deliver and the creatives produce a good story. With a few tweaks and some extra polish, this play could have a very bright future. As it stands, The Doppel Gang is still well worth seeing.

Until 11 February 2017


Promotional photo by Tom Barker. Production photograph by Mitchell Reeve