Tag Archives: White Bear Theatre

“The Masks of Aphra Behn” at the White Bear Theatre

Claire Louise Amias’ one-woman show about Restoration writer Aphra Behn is a careful mix of period drama and biography. The trick with plays that look at playwrights is to decide how to balance education with entertainment – and Amias tackles her task with determination.

There is a lot of history… but it’s all about Behn. The show is easy on the broader context, so it doesn’t really matter how much you already know. And filling in details is done with humour – a reference to “my friend Nell Gwyn” made me laugh. And apart from writing plays and poetry, Behn had a fascinating life as a spy, which Amiens speculates on brilliantly.

From her early youth and then as a wit in Charles II’s court, Behn takes us on her adventures in Suriname, Antwerp and Venice. It’s all exciting stuff with considerable peril involved – quite simply, a great story. Imagining how a larger cast could work is not a distraction, as Amias takes on extra roles very well, vividly depicting the rogues and plotters Behn meets along the way.

The plot is so strong that it might be said to be a little overpowering. There isn’t much room for how Behn’s life and work interact – apart from her need for money. This is a pressing concern expressed in detail and used for dramatic purposes, but it is hardly a revelation. The masks in the title only play a part at the end, leading to a rushed conclusion. The idea could have added more weight to the show.

Still, Amias gets to show off her acting skills superbly and does justice to a fascinating figure. And she interacts well with her audience: we are the “witty few” at the theatre to see a production of her play The Rover. But, due to the ‘indisposition’ of an actor, we are offered Behn’s story instead – ”for one night only”, of course. She’ll do anything but offer a refund! The atmosphere is intimate, relaxed, and fun, despite Behn’s trials.

Direction from Pradeep Jey helps. The play is understandably static, but there’s plenty of energy and the time flies by. Behn loves scandal and Amias’ eyes light up at gossip. Any danger is balanced with a dry edge (especially when it comes to her mother), which leads to plenty of laughs. It’s all out for entertainment. As such, the show is a success – and deserves the kind of big box office that would have delighted its subject.

Until 13 January 2023 at The White Bear, then visiting The Space, Docklands (17 & 18 February) and The Brook Theatre, Chatham (22 February)


Photo by Greg Goodale

“Look back in anger” at the White Bear Theatre

Given its fame, John Osborne’s 1956 play is performed less than might be expected. This chance to see the show that became synonymous with the “angry young men” who changed British theatre is, therefore, welcome. Director Sebastian Palka’s production is unflinching in its commitment to the piece.

The young married couple and their friends, from conflicting backgrounds, whose flat share is a “battleground”, allowed Osborne to interrogate the hypocrisy and injustice of his time. The anger and passion here are clear – credit to Palka and his team. And special mention to Marta Anna Licwnko and Tina Torbey, whose set design conveys a sense of off-kilter claustrophobia and poverty. But whether you find all this – and how dated it feels – interesting becomes an important question.

The lead role of Jimmy Porter is a massive part for recently graduated James D Fawcett and he tackles it with a bold directness. For Jimmy is, frankly, odious and tedious. Unbelievably selfish and cruel to all, this character still shocks. His misogyny, presumably based on class, is extremely uncomfortable to watch, his arrogance is repulsive.

While the challenge from the play is clear – its “bite, edge, drive” are all present – the production lacks humour and steadfastly denies any empathy for its lead character. The latter is understandable, as Jimmy says some truly awful things. But his pain only becomes real in the final moments, robbing the text of nuance. Surely Jimmy should come across as a lot smarter, or at least wittier? The key might be his wicked irreverence, with tongue-in-cheek talk of his “sensibilities”, but all this is too seldom foregrounded.

Thankfully, strong supporting performances help out. Another professional debut, Aaron Bennett, gets a great deal from his part as Cliff, who is slowly alienated from his friends. And the two female performers are very good indeed: Rowan Douglas brings plenty of layers to the role of Jimmy’s wife, pinned behind an ironing board for too long, while, as steely and snobbish Helena, Holly Hinton manages the play’s faintly ridiculous conclusion well. In Helena’s eyes Jimmy is “horrifying and oddly exciting”. It’s clear the production shares her fascination with the character and the play. But despite some sound work here, I found little to enthuse about in this famous piece.

Until 14 March 2020


Photo by Nicolas Chinardet

“Garry” at the White Bear Theatre

Graham Watts’ quality production of this neglected play by Sophie Treadwell is a tough one to write about. That this world premiere is 65 years late indicates the unjust difficulties its author faced. It’s important to see more work by this great woman writer. And to see the topics of homosexuality, sexual violence and prostitution dealt with in such an early work is fascinating. But while it’s an admirable labour of love for Watts as director and producer, the play has missed its moment.

The titular lead, played with gusto by Thomas Martin, is so tormented by his homosexuality that he kills a man who picks him up in a hotel room. In a nice twist, the focus is really his sham marriage with the naïve Wilma who, having failed in her quest to ‘save’ Garry, still wants to stand by him. It’s Wilma’s play and the part makes a true starring role for Phebe Alys, who is terrific throughout. But while the piece doesn’t lack dramatic potential, the psychology offered is basic and setting out its scenario is so laboured that the play shows its age.

So, while the subject matter is bold, the show lacks tension. There’s no flaw on the part of Watts and the cast. It’s just that everything is spelled out too clearly and is predictable anyway. Garry’s status as a “punk” feels quaint – it’s only when he starts explaining his “flashes of hate” that he becomes scary. Wilma is too much the innocent abroad, although Alys is superb at reflecting how her husband being “afraid inside” becomes contagious. But both characters contain so little self-awareness that they fail to convince. The supporting characters (again, nicely played by Claire Bowman and Matthew Wellard) inject some questioning cynicism but only act as foils and are similarly flat and repetitive.

Treadwell’s skills are clear and considerable: the play’s structure is precise and there’s an impressive amount of action squeezed into one room. But, in pushing its 1950s audience, too much has to be explained and we end up with no surprises. As much as some bigots might like it, we no longer need to spell out the very idea of homosexuals existing. What’s going on with Garry is all too obvious at every step and much of the play’s shocks and twists are clear too early. The piece might be important and interesting history, but it isn’t one for today.

Until 22 June 2019


Photo by Ali Wright

“The Unnatural Tragedy” at the White Bear Theatre

As the recovery of lost classics go, director Graham Watts’ new production is a coup. Written by the fascinating Margaret Cavendish in 1662, and only now receiving a première, it should be on a ‘to see’ list for anyone interested in theatrical history as well as writing by women.

The play itself is more than a little mad. There are two tales that create a bizarre mix, presented in short scenes that make the play feel startlingly modern. There are the unhappy marriages of Monsieur Malateste: first to his “good natured wife”, obedient to a fault, then with his viduity ruined by a new free-spirited partner. The latter provides a fascinating part for Madeleine Hutchins in fine comic form, and manages to deflate the rather didactic tones that prevail. Then there is an incestuous affair between a brother and his reluctant sister, with strong performances from Jack Ayres and Alice Welby, as full of argument as angst. So we have a Restoration comedy, of sorts, butting against a spin on Jacobean tragedy (with suicides rather than murders) in a mashed-up fashion that the bravest of post-moderns would quake at.

It gets stranger. A group of “sociable virgins” discourse between scenes, forming a kind of single-sex Decameron, overtly playing with ideas on gender, politics and art. Questions about natural law versus society are never far away throughout the play and it is hard not to view them as heavy-handed. It’s testament to Watts’ skill that these scenes play so light – presenting the virgins as schoolgirls is the most obviously clever move. Hutchins and Phebe Alys cross over into the main stories, but their companions Lily Donovan and Eleanor Nawal also manage to impress in these scenes. Oh, and two narrator characters join the audience to debate, yet further, opinions on marriage and whether a woman can write a play! Again, credit to the performers who see how engaging the scenes should be; Charlotte Monkhouse and James Sanderson do an excellent job here and with the other roles they are called on to perform.

With plenty of peculiar (dare we say flat?) roles, Watts shows his formidable skills. Handling the eccentricities of the text is truly expert. The disturbing passions, so well portrayed by Ayres and Welby, are made chilling. Cavendish’s wit is clear enough, but Watt’s coaxing of the humour still deserves praise: he brings out the drollery not just with well-applied modern touches, and clever framing of scenes, but by engaging with the arguments respectfully. All in all, an intelligent production of a difficult piece so crammed full of incident and intellect it needs to be seen to be believed.

Until 21 July 2018


“Chummy” at the White Bear Theatre

John Foster’s new play has two strong ideas behind it: the scenario, of a killer hiring a private detective to stop him killing, and the delivery, which has the story retold and commented on simultaneously. The plot has the potential to grip and the telling, with characters revealing their inner dialogue, creates the entertaining sensation of reading a book. Sadly, implementation of this novel technique has appeal only for aficionados of crime fiction.

Megan Pemberton takes the lead as Jackie, an ex CID with PTSD and an overripe vocabulary, who is haunted by phone calls from the titular “maybe murderer”. Foster knows his heroine is too close to cliché and is playing here – but the game has limited appeal and doesn’t make things easy for Pemberton. Credit to Pemberton for holding the stage: direct addresses are strong and her detailing of Jackie’s mental breakdown, leading to the play’s twist, is good.

Her friend on the phone, Chummy, is an even harder role that Calum Speed tackles well. The character is a blank slate described in detail – an oxymoron that should ring bells well before we learn his name. Speed manages to make it work with a creepy laugh and various voices. As for Chummy’s victims – played valiantly by Jessica Tomlinson – oh dear. The first has a little wicker basket to carry flowers and uses the word “fudge” a lot. The second is an equally unbelievable police woman who acts as a stand-in at the world’s least successful crime reconstruction.

There is a point to reach and some skilled direction from Alice Kornitzer propels the audience. But Foster needs to curb his enthusiasm. More than one scene might be cut and all of them curtailed. The plot is slow and the language verbose. The aim of steeping us in noirish thrillers falters with pained metaphors, excessive alliteration and a lack of humour. That the dialogue is odd eventually makes sense, but the language is jolting – I am sure I heard the word milquetoast used at one point, and lost a few lines after that in bewilderment. There’s far too much lyrical talk of The City – unspecified – and as Foster surely knows, fictional detectives need defined locales; nice try for something different but it doesn’t work. The evening is saved by some nice touches from Kornitzer and three strong performances but the play is overwhelmed by the genre that inspired it.

Until 10 June 2017


Photo by Headshot Toby

“Good King Richard” at the White Bear Theatre

The market for Ian Dixon Potter’s play is clear. If you like your history, you’ll enjoy this show. As writer and co-director (with Courtney Larkin), Dixon Potter’s sense of purpose is dogged: to rehabilitate Richard III and set the record straight. If the monarch’s maligned reputation gets you riled, your passion should be satiated here.

For everyone else, the play has problems. Pretty much the whole script is exposition. We have Richard addressing the audience as troops, before the battle of Bosworth, as well as two sniffing soldiers, acting as a chorus – but no action. Too many facts and too much back story are compacted into the characters’ speeches. Some lines are so clunky, I felt like cheering the cast when they got through them. Credit where it’s due, though: the politics are clearly presented and the detail scrupulous. Unfortunately, it’s all closer to a history lesson than a play.

More seriously, Dixon Potter fails in his aim of making us think again about Richard, by recreating him as an unbelievable goody two-shoes. Nicholas Koy Santillo bravely tackles the title role, showing the king’s cold legalistic mind, but is given little to work with and a very bad wig.

It’s often said the devil has the best lines, which isn’t saying much here, but the most interesting characters are those who take over from the King as villains. There’s a vain and duplicitous Buckingham, who Ben Harper adds a fun camp touch to, and, better still, two great roles for women.

Catherine Dunne is superb as Elizabeth Woodville, running rings around the men who step into her path, with a sensual edge that adds tension to her scenes. Zara Banks gives a similarly delicious performance as a Machiavellian Margaret Beaufort, bringing her lapdog son Henry Tudor to heel. Whether these women really had the power Dixon Potter supposes is the starting point for another debate. Dunne and Banks certainly lift the play. It’s a shame that their scenes are the only time that you feel you are leaving the classroom.

Until 20 December 2015


“The Malcontent” at the White Bear Theatre

The Malcontent is a Jacobean revenge drama by John Marston. It could easily be a dry text, of mainly academic interest, but is handled as a thriller by the Custom/Practice Company at Kennington’s White Bear Theatre. In just 90 minutes improbable plot twists and court intrigues are rocketed through, making the play engaging and entertaining.

Marston’s Malcontent, Malevole by name, just to make things clear, is a divided character, appropriate since he is really a disguised Duke residing at his rival’s court. Parading as “more discontent than Lucifer”, his “fetterless” tongue is allowed licence at court just as a fool would be in Shakespeare, and he sets out to cause trouble and expose hypocrisy. It’s just a shame that he ends up being a bit wet. Adam Howden gives the role his very best – flamboyant as the cynic and convincing as the dashing Duke. And Howden isn’t the only talent that the casting directors present on the evening I attended should take note of.

The production does suffer from a common fringe complaint – a uniformly young cast. Although it is cruel to pick out one example, you couldn’t encounter a less likely candidate for gout than the slender Richard Kiess. It’s jarring: yet his is a fine performance that shows commendable comic skills. Lorenzo Martelli plays the new Duke fluently and there is a startling performance from Shanaya Rafaat as Maquerelle, a lady-in-waiting who serves the court’s vice needs, arranging assignations and lusting after bodies and money herself. Rafaat is spirited and riveting.

Accolades must also go to Rae McKen, whose direction is a force to be reckoned with. Clearly undaunted by the language, she presents the plot with admirable clarity, skilfully avoiding the play’s pitfalls, including its occasionally pious tones – this sexy, pacy production really grips you.

Until 11 December 2011


Written 26 November 2011 for The London Magazine

“Cyrano de Bergerac” at the White Bear Theatre

Gwilym Lloyd makes a dynamic Cyrano in this new production at the White Bear Theatre. His accomplished performance takes the audience on the emotional journey his life-long love Roxane makes – only quicker – we see past his prodigious proboscis to his charms well before she does. From a figure of fun and violence, we come to view Cyrano as ‘philosopher, duellist, wit and lover’. Lloyd achieves all this and, with such a firm foundation, director Simon Evans’ production does not fail.

Cyrano’s loyalty to his friends is one of many enduring qualities. They voice our concerns that his talents might be wasted for quixotic reasons, and also detail the depth of his virtues. Cyrano’s stoicism in the face of his, er, face is deeply philosophical. Chief amongst his retainers is Le Bret, whose down-to-earth delivery shows actor David Mildon’s appreciation of this fresh and engaging translation by Ranjit Bolt. Similarly, Ben Higgins makes his professional debut with a charming performance as Ragueneau, who is supported and inspired by Cyrano.

Evans skilfully uses the whole company in some playful moments of bandying wit that establish a camaraderie that pays off during darker moments. Cyrano’s proxy love affair has serious consequences, but there is plenty of fun along the way, including a scene-stealing performance from Samuel Donnelly as the dastardly De Guiche, who is also besotted by Roxane. And it is easy to see why everyone is mad about the girl – Iris Roberts gives a delightful performance as the playful yet sincere word buff. Philip Scott-Wallace (in another professional debut to be proud of) plays the handsome cadet Christian whose looks win her heart, with just the right amount of confusion to maintain sympathy for himself as well as Cyrano.

With a light touch, Simon Evans has brought out the complexities as well as joys of Rostand’s classic tale. It seems appropriate that even at Cyrano’s death there is laughter as well as tears and that neither seems out of place.

Until 4 September 2010


Written 5 August 2010 for The London Magazine