Tag Archives: Wilton’s Music Hall

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Wilton’s Music Hall

If you saw Flabbergast Theatre’s production of Macbeth last year, its new show should interest. The company has plenty of energy and ambition. And seeing how its emphasis on movement works with a Shakespearean comedy, rather than a tragedy, is intriguing. Regrettably, the result is disappointing.

Nearly everything about the show is exaggerated. There’s no doubting the commitment this entails. Every movement, each gesture, all the lines, are deliberately stylised. The cast of eight dance and clown around the stage. It looks exhausting. Declamatory all of the time, they shout most of the lines, or lean into odd pronunciation. The effort is incredible. But what is the outcome?

The first to suffer are the play’s quartet of Athenian lovers, whose story is robbed of romance and becomes unbalanced. Elliot Pritchard and Nadav Burstein, as Lysander and Demetrius, dominate Helena and Hermia, played by Vyte Garriga and Paulina Krzeczkowska. At times, their fighting drowns out all dialogue. Director Henry Maynard presumably wants to emphasise comedy – and there are laughs – but the jokes are limited and repetitious, a fault that runs through the whole production.

Next, the fairies. We can at least hear Titania clearly, as Reanne Black delivers her lines well. There’s also puppetry – a collection of skulls used to good effect. Krystian Godlewski’s Oberon has his moments; presenting a majestic figure as part-animal part-child is interesting (I’m less keen on the mankini and the stilts). Meanwhile, Lennie Longworth makes an appealing Puck. Both performers have a physicality and vocal skills that impress. But all the aggrandisement distracts, grates and, finally, becomes monotonous.

Of course, everyone takes multiple roles – they really do work hard. And when it comes to the amateur actors staging their own play (wearing masks throughout), the transformations are remarkable. Taking the lead and giving it his all is Simon Gleave as Bottom. But while it’s clear that the style of the show suits the character, you might guess the problem coming. We’ve already seen so many wild gestures and heard so many strange noises that it is hard not to get tired of them by the time Bottom is in the (literal) spotlight.

Gleave also performs as a grotesque Egeus. With Theseus and Hippolyta ditched, he is the sole authority figure. Maybe…the idea is that there isn’t a contrast between the characters. That all the roles – lovers, fathers, kings and queens, are performative. This might also account for how much miming and mimicking goes on. It’s not just the mortals who are fools here. But that’s just a guess. The overall impression is confusing, as if a technique has been pursued regardless of how funny or engaging it really is, or what it might add to the play.

Until 20 April 2024


Photo by Michael Lynch

“The Merchant of Venice 1936” at Wilton’s Music Hall

This touring production, in association with the RSC, the Watford Palace Theatre and Home Manchester, has already received deserved acclaim. But since director Brigid Larmour has relocated the action to a specific year in the East End of London, seeing the show in Grace’s Alley is extra special. Video work from Greta Zabulyte showing the battle of Cable Street (just around the corner) is chilling. At the end, an ovation is built into the production as we are invited to stand against fascism just as East Enders did 87 years ago.

Given current tragic events, it is sad rather than surprising that the show has extra power. Nonetheless, this abridgement of Shakespeare is excellent. Although less than two hours I didn’t miss much. You might say some romance has gone – or, rather, that nonsense with riddles and caskets is handled swiftly – and the role of Shylock’s daughter Jessica does suffer. But the focus on antisemitism here is clear and bold. The extent to which the establishment that money-lending Shylock is pitted against encourages hostility is a focus – hatred of the Jew is literally institutional. Casual prejudice is highlighted and often painful to watch.

The big twist is to see Shylock’s intended victim Antonio, often viewed as heroic , as an Oswald Mosley figure and it is jaw dropping. It is a marvel that a simple black shirt can change the play so much. Raymond Coulthard, who takes the role, makes a great villain. But all the characters become tainted by hate, including Hannah Morrish’s excellent Portia, who we want to like, but whose contempt of Shylock is disturbing. Also of note are Xavier Starr and Jessica Dennis, who play two relatively small roles that they make powerful, showing a mix of ignorance, spite and violence.

Of course, the star is Shylock, played by Tracy-Ann Oberman. A strong accent, impeccably delivered, emphasises her outsider status. While there is defiance, there is also a depressing resignation about the prejudice suffered. Larmour and Oberman are too smart to make Shylock a sympathetic figure. But we come closer to understanding the rage the character carries around – and how the chance at revenge is so quickly taken. A speech after the applause might explain why this performance is so brilliant – Cable Street is close to Oberman’s heart. At the risk of making a cold observation about such an impassioned performance, Oberman reminds us how live – as well as raw – theatre can be.

Until 11 November 2023 and then on tour until 10 February 2024


Photo by Marc Brenner

“What It Means” at Wilton’s Music Hall

James Corley’s new play brings a famous essay, a piece with a revered place in the Gay Liberation movement, to the stage with intelligence and style. We get the text and also the story of Merle Miller’s 1971 article for the New York Times, entitled ‘What it means to be a homosexual’. Corley has Miller present the prose while taking the audience behind the scenes.

The biographical route makes sense. Not only was the essay personal but focusing on Merle – the man – makes the evening moving and funny. We learn that his coming out was slow and painful but, also, what a wit Miller was. And the strategy leads to an incredible performance from Richard Cant, who moves from raw emotion to dry observation and makes the show worth seeing for his performance alone.

The adaptation is full of interest, energetically directed by Harry Mackrill. Presenting to the audience sometimes confrontationally, the convivial tone has surprising tension as the action flits across time in a brilliant fashion. Showing the impact of painful moments in Merle’s past might seem a touch contemporary. But how his closeted status pervaded every aspect of his life is deeply moving.

A final section is the play’s finest… It’s a surprise to find that What It Means is not a one-man show.

Richard Cant and Cayvan Coates in 'What It Means' at Wilton's Music Hall
Richard Cant and Cayvan Coates

The appearance of Cayvan Coates, in a small role as a troubled youth, is inspired by one of the many letters that the article provoked. Coates makes an entrance via the audience so that, although the character is from Miller’s own day, the connection feels immediate. The character needs help and he needs it now.

Miller is aware he had no role models – no representation, as they say nowadays. But doesn’t the play itself provide just that? Like its source material, What It Means becomes a kind of activism. Having Miller still serve as an inspiration is a fine way to celebrate his legacy, and it is a neat move that makes the play is a fitting tribute. 

Until 28 October 2023


Photos by Danny Kaan

“The Mikado” at Wilton’s Music Hall

Fans of genius director Sasha Regan (there’s a clue there about how I feel) will be thrilled that her 2017 version of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta is back. This show is as smart and witty as it is charming and tender. If you haven’t seen one of her all-male productions yet, they really are a fantastic night out.

With The Mikado, Regan has changed a little more than usual. There are lots of very good new lyrics, as the original Japanese setting has been abandoned. Instead, a group of youngsters on a camping trip – putting on a show – decide on an “undefined” location for their fictional romps. Don’t worry, it’s still the same topsy-turvy world where sweethearts Declan Egan’s Nanki-Poo, renamed Bertie Hugh, and Sam Kipling’s Yum-Yum, now Miss Violet Plum, are threatened by all manner of dotty laws.

As for the telling of the silly story, the troop of boys say they are trying their best, using their imagination… how sweet! Those taking female roles roll up their shorts and grab some flowers for their hair, there are cricket bats and tennis rackets and a lot of fun with a tent that moves around the stage.

The make-do-and-mend aesthetic belies designer Ryan Dawson Laight’s clever work, which raises smiles and is full of invention. The cut-out forest background – cue shadowy figures running around – and skilful lighting all add to a dreamy summer night feel.

Christopher Hewitt

There’s so much detail, and so much of it leads to laughs. Lewis Kennedy’s Geordie Mikado and David McKechnie’s Harold Steptoe-inspired Mr Cocoa are accomplished performers who are a delight to watch closely. Christopher Hewitt has a brilliant turn as Kitty Shaw (formerly Katisha) complete with a bicycle. As for getting Hewitt to sing while pumping a deflated wheel… what a great idea!

It’s all hugely entertaining. But Regan wants to make sure heart strings are still pulled in the way Gilbert and Sullivan intended. Maybe that’s one reason Hewitt is such a highlight – hilarious but leaving room for us to have sympathy for Kitty. The show is, magically, romantic through the superb work of musical director and pianist Anto Buckley who, along with Egan and Kipling, makes the show sound swoon worthy.

Regan knows Gilbert and Sullivan so well and respects each and all of their creations, so no character is ignored. Note how Owen Clayton and Richard Russell Edwards stand out as Violet’s friends. Rivals at any opportunity, both are very funny and magnetic whenever they are on stage. Regan creates a kind of generosity that her cast responds to appropriately so that an infectious atmosphere of enjoyment radiates from the stage. These are happy campers – on stage – and in the audience.

Until 1 July 2023


Photos by Mark Senior

“Sweeney Todd – the Victorian melodrama” at Wilton’s Music Hall

Opera della Luna are keen to stress that their new show is not a production of the Stephen Sondheim musical. This demon barber of Fleet Street is based on the original 1847 play, also known as The String of Pearls, and is described as a Victorian melodrama. Given that both the period and the genre are sometimes referred to derogatively, the show could be a tough sell. But the production is funny and well executed and the project interesting.

The script, originally by George Dibdin Pitt, is more than a little silly but it is also exciting – a mix of morality play and thriller. As adaptor and editor, as well as director, Jeff Clarke tackles all his tasks with great skill. And the jobs conflict a little as the action is so crammed it is ludicrous; the coincidences are incredible, never mind adding supernatural touches and a servant pivotal to the plot who never actually appears.

It’s clear treating the show as a comedy is a good idea – and it is well done. If I can’t help wondering what a version of the show that tries to revolt, shock and thrill might be like, the strategy of going for laughs is sound.

The cast know they can’t declaim loudly enough or roll their eyes too often and give admirably energetic performances. Doubling roles is overused for comic effect but adds charm. Matt Kellett and Madeline Robinson embrace their roles as romantic leads. Nick Dwyer has a harder job in the title role and while boos and hisses are encouraged, there were a few too many for my taste. As well as having a fine voice Dwyer makes Todd a smart villain – not mad but motivated by money – and interesting as a result. Stealing the show is another baddie, Paul Featherstone’s Reverend Lupin, who is truly revolting – making your skin crawl while getting a laugh makes for an exceptional performance!

A passionate suspicion of the clergy isn’t the only surprise here – there are also remarkably fearless women, admittedly smaller parts, with Todd’s accomplice Mrs Lovett and a maid both made the most of by Lynsey Docherty. The characters are flat but the cast flesh them out: take the “half-murdered, half-smothered, muffin maker” (what a part) made a satisfying figure with a strong performance from Matthew Siveter.

Despite all this praise, the drama is in danger of dragging at times. The venue itself goes a long way to help the show – the charms of Graces Alley are often a production’s secret weapon – it really is the perfect venue for Sweeney Todd. But it is the music that really makes the night. Appropriate given Opera della Luna’s strengths, the score uses compositions by Michael William Balfe, Julius Benedict and Henry Bishop – all eminent Victorians but now less well known. Skilfully orchestrated by James Widden, the music adds atmosphere, aids the action and comedy, and sounds beautiful. Not Sondheim…but a rarer treat that has appeal.

Until 29 April 2023


Photos by Andy Paradise

Attenborough and his Animals at Wilton’s Music Hall 

Theatre company Clownfish delivers far more than its name implies. In this show, aimed at young children, we meet all kinds of animals from all over the world in the company of none other than David Attenborough (kind of).

Actually, when Attenborough doesn’t turn up, Jonathan Tilley takes his part. The impersonation is good. Tilley is also a female sloth, a mother orangutan and a regurgitating seagull. His co-star and fellow creator of the show, Jess Clough-McRae, plays all the other animals. It really is that mad an idea… and the kids love it.

There’s plenty of silliness – they are clowning, after all – in the way both move and the faces they make. Can you guess the animal before you’re told (this budding naturalist did very well)? The plasticity of both performers’ faces is remarkable. The noises they make show skills as mimics while they work hard to connect to the audience. 

The show is a heartfelt tribute to Attenborough’s TV work, sharing the humour and drama that come from watching the natural world. Clough-McRae’s anthropomorphising brings laughs and pathos. There’s a stunning reminder of environmentalism that uses just a single plastic bag – it brought a tear to my eye.

It is the simplicity of the show that impresses most: just two artists creating a world “teeming with life”. You can count the props on one hand and there’s no set. The sound design is brilliantly unobtrusive. The physicality on offer isn’t a matter of gymnastics (although it’s surely harder than it looks). Instead, it’s all about imagination – the performers’ and ours. Think about the audacity of the idea again! I can’t conceive of a better introduction to the theatre, as this show proves that you can do anything on a stage.

Until 3 September 2022


Photo by Jacinta Oaten

“Starcrossed” at Wilton’s Music Hall

Aside from the Greeks, can you think of a play that’s inspired as many others as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet? Rachel Garnet’s 2018 take is to tell the tale from the perspective of Tybalt and Mercutio. And to make the men a new pair of star-crossed lovers.

The idea shouldn’t be a surprise, given how much Shakespeare is played with. But if it sounds a little sensational, think again. Starcrossed is a serious piece – if it has a failing it’s a lack of humour – that shows deep thinking and sensitivity, and a firm grasp on its source material that is super smart.

The development of Shakespeare’s minor characters is a huge success. Yes, Garnet has plenty to work with, but she creates solid, interesting characters that are an exciting prospect for performers.

Mercutio – a “fickle creature” – is a pacifist and an all-round outsider, vividly brought to life by Connor Delves, who has travelled with the show from New York. It’s easy to see Mercutio captivating all he meets with his intelligence and dangerous flair. Tommy Sim’aan takes the role of Tybalt and is just as magnetic to watch. The character’s confusion about his status as well as sexuality are evoked in equal measure and never overstated.

Gethin Alderman

Starcrossed has charm too – which brings us to the final performer, known as The Player, who takes on all the other roles! So, Gethin Alderman becomes Lord Capulet, Paris, Romeo (and Juliet) as well as Tybalt’s father – a great creation whose scenes are a real highlight. Switching so many roles cannot fail to impress, and Alderman adds a playfulness that is welcome.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

Garnet’s script is a marvel, a verse play with snatches of Shakespeare (not just from Romeo and Juliet) cleverly incorporated. Stimulating and erudite, this is a text to treasure. It is a credit to the performers and Philip Wilson’s impeccable direction that such learning is worn easily. As with the best Shakespearean productions, we appreciate the wit but don’t feel excluded by it.

Garnet manages to look at the circumstances she creates from the perspective of gay men and pays attention to the history. The couple’s fear and the degree of acceptance they have about keeping their love a secret is moving. There’s a consistent tension in seeing how the script fits into the bigger story, what lines are used or ignored, as well as the exciting speculation about how much change we’ll see.

Best of all, concerns for the future, wrapped up in questions of honour and legacy, are explored with insight and originality. Creating a story “never told” has a powerful impact. Along with Mercutio’s speculation about how lives might be different in 500 years’ time, the idea that so much LGBTQ+ history has been lost is used by Garnet to great effect.

Until 25 June 2022


Photo by Pamela Raith

“The Ballad of Maria Marten” at Wilton’s Music Hall

Beth Flintoff brings this story of a murder victim to the stage with skill and originality. Based on a real-life case that was a news sensation in 1828, this production is a thriller, but in an unexpected fashion. The Ballad of Maria Marten is more social history than murder mystery – and is all the better for that.

The focus is on Marten’s life rather than death, taking in village society and the status of women. Marten’s childhood was difficult but not unhappy – we see close bonds of friendship. Her first encounter with a man was little more than prostitution but later there was a true love affair. Considering Marten’s brutal death, there’s a lot of joy in this ballad.

The speculative biography and convincing picture of another time and place are brought to the stage by only six performers. They are all strong. But Elizabeth Crarer’s massive title role is awe inspiring. Other characters are types with work to do: the timid stepmother, the “brazen” one and the religious friend. But Sarah Goddard, Bethan Nash and Susie Barrett manage to show us depth in the trickiest roles. The latter two impress twice over, performing as two of the men in Marten’s life.

The Ballad of Maria Marten 1 credit Mike Kwasniak

It is when using the performers together that director Hal Chambers secures the strongest theatrical moments. Acting literally as a chorus – the songs from Luke Potter are fantastic – the cast physically supports Marten at moments of crisis. Aided by movement direction from Rebecca Randall, there are beautiful scenes as they dance, dress and clean their friend.

The Ballad of Maria Marten 1 credit Mike Kwasniak

After the interval the play gets darker. Marten’s relationship with her murderer William Corder is used by Flintoff to explore “coercive control”. Crarer shines as she performs powerful scenes solo. Flintoff’s research with Lighthouse Women’s Aid, which works with those affected by domestic abuse or violence, has paid off. Along with the dramatic tension, there is much to learn as gaslighting leads to mental breakdown.

The idea of denying Corder an appearance on stage is powerful. A further twist in the way tales of murdered women get told is less successful. Flintoff also wants to look at the legacy of violence on Marten’s friends. These women deserve a voice, too, of course, but the stories become truncated. The incendiary finale is neat but rushed. Even so, the show is thoroughly recommended – ideas and execution are grand. This ballad deserves to be a big hit.

Until 19 February 2022 and then on tour


Photo by Mike Kwasniak

"Macbeth" at Wilton’s Music Hall

There was bad and good luck for the Watermill Theatre last night with its transfer of Shakespeare’s Scottish play (I’m risking nothing). After just one scene, Lady Macduff needed medical attention – sympathies and best wishes to her. Fortunately, a decision was made to persevere thanks to a member of the audience who was in the production previously. Gratitude to Emma Barclay for helping out – she did a great job. Although the circumstances for reviewing aren’t ideal, it’s only appropriate that I also go on.

So huge credit to the show’s small cast who gave little sense of being thrown by events – their professionalism is commendable. The production is marked out by its youthful appeal and tension (maybe a few extra nerves helped). Director Paul Hart clearly has plenty of ideas and, even if they are a mixed bag, they can be appraised regardless of injuries.

On the plus side, the depiction of the violence in the play through movement is done well (congratulation to Tom Jackson Greaves). The lighting effects, from Tom White, and projections from Louise Rhoades-Brown, are very good. The idea of using actor musicians is always impressive. But the delivery here needs finessing: the songs chosen prove distracting and, more importantly, too many lines are lost in the noise.

Emma McDonald in Macbeth at Wilton's Music Hall
Emma McDonald

If Hart wants a Macbeth that’s brash and bold then he has succeeded. But the consequence is a production that’s overblown and loud. Both leads are strong performers who seem wasted. Emma McDonald’s Lady Macbeth is, frankly, camp – a decision that does not serve the character well, no matter how great her outfits. It’s a shame, since McDonald and her stage husband have great chemistry and fantastic stage presence.

In the lead, Billy Postlethwaite possesses all the magnetism you could wish for as a guerrilla-style soldier with a hipsterish edge. I liked the way this Macbeth is out of his depth when it comes to plotting. But there’s no respite from madness for Postletwaite to work with. The witches (nicely delivered by the whole company) turn him too quickly. Both he and the production are hampered by the conceit of Hotel Macbeth. Macbeth as a rebel and rock star I get, but not a hotelier!

While Lucy Keirl has a good night doubling up as Seyton and Macbeth’s Porter, little else seems achieved by the hotel idea. It’s not the only tweak Hart makes that puzzles: are Macduff’s children really killed? And why is Duncan strangled first? But the abundance of ideas, like the events of the evening, show a company full of spirit. Regards again to the injured Lauryn Redding. Her colleagues displayed a determination the whole ensemble should be proud of.

In repertory with A Midsummer Night’s Dream until 15 February 2020


Photos by Pamela Raith

“The Pirates of Penzance” at Wilton’s Music Hall

Sasha Regan’s all-male productions of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas are truly special. Starting at the Union Theatre a decade ago, receiving rave reviews from the beginning, the greatest success – so far – has been this comedy romance of sweet corsairs, beautiful sisters and bumbling authority figures. Having toured the world #PiratesIsBack returns to what must be the perfect venue for this five-star show.

So, what’s so great? While clever cynicism on stage is common, increasingly so with musicals, and is present here, Regan brings back an innocence that is enchanting. There’s nothing infantile about the show – Gilbert’s lyrics show a master of sarcasm and irony, while the class consciousness that he parodied in 1879, and throughout his career, makes him seem forward thinking. For all the childish fun, Gilbert takes a grown-up look at how silly the world is. Some 140 years later, Regan understands that. Look at the famous Major General role – pompous as ever, yet still endearing in David McKechnie’s fantastic interpretation. Or the lamenting policeman, led magnificently by Duncan Sandilands, getting a lot of laughs but also a touch of sympathy. And best of all the “Piratical Maid of all work” Ruth, a role that Alan Richardson, fresh from success in the West End – whose voice is truly sublime – saves from any trace of distasteful sexism with a performance that is as sensitive and empowering as it is funny.

David McKechnie as the Major General

Then there is a romance in the piece, a peculiar kind that feels out of time. This is, after all, a fairy-book story of love at first sight, no matter how tongue in cheek. James Thackeray masters the blend as the Pirate King who is sensitive yet still dashing and sure to steal hearts. The gallant Frederic and charming Mabel are made a gorgeous couple by Tom Senior and Tom Bales respectively. Senior actually manages to make you admire the character’s silly sense of duty. There’s a real sense of tenderness here that might very well bring a tear to your eye. Regan takes the love story seriously, no matter how old-fashioned the sentimentality, in a necessary leap of faith that allows it to work as theatre.

Tom Senior and Tom Bales

The stars are backed by a fantastic ensemble, with a real sense of camaraderie that must surely be credited to Regan. Their first switch from pirates to girls, giggling around the balcony, is divine. The air is one of improvisation, a sense of dressing up for fun with wooden swords and a broom for a horse, that takes us back to the basics of theatre. The rough-and-ready aesthetic of Wilton’s Music Hall complements this, as well as serving the acoustics brilliantly. All this belies the skill behind a top-notch production: Lizzi Gee’s ambitious choreography, the expert musical direction from Richard Baker (that transforms Sullivan’s orchestral score so perfectly) and Regan’s never-failing eye for detail. A lot of work goes into creating something that feels this spontaneous, that has such a sense of effortless energy, and the result is a joy that is contagious.

Until 16 March 2019


Photos by Scott Rylander