Saturday 14 December 2019

14/12/19: Sherlock Holmes and the Strange Case of the Circassian Dagger, Dame Alice Owen’s School, Hertfordshire (third night)

Back to school for the third of three performances of this exciting mystery-thriller.

As expected, it was a lot slicker. Entrances and exits had been speeded up and clunky scenes had been smoothed out. It was more efficient all round and I was encouraged to see how much the children had gained in confidence.

In a few instances, the understudy was there in place of the main actor or vice-versa.

The plot was a little easier to follow second time around.

At the end there were emotional speeches by the children and teachers, and presentations of chocolates and flowers. You really have to admire these kids doing this with such energy for three nights in a row.

Thursday 12 December 2019

12/12/19: Sherlock Holmes and the Strange Case of the Circassian Dagger, Dame Alice Owen’s School, Hertfordshire (first night)

There are few things I enjoy more than a school play.

This is an incredibly ambitious work, written and directed by Emma Govier. The plot is massively convoluted, with a large cast inhabiting the H-shaped stage and a great many scenes taking place across a wide array of locations to explore all the intertwined narrative strands. Sometimes the plot was difficult to follow, but it all came together in a satisfying way as time went by.

This was the first night and sometimes you could tell. Several children struggled to suppress laughter as they delivered their lines. One scene simply petered out and went quiet until one of the girls ad-libbed, brilliantly, by saying “I’m bored” – in character – before they all ran off the stage.

There’s so much here that’s entertaining. I liked the three comedy policemen – useless at deducing anything and prone to fainting or being sick whenever anything grisly happens. Some of the script is hilarious, such as when one of Moriaty’s henchmen reels off a whole mini-speech about his skin-care routine. There’s also a very funny approximation of leaping off a boat and swimming in the sea. And Max Hirschkorn is such a natural in the role of Mrs Hudson, Holmes’ fussy housekeeper, that it was a shock to learn afterwards that he was a stand-in for the intended actor.

Sherlock himself is suitably enigmatic, but also endearing – such as when he disguises himself by pretending to be a pot plant. He is shy with women, and his kiss – when it arrives – is so convincingly awkward that it makes you wonder whether the discomfort belongs to the character or the actor.

There are a few dancing interludes, which are especially charming. There’s a brief ballet scene relating to Anthony and Cleopatra, plus a wonderful gypsy dance.

So many of the children excelled themselves, but the fortune teller (Mia Dacosta) and Sherlock’s girlfriend and fellow investigator (Rachel Alden) were particularly convincing.

The show is way too long at 3 hours 20 minutes (including interval), but I expect it will be tightened up considerably over the next two performances. Either way, it’s a huge achievement.

Wednesday 11 December 2019

11/12/19: Sleeping Beauty, Greenwich Theatre

Every year Andrew Pollard brings his remarkable pantomime to Greenwich Theatre, and every year it surprises and delights. The stories may change, but the essence remains the same – a hilarious and audacious roller-coaster of a show. Sleeping Beauty is another great victory for this supremely talented writer, actor and director.

Forget the usual panto formula. While Pollard clearly loves the genre and pays homage to its key elements – not least, by embodying the archetypal Dame – his take on the form is refreshingly different and he makes Sleeping Beauty work on multiple levels. For children, it’s excitingly full of colour, adventure and impressive pyrotechnic effects, with appealing interactive moments – such as being handed magic moon rocks and urged to throw them at the stage. For adults, it’s a feast of cheeky wit with a very funny script that weaves in local and topical references (Plumstead, Blackheath, Nigel Farage, Prince Andrew) alongside plenty of daft innuendo. It’s a treat to watch the actors trying to make each other laugh, going off-piste and breaking the fourth wall.

The scenes are interspersed with – and often built around – wonderful pop music. There are adaptations of songs by The Beatles, Chic, Boney M and The Proclaimers, among others, played live and loud by the small in-house band led by Musical Director “Uncle” Steve Markwick.

The story veers wildly away from the classic fairytale, but just about retains enough of the key elements to justify the title. Ewan and Anastasia, the young couple at the centre of the plot, are confidently played by Regan Burke and Esme Bacalla-Hayes. Theirs is not a typical boy-meets-girl situation. With the help of a kindly fairy, Ewan finds himself transported from the London of 1969 to the Russia of 1869. Masquerading as “Major Thomas” – you can see the David Bowie connection a mile off, and sure enough they include “Space Oddity” as one of the songs – he falls in love with the daughter of Tsar Ivan the Slightly Irritable. But Anastasia is bewitched and left to sleep for 100 years by the evil villain Rasputin. The “mad monk” is wonderfully brought to life by the ultra-charismatic Anthony Spargo, who knows exactly how to get the audience hissing at him and his dastardly plans.

Quickly dispensing with familiar Sleeping Beauty motifs, the narrative races off into a gloriously ridiculous saga about travelling through time and space, plus a thread about Greenwich Theatre itself as way of celebrating its 50th anniversary. Indeed, Ewan is based on Ewan Hooper, a real-life local actor who saved the theatre from demolition in the 1960s.

One of the highlights of each annual pantomime is the spectacle of Andrew Pollard’s outlandish costumes, which defy gravity and belief, so special credit must go to the team of wardrobe designers. Utterly inspired visuals in which adults are turned into babies also support several moments of comedy that go beyond merely funny or clever to approach a sort of surreal high art.

Only one criticism: at times the music is too loud and drowns out the dialogue. It’s not the sort of show in which you need to hear every word, but it’s a shame that a few of the jokes are lost for this reason.

That point aside, this is an incredibly rich and vibrant affair that will fill you with a sense of well-being while making you laugh again and again.


Wednesday 30 October 2019

30/10/19: I Do! I Do!, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate

Spanning half a century and featuring just two actors, this is a charming adaptation of a 1966 Broadway musical that was based on Jan de Hartog’s 1951 play, The Fourposter. Directed and produced by Joseph Hodges, this new version revives the timeless tale of a marriage in all its stages.

We join Michael and Agnes in their bedroom on their wedding night, young and very much in love but also inexperienced and nervous at the prospect of spending their lives together. Fast-forwarding through the years to reveal the progression of their relationship, the show alternates between dramatic vignettes and vibrant, clever songs.

Gemma Maclean and Ben Morris carry the entire performance, animated and energetic enough to fill the stage by themselves. They are accompanied only by musical director Henry Brennan, who offers dextrous live keyboard interpretations of the songs by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones.

The unfussy-but-detailed set design by Emily Bestow wisely puts the bed at its centre, flanked by a dressing table on the left and a writing desk (Michael is a novelist) and chaise longue on the right.

There’s subtle humour and plenty of warmth, but – keeping sentimentality at bay – there are also barbed observations and arguments. One of the funniest moments, built around the song “Nobody’s Perfect”, shows the bickering couple reading from pre-prepared lists of each other’s faults. We learn that she wears cold cream in bed, while he makes a strange sucking noise in his sleep. There’s also an amusing running joke about a “God is love” pillow that Agnes is fond of and which Michael cannot stand...

The scenes flow sequentially but the plot strands aren’t always resolved. Instead, each scene presents a new snapshot of their lives. This was a little frustrating in the case of the bombshell that ends the first half. You really want to find out how they respond to this crisis, and then... time marches on and it’s as if that scene never happened. Yet despite this slightly disjointed aspect, the narrative gives Michael and Agnes surprising emotional depth. Indeed, the ups and downs of their journey through marriage are frequently poignant and touching. We join them as they encounter the joys and fears of parenthood. We witness the rise of Michael’s writing career and see how his success affects them both differently. And we observe their mixed feelings at their daughter’s wedding as the whole cycle begins again.

If there’s a flaw it’s that the show supposedly spans the 50 years from 1890 to 1940 – a period encompassing World War I and the start of World War II – but you get little or no sense of wider events unfolding beyond the walls of their bedroom. Instead, the focus is on how time passes for the couple, which makes perfect sense given the theme, but it does seem like a missed opportunity to infuse their situation with additional gravity.

That minor point aside, it’s consistently entertaining and extremely well delivered: a successful fusion of music and narrative that makes for a compassionate study of the miracle of love.


Wednesday 9 October 2019

09/10/19: A Modest Little Man, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate

Leader of the Labour Party during World War II, Clement Attlee was elected as UK Prime Minister in 1945 and went on to create the welfare state. Directed by Owain Rose, this gently comic character study tells the story of an unassuming man who ended up playing a pivotal role in shaping post-war Britain.

As the title makes clear, Attlee was not an outlandish figure. Entirely at odds with Winston Churchill’s flamboyant manner (and indeed the kinds of world leaders we see today), his seemingly cautious approach steered clear of personality-based politics and was driven by firm ideological beliefs.

His understated nature presents a challenge for writer Francis Beckett and lead actor Roger Rose, who place this “little mouse” at the centre of the narrative. It’s a testament to their success that a man of so few words (except when discussing cricket) begins to emerge as quietly fascinating.

Portrayed brilliantly by Lynne O’Sullivan, Clement’s devoted wife Violet is far less reticent than her husband and partially narrates the play. The rest of the small cast prove to be hugely versatile, too. Churchill is memorably evoked by Silas Hawkins, one of three actors each tasked with handling multiple parts. The clever writing slowly reveals Attlee through the affection, respect and frustration felt by those around him, rather than through his own actions.

The simple set – an office desk and chairs – is suitably minimal and restrained, in keeping with the PM’s self-contained, low-key introversion.

At times the pacing feels a little slow, but perhaps this is merely a reflection of the more formal modes of discourse employed in the 1940s. The end of the first half seems oddly timed, too, with no one in the audience realising that it was the interval. It might have made more sense to suspend the action at a more distinctive moment, but this is necessarily a subtle narrative without instances of high drama. That’s not a criticism, either: what it lacks in terms of big gestures, it more than makes up for with charm.

Where the show excels is in its mild but insightful wit. The scene in which the Attlees meet King George VI (Clive Greenwood) is masterful in its articulation of social awkwardness. And while A Modest Little Man works as an effective history lesson, it’s also highly informative about the world we live in now. There are shrewd observations with obvious resonance in contemporary politics, such as a nod to the foolishness of holding a referendum. Plus, there’s plenty of scheming, as you’d expect, with key members of the Cabinet debating the suitability of the leader while attempting to further their own careers. Some things, it seems, never change.


Thursday 12 September 2019

12/09/19: Working: A Musical, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate

Studs Terkel (1912–2008) was a highly respected American writer and broadcaster who published several collections of oral histories. His conversations with “ordinary people” revealed profound social, economic and personal truths about the times. Adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, this show brings to life the author’s 1974 book, Working, with spoken narratives and songs that illuminate gritty accounts of trying to earn a living in the USA.

The cast of eight actor/singers play multiple parts across professions as diverse as truck driver, nanny, hedge fund manager, prostitute, stone mason and flight attendant. Their narratives range from funny or quirky (a UPS delivery man startling attractive women for his own entertainment) to desperately sad (a woman enduring mind-numbing monotony on a factory assembly line). Cleverly, the script both documents a lost way of life and – bravely building upon Terkel’s source material – offers subtle updates to more recent working scenarios by utilising innovations such as e-mail and mobile phones. At the centre of these varied tales are the same recurring questions. How much should your job define you? What does it mean to spend so much of your existence in employment? And do we have a right to expect our work to be satisfactory and meaningful?

The stage set is an ingenious split-level scaffold structure resembling part of a construction site. This is compartmentalised to allow each actor their own designated area within it. The brilliant direction by Amanda Noar allows for these spaces to be suddenly spotlit or thrown into darkness, emphasising parallels or curious juxtapositions between workers as their confessions and experiences begin to dovetail.

A four-piece band led by musical director Jamie Noar embrace a diverse range of styles and moods, from big, brassy anthems to restrained, low-key heartbreakers. The stand-out moments are numerous, but the most memorable include “Just a Housewife” sung by Lara Beth-Sas and “It’s an Art” performed by Hannah Cheetham as a proud waitress determined to recognise the value in her role.

In parts, it’s hugely emotional – particularly when the full ensemble unite to complement each other’s stories and songs. You really feel you’ve had an insight into other people’s lives. Terkel’s gift was to show sufficient empathy for his interview subjects to bring out the very best in them. It’s a great credit to this production that it does the same.


Saturday 17 August 2019

17/08/19: Bombshells, Cockpit Theatre

Written by Joanna Murray-Smith and directed by Sarah Howard, Bombshells is a one-woman show that tells the stories of four very different women. These characters are each brought to life in four separate monologues brilliantly delivered by Laura Ashenden.

Meryl Louise Davenport is struggling with three children, one of them a young baby, and wrestling with conflicting feelings about being a bad mother. She desperately loves her kids but feels judged by other mums. And she desperately needs a coffee...

Tiggy Entwistle is at a public-speaking event, making a presentation about her keen appreciation of cacti, but keeps being distracted by her recent break-up. She finds that succulents and lost love suddenly have everything in common...

Australian Theresa McTerry is about to be married. Squeezing into her wedding dress, she tried to convince us – and herself – how much she adores Ted and cannot wait to be his wife. But then it dawns on her what she’s letting herself in for...

Finally, Zoe Struthers is a Brooklyn-based singer, on tour and on stage, trying to keep her career afloat...

In a highly expressive performance that draws out every nuance of the clever writing, Laura Ashenden reveals the joy and despair that lurk in unexpected moments just beneath the surface of daily life. There’s a huge range of emotions evoked here, and the script is sharp enough that we see these feelings constantly shifting and evolving as they are expressed. A roller-coaster spectacle this energetic must have been exhausting to deliver across 80 minutes, but you’d never know it from the sheer energy on display.

The simple set consists of a dressing table, a clothes rail and – most strikingly – a colour-coded circle of high-heeled shoes from within which the monologues are relayed. Two of the pieces feature live music from a singer/guitarist and a drummer, which adds a certain richness to the “wedding party” and “live-in-concert” segments.

Behind the stage is a screen on which the entire script of the show is projected. The presence of this text is distracting as it’s impossible to ignore in your field of vision, although the addition of occasional images (cacti, the Queen) offers visual variety.

The opening story is the most effective and really gets inside the pressures and pains of new parenthood, with all the self-doubt and uncertainty that accompanies a life turned upside down. The closing story seems the weakest, with the least room for its protagonist to develop, perhaps because the parts that are sung prevent the rapid-fire verbal outpourings that make the other personalities so three-dimensional.

The strongest monologues blend brash humour and insightful observation with a touching pathos and vulnerability. The characters become fully believable people you recognise and sympathise with. By peering into these four women’s inner lives, Bombshells helps us better understand our own.


Saturday 13 July 2019

13/07/19: Oklahoma!, Dame Alice Owen’s School, Hertfordshire

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 musical is handled brilliantly by the Year 7, 8, 9 and 10 talents at Dame Alice Owen’s in a production that’s full of colour and energy.

The plot is fairly straightforward: farm girl Laurey Williams (Lydia Littlejohn) has to choose between two suitors: kindly cowboy Curly McLain (Oliver Hurrey) or troubled farmhand Jud Fry (Jake Mitchell). A few minor sub-plots aside, that’s pretty much it.

The songwriting (of which the most famous example is “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’”) is brassy and cheery. It lacks the emotional range and melodic invention of the same composers’ work in The Sound of Music. That said, the skilled 20-piece orchestra and all-singing cast make the very best of the source material. The kids’ assured (but never precocious) stage presence is impressive and they sustain an atmosphere of high spirits throughout. Several extremely well-choreographed, highly balletic dance sequences see them wheeling around the stage with remarkable grace and fluidity. There are a couple of lovely tap-dancing sequences and a well-managed fan dance. Large, ambitious ensemble scenes are also coordinated perfectly, utilising every inch of stage space in the Edward Guinness Hall.

Comic relief came from smooth-talking Persian peddler Ali Hakim (Anish Shah) and the flirtatious Ado Annie (Mia Dacosta), who both exuded charisma.

On the down side the amplified sound was a little muddy and this – combined with the Oklahoma accents – made some of the dialogue a little difficult to hear.

The only other failing was that the first half lasted for nearly one-and-three-quarter hours, which was simply too long. The second half was much shorter, so I wonder if the lengthy, symbolic dream sequence might have been better positioned after the interval.

Those points aside, the cast miraculously overcame the limitations of a fairly creaky old musical and turned it into something engaging, witty and romantic. The uproarious audience response and sincere outpouring of goodwill at the end was more than well deserved.

Saturday 29 June 2019

29/06/19: Godspell in Concert, Cadogan Hall

Godspell is a 1971 musical written by Stephen Schwartz. Based on a series of Bible parables, it has been revived countless times and seen by millions. A successful film version emerged in 1973, the same year that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar also hit cinemas. Directed by Dean Johnson, this semi-staged version by the British Theatre Academy saw those popular songs performed by a huge ensemble of teenagers (representing a community of disciples) and a handful of West End and TV star guest singers. Their renditions were interspersed with scenes of the younger folk partially acting out the teachings of Jesus.

The youthful bias offered the huge plus point that the show was bursting with energy. But on the downside, some of the vocals were better than others and the sound was at times painfully shrill. There was no set to speak of, but visual interest came from the bright neon technicolour clothing (Day-Glo tops, tie-dyed T-shirts, rainbow-striped leggings) and sparkling accessories. A five-piece band (coordinated by musical director James Taylor) played with gutsy efficiency, but the sound was fairly muddy from where I sat (eight rows back).

Although the songwriting and the overall concept retained a very dated early-1970s feel, there were admirable attempts to modernise the material. For example, it was a nice touch that the show began with seven of the performers wielding mobile phones, texting and scrolling as they debated religious philosophy. A less successful contemporary element was the moment in which, if I’m not mistaken, a Donald Trump impersonator was condemned to Hell by a group of Mexicans he had wronged.

Jesus was surely one of the most charismatic men who ever lived. It’s difficult to reconcile that image with Luke Bayer’s slightly underwhelming figure reading out his lines from an iPad. There must have been an awful lot of lines to learn, it’s true, but you’d expect these words to emerge from deep within his soul rather than be cued by an interchangeable gadget anyone has access to. It eroded any sense of the commanding presence such a figure would exude.

The production also suffered from the lack of a narrative arc or any real emotional complexity. Despite ending with the crucifixion (and controversially not the resurrection), the bulk of the “story” is just a series of simplistic preachings – lively, unrelated episodes that could have been delivered in any order without changing the overall effect. And the much-needed flashes of wit (a parable rendered as interpretative dance, children pretending to be goats and sheep) are little more than temporary diversions from an unrelenting sequence of moral lessons. How much you can take away from those lessons is a personal matter, of course, depending on your theological stance. But if you know the teaching of Jesus already, do you really need to hear them presented this way? And if you aren’t aware of them, is a loud rock/gospel musical the best way to take on board that guidance? Beyond the hordes of clearly delighted parents in the hall (enhancing the feel of a well-presented school play), I wasn’t sure who this show was intended for. Christians might consider it too flippant and irreverent. And non-Christians are unlikely to have the patience to sit through so much of the New Testament, however catchy songs such as “Day by Day” might be. In 2019, religion is a divisive, often contentious business, so a more nuanced treatment of the topic would have been welcome.

The best parts were when they kept it low-key and immediate. When one of the performers rapped over a rhythm built from the ensemble’s perfectly coordinated claps and foot stomps, there were a few seconds of real dynamism. And there was an endearing interlude in which a member of the audience was brought on to the stage without warning, handed his lines on a prompt card and made to play the part of Lazarus.

No one can deny the sincerity and goodwill behind the production, nor the obvious vitality of the cast, but Godspell came across as a wearyingly one-dimensional affair. Sadly, it was very much a case of preaching to the converted.


Wednesday 5 June 2019

05/06/19: Flat Out, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate

Flat Out is a good, old-fashioned farce. It details an afternoon in the lives of a small group of people in a prestigious but mice-infested South Kensington flat (hence the pun of the title) during the Brexit-centric month of March 2019.

The plot is too much of a tangled shaggy-dog story to summarise sensibly, but it begins with an illicit tryst between dental hygienist Angela (Jennifer Matter) and lawyer Giles (Richard Earl). It certainly grabbed everyone’s attention when, in the opening seconds, Angela removed her coat and dress to reveal a skimpy Ann Summers outfit. But the couple’s anticipated pleasure is endlessly delayed by a chain of unexpected visitors.

In keeping with the style of a typical farce, bad luck, coincidence, misunderstandings and mistaken identity drive a sequence of increasingly absurd and improbable events. The comedy comes from the thickening web of inexplicable statements and actions that only the audience can understand. Jennifer Selway’s exceedingly clever writing is maximised by a cast able to expertly tease out every laugh possible from each other’s escalating misfortunes.

It’s very much a London show, with an obvious fondness for the city demonstrated by references to its locations, landmarks and public transport. There’s a fair amount of satire, too, with nods to gender politics, greedy estate agents, social media and what it means to be rich or poor in a bitterly divided Britain. While the Brexit theme is a subtle one, it’s nevertheless an important thread running through the narrative.

Timing all those entrances and exits so perfectly can’t have been easy, but the coordination of this complicated, often highly physical comedy is superbly managed by director John Plews and the entire Ovation company. And the ingenious, economical set design by Emily Bestow made it possible for the various comings and goings within the flat to interact seamlessly as doors opened and closed and windows were hastily clambered in and out of.

The way the various loose ends are resolved at the end makes for a hugely satisfying conclusion to a play that balances hilarity with a sophisticated look at the way we live.


Saturday 1 June 2019

01/06/19: The Glass Menagerie, Arcola Theatre

Directed by Femi Elufowoju Jr, this adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ 1944 play comes with the baggage of taking on an all-time classic, but it does so with empathy and style.

Tom Wingfield (Michael Abubakar) is “starting to boil inside”. He feels stifled living in a small St. Louis apartment with his loving but controlling mother Amanda (Lesley Ewen) and his sister Laura (Naima Swaleh), who suffers from both crippling shyness and the after-effects of childhood illness. Tom works joylessly in a shoe warehouse to support the three of them while dreaming of adventure and travelling further afield – like his father, who abandoned the family 15 years previously. Amanda persuades Tom to invite a friend to dinner in the hope that this “gentleman caller” will fall in love with her fragile daughter and save her from poverty, solitude and her dreamy remoteness.

The first half unfolds slowly, allowing plenty of time to fill in the characters of the three family members. There are flashes of humour amid an overwhelming sense of sadness and frustration. The second half introduces Jim O’Connor (Charlie Maher), the gentleman caller upon whom so much expectation rests, and the intensity goes up several gears. As the plot develops, so too do the performances. Subtle – and less subtle – transformations ensue.

The moments in which Jim and Laura begin to reveal their true selves are utterly heartrending and exquisitely judged. My only criticism is that part of this key scene, with the pair sat on the floor, was difficult to see from the section of the theatre in which I was sitting. That said, it would be impossible to make such an intimate exchange equally visible from every angle. And anyway, the acting was so assured that their conversation was compelling even when I couldn’t see their faces. The devastating vulnerability on display takes you aback.

The set – often dim and shadowy, in keeping with the memories of the narrator – brilliantly frames the action. Beyond the claustrophobic interior of the apartment, there’s the moonlit fire escape with views of the dancehall along the street and the promise of greater freedoms beyond. With these simple elements a whole world is evoked.

Wisely, this production doesn’t attempt to reinvent Williams’ work. With the sparkling dialogue and perfect pacing of the source material, it could hardly be improved upon. What the show does instead is to tease out the delicate nuances of each character and the generous humanity of the writing, exploring the various shades of the emotional truths implicit in every line. The result is deeply affecting.


Thursday 9 May 2019

09/05/19: Human Jam, Camden People’s Theatre

Presented by Brian Logan (who also directs) and Shamira Turner, Human Jam addresses an issue right on the doorstep of the Camden People’s Theatre – the huge upheaval that will be caused by the construction of the “High Speed 2” rail terminal. HS2, as it’s known, promises a faster train connection between London and Birmingham by 2026, and then a further expansion to Leeds and Manchester by 2033. These proposed works involve not only the demolition of local buildings around Euston (including homes, pubs and restaurants), but also, in an unforeseen “complication”, the exhumation of 63,000 bodies buried in St. James’ Gardens – the largest single exhumation of graves in European history.

Part archaeological docu-lecture, part righteous political monologue, part performance-art spectacle and part supernatural drama, Brian and Shamira’s remarkable patchwork explores in depth the seismic changes threatening the area. It does this by intertwining projected photos and films, direct-to-audience chatter, bursts of sound and music, texts and poetry unearthed from obscure books, and vivid dramatic reconstruction. Just when you think you know where the show is heading, it hits you with a stunning sideways turn. I’m reluctant to spoil the surprise, but it involves an intimate encounter with the past and a postmodern fast-forward to the present.

In the closing minutes a community choir takes to the stage. This is made up of local residents affected by the HS2 scheme, and it’s extremely moving to hear real people sharing real-life experiences and singing verses, ancient and modern, that articulate what’s happening to their lives and homes.

Human Jam is a multi-faceted, thought-provoking reminder to fight for those freedoms we take for granted. It’s brought to life with passion, warmth and humour. As well as making you chuckle, it simultaneously fills you with terrible anger and sadness by reminding you of the alarming rate at which our public spaces are being sold off to anonymous developers by cynical, uncaring councils.

The show had particular resonance for me because for several years I worked just metres away from the zone in question. I enjoyed the curry houses of Drummond Street and walked in St. James’ Gardens during lunch breaks, relieved to find a few moments of respite in the middle of the crowded, deafening city.

In a final irony, it’s revealed that HS2 may in fact never go ahead. While that seems like a triumph, in reality it’s already too late. The land has already passed into private ownership and – unforgivably – 63,000 souls have been disturbed from their peaceful sleep.


Saturday 13 April 2019

13/04/19: A Murder Has Been Arranged, Finchley Methodist Church Hall

It’s 1930 and Sir Charles Jasper plans to celebrate his birthday on the stage of a “haunted” theatre. He is set to inherit two million pounds at 11 p.m. – the exact moment he turns 40 – but that inheritance is cast into doubt by the unexpected arrival of his rather odd nephew and a series of deeply strange goings on...

Despite the far-fetched premise of Emlyn Williams’ supernatural drama, and a rather too lengthy running time, the Guild Players put on a strong performance. Established favourites Caroline Knell and Louisa Agamemnos were as reliably watchable as ever, and it was also good to see the return of Rachel Kaden and Sean Roberts from the 2018 triumph that was Widdershins.

The period jazz music played during the interval was a nice touch, as were the well-judged costumes.

In the second half, the play became increasingly multilayered, with references to amateur dramatics(!) and Macbeth being made within the clever theatre-within-a-theatre setting.

As usual, the Finchley Methodist Church Hall had the disadvantage of outside traffic noise – a reminder that it’s worth being in the first couple of rows to have a chance of catching all the dialogue. Despite that, and a complicated narrative, the actors never stumbled.

Thursday 4 April 2019

04/04/19: Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story, Hope Theatre, Islington

It’s Chicago in 1924 and two school friends are reunited. Nathan Leopold (Bart Lambert) is obsessively in love with Richard Loeb (Jack Reitman) and wants to resume their previous affair, but Richard has changed. Inspired and seemingly possessed by the controversial writings of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, he exploits Nathan’s devotion in return for making him an accomplice in a series of crimes. Having signed a contract in blood, their pursuit of the ‘Ubermensch’ ideal inevitably leads the pair beyond arson and petty burglary and into more disturbing and challenging transgressions. They gain notoriety as the Thrill Killers – at a considerable cost...

Directed by Matthew Parker, the Hope Theatre’s production of Stephen Dolginoff’s 2003 true-crime musical is stunning. Narrated in flashbacks during a parole hearing 34 years later, it maintains an incredibly high level of drama – considerably aided by the sensitive and dynamic piano playing of Musical Director Tim Shaw. It helps that the source material – both the script and songwriting – is so consistently strong. When the dialogue stops and the singing begins in lesser musicals, it can often seem like filler. In Thrill Me, every song carries the narrative forwards and sharpens the focus on the personalities and motivations of the two men. Lambert and Reitman are note-perfect throughout – quite some feat given the sheer number of lines and lyrics they have to deliver across the 80-minute performance.

There are a couple of fairly major plot twists, which means that the show continues to surprise you just when you think you’ve worked out how it will unfold. There’s real intensity conveyed, both in the vividness of Nathan’s feelings for the man he worships and in Richard’s fixation on amoral self-transformation.

Subtle lighting helps to build the atmosphere, particularly in the scene in which they set an abandoned warehouse ablaze – a perfect visual metaphor of their fiery passions. Creative use is also made of recorded voices (those of Dewi Hughes and Bryan Pilkington) and sound effects, providing a three-dimensional framework that instils the action with even more realism.

The play examines the psychology of egos, ethics and manipulative behaviour as well as tackling bigger themes of society and individualism. Primarily, it asks the question: what would you do for love? As it explores those extremes you find yourself simultaneously appalled and captivated by these two characters, whose escalating predicament is all the more chilling for being based on a true story.


Thursday 21 March 2019

21/03/19: Macbeth, Jacksons Lane, Highgate

Directed by Mary Swan, the Proteus theatre company’s version of “the Scottish play” is boldly set in the City in October 1987 just as Black Monday sent financial markets reeling into chaos.

The action takes place in snappy suits, with cocaine snorted off glass tables and dialogue barked into office telephones. The production picks up on the themes of corporate greed and ambition that famously characterise that era. I would have liked them to have done much more with this notion and fully explore those ideas, but the stock exchange context provides a visual backdrop rather than an integral, driving element in how the story unfolds.

A cast of just five actors ambitiously take on all the major parts. Macbeth himself is played by Riz Meedin, who if anything seems a little too casual and unruffled in his delivery to truly carry off the complexity of the role. There’s something missing – an intensity, perhaps. Danny Charles ably tackles Duncan, MacDuff and Lennox, while Umar Butt is fairly solid as Banquo. But all three males are often upstaged by the two female leads. Alexandra Afryea is especially strong as Lady Macbeth and the scene in which she sleepwalks, visibly tormented by her deeds, is perhaps the most memorable of them all. Meanwhile, Jessica Andrade proves herself hugely versatile as Malcolm, Lady MacDuff, the doctor and one of the witches.

It was an inspired choice to play 1980s pop and new-wave music over the sound system between scenes. Bursts of Bronski Beat, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Eurythmics, Japan, Joy Division and The Smiths are highly effective. Better still is the wonderful surprise moment near the beginning when the cast suddenly start moving in time to the stark drum-machine mechanics of “Blue Monday” by New Order. It’s both funny and startling. A later scene, just as powerful, has Jessica Andrade lip-syncing to Prince’s “Sign o’ the Times”. Macbeth is at its greatest when it takes these audacious liberties with the source material – those brief instances when it veers off into almost surreal interpretation and embraces the worlds of dance and mime. It’s less successful at delivering the primary narrative. Despite a running time of more than two hours, much of the plot progression felt rushed and disjointed. It’s perhaps inevitable that large chunks of Shakespeare’s writing need to be done away with in any modern adaptation, but it sometimes seemed that these edits were made at the expense of logic or clarity. If you are already familiar with the play in its entirety, though, you’ll find that there’s plenty to enjoy here.


Wednesday 13 March 2019

13/03/19: Saga, Etcetera Theatre, Camden Town

Saga is the daughter of God, sent down from Heaven to observe how we live on Earth. In her brief time here, she passes through a series of social scenarios that point out to her the various extremes of human nature.

Written by Michael Currell and loosely based on August Strindberg’s A Dream Play from 1901, this clever and witty one-hour production is ambitious and covers a lot of thematic ground. Saga is witness to racism, our treatment of the homeless, the superficiality of social media and the shallowness of political opportunists. The play squeezes in plenty of Big Issues (the property ladder, Brexit and poverty are all referenced) without taking obvious positions of judgement, perhaps because the narrative is so overtly surreal.

Some of the dialogue, references and in-jokes – and even some singing – takes place in Swedish. If you are Swedish (like many of the audience), it will obviously mean a lot more to you. If, like me, you’re not Swedish you may find parts of it completely baffling and somewhat alienating. But this frustration aside, you can still enjoy the general sense of whimsy and the ABBA songs that appear at the beginning and the end of the show.

The three supporting actresses do an excellent job of bringing to life various characters, multitasking seamlessly in a way that makes the cast seem far larger than it is. Frida Storm is particularly strong in the lead part, conveying a believable innocence and naivety that’s touching and more than a little sad. She cannot understand the cruelty people demonstrate. Seeking to experience love, it makes no sense to her to hear of YouTube “likes”. And finding beauty all around her, she cannot fathom why human behaviour can be so ugly.

Directed and produced by Olivia Stone with the most minimal of stage sets, Saga holds up a mirror to modern life and exposes its contradictions and ironies. Impressively, it does this with playfulness, originality and charm.


Saturday 2 March 2019

02/03/19: Connecting..., Chapel Playhouse

A one-man show written and performed by Billy Hicks, and produced and directed by Lucie Regan, Connecting... is a funny and moving look at what it means to be lonely in the era of technology.

In 1997, a nine-year-old boy is moving into his new bedroom. We learn that he struggles to connect with others and make friends. He records cassette tapes of himself speaking about his interests and raving about his love for Doctor Who. The choice of that iconic timelord isn’t an arbitrary one: the show itself simulates time travel, leaping forwards a few years with every subsequent scene. Each time we encounter him, through puberty and into adulthood, the protagonist is a little older but still just as lonely. As he embraces the ever-changing technology made available to him (from MSN Messenger to Facebook and smartphones) – and as the narrative continues to fast-forward to the present – we are reminded of how the electronic networks that are meant to be “connecting” us are also increasing our isolation. On the internet, you can be anyone you want to be. But the inevitable flip side of this freedom is that accumulating “friends” and “likes” is no substitute for real friends who really like you.

What makes it compelling is the hugely energetic physical comedy of Billy’s performance as he bounces around the stage. Then there’s his quick-fire verbal dexterity. He reels off a barrage of cultural references from TV and video games, as well as bringing them to life by imitating the sound of early internet dial-up and singing or miming fragments of indie-pop hits of the early 2000s. It amounts to a torrent of expression that must have been expertly rehearsed to be performed so fluidly without stumbling. It’s especially notable how well Billy inhabits the world of a child. Plus, some of the lines (such as the clever joke about the fourth wall) make you think as well as laugh.

Thematically, it could have ended up somewhat simplistic – life can be lonely, technology can be alienating – but the performance is sufficiently quirky and imaginative to explore those themes in depth. Likewise, this could have become an excuse for lazy nostalgia. Remember Sonic the Hedgehog? Remember Wheatus? But the barrage of ephemeral recollections is used to underscore the mindset of a restlessly changing young man and the quickly evolving times in which he strives to find meaning.


Wednesday 20 February 2019

20/02/19: The Wrong Ffion Jones, The Vault, Waterloo

What does it mean to be Welsh? And what does it mean to be Welsh when everything you know and love about Wales is under threat? These are the questions asked by Ffion Jones, playing herself in a hilarious one-woman show at the Vault Festival.

In a dystopian near-future, Wales has become “Walesland” – a stifling theme park of itself cynically controlled by tycoons Bevan, Bevan, Bevan and Co. (The choice of name is presumably a cheeky nod to Rhys Bevan, the show’s director.) Jones works as a tour guide and finds herself faced with a horrible moral dilemma when the Bevans offer her an opportunity that puts her trade – and that of her colleagues – at risk. To complicate matters further, she is becoming the face of a rebellion against their corporate values. Will she abandon her principles? Or will she put Wales before her own interests and lead the revolution?

In telling the story, Ffion brilliantly embodies its various characters, flitting between them with remarkable wit and invention. It’s quite some feat to hold up both ends of a conversation, using different voices and poised in different positions to bring alive diverse personalities, but she conjures up three-dimensional scenarios with a winning blend of physical agility and comic flair.

The humour is surreal and sophisticated. While there are inevitably jokes about Tom Jones, Richard Burton and sheep, they are never obvious. With a lightness of touch that prevents it ever becoming worthy or self-important, the show goes way further than mere wisecracks to make profound observations about capitalism and national pride. The clever use of projected home-video footage of Ffion as a young child adds emotional depth and introduces some visual variety. There’s real subtlety at work here, making it a refreshing and stimulating 55 minutes.

Ffion oozes charm, from the moment she steps on the stage waving a leek to seeming completely taken aback at the well-deserved standing ovation at the end. The quick-wittedness of her delivery – possibly honed through stand-up or improv comedy – is astonishing. In fact, if there’s a criticism it’s that it’s occasionally a little too fast. There’s so much going on, so rapidly, that you can’t always catch every visual or verbal gag. This makes it tricky to keep up with certain moments in the narrative. When she slows things down a little, such as for her amusing and oddly touching cover version of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler, you can really savour the dazzling range of her gifts.

The staging is minimal, with just three chairs, a microphone stand and a screen. But nothing else is needed: Ffion Jones creates an entire world.



Wednesday 23 January 2019

23/01/19: Blue Departed, The Vault, Waterloo

Written by Serafina Cusack and performed by three members of the Anima Theatre Company, Blue Departed is a remarkably intense piece of work. A modern, urban version of Dante’s descent through the nine circles of Hell, it details the utter despair endured by a drug addict (brilliantly captured by Mark Conway) who has just lost the woman he loves (Rebecca Layoo) to a heroin overdose. Cast in the role of Dante, he relays his suffering in a near-continuous series of exchanges with his dead lover, who “speaks” to him through interrogations, recriminations and reminiscences – angry, heartbroken, defiant, loving – and who physically haunts and taunts him around the stage with a gymnastic fluidity. Their paranoid, nihilistic, almost stream-of-consciousness chatter jumps around in both chronology and location – from his flat to her funeral service and a wake that seems to take place in a casino – underscoring how oppressive and all-pervasive his state of self-loathing has become. His earnest younger brother (Richard James Clarke) provides glimpses of sanity and warmth, but the downward trajectory is inescapable.

This one-hour play is certainly bleak, but flashes of humour offer some much-needed relief. Props are minimal – a couple of stools, a few items of clothing hanging from a rail, two plates of food that have a grotesquely comic fate – but the stripped-back set is effective because most of the “action” exists in the shadowy forms of memory or hallucination. It’s a play that mainly occurs within a fevered mind.

Within the small “Cage” room at The Vault, the actors have limited space to work in. But director Henry C. Krempels turns this limitation to the play’s advantage: the restricted floor area only serves to further highlight the characters’ sense of claustrophobia and imminent panic.

Bursts of menacing ambient sound are used creatively, with layers of distorted electronics accompanying moments of crisis or heightened awareness. This works well in that it’s hugely atmospheric, but there were points at which the noise was too loud and threatened to drown out the actors. That’s a shame because it is a play in which every word counts.

This one criticism aside, Blue Departed is a gripping and desperately sad study of pain, addiction and loss.