“Dolphins and Sharks” at the Finborough Theatre

The European premiere of James Anthony Tyler’s play presents a slice of working life in contemporary America, based in a printing and stationery shop in Harlem. Graduating from the Finborough’s 2016 Vibrant Festival, the care and attention invested result in a successful pay-off for director Lydia Parker.

When Xiomara takes her chance for promotion to management, the lives of her staff, both old friends and new starters, suffer – to the company’s benefit. This isn’t much of a dramatic revelation. The plot holds no surprises and the play little subtlety. Thankfully some strong performances are on hand and Tyler’s observational comedy is well served.

Tyler’s characterisation is efficient. Rachel Handshaw makes the struggling new leader complex and engaging, Ammar Duffus is appealing as a recent graduate desperate for cash, and Hermeilio Miquel Aquino does well as the store’s cleaner. The evening relies on Shyko Ammos and her role of recalcitrant veteran employee – and she is super. A natural comic, Ammos makes many lines shine with a character that’s larger than life yet believable. And, when her character’s troubles come into focus, Ammos delivers a controlled yet emotional performance.

The issue of race pervades the play, interwoven with the world of employment. Startlingly, to say the least, Tyler parallels the idea of a wage slave with chain gangs. Arguments around prejudice lead to funny, provocative dialogue. The conclusion is a crusading note, presented by a magisterial Miquel Brown who plays a regular customer and long-standing local resident. There’s a call to arms, with a no-nonsense tone and direct address to the audience that feels – refreshingly – old-fashioned. Tyler’s text has an appealing sense of sincerity appropriate to his serious concerns that Parker appreciates and skilfully conveys.

Until 30 September 2017

www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

Photo by  Alexander Yip

“Thebes Land” at the Arcola Theatre

Warning: this blog may contain hyphens. Lots of them. Franco-Uruguayan playwright Sergio Blanco’s acclaimed piece returns as part of its director-translator Daniel Goldman’s CASA Latin American Theatre Festival. Ostensibly an exploration of patricide, we watch a dramatist’s encounters with a murderer in prison. But we also watch the construction – writing and rehearsals – of the very play we are watching. Confused? Don’t be. Described as a multiple-reality drama, Thebes Land uses its novel approach to fantastic results.

Blanco sets up layers within his play marvellously; unravelling the motives behind a brutal murder, while commenting on the process of any play coming to the stage. The playwright, performed by Trevor White, greets us and makes what’s going on transparent… and then not so. But Blanco and Goldman wear their learning lightly. Deflating any pretentiousness only adds to the cleverness and the humour – White is excellent here – and it’s a lot of fun.

Take meeting our convicted killer Martin – first as a ‘real’ criminal, then as the actor called Freddie who plays him. Alex Austin makes both roles convincing, switching with skill and reflecting the text’s magnificent dynamism. Austin is more than good – he is Daniel-Day-Lewis-in-1985-good. The play gets funnier, as our RADA grad questions the motivations of a character whose life is so far removed from his own. Suddenly this whole theatre thing starts to look silly!

There’s drama in Thebes Land, too. Austin makes his literally caged character bristle with violence. There are a good few jumps as tension is heightened by Goldman’s direction. As for unexpected twists, Blanco urges we don’t read the play before we see it, and he’s worth listening to. I was genuinely shocked at one revelation here, and by the way the metatheatricality develops.

Ultimately, of course, making theatre is serious stuff. The elision between art and life gains power from Blanco’s approach. Randomness in the creative process is examined brilliantly – with a little help from Whitney Houston. While the link to myth and Oedipus Rex (predictably a red rag for our over-earnest writer) is broadened to explore the darkness that is within us all. There’s a connection and responsibility between artists, audience and subject that’s not to be laughed at.

Emotions blossom from the play displaying artifice so blatantly. We feel an insight into our writer (yet more credit to White) and affinity with the actor whose work we see progress. As for Martin – there’s respect for the serious investigation into his crime and punishment. The fictional status of all three becomes mind-bogglingly blurred, likewise their relationships. An unbearably touching moment of filial affection is followed by erotic tension. Having both in the same play, without being creepy, is an indication of how complex this text is: an intellectual-comedy-thriller-satire-tragedy like no other.

Until 7 October 2017

www.arcolatheatre.com

Photo by Alex Brenner

“Mrs Orwell” at the Southwark Playhouse

Tony Cox’s play, a sell-out at the Old Red Lion Theatre, should enjoy continued success with this transfer south of the river. A careful mix of literary biography and period detail, it’s a calm and stately piece, with Jimmy Walters’ direction adding to the air of polished professionalism.

As George Orwell lies dying in a far from down-and-out hospital room, he declares his love for the young and glamorous Sonia Brownell. The proposal is that she becomes his “literary widow” as much as wife and, to the quaint surprise of all, she accepts.

Orwell’s eccentricity is utilised for entertainment. With the exception of a brief Marquis de Sade moment it’s all endearingly old-fashioned. And there’s masses of name dropping fun as Lucian Freud draws Orwell’s portrait and starts an affair with Sonia. Freud makes a lovely cameo for Edmund Digby Jones who doesn’t hold back on the Bohemian flair – all the better as a foil to “Grumpy George”.

Cressida Bonas takes the title role, while Peter Hamilton Dyer as Orwell is really the focus. His is a careful study – his depiction of tuberculosis impressive, while conveying insecurities, intelligence and flashes of rage. The perfectly cast Bonas feels like a natural in the part – you can easily imagine her at the Café Royal. It’s a shame we run out of time for Sonia’s character to develop. What she’ll do as Orwell’s executor is full of dramatic potential.

Disappointingly, the play falls apart at Orwell’s death. There’s a bizarre rant from his publisher (played by Robert Stocks), left sweating in the scrabble to send us away with some facts. It’s a clumsy lapse of confidence to end a pleasantly nostalgic and convincing glimpse at literary genius in a bygone age.

Until 23 September 2017

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photo by Samuel Taylor

“Window” at the Bread & Roses Theatre

I live opposite a big hotel, so I’m careful to draw my curtains in case the view of me spoils anyone’s holiday. But the couple who live opposite two uninhibited youngsters in Ron Elisha’s play aren’t so lucky. From an initial frisson watching their neighbour’s sexual gymnastics, using opera glasses, then bringing in the popcorn, their voyeurism ultimately has distressing consequences.

Idgie Beau plays Grace, whose unbalanced empathy with the young girl across from her leads to neglect of husband and daughter. Beau gives a convincing depiction of mental angst and her character’s developing pregnancy. She and Charles Warner make a great couple that it’s hard not to care about. Warner makes the support his character offers believable and the injections of common sense a dramatic relief.

Director Dave Spencer has secured strong performances but has a misplaced faith in Elisha’s text. Some pretty obvious questions are ignored to look at the ideas around living vicariously and mental health – it’s hard to credit the couple opposite are so ignorant they are being observed – but the concerns feel both forced and undeveloped. And the play’s structure is frustrating: tiny scenes mean we end up watching the cast repeatedly putting on and taking off T-shirts.

Window has a neat idea behind it and is well acted but the themes aren’t given their due and the ending is flat. Like the voyeurism in the play, it may feel worth watching at first but is ultimately unsatisfying.

Until 16 September 2017

www.breadandrosestheatre.co.uk

Photo by Greg Goodale

“The Ferryman” at the Garrick Theatre

Superstar playwright Jez Butterworth’s latest drama was a hit before it even opened: the West End transfer was announced simultaneous to its sell-out opening at the Royal Court and a new cast will soon take the show into 2018. This long harvest day’s journey into tragedy is the story of the Carney family, farmers in Northern Ireland whose connections with the IRA haunt them. This is a big family drama – and not just due to the size of the household, but because of Butterworth’s exquisite writing.

There’s a luxurious feel to the show – although this is a working-class world – created by Rob Howell’s design and director Sam Mendes, who resists the temptation to rush a single moment. Three hours is a long running time for a new play, but every minute holds you. Above all, a huge company, including some extraordinary younger performers, are awe-inspiring. It really shouldn’t be possible to have so many characters so clearly delineated by their own compelling stories.

There’s a lot of laughter in the family, a real sense of warmth, and not a few Irish stereotypes. This has been commented on by Sean O’Hagan, better qualified than myself. To be sure, there’s a lot of whisky drinking and some gags around children swearing seem cheap, if effective. But the stories told, swirling around the discovery of a murdered family member’s body, broaden the play’s themes beyond the Troubles.

Myth and history populate the play. The past preoccupies Aunt Maggie Far Away, “visiting” from her dementia, and obsesses Aunt Pat, whose brother died in the Easter Rising: two brilliant roles engendering stunning performances from Bríd Brennan and Dearbhla Molloy respectively. Meanwhile Uncle Pat has plenty of anecdotes while, with another strong performance from Des McAleer (pictured top), enforcing the play’s theme of death, which escalates with such foreboding.

Tom Glynn-Carney
Tom Glynn-Carney

There’s a point to all the marvellously crafted yarns – The Uses of Story Telling, if you’re looking for a dissertation title. The tales form a link to violence inherited by the young. A terrific scene with four youths, led with febrile energy by Tom Glynn-Carney, shows them captivated by accounts of IRA leader Mr Muldoon (Stuart Graham) and the 1981 hunger strikers. In the shadows (there’s plenty of eavesdropping in this play – stories morph into rumour and hearsay, after all) is an even younger “wean”, skilfully depicted by Rob Malone, who is driven to desperate measures.

Laura Donnelly and Genevieve O’Reilly
Laura Donnelly and Genevieve O’Reilly

At the heart of the play is a love triangle that leads to star performances. A repressed affair between the play’s patriarch Quinn, performed with charming assurance by Paddy Considine, and his bereaved sister-in-law Caitlin, a role Laura Donnelly articulates marvellously, leads to some of the best dialogue. Although appearing relatively late, Quinn’s wife Mary is given her due through Genevieve O’Reilly’s quiet performance. The unrequited emotions of all three create an unusual love story that thrums with excitement. As Quinn’s IRA past rears its head with a tension that would please any thriller writer, Mendes’ strengths shine. The fear of what might come next hangs over the final hour of the show. Butterworth manages to juggle all this with enviable dexterity, producing a work of complexity and popular appeal.

Until 6 January 2018

www.TheFerrymanPlay.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Talk Radio” at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Theatre loves finding relevance in older plays and it’s easy to see why a revival of Eric Bogosian’s 1987 play is a candidate. One night with a ‘shock jock’ on US talk radio is a great scenario and the combination of free speech as a credo, with neo-Nazi’s and loons leaping on board, can’t help but feel prescient. It’s a relief, in a sense, to be reminded that hate speech is nothing new; as the play’s lead actor Matthew Jure notes in the programme, these phone-in shows were the proud parents of Twitter trolls. There are plenty of salient observations and much to ponder on.

It’s a shame neither the play nor production lives up to its potential. While Jure’s DJ, Barry Champlain, specialises in cutting off callers, Bogosian himself leaves too much hanging. There’s a hoax bomb threat, a love affair and an impromptu visit from a caller (a role Ceallach Spellman does well with), but no storyline feels resolved. Maybe there’s not enough for the supporting cast to work with: monologues from Barry’s colleagues, played by Molly McNerney and George Turvey, are the only chance they have to stand out. Director Sean Turner doesn’t inject enough energy, so there’s little sense of the drama of live broadcast and the script’s humour is blunted. And, while Max Dorey’s design is impressive, it proves impractical.

Another dead end is Barry’s history, a mythology created by the radio station manager. We need to see a lot more of Andy Secombe, who plays this part – his is the only character who develops past cliché. And the idea of Barry as a fraud could have been explored much earlier, since his real agenda and his delusions of grandeur form the kernel of the play. Jure conveys desperation and malice well and makes a final breakdown moving, but he’s sorely lacking in charisma (after all, Barry has fans). Instead, there’s only contrariness – quickly boring and frequently silly – and anger. Talk Radio has fallen for Barry’s own nemesis – taking things too seriously – leading to listeners tuning in and dropping off.

Until 23 September 2017

www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk/theatre

Photo by Cameron Harle

“Richard III” at Temple Church

Toby Manley plays a super-posh version of Shakespeare’s super villain in Antic Disposition’s new production. The crystal- clear diction is a delight, the suave air (and a bow tie) adding to a new take on the despicable king that is well constructed and carefully delivered. The description of Richard as an “intelligencer” is the key, with Manley securing the role’s infamous charm and emanating an air that he might work for the secret service. As a double agent, of course – he’s almost your cachinnating villain at one point. And I’ve wanted to use that word for ages. Thank you Mr Manley.

This Richard makes for a great show. It’s a shame that those around him seem a little too foolish. A group of Ya Ya Yorkists, with a Noel Coward dressing gown and pearls, if not furs, are too easy to overcome. And several performances are too broad and unconvincing as a result. But Manley is frequently restrained (another reason he stands out), suggesting the Bullingdon Club with subtlety. And Jess Nesling impresses as a Queen Elizabeth who just might refrain from falling for Richard’s plans. At the opposite extreme, Joe Eyre’s exaggerated performance works well. As with Richard, his Buckingham gives the sense of power played out as a public school boys’ game.

A modern dress setting is made much of by the directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero, the latter of whom also designed the production, but their clever touches seen unnecessary. And those aiming at humour – Richmond’s yoga and the Mayor of London carrying a Starbucks cup with Boris written on it – don’t deliver. The music, composed by James Burrows, doesn’t help either, with a confusing mix, close to pastiche, arriving abruptly. The frustration is that Horslen and Risebero don’t need any of this – these guys really know what they are doing.

The cuts made to the play are sensible. The production is a model of clarity. And the doubling up on parts is well done. Although a touring company, the performers seem at home in this magnificent space and the traverse staging is handled superbly. The simple device of having Richard’s victims band together – as a body watching throughout the play and attacking him during his dream on the eve of battle (including great work from lighting designer Tom Boucher) – is spine tingling. The disparate group of those who have crossed him is led by Louise Templeton, who does fine work as spectral Queen Margaret, recruiting the dead to her side one by one. Take away some fussy touches and this is good, solid work that combines into a strong production.

Until 9 September 2017

www.anticdisposition.co.uk

Photo by Scott Rylander

 

 

“Loot” at the Park Theatre

Don’t simply label this as a farce: Joe Orton’s 1964 masterpiece has a superb revival under the capable aegis of director Michael Fentiman, who has a careful eye on the play’s complexity. The crazed mix of Wildean epigrams, social satire, viscous comment and, OK, farce, are all present, correct and very funny.

Set on the day of a funeral, and just after a bank robbery, events descend into chaos orchestrated to show authority as absurd and human nature as venal. Ian Redford plays an innocent mourning husband and Christopher Fulford a bizarre police inspector who comes calling. They deliver the dense lines well, although both have the challenge of elevating their roles above stock characters – the play’s diabolical overtones arrive late, but there’s plenty of fun along the way.

An unholy trinity of characters is the play’s real focus. A genocidal nurse, fanatical in her Roman Catholicism and acquisition of husbands, makes a great role for Sinéad Matthews, who appreciates how broad the part needs to be played. San Frenchum and Calvin Demba produce great work as partners-in-crime Hal and his “baby” Dennis: the chemistry between them is electric and they manage to be at once clueless and callous. Bad enough to keep a priest dispensing penance for 24 hours, their stolen cash, destined for investment in a brothel, ends up stashed in Hal’s mother’s coffin. Which means treating the corpse – performed by Anah Ruddin, who deserves her applause when she rises from the casket to take a bow – with a still-shocking disdain.

Fentiman preserves Loot’s 1960s feel, conveying an anarchic streak that belies the sophistication of the text. Of course, Orton’s play can’t shock as it once did (our cynicism towards the establishment is set in stone, although a couple of comments about women and Pakistani girls did draw intakes of breath), but the sense of confrontation is bracing. Both play and production are, appropriately, “perfectly scandalous”.

Until 24 September 2017

www.parktheatre.co.uk

Photo by Darren Bell

“I Loved Lucy” at the Arts Theatre

This true story of the friendship between comedy queen Lucille Ball and the play’s author, Lee Tannen, is a gentle, heartfelt and entertaining tale.

Essential to the show’s success is Sandra Dickinson as the sit-com idol. Her frequent joyful laughter is infectious, while the foibles of a megastar, aware of her status and wealth, are fun, too.

While Lucy gets the laughs, the play is really about Tannen, an adman who finds himself in “Gay Icon Heaven” through his friendship with his childhood heroine. It’s a big role for Matthew Scott, who has to win the audience over twice – as a narrator and protagonist – while displaying an adoration most would find incredible.

The presentation of Lucy’s biography is sometimes stilted, with a touch too much taken for granted, and Scott often seems uncomfortable. But Scott succeeds in conveying Tannen’s charisma, abetted by an extensive OBCR collection (*if you have to ask…), which is obviously great preparation for any friendship.

The second act adds some invention, including an appearance by Lucy’s ghost, but the script is sweet rather than slick. Ball’s decline, professionally and physically, is affective. Dickinson and Scott make a great team as the intimate and supportive relationship becomes symbiotic. This isn’t the kind of friendship we see depicted often, making the play feel fresh and intriguing as well as moving.

Until 2 September 2017

www.onceaweektheatre.com

Photo by Alessia Chinazzo

*Original Broadway Cast Recordings

“13” at the Ambassadors Theatre

Performed by students of the British Theatre Academy, this musical about turning 13 has the distinction of featuring actors who are all that age or less.

Director and choreographer Ewan Jones has shaped his young charges expertly and all involved should be proud of their professionalism. I couldn’t spot any fumbles – let alone nerves. Even the most obvious failing is charming: the children haven’t entirely learned to deal with an audience’s response and don’t take account of frequent laughter or riotous applause.

The show itself, with a book by Dan Elish and Robert Horn, uses standard school drama tropes and coming of age lessons. New boy Evan, a huge leading role for the talented Milo Panni, has to work out which group he belongs to, with the added pressure of organising his bar mitzvah, while learning about himself – and love – along the way.

The Academy wasn’t taking the soft option when it chose this age-specific piece. The lyrics are ambitious, the musical genres wide referencing. These songs are not easy to perform. Unlike most musicals for younger voices, fewer songs have support from the whole cast, and there are no adults to carry numbers. It is a struggle for some, and the different maturity of boys and girls is noticeable: Chloe Endean and Isabella Pappas, competing for romance with the school jock, are more advanced vocally, and Madeline Banbury, as Evan’s love interest, shows stand-out acting skills.

The best reason to choose the show is that it is from musical mastermind Jason Robert Brown – any opportunity to see his work should not be missed. Showing his usual wit and intelligence, his strong collection of songs will please any age group. The majority are funny, with jokes for grown-ups that add appeal (the school in question is Dan Quayle Junior High). The show is warm, open and inclusive – qualities Jones appreciates perfectly. There’s no patronising audience or performers here, which makes this a production that’s good for more than the family and friends of its talented cast.

Until 23 August 2017

www.theambassadorstheatre.co.uk

Photo by Roy Tan