Tag Archives: Arcola Theatre

“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


Photo by Alex Brenner

“Richard III” at the Arcola Theatre

Greg Hicks is dream casting for Shakespeare’s villainous monarch. An experienced RSC actor who commands the stage with just a shrug of his shoulder, he delivers every line impeccably, making director Mehmet Ergen’s production unmissable. This Richard carries a chain to pull himself upright but it could clearly be used as a weapon. He’s nasty and thuggish, a bar room brawler not to mess with – there’s no nonsense here about the character’s charisma. Hicks shows the world through a psychopath’s eyes rather than presenting us with a cunning politician, and using the king’s cold logic to create a chilling persuasiveness that leaves you gasping.

A mature cast join Hicks, securing further praise for the production. Peter Guinness is particularly strong as Richard’s partner in crime Buckingham. This is where the politicking comes, with a cloak-and-dagger feel aided by noirish staging, with Ergen using Anthony Lamble’s split-level set boldly. The big news is a superb Catesby, the sinister instigator of Richard’s plans, with Matthew Sim making an elegant assassin out of a usually minor role with super-spooky meticulous gestures. Strong female characters are another reason to love the play: Jane Bertish is an excellent deposed Margaret, her curses on the “bottled spider” Richard containing a sense of the tragedy that motivates her. Sara Powell gives an emotional portrayal of Queen Elizabeth that also impresses.

It’s a grown-up affair all around. Ergen is comfortable with his audience managing to work out contemporary resonances in the play if they wish, but there’s no sense of this being forced on us. Of course, the play isn’t performed in doublet and hose, but there’s no obvious spin or agenda, and this, ironically, feels original. Ergen even credits us with knowledge about the play’s propaganda content. Jamie de Courcey’s Richmond has a dash of the heroic that would have made the Tudors proud. Winning against the tyrant “raised in blood” gives the play a resolution worth suspending cynicism for. A final intelligent touch – one of many – in a strong production with consistently fine acting.

Until 10 June 2017


Photo by Alex Brenner

“Kenny Morgan” at the Arcola Theatre

Mike Poulton’s new play is described as being “after” Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea. Provoking a fascinating relationship between the texts, Poulton exposes the real story of what inspired Rattigan’s work – the suicide of the writer’s eponymous former partner – giving a lesson in gay history and intelligently exploring a tragic love triangle.

This is accomplished writing. With impeccable period detail, and well-researched biographical layers, the play has you reaching for a copy of both texts. Those having seen the National Theatre’s recent production of the Rattigan are in for a game of compare and contrast. But Kenny Morgan is more than a companion piece. Using insights into the closeted world of post-war Britain, Poulton raises themes of shame and hope, dealing sensitively with the subject matter of despair.

Lucy Bailey’s direction is commendable in its restraint, her frequent adventurous streak held back. Crafting an old-fashioned feel, slow-paced, with momentum gradually building, Bailey understands what is needed. She has also secured some tremendous performances that confirm the show is worthy of the blanket praise received from critics during its first sell-out run earlier this year.

Paul Keating is remarkable in the title role. Trapped in a loveless relationship with a young man of astounding selfishness (made credible by Pierro Neil-Mee), Kenny’s hysteria is perfectly controlled by Keating. Frustration and tension mount as the hopelessness of his situation becomes clear, and his final plea is truly distressing. In the background is the famous writer Rattigan, part of the “silk dressing gown and cigarette holder set”, still in love with Kenny but unable to offer him public recognition. Rattigan’s public persona, constructed at a cost, makes this a layered role performed to perfection by Simon Dutton.

Also impressive are those living in the boarding house with Kenny, who help to propel the play’s drama. Marlene Sidaway is superb as a char, whose sly remarks about “musicals” add humour, but whose concern is genuine. Likewise, Matthew Bulgo plays a clerk unnerved by Kenny’s intensity and glamorous connections. Finally a former doctor, who gives the most articulate consideration of Kenny’s situation, provides George Irving with a role he is hugely impressive in. These well-rounded characters create a populous world outside the theatrical milieu Kenny is haunted by, opening up Poulton’s play to make it far more than any afterthought to another work but a standalone piece of great strength.

Until 15 October 2016


“A Steady Rain” at the Arcola Theatre

Known for his work on House of Cards and Mad Men, writer Keith Huff’s hit Broadway play receives its London premiere under the skilled direction of Andrew Pearson. “Oppressive and grey” in tone and subject matter, this is a grim police tale, superbly performed.

Never mind the rain, beat cops Danny and Joey tell the story of a bloody summer. Tragic events escalate (a little too torrentially) into an exciting crime story of crooked, out-of-control cops and marital breakdown.

Police procedures and political correctness add an authentic air, although a touch labored. More impressively, Huff evokes a love triangle with Danny’s wife. Despite the play being a two hander, the marriage and affair are palpably conveyed.

Danny is a “stand up guy”, his faults coming into explosive focus. Vincent Regan gives a performance that brims with violence – showing Danny’s loyalty to family jostling alongside illegal activities. Pal Joey is a “non starter”, a “mutt” even, as a recovering alcoholic out for the good life Danny has. David Schaal makes us root for this underdog while questioning how devoted he is to his bullying old friend.

The biggest achievement from both actors is in their teamwork, which convinces quickly and absolutely of their closeness. Their intimacy is the foundation for an examination of friendship against an increasingly breathless plot that’s so accomplished it becomes satisfyingly tricky to precisely locate blame and betrayal.

Until 5 March 2016


Photo by Nick Rutter

“The House Of Mirrors And Hearts” at the Arcola Theatre

This new ‘chamber’ musical, a project from Eamonn O’Dwyer, is a brave and exciting examination of a damaged family. The music, performed by a quartet, is haunting and stimulating, the lyrics competent and clear, while the strong story of a mother and two daughters dealing with bereavement and a love affair, gives the show its considerable momentum.

The singing in the piece might be stronger, but the acting is superb. Gillian Kirkpatrick plays the matriarch Anna with an uncanny ability to change from a caring mother to an older alcoholic, as the play’s chronology moves around. A jerky Sondheim-style number, ‘Something For The Pain’, is superbly delivered, capturing the precarious bonhomie of the drunk. Anna’s daughters show two extreme reactions to grief: Grace Rowe’s Laura is painfully withdrawn, while Molly McGuire makes Lily a convincingly dangerous extravert. An academic who finds himself lodging with this traumatised trio (and starts a romance with one of them) isn’t as well studied: not only is his treatment of the manuscripts he is working on shocking, he’s too easily dominated. The production is lucky to have Jamie Muscato in the role – he sounds great and stakes out a space for the character.

Minor misgivings pale given the play’s strong plot. The book, worked on by Rob Gilbert with O’Dwyer, is neat and novel – a mix of gripping mystery and a spooky supernatural angle well grafted onto an intricate family drama. It reminded me a little of a Barbara Vine book, with an unsettling nostalgic feel that draws you in. There’s a level of detail that director Ryan McBryde handles well and gives the show stand out from a lot of other musicals. Be intrigued and go see.

Until 1 August 2015


Photo by Darren Bell

“Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage” at the Arcola Theatre

The life of Welsh rugby star Gareth Thomas, including his well-publicised struggle with his sexuality, makes for compelling drama. There’s a danger, though, that it might interest rugger fans more than anyone else. Here is where Robin Soans’ play, based on Thomas’ life so far, first scores: far more than a biography, or a work about sport, Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage is ambitiously expanded into a big, bold play. Full of intelligence and power, it lives up to its verb scrum of a title.

Working with Thomas, there’s a searing sense of honesty to the piece. The player is a hero because of his sporting status and charity work, but he is movingly portrayed as human and hurt. That the play isn’t a star vehicle is enforced by having all six cast members, male and female, don a jersey and take the leading role at some point. The casting works surprisingly well, although predictably the younger men, Rhys ap William and Daniel Hawksford, who also ably double as Thomas’ father and best friend, have the edge.

Expanding the play, Thomas’ story is told in tandem with that of a troubled young girl, also from Bridgend, in Wales. In a stunning performance from Lauren Roberts, Darcey’s story of self-abuse and attempts at suicide emphasises the admirable unsentimentality that marks the piece. Connecting these two very different locals, the play becomes a bullish kind of community theatre, rooted in geography and exploring politics in the punchy manner that director Max Stafford-Clark excels at. With the production ending a UK tour here in London, it’s stirring to know it has deservedly been offered over the country.

Until 20 June 2015


Photo by Robert Workman

“Clarion” at the Arcola Theatre

Having previously worked as a newspaper journalist, Mark Jagasia has the credentials for writing a satire about the media. With direction from Mehmet Ergen, as well as a cast a first-time playwright would kill for, Clarion is a seriously funny play that had the perfect audience at yesterday’s press night – I’ve seldom heard critics laugh so much.

Set over a day in the offices of the titular newspaper, Jagasia’s scoop is two great comic creations, performed to perfection. Claire Higgins is faultless as the indomitable Verity, a former war correspondent and “mother” of the newspaper in the Medea mould. Greg Hicks plays editor Morris, who carries around a Roman centurion’s helmet and delivers an outrageous combination of articulacy and filth that redefines egomania. Depending on whether or not you’ve worked in the media the play delightfully embraces exaggeration or serves as an accurate documentary. Either way you’ll laugh.

You can take the man out of Fleet Street but Jagasia isn’t afraid of a good pun, a cheap gag or a taste for shocking. Clarion isn’t for the sensitive “milquetoasts” Morris so despises. The depiction of a younger generation – a dispirited young journalist who works as immigration editor and a young intern (ably performed by Ryan Wichert and Laura Smithers) – has just as much venom and laughs, but might strike you as a little ungenerous.

The foul-mouthed viciousness offers insights into an industry in decline. Racing to find a celebrity’s missing dog, a disappearance eventually blamed on travellers, Morris describes Hampstead Heath as a “homosexual wilderness surrounded by Keynsians and men hiding in poofta bushes” – and for him that’s pretty mild. And yet the pace isn’t quite maintained. As Jagasia becomes more serious, ironically, the play becomes too fantastical. And the darkening themes of consequences and responsibility, which might have been more fully extended into the private lives of the characters, are slightly overwhelmed by the play’s comedy. But the headline is clear: Racist Red Top Exposed.

Until 16 May 2015


Photo Simon Annand

“Peddling” at the Arcola Theatre

Harry Melling’s debut as a playwright, already acclaimed at the HighTide Festival and Off-Broadway, is currently running at the Arcola Theatre. The tragic story of a nameless, homeless youth, struggling with poor mental health and failed by social services, is an original and intelligent work. With its finger on the pulse of our times, Peddling feels filled with an urgent energy that demands our attention.

Melling’s writing is poetic and, at almost an hour long, his play, in which he stars as the sole performer, is an impressively coherent achievement. The script may not carry the emotional punch you might expect from its subject matter, yet it is raw and unsentimental, clear and ambitious, taking on big issues of inequality in our society. The poetic elements work perfectly to reflect the protagonist’s confused mental state, injecting a good deal of tension in his potential for violence.

Working with director Steven Atkinson, it’s no surprise that Melling brings an extraordinary commitment to his own writing and performance. It’s intense, yes, but also unusually sincere. And Atkinson’s staging, placing the action within Lily Arnold’s startling design of a transparent box suggesting a cage, creates an uncomfortable intimacy, which adds to an already powerful night of theatre.

Until 28 March 2015


Photo by Nobby Clark

“Visitors” at the Bush Theatre

After an acclaimed run at the Arcola earlier this year, Barney Norris’ Visitors is now playing at the Bush Theatre. Impeccably directed by Alice Hamilton, the story of elderly couple Arthur and Edie, she sliding into dementia, is finely written and superbly acted. It’s hard to believe this is Norris’ first full-length play, it’s so accomplished: a moving family drama full of excellent observation and real heart. The subject matter is difficult, but the play so infused with gentle humour and poetic wisdom that it’s a delight to watch and an inspiring experience.

Two younger characters, the couple’s son, Stephen, and Kate, a recent graduate employed as a carer, serve as entry points for all ages in the audience. It’s clear that Norris aims to examine not just the afflictions of old age, but also how memory links to identity, and the importance of the choices we make throughout life. Stephen’s poor jokes show how spot on the humour in the show really is and, while his mid-life crisis might be a touch predictable, Simon Muller does well in the role. Eleanor Wild is superb as the young Kate, ostensibly the visitor of the title, an intriguing and carefully drawn figure.

The elderly couple is an often uncomfortable memento mori for the younger characters. With little action in Visitors, the play reminded me, somewhat fancifully, of a Dutch still life painting; something demanding careful attention and worth treasuring. Arthur and Edie are in no way clichéd and never patronised. Robin Soanes is utterly believable as the elderly farmer Arthur and Linda Bassett’s performance one of the best I’ve seen this year. Bassett makes good lines great with assured comic touches. As Edie’s observations on life, though obscured by her illness, become increasingly poignant, each line she delivers becomes all the more memorable.

Until 10 January 2015


Photo by Mark Douet

“Carousel” at the Arcola Theatre

A favourite musical for many, a new production of Carousel opened at the Arcola Theatre last night. Making the most of this intimate venue, with astounding up-close choreography, this is a high energy affair that does wonders to work the big scale of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s masterpiece within a small space.

Director Luke Fredericks has a clear grasp of the fantasy within Carousel. The overture is used to establish the fairytale atmosphere with an interesting air of danger surrounding a trip to the fairground. Let’s be honest, the love story of “bad un” Billy Bigelow and the innocent Julie isn’t that believable, so adding a surreal touch is clever, especially for later scenes set in the ‘backyard of heaven’.

Tim Rogers as Billy Bigelow and Gemma Sutton as Julie Jordan in CAROUSEL. Photo Credit QNQ Creative
Tim Rogers and Gemma Sutton

As Billy and Julie, Tim Rogers and Gemma Sutton seemed nervous at first but their acting was strong throughout. No easy task when you consider how many of the morals within Carousel make their characters unhappy ones for a modern audience. Rogers’ manages to make the vicious Billy sympathetic and Sutton insures Julie’s martyrdom is moving.

Joining them in romance, Vicki Lee Taylor and Joel Montague have a jollier time as Carrie Pipperidge and Mr Snow. Their sweetness doesn’t cloy and the humour is well developed. When The Children Are Asleep is a highlight, with the odiferous sailor Snow washing those fishes right out of his hair on stage. The whole ensemble is incredibly hard working. Special mention for Amanda Minihan’s spirited Nettie and a lusty rendition of June Is Bustin’ Out All Over.

Nettie’s raunchy appeal is matched at several points by earthy touches in Fredericks’ production. I normally quite fancy the clambake in Carousel – not so much this time as it seems to make everyone sick – but I can see the point of bringing the show down to earth a little. Similarly Richard Kent’s villainous Jigger makes an impression with a knowing delivery of his character.

Best of all is Lee Proud’s choreography, with a stirring combative streak and a use of circus skills that is inspired. So close is the action you might feel a little nervous if you are on the front row. Rest easy with the wonderful score, which soars under Andrew Corcoran’s musical direction. Here the coup is the presence of a harpist, squeezed onto a platform above the action, sure to please Carousel connoisseurs.

Until 19July 2014


Photo by QNQ Creative

Written 24 June 2014 for The London Magazine