Tag Archives: King’s Head Theatre

“East” at the King’s Head Theatre

This is a play for the more adventurous. Steven Berkoff’s East returns to its original London venue after 43 years and, courtesy of its clear influence on in-yer-face theatre, feels startlingly contemporary. With meta touches and strong physical performances, including plenty of mime, there’s lots to excite anyone with a keen interest in the stage.

A paean to life in working-class London, Berkoff presents an impressive psychogeography for a quintet of characters. The violence, racism and antisemitism exposed are all unpleasant. But I suspect the sexism here will upset the most. Even when celebrating sexuality and enjoying a crude, ruthless satire, the objectification of women is relentless.

With Berkoff’s reluctance to embrace a traditional narrative, scenes are told and retold from different perspectives. The time of the action slips mischievously between the 1950s and 1970s with some good jokes around this potentially stuffy technique. As for the five characters – personality shifts as much as it develops. Remarkably, none of this is as confusing as it sounds… you just might not like it if you fancy a good story.

An attempt to extend the already quirky time span in the final scene is a slip on the part of director Jessica Lazar – nice try, though. And there are moments when the staging doesn’t take into account the sight lines – disappointing in such a small space. Both criticisms pale when the performances Lazar nurtures from her cast are taken into account.

Debra Penny and Russell Barnett do well in arguably the hardest roles – Berkoff seems toughest on the older generation. With youthful characters, even when unappealing, their energy is exciting: a vitality embraced by Boadicea Ricketts and James Craze, who play a couple in love (or at least lust). The play’s real partnership comes from Craze, as Mike, and his friend Les. A brilliant combination of physicality and comedy marks an astounding professional debut for Jack Condon. Casting directors don’t often get a mention, but Stephen Moore has struck gold here.

Any risk of upset through its confrontational themes or downright rudeness wouldn’t bother Berkoff – the number of expletives tells you that much. And, quite rightly, Lazar doesn’t shy away from any uncomfortable moments. Whether a string of obscenities goes too far is a matter of taste, but sheer repetition makes a couple of scenes tiresome. Overall, though, the play’s appeal rests on its language, which is full of flashes of startling brilliance. Frequently appropriating Shakespeare alongside Cockney rhyming slang creates so much depth and resonance that the “witty verbiage spewing” from every “gutter mouth” has to be heard to be believed.

Until 3 February 2018


Photo by Alex Brenner

“Coming Clean” at the King’s Head Theatre

Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s revival of Kevin Elyot’s first play offers a glimpse of a writer working up to big things. Written 12 years before the success of My Night With Reg, this 1982 piece has style behind a stumbling structure and a forthright voice that wins respect. It’s the story of an open relationship – between Tony and Greg – threatened by the latter’s affair with their young cleaner Robert, in which Elyot worked hard to present a view of gay life at a particular moment in time.

The play has enough explicit sexual reference to still shock. The pre-AIDS epidemic sexual escapades get the best of Elyot’s humour and sharp lines from erudite characters abound. The cast are good with Elyot’s jokes, especially Elliot Hadley, who plays the couple’s camp friend with the skill of a stand-up comedian. Tom Lambert’s Robert, who upsets Tony and Greg’s agreement to have only casual flings, is also strong, working his wide-eyed naivety and toying with a glint of mischief that it’s a shame Elyot didn’t explore further.

Elliot Hadley & Tom Lambert
Elliot Hadley & Tom Lambert

Coming Clean aims at big emotions with poetic yearnings. But both depend on the central couple, and Elyot doesn’t give enough to deliver this. Jason Nwoga plays Greg with a cool air that makes his character believable and rounded but it’s a thinly written role. Lee Knight’s Tony has a convincingly acidic quality that makes him too unappealing. As a result, Knight struggles in lighter scenes, making the humour overwrought. When real feelings are called for, a great performance is produced. The confession that the open relationship is never what Tony wanted isn’t much of a revelation, but Knight makes it moving.

Spreadbury-Maher shows an intelligent appreciation of Elyot’s writing throughout, he makes the most of what is really a minor work. Coming Clean takes too long to get to its simple points, dragging out a slim plot to arrive at an uninteresting conclusion. It is predictable and, while the repartee is bright, the characters are dull. Maybe My Night With Reg hangs over the play too heavily, leading to inevitable disappointment? The key might be to come clean to the play itself, in an effort to appreciate its qualities in the same spirit as this admirable cast and creative team.

Until 26 August 2017


Photo by Paul Nicholas Dyke

“Attic” at the King’s Head Theatre

Meriel Hinsching’s debut play is a poetic glimpse at troubled love. A young couple meet again after the breakdown of their fraught relationship for a one-night stand that plays with reconciliation and offers flashbacks into their attempts at being friends with benefits. In a scenario carefully stripped of specifics, we learn little of their larger lives. Intensity is the aim – a goal achieved – but even at just 45 minutes the play boxes itself into a corner. Profundity is in the eye of the beholder, I guess, but this self-obsessed pair may grate many a nerve. Nonetheless, Hinsching’s approach is consistent, the text engaging and her voice sincere.

Attic is most effective as a showcase for the new talent on stage. Connor Harris plays Bay. He’s good at looking adoring and confused – which is handy as his onstage lover Leonie run rings around his character. Truth is, Leonie is so much more interesting and a good deal smarter – both qualities that Phoebe Stapleton manages to convey in her performance. You can see why Bay’s obsessed with her, but not the other way around. Leonie’s lust to “not to be numb” raises questions of her stability, producing further good work from Stapleton, and tension that could be developed. It’s a shame so much talk of being impulsive makes the couple come across as contrived.

The play benefits from sympathetic direction from Ed Theakston, who adds some classy touches that bring out its poetic quality, and uses music and lighting effectively. From the firm base of strong performances, Theakston adds the style needed to make grown-up claims for this youthful work.

Next performances 2 and 3 July 2017


“Villain” at the King’s Head Theatre

This is a great little show. With plenty of issues and just one performer, writer and director Martin Murphy creates a tense and moving story that puts hearts in mouths while injecting some strong comedy. The character of Rachel, a successful saleswoman turned social worker, is likeable from the start. When she becomes publicly demonised after a case goes horribly wrong, sympathy mounts. Flitting back and forth to her former job provides some light relief and exposes her flaws. Making his heroine realistic and modulating a tone of confession with camaraderie is Murphy’s key achievement and it reaps big dividends.

Maddie Rice takes the part. Her performance is superb. Portraying fear while hounded by the press, claustrophobia and panic are all well done. But it’s filling out the portrait that is the point: looking behind the headlines and trolling tweets. With stories of her work life, riotous nights out and colleagues both “coping” and “cracking”, Rice shows her grade-A comic skills. An enthusiasm for life and doing good, along with the character’s selfishness and brutal honesty, endear her further, all balanced with a degree of unfulfilled loneliness skilfully evoked. This is a performance to treasure that complements satisfyingly strong writing.

Until 4 March 2017


“Spitting Image” at the King’s Head Theatre

You can see the motivation behind tracking down Colin Spencer’s 1968 script to headline this wonderful pub venue’s second season of Queer Theatre. ‘The first openly gay play’, performed only a year after the decriminalisation of homosexuality (and not seen since), the work has historical importance. Unfortunately, the past is where the play belongs and no amount of good intentions here save it.

The idea of a gay couple miraculously conceiving a child has potential. Having seen this play, you wouldn’t know it. Interesting ideas fail to resonate. The plot plods, unconvincing characters flounder with lumpy lines, the play screams issues, with a dash of the risqué (cue gratuitous nudity), then painfully searches for a conclusion.

Even worse, Spencer’s play is ill served by Gareth Corke’s slow direction. Scenes that deliver little and cry to be cut are interspersed by interminable breaks with random Sixties songs. Some of the nonsense, absurdist in intension, has touches of Carry On conspiracy, but the satire is crushed by a lack of technical skill. How Amanda Mascarenhas’ minimal set takes up so much time is a frustrating puzzle.

Predictably, the cast can’t save this mess, but mistakes are compounded. As the only performer whose comic skills break out, Amanda Ambrose provides glimpses of respite, creating something out of nothing with her role. Playing the gay couple who are the lead characters, Nick Chinneck and Alan Grant lack any chemistry. Rachel Gleaves and Paul Giddings try hard with all the other roles, but with uneven success. The highlight of the show was the latter delivering the word “Billericay”. A single word really was the best bit. To similarly sum up: terrible.

Until 27 August 2016


“Christie in Love” at the King’s Head Theatre

This welcome revival of Howard Brenton’s 1969 play, about the serial killer who secreted eight victims at his home, 10 Rillington Place, is exceptional for its fearlessness. A police constable and detective uncover bodies and interrogate the creepily reserved John Christie in a play that’s frightening, bold and adventurous. Brenton casts a cynical eye on the establishment, incompetent and clichéd by turns, while his portrayal of the psychopath, including explicit sexual kinks, is unflinching.

Director Mary Franklin handles the eccentric text bravely. There are pauses aplenty and our first encounter with Christie, masked and masturbating, is truly bizarre. And Franklin secures three superb performances. Daniel Buckley plays the nervous young copper with a taste for nasty limericks, who impresses with his puppetry skills in a flashback scene that has a prostitute encountering Christie. Jake Curran is just as good playing the Inspector, a tricky part full of irony and repression that he makes thrilling. Murray Taylor takes the title role and is truly scary. Unafraid of making eye contact with the audience, he guarantees goose bumps, but this isn’t a shock-horror affair. Hugely committed, Taylor shows Christie as a part of society no matter how abhorrent his actions.

For all this – three of the finest performances you could wish for on a stage – the real star is designer Christopher Hone. With a giant newspaper-filled rectangular box performed on, in and around, this is a set full of surprises. There’s literally a balancing act for the performers, which adds a tension of its own, while the concept serves to focus attention and raise questions, just like the play itself.

Until 18 June 2016


Photo by Chris Tribble

“The Man Who Had All The Luck” at the King’s Head Theatre

Director Paul Lichtenstern celebrates the centenary of Arthur Miller’s birth with a respectable revival of the master playwright’s first Broadway play. It’s probably fair to say this is a less well known and, overall, lesser work but, as the piece is so seldom performed, you should take a chance the see it. And even Miller before his best is way ahead of most writers.

Lichtenstern works dedicatedly with the script, drawing out the mileage Miller gets from his hero David’s blessed life: his luck in both marriage and work, how obstacles disappear and opportunities embrace him. Jamie Chandler takes on the role of this contemporary tragic hero and is clearly an actor to watch out for, transitioning eloquently from responsible young man to paranoiac – his fortune contrasts so profoundly with those around him that he obsesses that he will have to pay one day.

Jamie Chandler, Michael Kinsey in The Man Who Had All the Luck at King's Head Theatre, photography by George Linfield
Jamie Chandler and Michael Kinsey

The strong surrounding cast includes Keith Hill and Michael Kinsey, playing David’s father and brother, with a dexterous sub plot about a baseball career that goes wrong. And Chloe Walshe, in a mostly underwritten role, deals superbly with the final scene when her character and David, now wife and husband, come closest to breaking down.

The play is overwhelmingly schematic – Miller termed it a ‘fable’ – but it’s constructed, or maybe it’s better to think of it as contained, with skill and sincerity. Lichtenstern appreciates the piece’s probity, attempting to question fate and autonomy alongside that old chestnut, the American Dream, and adding a superb score that he composed with Mike Smaczylo. That Miller’s concluding act is less satisfactory, coming too close to contrived, doesn’t take away from this production’s achievement.

Until 27 September 2015


Photos by George Linfield

“Lovett + Todd” at the King’s Head Theatre

Given the fame of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, It might seem brave, possibly foolhardy, to make another musical about the same subject. I’m no pushover – Sondheim’s masterpiece is one of my favourite pieces – but the Another Soup company has managed to create its own take on the tale of the demon barber admirably. Although it’s hard not to, making comparisons feels unfair; let’s just say Lovett + Todd is sensibly different to ‘that other musical’, with a blissful brand of wicked humour ensuring the work stands happily on its own.

The focus is on the villainous Cornelia Lovett… and her sister, Amelia. Starting with their impecunious lives before London, we discover Amelia has a baby farm that provides infant meat for Cornelia’s cannibal pies. On Fleet Street, Sweeney Todd is captivated by lust for Cornelia and becomes her co-conspirator, puppet and, eventually, fall guy. This neat retelling provides two great female villains. Rachael Garnett is wonderfully sinister as the nefarious baby farmer and Louise Torres-Ryan glorious as the world’s worst baker. Daniel Collard has a more serious job, and provides tension as the confused, sensitive shaver, who is almost redeemed by his remorse.

It’s not just the story that feels freshly reheated – it’s the also the telling. Dave Spencer’s book and Jo Turner’s music grab attention any which way. The lyrics bring laughs and the music is even funnier: a mix of accordion, guitar and keyboards with a barbershop quartet, a faux-romantic ballad and even a tango. A previous version of the show was promenade and you can see vestiges of this in some audience participation (beware the front row). Along with the always welcome opportunity to hear singers unmiked, this show surprises – not least in that it hasn’t bitten off more than it can chew.

Until 1 August 2015


Photo (c) Another Soup

“Ruddigore” at the King’s Head Theatre

A happy birthday to the Charles Court Opera, which celebrates ten years with a cracking production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore. I confess to being a fan of G & S and, while this work is not their best, this excellent company glosses over this. And anyway, Ruddigore has enough silliness, with plenty of tongue-tying lyrics and improbable plots, as well as enough sweet tunes, to still sparkle.

This is a standard G & S story of smart maidens and unusual heroes, full of topsy-turvy and pleasing satire. A witch’s curse on the house of Ruddigore means its baron has to commit a crime everyday. No one is happy about the legacy. The heirs try to abscond, fiancées are driven mad and the local village bridesmaids have a tough time celebrating hymen.

Though the production is a faithful one, director John Savournin is suitably strict, so proceedings are snappy. The musical adaption by David Eaton, who performs on the piano, is admirably sprightly. James Perkins’ design brings a nice touch of the pier postcard to proceedings, while silly supernatural antics from the Ruddigore ancestors enhance the levity.

RUDDIGORE Guiltily Mad - Sir Despard (John Savournin) Photo Bill Knight
John Savournin directs and performs

Best of all are the first-class performances on offer. Matthew Kellett and Savournin both sound great as as the brothers who battle over a baronetcy – whether in hiding, committing crimes or repenting misdeeds – and Savournin steals a couple of scenes with great comic panache. Rebecca Moon plays the virginal Rose with a beautiful voice, while as bridesmaids desperate to fulfil their duties, Susanna Buckle and Andrea Tweedale give astounding value, standing in for a large chorus. A cast this strong means fans and newcomers, both to G & S and this work, are guaranteed to leave happy.

Until 14 March 2015


Photos by Bill Knight

“Quasimodo” at the King’s Head Theatre

London’s excellent fringe theatres often afford the chance to see hidden gems and curios: seldom-performed pieces, which can catch on with many or fascinate the aficionado. Quasimodo, by Lionel Bart, receiving its premier 50 years after it was first written, falls into the later category.

The musical, which has only been workshopped until now, has parallels with another beauty-and-beast show, The Phantom of the Opera, and various adaptations of French epics, including another of the iconic Victor Hugo story, Notre Dame de Paris, that have proved successful. But Bart’s was a project that never took off, so all credit to the talented director Robert Chevara for finally bringing it to the stage. It’s a shame that Quasimodo will really only interest those mad for musicals.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with the source or the book, which has been shaped by Chris Bond and Chevara into a slick work full of neat parallels, satisfyingly far removed from anything reminiscent of Disney’s 1996 film. Just as much the story of the beautiful Esmeralda, who inspires the passion of nearly everyone on stage, it’s ambitious and engaging. Bringing to the fore the theme of sexual anxiety, with Quasimodo as an understandably confused young man, is brave and bold. Chevara’s central performers explore the themes well; Zoë George is a vulnerable orphan willing to hone her feminine wiles and the excellent Steven Webb plays the crippled campanologist with charm.

Chevara’s production is at its best in its darkest scenes, there are moments when you suspect he’s onto something, but the humour in the piece rings like a cracked bell and proves distracting. Performances from the supporting cast could be pared back. The set by Christopher Hone is a good idea but sellotaped cobwebs give an amateurish feel, and the costumes, with their mismatched styles, misfire.

While the band do their best, you can hear the score crying out for more – this music needs a big sound in order to be judged properly, especially the choruses. But this is not the late, often great, Lionel Bart’s finest writing, the lyrics are unimaginative and the tunes simply not memorable enough. Ultimately that, rather than any battle of Quasimodo’s, is the tragedy of the piece.

Until 13 April 2013


Photo by Francis Loney

Written 25 March 2013 for The London Magazine