Tag Archives: Old Red Lion Theatre

“The Moor” at the Old Red Lion Theatre

If you’re looking for a good little thriller for these long dark nights this new play by Catherine Lucie serves smart chills. It’s the story of Bronagh, a new mother in an unhappy relationship, who lives an isolated existence and suffers a mental breakdown after a drunken night that is connected – possibly – to a disappearance.

It’s a twisty plot, not to be spoiled, but it’s clear from the start, as she struggles with dreams, myths and memories, that Bronagh is not a reliable narrator. How much and how consciously she manipulates recollections remains the tantalising open question. Psychology and a suggestion of the supernatural are all juggled well by director Blythe Stewart, with the aid of Holly Pigott’s superb set of rotating screens, and some nicely creepy aural contributions from Anna Clock.

There’s some physics, too, via a book Bronagh has read that seems, understandably, to have further addled her brain. This is an interesting avenue that needs clearer elaboration to help the audience a bit. The dialogue isn’t flawless (there’s a ‘gee whizz’), and both male roles could have more depth – a policeman investigating the missing person lacks a dangerous edge. The seeds are there and I wonder if some editing has been too ruthless? Meanwhile, Bronagh’s partner is too generic a “bad sort” and too gullible. Both roles are well performed, by Pat Magnanti and Oliver Britten respectively, but the play is short and they could have easily been extended.

In the lead role Jill McAusland does an excellent job with a fascinating character. Is Bronagh “not clever enough” or really a “clever clogs”? She is frightened one moment and calculating the next. Sympathetic and scary is a tough call for a performer but McAusland makes you care about the character a great deal. Lucie mixes mental health and domestic abuse issues to great effect, making this a thought-provoking piece. But above all, it is a great yarn, deserving of all those words that make a thriller: intense, taut, engrossing, exciting and entertaining. This play gets a star for each.

Until 3 March 2018


Photo by The Other Richard

“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


Photo by Samuel Taylor

“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


Photo by Cameron Harle

“Benighted” at the Old Red Lion Theatre

A spooky story is fine Christmas fare. Plenty of the necessary ingredients for chilling spines are present in this J.B. Priestley story, with two sets of travellers seeking shelter in an isolated house on one of those dark and stormy nights. Economically adapted for the stage by Duncan Gates, the director is Stephen Whitson, and the two join forces to create two or three jump-in-your-seat moments – all the more admirable given that the raw material is a world away from Priestley’s strongest work.

Harrie Hayes, Tom Machell and Matt Maltby play three bright young things whose car breaks down as thunder claps overhead. All do well to flesh out their characters and control the humour that comes with those RP accents, though only Maltby’s role, as Roger Penderel, really has enough meat on it to allow him to shine. More thunder and more arrivals: a businessman and his chorus-girl fiancée, parts Ross Forder and Jessica Bay work hard on but are flatly written. The unwilling hosts for these travellers are just as clichéd, but here Forder, joined by Michael Sadler playing his brother and servant, gets to show off a strong transformation. A violent secret in the attic comes as a lightning flash – Priestley’s social commentary at last – as we meet Roger’s alter ego, like himself a damaged war veteran but, in this case, a dangerous one.

Benighted is especially interesting for fans (or students) of Priestley. Plenty of the playwright’s later preoccupations are nascent: social justice, class, the passage of time. The voice that we recognise as Priestley’s is present but says little that is coherent. Despite Gates’ and Whitson’s noble efforts, the characters are slim and the treatment of themes so peremptory that the show is never more than flawed fun.

Until 7 January 2017


Photo by Chris Gardner

“If We Got Some More Cocaine I Could Show You How I Love You” at the Old Red Lion Theatre

London’s fringe theatres have a commendable number of plays that appeal to a gay audience. But, let’s be honest, too many have a historical focus, while gratuitous nudity often compensates for a lack of imagination. At the risk of offending playwright John O’Donovan who may not welcome any such comparison – this piece is well written by any standard – the unusual gay romance his accomplished debut work explores is a sophisticated affair with a strong, contemporary feel.

The action takes place on a roof, impressively rendered by designer Georgia de Grey, onto which two young men make a bungled escape after a drug-fuelled burglary. These aren’t your stock gay characters. Free of angst about sexuality, the story is about all the other things in their lives. O’Donovan skilfully reveals the extent of their troubles as working-class lads living in a small town in County Clare, while showing how profound their affection for one another really is.

Mikey is a fighter, maybe just a common thug, struggling to show emotion behind bravado. Alan Mahon brings out the roles charisma, delivers the jokes well and shows the writing’s subtlety. The object of Mikey’s affection is Casey, not quite the victim he first appears (there’s a lovely twist here), and a role that Ammar Duffus develops beautifully. Both actors make the offstage families that O’Donovan describes vivid – a sure sign of strong writing – and the chemistry between them, as they struggle to establish a partly covert relationship, is terrific.

The couple’s musings on life are frank, funny and, considering how much cocaine they snort, wise. There’s a strong dose of realism, well balanced by director Thomas Martin, and tension too, as the police circle the roof, Casey makes plans to fly away from his problems and Mikey has to come down to earth and face his future. It’s the tight dialogue around the potential and problems of escaping provincial life that ring true. This cleverly modest play will speak to a wider audience than you might suspect.

Until 24 September 2016


Photo by Claudia Marinaro

“Playground” at the Old Red Lion

A children’s picnic bench and climbing frames are an apt setting for Peter Hamilton’s new work. This is a playwright at play, with an outrageous scenario of book clubs and butchery. Playground is murder mystery, peopled by oddballs, with a wicked sense of humour.

Two peculiar policemen are searching for a child killer. Meanwhile, our prime suspect (Richard Fish) recruits the mentally ill to discuss Enid Blyton books. It’s part of a plan to join the middle classes… somehow. Laura Garnier and Simon Every make the most of their roles as psychiatric patients: Tamsin’s a communist and Stuart a genuine member of the proletariat (always a tricky combination). And Josie Ayers has a great turn as a suicidal, middle-aged misfit with a morbid sex drive. Oh, and there’s a café owner (Sarah Quist) singing nursery rhymes, called Lizzy… or is she? It’s all a bit of a puzzle, but the jokes stop you from taking it too seriously.

There are a lot of ideas here (mostly about mental health), and a stubborn resistance to shape them. Themes are lost in these comic creations – the evening really works as a series of sketches. Director and designer Ken McClymont handles the cast well, but if anyone has a clear idea of what’s going on it doesn’t come through.

By the time the policemen reappear, one of them in drag, I’d relaxed into this tastless, off-beat comedy. Dan MacLane brings a lovely deadpan touch to Detective Mitchell. His lust for colleague copper Birch, Christopher James Barley, making the most of those climbing frames, is deftly done. As a kind of conclusion, Stuart expresses a hope that one day man will live on Mars. Hamilton is already off in space if you ask me, but he can make you laugh whatever planet he’s on.

Until 7 November 2015


Photo by Cameron Sharle

“Asking Rembrandt” at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Bringing a painter’s life to stage or film isn’t easy. Choosing the best-known master of self-portraiture seems especially brave. Rembrandt – or more accurately, the artist’s impending bankruptcy – is the subject of Steve Gooch’s new play. I don’t buy the idea. There’s too much hindsight and, even worse, it’s a poor source of dramatic tension.

Attempts to add appeal to the, to my taste, dry topic of the business of art, are numerous – unfortunately none is pursued long enough to save the play from feeling monochrome and modern vocabulary becomes clunky. And while scenes of domestic intimacy between the artist, his son Titus and live-in-lover Henni benefit from a sense of the claustrophobic community of the time, it’s that old struggle of the misunderstood artist that’s hammered away at. Scenes with Jan Six, Rembrandt’s informal fixer, increase in animosity as they wrangle over art and money in arguments that are over earnest and over rehearsed.

Jonathan Kemp’s direction has secured a capable cast and it’s frustrating to imagine what they might have done with more nuanced material. Esme Patey-Ford and Loz KeyStone make appealing members of Rembrandt’s household and John Gorick is credible as the suave Jan Six.

Liam McKenna’s bullish Rembrandt keeps you on your toes and performs valiantly, although it’s a shame the central character comes too close to the stereotype of the irascible artist. Ironically, Rembrandt’s achievements as a painter, unaided by the reproductions unveiled onstage, don’t impress. Jan Six says he doesn’t want his portrait on the wall in his “front room”. I can’t say I blame him.

Until 18 July 2015


Photo by Chris Gardner

“The Picture of John Gray” at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Oscar Wilde’s lover, John Gray was reportedly the inspiration for The Picture of Dorian Gray. In CJ Wilmann’s new play, the remarkable history of this poet and priest makes for a thought-provoking tale. The repercussions of Wilde’s life and crimes upon Gray and his wider circle are powerfully evoked, with the focus on Gray’s own story.

Wisely, Wilde himself never appears. The characters around him are interesting enough. The artists Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon, living together in Chelsea, entertain Oscar’s new fling, Bosie, while consoling the discarded epigone Gray and introducing him to the real love of his life, Andre Raffalovich. Wilde’s doomed affair with Bosie provides a third compelling love story.

It’s no easy task to recreate how these 19th-century aesthetes spoke. But Wilmann clearly immersed himself in the period and manages to produce convincing dialogue, while adding a wry humour and necessary modern touches that aid clarity. There’s a 21st-century sensibility that’s occasionally clunky, in particular the Charles’ relationship feels too contemporary, but Wilmann juggles our own perspective on these fin de siècle characters with what life might really have been like for them.

Gus Miller’s skillful direction produces a gallery of strong performances. Tom Cox probably has the hardest job as Bosie, but he tackles the role forcefully and does well. The two Charles are played by Oliver Allan and Jordan McCurrach, who make a convincing, sympathetic couple.

DSC_0723 (2)
Christopher Tester

In the lead roles, there are two great performances. Christopher Tester tackles of the part of Raffalovich, the sophisticated French critic, with great assurance, providing the play’s most moving moments. In the title role, Patrick Walshe McBride adds some stunning touches, doing justice to Wilmann’s clever text – a scene in which he nervously reads one of his poems to a high-powered audience is superb. He does justice to Wimann’s work and makes this a portrait worth going to see.

Until 30 August 2014


Photos by Miriam Mahony

Written 20 August 2014 for The London Magazine

“Decline and Fall” at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Decline and Fall is Evelyn Waugh’s first published novel. A riotous farce, heavy with satire, it follows the misfortunes of Paul Pennyfeather, whose relationship with the “much maligned” Lady Fortune is decidedly tangential. In Henry Filloux-Bennett’s adaptation, Waugh’s humour is given a surreal spin that adds to the comedy and creates an entertaining evening’s theatre.

Richard Kent’s design unites the worlds the hapless Paul suffers in: the college he is sent down from and the schoolroom he teaches in. The desks also stand in for his fiancée’s modernist house and, finally, the jail he is sent to on erroneous charges. Tom King’s direction controls the fun and the cast injects some inspired improvisation. From the beginning, the audience is asked to join in – this is a classroom you don’t want to be late for!

Waugh himself said that he had no technical psychological interest but that drama, speech and events obsessed him. This approach makes staging his work entertaining, but actors face the tricky task of dealing with characters that seem one-dimensional. King and Filloux-Bennett’s solution is courageous – they emphasise the slapstick and their cast embraces the strategy.

Sylvester McCoy is the star of the show, bringing his captivating eccentricity to the role of the drunken Captain Grimes and then the prison’s misguided warden. But it is the women who truly excel. Fay Downie plays Mrs Beste-Chetwynde as a wide-eyed flapper who might burst into song at any moment. Emily Murphy brings her considerable comic skill to the role of Florence Fagan, the headmaster’s autistic daughter. Combining this role with that of Lady Circumference (one of the those women who regard all athletics as an inferior form of fox hunting) is inspired.

The hardest role is the lead. Pennyfeather is a man who merely witnesses events; he doesn’t act but is acted upon. Michael Lindall performs this unrewarding role with appropriate modesty and spot-on comic timing that serves the production well. He masters a perplexed look that means you can’t help warming to him.

Pennyfeather’s eager dash to France to please Beste-Chetwynde is a lovely touch. Reappearing with beret and onions after a brief soundtrack of running feet and airplane propeller, it encapsulates this production’s anarchic streak. Any adaptation is a brave endeavour; you have to trust to the Lady Fortune that Waugh’s characters refer to – but she has done well by those at the Old Red Lion Theatre.  If you see Decline and Fall, chances are you will end up joining in with the cast and raising a glass to toast her.


Until 29 January 2011

Photo by Henry Filloux-Bennett

Written 6 December 2010 for The London Magazine

“The Maddening Rain” at the Old Red Lion, Islington

When readers of The London Magazine go to the theatre in Islington, they go to The Almeida. I am just the same and quite devoted to the place. But a new play, The Maddening Rain, makes me recommend travelling down Upper Street to the Old Red Lion pub theatre for a very special fringe production.

Nicholas Pierpan’s tale of a working-class boy who becomes a City trader is so firmly rooted in the streets of London that it is instantly believable. We are swept along on a journey of success, then failure, in an exhilarating manner. Pierpan doesn’t just know his geography – he knows how to write, with imagery that is instant yet lingering and poetry of the everyday that is accessible and effective.

In this well-constructed, hour-long monologue, London is presented as alienating but full of exciting opportunities. The mix of sociology and psychology is heady, but in safe hands with director Matthew Dunster who paces the show expertly. Light and sound add atmosphere without detracting attention and Dunster maintains an intimacy that, along with Alison McDowall’s clever set, takes us behind the scenes of the City.

It’s an adventure that gets quite a telling – Felix Scott’s performance is riveting. Underneath a look as bland as any other commuter, out comes a sharp eye with a comic glint. Insights into the ‘dead time’ of work and the ‘herd’ he has to put up with endear, but Scott is accomplished enough to hold us back. His ability as a mimic becomes chilling as he transforms into the role of his boss, then frightening as the play reaches its tragic conclusion.

Scott’s character fixates on the privilege he sees all around him. It’s true that Londoners are spoilt. We never have to go a long way for anything, take seeing a great play for example – just go down the road from the Almeida.

Until 18 September 2010


Photo by Jenny Grand

Written 1 September 2010 for The London Magazine