Tag Archives: Park Theatre

“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


Photo by Darren Bell

“Twilight Song” at the Park Theatre

There’s a first-class cast in Anthony Banks’ premiere of Kevin Elyot’s last play. Flipping between the 1960s and the present day, Bryony Hannah plays Isabella. Pregnant in one scene then moments later an elderly woman, she can’t fail to impress. Paul Higgins and Adam Garcia double up roles, taking four parts in their stride. Higgins plays Isabella’s son and husband, differentiating his characters subtly, while Garcia performs as two strangers offering sex, adding chemistry to both of his scenes.

Adam Garcia and Paul Higgins
Adam Garcia and Paul Higgins

The actors, and Banks, have a thorough appreciation of Elyot’s theatrical world, where the middle classes mix with passion and occasional obscenity. There’s repression aplenty and touches of poetic romance tempered by prosaic lust. It’s all familiar territory from Elyot’s big hit, My Night With Reg, but sadly this play isn’t as good. The dialogue and jokes are flat, the characters underdeveloped. Banks handles every aspect of the play with more reverence than it deserves, drawing most of it out for longer than it can stand and making even the comedy hard work.

Philip Bretherton and Hugh Ross
Philip Bretherton and Hugh Ross

The differences with Elyot’s previous piece offer frustrating glances at potential unfulfilled. A central female character, which Hannah tackles well, feels tangibly imprisoned by history, but thinly drawn. An elderly gay couple, impeccably performed by Philip Bretherton and Hugh Ross, deserve a play of their own. In the end, a tasteless plot twist takes over. Let’s slide over the idea of an estate agent being so hard up for cash that he takes to prostitution; Garcia plays this “surprisingly sensitive” realtor and then a gardener with a “poetic nature” – and he performs both well – but it’s all a leap too far. A nastily cheap conclusion, that’s grim for the sake of shocking, embodies the flimsy feel of the play.

Until 12 August 2017


Photos by Robert Workman

“Madam Rubinstein” at the Park Theatre

Everybody loves Miriam Margolyes. This story of a monstrous cosmetics tycoon, once one of the richest self-made women in the world, provides a larger-than-life role that brings her centre stage. One of our finest comic actresses, it’s a thrill to see Margolyes expertly handle some great jokes.

The briefest research about Helena Rubinstein shows that playwright John Misto’s depiction is motivated by the potential of caricature. So be it, making the character ruthless and miserly gives the perfect palate for Margolyes to work with. She shouts Yiddish insults from her skyscraper to rival Revlon’s, while keeping chicken drumsticks in the office safe. At least she’s kind enough to provide free electricity for those slaving away in her office. A collection of clichés yes, with malapropisms via Poland, but it’s all very funny.

While the comedy foundation is good the rest of the play’s makeup is hastily applied. Attempts at suspense surrounding espionage in the cosmetics business fail to add tension. Helena’s traumatic lifestory and emotional frigidity feel tacked on. A substitute son, in the figure of her gay bodyguard, capably performed by Patrick O’Higgins, gives rise to more good gags before becoming a dead end. Intense rivalry leads to some great scenes with the excellent Francis Barber as Elizabeth Arden (this relationship already the subject of a documentary and a musical) but the two makeup maestros’ could have more time together. Barber seems criminally wasted.

Jez Bond directs efficiently but like the no frills set from Al Turner there’s a lack of imagination that the show really needs an injection of. Listed like this, it all sounds negative. But you’ll be laughing enough to forgive. Nearly all of Turner’s jokes – and there are a lot of them – land. If the play gets as many star ratings as it has laughs its sell out run at the Park will only be the start of things.

Until 27 May 2017


Photo by Simon Annand

“A Clockwork Orange” at the Park Theatre

Anthony Burgess’ novel, a dystopian exploration of violent youth with plenty of philosophical speculation, gains a visceral immediacy under Alexandra Spencer-Jones’ stage direction for her company, Action To The Word. As much a dance piece as a work of theatre, the scenes of violence have an unnerving grace that has already earned the show plenty of four-star reviews – deservedly so.

The physicality of the performers is striking. This is a group with gymnastic skills that are awe-inspiring. Alex, the lead “droog”, addicted to “destroy, break, steal, slash” as he “groweth up” with his moloko (milk) drinking gang is a terrifying figure. His crimes mean that the production, never shy of shock tactics, is not for the faint hearted.

In the hugely demanding lead role Jonno Davies can be happy he earns praise for more than his deltoids – although it’s clear milk does a body good. Both his rage rage and the degree of sympathy he evokes when his character is subjected to a corrective therapy show the talents of a strong actor.

What of the strange vocabulary, with its Shakespearean feel and neologisms? Explained a little too late on stage as an “international teenage patois”, the glory of the original book, with Burgess’ insight as a linguist, is that readers comes to understand it so quickly. That comprehension doesn’t happen here and that’s a shame.

The same-full on physicality that serves Davies so well, and creates many powerful scenes for the ensemble, serves other roles less well. The establishment figures Alex encounters before, during and after imprisonment and his sinister treatment are left with little to do but shout. Both Damien Hasson and Simon Cotton embrace double roles with energy, but the characters are flat.

It’s a sexy show – that’s easy – but the sexuality is edgy, dangerous, a challenge for which Spencer-Jones earns respect. The all-male cast has Alex as an abusive bisexual, which complicates the misogyny commented on in the piece. The performers who take on female roles, and camp things up a good deal overall, add further provocation, but it feels old fashioned. And the humour makes the audience as childish as the characters – an uncomfortable point to play with.

A Clockwork Orange, with its probing questions about the role of choice in morality, should be disquieting. That these ideas aren’t explored with Burgess’ original articulacy might be a disappointment. Alex’s adoration of Beethoven feels curtailed by a hotchpotch of musical accompaniment; how “music is heaven” becomes hellish for him, feels pat. But Burgess’ work is important enough to make any appearance on the stage welcome, and the company’s imaginative approach has a lack of timidity that makes it go a long way.

Until 18 March 2017


Photo by Matt Martin

“Happy to Help” at the Park Theatre

This new comedy by Michael Ross is as bright and sparkling as anything on the market. The subject – target, rather – is the big business of supermarkets, the play as thought provoking as it is funny.

A mega store built on former farmland is unwitting host to the UK boss of ‘Frisca’ supermarkets, with Tony masquerading as a shelf stacker, having been put “back in the trenches” by the chain’s American owner. The Toffy Brit meets his match in store manager Vicky, and the laughs come quicker than sales at Christmas time.

Vicky is a gem of a role for the brilliant Katherine Kotz. The Cruella de Vil of Costcutters, the Lady Macbeth of Morrisons, Kotz lands every line perfectly. Director Roxy Cook does well to lavish time here. It’s possible other scenes could have been slowed down, but the comedy skills of all are impressive. With a plot twist that reveals how carefully constructed Kotz’s character is, this is one of the finest performances, and roles, I’ve seen in a long time.

 Jonny Weldon, Rachel Marwood and Charles Armstrong
Jonny Weldon, Rachel Marwood and Charles Armstrong

Superbly supported by Charles Armstrong as the disarmingly affable Tony, there are further fine performances from Ben Mann and Jonny Weldon as two youngsters struggling to find their place in the (supermarket) world. Dreams are dashed and characters corrupted among the dairy aisles. Completing the cast are the excellent David Bauckham, as the big boss jetting in from the States at the first suspicion of Union activity, and Rachel Marwood, who’s in charge of Tony’s induction both when watching a corporate video and then in the pub – a scene that balances tension and laughs to great effect.

The mix of everyday lives and crap jobs, superbly observed, is deftly combined with big themes of corporate and personal responsibility. Ross’s social conscience is razor sharp, the delivery of facts, figures and argument, impeccable and inventive. But it’s Ross’s skill as a satirist, the ability to deal so well with exaggeration, that should make the show a hit: rules and situations seem ridiculous until you realise they already exist or are close to happening.

The comedy here is bold, adventurous and downright clever. As Orwellian doublethink is applied to the corporate world, the results are seriously funny.

Until 9 July 2016


Photos by David Monteith-Hodge

“Beacons” at the Park Theatre

“A beach, a bench and an ice-cream van” are the setting for Tabitha Mortiboy’s sensitive new play. Despite the protestations of the van’s owner, Julie, there is magic in this place – theatrically anyway – with a story of three lonely people making their own kind of family.

Sick of it being just “Me and Mr Whippy”, Julie takes to online dating, reluctant to recognise the attentions of her friend Bernard. In attendance is a young girl called Skye, an “old Romantic”, keen to shake things up but with a secret that haunts her.

Beacons-ParkThr-SRylander-PRESS-001 - small
Emily Burnett

Great credit goes to Tessa Peake-Jones for making the heroic Julie so believable. And to Paul Kemp, whose Bernard is a rich, three-dimensional figure. The finest written part is Skye, and Emily Burnett excels here – playful and wounded by turn, she is an intriguing and poetic figure.

Mortiboy’s writing has a lyrical gentility and understated power. This is a sweet love story but contains two scenes of resolution that are forcefully dramatic. Suffice to say the ice creams are sold on suicide hot spot, Beachy Head, and that Julie patrols the cliffs at night helping those in trouble.

This well-written play is served superbly by spot-on direction from Philip Wilson. A thrust stage takes over the space and emphasises Park 90’s intimacy; the sightlines are impressively managed. Wilson understands the tone of the piece, avoiding the bombastic (as the text indicates he should). Mysteries aren’t overstated, the out-of-season seaside feel perfect, and the result enchanting.

Until 16 April 2016


Photo by Scott Rylander

“Goodbye Norma Jean” at the Park Theatre

An Essex grandmother runs away from her care home to Los Angeles, where she claims to be Marilyn Monroe. She’s followed by her grandson Joe, portrayed sensitively by Jamie Hutchins, and their relationship is explored with frank humour. The star is Vicki Michelle, famous for her role in ‘Allo ‘Allo, who makes the jokes work and creates some tender moments. Michelle lights up the show and is incredibly engaging. It’s unfortunate that the material falls short of her talents.

Dylan Costello’s script, which director Matthew Gould fails to rein in, suffers from leaden lines and an excess of events. Joe, whose boyfriend is abusive, talks to an imaginary Marilyn and has a burgeoning romance to deal with. It’s not that any of these plots are bad but, when combined, the play takes on more than it can cope with. Themes of fame and self-worth are fine, the topics are rich if unoriginal, but they end up being shouted and what could be a sweet comedy ends up taking itself too seriously.

The play has unhappy roles for its secondary characters. Farrel Hegarty has a near impossible task as two versions of imaginary Marilyns (I am afraid she appears to Michelle’s character as well) and only gets to shine with a smaller role as a TV host – yet another subplot that rams home the play’s suspicion of celebrity. Even worse is the part of Bobby, played by Peter McPherson. Costello creates characterisation through backstory alone – in just one scene we see Bobby as an unstable practical joker, a prostitute, a drug addict and the lover of a Hollywood star threatening to kill him. Clearly, a life a little too crowded with incident.

As for dialogue, the script is a tiresome collection of homespun truths that shouldn’t have been allowed out of the house, let alone near a stage. Some efforts at profundity don’t even make sense, especially in the relationship between Joe and Bobby, who fall in and out of love from sentence to sentence and end up talking about opening a pizza restaurant together. Nonsense like this, including a scene where Joe gets some new trainers, slows things down dreadfully. Throwing in terminal cancer and euthanasia seems vaguely tasteless and Costello’s script continually deflates during a painful second act. Hutchins struggles valiantly and Michelle makes sure you aren’t bored, but it’s a relief to say goodbye rather than au revoir to a script like this.

Until 19 March 2016


Photo by Mia Hawk

“4000 Days” at the Park Theatre

Peter Quilter’s new play is summarised as a story of “accident, coma, memory loss, vandalism” and shows a recovering patient, torn between trauma, his mother and his lover. The intriguing twist is that Michael, the victim of a freak cerebral haemorrhage, can’t remember the last decade or so – the whole time with his partner Paul – a fact his mother aims to take advantage of.

4000 Days is well performed. Daniel Weyman gives a sensitive portrayal as marketer Paul who, it’s revealed, has attempted to control Michael over the years, stamping on his potential as an artist. This is partly the reason Michael’s mother Carol, played by Maggie Ollerenshaw, hates Paul. Carol “reserves the right to be very disappointed” and Ollerenshaw delivers this blunt-to-the-point-of-brutal, age-induced cynicism perfectly. The tension between Paul and Carol is palpable. It’s taken a coma to get them in the same room, where they fight and even make a competition of the flowers they bring in.

Last but not least, Alistair McGowan renders the role of waspish Michael, who’s recognisable, realistic and far from appealing. Fans of his comedy work beware – McGowan gives a serious and studied performance, stubbornly reining back the script’s wry humour: the pay-off is a nuanced character who raises the issues and observations about relationships Quilter wants to explore. Still, although skilled, it seems odd that all three performers actively stop the laughs landing.

There are nuggets of wisdom and plenty of questions here, if delivered somewhat flatly. Should Michael take the fresh start his mother wants for him or try to recapture, even improve, his relationship? Catching up on what’s happened in the world over the last ten years is a dead end for the play. And similarly the potential drama around what is, after all, a life-threatening condition is not exploited. The overriding problem is director Matt Aston’s slow and static approach, stretching the script to breaking point with a delivery that’s just too lethargic. Nice premise, shame about the pace.

Until 13 February 2016


Photo by Rory Lindsay

“Positive” at the Park Theatre

Shaun Kitchener’s AIDS play, whose flyer boasts that ‘nobody dies’, takes inspiration from the improved outlook for those who are HIV positive. An upbeat AIDS play is a great idea and more than timely. And, for a debut play, Positive is very good indeed. After a slow start, the second act becomes more dramatic and much stronger. But the play’s amiability, down to its disappointingly gentle humour, is almost needy – it’s just too damn likeable.

Benji (Timothy George), dating again a year after discovering he is HIV positive, is our hero. Also earning admiration are his flatmate and her boyfriend (Nathalie Barclay and Paul Heelis), keen to do volunteer work abroad. All three are smart and likeable and the capable performers can do little but shout this. There’s also Benji’s potential new boyfriend, played by Kitchener, whose acting is as charming as his play. But, along with the practically perfect doctor (Claire Greenway), there’s no tension here. Even the piece’s villain, a role Ryan J Brown gets a lot from, is little more than a fool.  positive-174It’s only Benji’s mother and her ferocious, if frightful, efforts to help that hit home (and result in a cracking performance from Sally George, pictured). All the other characters are too idealised, with little exposition and an excess of sophistication. Kitchener seems too enamoured with these characters to make them believable.

Director Harry Burton does little to tame blander moments. The biggest problem, ironically one I suspect Kitchener fears, is a slide into TV territory, with a cutting remark about Christmas Day on EastEnders. Positive is far from soap opera, but perhaps it could have been even better. The structure of the play, which goes back and forth in time, suggests exciting possibilities. And politics, so often present in earlier responses to AIDS, are absent. It’s likely that Kitchener has more in store, so here’s to subsequent, bolder works.

Until 1 August 2015


“The Gathered Leaves” at the Park Theatre

It’s surely the acting that has made Andrew Keatley’s well-crafted family drama such a sell-out success. Although fertile ground, upper-class dysfunction, with a dash of historical perspective, along with dementia and autism, make the play a mix and match of familiar topics. Yet Keatley writes short scenes and characters with textbook precision and the 11-strong cast responds with exciting vigour.

William is the patriarch, testily patching up past mistakes while struggling with his memory – Clive Francis is superb in the role. Jane Asher is perfectly cast as his careful wife (she even gets to comment on a cake). Alexander Hanson and Nick Sampson play his sons, the later stealing the show as the autistic Samuel, while Katie Scarfe brings a family resemblance and carefully understated performance as an estranged daughter. The younger generation is represented by Tom Hanson (it really is a family affair), Amber James and Georgina Beedle – all well delineated roles that bring plenty of humour to savvy, if slightly predictable, observations. In short, this cast should transfer to the West End tomorrow.

Credit to Antony Eden’s direction (tellingly, he’s a performer himself as well) for covering so much ground so quickly. But herein lies a problem. With so much going on it’s difficult to find a focus, any resolution feels pat, and the play lacks momentum. There are plenty of secrets in this family, but very little tension. So, while the characters are three dimensional, we don’t see enough of anyone to really get a satisfying sense of depth. Frustratingly, the solution seems simple – this is a family tree that could do with some pruning.

Until 15 August 2015


Photo by Mark Douet