Tag Archives: Southwark Playhouse

“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

“Little Pieces of Gold” at the Southwark Playhouse

This night of new writing produced by Suzette Coon is a great chance for future star spotting. There are nine up-and-coming writers, not forgetting the directors, and 23 actors helping them out. It’s an exciting testament to the creativity and talent of the theatre scene.

Interestingly, the first three pieces all had a connection to the justice system. Abraham Adeyemi’s subject was a post-murder scene, Rachel Archer’s a court-enforced mediation, but the one that stood out was by Tatty Hennessy as it switched from laughs to drama effectively and had a strong performance from Louisa Hollway. And more good comedy with Sid Sagar’s The State We’re In: a multi-racial flat share scenario that raised risqué questions and benefited from a strong quartet of performers, including Leila Damilola as a clueless representative of the Home Office.

After the interval there were three plays centred on young love and college, the funniest being the evening’s finale, Vegan Visiting by Micah Smith, which showcased the talents of its director, Jaclyn Bradley. The most interesting pieces were set in the world of work. Corinne Salisbury’s Girlboss imagined a disciplinary hearing and had an impressive amount to say – well done to director Georgie Staight for handling the thought-provoking content. The boldest writing was Tom Collinson’s Percy –about an older employee facing obsolescence, which benefitted from Mike Hayley’s excellent performance.

 Little Pieces of Gold is an event to add to the calendar. And, given the size, one that’s a little intimidating to write about. It isn’t a competition, thankfully, but searching for stand out is irresistible. My critic’s fingers are crossed for those I’ve highlighted. Apologies to those left out and here’s the sincere hope that they prove me a fool.

www.littlepiecesofgold.co.uk

“A Lie of the Mind” at the Southwark Playhouse

Sam Shepard’s award-winning 1985 play is a slow-burning, haunting family drama. After a brutal act of domestic violence, Beth is left brain damaged and her husband Jake unhinged. Their families, aiming to care for them, become increasingly irrational, unlocking the play’s momentum and considerable dramatic power.

Gethin Anthony and Alexandra Dowling acquit themselves well as Jake and Beth. These are difficult roles and the temptation for shrillness isn’t fully controlled. Shepard is averse to sentimentality and makes it a struggle to empathise with these damaged figures. Nonetheless, Anthony and Dowling convey their characters as repositories of cumulative pain.

Gethin Anthony, Mike Lonsdale and Alexandra Dowling
Gethin Anthony, Mike Lonsdale and Alexandra Dowling

The couple’s siblings have problems too. Initially overshadowed by Jake’s instability, his brother and sister, played by Michael Fox and Laura Rogers, do well to build their roles, acting as foils for the increasing oddity around them. Meanwhile, Robert Lonsdale gives a cracking performance as Beth’s consoling and then avenging brother. Caught up in a maelstrom of metaphor, Lonsdale gives the role clarity.

Best of all are the older characters, portrayed with conviction and welcome humour by a skilled trio so that the play’s dated gender relations create fewer snags here. Shepard is too sophisticated to blame the parents for the sins or woes of the children, but a legacy of emotional repression is clear. Nancy Crane and Kate Fahy play the mothers – far too keen to have their kids back at home and infantilised. John Stahl gives a strong performance as Beth’s irascible father, whose tirade against ageing is one of the play’s finest moments.

Marshalling all this – and it’s a lot – is James Hillier’s direction. Some of Shepard’s dark humour isn’t transmitted and a firmer hand on histrionics with a little more work on accents would be welcome. But Hillier has created a stylish show, aided by live music from James Marples. The production appreciates Shepard’s extremes, giving his Americana a back seat to examine the topical subject of mental health. It’s a solid revival of a fascinating play.

Until 27 May 2017

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Lidia Crisafulli

“Promises Promises” at the Southwark Playhouse

The credentials for this musical are impeccable: a book by Neil Simon, with music and lyrics fromBurt Bacharach and Hal David. That should be enough to get you booking tickets. The endearing, nostalgic piece follows the adventures of New Yorker Chuck, who lends his flat to his bosses for their extra-marital affairs, while his own love life flounders.

Adapted from the 1960 movie The Apartment, it’s the script that dominates. There’s a lot of Simon here – no bad thing – playing with cynicism, packing in jolly touches and good plotting. If the songs don’t fuse into a score in the manner that makes some musicals heavenly, they are great numbers, with a trip to the back catalogue sublimely incorporated as an extra treat.

Paul Robinson
Paul Robinson

The smooth sounds are well performed and Bronagh Lagan’s direction has a calm pace that’s appropriate – disguising how much work her dozen cast members are doing – so the show feels like relaxed fun. There’s swinging going on (it’s the Sixties, after all) but, despite the Mad Men vibe, evoked especially well by Paul Robinson as the arch philanderer Sheldrake, the tones are pastel and the atmosphere oh-so cool.

Gabriel Vick and Alex Young
Gabriel Vick and Alex Young

Darker shades are present and handled well by leading lady Daisy Maywood, whose character Fran is driven to attempt suicide. The sobering moments are a little jarring and stem from the sexism within Promises Promises itself. Women are, literally, backing singers, playing secretaries and ‘pick ups’ (providing a blissful cameo for Alex Young). And the office Christmas party would give an HR department a fit. Lagan deals cleverly with the unsavoury middle-aged executives, presenting a collection of more sad than mad men that we can laugh at. It’s a sensible move, and the cast makes it work for them.

The saving grace is our heroine, at times displaying an emotional depth that overwhelms the show – welcome nonetheless – and Maywood’s acting is as strong as her powerful voice. The equally impressive Gabriel Vick, playing Chuck, joins her. Ostensibly, this is his character’s story. He’s a “puny” figure that Vick makes winning with perfectly pitched direct addresses to the audience. Fantasy conversations only endear us to him further. It’s the two leads who make the show, culminating in a gorgeous duet that is the fulfilment of all the talent on offer.

Until 18 February 2017

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Claire Bilyard

“In The Heights” at King’s Cross Theatre

A visit to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first show is essential preparation for his Hamilton next year. Another success story, it has had a 15-month run, after a premiere at the Southwark Playhouse, sharing a King’s Cross venue with The Railway Children. Strong enough to leave an impression wherever it finds a home, the traverse staging here, expertly handled by director Luke Sheppard and serving Drew McOnie’s energetic choreography superbly, seems especially suited for such an engaging piece.

There’s a lot of love surrounding In The Heights, not least from its dedicated young fans. Firstly, there’s love of community – namely, the area of New York that provides a setting. Two matriarchs, the elderly Abuela and the satisfyingly camp beauty salon owner Daniela, create a sense of heritage with impressive efficiency (as well as providing great roles for Norma Atallah and Aimie Atkinson). Home is the key, with nods to the problems of gentrification, and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ book works well here.

Then there’s love within the family. Most obviously with the Rosarios, who struggle with their daughter’s decision to drop out of college and start dating one of their employees. The production is lucky to have David Bedella beefing out the role of the father – he is always superb – while Juliet Gough matches him in a solo number that makes you feel she is underused. It’s a shame they couldn’t also fit in a sense of their own love affair – it seems too much time was spent on that American dream.

Which brings us to romance. Not one but two struggling couples create sweet moments. There’s Nina Rosario’s star-crossed affair with Benny (both Gabriela Garcia and Arun Blair-Mangat sing their parts deliciously). And Usnavi, with his fumbling approaches to Vanessa, another strong female character that Sarah Naudi makes the most of. Usnavi is a star role for Sam Mackay, who makes light work of his task as narrator and utilises his character’s diffidence well. Alongside great chemistry with well-meaning cousin Sonny, a sterling performance from Damian Buhagiar, it all goes to make a hero out of this everyday guy, which drives the show marvellously.

There are some stumbles from the book when it comes to rounding off stories and a sentimentality that’s hardly sophisticated. But the staging, including a brilliant scene during a power blackout, dancing and energy are all terrific. Miranda’s music is an innovative blend of rap with the Spanish heritage of Manhattan Heights, which revels in its multiculturalism. It’s complex but never alienating. Likewise, the spirit of the piece is a simple one. With a strong knowledge of musical theatre, for all its originality, this is a good old-fashioned show full of big emotions.

Until 8 January 2017

www.intheheightslondon.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Allegro” at the Southwark Playhouse

It’s hard to believe there’s a musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II that is only now receiving its UK premiere. The coup of finally staging this 1947 piece goes to the team of producer Danielle Tarento and director Thom Southerland. While you can understand why this life story of an Everyman, Joseph Taylor Jr, hasn’t joined the composer and lyricist’s formidable hit parade, the show is well worth seeing.

Taking the lead is Gary Tushaw, first handling the puppet that represents his role’s young years, taking us through first love at high school, a career as a doctor and finally the breakdown of his marriage. Tushaw is endearing and sounds great but his character is perhaps a little too saintly. We meet his family, of course – grandmother (Susan Travers) and parents (Steve Watts and Julia J Nagle) – all fine upstanding performances for the roles of fine upstanding citizens. Surprisingly, his love interest isn’t likeable, which makes her a deal more interesting and gives Emily Bull something to get her teeth into.ALLEGRO 1 Gary Tushaw (Joseph Taylor Jr.) and company Photo Scott Rylander

Southerland injects as much energy into Hammerstein’s book as he can, with the help of some superb choreography from Lee Proud and a nimble set from Anthony Lamble that makes me confident none of the cast suffers from vertigo. And it’s difficult to criticise this “simple” story for being just that – when the “commonplace” is so clearly the aim. Taylor turns his back on big success – that’s his achievement. Time in the city, where living a “ratrace” gives the musical its title song, is far from the overall tone. The piece is obsessed with hope and home. Maybe I am a softie but I was amazed something so sentimental wasn’t cloying.

The ambition of Rodgers and Hammerstein in Allegro wasn’t timid, and nor is Southerland, but the show is small in scope and occasionally condescending. And yet a collection of songs this strong should not be missed. It’s clear that the ensemble, which includes professional debuts for Matthew McDonald, Benjamin Purkiss and Samuel Thomas, are committed to them. With numbers as good as The Gentleman is a Dope for a supporting role (a superb Katie Bernstein), you can’t fail to be impressed.

Until 10 September 2016

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Scott Rylander

“Titanic” at the Charing Cross Theatre

Maury Yeston’s musical, set on the doomed ocean liner, won five Tony Awards, and praise for this production from the Southwark Playhouse has followed it around the world. Now that director Thom Southerland has taken up residence at an oddly charming venue underneath Charing Cross, there’s another chance to see the show. And it’s every bit as good as critics say.

Yeston, with the story and book from Peter Stone, succeeds in making a well-known story exciting enough. Seeing the ship as a microcosm of society is neat, if hardly novel. It’s all about the details, and a careful and inventive execution along with an ambitious and intelligent score ensure success here.

There’s the combination of observing different classes of passengers, mankind’s inevitable search for “progress”, and plenty of emotion when the boat sinks. Impressively, the dangers of Downton Abbey kitsch are avoided and the excitement and glamour of the boat is persuasive, despite audience hindsight. And get ready for tears before the end, with characters we have come to love at a rate of, well it would have to be, knots.

Niall Sheehy photographed by Annabel Vere
Niall Sheehy photographed by Annabel Vere

The production is hugely impressive. Southerland’s direction is faultless, a miracle of economically effective staging. David Woodhead’s set and costume design are smart, facilitating swift role changes for the 20-strong cast. Yes, 20 –and all performing at the highest standard. One bold thing about Titanic is that there aren’t ‘leading’ roles so it isn’t really fair to highlight individual performers. But indulge me. Niall Sheehy’s role as a coal miner stands out (there just aren’t enough songs about men from the Midlands in musicals) and I can’t resist pointing out that the cast includes the excellent Victoria Serra.

Of course, it’s Yeston who’s the real star. The lyrics, filled as they are with facts and figures, could so easily have failed, but the score energises them remarkably: combining waltz themes with historical references such as rag, inspired contemporary touches and a big choral sound that uses that huge cast superbly. This is a truly accomplished score. Adoration of the ship, described as a “perfectly working machine” could carry to a critique of the musical – its well-engineered construction is a marvel.

Until 13 August 2016

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Main photo by  Scott Rylander

“The Toxic Avenger” at the Southwark Playhouse

B-movie inspired musicals are an established genre, from Rocky Horror shows and Little Shops to recent examples such as Bat Boy at this very venue. Joe DiPietro and David Bryan’s 2008 work, based on Lloyd Kaufman’s film, shares the schlocky kitsch appeal and knowing references that fans love. And there’s a super cynical side that suits contemporary musicals, with a take on government and environmental issues – Urinetown springs to mind – ensuring wide comedy appeal.

There’s a superhero angle that provides laughs, as the town nerd gains great powers (applause for nifty costume changes throughout) and sets about tackling pollution in the town of Tromaville, New Jersey. Battling corruption and prejudice with a love interest thrown in, there’s plenty to parody, and The Toxic Avenger does parody very well indeed.

The script is a good deal stronger than the score, which lacks direction and possesses conviction only when it comes to comedy. But the lyrics are frequently inspired – geranium rhymes with cranium, for example – and the jokes are good. And the pace is impressive; this show is literally a laugh a minute.

The cast is accomplished and creates an infectious sense of fun. Mark Anderson takes the lead, deserving acclaim, with a superb voice. Hannah Grover is the blind librarian Sarah, uninterested in a romance until Toxie’s transformation; her comic skills make the most of jokes about disability and sexiness (a little too obvious a ploy to make this an ‘adult’ affair). Lizzii Hills impresses even more, playing both mother and town mayor, scoring a big hit in a number that is a duet between the two. The power behind all three voices skates over some bland musical moments.

The stars of the show are Marc Pickering and Ashley Samuels, who play all the other roles – doctors, scientists, policemen, thugs and Sarah’s girlfriends (condragulations (sic) on that one). Running around like mad, Pickering and Samuels’ standard of singing never drops, the folksy title number is delivered brilliantly, their interaction with the audience great and, under Benji Sperring’s strict direction, each gag itself is never overplayed.

However, the major drive in The Toxic Avenger is in the dismantling the conventions of musicals themselves and this does become repetitious. There’s a Les Mis reference and a Phantom gag. Everyone loves a show with in-jokes (think Forbidden Broadway) and Sperring ensures the humour feel fresh, spontaneous even. But it’s a shame The Toxic Avenger doesn’t go that little bit further. There’s a suggestion it might, with a darker turn of events. Instead, we fall back on the fact it has a small cast and one joke that builds superbly. But it fails to surprise.

Until 21 May 2016

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

 

“Grey Gardens” at the Southwark Playhouse

There are two five-star performances in this European première of Scott Frankel’s brave musical. Taking the roles of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter ‘Little Edie’ – socialites who descend into far from genteel poverty – are Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell. The latter takes both parts, playing mother at the play’s start in 1941, and then daughter when the action leaps into the 1970s. Full marks in both instances – I’m losing count of how many stars Russell deserves.

Notable as the first musical to be based on a documentary film, the book by Doug Wright and bold lyrics from Michael Korie get a lot from this true story of privilege and mental instability. Grey Gardens is a nuanced look at a bizarre filial relationship that broadens beautifully as it questions frustrations about art, age and class. If there are reservations, there’s a feeling it helps to know the original film, although director Thom Southerland’s characteristically ambitious staging makes this a satisfying theatrical evening.

On the day of Little Evie’s engagement (with a young Jacqueline Bouvier lined up to be a bridesmaid), family eccentricities make eligible bachelor, one Joseph Kennedy, run away. Both mother and daughter (played in these scenes by one-to-watch Rachel Anne Rayham) have a “yen for the spotlight” and fancy themselves as performers. Frankel’s eclectic score gives them plenty of opportunity. Adding to frivolity is the live-in pianist, an “imported” black sheep, tackled stylishly by Jeremy Legat, and disapproving patriarch, Major Bouvier, impeccably performed by Billy Boyle.

Grey Gardens 2 Jenna Russell Photo Scott RylanderThere’s tragedy in the air even with a lot of 1940s fun, And the nostalgia has bite as the Bouvier Beales become trapped in past. The start of Act Two is one of the funniest things you’ll see: with Little Edie preparing to do battle with neighbours unhappy with the state of the house, now described as a 28-room litter box for their out-of-control cats and condemned as unfit for human habitation.Russell is in total control of the audience’s funny bones – it’s a camp treat with a New England drawl that brings tears to the eyes.

Grey Gardens 8 Sheila Hancock Photo Scott Rylander

As the insanity grows, Hancock gets a song about corn – yes, corn on the cob – and it’s clear this odd couple is in real trouble. Hancock’s ability to deliver cruel remarks gets the laughs, but care is taken to show the pain of these reclusive, paranoid lives. It’s a brave musical that carries such dour overtones but I don’t think either Edie would want our pity. These “staunch” women see character as a question of turning any scandal into triumph. Which is close to what the musical itself achieves, with its celebration of the individual and its characters’(admittedly unfulfilled) artistic aspirations. The Bouvier Beales finally get the applause they craved.

Until 6 February 2016

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Scott Rylander

“Xanadu” at the Southwark Playhouse

If you think Arts Council funding is complex, imagine trying to create your Gesamtkunstwerk,including a roller disco, in the cultural desert that was 1980s LA. Such is Sonny’s dilemma in Jeff Lynne and John Farrar’s musical adaptation of the cult(ish) movie that famously starred Olivia Newton-John. Fortunately, the Greek muses are on hand to help, making this show so mad, so unbelievebly camp and crazy, that it casts an irrestible spell. Thank the gods that Xanadu is a place director Paul Warwick Griffin has dared to go. Get your skates on and join in.

Bringing the story to the stage is brilliantly done thanks to a superb book by Douglas Carter Beane – surely key to the show’s success in New York, where it started at the Helen Hayes Theatre in 2007. There’s a lot of fun with language, from faux archaic to Aussie accents via Valley girls. Likewise the music, based on blasts from the past, mashes together anything to get a laugh. The songs are surprisingly strong, but then it was the soundtrack rather than the film that was a hit. Cleverly adding comedy and nostaglia, emodied by Nathan M Wright’s witty choreography, this is theatrical heaven on earth.

xanadu-carly-anderson-as-kira-and-samuel-edwards-as-sonny-photo-credit-paul-coltas-lower-res

 

Donning their roller skates as Sonny and Kira (or rather the muse Clio)are Samuel Edwards and Carly Anderson. Chiffon has seldom been used to such effect (bravo to designer Morgan Large) and while cut-off denim shorts aren’t for all, I doubt anyone will complain about Edwards wearing them. More importantly, both Anderson and Edwards are fine leads with firm comic skills who enter into the spirit of the piece perfectly. Convincingly wide-eyed, with hearts on sequinned sleeves, they get you laughing along easily.

Joined by a superb ensemble, who look as if they’re living the roles of divinities on Earth, the clash with Mount Olympus when our heroes fall in love is titanically funny: a lament that Achilles should have had leg warmers pretty much sums it up. The show’s casting coup is Alison Jiear, as the jealous Melpomene. The muse of tragedy could be out of place in this feel-good phenomenon, but Jiear is superb and matched for laughs by Emily McGougan. As sinister sisters with great gags these partners in crime, giggle and cackling away. When they observe the show is “like children’s theatre for 40-year-old gay guys” you know that they’ve nailed it.

Until 21 November 2016

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Paul Coltas