Tag Archives: Trafalgar Studios

“Le Grand Mort” at the Trafalgar Studios

Playwright and lyricist Stephen Clark’s last work has received a posthumous premiere under the scrupulous guidance of his friend, director Christopher Renshaw. The play is a dark fantasia on sex and death that has two strangers playing with ideas of intimacy and oblivion over a nice dish of pasta.

The main attraction is the casting of Julian Clary as a host with homicidal tendencies. Clary is to be applauded for trying something so different – his character is a model of repression, maybe never quite scary enough, whose vulnerability develops in fits and starts, and he makes a good stab at depicting a brittle, intelligent and traumatised man. All while cooking on stage.

Yet Clary is a Comedy Great (capital letters, please) and everyone wants him to be funny. The humour in the opening monologue contains flashes of excitement. And yes, like Just A Minute, which Clary contributes to, there’s a passage without repetition, deviation or hesitation that would make Nicholas Parsons proud. Trouble is, the comedy overshadows the play’s serious intentions.

As for the play’s dinner guest, with desires and a history just as troubled as the chef’s, it’s a role James Nelson-Joyce excels in. Exuding confidence and complexes, he even makes his character’s bizarre chat-up lines convincing. The trouble is, both characters are too close to being simply vehicles for ideas.

Leaving aside the weaker scenes of the couple’s meeting –flashbacks both performers handle well – the challenge is Clark’s verbose articulacy. The style works for monologues: written in verse, the language is entertaining and its extravagance engaging. But when the men converse it starts to sound silly, laboured and insincere. Some outrageous comments – mostly focusing on necrophilia – are contrived and don’t fit with the play’s larger concerns. Several ideas, mixing pop culture with high-brow flights of fancy are far-fetched. It’s a shame to speculate that some excesses might have been avoided had the much-missed playwright been at rehearsals.

Until 28 October


Photo by Scott Rylander

“Apologia” at the Trafalgar Studios

Here’s an example of a good play made great by a lead performance. Alexi Kaye Campbell’s 1992 piece, about an older woman who is said to have chosen a career in academia over her family, is proficient: the dialogue is strong and debating points clear. But this traditional piece, with its dinner party scenario, influenced by Chekhov and Ibsen, really scores high because the legendary Stockard Channing takes the role of its heroine, Kristin Miller.

As Kristin’s family assemble for a birthday dinner – one it is all too obvious will be a disaster – a history of emotional hunger is combined with delicious humour. The lines are good… but Channing makes them land with magnificently understated sarcasm. She gets laughs from monosyllabic answers and even raised eyebrows. Director Jamie Lloyd injects his usual energy into proceedings and it’s all highly enjoyable.

It’s a shame nobody can compete with Kristin. Her elder son, played by Joseph Millson, seems resigned and then simply angry. One daughter-in-law, an actress who won’t admit she stars in a soap opera, comes across as simply tiresome and it’s an unforgiving role for Freema Agyeman. More interesting is the character of future in-law Trudi, played by Laura Carmichael, who is challenged with meeting Kristin for the first time. Trudi is perky, apolitical and a Christian – it’s like shooting ducks in a barrel. If this play is a battle of the generations – and younger characters frequently question the idealism of their elders’ activism – the odds seem pretty stacked to me.

Channing gets even more impressive in the play’s second, much darker, act. A second son, again played by Millson, suffers from depression and makes for a heartfelt scene. But the accusations against Kristin are too long and too feeble. A well-written cruel streak adds dramatic tension but is in questionable taste. A fairer perspective comes from Trudi, a character cleverly developed, and the defence of a “witness” in the form of her old friend (a strong performance from Des Barrit). And so Kaye Campbell provides resolution. If you suspect it’s a little too pat, it’s delivered with such skill that all is forgiven.

Until 18 November 2017


Photo by Marc Brenner

“Out There On Fried Meat Ridge Rd.,” at the Trafalgar Studios

Fried Meat Ridge Road isn’t the kind of place you readily visit and it has taken some desperate house hunting on the part of Mitch, expertly played by Robert Moloney, to end up here. Laid off from his job in a spork factory (they have to be made somewhere) Mitch finds himself alone in Appalachia, with only a degree in Disposable Cutlery Technology to his name and about to become motel roommates with an oddball called JD. Their budding bromance makes for fantastic comedy. JD may be a “bizarre red neck” but he’s a funny one, and assisted by Harry Burton’s sharp direction this short play guarantees long laughs.

A slice of rural Americana, with any audience prejudice cleverly subverted, the neighbours are fun too and cover plenty of comedy bases. Marlene and Tommy are a painter and poet making their lives more complex with drugs and affairs, providing a skilful riff on pretension that performers Melanie Gray and Alex Ferns do well with. The motel’s owner, Flip, is also more than your standard hick. Michael Wade might further explore some of his role’s surprises but, like all the cast, his comic timing is finely tuned. And the more out there the whole thing gets – there’s a dance number, a destroyed gazebo, and a shoot-out with the local sheriff – the better the show becomes. Like JD himself, it’s just the right kind of crazy.

There is a pilot TV show feel to things, but this won’t stop your enjoyment of the jokes – imagine a sitcom with enough well-polished stories to become a treasured box set. What’s really special, however, is playwright Kevin Stevenson’s performance of his lead role. An adorable bear of a man, his charm crosses over into his character, with a naivety that makes JD appealing and thought-provoking. The character’s openness, generosity and vulnerability are all funny, but these qualities are also strengths. JD has some secret help – let’s just say his family history means he’s well connected – leading to a sweet twist that means you leave the show on a divine high. Stevenson’s ability to make sincerity convincing and funny is miraculous.

Until 3 June 2017


Photo by Gavin Watson

“BU21” at Trafalgar Studios

Stuart Slade’s new play, which has transferred from Theatre 503, imagines the aftermath of a passenger jet shot down over Fulham. Forget the how and why – details given only feed our fears ­– instead this is a long hard look at the effect of trauma on a personal and national level, as a group of survivors meet for therapy sessions and press reporting of events looms large. Frank monologues addressed to the audience contain a brutal, often startling, humour.

When it comes to thinking about our reaction to big events, Slade’s cynicism is refreshing and the lack of sentiment is a worthwhile corrective. The only patriotism here is sham: an opportunist happy with 15 minutes of fame that Graham O’Mara plays and manages to make intriguing despite objectionable arguments. Nobody really recovers from their trauma, a fact that makes three well-written roles for women (with hugely impressive performances from Florence Roberts, Roxana Lupu and Isabella Laughland) all the more moving. Admissions of selfishness bring us close to them. The language of the corporate meeting and the counselling session are both cleverly manipulated for laughs.

Less successfully are the audience’s motives questioned and our prejudices challenged. Why would we watch this ‘misery-porn’? And do we assume a Muslim character (played by Clive Keene, in fine form) is guilty? Bearing the burden here is Alexander Forsyth’s character, a particular obnoxious banker who breaks the fourth wall, haranguing us for buying a ticket in an appropriately overblown manner. Director Dan Pick obliges the pushy aspects of Slade’s writing with lots of raised lights to make sure there’s nowhere for the audience to hide. But the desire to be confrontational creates unconvincing moments. Too many assumptions are made about the audience and twists don’t have the impact wished for.

A lot of BU21 is tough and the manner harsh. Using laughter as the cure for trauma means the jokes are close to the bone. Such humour is revelled in, in keeping with the confrontational spirit of the piece and, while I can’t imagine this would bother Slade, it approaches a word seldom used – tasteless. But for all the flashiness, the combination of calculated insight with strong characters, impeccably performed, makes this a hot and cold affair that intrigues and stimulates.

Until 18 February 2017


Photo by David Monteith-Hodge

“The Maids” at the Trafalgar Studios

Jamie Lloyd might well be the perfect director for iconoclastic playwright Jean Genet. Both share an irreverent bold approach and a Baroque intensity epitomised in Lloyd’s stirring production of Genet’s 1947 piece. The sick, twisted, sexualised fantasies of two servants, role-playing the murder of their mistress, are made “drunk, wild, beautiful” in this visually arresting and accomplished show.

Lloyd also has a way with stars, enticing exciting talent to the West End and getting the most from many a performer. The luminaries here are Uzo Aduba (from Orange is the New Black), joined by Zawe Ashton, playing the titular revolting servants. Ashton gives a fine performance, Aduba a tremendous one. Intense from the start, Ashton drags up as her mistress for a disturbed ‘ceremony’ that’s an orgy of degradation, violence and kink – her jerky movements unsettle and excite. Aduba is an astonishing presence on stage, frightening and engrossing, her intelligent appreciation of the rhythm of the text carrying you forcibly through the traumatic, suspenseful, action.

Laura Carmichael and Uzo Aduba in The Maids CREDIT Marc Brenner
Laura Carmichael and Uzo Aduba

When Mistress arrives it’s a blunt shock to find she’s every bit as bad as we’ve been led to believe. Laura Carmichael holds her own (no small achievement given the brevity of her role) portraying a superficial, doll-like rich bitch. This contemporary, recognisable, figure allows Lloyd to emphasise the play’s political content: the accents may be American but a London audience is instantly connected to Kensington.

Fun is had by Lloyd, in keeping with the work of translators Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton. Genet’s rich themes are explored bravely but there’s also humour from some of the exaggeration here – the maids giggle more than you might expect. The language is blue (very) but I can’t imagine Genet would blush. It’s surprising you don’t see this play revived more often. Lloyd’s production is a valuable addition to the reputation of a modern classic.

Until 21 May 2016


Photos by Marc Brenner

“Constellations” at the Trafalgar Studios

One of the strongest plays written in recent years, Nick Payne’s Constellations continues its huge success with Michael Longhurst’s impeccably directed production finishing a nationwide tour in the West End. If you haven’t already seen the play, then you must go. If you have seen it, you shouldn’t need persuading to go again.

This mind-bending romance, full of laughter and tears, explores theoretical physics and the concept of the multiverse – where every action, or inaction, creates infinite parallel realities. I’m not saying I fully understand the theories, but what use the script makes of this scientific speculation is remarkable – repeating lines in short scenes to show altered situations and outcomes.

Roland and Marianne, whose lives we follow, start or don’t start a love affair, which runs both smoothly and unevenly. The changes in situations are funny – especially at a first meeting or a chance reunion at a ballroom dancing class – an exhilarating mix of intelligent humour and belly laughs. But running through the play is Marianne’s illness, a heart-wrenching memento mori explored with such sensitivity and originality it is inspiring.

Payne’s writing is a gift to an actor. Taking on the roles of the couple who do and don’t get together, do and don’t betray one another, affords brilliant opportunities to show off skills and allows Joe Armstrong and Louise Brealey to shine. Armstrong has instant appeal – his beekeeping character wins your heart. Brealey’s performance has more variety, moving back and forth from gawkish scientist to a somewhat cold, cynical figure. When it comes to her character’s illness, she is magnificent. I remember crying when I first saw Constellations and it happened again as Marianne is forced to communicate via sign language in a brave and brilliant scene.

Constellations is an excellent drama and an hilarious comedy, but just as exciting is the way Payne has made questions of life, love, death and morality central to the theories he explores. This multiverse is far from abstract when it comes to the issue of Marianne’s euthanasia – what those white coats have been working on has implications for us all.

Until 1 August 2015


Photo by Helen Maybanks

“Richard III” at the Trafalgar Studios

Jamie Lloyd has all the bases covered with his new production of Richard III. After an acclaimed first season at the ‘transformed’ Trafalgar Studios, theatregoers are excited and bringing another star to the stage attracts a new crowd. Taking on Richard is Martin Freeman, of Hobbit and Sherlock fame, giving an assured performance within a show full of eye-catching touches.

Lloyd would, I am sure, be proud to be called populist. This Richard III is remarkable for its clarity. Helpful gestures ensure those pesky family trees, important to claiming the disputed throne, are clear. Staged as a Cold War thriller, set among military coups in the 1970s, there’s a cinematic air that aids the plot and adds a contemporary feel.

Also, there’s plenty of action. It’s often commented that the killing in Richard III takes place off stage. Lloyd is having none of this: Richard brutally murders Anne before our eyes and the blood flows freely – if not quite enough to justify the pre-show hype around being splattered if you are in the front rows.

Angling the play as a spy story and all the gore make the show feel fresh and enable Lloyd’s interpretation. I wonder if anyone else feels they have seen too much filming and recording on stage by now? Nonetheless, a sense of paranoia is efficiently created. Seated in a war room, playing with toy soldiers, this is a modern military world familiar from recent Shakespearean productions. It’s a shame that Richard’s famous line about his horse is thrown away but, if not revelatory, Lloyd is on sound enough ground.

Freeman’s Richard is a serious fellow, as it’s the politics and the twisted practicalities of power that are emphasised. There are laughs, but quite a few are sacrificed to the speed of delivery and that bloodthirsty touch. The acting is consistent and intelligent, with touches of charisma and addresses to the audience that will please fans.

It is the thoroughness that makes you admire Lloyd. This is a strong supporting cast – especially of women. Maggie Steed gives a bold performance as an increasingly bizarre Queen Margaret, calmly sipping tea as prophecies of doom are fulfilled. Gina McKee, too talented an actress for the relatively small role of Queen Elizabeth, is outstanding – bringing home the emotional impact of Richard’s tyranny. Jo Stone-Fewings is also superb as Buckingham, Richard’s “other self”, presenting the crown as if won at a game show.

Final praise to Ben and Max Ringham for their sound and music. With a microphone frequently used to emphasise public announcements, sound indicating changes of scene and music that makes the atmosphere gripping, the Ringhams’ work is a good example of how detailed and committed this show is.

Until 27 September 2014


Photo by Marc Brenner

Written 11 July 2014 for The London Magazine

“A Handful Of Stars” at the Trafalgar Studios

Theatre 503’s well-received revival of Billy Roche’s A Handful Of Stars has transferred to the equally intimate Trafalgar Studios 2. This bleak coming-of-age story produces some excellent performances and has an impressive, understated quality.

Paul Robinson’s sensitive direction builds a quiet tension and reflects the play’s brooding desperation. Young friends Jimmy and Tony, played by Ciarán Owens and Brian Fenton, live in a small town with little to do except play pool and no aspirations other than joining a members-only snooker club. Tony comes to accept his future but Jimmy becomes wild and goes on the rampage.

Left Keith Duffy (Stapler) and right Michael O'Hagan (Paddy) in A Handful of Stars at Theatre503 Photographer Richard Davenport
Keith Duffy

The play is full of well-drawn and well-acted characters. Boyzone and Coronation Street star Keith Duffy understandably features in the promotion of the show. Duffy is good, confident and full of charisma, but his part, as a boxer at the end of his career, is one of the smallest. Joining him as foils for the youngsters are the elderly Paddy (Michael O’Hagan) and the miserly Conway (Colm Gormley). Pontificating and gossiping, both add a wary edge when dealing with Jimmy.

In a play very much about men, Maureen O’Connell holds her own as Linda, briefly Jimmy’s girlfriend, who further reveals his emotional inadequacy. Jimmy dwells on a haunting memory of brief affection between his parents that proves the key to all these young lives lack.

The relationship between Jimmy and Tony is skilfully depicted, their teenage banter mixed with a subtly suggested insecurity. Fenton’s gawky Tony is torn between fear of, and for, his friend. The show relies on the character of Jimmy, and Owens gives a sterling performance. A wild one in a familiar mould, through Roche’s skilful writing he is sure to connect with many who can remember a disappointed youth.

Until 25 July 2014


Photos by Richard Davenport

Written 2 July 2014 for The London Magazine

“Another Country” at the Trafalgar Studios

The Theatre Royal Bath and Chichester Festival Theatre’s revival of Julian Mitchell’s Another Country is now showing at the Trafalgar Studios. The 1981 play, which imagines the school days of a future spy, to all intents the real-life traitor Guy Burgess, is an accomplished text and this fluid production, directed by Jeremy Herrin, serves it well.

Set in a prestigious public school, the play begins with a pupil’s offstage suicide. This tragic death compels the lead character, Bennett, to confront his homosexuality and take comfort from his only friend, a schoolboy communist, Judd. It’s possible Herrin could have injected more tension by conveying just how much the political machination of the prefects matter to these youngsters. But Peter McKintosh’s set and, above all, the writing itself recreate the world of the school with conviction. Despite levels of repression that could strike you as clichéd, melodrama is avoided.

Rather than teenage angst we have an intelligent examination of class and community. Cold War politics seem a distant issue now, but there are plenty of arguments raised by these juvenile protagonists that make you stop and think. The youngsters here are far removed from those we know today, being by turn strangely naïve and remarkably articulate, but the deep passions that arise in youth and their impact later on in life remain compelling themes.

To consider another kind of legacy: the play has always been a springboard for acting talent. The cast is well drilled and highly professional. Rowan Polonski makes a superb Fowler, a youth brimming with religious fervour, and Mark Quartley convinces as the stressed head of house Barclay. As Bennett, Rob Callender is sure to be compared to Rupert Everett, who performed the role in the 1984 film. But what Callender lacks in terms of instant charisma he makes up for in terms of credibility as a gawky schoolboy – Everett never appeared this gauche – and his is a better interpretation of the role. As Bennett’s communist comrade Judd, acting scion Will Attenborough gives a tremendous performance, managing to inject passion into the polemic and demanding we sit up and listen to every word he says.

Until 21 June 2014


Photo by Johan Persson

Written 27 April 2014 for The London Magazine

“The Pride” at the Trafalgar Studios

Nearly six years after its premiere at the Royal Court’s upstairs theatre, Jamie Lloyd once more directs Alexi Kaye Campbell’s play, The Pride, this time at the Trafalgar Studios. A story of gay life, set in 1958 and 50 years later, it deserves to be seen again, and by more than those who could squeeze into the Royal Court’s smaller space. Examining changing attitudes and personal politics, the play insures a broad appeal – just – by virtue of its heartfelt emotions.

The Pride is occasionally verbose. Kaye Campbell doesn’t wear his learning lightly, but there is no doubt the writing is accomplished. Lloyd’s direction is the key to its success: he brings out the drama and speed in a script that could lag and his bold staging, with a mirror used to create a spooky confluence between the ages, injects theatricality.

L-R Mathew Horne & Al Weaver - The Pride - Trafalgar Studios - Photo Marc Brenner
Mathew Horne and Al Weaver

A time-travelling structure, flying between the 1950s and the present with exciting speed, allows the actors to shine. Harry Hadden-Jones and Al Weaver play the lovers Philip and Oliver, wracked with guilt and fear in the Fifties and just as confused with their contemporary freedoms. Three cameo roles performed commendably by Matthew Horne provide the majority of the play’s humour. But the star is Hayley Atwell as Sylvia, Philip’s wife in the past and Oliver’s friend in the present – the most interesting roles in the play performed with great skill.

The historical scenes pack the most punch, as there seems to be so much more at stake. The contemporary version of Oliver’s character, battling with fidelity and a sex addiction, seems trivial in comparison. But Kaye Campbell has a powerful idea – highlighting hard-won freedoms as a call to action among the gay community for continued political involvement. At a time when legislation in Russia focuses attention on gay rights globally, the play seems topical and important: the cast’s appearance at the curtain call with protest placards, dedicating their performance ‘To Russia with love’, deserves applause.

Until 9 November 2013

Photos by Marc Brenner

Written 21 August 2013 for The London Magazine