Review – Post Mortem *****

You’ve got to admire a play that begins with a discussion about vacuum cleaners and ends with Shakespeare. Post Mortem is written by Iskandar R. Sharazuddin and he performs it in a two-hander with Essie Barrow.

With just two chairs and a white stage down the middle of the room, like a fashion show runway, you have to invest in the clues given by Nancy and Alex to work out that what we’re seeing is two simultaneous perspectives on their story so far. They look back on their relationship when they find themselves locked in the disabled toilet at their friends’ wedding 10 years on from their early teenage infatuation.

Through this both they and we uncover truths about the events that have shaped their relationship – including an apparent teenage pregnancy and abortion. But don’t let those elements give the impression this is by any means a heavy-going piece. It’s a deft mix of light and shade as well as making intelligent use of physical theatre to bring out both character and story.  For instance the physical intimacy of The Space is matched by the intimacy between the two performers in a carefully choreographed scene which is representational of their first love-making. In a humorous twist these moves are re-played later on as the Macarena dance, when they are locked in the toilet and hear the music being played at the wedding reception.

As ever The Space brings its own special atmosphere to this sort of intimate work. Director Jessica Rose McVay has used the room well, making good use of lighting to move us swiftly from place to place whilst also allowing the physical moments the time they need to play out fully. Iskandar R. Sharazuddin has a strong presence as Alex but shows vulnerability and trepidation in his re-connection with Nancy. Essie Barrow is, I learn, a dancer as well as an actor. This skill-set serves her well but she is equally strong on dialogue and, in particular, in her various monologues addressing the audience directly, as they both do.

This is a refreshingly original piece that’s also accessible. Don’t let the forecast warmer Spring weather my put you off spending some time inside the theatre for this. Sure you might want to enjoy a leisurely drink outside in the first of the warm evenings. But at The Space you can do that courtesy of their Hubbub bar/restaurant. And Post Mortem, at just an hour, allows time for the play and the pint (and get’s an extra star for this admirable compactness).

Post Mortem is at The Space Arts Centre until Saturday 20 April 2019.

Review – Nigel Slater’s Toast ****

A visit to The Other Palace’s website to book tickets for Nigel Slater’s Toast offers a page warning about allergens one might be exposed to in the show. That’s a first for me, although an allergic reaction to this evocative, funny and touching play is unlikely.

Based on his autobiography this play by Henry Filloux-Bennett tells the story of the formative years of celebrated chef Nigel Slater. We meet him aged nine as he learns how to make jam tarts with his mum. Her culinary skills don’t stretch much beyond that, but it’s enough to engender a love of food, flavours and cookery in the young Nigel.

His father is a more remote figure who, although not the cook in the house, is not averse to trying new things – in this case spaghetti bolognese, although the experiment is abandoned when they all decide the sprinkling of parmesan smells like sick.

The Slaters must be fairly affluent by the standards of the early sixties as they employ a gardener and have a car. The former takes what turns out to be a slightly inappropriate shine to Nigel and is swiftly dismissed. Meantime the car transports the small family on their summer holiday to Bournemouth.

All this presents an idyllic picture and, as Nigel says, he couldn’t imagine how he could be happier. But we’ve already spotted, although young and naive Nigel hasn’t, that his mother is hiding the seriousness of her illness and a different mood takes over in Act 2 when the brassy ‘Auntie’ Joan steps into his life.

For anyone of a certain age (say about Nigel Slater’s – who is 61) there is wave after wave of gloriously remembered nostalgic detail. It seems almost everything from a 60s and early 70s childhood is in here. From hotel toast (cold and hard, like the butter it comes with!), to sherbet dips, to watching the Persuaders! while licking the cream out of a Walnut Whip – the height of decadence in the Slater household where a Cadbury’s Flake was deemed far too risqué.

Giles Cooper makes light of the heavy lifting he has to do playing Nigel Slater. Not only does the part require him to participate in the dramatised incidents from his childhood, he also narrates and comments on the action. He’s always the centre of attention and skilfully convinces us as he not only gradually matures from age nine to 17 but also as he presents his own adult perspective in his commentary. Quite a feat – never mind the huge word count he has to learn!

As Mum Lizzie Muncey allows the slightest gesture to speak volumes. We can understand her instantly, often in moments where she has no dialogue. A beautiful performance. Stephen Ventura is Dad and as such every inch the 1960s patriarch, revealing his true feelings by his stoic attempts to disguise them. Jake Ferretti gets to show off his skills in a convincing variety of roles. Initially he’s Josh the gardener, opening young Nigel’s eyes. He later takes things a little further when he appears as the gay son of the hotel owner Nigel is now working for. Marie Lawrence is formidable as ‘Auntie’ Joan, who gets into a food contest with Nigel, trying to out do him for the affections of his father by making ever more extravagant desserts. At this point in the play – and a couple of others – the audience is brought into the action by way of food being passed round. In this case it’s lemon meringue pies. And it’s not just the front row who get lucky – there’s enough for everyone!

The whole evening is given an even more special atmosphere thanks to Jonnie Riordan who is billed as director/choreogrpher. No – it’s not a musical, but with waltzing kitchen cabinets and highly atmospheric music and effects, it’s got the pacing and rhythms of musical theatre woven into it.

Nigel Slater’s Toast is at The Other Palace in London until August 2019.

Sue in the Stalls attended courtesy of London Box Office.



Review – Witness for the Prosecution *****

Witness for the Prosecution has just announced an extension to March 2020, and having seen it you can tell why. The grip of this taught drama is hugely enhanced by the setting in the main council chamber of the County Hall building on London’s Southbank. Even the front of house staff are dressed as court ushers. Although not a courtroom, this stunning and imposing space has gravitas and ambience in spades. The play is not entirely set in a court but those scenes that are become truly engrossing to the point that one’s disbelief is suspended fully and willingly. For other scenes – for example in lawyers’ offices or a dark street – props are brought on by company members in neatly choreographed moves. This is necessary because there are no wings or flies so it’s quite a walk to the stage area from the various entrances, but the necessity results in an inventive and effective solution.

Making his West End stage debut in the leading role of the accused is Daniel Solbe as Leonard Vole. He has exactly the right mix of charm, insecurity, naivety and good looks for the part. And it’s essential he does for reasons which will become apparent if you go, but which I’m not about to give away here! His defence barrister, Sir Wilfrid Roberts QC, is suavely played with striking theatricality by Jasper Britton. He’s hugely credible in the part and really owns the room – both the fictional courtroom and the actual playing space. Batting against him is Mr Myers QC, played ferociously by William Chubb. The duel between these two lawyers becomes the centre of the play and they wheel around the stage in fast-paced and exciting scenes, pouncing on each other whenever even a pause for breath is threatened.

As Vole’s wife Romaine, the holder of his alibi, Emma Rigby is excellent. She looks and sounds the part and embraces the ambiguity of the role entirely. Of the other witnesses Joanne Brookes as the victim’s housekeeper Mrs Mackenzie has a great time on the witness stand, delightfully (for us) unwittingly digging her own holes with relish.

There is an undercurrent of outdated attitudes which jar with a contemporary audience. Women make tea and fall for charm and flattery. ‘Foreigners’ are not to be trusted on any account. But it is a period piece and these views are to be expected as a result. And in the end the plot itself in some ways undercuts them.

Courtroom dramas are always entertaining, as real-life courtroom proceedings bring their own inherent theatricality to the play, only serving to enhance the tensions. By combining that with a unique venue, Witness for the Prosecution successfully manages to punch above its weight and deliver an exciting and engrossing entertainment.

Sue in the Stalls attended courtesy of London Box Office.

Witness for the Prosecution is currently booking until March 2020.

Review – Abigail’s Party ****

There can be few, if any, plays more closely associated with the performance by the original actor than Abigail’s Party. This new touring production embraces that performance with Jodie Prenger’s Beverly adopting the famous voice. Director Sarah Esdaile reminds us in the programme that as Mike Leigh’s plays are created in a collaborative process involving the actors, it is fair and reasonable to say that Alison’s Steadman’s performance is as much a part of the character as the words she says.

Abilgail’s Party is about social aspirations of the middle class. It is set at Beverly and Tony’s, who have invited the neighbours round for drinks whilst the unseen Abigail hosts her teenage party nearby. As the evening progresses our initial views of these people are challenged as they reveal unexpected traits in response to unfolding events.

It is a huge credit to Ms Prenger that her presence in the role brings Beverly fully and awfully to life with complete credibility, leaving you with no longing for the original, brilliant though it was. Dressed in a colourful maxi dress she is a formidable figure even in her own living room. She girates and sweeps around the space which, in all its 70s gaucheness, is like an extension of her.

Daniel Casey plays her estate agent husband Laurence who, after just three years of marriage, has clearly had his fill of Beverly but has also, so far, successfully kept a lid on it. We sympathise with him as comes apart in fits and starts, but in his own way he is just as awful as Beverly. Calum Callaghan plays taciturn guest Tony who, with his wife Angela (Vicky Binns), has been invited to spend the evening at Beverly’s to welcome them to the neighbourhood. In fact Beverly is simply using the opportunity to make sure she is safe in feeling superior to her new neighbours. Fortunately Angela is either smart enough or stupid enough not to notice this (which of these she is becomes clear towards the end). Calum Callaghan brings enough warmth to Tony for us to see his appeal whilst Vicky Binns is bubbly and fun in a role which combines naivety with a certain steeliness.

The other guest is Sue, who has come round so she can leave her 15 year old daughter Abigail to have a party at her house. Rose Keegan was, for me, outstanding in the role. Such a beautifully observed character who has been clearly too timid throughout her life ever to say what she really thinks or wants. This was a role with something new and different about it and it was hilarious and charming.

A word about the set, which is a masterpiece of 70s interior design. Of course the play was originally produced in 1977 and was not a period piece. Now this look brings a whole new dimension to the evening, where 70s attitudes, music, drinks and fashion add both depth and humour to the experience.

Abigail’s Party is at the Orchard Theatre Dartford until 6 April 2019 and then continues on tour.