Review – Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again ****

Revolt set at The Space

Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again feels like it was inspired by the Me Too movement. But it pre-dates that, having been a hit for the RSC in 2014. It is telling that the subject matter is still relevant.

This is an angry and uncompromising play. It’s comprised of a series of episodes with different characters in each. We are teased to find patterns and connections by references to bluebells and watermelons throughout, but they are, like the bunches of flowers, left to wilt. And when I hear watermelons my mind goes to Dirty Dancing. But perhaps not putting baby in the corner has some distant, if muted, connection to this piece

If there is a common thread it’s the dissection of language to expose how it undermines or ignores the female perspective in an alarmingly casual way. The sketches begin in comic mode as a couple, we assume returning from a date, engage in verbal foreplay. His attempts at seduction are each deconstructed by her forensic analysis of his choice of words. Such as objecting to having her dress ‘peeled’ off: ‘I’m not a potato!’

The second scene has a woman asking not to work Monday’s because she wants to sleep more. The man (someone from HR, her boss?) offers ever more tempting inducements like free cake or exercise classes or happy hour at the roof-top bar on top of the office to keep her at work. As with the previous scene, he fails to understand what he’s being asked. Offering more bribes for someone so they don’t have to leave the office even to eat or sleep or exercise is not a solution for someone who wants to spend less of their life at work.

As the scenes progress they become darker, the characters less connected to each other. The structure becomes more vague until eventually even language itself collapses as characters talk across each other and at the audience, leaving us no chance to follow a thread, but just catching key words. This makes the later scenes somewhat less effective. You find yourself stepping out of the moment and thinking about how hard you are working to keep tuned in to the story.

The play is uncompromising in its message that, despite what we may experience ourselves and what legislation says ought to happen, there are deep-rooted societal barriers to women having an equal voice.

The large cast assembled for this production by Blue Stocking Effigy is impressive. The Space never allows any actor to get away with anything except the most committed of performances. It’s altogether too intimate for that. Fortunately this group are all completely on top of their game, clearly supporting and engaging with each other in focused and passionate playing. This is just the kind of piece which is so well suited to The Space.

Whatever your personal position on the issues raised here, you’ll find this an arresting and rewarding piece of theatre which boldly challenges established norms and leaves you with no choice but to think about your own approach, language and behaviour.

Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again is at The Space until 2 February 2020.


Review – The Woman in Black *****

The Orchard Theatre in Dartford has shown perfect timing by booking The Woman in Black for Halloween week.

It’s genuinely spine tingling and properly frightening. But it’s also much more besides. It’s an object lesson in theatrical story telling making brilliant use of the theatre itself to become a key element in the play. At the same time it asks the audience to invest in the piece. Vital elements are there but have to be discovered and put together by us. Our imagination is explicitly called on to fill in the blanks left by a deceptively almost non-existent set. You would be forgiven for not realising this perfect piece of theatre was originally a book. Stephen Mallatrat was asked to adapt Susan Hill’s story to fit a very tight budget and this constraint inspired him to create a truly exceptional theatrical experience.

The pace is gentle to start with. And humorous. Arthur Kipps (Robert Goodale) begins to recount his ghostly tale in an empty theatre, rehearsing for when he is to perform it in front of friends and family. He is not, as is painfully apparent, a performer, so has employed the services of an actor (Daniel Easton) to coach him. Bumbling around and making many false starts, things suddenly drop into place when the actor decides to assume the role of the younger Kipps and has Kipps play all the other characters he meets on his journey to Eel Marsh House, where he is going to wind up the estate of the recently deceased owner, Alice Drablow.

We have train rides, a pony and trap, a graveyard, the fog enshrouded marshes, an eager and loyal dog. All created with a mixture of sound, lighting, a few props and, sometimes, with nothing more than our imagination.

Daniel Easton as the actor is warm and confident. We too feel confident in his presence, making it even more unnerving when he becomes frightened of what he is witnessing. As Arthur Kipps, Robert Goodale shows us a man whose confidence has been destroyed – a grim warning of what may become of our young, confident actor. But he also gets to play every other character Arthur meets, changing with a stoop here, a hat there, a walking stick or whatever. This helps establish that things are not necessarily what they seem and adds to the increasing and palpable tension in the theatre as the evening progresses. Yes, there are moments to make you jump, but there is much more as well. There’s a sense of foreboding and a feeling you’re seeing something genuinely spooky.

This is a remarkable piece of theatre. If you’re someone who’s not sure of straight plays and only thinks of seeing a big, sparkly musical, please do see this and find out just what brilliant theatre can do.

The Woman in Black is on tour and at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until 2 November 2019.


Review – Spitfire Sisters *****

In Spitfire Sisters writers Doc Andersen-Bloomfield, Catherine Comfort and Heather Dunmore tell the largely unknown story of the World War 2 women pilots of the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary). Their role was to deliver aircraft from the manufacturers to the various airfields around the country, ready for combat. They had to be able to fly all the different aircraft types, from old fashioned Tiger Moths right up to the huge four-engined bombers. And to keep things simple they had to make these journeys without using the instruments – all they had was a compass. The powers-that-be considered women would find it too difficult to learn how to use all the different instruments in the various planes. So it seems they set forth almost literally on little more than a wing and a prayer.

American women pilots joined forces with our own ATA and the play centres on the moment this happens. It serves as a springboard to bring out a series of contrasts and challenges as the various characters reveal more about themselves as they adjust to their new colleagues. As well as a beautifully clear introduction to their differing working styles, delivered by the two senior officers to the audience as though we were in a briefing session, more personal issues surface. So we have alcoholism, sexual attraction, cultural difference and class divide all neatly brought to life through genuine and convincing characters going about their unusually intense working lives.

There is a downside to all this, which is that the story feels at times a little unfocussed. It seems for a long time it’s going to be a purely ensemble piece. Clues to any sort of plot are hard to come by. Then we begin to see that British senior officer Phyllis Griggs (Faye Maughan) is fighting several battles. There’s the one with the American senior officer, Jackie Hawkins (Alessandra Perotto), about the best way to lead and discipline their pilots. There’s another battle with her own fear of flying. And finally, the battle for equality with the male pilots of the ATA, who are paid more than the women for doing the same job. This focus is lost a short way into the second act where the pace seemed to slacken a little. At the same time it also delivered some powerfully emotional moments, such as when they all turn to salute the mission board after one of their number is killed.

Alessandra Perotto as American senior officer Jackie Hawkins dominates the stage and provides a wonderfully outspoken contrast to Faye Maughan’s uptight Phyllis. Jackie arrives in a mink coat demanding fresh coffee (to be reminded that there is a war on, you know). Phyllis, meanwhile, is so posh it almost hurts. Even her hair is uptight! In contrast Jackie’s hairstyle is a far more freewheeling affair, depending on what hat she’s wearing and whether she’s just got out of a cockpit!

Faye Maughan’s Phyllis shows great conviction and sincerity. Phyllis is not, on the face of it, a person to warm to. She’s deliberately aloof, partly because she sees it as her duty as leader, partly because she’s clearly not comfortable with letting herself get emotionally close to people. But Maughan carefully shows the humanity within as the play progresses and deftly lets the audience in on what this person is really about. She was particularly affecting during a stilted but powerfully charged phone call with her MP father as she attempts to get him to help her in her mission to get equality for women pilots .

I must also mention the staging. Before the play even started the ceiling was lit blue to suggest the skies the pilots would soon by flying through. I loved seeing the pilot, up in the gallery with a brilliantly simple lighting effect to show they were flying. Added to this the sound effects were spot-on. An air raid had you cowering along with the cast as some huge explosions detonated around the room.

The pilots were played by a young cast and each one managed two things. First, they looked too young to be flying planes in the war – which then reminded us that we did in indeed rely on 19 year old women to do this back then. Secondly they all demonstrated their absolute passion for flying. Not just because they were doing their duty for King and country, but because they just had to fly.

Director Adam Hemming really made great use of what The Space has to offer. This was a wonderul play, both a fascinating history lesson and a powerful evocation of time and place.

[Spoiler alert (although this is a matter of historic record): In a first for the British government, women pilots were awarded equal pay in 1943. Secondly, the American Jackie Hawkins in the play is so inspired by Phyllis she returns to the US to form a US equivalent to the ATA called WASPS (Women Airforce Service Pilots). This really happened and was achieved in fact by Jackie Cochran, who also went on to become the first woman to break the sound barrier.]

Spitfire Sisters is at The Space until Saturday 6 July.



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 – Pinter Six

The Harold Pinter season at London’s Pinter Theatre reaches number six in the shape of two one act plays, both of which offer a comment on social inequality in the form of guests at a party. But if that description makes this seem like an earnest, politically correct evening then you should also be ready for some sharp and witty one-liners and several laugh-out-loud moments.

1991’s Party Time is set at a stiff and swanky party for society’s elite. The chit chat at the beginning tells us little more than that these are people who consider themselves important and are out to impress. Gradually a darker tone impinges as it becomes apparent Jimmy, the brother of one of the characters, is mysteriously missing. Other clues emerge about the nature of the society outside the party compared with that within. We are in some sort of authoritarian state where the upper echelons live in fear of the lower orders, a fear which they dispel by taking draconian steps to control them. The host at one point, for example, apologises for the traffic problems guests experienced on their way but promises steps will be taken to prevent this happening again. At the same time it’s clear they also live in fear, or at least trepidation, of each other.

In the second half Celebration from 2000 is on the surface an altogether more jolly piece centred on a wedding anniversary taking place at a posh restaurant. Although this time the guests are far from posh themselves. He does that classic comic thing of allowing us to feel superior to the characters we are watching. They reveal themselves to be ignorant, culture-less and boorish. Whilst doing so they provide many a good laugh as they forget what food they’ve ordered and can’t even seem to agree on whether the event they attended before dinner was a concert, an opera or a ballet. Meanwhile the waiter drops into these some hugely diverting diversions as he muses on the distinctly highly cultural escapades of his grandfather in a sort of fantasy aside in which his relative knew and met everyone from Thomas Hardy and DH Lawrence to Ernest Hemingway, like some sort of Forrest Gump figure.

As one might expect from an evening of Pinter all this gives the audience plenty to chew on. But it’s also deftly flavoured with generous amounts of high and low comedy. On top of this we are rewarded with a high quality cast who sizzle through the lines and have the chance to show off their skills as they all appear in contrasting roles in both plays. In Party Time John Simm’s Terry appears all charm to his hosts but is plain nasty to his wife. Phil Davies is playing against type as Gavin, the sophisticated and eloquent host. In Celebration he seems more at ease, or perhaps just on more familiar ground to those who know him from television, puce of face and foul of mouth, but at least honest in his views, however unacceptable. Tracy-Ann Oberman is almost unrecognisable as the darkly brooding Charlotte in the first half and then enjoys herself enormously in a huge blond wig as the subject of The Celebration. Celia Imrie, meanwhile, is brilliant in both parts. Clipped and severe in Party Time and also donning a huge wig for Celebration – which suits her fabulously although it does seem to put the piece visually in the 80s even though it was written for the millennium. You’ll recognise all the other faces as well. Ron Cook is brilliantly watchable, especially as the increasingly drunk Lambert celebrating his anniversary.

This is one classy night at the theatre.

Sue in the Stalls attended courtesy of London Box Office.

Pinter at the Pinter runs at The Pinter theatre until 23 February 2019.

Review – I Occur Here

I Occur Here describes itself as a devised physical theatre piece – which may send warning signs to some – but The Space is a venue which encourages and understands originality and this in turn should encourage confidence in those who attend to be willing to try out new things.

Devised and conceived by Mariana Aristizabal and Malena Arucci, the play avoids conventional narrative structure, but nonetheless is the story of four young migrants, each of whom is on a journey, leaving all they know behind but driven by the desire to belong somewhere else.

As we enter,  the four members of the cast are already on the move, travelling in circles around a circle of apparently abandoned clothes on the floor. As they each begin their story they hurriedly put and then take off various items of clothing from the floor, seemingly searching for an identity with which they feel comfortable. An unseen voice announces that there are four different types of journey: searcher, escaper, mover and ousted.

I was expecting each of the four characters to manifest the different journey types more clearly than was apparent, at least to me. But the stories gradually emerged. Theatre of this type invariably requires just a little more commitment from the audience. It’s natural to look for patterns and structure and often in devised pieces they just aren’t there. The organic creation process doesn’t lend itself to such regimentation. But at just 45 minutes this is the ideal length for such a free-form piece.

The international cast – Daniela Cristo Mantilla, Nathalie Czarnecki, Santiago Del Fosco and Hanna Winter – imbue the piece with energy and passion whilst allowing us insight into the impact of moving has on the people they used to be and the people their new homes make them become. These are a not fully explored characters – time alone prevents that – but they do seem genuine and credible.

It’s a different experience but The Space is always welcoming and the Hubbub bar and cafe completes the experience nicely!

I Occur Here is at The Space until 18 August 2018.


Review – Barry Humphries’ Weimar Cabaret

Barry Humphries shares his childhood discovery of a stack of sheet music in a Melbourne second-hand book store, music which revealed a largely forgotten flowering of creative, original and experimental music from Germany in the 1920s.

The time in history is crucial to an appreciation of this music and this show. The music is extravagant, free and daring – all things which ended in Germany with rise of Hitler and the Nazis. And with few, if any, recordings this art form, unlike say paintings, effectively ceased to exist the moment it stopped being written and performed.

Here it is brought joyously to life. And although in some ways this is a history lesson, the music feels fresh and new. Every item is stimulating and hugely entertaining. And there are also a few stunning moments. The Geographical Fugue (composed by Ernst Toch with the English version performed here written by John Cage and Henry Cowell) is a virtuoso piece performed by the entire Aurora Orchestra entirely a cappella, which surprises both in its originality and in the skill needed to perform it. Assistant Musical Director Ben Dawson at the piano seems to have music effortlessly flowing from his fingers, never more so than in Jezek’s Bugatti Step – a thrilling piece requiring outstanding virtuosity.

The songs are performed by cabaret artist Meow Meow – who is a performance force to be reckoned with. Equally at home in English or German, sad or seductive, she is a marvellous performer and actor. Barry Humphries – sans Dame Edna et al – is our guide through this treasure trove, sharing his obvious admiration and enthusiasm infectiously. He also provides great entertainment in his own right. After joining Meow Meow, who guides the 84 year-old Humphries through some carefully crafted trepidatious choreography in one of the numbers, he quips at the end, “Is there a cardiologist in the house…or a choreographer?”

Barry Humphries is of course the draw to attend this show. And it is a rare pleasure to enjoy his company, as he puts it, “heavily disguised as myself.” And whilst there are generous amounts of his time in the evening, the other elements are equally enthralling. The 17 piece Aurora Orchestra is amazing (and credit to sound designer Phil Wright for his subtle blending of the instruments to make it sound wonderful), as is the musical director Satu Vanska, who also takes on singing duties in a couple of numbers.

If you think you know 1920s Berlin form the musical Cabaret then you do – but only up to a point. Take this opportunity to let the estimable Barry Humphries open your ears and mind at this truly special evening.

Barry Humphries’ Weimar Cabaret is at The Barbican throughout July 2018. 

Review – Ghost About the House

How exciting to be at the press night of a brand new play and to discover something that straight away feels like a classic! Matthew Campling brings us a delightfully deft and satisfying comedy set in two distinct periods with the eponymous ghost being the one character who appears in both narratives. As the neat plot is revealed we gradually discover the connections between the ghost, the characters in the past and the characters of today.

Well I say today. The contemporary action takes place as the EU referendum looms in 2016. The setting is the same grand Islington house, in 1936 and 2016. The 1936 story sees Ian, the young master, in love with the butler, Leonard, but also seduced by Eddie, a handsome friend of the family, who is also wooing Ian’s mother Lady Millicent. Henry, Millicent’s jealous and too young suitor, plays a desperate hand. In 2016 Ian is the ghost whose mischievous haunting antics have split the relationship of new owners Edward (a respected MP in the midst of the Remain campaign) and Alex. Edward brings to the house Leonard, a young man he’s picked up – much to the annoyance of his former partner Alex. The ghostly Ian, meanwhile, perceives a great likeness between Leonard and his long gone love, so does his best to keep Leonard at the house whilst putting Alex off . Nita, Alex’s sister, is a manic yummy mummy adding her own anarchy.

Joshua Glenister is the only actor playing just one character, albeit he’s very much alive as Ian in 1936 but appearing as Ian’s ghost in 2016. Other members of the cast have two characters each – one in each time setting. As well as being a showcase for the cast’s talents it must also keep them mentally and physically on their toes as the story switches scene by scene between 1936 and 2016, resulting in quick changes in the cosy confines of the Kings Head Theatre, Islington. Even Mr Glenister doesn’t escape the quick changes as the convention is immediately established that the ghost Ian appears naked apart from a distinctly sturdy pair of white Y fronts, despite which this ensures he is possibly more attractive dead than alive!

Each other actor’s pairs of characters are distinctly drawn by Campling’s script and further enhanced by clever character work from the cast which avoid lazy stereotypes and present fully rounded characters which are all by turns attractive and flawed.

There are elements of farce but the big laughs come from the brilliant creation of a grande dame/matriarch in the Wildean tradition in the shape of Lady Millicent, played with aplomb and a sure-fire comic sense by the wonderful Sioned Jones. She has or is the subject of some brilliant killer lines. There are also some touching moments. When 2016 Leonard senses the presence of the ghost Ian the scene culminates in a moment where Leonard and the ghost reach out and touch hands. Sincere performances from Joshua Glenister’s ghost and Joe Wiltshire Smith as Leonard mean this simple moment catches you out with its sudden power.

Matthew Gibbs is suitably aloof as remain campaigning MP Richard, worried about being caught out having picked up another young man. But despite having constructed a fool-proof speech on the evidence for remaining in the EU he fails to see the evidence of the ghost’s existence. His 1936 alternate is Eddie, an Australian of similarly doubtful morals engaging in an upstairs/downstairs romance. The presence of Brexit in the piece brings a different tone to things that doesn’t always sit comfortably with the subtle drawing of human relationships or the sophisticated language and clever plotting.

Working hardest in the two character game is Timothy Blore who’s 1936 Henry is desperate for the affections of Lady Millicent. In 2016 he is Alex (MP Richard’s ex boyfriend), struggling with the presence of his usurper and the irritating attentions of the ghostly Ian, the upshot of which being he finds himself on stage in just a towel and covering his modesty as even that is taken away by the ghost.  Full marks for a brilliant in-character ad lib during this scene on press night.

Director Scott Le Crass brings the physical and emotional elements together with super pace and brings out the best from his cast and the sparkling and witty script.

This is exactly what writer Matthew Campling promised – a hilarious, sexy, haunting gay comedy!

Ghost About the House is At The Kings Head, Islington until 30 June 2018. 

Review – Songs for a New World

Once again Sue in the Stalls is at the ever delightful The Space in London’s Docklands, this time for a musical event  – Jason Robert Brown’s ‘Songs for a New World‘.

A constant stream of exciting and occasionally moving melodies is something of a hallmark of Jason Robert Brown’s work, and ‘Songs for a New World’  is no exception. With limited plot, and more of an overarching sentiment holding the pieces together, the cast at The Space had to really emote throughout each individual performance, whilst gelling seamlessly as a team and holding the 90-minutes plus interval production together. No mean feat.

The Space, Songs For A New World, Theatre, Jason Robert Brown, London

The individual performances of Rosie Cumber, Meesha Turner, George Gehm and Oliver Metcalfe were thought provoking and emotional. The strength of their solo voices was amplified when together they sang, filling the room. They were beautifully accompanied by the band under the Musical Director, Sally Goodworth, with a stand-out performer on the drums, seeming to really hold the show tightly together.

Cumber, Turner, Gehm and Metcalfe are faced with the potentially daunting task of jumping between emotions for each song they perform. At times they are called upon to be bold and daring, brash and callous, moody and reserved or even just a silent partner during someone else’s turn in the spotlight. The dedication and talent of each performer meant that these transitions rarely felt uneven, and their distinct characters were easy to spot. The basic and static set was used inventively at times, and projection added a sense of depth and variety to the otherwise bland stage.

Stand out numbers include Meesha Turner as a seductive yet scornful Mrs Claus in “Surabaya-Santa”. This song really gave Turner the opportunity to show off the rich tone of her vocals, particularly in the lower end of her range which is her clear strength. “She Cries” offered a more sensitive performance, whilst “The River Won’t Flow” brought the whole company together in a raucous but musically sound performance. Rosie Cumber’s performance of “I’m Not Afraid of Anything” was sensitive yet empowering, giving the character a depth of emotions you wouldn’t expect possible in a brief singular song.

The Space is an intimate and inviting venue which at times felt overpowered by the vocals on display. With song taking centre stage (dialogue and choreography slip into the shadows) the cast admirably offered varied tone and dynamic but could even afford to pull back more, allowing the wonderful music to fill the space. Overall, ‘Songs for a New World’ was an uplifting and musically varied masterclass in song, as an ideal combination of musical direction, performance and of course the impeccable work of Jason Robert Brown came together. The talent on show was undeniable, and the hard working cast (barely a moment off stage for them all) received a well deserved standing ovation for their efforts.

‘Songs for a New World’ by Jason Robert Brown is at The Space until Saturday 16 September 2017.

Tickets can be purchased HERE.