Review – Ploutos, an Aristophanic comedy ****

Ploutos is the Greek god of wealth. In the play he is personified as a blind man. Our hero, a farmer called Chremylos, and his servant stumble upon him and, after a little light bullying, take him home. Wealth is blind so he can’t discriminate between the deserving and undeserving. But our farmer has other ideas and a visit to a shrine sees Wealth’s sight restored. This occasions a visit from the god of poverty, who advises against Wealth and in favour of learning from hardship. Nevertheless, the miraculous restoration of Wealth’s sight results in a transformation amongst all those visiting the farmer, with good people rewarded and others ridiculed.

This new production by Thiasos theatre company in a new translation by David Wiles is bouncy, energetic and huge fun. The stylised costumes and make up are a real treat, adding humour and a touch of warmth to the characters. And how wonderful to be in a theatre again and hear the band tuning up! Yes, we have real live musicians (many of whom double up as members of the large cast of characters) playing delightful ‘Greek’ music from musical director Manuel Jimenez. For those of us denied our annual pilgrimage to a Greek island this summer, this added another layer of wistful enjoyment to the piece. On top of that there are musical numbers and even some Greek dancing (although no broken plates!).

The performances are big and bold like the costumes and make up. Our narrator is Chremylos’s servant Carion, played by Salv Scarpa. He has an appealing stage presence and brilliant clarity and power in his voice, immediately getting us into the play. Like all the other performers, he uses movement a great deal. This keeps the whole thing feeling alive, vibrant and intimate, despite the cast having to keep back further from the audience than they otherwise might have. Oengus Mac Namara plays both Wealth and Poverty which great gravitas, which Charles Sobryy as Chremylos plays against delightfully, reminiscent of Percy’s relationship with Blackadder.

This large company has made a serious investment in this play and the quality and love they have for the material shines through in the performance. How they make it work financially for a small, socially distanced audience I don’t know, but thanks go to The Space for making this happen and for looking after us so well.

Ploutos is at The Space until Saturday 3rd October, after which you can catch it in Poland!



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 – Gasping at The Space ****

Ben Elton’s first play is a deconstruction of capitalism and consumerism centred on the idea of a yuppie-style company hot shot that air can be turned into an aspirational consumer good. We have designer water so why not designer air?

Like all good satire the leaping-off point for this increasingly outrageous story is close enough to be within touching distance of reality. In fact, it already happens to some extent. When I was in Las Vegas some casinos would leave their doors open, wafting cool, refreshing, air-conditioned air into the street to lure you in from the 117-degrees-in-the-shade Nevada heat.

The story develops as Sir Michael Chiffley Lockheart, head of the Lionheart company, asks his over-eager underling Philip to come up with a ‘Pot Noodle’. That is, to create a market where none existed before. Generating money where there was none. The idea becomes Suck and Blow, a device to generate purified air in your home or business. The downside is in doing so it sucks oxygen out of the surrounding atmosphere to the point that it’s runaway success results in a shortage of normal, breathable air – unless you can afford to pay for it.

This is early ‘little bit of politics’ Ben Elton and he lands his punches at corporate greed, management speak and class distinctions with delightful and subtlety-free abandon. It appears there’s no point he thinks can’t be improved by a good joke and the script is packed with great laughs throughout.

The bright-eyed but naive yuppy leading the Suck and Blow project is Philip, played by William de Coverly. At first I was concerned he was playing the part as Rik Mayall in full Alan B’stard mode. At times it seems the lines must have been written with him in mind, although in fact the part was originally played by Hugh Laurie. Mayall’s force-of-nature performance style is, though, unique and un-matchable. Reminding us of him can’t invite favourable comparison and de Coverly is at his best when he leaves that behind and let’s his own take on the ridiculous and sexually naive Philip come through. He has loads of energy, which always works well in the intimate setting offered by The Space. And he gets some great laughs purely from his body language and facial expressions.

Michael Jayes plays head honcho Lockheart, who steers Philip to exploit the commercial opportunities of his idea for selling fresh air.. Lockheart is quick to see commercial opportunity at every turn. Whenever Philip’s project encounters a problem he instantly spots a way to exploit it to his advantage. Jayes does this with an easy charm combined with an underlying ruthlessness. You can totally see why he got to the top.

Philip’s junior sidekick, Sandy, is the real brains of the operation and in the part Gabriel Thomson wisely plays him completely straight, providing a great contrast to the over-the-top Philip. You may know Thomson from his eleven years playing Michael Harper in the BBC sitcom My Family. He certainly has comedy skills, shown at their best here in a brilliant scene where he finds himself juggling, I think, five different mobile phones, at one stage even passing one to an audience member to hold.

Skevy Stylia is Kirsten, the steely advertising genius who helps Lockheart and co bring Suck and Blow to the market. She has all the right lines and anyone who’s ever dealt with an advertising agency will recognise the type. The cast is rounded out by Emily Beach in various supporting roles, enjoying herself particularly as a weather forecaster.

Co-directors Gavin Dent and Neil Sheppeck have used the confines of The Space well, with minimal props bringing the scenes to life and keeping the pace up. They conclude the play with a post script in the form of a video of Greta Thunberg telling us the world has got to change. I know production company Rising Tides has an environmental agenda and there are obviously environmental aspects to a play about the air we breath. But I think this is perhaps stretching Ben Elton’s targets into areas not originally the focus of the play. Unusually, also, after this the cast did not reappear to take their bows. I guess the reasoning was to leave us thinking about Ms Thunberg’s message rather than massaging the actors’ egos, but it would have been nice to be able to show appreciation for their work.

Gasping is at The Space in rep until 16 November 2019.

Review – The Mousetrap ****

The cast of The Mousetrap

I was a little surprised to find the touring version of this West End war horse turning up so close to town. But maybe the producers think the London production sells well enough to tourists so a little local competition won’t do any harm.

Whatever the reason, it turned out to be an unexpected joy to revisit this play, which I have seen only once before, many years ago, in its London home.

Over the years it has become, of course, a period piece. Set in the days before mobile phones and when people could still use their ration book as a form of identification, these features are lovingly retained. As are the somewhat clipped oh-so-British accents of the owners of Monkswell Manor where the action takes place. That aside I found the script to be surprisingly fresh and the characters accessible and relatable.

The story concerns the new owners of Monkswell Manor, Giles and Mollie Ralston, who, on their very first day in business, find themselves snowed-in with an assortment of apparently random guests and a news story of a murderer on the loose. Fortunately Sgt Trotter is sent along from the local police to help keep them all safe. Needless to say it transpires that one of those at Monkswell Manor is also the murderer.

That’s really all you need to know going in.  The story is efficiently told, the characters clear and quirky enough to each bring suspicion on themselves. There are some humorous moments, a little frisson of tension but, it has to be said, no obvious hook to make the play stand out. It’s continued success now is largely fuelled by its longevity. You just have to see it to find out what it is that’s kept it going since 1952. But there has to be something else going on as well.

What you find is a warmly welcoming set with a snowy gale blowing all the various guests in to warm themselves by the glow of the open fire. It really does look like the kind of place you want to be on a cold winter’s night. The star billing goes to Susan Penhaligon as Mrs Boyle, the guest who finds nothing to her liking (a prototype, surely, for Joan Sanderson’s hotel guest from hell in Fawlty Towers). She chews up the other characters like Margaret Rutherford in bad mood! But it’s really a proper ensemble piece. Understudy Edith Kirkwood played Mollie Ralston delightfully. David Alcock was in equal parts charming, irritating and sinister as the only unexpected guest, Mr Paravicini. Lewis Chandler was as camp as he could be playing Christopher Wren whilst still making the character real.

So Monkswell Manor turns out to be a thoroughly lovely and delightful place to spend the evening. But despite this it still leaves you unable to put your finger on what has made the play such a unique phenomenon.

The Mousetrap tour is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford until 21 September 2019.

Review – We know now snowmen exist ****

We know now snowman exist has a great tag line – Five girls. One tent. No survivors. How can you resist?

Based on a true incident in Russia in 1959 which is still unexplained and which includes the final journal entry from the dead girls – “We know now snowmen exist” – this play brings the story up to date and sets it on a Scottish mountain. The women in this case are on a charity hike but are having trouble getting in touch with mountain rescue, with whom they are meant to check-in every day by radio.

Their isolation pushes them ever closer and exposes fractures in their relationships, revealed as different stories about their backgrounds are told. Strange numbers then start coming over the radio which increase the tension. Is someone sending them messages or just messing with them? Don’t expect a neat resolution or explanation of what’s happening or how the women come to meet their ends. That’s the context for the play, but not its driver.

The dialogue is real, honest and funny. They talk about going out in the snow for a wee, wonder how it would be to have a penis and be able to write their names in the snow – and that’s just for starters. The emotional ground touched on, if not covered in depth, is huge. There’s self harm, alcoholism, religious repression and suicide. That’s not to say it’s a difficult piece to enjoy. It’s not – because these people are great company. We soon feel as though we’re out on the mountainside with them. We’re invested in their situation and their lives.

This is helped considerably by the staging in The Space. Already an intimate venue, it’s played in the round and there are no wings. When anyone leaves the tent they step between the front rows and lurk in the dark corners before returning. Seeing performances in close up like this is meat and drink for The Space. And once you’ve experienced it, somehow peering at a distant stage through a proscenium arch is never as satisfying. Being this close requires intense and committed performances from the actors, and that’s what you get here. That, and a plot worthy of Inside No. 9, ensures a chilling, funny and revealing evening.

We now know snowmen exist is at The Space until Saturday 23 March 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 – Little Women

The estimable Space Arts Centre brings us this new production of Rachael Claye’s take on the classic Little Women. Set in contemporary London the transition from the original’s backdrop of the American Civil War is highly successful. The story focusses on these four strong and individual women and their mother as they deal with the ups and downs of relationships and careers in a family without a father.

As we arrive the March sisters Meg (Isabel Crowe), Jo (Amy Gough), Beth (Miranda Horn) and Amy (Stephanie Dickson) are preparing Christmas decorations in the living room of their home. Neatly set, with the audience down either side, there’s a real sense of being in the room with them, even if at times it requires a sort of Wimbledon-style head turning to follow the action from one end to the other. But there’s nothing wrong with making the audience work to engage fully with the piece.

As the sister’s develop both their work and their relationships we get to know them better and understand their wants and desires.

The men in the play are Laurie (Sean Stevenson) and his tutor, John Brooke (Joshua Stretton) and Professor Bhaer played by Jonathan Hawkins. They appear only in relation to the women but often bring tenderness and humour to proceedings in their various attempts to impress the sisters.

The direction by Sepy Baghaei is fluid and pacey. The play’s short scenes keep things moving, helped by quick and efficient placing of props by the cast. The limited lighting rig in the Space is well used by designer Andy Straw, not only highlighting the location of the action but bringing in turns warmth and chill to scenes.

The strength of both the performances and the writing is evidenced by the fact that at the time of a family tragedy the trauma and sense of loss was palpable amongst the audience in a way I’ve rarely, if ever, experienced in any theatre. We have become unexpectedly close to these people, helped significantly by being physically close to them in a way which The Space venue seems always to achieve so effortlessly. So at the end when everyone gathers round for another Christmas, the emotional impact is huge.

A real Christmas treat.

Little Women is at The Space until 15 December.

Review – The Case of the Frightened Lady

The curtain opens to reveal an imposing baronial hall. It’s reassuringly solid and large. It also tells us we’re firmly in classic murder mystery territory, with the lady of the manor (Deborah Grant as Lady Lebanon) urging staff, guests and family members on to play their part in the running of a large party. This sees us swiftly introduced to most of the large cast and creates a genuine impression that there is a ‘rest of the house’ attached to the bit we can see.

The plot concerns Lady Lebanon’s attempts to see her son and heir (Matt Barber as Lord Lebanon)safely married-off to Isla Crane (played by Scarlett Archer). Meanwhile a possible love triangle involving the housekeeper, her husband the gamekeeper and his lordship’s chauffeur provides  diversion and red herrings.

Before too long there is the inevitable (first)murder, which in turn introduces us to our leading man – John Partridge as Chief Superintendent Tanner (‘Sounds like he should be running a spa,’ quips Lady Lebanon) accompanied by Matt Lacey as his assistant, Detective Sergeant Totti. By this stage you’re wondering if these were regarded as perfectly normal names back in the 1930s or whether Edgar Wallace had his tongue firmly in his cheek. I suspect the latter because, particularly in the second act, there are delightfully bizarre moments as a running gag about two servants always suspected of listening in the wings (Angus Brown as Brook and Simon Desborough as Gilder) is increasingly played up.

That’s not to say this is a comedy. A cast of well known TV faces including Robert Duncan as Dr Amersham ensures that everything is played with conviction, each distinct character being believable in their own right. Rosie Thomson as housekeeper Mrs Tilling is particularly good.

There’s something inevitably a little pedestrian about these kind of plays, but that’s no reason to dismiss them. The Classic Thriller Theatre Company know how to handle the material. They don’t attempt to make it relevant to a modern audience or sensationalise the story. Instead, their approach is to provide a sumptuous set, a cast of well known faces and a few screams along the way.

The Case of the Frightened Lady is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 10 December and then on tour for one more week at The Richmond Theatre.

Review – Bluebird

Being shown into The Space at the start of Bluebird one is immediately unsettled. For a start we’re coming in through a side door, not the usual main entrance. Then the house is in almost complete darkness. Given the flexible nature of the seating at The Space it’s hard to work out where the seats are and then to get to an empty one without stepping on people or stumbling into the stage!

Simon Stephen’s early play (he went on to write the stage version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time)  concerns Jimmy, a mini cab driver. In the first half he picks up various passengers or ‘fares’ in what is essentially a series of sketches. From each we learn something of the story of the ‘fare’ and their world view, whilst also gleaning a little more each time about Jimmy. He, it seems, is trying to get in touch with his wife, from whom he’s been estranged for five years. In the second half – a two-hander between him and his wife – we learn what happened five years ago and the effect this has had on them both.

The play could easily translate to radio with almost no editing. But director Adam Hemming has cleverly staged things not only to add visual variety but to contribute another layer to our understanding of the story. The stage is two runways crossing each other. A literal crossroads in Jimmy’s life. The different sketches are set at various ends of the arms of the cross. In each case the minicab is made of just a few chairs, supplemented by one or two car elements to create Jimmy’s beloved Nissan Bluebird: a steering wheel in one case, a gear lever in another; mirrors, lights, radiator grill. We are being asked to see the sketches as a puzzle from which we can assemble not only a car, but Jimmy’s life. And indeed, at the climax of the play all the car’s parts of there on the stage.

Jonathan Keane’s performance as Jimmy is key to the success of the piece. He is beautifully understated. With little to say in the early part of the play his reactions to the revelations of his passengers are all we have to go on. As the sketches progress we have in truth probably learned enough to see where the plot is heading, but he lays the clues in front of us gently and thanks to Keane’s performance we soon find ourselves really invested in his world.

Others in the first half are passengers in his cab. All convincingly performed with a particularly touching scene from Mike Duran as a grieving father. The play is not without humour. Nathan Hughes in his acting debut gets a good laugh at his incredulity on discovering there’s more than one branch of Marks and Spencer. And a short sketch in which a couple in the back seat are seething over some previous argument and then make up is economically told using just cleverly nuanced expressions and only seven words of dialogue.

The second half sees Jimmy and his wife meeting for the first time in five years. Anna Doolan as Clare has been affected by what Jimmy did and the pain is writ large in her performance. We live this pain with her and she carries much of the emotional weight of the second half on her shoulders.

The framing device of the minicab may for some feel a little contrived, but it creates a particular sense of confinement and pressure which suits the piece and is only enhanced by the physical confines and heat of The Space auditorium itself. References in the script to the heat of the summer (the play was written in 1998) are apt!

Bluebird is at The Space theatre in London’s docklands until 4 August 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.