Review – & Juliet ***

Starting where Romeo and Juliet ends, & Juliet is a light hearted imagining of what Juliet (Miriam-Teak Lee) might have done next if she hadn’t killed herself when she thought Romeo was dead at the end of Shakespeare’s play.

It’s essentially about female empowerment. Anne Hathaway (Cassidy Janson) powers her way into husband Will’s work, suggesting ‘improvements’! Will, meanwhile (Oliver Tompsett) quickly knows when he’s been beaten and so allows Juliet her second chance. At Romeo’s funeral a host of previous girlfriends turn up, much to Juliet’s surprise, who had been led to believe she was his first love. From this point on messages about female empowerment are landed with a conspicuous absence of subtlety or finesse, eliciting rousing cheers from the enthusiastic audience.

Also pleasing the crowd were the musical numbers from the back catalogue of writer Max Martin whose lyrics were oh so carefully selected and edited to produce knowing laughs of recognition as they fitted into the plot from those who were familiar with his work. Songs included Baby One More Time, Oops!…I did it again, Everybody and Roar. Other than those titles, I was clearly in a minority who failed to recognise much of the music. But this is clearly my loss as Martin is the third most prolific writer of US chart singles, behind only Paul McCarntey and John Lennon. I felt I was missing out at the party and that the songs I did spot didn’t have the resonance or strength of those in some similar juke box musicals. But perhaps it’s an age thing.

That said, the music is, even for those ignorant of it, accessible if in many cases unremarkable. And the performances of it are without exception powerful and energetic. Cassidy Janson and Oliver Tompsett are bright, breezey and funny. It would be hard to wish for two more appealing leads. As Juliet, Miriam-Teak Lee comes to us from the original London cast of the hugely influential Hamilton – a rare and significant pedigree for such a young performer. She is simply stunning. Powerhouse vocals combine with a performance which is both knowing and naïve in equal measure.

In supporting roles Tim Mahendran as Francois really shines as he discovers his true self and true feelings, making the most of a part which could easily be over shadowed, not least by David Badella as his father, a womaniser with the tongue-in-cheek name of Lance. Badella is, as ever, a compellingly watchable performer who chews through lines without restraint and is rewarded with easily the best gag in the whole show.

The production design is a joy to the eye. Clever costumes are both contemporary and Elizabethan at the same time. We’re watching a play within a play and the set is gloriously theatrical, although the presence of a double revolve which is also a lift seems somewhat extravagant. But I guess the producers thought it was worth the money! It’s certainly a highly polished and professional show. There’s no mistaking this deserves to be in the West End and reminds you of what our London theatres can do. At the same time it’s delightfully young, fresh and original. My only caveat is that the industrial quantities of confetti showered on cast and audience alike at the end would have more impact if there hadn’t been advance warning of its arrival from before the show even started, as little pieces of paper floated down throughout the evening.

Sue in the Stalls attended courtesy of London Box Office.

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 – 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 – Priscilla Queen of the Desert the musical ****

Priscilla Queen of the Desert sets out to make you love her. She’s done this in her previous incarnations as a film and West End musical. So how does this new touring production fare, having just kicked off on her new road trip at Dartford’s Orchard Theatre?

The score is, of course, bullet proof, this being a juke box musical featuring the cheesiest and most sparkly pop tunes you can think of – Boogie Wonderland, Don’t Leave Me This Way, Hot Stuff. But Priscilla has always had more depth. It’s a show about acceptance and tolerance. Sure, it wears its heart on its sleeve – unapologetically. But the message, whilst crystal clear, is handled with just the right touch so it doesn’t feel as though it’s being rammed down your throat.

The story concerns three drag queens who find themselves on a journey across Australia on their tour bus named Priscilla, as one of them – Tick, played by Joe McFadden –  sets out to see his young son. On their way they discover more about themselves, what other people think of them and what really matters in their three different worlds.

Along with McFadden the other leads, Miles Western as Bernadette and Nick Hayes as Adam, have a complete ball. They seemed a little nervous at the start but soon warmed up. Nick Hayes in particular is bright, breezy and loveable. The story is punctuated by a trio of Divas in a sort of Greek chorus and they were outstanding – a real highlight whenever they appeared.

The eponymous star of the show, Priscilla the bus, is used inventively as she is transformed into various bits of scenery throughout the journey. My only wish was that she had a little more sparkle about her.

The dancing was excellent and the whole show was brought to life by a brilliant band. Add in numerous references to Kylie in this Jason Donovan co-produced production and you have a real crowd pleaser. The audience on the night I saw it were enthused and applauding from the start and left, as the show intends, uplifted and having had a little joy passed to them.

Review – Lovers Anonymous ****

If you’ve ever endured a corporate team building ‘awayday’ you’ll be able to relate to the feeling you get on arriving for Lovers Anonymous. The chairs are arranged in a large circle around the room. There’s a basic table with tea, coffee and biscuits which the eager and slightly too enthusiastic Mike urges you to enjoy before the meeting gets started.

It transpires that what we’re attending is one of the regular meetings of a sort of counselling/self help group called Lovers Anonymous. After the obligatory warm-up exercises Mike and Sandra introduce us to the purpose of the group – a communal safe space where people can open up about their personal experiences of love and relationships. Various members of the group make contributions when prompted by our hosts. It’s not clear at first which are genuine contributions from the audience and which from other cast members who are mixed in amongst us. A few latecomers are admitted and this causes even more confusion. Are they genuinely late arrivals or entrances being made by more cast members? I’m not sure I really know even now!

The whole effect is unnerving to say the least. You find yourself watching everyone else. The ice-breaking games serve only to increase the sense of tension in the room. It comes as something of a relief, then, at least to genuine audience members, when cracks begin to show in the supposedly perfect relationship of Mike and Sandra. Her simmering resentment drips into proceedings slowly but surely, ready for an explosive moment you just know is coming.

Other group members it seems have been attending meetings regularly. Their various inadequacies and romantic failings are in their own way reassuring to the rest of us, whilst also providing some great, if perhaps unkind, laughs. Simon, for example, tells us how he has finally had the courage to speak to Emma, who he’s been admiring from afar these past two years. Suffice to say that when he brings out an album of photos of Emma it’s immediately clear he’s not made the progress the group was hoping for.

Serious issues are also addressed. Like casual sexism and the effect of pervasive pornography. The climax of the hour sees the whole of Mike and Sandra’s world collapse, whilst at least some of their group members are able to see the light and find the confidence to address their relationship needs outside the confines of Lovers Anonymous.

This was quite the most unusual experience I’ve had in a theatre for some time. The one thing I’ve always known in any show, even those designed to be interactive and immersive, is who are the actors and who are the audience. By brilliantly subverting this basic rule right from the moment you walk in, Lovers Anonymous does something unique, challenging, funny and thought-provoking.

Lovers Anonymous is at The Space Arts Centre until 19 July 2019.

Review – The South Afreakins: The Afreakin Family *****

There are, I believe, two kinds of people. Those who like wearing party hats – and normal people. I must confess, as party hats were duly handed out as we entered the theatre, I was mentally knocking off a star straight away. But, it turns out, this is, at least in part, the point. Because as the play progresses it becomes clear I wasn’t the only one feeling uncomfortable with the threat of enforced jollity.

The South Afreakins: The Afreakin Family centres on parents Gordon and Helene as they celebrate both 25 years since they emigrated from South Africa to New Zealand and Gordon’s 70th birthday. Joining them for the party are their twin daughters Rachel and Kelly – and family friend Clive.

The piece is written and performed by Robyn Paterson, playing all the characters. Any worries this was going to be hard work for the audience and self-indulgent for the actor were immediately dispelled by the opening scene of Gordon and Helene in bed at 3am, played completely in the dark. That way we could get to know the characters without the distraction of seeing them. After that it was plain sailing. Well, I say that. It was plain sailing for the audience. The two twin daughters arrived, along with Clive. Sibling rivalry boiled over (an object lesson in passive aggressiveness!). The amazing chocolate volcano cake was checked on again and again. Arguments happened in the bedroom and unseen off stage in the kitchen. Clive never spoke but his presence was almost literally felt. The switching from character to character, especially during heated arguments where the dialogue changed not only from one person to another but to a different scene between two other characters was effective, stunning and, OK, a little showy! So it was no doubt anything but plain sailing for Robyn Paterson. But it looked easy and felt oh so real. Sure, there were moments when she played wonderful comic riffs on the whole idea of her being all the characters. But at other times, particularly in the intense moments between the two warring twins, when their pain became all-consuming, the technical brilliance of the performance took a back seat.

The evening plays out the all-too familiar tensions that are brought to the fore by a family occasion. Subjects such a sibling rivalry and bodies failing with age whilst the mind refuses to realise it’s no longer 21 are laced with insight, wit and laugh-out-loud moments.

Invest just an hour of your life in this hugely entertaining piece and it’ll reward you with something to think about, laugh about and tell all your friends about for a long time to come.

South Afreakins: The Afreakin Family will be at The Space on the Mile at the Edinburgh Festival.

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 – 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 – 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 – The Band *****

Filled with Take That’s numerous hits over the last almost three decades, The Band  can all but guarantee its audience an enjoyable trip down memory lane. However, with some particularly ingenious and imaginative staging, impressive projection effects and an emotional plot, The Band offers more than just warm nostalgia. This is a serious piece of work with a great story, great script (Tim Firth), and great performances, all presented in a slick West End quality production.

The stage is set from the moment you walk in to the auditorium, with a ceefax screen displaying the latest up to the minute news from October 1993. We follow five young women, and their teenage lust for a boyband and more importantly, their unwavering love and support for each other. Once inseparable, circumstances arise resulting in a reunion after 25 years apart, once again brought together by the music of the boyband they so loved as teens.
Young Rachel (Faye Christall) guides us through the first part of the show, she masters the art of being bubbly yet sensitive. All of the young cast (Lauren Jacobs, Sarah Kate Howarth, Rachelle Diedricks and Katy Clayton as well) deliver strong, believable performances which made the audience audibly gasp and giggle along with them. Their older counterparts, (Alice Fitzjohn, Emily Joyce, Rachel Lumberg and Jayne McKenna) have a slightly more difficult task, treading that fine line of once close, now distant friends. However, what comes across through all the women is a sense of warmth.
Winners of the BBC’s Let It Shine, AJ Bentley, Nick Carsberg, Curtis T Johns, Sario Soloman and Yazdan Qafouri play the titular ‘Band’ and find themselves appearing from the most unlikely of places throughout the show. They have to jump (many times literally) from emotive, moving performances to over enthusiastic 90s dance moves within the space of seconds and do so with ease and style.
The show uses Take That’s vast catalogue of music well, showing off Barlow’s impressive songwriting skills. ‘The Band’ perform the majority of the numbers, with gorgeous harmony and some dance moves fans will definitely be familiar with.
Overall the show has a surprising amount of heart in it, alongside all the classic pop tunes audiences turn up for. Don’t be surprised if you leave with a tear in your eye and a song in your heart!