Tommy @ Greenwich Theatre – August 2015

The Who’s Tommy started life as a concept album, with music and lyrics by Pete Townshend, catapulting the band to mainstream fame on its release in 1969. In 1975, it formed the basis for a film starring Elton John and Tina Turner and in 1993 it reached the Broadway stage. In 1996, it descended on London’s West End in a vibrant, colourful and high-tech production starring Paul Keating, Nigel Harman and Kim Wilde. What struck me immediately back then, and kept me returning, was the sheer genius of the music. The show is completely sung-through with little dialogue, so naturally Townshend’s intricate, varied and compelling score is the driving force, carrying the action and charting the twists, turns, ups and downs of the characters’ lives, emotions and dilemmas like some kind of out-of-control rollercoaster.

Ashley Birchall as Tommy in The Who's Tommy. Photo Credit Claire Bilyard (2)

That the score alone is a thrilling ride is naturally a fantastic starting point for anyone looking to stage this. The large-scale attempts have been few and far between over the years, so any new production is welcome and this intelligent reimagining by Michael Strassen at the Greenwich Theatre this month does not disappoint on any level.

Yes, the story is pretty ridiculous. Young boy endures a horrible childhood trauma, goes blind, deaf and dumb, somehow becomes an expert pinball player then achieves world fame and media domination when his mother finally works out how to ‘cure’ him. It smacks of the psychedelia of the day it was written, of course, and this only provides further scope for creativity and vision. Strassen explores all of the opportunities, employing striking, yet often simple symbolism and imagery throughout, bringing a stylistic, artsy feel to proceedings and forcing us to make connections we hadn’t made before.

Mark Smith’s choreography compliments the direction perfectly, his ballet sequences heightening the innocence, purity and beauty Tommy personifies and coupling nicely with the all-in-white cast. There are some interesting Fosse-style and Village People-esque moments thrown in now and again too, which all add nicely to the entertainment.

Ashley Birchall gives an impeccable portrayal of Tommy and is mesmerising throughout with his deft, graceful movements and soaring falsetto. The intimacy of this theatre allows the audience to experience his disabilities and resulting pain and anguish close up, and Birchall effortlessly handles the contrast between these and the unstoppable gravitas he embodies when he regains his senses and unleashes his pent-up animosity on his parents. John Barr’s Uncle Ernie is everything the character should be, combining the epitome of sleaze with some impressive vocal gymnastics and Giovanni Spano’s calm, collected, quiff-bearing Cousin Kevin is a joy to behold. The four-piece band, under the immaculate musical direction of Kevin Oliver Jones, does perfect justice to the score.

Aside from one or two technical glitches and a bit of mis-casting in places, there is really very little to criticise here and this is a production that will not only appeal to existing fans but undoubtedly win new ones.

Ashley Birchall as Tommy and The Company in The Who's Tommy. Photo Credit Claire Bilyard (2)

Photos: Ashley Birchall as Tommy with the Company. By Claire Bilyard.

The House of Mirrors & Hearts @ Arcola Theatre – July 2015

The House of Mirrors & Hearts by Eamonn O’Dwyer and Rob Gilbert is intriguingly billed as “a haunting new chamber musical about love, lies and the ghosts of our pasts.”  Having started life on the Edinburgh fringe, a re-worked version of the show now finds a temporary new home at Dalston’s intimate Arcola Theatre which provides the perfect space and atmosphere for what is an intense and claustrophobic piece from beginning to end.

Charlotte Pourret Wythe as Young Lily, Gillian Kirkpatrick as Anna and Sophie Pourret Wythe as Young Laura in The House of Mirrors and Hearts. Photo Credit Darren Bell  (3)

To begin with, we are presented with a happily family home with young, contented, ballerina daughter, Lily, (Charlotte Pourret Wythe), and apparently happy and fulfilled mother, Anna, (Gillian Kirkpatrick), relaxing together in the kitchen. It is when husband and father, David, (Graham Bickley), meets a mysterious and bloody death in his mirror workshop, seemingly at the hands of older daughter, Laura, that misery and chaos understandably ensue. Mirrors are smashed and the old cliché of seven years of bad luck propels us forward into a new reality which sees Anna attempting to lose her problems in bottles of red wine and Bloody Marys, a withdrawn and tortured Laura seeking solace in her bedroom and Lily parading about like a teenaged advert for Soho’s red light district. Cue gentle, geeky, academic Nathan (Jamie Muscato) who comes to rent one of the rooms in the house. He is devoting his life to the study of an obscure poet and as his dusty old books dominate the kitchen table his frequent, “relevant” quotations from the works become a little too cheesy for comfort.

The remainder of the action attempts to unravel the mystery of the death and builds on the theme of breakage, both literally and metaphorically, as Lily and Anna’s characters erode before our eyes and more glass is smashed. Lily’s violently clumsy attempted seduction of Nathan (and anything male that moves, by all accounts) and Anna’s growing neurosis and frequent odes to alcohol complement each other well and both actresses deliver towering performances. In fact, the vocals are excellent across the board and, combined with an accomplished trio of musicians, do justice to O’Dwyer’s provocative, multi-layered score. Kirkpatrick and Bickley are both in particularly fine voice.

Jamie Muscato as Nathan and Molly McGuire as Lily in The House of Mirrors and Hearts. Photo Credit Darren Bell

Inevitably, it is the quiet, mysterious one that Nathan is drawn to and this relationship develops subtlety before our eyes before reaching an explosive climax by a shiny lake as they mime the smashing of numerous bottles in a tremendous release of pent up energy and pain which is no doubt intended to be a metaphor for all kinds of other things too.

The plot is verging on the ridiculous, it is full of clichés and the hint at child abuse is so subtle that I missed it. However, this is a charming, characterful and intriguing piece of theatre which definitely deserves to be seen.

The Cutting of the Cloth @ Southwark Playhouse – March 2015

The Cutting of the Cloth, written in 1973, draws much from playwright Michael Hastings’ youthful experience as an apprentice tailor. It is such a fine piece of work that it is very difficult to believe it has lain in a drawer for over 40 years and is only just receiving its premiere. Two’s Company, under the direction of Tricia Thorns, has done a superb job of reviving this hidden piece and bringing it beautifully to life at London’s Southwark Playhouse.

Alex Marker’s impressive set design transports us to the Dover Street work-room of Kilgour, French and Sanbury, Savile Row in the 1950s. Run by the work hungry, seemingly unforgiving Spijak Wazki (Andy de la Tour) its fabric strewn floor and ever buzzing machinery help to create a sense of both relentless bustle and isolation from the outside world. Here we witness a fascinating microcosm of human life; Spijak and fellow tailor Eric vie for the best work and play out between them the still ongoing battle between tradition and modern advancement as hand-stitching is pitted against sewing on machines; young apprentice, Maurice, arrives to a torrent of bullying and intimidation from Spijack who is, as it turns out, really only trying to mould him into the best tailor he can possibly be; and seamstresses Sydie and Iris beaver away, looking on in compassion, at times adoration, in their efforts to keep the peace.

the cutting of the cloth Not a great deal happens really, but the power of the production lies is in this very human set of characters, their lives and their sensitive portrayals by all concerned. The script is well-constructed and often hilarious with some great one-liners, usually delivered drily and with impeccable timing by Abigail Thaw’s Iris. The audience is reduced to laughter whenever she opens her mouth but she also shows a more tender side when her feelings are hurt by Eric; she harbours a fierce crush on him but his interests appear to lie elsewhere. Paul Rider gives a beautifully understated performance of this complex character whose raw emotions only really surface when he laments the death of his sister, Spijack’s wife, from alleged overwork.

Andy de la Tour’s Spijak’s Polish accent is so good it is at first a little difficult to make out, but he complements Rider’s Eric wonderfully. James El-Sharawy is perfect as Maurice, taking the character on its journey from shy, cowering boy to confident, budding tailor who can hold his own and stand up for himself, with ease. Contempt turns to affection as Maurice begins to adopt some of his teacher’s ways and the two actors handle this change in pace and interaction really well.

This is a moving, intelligent production of a hidden gem which runs at Southwark Playhouse until 4 April.

Photo – Alexis Caley as Sydie and Abigail Thaw as Iris.

Romeo and Juliet @ New Diorama Theatre – February 2015

It is always something of a treat to see an ultra-modern reimagining of literature’s most famous love story and Rachel Valentine Smith’s production of Romeo and Juliet, which forms one third of the Faction’s current Rep season at the New Diorama, is just this.

The text is pretty much uncut, but the play whips along, rarely missing a beat and holding the attention from its opening, energetic sequence to the lovers’ death at its conclusion. The presentation is reminiscent of a The Only Way is Essex style voyeurism as the young protagonists’ courtship unfolds and the gang culture is played out on the modern-day street and in clubs and bars. The gifted hoodie-clad cast double, sometimes triple up in their roles to make this a slick nine-hander.

Though the dull club-beat that throbs in the background throughout definitely enhances the atmosphere, it can be distracting at times. Coupled with this, sometimes the more physical Shakespeare becomes, the more the language can occasionally go amiss. Whilst, for example, Christopher York’s Romeo is always endearing, some of his speeches are a little rushed; he’s definitely more Yorkshire than Geordie, though. Clare Latham makes an excellent, softly-spoken Juliet and Kate Sawyer’s velour track-suited, chain-smoking, chavvy nurse is both hilariously funny and brilliantly poignant in her grief as she weeps over the dead children at the end.

The real highlight, though, is the balcony scene. Beautifully performed and imaginatively lit, it is everything this scene should be. One really could hear the proverbial pin drop.

This is an enjoyable, accessible piece which, if the reaction of the school children in the auditorium that evening was anything to go by, has clearly been captivating and educating audiences of all ages.

The Talented Mr Ripley @ New Diorama Theatre – February 2015

Not having read Patricia Highsmith’s famous 1955 psychological thriller yet (it’s been on the list for some time!) my only exposure to The Talented Mr Ripley prior to this production by the Faction, appearing as part of their coveted 2015 Rep season, had been the 1999 Hollywood movie starring Matt Damon and Jude Law. I was aware, therefore, of the compelling complexity of the plot and characters and satisfyingly correct in my assumption that this exuberant young company, directed here by the ever-innovative Mark Leipacher, would make a superb job of bringing it to the stage.

This, the tale of Tom Ripley, who is employed by a concerned American father to travel to Italy in an attempt to persuade his son, Dickie Greenleaf, to come home to New York, translates perfectly to the New Diorama’s small, somewhat claustrophobic space. As is ever the way with the Faction, the set is minimalistic and unfussy and Suzie Foster’s design of a white, square, raised platform with space underneath forming the cast’s ‘wings’ and a hole in the middle for them to emerge through, works brilliantly. Chris Withers’ lighting design is also incredibly effective, depicting Italy’s hot sun beautifully and often making the space feel far larger than it actually is.

Christopher Hughes gives a towering performance in the role of Tom Ripley, portraying and exploring every facet of this complex, dangerous young man with enormous energy and skill. He switches from vulnerable geek, to pathological calculator to terrifying killer throughout, a multi-faceted confidence trickster who lies, steals and murders his way through life.  His lack of remorse and sense of twisted pride at the play’s conclusion when he looks back on what he has done, cajoles the audience for a reaction and boasts about getting away with it, sent an actual, incredibly icy shiver up my spine.

Adam Howden’s self-assured, handsome Dickie appears in perfect, much-needed contrast to Hughes and the chemistry that gradually develops between the two men as Ripley manipulates the situation and plays on the generosity and kindness of a complete stranger, is a joy to behold. Natasha Rickman’s clueless, helplessly devoted Marge demands the audience’s empathy and the support from the remainder of the ensemble is always strong.

Mark Leipacher tends to employ attention-grabbing directive devices in his productions, and this one is no exception. I saw one critic complaining that his interesting depiction of the piece as a film within a play does not really work. However, my interpretation is a little less literal. Ripley is a man who loathes himself deeply and acts his life. Nothing he ever says or does depicts the true him, in his attempt to escape from himself. I therefore interpreted the film cameras and barked directions as though on a film set as a continuous, symbolic projection of the character’s false self which pervades the piece. Yes, it’s a film within a play, but only to the extent that Tom Ripley the character is the protagonist who has placed himself at the centre of his own big fallacy.

The length is a bit of an issue, and the second half drags a little in places as the authorities turn up to question Tom repeatedly on the disappearance of his friend. It doesn’t matter too much, though. This is an intelligent, unusual adaption encompassing some brilliant acting and should not be missed.

The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes @ Arcola Theatre, London – July 2014

Based on a short story by Hassan Blasim, The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes by Rashid Razaq charts the experiences of Salim, an Iraqi refugee who takes on a new identity in London after fleeing persecution in Baghdad.

carlosCarlos Fuentes finds himself marrying a wealthy older woman who takes him under her wing and enthusiastically coaches him for his forthcoming citizenship test. However, he can never really escape the memories of the war-torn country and the family he has left behind to suffer the devastation and, as the nightmares of his past catch up with him, he suddenly finds himself being deported with little recollection of why.

The action takes place between 2006 and 2011, interspersing Salim’s memories and experiences in both Baghdad and London with real, historic footage of world leaders fervently voicing their thoughts on the desperate situation of the time. This, combined with the hellish accounts of Salim’s wife as she struggles alone, highlights the contrast between politics and bloody reality for civilians.

Despite the grave subject matter, Rashid Razaq’s gem of a script is littered with humour delivered with immaculate timing and panache by Nabil Elouahabi (some may remember him as the equally confused ‘Gary’ in Only Fools and Horses many moons ago). The near-constant, giggle-inducing moments make flashes of seriousness particularly hard-hitting and Elouahabi handles these transitions with ease.

Sympathetic and hard-edged in equal measure, his performance is complemented perfectly by a sultry, forgiving Caroline Langrishe in the role of his second wife, Lydia, and Sara Bahadori and Selva Rasalingam who skilfully double up to play case worker, security guard, Iraqi colleague and wife.

Ellan Parry’s set design is a joy, fluidly depicting hotel rooms in London, bomb-ravaged streets of Baghdad and detention centres as Nicolas Kent’s slick direction ensures the story whips along.

Particularly hard-hitting in the current climate where daily reports from Gaza of violence and massacre have become the norm, this is an enjoyable and thought-provoking piece which, coupled with the delightful surroundings of Dalston’s classy Arcola, should not be missed.

Photo: Selva Rasalingam and Nabil Elouahabi
© Judy Goldhill

The Tempest @ Cockpit Theatre, London – July 2014

Formed in 2012, Tree Folk Theatre prides itself on breathing new life into classic stories, filling them with inventive touches with the use of puppetry, masks and live music and song. The company’s first two works were derived from folk tales, but what better Shakespeare play for them to tackle and lend such innovation to than The Tempest, with its diverse collection of characters, multi-layered imagery and supernatural overtones.

Presented in the round, this production places emphasis on music and physicality from start to end, beginning and concluding the action with sequences which are presumably intended to depict the wedding of Alonso’s daughter to the King of Tunis or that of Miranda and Ferdinand, or both. James E. Anderson’s original score is intelligently crafted, contrasting airy ballads with crashing, dissonant chords to match the varying moods of the piece.  Lauren Cameron’s set design is simple yet effective and the cast make energetic use of the space throughout but particularly at the beginning when the entire area becomes the storm-battered boat.

IMGA0302Tree Folk’s Prospero consists intriguingly of a large mask with an aged face and mass of seaweed tresses sported by Maia Kirkman-Richards who pulls off the dialogue and the paternal side of the character surprisingly convincingly. Other gender-bending touches include Amy Lawrence’s flighty, feathery Ariel and Ellen Butler’s impish, amusing Trinculo, with the same actress doubling up as Gonzalo. Worthy also of particular mention is Stuart Mortimer who creates a hilarious, belching Stephano, but the real show-stealer is Caliban, a puppet in four or five parts operated by several actors, the disjointed, fluid nature of which IMGA0330combined with Jannik Archer’s deliberate yet dulcet delivery  serves perfectly to enhance the character’s chaotic, troubled existence.

The renunciation of Prospero’s magic at the play’s conclusion consists not only of the removal of his gown but of the mask to fully expose the actress, and the gradual return of Maia Kirkman-Richards’ voice to its natural pitch in Prospero’s final soliloquy enhances further his submission to normality. This is not only a brilliantly original and creative touch on the part of director Alice Sillett, but testament to the skill of the actress because despite being a strange and unconventional deviation it seems a natural conclusion and serves perfectly to heighten the feelings of reconciliation and resolution.

This delightful production is a must-see for anyone who likes their Shakespeare with a twist and will appeal particularly to younger theatre-goers.

Photographs by Chris Jones: Maia Kirkman-Richards as Prospero and Jannik Archer as Caliban.

The Tempest @ Edward Alderton Theatre, Bexleyheath – June 2014

Shakespeare’s famous tale of betrayal, love, redemption and reconciliation is thought by many to have been his last solo effort and was brought recently and beautifully to life by Mark Campbell at Bexleyheath’s intimate Edward Alderton theatre.

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The play’s action is set on a remote island where Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, plots to restore his daughter Miranda to her rightful place using both magic and clever manipulation. He conjures a storm to gather his usurping brother, Antonio, King Alonso of Naples and a collection of others on the island. There, he engineers the revelation of Antonio’s lowly nature, the redemption of the king and the marriage of Miranda to Alonso’s son, Ferdinand.

This production kept things simple, staying true to both a traditional interpretation of the play and the romantic genre into which it falls, yet incorporating several inventive twists and devices. The attractive, modern sparsity of the set with its wooden posts for trees and curved flats was offset with Campbell’s own sophisticated lighting design, complimented always by Michael Taylor’s inspired sound effects but most memorably in the opening scene to create the striking illusion of the tempest itself. The choice of ‘A Winged Victory for the Sullen’ for the show’s central musical theme worked fantastically well, providing a dreamy backdrop.

Richard Self’s Prospero was a delight from beginning to end, embodying every ounce of forgiving warmth and compassion that the character should, combining it with the requisite strange and eerie magic. Young Ciara O’Hare was an absolute revelation as Miranda, managing a perfect combination of wide-eyed innocence and innate wisdom beyond her years. Steve Padgham’s Trinculo and Matthew Friett’s Stephano made an excellent comic duo, with Friett’s timing and command of the language particularly impressive. The decision to cast both Ariel and Caliban as females was a brave one, but more enlightened in the case of Caliban, Prospero’s troubled, deformed slave, with Maureen Hardwen delivering a truly chilling performance and throwing an intriguing genderless light on the withered character. The tender removal of Prospero’s face paint on renunciation of his magic by Ariel (Louise Ody) created a particularly poignant feel to what was already an emotive conclusion.

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The credible and convincing staging of a Shakespeare work remains an enormous challenge for any company and is quite a rare undertaking for an amateur one, however this creative and memorable piece provided a perfect example of how it can be done well.

Photographs: Richard Self as Prospero, Louise Ody as Ariel, Maureen Hardwen as Caliban and Matthew Friett as Stephano reproduced with the kind permission of and (c) Robert Piwko (http://www.robertpiwko.com/).

Debris @ Southwark Playhouse, London – April 2014

Debris is Dennis Kelly’s first play and this revival for its tenth anniversary at Southwark Playhouse is OpenWorks Theatre’s debut production.

Painted grey and dominated by a large pile of rocks, the theatre’s ‘Little’ space, complemented by Signe Beckmann’s excellent, minimalist design, serves perfectly as the backdrop to this deliciously dark and often disturbingly comic piece.

debrisPerformed in one act, the play comprises the alternating streams of consciousness of orphaned teenagers Michael and Michelle who, surrounded by the debris of their young lives, try to make sense of a strange, damaging and dysfunctional childhood and struggle to ascertain who they are and where they are from.

The narrative begins violently as Michael (Harry McEntyre) remembers the day of his 16th birthday when he came home to find his alcoholic, Jesus-obsessed father proceeding to commit suicide by crucifying himself in the front room. Michelle (Leila Mimmack) is fascinated with their mother’s death and goes on to give several conflicting, but always captivating, reports of how she died. And things never really let up; the entire 70 minutes comprises monologue after monologue revealing tale after disturbing tale.

Kelly has created a warped, chaotic and often dreamlike atmosphere designed to shock and confuse us into never quite knowing what is real and what isn’t. Under some highly imaginative direction from Abigail Graham, both actors impressively embrace their challenging roles, delivering long and often complicated speeches with just the right amount of weird, unsettling panache.

McEntyre is particularly compelling as he relates the story central to the narrative, that of him discovering a baby boy in some rubbish and deciding to take the child home to raise himself in the hope of giving him a ‘normal’ life. The irony and sadness are overwhelming and this is another absurd account which beggars belief, but McEntyre is poignantly mesmerising as he relates it.

Kelly’s world is disjointed, confusing and murky, and this piece is not for the faint hearted; but it won’t fail to entertain anyone who likes their theatre to challenge and provoke.

Photo © Richard Davenport

Best of Friends @ Landor Theatre, London – April 2014

Best of Friends started life as The Golden Voice which, due to open last August at the Arts Theatre, disappeared in a cloud of controversy. Reworked, renamed and providing admirable testament to creator Nick Fogarty’s obvious refusal to give up, the piece has finally made it to the stage at the Landor.

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It all starts off quite well, with Mike Chariot (Aidan O’Neill) and Jim Ryan (Nick Fogarty takes a starring role as well as writing book, music and lyrics) rehearsing a song together backstage. Childhood friends who share a passion for music and song writing, they are striving to make their band a success. Everything goes to pot, though, when Chariot wins a tacky reality television show and, abandoning not only his friend and band, but his devoted girlfriend, disappears for 20 years to pursue a life of manufactured fame and cheesy, soulless pop. His return sees him transformed into something of a bitter music mogul wannabe, who attempts to reunite with his friend Jim (now resigned to a life of petty crime) and set up a nightclub designed to scout new talent. Throw a devoted ex and long lost son into the mix and this really should make for a great show.

However, whilst “Stars Falling” is probably the strongest number, and O’Neill’s singing voice is excellent, sadly it is all downhill from here. Whilst Fogarty is clearly a great musician and established song writer, unfortunately he is no actor and, considering they are supposed to be childhood buddies and now teenagers, he would have done far better to cast someone closer in age to the other male lead.  The rest of the music struggles to be remembered, there are aspects of the plot which are confusing and downright difficult to believe and some of the script is pretty cringe-inducing.

The sheer passion is unmistakable, however, and the cast are uniformly excellent, working superbly with what they have. Worthy of particular mention is Rosie Glossop, whose raw, soulful vocals smack with conviction throughout and, quite frankly, steal the show.

Reality television shows and their ability to damage lives is a hot topic at the moment, which should really make a great basis for a musical. However, as things stand, the material on offer here is simply not strong enough to do a promising idea justice.