Friday, 11 March 2011


As an actress, writing a blog for a theatre website, I want to give you razzle-dazzle, Hollywood glamour, backstage dirt, debauchery and drama. But this week’s blog is written from a place of confinement. There’s only so much drama that can be achieved, housebound, inside a small basement flat. 

To paint the picture…

Around me, there is a strong smell of disinfectant. Not a great smell but preferable to the smell of wee. Before assumptions are made, I will stress to you, no, it’s not me. I may be mad but I’m not the one who’s incontinent. Not me.

A bit of history…

Throughout childhood, I had a dog phobia that was quite debilitating. Parks were a terror-zone: played in, with one eye to the horizon, watching and listening for a woof or a blur of teeth on it’s way over to eat me. Even now, I come out in a cold sweat if a dog takes me by surprise. So why, as I write, is there a pair of large brown eyes looking up at me with a tail wagging so hard her little bottom looks it’s going to take off? Why is a there little puddle on the floor behind the chair and, why is there, sitting at my feet, a small furry little chew machine also know as a puppy?

Reason 1) I made a resolution a while back- “If something scares you… DO IT “. It seems a good way to push yourself and keep life interesting.

Reason 2): Duster, the puppy

Last summer, I met Duster. I watched him scampering about and began to admire his outlook on life. Everything was worth a sniff, everything a potential friend. I wondered if (excluding all the sniffing of bottoms) more of those qualities should be applied to life… openness, exploration, instinct…

Reason 1 + reason 2 = Nula = life in disarray 

But minus the mess, being on puppy watch is a great. She’s great and I’m smitten. It’s also an excuse to re write the feature film I completed before my run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. It’s a good incentive to sit and write without feeling obliged to get out and do something. Forced to get up at 6am, I’ve been managing to work for a good 12 hours a day. That wouldn’t have happened pre Nula.

And she’s helpful. She sits at my feet and encourages me. She’s also a great help when practising lines. In anticipation of next week’s Tempest audition, she’s being a fabulous Prospero and a wonderful Caliban. With the frequent Shakespeare speeches and Classic FM to keep her calm, I think she’ll understand French by the time she’s 6 months old (and certainly be the star of the class in puppy training)

*Note to stop the high expectations before the pup develops a guilt complex and I become a clichéd Jewish mother

Whilst multi tasking the pup, the writing and the acting, I was interested to read James Franco’s interview in the Guardian magazine. Franco, known as much for his university double life as for his acting (and recent Oscar nomination) is the subject of much speculation: is his academic pursuit a PR stunt, a clever way to make him more than a pretty face?

I think there’s little point in questioning why James Franco is doing all this. I’d rather just be impressed. After all, even if his incentive to go to back to school is PR, the action stands up for itself: He’s there, turning up, doing homework and putting in the hours. Lets just applaud the hard work

One of his comments, that the hard slog brings gratitude for the acting, makes sense. He also said that stops him being engulfed in Hollywood. It rings true that becoming consumed can be destructive, be it for a person or for an important audition.

Simon Beaufoy (writer of Slumdog Millionaire) said something similar in his Bafta lecture

“If you concentrate too much you’re going to fail.”

As a singer, I make the best sound when I’m fully relaxed. I was on my 4th recall for Mimi in the most recent West End version of Rent and the casting director told me to run around the room and roll on the floor. I looked like a loony but the sound flew out.

With acting, it’s the same. In an audition, if you try to be good, you’re often at your worst. If you’re not playing… if you’re not free, open and relaxed, then your head is in the wrong place. Before a show I use music, meditation, exercise or just being silly with friends to try and find this state.

There’s no way of switching off the wants, dreams and the hopes to do your best but filling life with other joys can make work seem a lot less “live or die”

The puppy agrees. She thinks that it is very silly to put so much pressure on being perfect and, really, we should just run around sniffing things and wiggling our bottoms.

Woman Bomb - Tristan Bates Theatre, London

Writer: Ivana Sajko
Translator: Vana Butkovic
Director: Maja Milatovic-Ovadia & Vanda Butkovic
Reviewer: Toni Stott-Rates
[Rating: 3.5] 

“Is this an act of heroism ending in my suicide, or is this a suicide hidden behind an act of heroism”?

Ivana Sajko’s play is an interesting and fun concept; two actors play different parts of a playwright’s consciousness that is trying to work through her creative process and find the character of a female suicide bomber. It is an interesting look at the thoughts and frustrations of the writer as she works through the information she gathers, the opinions of others and her own understandings; her love, like disgust, hatred, sympathy, pity, disdain for this character. It is a wonderful subject to look into as the reasons for becoming a suicide bomber are so intrinsically personal that in a way its completely up to the writer to decide how and why for her character because who knows why this or that woman went through with it.

The play recites many statistics to and for us, many facts and stories, examples and realities for who suicide bombers can be and why they might do this. Its an eye opener, the character of the bomber herself, because of the changing ideas of the writer, goes through many transitions doing it at first for hatred and disgust, for fear, for fanaticism, for any of the numerous ways women may be willing and then forced into doing it, atoning for their sins real or perceived, for money, for social acceptance, and finally and ultimately for suicide.

The directors’ choice to cast a young pretty blonde girl who is well groomed and healthy as the bomber really grated me, I thought ‘good grief why on earth someone like this’ surely its not that hard to get someone who looks closer to the part, but its humbling to realise that this was precisely the reason she was cast because as a westerner is so easy to think about suicide bombers as ethnically, racially, religiously different from us. It’s comforting that down deep without ever consciously acknowledging it we assume none of them look like us, that we are different, it’s not OUR problem. Being made to look at that is a bit shaming and wonderful for the show if they are able to get that reaction from their audience.

This is just one part of how this play challenges you to think about how you think, to examine your preconceived ideas about suicide bombers, and in this way the show is a success and well done. In other ways there were some issues, for example it often veered into melodrama, sometimes it quickly reversed that and even questioned the melodrama, but at times it was just too irking to watch and therefore pulls you out of the voyeurs dream and into a state where you are actively criticizing the play and not watching it.

The acting choices that both the actors and the directors kept did at times rankle me, Laura Harling’s portrayal of the bomber, for example, keeps going back to a kind of femme fatale noir’ish character or at other times someone unhinged and still at other times a sexualised unhinged person, which unfortunately gave the impression that it was the “writer’s” view of the bomber as some sort of sexy crazy person, which is clichéd in the worst and just not true to the psychology of women who choose to do this. Part of me wonders if this was intentional, the actor and director exploring how in theatre we often create easy recognisable characters before we give them depth, but the fact was that the change in the portrayal wasn’t enough, there wasn’t enough depth given later on for me to believe this was intentional, or if it was it wasn’t executed as well as it should have been.

This play has some beautiful and horrid images, quite apart from the screen projections which I often found seriously distracting from the play, the actors themselves created beautiful images that stay with you. The bomber’s naked back in the dim glowing light bathing from a small bowl in preparation, the bomber getting her hair repeatedly plaited for her by the writer, pages of the script from the writer that through an act of violence becomes a bomb being forcefully put into the bombers womb.

I say this is a play to take friends to; I certainly enjoyed debating it afterwards with mine. As a play calculated to make you think about who these women are and why they do it, and about creation and theatre making it succeeds very well. For me the acting let it down, but for my friend she thought the acting was great and the script let the actors down…all I can do is say how I feel, and while I hated it right after I have grown to appreciate it, it leaves strong images and thoughts in your head which is all any of us ask for from good theatre.

Runs untill: 14 May 2011

Interview: Richard McCabe (Yes Prime Minister)

Since taking on the role of Prime Minister, Richard McCabe has new respect and sympathy for the man at the top, he explains to The Public Reviews journalist Jemma Crowston.

The top West End comedy Yes, Prime Minister will grace the stage at Leicester’s Curve theatre at the end of the month with a six-night stop in the city.

Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, the original writers of the classic TV series, Yes Minister and the sequel Yes, Prime Minister have reunited for this anniversary production.

Heading the coalition government, Prime Minister Jim Hacker (McCabe) and cabinet secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby (Simon Williams) face a country in financial meltdown. The only salvation comes from a morally dubious deal with the Foreign Minister of Kumranistan.

McCabe said, “It’s a 21st century version of the much loved TV series. The characters are recognisable but they have modern twists.”

He added, “It’s a wonderfully funny script about the government and those that make the decisions. The show doesn’t talk down to the audience and can be very silly. The second half is basically a farce but it can be very clever at times too.”

The 50-year-old actor said the show is not portrayed in any one particular political party. He said, “What’s great about it is that Jim has qualities of a lot of the prime minister’s over the years and there’s no obvious political party involved.”

The show has completed six weeks of its 20 week tour.

McCabe, whose played in numerous stage and TV productions including BBC’s Wallander, said, “This version of the show has the addition of a woman which reflects the changes in government now compared to when it was originally written.“There are a lot of stories in the show which you’d think were written yesterday because they’re so current and reflect what’s in the news today.”

McCabe hinted at the current controversial story of Italian politician Berlusconi and said it bares some resemblance to a part in the play.

When asked if he had ever dreamed of being the Prime Minister, the Glasgow-born actor who grew up near Brighton, said, “It’s an impossible job. I have deep sympathy for them. You have to really watch what you say because anything you say could be taken out of context in this media age.”

The set used to play out this production represents the drawing room of the well-known country residence Chequers used by many politicians. The stage is filled with oak panelling, book cases and posh furniture.

He said, “Everyone would love this show because it’s a great comedy. The older ones will come with pre-conceptions from the TV series but they might find something quite different. It’d be great to see younger people there who will just see it for what it is. It’s a very intelligent play.”

McCabe, who last came to Leicester in the 1980s to perform at the late Haymarket Theatre, is excited to return to the city.

After the tour finishes in July, McCabe is hoping to head back to Sweden for a second series of Wallander.

To book tickets for Yes, Prime Minister, which will be at Curve from March 28 to April 3 visit

Keepers - Contact Theatre, Manchester

Creators: The Plasticine Men
Reviewer: Ian Winterton

1801. A lighthouse standing sentry over the Smalls, a stretch of water 22-miles off the coast of Pembrokeshire is home to Thomas and Thomas, its keepers. Senior Thomas is dedicated and dour, while his companion is a day-dreamer; he’s as interested in aiding ailing seabirds as he is safeguarding sailors.

The promise of this claustrophobic scenario is realised by a strong, slightly surreal script, but what elevates it to the level of mini-masterpiece is its rendering as a piece of bravura physical theatre. With only two chairs, a ladder and a trapdoor, Newbury-based The Plasticine Men, manage to recreate the keepers’ environment through mime so fully that this reviewer isn’t sure he didn’t hallucinate waves crashing over railings at one point.

The two astounding performers are backed up by an incredibly rich soundscape – everything from the squeak as they polish the windows to a roaring gale – to which their every move is choreographed. Add to this an inventive staging – the scenes switch so often that this most theatrical of experiences seems at time almost cinematic; it’s like watching a film you can’t quite see, or a radio drama you sort of can…

The imagination well and truly unlocked during the first half of the play, one’s brain is primed for the story to lurch into the arena of madness, as one Thomas is drowned and the other, with no hope of being rescued, starts to lose his mind. Unsettling, funny and, ultimately, both moving and beautiful.

A hit at 2010’s Edinburgh Fringe and well-deserved winner of many awards, Keepers is a truly unique piece that will haunt your dreams for many months to come…

Touring UK until 9 April 2011. Details at:

74 Georgia Avenue - New End Theatre, Hampstead

Writer: Murray Schisgal
Director: Paul Blinkhorn
Reviewer: Alexei Edwards

After conducting a modicum of research on the writer, Murray Schisgal, of 73 Georgia Avenue, I learned that he had some rather impressive credentials. He was Oscar nominated as the co writer of Tootsie and an award winning playwright so I was surprised, and hugely excited, to be given the opportunity to see a UK premier of a play that was first penned way back in the 20th Century, in 1988.

The play was incredibly short, a mere 40 minutes, and told the story of a middle-aged Jewish man, Marty, returning to the house he grew up in which is now occupied by Joseph, a black man who has set aside his work commitments to look after his terminally ill wife. Within a matter of minutes, the gregarious Marty strides in and is immediately met with hostility by the bewildered Joseph who refers to him as a ‘honky.’ My immediate impression was that I was to witness a short play dealing with the cultural differences of the two players but that was soon dispelled as the play established Marty as a man desperately searching to put to rest the ghosts of his past and Joseph as a man trying to escape the inevitable onset of tragedy that had permeated his life due to his wife’s inescapable illness. They both became warped kindred spirits, feeding off each other’s melancholy and internal suffering whilst celebrating some of the characters of their shared past.

Both of the main actors offered insightful and at times, emotive performances that really plunged me into the world they so warmly discussed.

This play spoke to me about two men wanting to escape their immediate surroundings and celebrate and, at times, commiserate a life they once had.

The set perfectly illustrated the mild degradation that seemed to permeate Joseph and Marty’s lives but the main concern I had was not with the production itself but rather Schisgal’s script. On the undercurrent, there was a celebration of the Jewish community and culture these two men were a part of but there was also a nod towards the supernatural that I felt did not belong. From my perspective, it confused the play a little and exposed the frailties of the actor who played Joseph.

A shame as I felt it was a play that at times, threatened to be brilliant and truly memorable.

Runs until 19th March

No Loss, Joe Loss – The Lowry, Salford

Writer: Christine Marshall
Director: Colin Muir
Reviewer: Jo Beggs

After 30 years married to the hapless Frank (Stephen Tomlin), Mona (Meriel Schofield) has reached the end of her patience, and of her sanity. Hospitalised and put through endless therapy sessions she manages to pull through and get the piece of paper that says she’s sane. But what she comes home to is enough to make her turn right round and head back to the relative peace and quiet of the psychiatric hospital. Frank’s mother, Lillian (Jacqueline Pilton) suffers a stroke, and because of the prospect of an MRSA riddled ward, comes ‘home’ to be cared for by Mona.

Labelled a comedy drama there’s few laughs unless you count the moments of silliness that Mona allows herself just to get through the day. Tending to the every need of the spiteful old woman, Mona’s mental health starts veering back downwards. Something has to give.

And what gives is the veneer of normal family life. Secrets and horrible truths start to seep out, all the bitterness that has been held in over the years. It starts with accounts of petty irritations and builds to reveal a lifetime of unspoken misery and terrible abuse.

No Loss, Joe Loss tackles some tough, emotional subjects head on. It should shock and move, but it’s such a clumsy, overlong piece of writing that it fails to affect at all. The characters are hateful and fail to ignite any sense of empathy, as they dramatically reveal their long held secrets, revelations fall flat. It really is hard to care.

Two members of the cast do put in credible performances considering they have almost nothing to work with. Meriel Schofield is best in monologue scenes early on, bringing a painful, muddling through sort of humour to a woman who’s really spiralling out of control. Jacqueline Pilton as Lillian is suitably acidic and matriarchal in Act One and frighteningly senile in Act Two. There’s a plausible bond between the two women underpinned by rivalry, guilt and Mona’s urge to nurture. It's a shame the hard work they’ve put into this production isn’t matched by either the writing or the performances from the rest of the cast.

Frank delivers profanity and Shakespeare in the same tired tone. He’s an ordinary man bent on bettering himself. But it’s unbelievable that Mona would have stuck marriage out this long with such an ignorant and unlikeable man, and, having got her groove back and finally bundled the old lady off to spend the rest of her days in a hospital, even more unlikely she’d stay. Stephen Tomlin’s lacklustre performance doesn’t help, his mumbling delivery and accent make some parts of the script hard to follow. Not that it’s worth the effort to translate.

Rachel Priest as their transsexual son David/Danni and Louise Nulty as Mona’s psychiatrist (and in a particularly irritating scene, a mock-judge) do nothing to expand their one-dimensional, and, in Nulty’s case, nauseating characters.

The whole thing is a waste of what could be a credible and moving domestic drama. Marshall had something promising and has completely lost control of it. No Loss, Joe Loss is a wearisome, seriously flawed production with little to redeem it.

Runs until the 12th March 2011

Up Out o’ The Sea (eastern Angles) – The Town Hall, Maldon

Writer: Andrew Holland
Director: Ivan Cutting
Reviewer: Michael Gray

Off the lonely Suffolk coast, eroded by the relentless waves, a wreck has lain for thirty years. Now it is to be brought to the surface, just as a prickly journalist from London turns up in the the tight-knit local community, with her laptop and her searching questions.

That's the starting point for Andrew Holland's Up Out o' the Sea, an atmospheric piece dealing with those Eastern Angles stock-in-trade themes of origins, ghosts and time-slips.

A simple, weathered set sits across the Town Hall in Maldon, replicating the John Mills Theatre back in Ipswich. “Fresh Fish For Sale – Special Offer Herring £1.50 lb” at one end, with a suggestion of the mooring and the remote Point. At the other, the village library.

The company of five bring some pretty complex characters to life, as their stories unfold and intertwine. Rough-edged chancer Tweedie, looking for love and a way out of the dead-end, was played by Francis Woolf, who caught precisely the mixture of bravado and vulnerability. His colleague, Dolphie, the only survivor of the volunteer crew that attempted the rescue on that fatal night, was Mike Aherne, who managed to make the grumpy old fishermen both believable and sympathetic.

Lisa-Marie Hoctor played two linked characters, both immature, both young mothers; sometimes hard to grasp all her words in this less than ideal acoustic, but I loved her Emily, the mysterious girl with a touch of the devil, who dreams of passing through into glory …

Laura Harding was brilliantly convincing as the writer with secrets of her own – the picnic at the Point was movingly done, as was the “information versus emotion” dialogue with Lisa-Marie's modern Milly.

And Lisa Tramontin played the Librarian, by no means a stock character, despite her stereotype hair and cardigan. Though not all of the dialogue she was given rang true, she did provide some of the most touching moments in a play of many layers and textures. Including the key revelation, a real goosebumps realisation.

Music was powerfully used – a Bach Passion mainly – and simple but effective lighting suggested the sunshine and the showers, the night and the storm. The setting was practical and versatile - I admired the imagination that turned a door with oilskins hanging from hooks into a stretcher for the victims of the storm.

In the end, after a rescue which echoes the earlier disaster, they decide to leave the wreck where it lies – a memorial draws a line under a past event whose details are gradually revealed in this intriguing piece, directed, with his usual sure touch for the intangible, by Eastern Angles' Artistic Director Ivan Cutting.

Tours until 4th June

Interview: George Banks (History Boys)

Playing a cocky and boisterous teenager is something new for the understated George Banks who will be heading to Curve next month to star in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys.

The Public Reviews reporter, Jemma Crowston, caught-up with the 23-year-old during the show’s tour in Bath.

Director, Christopher Luscombe has revived the show for the first time since its original National Theatre production.

The History Boys, which has picked up three Olivier Awards, six Tony Awards, the Critics’ Circle and Evening Standard Awards, will tell it’s tale of a Yorkshire Grammar School at Leicester’s Curve theatre from March 21 to March 26.

Known as one of the great plays of the decade, The History Boys is set in a school in the North of England where a sprightly bunch of bright, funny, sixth-form boys are attempting to gain entrance to Oxford or Cambridge whilst evading the distractions of sport and sex.

“The headmaster brings in a new history teacher to give the boys an edge in their exams and what you see on stage is a very enjoyable show with complex relationships between the students and the teacher and the teacher and the headmaster”, said Banks.

Banks will play Dakin, the leader-of-the-pack. He said, “Dakin is very cocky and impressive. He’s quite charming and a big flirt.

“I was a bit of nerd in school so nothing like Dakin. I can be a bit of a flirt I guess but I’d love to be like Dakin and have all that confidence.”

Banks said his favourite scenes are the ones with Dakin and the new teacher Hector played by Philip Franks (Darling Buds of May, Absolutely Fabulous). Banks said, “They’ve got quite a unique relationship. I also love the scenes when all the boys are in the classroom. We’re all very cheeky and like to cause mischief so we’re on stage drawing pictures and showing each other for a laugh.

“We’re all around the same age so the tour has been great because we’ve been out socialising.”

The 12-strong cast including Banks have been touring since January and Leicester will be there penultimate stop.

When asked if he could would he re-live his school days again, Banks replied, “I’ve got fond memories from school but I know some of them are through rose-tinted glasses so I wouldn’t want to ruin the memories I have.”

The Watford born actor has starred in many theatre and some TV roles but has also lent his voice for documentaries and computer games including Harry Potter: Quidditch World Cup.

Banks said the show would be suitable by anyone whose been in education. He said, “Everyone whose gone through education has fond memories and this show has a character that everyone can relate to.

“It’s a beautiful play and I defy any audience member who doesn’t come out asking whoever is nearest ‘who was your Hector?’ Who was the teacher that inspired you?”

Banks added, “My GCSE English teacher was the first teacher to respect me as an individual. I think I was about 14 or 15 and for the first time we were treated as adults – not vacuous children. He ignited my passion for text and was very much like Hector in that he opened up the possibilities of everything to us.

“It was great to be in his lessons. I can still feel his influence on how I approach a text and in the way I try to reach a deeper understanding of what it is saying.”

In 2005, a film was made with the entire original cast of The History Boys, many of whom, including James Corden and Dominic Cooper, who have subsequently became household names.

To book tickets visit

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Richard III - The Lowry, Salford

Writer:  William Shakespeare
Director: Edward Hall
Reviewer:  Helen Jones
[Rating: 3.5]

Propeller have returned to the Lowry, this time with one of Shakespeare's histories: Richard III, playing in tandem with The Comedy of Errors. 

Propeller is one of very few companies that use an all male cast for Shakespeare, and in this production it works very well.  As with all Propeller's productions this is not a classical take on the play.  The setting is medical, with Michael Pavelka's set using moveable screens, plastic curtaining and surgical implements to create both the sets and the scene changes.  It is also monochromatic, an aspect which is used to great effect in the battle between Richard and Richmond.

Richard Clothier is a tall, ungainly Richard, limping and missing a hand, he is monstrous only in his  actions rather than his physical appearance.  Clothier plays the role with a controlled skill, the menace of his intentions underlying every speech.  His methodical destruction of all those who lie between him and the crown is carried out with mercurial precision.

His brothers, George, Duke of Clarence (John Dougall) and King Edward IV (Robert Hands) are both neatly disposed of by his scheming and his ill health.  Both actors are convincing in their roles and then pick up on other roles later in the play.  The young princes are done as puppets, which are quite spooky in their movements, provided by Sam Swainsby and Richard Frame.  Dominic Tighe as Queen Elizabeth, Edward's wife, portrays the character as feminine without being effeminate - which works well, as do the other female roles in the hands of Jon Trenchard, Tony Bell and Kelsey Brookfield.

Director Edward Hall has a distinct style: he excels at creating strong imagery as well as strong physical performances from his actors.  The masked ensemble are an ever present menace with their weapons, and Hall uses percussion and song as both an emphasis and a backing.  However, as with a previous production I have seen, the graphic violence and stage blood is overused; the inference always having a stronger effect, I think, than the obvious.

Overall, though, Propeller manage to make a long winded history play more accessible without losing the wonderful language of Shakespeare; and for that they should be heartily commended.

Runs in rep until Sat 12th March

Puckoon – Leicester Square Theatre, London

Writer: Spike Milligan
Music: Paul Boyd
Director: Zoë Seaton
Reviewer: Raylene Robertson

I turned up to review this play knowing nothing more about it than it is based on a novel, written by a famous author quite a few years ago, that is set in Ireland. I left the theatre dying to read this, to me, elusive novel!

Puckoon is based on the novel written by Spike Milligan, a great children’s poet and a ground breaker in British radio with ‘The Goon Show’. The play is set in Ireland, 1922 and is considered a comic masterpiece. It tells the story of the separation of Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland. The story is an absurd comedy punctured with poignant moments.

This production of Puckoon is definitely one for the family. There maybe one or two swear words, yet the visuals will definitely leave a more lasting effect. The kids, and grown-ups too, will love the visual and sound elements, the super quick costume and character changes merging with the ever quickening music are a quite a delight. I was surprised to see a number of young children in the audience, yet the more I thought about it the less I could argue against it.

I myself am of a somewhat younger generation. I had only vaguely heard the name Milligan and I had an unexpected, wholly wonderful evening. I had never been taught about our history with Ireland and I had just missed out on the ‘Carry on …’ era, yet I had a thoroughly enjoyable evening and am inclined to find out more about Spike Milligan!

The only thing that I can comment on is that on a couple of occasions the music was a little too loud, that those at the back could not quite hear the fast paced lines as well as those at the front.

However, the cast is great! They make the play feel like a collection of comedy sketches, they argue over who is to play the next ‘extra’, whilst not once loosing the plot and never do they become predictable. Most characters take on a numerous roles. Bryan Quinn’s transition from Mrs O’Toole to a male punter in her pub happens in the space of a second and is utterly hilarious!

Paul Boyd playing the role as the writer is a good move. He sits for most of the play, yet he gives the impression that his is a hard job, constantly being asked when will Dan Milligan’s legs become manlier? Organising who goes where and who is to do what, he delivers joke after joke and then hits you square in the eye with the truth. You are made to think. Yet not for too long … you are allowed to enjoy your night … but it gets under your skin!

Runs until 27 March 2011

Blithe Spirit – Apollo Theatre, London

Writer: Noel Coward
Director: Thea Sharrock
Reviewer: Catherine Love

Death may not be an obvious subject for comedy, but Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, brought back to the West End by award-winning director Thea Sharrock, creates plenty of laughs from beyond the grave. Joining Ghost Stories and the long running Woman in Black as the third ghoulish drama in the West End, this revival is more likely to produce giggles than goosebumps, taking a decidedly playful approach to the afterlife.

Writer Charles Condomine (Robert Bathurst) invites eccentric medium Madame Arcati (Alison Steadman) to dinner in the spirit of research, hoping for material for his latest novel and to provide some entertainment for his dinner guests into the bargain. Charles, his wife Ruth (Hermione Norris) and their guests are sceptical to say the least and their doubts appear to be confirmed by a ludicrous, scene-stealing display of spirit-summoning grunts and gestures from Steadman, who once again demonstrates her comic prowess in this deliciously silly role. She makes a hilarious, charmingly batty psychic and enthusiastically throws herself – often quite literally – into the part.

Although the project initially appears to be a failure, Madame Arcati’s energetic antics have unwittingly summoned the mischievous spirit of Charles’s first wife Elvira (Ruthie Henshall), who does not plan to be returning to the ‘other side’ any time soon. From here on in Elvira’s playful ghost reigns over the chaos as she trips lightly around the stage barefoot, leaving behind a trail of destruction. Henshall is a delightfully impish spirit, by turns charming and petulant, her luminosity rarely dimming. Her mischief is nicely offset by the fiery complaints of spurned Ruth, played with poise by Norris in the standout performance of the night. As Charles’s elegant, aloof and understandably irascible second wife Norris dazzles, confidently striding around the stage, spitting out her furiously clipped vowels and delivering Ruth’s acid retorts with aplomb.

Charles, as Ruth states at one point, has been dominated throughout his life by women, and Bathurst seems to follow in his character’s footsteps. His performance is by no means bad, painting an amusing picture of exasperation, but he is overshadowed by the three strong women. Nevertheless, in the spiky exchanges with his two wives Coward’s witty dialogue fizzes and crackles, rattling along at impressive speed. Sharrock’s direction successfully exploits these quick-fire quarrels for the most part, although the swift pace sometimes skates over some of the jokes.

The domestic chaos, like Charles’s marriages, occasionally threatens to turn stale, although these moments are few and brief. There is also the danger of the comedy tipping over the edge into absurdity, particularly when the over-the-top Madame Arcati puts in an appearance, but by the second half the urge to embrace the silliness is irresistible. Hildegard Bechtler’s set completes the descent into the ridiculous with a magnificent finale of cascading books and sparking light fixtures, not to mention a Phantom of the Opera-esque falling chandelier.

Coward’s 1940s comedy, with its clipped Queen’s English and jokes at the expense of the servants, stands now as something of a period piece; an eccentric, quintessentially British antiquity, rather like Madame Arcati. This new production may not be earth-shattering, but Sharrock’s light and playful directorial touch dusts off this quirky, entertaining play and preserves it as an enjoyable, sepia-tinted portrait of the past.

Runs until 18 June

Guys and Dolls - New Theatre, Cardiff

Writer: Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling & Abe Burrows
Director/Choreographer: Peter Rowe
Reviewer: Lucy Thackray

Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Sailsbury Playhouse & the New Wolsely Theatre, Ipswich’s tour of this classic Broadway musical is a winning production. It ticks many of the boxes for this well-loved material: high-energy choreography (by Francesca Jaynes), tight harmonies and crucially, not taking itself too seriously. Based on the short stories of Damon Runyon, and a huge hit on Broadway and the big screen, Guys and Dolls is guaranteed to lift your spirits.

Having reviewed the Chess tour last week, where the actors doubled as musicians onstage, I was surprised to see the company employing the same trick here. The Clwyd actors provided the brass and woodwind instruments for Frank Loesser’s big-band score, lingering upstage before or after their scenes to provide a trumpet solo or flute accompaniment to the core band of piano, bass and drums.

While this was an impressive showcase of the talents of the cast and musical director (Greg Palmer), I found it more of a distraction than a delight, as it was in Chess. During some intense dialogue scenes, my eyes were drawn to the cast members watching in the background, waiting for their cue. The band’s presence onstage was effective in the Hot Box and Havana scenes, but runs the risk of drawing you out of the action each time the musicians enter for their next number.

The cast is not listed in the programme in any hierarchy, which seems fitting once you realise who the true stars of the show are. While Robbie Scotcher and Laura Pitt-Pulford provide a sweet romance between Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown, the limelight is well and truly stolen by Gavin Spokes and Anthony Hunt as bumbling duo Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Benny Southstreet, and most of all, by Rosie Jenkins as Miss Adelaide. Doll-like and dainty, Jenkins has exactly the right appeal for her headlining cabaret character – you find it hard to take your eyes off her in most numbers.

She earns most of the evening’s laughs with her brilliant timing, striking the perfect balance between caricature and realism in a character that has the potential to be annoying. Her witty renditions of Adelaide’s Lament and the wonderfully sinister Marry the Man Today are real highlights. Gavin Spokes and Anthony Hunt set the bar high with the opening trio Fugue for Tinhorns (with Christopher Fry), and their slickly-choreographed duet Guys and Dolls.

Robbie Scotcher’s Sky Masterson is a little low-key, with not quite enough sex appeal for the romantic storyline to be believable, while Laura Pitt-Pulford as his pious lover has a little too much. Although offering a pleasant soprano sound at times, she is a little too husky, belty and knowing for the pure Sergeant Sarah Brown. Her inebriation in Havana is portrayed as a raucous, sexually voracious drunkenness, rather than becoming innocently tipsy, and what should be a sexually-charged, pivotal scene when the two first meet in the mission becomes merely an argument between two confident, headstrong people.

Ben Fox is suitably henpecked and lovable as wheeler-dealer Nathan Detroit, and his voice is one of the strongest. Paul Kissaun produces some of the best one-liners as intimidating gambler Big Jule, and Kraig Thornber as Harry the Horse perfectly encapsulates the oddball magic of Detroit’s crowd of sinners. Some accents are impeccably Runyonesque, others fall a little short.

The ensemble numbers with the gamblers are superbly sung and choreographed, and while the production feels overlong, Clwyd Theatr Cymru get away with it by performing all the favourites – the title number, The Oldest Established and Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat – with such panache. Overall, this is a toe-tapping night out for anyone who loves the punchy score and screwball-comedy plot of this classic show.

Runs until 12th March

The Usual Auntijies - Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Writer: Paven Virk
Director: Barry Kyle

In an interview the author, Paven Virk, “wanted to create real drama along with the comedy” and also “wanted to highlight something darker than just a group of women living together”. I feel that she did achieve this aim with her play The Usual Auntijies that was presented in the studio of the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry.

Set in a women’s refuge in Coventry three nameless women are trying to rebuild their lives after leaving their husbands. Through a mixture of comedy and bitter honesty each woman’s past experiences and dreams are slowly revealed.

The three inhabitants of the refuge were performed with sensitivity and feeling by Jamila Massey, Mamta Kaash and Shelley King. The audience really felt for their plight and the feeling of friendship visibly grew between the three ladies as the play progressed. Shalini Peris as the idealistic Gurpreet and Pushpinder Chani as Raj provided the counter point to the ladies as the young newlyweds.

Staging the play in the studio meant that the play benefited from the space’s intimacy and gave the living room of the refuge a real feeling of safety and warmth. The set is simple but very effective and the space is utilised well by having the set on three levels. These levels clearly separated the living room of the refuge from the bedroom of the married couple and from the outside world. The use of a large screen worked particularly well, not only to project images onto but also to create atmospheric shadows during the park scenes.

Overall this production held my interest well and with issues that included, arranged marriages, desertion and domestic abuse, there was a lot to think about, and maybe this was the piece’s problem. A couple of moments in the first and second half confused me and I found myself anxiously trying to work out what was going on as I felt that I had not been given enough details about the individual characters to understand the situations I was seeing. Also at some points I found it difficult to engage with the characters or feel any sympathy for them because I wasn’t given a chance to find out about them before the issues of the piece were introduced. This problem eased as the story progressed and by the end it had almost completely disappeared, as by then I knew a lot about the characters and was able to empathise with them. I particularly enjoyed the moment where two of the Auntijies were playing Twister together; at that moment the audience knew that they would be alright and that they were well and truly beginning to bury their demons.

This play is full of strong women, humour, friendship and determination. It is a beautifully staged piece with strong performances from its cast that will give you much to think about for long after you have left the theatre.

Runs till Saturday 26th March

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Cheek by Jowl: The Tempest / Буря - Oxford Playhouse

Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Declan Donnellan
Reviewer: Ali Lantukh

Theatre group Cheek By Jowl’s Russian sister company the Chekhov International Theatre Festival are gracing our shores with this vibrant, unsettling and innovative production of ‘The Tempest’ for March and April only (by way of Oxford, Southampton and London) - and you absolutely must see it whilst you have the chance. Bringing Shakespeare to life in a totally new and powerful way, this production floods the senses with language, sound and vigour. 
Essentially, The Tempest follows the story of a magician, Prospero (Igor Yasulovich), the usurped Duke of Milan, who causes a tempest to break out at sea, in order to avenge his betrayal by his political enemies, and to restore his position. Prospero uses his spirit Ariel (Andrey Kuzichev) to manipulate the others to his ends, and the results play out before the audience on stage.
It may seem an odd choice to perform Shakespeare entirely in Russian (subtitles in Shakespearean English are projected onto the stage - although performances in France went without translation). As a student of Russian language it was quite a disconcerting experience hearing Russian whilst simultaneously reading the Shakespearian text. But for Russian and non-Russian speakers alike, I believe there was something very compelling and powerful in using this language - something strong, poetic, rhythmic. And as other reviewers before me have noted, it reveals the astounding dramatic qualities of Shakespeare’s play, his mastery of plot, emotion and humour, his understanding of humanity, that transcend language. 
Not only did the production portray this linguistically, but in a number of other devices that proved captivating. Ariel’s magical mischief is accompanied by live music played on stage, the strains of the accordion enchanting his victims. These moments were, simply, magical. Kuzichev’s presence on stage was something so other-worldly that I felt utterly drawn into the enchantment. This was truly an ensemble performance however, and it is very difficult to pick out any ‘star’ players, all of the actors giving top-class performances, adeptly engineering the mood of the play from all-out comic to dark and enigmatic with a moment’s notice. 
The initially rather bare-looking stage was also used creatively and intelligently. Lights, imagery and film were reflected onto the back wall to create different scenes; doorways were used to reveal apparitions, characters, and scenes within scenes. The lack of props also allowed the extensive use of water throughout the play - a dramatic symbol of power, control, human fragility, torture, cleansing. The wet clothes of the characters washed up by the tempest also served to underline the play with an uncomfortable feeling. I would like to have seen a little more of the use of the creative projection of imagery from the beginning of the play, but this is only a very minor gripe. 
The Tempest was my first experience of a Cheek by Jowl production, but I will now be on the look out for their next performance. This play comes very highly recommended. 
Runs until 12th March

Keeping Mum - The Brockley Jack Theatre, London

Writer: Judith Bryan
Director: Rebecca Manson Jones
Reviewer: Toni Stott-Rates
[Rating: 4.5]

White flecks the set like pebble dash on a house, bringing the snow that howls outside in the world of the play, into the environment of the set. A fitting symbol, as the snow in Judith Bryan’s play is a strange foreign thing that covers the psychological landscape of this play, imposing a sort of alienation both emotional and mental to the characters, most especially to ‘Emilia’ the focal voice of this play.

Keeping Mum is one of three plays chosen from many submissions for ‘Write Now, 2’ a festival which looks to celebrate and bring to the fore new unperformed plays and encourage playwrites, and they chose well, this is a beautiful beautiful play Judith Bryan has woven, a story that is at once deeply familiar and yet the story is so successful that while I felt the strains of its familiar and often told story I was so caught up in the telling of it that I couldn’t wait to see how it would be revealed.

Inspired by the winter of 1962-63 when the snow started on Boxing Day and only stopped in April, Judith Bryan explores the relationship of a young couple just moved to England from the Caribbean as they deal with the extreme weather and their issues that come to change the course of their lives forever. Skilfully and subtly directed by Rebecca Manson Jones the play moves cleverly from the now to the then, as a ‘stranger’ prompts Emilia to recall memories of her husband, her brother Godfrey and the winter of 1962 when her baby was born. Taking up the same physical space on the set, Emilia moves erratically between times unfolding her tragedy and revealing the source of her current sorry mental status.

I have nothing but good to say about the actors, Evadne Ricketts is miraculous in her restrained performance of an obviously emotionally overwrought woman, Marcus Adolphy charming and Howard Saddler impressive as a man struggling to retain his pride and provide for his family the best way he knows how. Donna Berlin is great as Jacs but I must say the show is almost stolen by Matt Christian Reed’s seething creepiness as Jay, the stranger with motives. He captivates with his portrayal of Jay, drawing you in as you try to understand whether he is emotionally unstable or if the things that drive him are causing his unsteady behaviour.

I don’t want to say much more about this show as I don’t want to reveal any of its secrets and spoil your viewing. Suffice to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it and cannot wait for more plays to come from Judith Bryan.

Running: 8-12 March 2011

The December Man/L’homme de Décembre - The Finborough Theatre, London

Writer: Colleen Murphy
Director: Lavinia Hollands
Reviewer: Ian Foster

There are mini-seasons within seasons now at the Finborough and so the three Sunday/Monday slots of the women playwrights programme, In Their Place, are being used to introduce the work of Canadian writer Colleen Murphy: the first of these features The December Man or L’homme de Décembre. Wanting to commemorate the horrifically tragic events of a massacre at the École Polytechnique in Montréal on December 6, 1989 where a gunman killed fourteen women for being ‘feminists’ but not be guilty of exploiting it, Murphy shifts her focus onto what might have happened to those that survived the attack and the ongoing consequences it has on their lives.

The play centres on the Fournier family: Jean, a man ordered out of the room before the massacre began and his working-class parents, Benoît and Kathleen, who struggle to deal with their son’s survivor guilt and the destructive impact it is having on his psyche and on the family as a whole as well. And to further deflect attention from the event itself, the story is told in reverse chronology, starting with shocking events in March 1992 and working backwards to 1989 to reveal just how we’ve arrived at these final actions.

Powerfully persuasive performances from all three actors means that this is never a dull evening, but choosing this format means that any sense of mystery about why things have happened is resolved by about the third scene and so from then on we know the whole story of what is going to happen, in reverse of course, but even then, there are scenes which seemed to do little but further establish the mood rather than revealing anything. Where the problem really lies is in not delving deep enough into the psychological motivations of the characters to give us at least some clue of why they are driven to such extremes. Keeping the actual events at L’École Polytechnique at arms length promises a universality of experience which is somewhat undone by the unexplained responses here.

Matthew Hendrickson’s grizzled father, weighted down by a lifetime of frustration yet fiercely proud of his son and Linda Broughton’s suffocatingly well-intentioned mother, clinging onto childhood memories of her family, both did excellent work, pulling us in straightaway with the hardest of opening scenes but also playing the lighter side of the family dynamic well too, bursting with pride at their first university-going relation. And Michael Benz also impressed as the introverted Jean, emotionally damaged by his inaction and the subsequent inability to deal with the fallout whilst sequestered in his tightly repressed family unit, although never given the opportunity to really explore why he is so particularly affected, likewise with the later decisions of his parents, we’re never really shown what drives them to such lengths.

One can see why Murphy has made the choices she has, in pulling back the lens to show how the effects of tragedies can ripple out far beyond the initial impact but in making it such a specific response to a specific event, the universality never really rings true. Part of it also comes back to the fact that she can afford to play fast and loose with the connections to the Montréal massacre because of the emotional resonance that association has with a Canadian audience, an analogous example would be a British play circling the Dunblane tragedy which would be sadly meaningless to other nationalities as we all have our own tragedies in this world. That said, it is very well-acted with some really moving moments within, and forms the first part of what I am sure will be an interesting journey through this playwright’s work over the next few months.

Booking until 21st March

Comedy of Errors - The Lowry, Salford

Writer: William Shakespeare
Adaptor: Edward Hall and Roger Warren
Director: Edward Hall
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie

All male drama productions are interesting beasts. I saw my first a few years ago: Twelfth Night at the Globe Theatre with the wonderful Mark Rylance playing Viola, who of course spends most of the play disguised as a boy, being courted by both the Duke Orsino and the lady Olivia. My abiding memory is of how this added a special richness, and new subtlety to the comedy of the romantic interplay between the trio.
All male company Propeller are at the Lowry Theatre in Salford this week with two productions, alternating the gruesome Richard III, with the near-slapstick Comedy of Errors. I only saw the latter, so judgement on the added flavour brought to the tragedy by single sex casting is in the hands of others. 
So does an all male cast add anything extra to the play? If not, does it detract in any way? Well, the pantomime dame remains an archetype of gender displacement for comic effect, and the good men of Propeller venture close to this territory to extract the maximum humour from the comic twists. The female characters are as over the top as the Courtesan’s cantilevered bosoms, but this reading of the play can stand it.
Shakespeare threw the kitchen sink into this one. Not one but two sets of estranged identical twins, separated at birth, turn up in the same city 25 years later. This is Ephesus twinned with 1980’s Benidorm: cheesy, brazen, cheeky, loud and lewd. Music pumps the show along, and sound effects create a constant backdrop to supplement the frenzy of the convoluted plot. Mistaken identities, disguises, misunderstandings, mishaps and mayhem - the staples of Elizabethan comedy taken to the extreme; with knobs on.
If Shakespeare gave us Elizabethan comic farce at 110%, Propeller up the ante considerably by adding some extra spice of their own manufacture. Puritans might lament the liberties taken with the text, and the modernity of the interpretation, but Shakespeare never had much time for puritans, and neither did the audience at the Lowry. The Lyric Theatre contained several groups of teenagers, who chanted, cheered, jeered and clapped along with the carnival atmosphere created by the on stage band. On stage? Also out in the foyer at the interval, sustaining the fiesta with a riotous mix of school disco favourites.
But was it Shakespeare? You bet your boots. While some liberties were taken to tweak some of the text for a meaning that would register with the Catherine Tate generation, the Director handled these with respect. Or perhaps that should read RESPECT! I don’t think the Bard would have minded.
There was not a weak aspect to the whole performance. The acting, particularly that of the two sets of twins, was perfectly weighted. Robert Hands, playing Adriana, stole several scenes as the deserted diva wife, but others were guilty of similar thefts. Tony Bell as the conjurer, Pinch, had a hoard of cases to be taken into account as his deranged bible basher brought the second half to a climactic musical crescendo, and later made a memorable exit, not pursued by a bear, but with a bare behind, and a perilously positioned sparkler illuminating his passage through the auditorium.
The set was startlingly simple, but very effective. Shutters sprayed with graffiti tags that formed an appropriately urban backdrop, but had enough flexibility - used imaginatively - to create all the spaces required for the plot to develop. It never intruded. Lighting was similarly unobtrusive, and the few special effects were well judged. 
Propeller created a joyous evening’s entertainment. It is too restrictive to describe it as a play. It was just enormous fun from start to finish. 
Runs until 12th March at the Lowry, and on tour until 23rd July (but mainly outside UK)

As You Like It: Nice Swan Theatre Company at The People’s Theatre, Newcastle upon Tyne

Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Ben Hunt
Reviewer: Steve Burbridge

It’s Shakespeare, but not as you know it!

Nice Swan Theatre Company have taken ‘As You Like It’, the bard’s pastoral comedy, and given it a unique and innovative twist. Set in the modern day, the action begins with the characters enjoying a night on the town, where flirting, snogging, bitching, binge-drinking and all manner of other drunken revelry are the order of the evening. The famous wrestling scene is transformed into a ‘dance-off’ in the nightclub and there’s even a McDonald’s to boot!

This modern and ambitious production is presented by Nice Swan Theatre Company, a student-based group in Tyne and Wear, which provides a stepping stone between amateur and professional theatre for young talent, aged between 16 and 25, from all over the North East region.

Director Ben Hunt and Producer Jamie Gray have, once again, assembled a stellar cast – as they did for their production of ‘Spring Awakening’ - and they all play their parts to perfection, although there are a number of stand-out performances. Andy McAdam presents us with a charismatic Orlando and Laura Stoker is a feisty Rosalind. Thomas Whalley, as an outrageously camp Touchstone (in a tutu!) , leads the comic relief and is well-supported by Sean Bell as Adam/Audrey.

As usual, one cannot fault the production values of Nice Swan’s work. A sparse stage is transformed into the dance floor of the nightclub by some nifty neon lighting and then into Arden Alley by the inclusion of several overflowing dustbins. Andrew Milburn and Tom Jefferson accentuate mood and dramatic potential with their effective lighting design.

The creativity and innovation of this highly talented group is to be applauded. Who’d have thought that the language of Shakespeare would translate so well to being spoken in a broad Geordie accent? Shakespeare traditionalists may not approve of this particular interpretation of the play and might deride it as heresy, although, personally speaking, I strongly suspect that the bard would wholeheartedly approve.

If you appreciate Shakespeare being performed with a modern slant, and aren’t easily offended by some infrequent bad language then I’m sure you’ll find this production exactly ‘As You Like It’. However, the production has only a three night run and ticket sales are extremely high, so you’ll have to hurry if you don’t want to miss out!

Runs until Wednesday 9th March 2010

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Journey's End - Richmond Theatre

Writer: R.C. Sherriff
Director: David Grindley
Reviewer: James Higgins
[rating: 5]

The first thing I saw when I took my seat for Journey's End was the huge iconic Lord Kitchener poster telling me 'Your Country Needs You' , which filled the whole of the stage. As this lifted up I sensed the audience was in for a treat, the set (Jonathan Fensom) was magnificent. I haven't seen such meticulous detail for a while, it really did take you straight back to the damp inhospitable setting of the Trenches. 

The top half of the stage was completely pitch black and the bottom half an officers' dugout. An exit to the left led to a bunk room, an exit to the right to the kitchens and stores whilst straight down the middle ran muddy wooden steps up to the lines. We could see two bunks, a table with candles and several makeshift chairs in the form of old crates.

The characters that inhabit this underground world are stationed behind British lines near St Quentin, France in March 1918 and we join them six days before the last great German offensive of the First World War. This event saw the British suffer 38 000 casualties in just one dark day, as a result of over one million shells being fired at the lines in just 5 hours. The play begins with Captain Hardy (Tim Chipping) preparing to go on leave as we await the officers that will replace his men for the next six days. Captain Stanhope (James Norton) has been at the front for 3 years, is mentally on the edge and drinks too much whisky; he is joined by Lieutenant Osbourne (Dominic Mafham) and 2nd Lieutenants' Raleigh (Graham Butler), Trotter (Christian Patterson), and Hibbert (Simon Harrison). Tony Turner (Private Mason) is the omnipresent cook that we see hour after hour.

We watch them as they eat, smoke and drink, all to excess as there is nothing else to do in between being on duty. There is tension, sadness and constant fear but stories and laughter too. There are huge arguments but also touching shoulders to cry on. The lighting design (Jason Taylor) is excellent and really helps to set the scene, as day breaks the sun streams down the steps from the trenches but at night the candles and oil lamps glow in the dingy dugout as the fog of tobacco fills the stage.

Journey's End seems even more evocative and genuine than other Great War plays and stories maybe because RC Sherriff saw the horror of the trenches first hand with the East Surrey 9th. He then returned to a very different world where he loved to row through Kingston On Thames and Journey's End was born just 10 short years after it was set.

There has been some criticism of the fact that this play is based on Officers but it is far from elitist, we do not see the toffs depicted in *Blackadder Goes Forth *and it is only Raleigh, whose uncle is a General that thinks everything is 'topping' when he first arrives and seems to think it will be all chaps together just like the 'rugger' team. Hibbert is well-off, but Trotter has come up from private with an London accent to match. Osbourne is a school teacher and Stanthorpe a vicars' son.

The performance from the eleven strong ensemble is exceptionally good with brilliant performances from many. The sound design (Gregory Clarke) really set the tone of the play and rather than drown us with constant gun fire, gave us deafening bombardment to spectacular effect when necessary but mostly just eerie silence and pops of distant shells. Inevitably the end of the journey is a sad one, but story of the journey is highly recommended and after the audience fell silent momentarily then loud applause rang out.

Runs until 12th March.

Pick Yourself Up - Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch

Writer: Stephen Wyatt
Director: Matt Devitt
Reviewer: Michael Gray

“Make it another old-fashioned,please,” - coming right up, the first show of the new Queen's season, a gloriously enjoyable musical, giving the lie to those who moan that they don't write them like that any more.  Of course writer Stephen Wyatt has chosen his collaborators wisely – Cole Porter and Molière, though Pick Yourself Up is by Molière only in the sense that last year's hit “Forum” was by Plautus.

There are so many show-stoppers – my favourite from a thoroughbred field the Don't Fence Me In quartet – that you wonder how the plot can progress. And the 17th century stock characters are replaced by familiar stereotypes from the song-and-dance stage.

This is Bob Carlton's unique Cut to the Chase company, so the impressive dance band we hear in the overture is made up of the actors in the show, many of them familiar faces in this house.

The new boy first, though. Greg Last plays a mean trombone and an even meaner hood – one of the two hitmen employed by Joe Hatchetface Tamales (Simon Jessop). His partner in organised crime is the excellent Matthew Quinn (bass and guitar).

The Fred and Ginger of the Trocadero, East 47th, are Tom and Ruby (Elliot Harper and Natasha Moore) – both rising to the considerable challenge of hoofing, singing and slapstick, and both very watchable performers.

It's Tom - “terrible dancer and hopeless husband” - who becomes the reluctant shrink, donning a ridiculous false beard to effect a cure for lovelorn trumpeter Gloria (Sarah Scowen). With a second opinion from the object of her affections, Harry (Jared Ashe, clarinet and sax).

A hit with the audience was Allison Harding's floozy Tallulah, who gave a breathtaking masterclass in musical comedy character work, proved a stylish drummer, and also spectacularly revived a couple of lesser known Cole Porters: Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love and Find Me A Primitive Man. The other revival was entrusted to Tom Jude's superbly characterized fiddle-playing maestro – The Leader of a Big-Time Band.

Rodney Ford's set – built as ever in the Queen's own workshop – caught the style exactly. The band-stand seemed to take up most of the performance area, but then, impressively, glided smoothly back on a truck, with screens sliding in to represent the street (hydrant, trash-can, lamp-post!) and Joe's mansion (lovely thirties fauna motif here).

“Times are hard at the Trocadero ...” - tell us about it, we might reply. But this superb extended revival, directed by Matt Devitt with Julian Littman in charge of the music, shows no sign of recession. It never puts a foot wrong, presses all the right feel-good buttons, and makes a superb pick-me-up for these difficult days.

Runs until 26th March
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