National Treasure


Allelujah! at The Bridge Theatre, London.

There is a danger in discovering a new work from a beloved writer, especially when that writer has been largely silent for several years. Might they have lost their touch? Might a new work sully happy memories of their previous greatness?

I am happy to report that there need be no such worries about Allelujah!, the new play by Alan Bennett. With Bennett (and director Nick Hytner, his long-term collaborator) we are in safe hands. In this play, Alan Bennett, national treasure, takes on another, the NHS. Allelujah! is set (of course) in Yorkshire, in the geriatric ward of ‘The Beth’; more properly The Bethlehem Hospital, and old-fashioned but much-beloved cradle-to-grave establishment. Which, of course, the government wants to close down.

Into this faintly biblical setting comes, appropriately enough, a Prodigal son – Colin, (former History Boy Samuel Barnett). He’s here to visit one of the patients, his father Joe (Jeff Rawle), but he also works for the health minister who wants to close the hospital.

Hytner has – of course – assembled a great cast, who are all on top form. As well as the two above, there’s also another former History Boy, Sacha Dawan, as a sympathetic doctor, and Deborah Finlay as a nurse to whom there may be more than meets the eye. There’s also a wonderful geriatric chorus line, that I wish they’d made just a little bit more use of. Also worthy of a mention is David Moorst as Andy the work experience boy, who perfectly captures teenage dumb insolence.

The play is very funny, full of wonderful, typically Bennett lines: “Last time I was here I was on Montgomery Ward, now it’s Dusty Springfield. Don’t say there hasn’t been any progress.” Bennett is often thought of as soft and cuddly, but there’s proper bite as Bennett makes his point about our lack of respect and consideration for the old. There’s also a little jibe at politicians, in Samuel’s line: “The state can’t be seen to work; how will we able to get rid of it?”

The set nicely evokes the slightly crumbling NHS hospital, with its slightly peeling green walls and acres of blue signs which will be only too familiar to anyone who’s ever got lost trying to find a relative at visiting time.

It’s not flawless – the first half is perhaps too long, building very, very slowly to a gear change just before the interval  (on the other hand, when the journey is this much fun, why not enjoy the ride?) and the second half feels like it’s trying to cram in too many points. But, overall, this is a worthy addition to the Bennett cannon. Allelujah for that!

Allelujah! runs at The Bridge Theatre until 29th September.





Instructions for a heatwave

As You Like It
Edward Hogg (Orlando) and Olivia Vinall (Rosalind)

As You Like It at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London.

It says something about the current heatwave that when this production opened with the sound of thunder the audience at a baking hot Regent’s Park Theatre look hopeful rather than worried. When the opening scene involves fake rain, people looked actively jealous of the actors. Fortunately, Max Webster’s production is fresh and joyous enough to keep the attention, even as the audience is in danger of melting.

The production kicks off with a high-energy rock version of ‘The Rain It Raineth Every Day’, and music is this production’s signature, as we move from rock at the corrupt court of Duke Frederick to folksy country in the Forest of Arden, the latter very much a place of escape as much as exile, even when – as in the first half – it’s shown in the dead of winter. It’s a weird and magical experience to sit in the middle of an English heatwave with fake snow blowing over you – one of those experiences that only an open air theatre can offer. (Although how the actors coped with the first half costumes of heavy clothes and scarves in the heat, I’m not sure).

It also has an environmental sub-text: the court of the corrupt and usurping Duke is all hard shimmering metal, with piles of rubbish at either side of the stage, and more floating in the semi-circular pool at the front of the stage. When we first meet the shepherd he is gathering up said rubbish, and the transformation continues in the second half, as romances blossom and flowers bloom across the stage.

All of the various couples – and the production as a whole – capture the giddy madness of love. Olivia Vinall is a lovely Rosalind, and has some fun with her male persona of Ganymede, playing him as a teenage slacker, complete with backwards baseball cap. Edward Hogg is a sweet Orlando, who even makes the fake-wooing business seem like a perfectly sensible idea. Amy Booth-Steel and Danny Kirrane are very funny as comedy couple Audrey and Touchstone. And amidst all this luuurrrrve Maureen Beattie as the melancholy Jacques ensures things don’t get too saccharine. The plot may be one of Shakespeare’s silliest, but it’s somehow perfect for a summer’s afternoon.

As You Like It runs at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 28th July.



Not getting lost in translation


tartuffe prod shot
Paul Anderson as Tartuffe and Audrey Fleurot as Elmire (c) Helen Maybanks

Tartuffe, Theatre Royal Haymarket, London

Well, here is a curiosity. A bi-lingual production of the great French comic classic, set in modern-day Los Angeles, in one of London’s oldest and most venerable theatres. Having studied this play for A-level French (Grade B, now mostly forgotten, if you were wondering), I felt this was worth investigating…

The cast is certainly stellar. Paul Anderson is an excellent Tartuffe, complete with Bible-Belt-preacher accent. There is one look he gives to the audience at the very end of the first act which is pretty much worth the (fairly hefty) ticket price alone. Audrey Fleurot’s Elmire is also very good, making you both applaud her confidence and pity her plight in the face of Tartuffe’s attempted seduction. She also has fabulous frocks (and indeed the body to display them – husband’s jaw had to be detatched from the floor on a couple of occasions). I also liked George Blagden’s hot-headed Damis, Claude Perron’s saucy but strong Dorine, and Vincent Winterhalter’s louche but clear-sighted Cléante (as a side note, he also pulls off wearing a pink crushed velvet evening jacket, a rare skill and one to be commended). Orgon, the great dupe, is not the easiest character to warm to, but Sebastian Roché does a good job, making you actually sympathise with him (once I’d got over being distracted by his remarkable resemblance to Gordon Ramsay).

Overall, the production is great fun, the setting gives scope for a few jokes about Trump and Twitter, and we all leave happy.  I do have a few reservations. The first is the movable Perspex box which is the main feature of the set – while I don’t  hate it, I’m not sure it adds much, and the fact that the characters have to be on mic while they are in it to be heard is a bit of a distraction.

I’m also not sure about the innovation (and it is apparently the first time it’s been done in London) of making the production bi-lingual. For me, it doesn’t add a great deal. If you’re curious as to how it works, it goes like this: The idea is that Orgon is a successful French businessman who has moved to LA with his family. They speak mainly French amongst themselves, although his two children, having grown up partly in LA often reach for English first. The ‘American’ characters (including Tartuffe) speak only English. There are screens around the theatre with translations into the opposite language to the one being spoken on stage. Watching both the captions and the stage takes a bit of getting used to, and there is a slightly jarring effect when moving between the two, especially after a long scene in one language. It might have been better to make a decision and stick to it – either do a full translated version (and as all of the French actors have dialogue in English, this needn’t have changed the cast) or go fully French with captioning. Apparently the latter was the original plan, and my cynical marketeers brain wonders if the bilingual style was a compromise to create a more ‘commercial’ product.  All that said, it didn’t really detract from the production either – so plaudits to the producers for willingness to try something new.  And overall, the production more than made up for spending a rare sunny English afternoon inside a dark theatre, which is a fairly substantial recommendation.

As a side note on translation: the English translation is thoroughly modernised (complete with the above mentioned references to Twitter) but the French is the original Moliere. Even with my limited remaining French, the rhythms of the two are clearly different, and I wonder if it would be jarring to a genuinely bi-lingual person? If there are any reading this, do let me know.

Tartuffe is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 28th July.








Hail Caesar!


David Morrissey as Mark Antony. Photo by Manuel Harlan.


Julius Caesar at The Bridge Theatre, London.

Entering The Bridge’s auditorium for this Julius Caesar is not the usual theatre-going experience. The stage and stalls gone, to be replaced with an open pit, in which a band is playing high energy rock,  flags are being waved and red baseball caps (ring any contemporary bells?) are being sold to the assembled crowd. It’s quite a way to begin, but then this is quite a production.

The show’s unique selling point is the chance to be in the pit, not just surrounded by, but in the midst of the action. We, however, were sitting down. The reasons for this were twofold – we weren’t sure if my husband’s legs would hold out, and I’m a grand total of 5ft tall. No matter how sharp my elbows, there was always a good chance I would spent two hours staring at someone’s back. I constantly bless whichever Ancient Greek invented raked theatre seating.

For all non-standers, I am happy to report that the production is still thrilling, certainly from where we were sitting, on the extreme left of Gallery 1. (I can’t comment on the view from the higher galleries). Much of the action takes place on staging blocks which rise up from the floor, putting the actors on roughly our eyeline (but potentially giving the standees sore necks…). This position also gives you the chance to observe the crowd itself, which becomes essentially an extra character in the play. It also makes a political point about the behaviour of crowds – far from being detached observers, the crowd are swept up, joining in with chants and happily helping to lift Caesar’s giant flag, or hold pictures of him during the funeral scene.

Sitting or standing, this is a very powerful production, cleverly drawing parallels with the modern world. David Calder’s red tie-wearing Caesar (again, ring any bells?) is a man who has started to believe his own publicity, while Ben Wishaw’s intellectual Brutus is no match for David Morrissey’s Mark Antony. This latter was probably my favourite performance in the whole production, especially his delivery of the oration at Caesar’s funeral, where he very cleverly almost throws away the famous ‘Friends, Romans and countrymen’ line. I also liked Hannah Stokely as Cassius (standing in as understudy for Michelle Fairley), Abraham Popoola in various parts (including the warm-up band’s lead singer) and Leila Farzad as Decius Brutus, slyly and flirtatiously persuading Caesar to go to the marketplace and his doom.

Any criticisms I might make of the production are very minor: after such a high energy start, the first scenes felt slow, although the atmosphere quickly built up again, and do the very clear Trump parallels make it too hard to feel sympathy for Caesar himself?

I want to end by paying tribute to the stage crew, who – in costume – have to deal with not only a complex and moving set, but also do so whilst in the middle of several hundred audience members. This must be the stage crew equivalent of the Winter Olympics. Hail to them, and hail Caesar!

Julius Caesar runs at The Bridge in London until 15th April. It will be screened to cinemas on 22 March.  






Dancing through the darkness


Ashley Shaw as Cinderella. Photo by Johan Persson. 

Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella, Sadlers Well and then touring.


The air raid sirens begin as the house light go down. It’s a sound that even now, two or three generations away from the war, still chills the blood. Sir Matthew Bourne’s take on the famous story is clearly not going to be your average saccharine fairytale.

The setting works beautifully, with Lez Brotherston’s stunning design transporting us to a world drained of colour by the war, in which young people snatch at whatever chance of fun they can. There’s something about the desperate glamour of young people partying during the Blitz that really catches the heart, and it gives the story a real emotional depth that you don’t associate with fairytales. It’s not however without touches of humour, especially from Cinderella’s stepsisters (Kate Lyons and Sophia Hurdley).

Bourne certainly commits fully to the timeshift: Instead of a fairy godmother, we have Liam Mower’s Angel, in a white pearlescent suit, rescuing Cinders from an air raid as well as her stepmother, before whisking her off to a night of dancing and passion, not with a prince, but a dashing RAF pilot. The Angel seems to owe a definite debt to 1940’s films, such as A Matter of Life and Death, or The Bishops Wife, both of which feature heavenly visitors.

Cinderella company

In the central roles, Ashley Shaw is a luminous Cinderella, and Dominic North is suitably dashing as the Pilot, with both characters developed beyond their usual fairytale outlines. There’s also a suitably wicked – but very glamourous – stepmother in the form of Michela Meazza.

I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that the story still has a happy ending. There’s a nice touch as the end, after we see Cinders and her new husband waved off on a train, when the Angel wanders over to stand next to another girl, who is dining alone and presumably also in need of his ministrations. Evidently an Angel’s work is never done.

Cinderella runs at Sadlers Well until 27th January, before touring the UK – details here:







Bang to rights


Emmet Byrne and Geoffrey Streatfeild in Cell Mates


Cell Mates, Hampstead Theatre

Cell Mates is a theatrical curio, a footnote to the development of a National Treasure. This was the play from which Stephen Fry fled, sparking an international search, after apparently reacting badly to negative reviews. While Fry was found in Belgium, he never returned to the play, and the production never recovered, closing not long after.

Whether because of superstition arising from this incident or not, the play hasn’t really seen the light of day from then until now, and this revival at Hampstead. But is it a play worth seeing for itself? I’d say yes – it’s a sharp and often very funny story about friendship and deception.

The friendship at the play’s heart is between George Blake, an MI6 officer turned KGB spy, and Sean Bourke, the Irish petty criminal who in 1966 helped Blake escape from Wormwood Scrubs, where he was five years into a 40-year sentence for espionage.  The play concentrates on their time together in Moscow, where Blake has now settled, and Bourke is making what he thinks will be a short visit. My only criticism of the play is that the development of their friendship in the Scrubs seems remarkably quick, although the two lead actors do a good job with what they’re given, cleverly showing how these two intelligent outsiders found common cause.

This is play which stands or falls on the performances of its two lead actors, and Hampstead have found an outstanding pair. Geoffrey Streatfeild  (as Blake) was already a favourite of mine, but I also loved Emmet Byrne as Bourke – an aspiring writer essentially looking for good copy (in the age of social media perhaps that’s something a lot of us will recognise) – who ends up in something way over his head. (He’s a completely new talent to me, but as most of his work appears to have been in Ireland I think I can be forgiven my ignorance). Streatfeild’s Blake is a beautifully slippery characterisation, gradually peeling off layers of deception (“Spies betray people, that’s what we do. It becomes a – a habit. Difficult to break”). His Blake seems to be a man in search of an identity, with even his Englishness essentially an act (Blake was born George Behar, in Rotterdam, to a Dutch mother and an Egyptian-Jewish father). Perhaps this is why he tries so hard to hang on to the familiar presence of Bourke (it isn’t the reason Blake himself gives, but he’s definitely not a reliable witness, even about himself).

The three supporting members of the cast are also good, especially in their second half characters: Danny Lee Wynter and Philip Bird as a pair of darkly comic KGB officers, and Cara Hogan as Blake’s housekeeper Zinaida, holding her own nicely amongst the boys.

Cell Mates runs at Hampstead Theatre until 20th January.




Out of the shadows


Tara Fitzgerald as Elizabeth and Aidan McArdle as Walsingham. (c) Marc Brenner


The Secret Theatre, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (The Globe)

Sometimes you get a perfect synergy of play and venue. This is exactly the case with Anders Lustgarten’s The Secret Theatre and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. The story of Elizabeth I’s spymaster and the shadowy realms in which he operates sits perfectly in this candle-lit jewel box of a theatre.

The setting is perfect, and the story is pretty damn good too: England lives in fear of religious-inspired terror. In an attempt to safeguard the realm and protect the Queen, Francis Walsingham plots and deploys his network of spies – but does the end justify his means? Can surveillance create real safety?

There are of course plenty of modern parallels here, which Lustgarten exploits nicely, particularly with a few jokes about bankers not paying tax and Englishmen never winning at tennis. But he also deftly captures the back-biting and shadowy Elizabethan court.

The play is not entirely flawless– I thought the end, in which we discovered the master manipulator has been manipulated himself, felt a touch heavy-handed, trying a bit too hard to hammer home the view that surveillance doesn’t create safety. I didn’t find either of the play’s only two female characters (Queen Elizabeth herself and Walsingham’s daughter Frances*) entirely convincingly drawn, though the former wasn’t helped by Tara Fitzgerald’s performance, which felt too one-note, especially in the first half.

(*Mary Queen of Scots does make an appearance, but as all she does is say a prayer in Latin before heading off to her execution, I don’t think she qualifies as a proper character.)

My reservations about Fitzgerald aside, the cast are good, led by Aidan McArdle as Walsingham, cleverly showing the paranoia of a man who has heard too many secrets, and may even be suffering from PTSD, having been traumatised by witnessing the St Bartholmew’s Day Massacre. He’s well-supported by Ian Redford as Cecil, Sam Marks as both the Sir Philip Sydney and a tortured Jesuit (both in their own ways heroic but doomed) and Abraham Popoola as Walsingham’s torturer.

The Secret Theatre runs until 16th December: