It’s a helluva show

on the town

Sometimes you just get the theatre you need. This seems to be particularly true of my relationship with the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park.  Last year, days after the EU referendum I saw Henry V starring Michelle Terry there – a nuanced piece which spoke of the complex relationships both with Europe and between the different parts of the UK. This time, after the horrible events in Manchester I got the slice of pure theatrical joy which is On The Town – the all-singing, all-dancing tale of three sailors and the three women they encounter – and the mayhem they create – during 24 hours shore leave in 1940s New York.

In the spirit of sisterhood, let’s start with the girls – especially as they’re all good performances. Siena Kelly is a sweet and beautifully danced Ivy, torn between making something of herself and a youthful desire to have fun now; Miriam-Teak Lee has a gorgeous, operatic voice and great comic timing as Claire; but my personal favourite was Lizzy Connolly’s sassy and sexy Hildy. It struck me how sexually liberated these women were, for a piece which comes from the time in which it’s set. I’m not sure whether a piece written now would feature a a character like Hildy, gleefully pouncing on a man she’s never met before and inviting him to (to quote one song title) ‘Come Up To My Place’, without later punishing her or giving her deep-seated psychological problems as background.  Progress? Hmm.

The girls are well-matched by their men.  Most of the attention in the press has focused on Hollyoaks and Strictly Come Dancing alumnus Danny Mac, in the role of Gabey (played by Gene Kelly in the film), and very good he is too – his Gabey is utterly charming and, of course, he dances like a dream.  Samuel Edwards is very funny as Ozzie – his duet with Claire ‘Carried Away’ was one of my favourite moments of the show – and Jacob Maynard brings a nicely wide-eyed quality to Chip, the small-town boy in the big city for the first time. A particular tip of the hat to Maynard, who stepped up from the ensemble after one of the original leads broke his foot.

on the town 2

This group of triple threats are supported by a great ensemble, and a great cast in the minor roles, especially Maggie Steed proving she can still shake her tail feather as Madame Dilly. The set, with its multiple levels and staircases does a good job of bringing New York to this most English of settings.

There is sometime a certain amount of snobbery about the musical, especially ‘classic’, non-edgy ones like this, but you cannot beat the pure joy they create (and that’s without considering the amount of hard work involved in them, especially on a very hot day in Regent’s Park).

The Broadway original of this was staged – and set – during the war but there’s little evidence of it. There are references to past heroism of Gabe, and presumably Hildy is driving a cab because so many men are absent, but war is very distant from this sunlit and celebratory show. One of its songs describes New York as ‘a helluva town’: this is a helluva show. If you feel like you need some joy in your life, go see it.

On The Town runs until 1st July at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park







Not burning


Antony and cleo photo
Josette Simon and Antony Byrne in Antony & Cleopatra. Photo by Helen Maybanks, (c)RSC


Antony & Cleopatra, Royal Shakespeare Company live from Stratford Upon Avon

It’s rare that a production – especially a production of Shakespeare – leaves me feeling just a bit ‘meh’, but that was the case with this one.  I’m aware that’s not the most eloquent response, but it’s the best I can do for this production, which is a shame as it’s not without it’s good points.

Let’s be positive and start with one of those good points. Antony Byrne is one of the actors I’ve really enjoyed watching at the RSC over the last few years (I especially loved him as Kent alongside Antony Sher’s Lear) and it’s good to see him get a proper lead role.  As I’d expected, he does a good job as the noble old soldier, with a nicely nuanced but still passionate performance.

Josette Simon is a magnificient actor (the way she howls after the death of Antony was heart-rending) – but I found it hard to warm to her Cleopatra. Indeed, near the beginning, I found her more than a little irritating. In the pre-show interviews, Simon spoke about Cleopatra as being one of the great politicians of her age, but I didn’t get that from her performance. Her Cleopatra seemed to be a woman detached from reality, playing at being queen. Fascinating, perhaps, but not evidence of a great political brain.  But amazing performance, even if I wasn’t sure about the interpretation.

I also liked Ben Allen’s Octavius – austere with nice touches of the sociopathic, and clearly a man better suited to the times than poor old Antony. But for me, the acting honours of the night went to Andrew Woodall’s Enobarbus, the great cynic and observer, who still despairs of the way his friend Antony has fallen from grace. I’ve never noticed before, but he really does get a lot of the best lines: Not only “Age cannot wither her…” but the beautiful speech describing Cleopatra and Antony’s first meeting: “The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne, burned on the water…”

But, good performances aside, this production really didn’t do it for me. Perhaps it was too reverential, too conventional.  The togas and Egyptian robes felt a bit too much like an undergraduate Ancient Civilisation-themed fancy dress party, and the pillared set was pleasant but dull. There were also some odd characterisations. Was the Soothsayer really meant to look and sound like Neil from The Young Ones? I presume not, but that’s all I could see from the moment he opened his mouth.

Much has been made of the fact that the music for this production has been composed by former chart-troubler Laura Mvula. How was her music? It was…fine. I liked quite a lot of it, I found some of it a bit intrusive. But it didn’t add a great deal, it didn’t give the production the extra dimension it lacked. 

A couple of wobbles and a few odd camera angles from the usually flawless Live From Stratford team didn’t help, but, in the end, this production felt like less than the sum of its parts. For me, it just didn’t catch fire.

To Play The King


Charles III image
Oliver Chris, Tim Pigott-Smith and Charlotte Riley in Charles III. Photograph: Robert Viglasky/BBC/Drama Republic


 King Charles III, BBC2, 10th May 2017

It was slightly tucked away on a workaday Wednesday, but BBC2’s televisation of Mike Bartlett’s play was eagerly anticipated by theatre lovers. Partly this was down to an eagerness to see how a very theatrical play translated to television, but mostly to see what proved to be the last performance of the much-missed Tim Pigott-Smith in the title role.

 And what a towering performance it was, by a man who seems to have been born to play kings – and this performance rightly had a touch of Lear about it, especially at the moment Charles realises he will have to give up his long-awaited throne. It was a detailed performance too, with the slowness of his hand as he signs the abdication a telling touch.

He has good support from the rest of the cast too, especially Oliver Chris and Charlotte Riley as William and Kate (or the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as they should be addressed by us plebs). Riley does a good job of conveying both the human and the scheming parts of Kate’s nature that lie beneath her blandly perfect exterior. Oliver Chris’ William starts by being a bit wet, with his wife pulling the strings, but gradually finds his own resolution and ambition. The sheer viciousness that he puts into the line “You have felt your age” is magnificent.

 The play does a great job of illustrating the corrosive and corrupting nature of power, but I’m not entirely convinced by the translation to television… I preferred the stage version. There are several reasons for this – firstly, to make the two hour plus play into an acceptable length for television, many of the speeches have been cut down, losing some of the rhythm and beauty of Bartlett’s verse. I also found I missed the stylised set, with its brick walls. Perhaps it’s just a case of something imagined being more powerful than something actually seen, but I found the exquisitely choreographed stage riot/protest scene which began the second half of the play to be more powerful than the ‘riot-lite’ montage of the TV adaptation. I also found some of the background music a bit much at times – and I wish they’d let Charlotte Riley’s Kate stay still while delivering her Lady Macbeth-like soliloquy about power and ambition. The movement they added made it look like they were trying too hard to make it ‘televisual’, and stripped the speech of the concentrated power it had on stage. With an actor of Riley’s talent, you don’t need fuss.

 There are of course compensations for some of the losses in translation from stage to screen: the lovely cutaway of young Prince George chewing happily on a croissant while his horrified parents watch Charles’ dissolution of parliament on an iPad, the fantastic close ups of Oliver Chris and Tim Piggott-Smith as they confront each other during the coronation (for which I’m glad they kept the Latin Te Deum). And, of course, the great compensation is to have a record of Tim Pigott-Smith’s magnificent interpretation of the lead role in a great modern play.






A dance delight

 Red Shoes image

The Red Shoes, Marlowe Theatre

I think I have discovered a new disease. It’s highly contagious, and can spread like wild fire. I’m calling it Matthew Bourne Fever, and my office came down with an almost universal case of it last week. As regular readers will know, I work in a theatre – and myself and my colleagues have fairly diverse tastes, but Matthew Bourne and his New Adventures company will get almost all of us excited.

I myself first caught this particular ailment when I saw The Car Man (see here), but now Sir Matthew is back, with a new work, an all-dance adaptation of the Powell & Pressburger film, The Red Shoes.  It’s described by the man himself as a ‘love letter’ to dance and theatre, the whole production is wonderfully and appropriately theatrical. The set in particular, is a thing of wonder. It’s most notable feature is a huge false proscenium arch, covered in gold leaf, with red velvet curtains. This turns and pivots, taking us from the front of stage to backstage to great effect.

Although I’ve started with the sheer wonder that is the set, of course, the production would be nothing without its human heart, its dancers. As ever, with Matthew Bourne, both the dancing and the acting within it are beautiful, especially from the central trio. Sam Archer is the charismatic puppet-master Lermontov, for whom dance is supreme, and human emotions are a distraction from art. In the performance I saw, the role of Vicky Page was played by the luminous Cordelia Braithwaite, with a wide-eyed delight at the start, shading into melancholy and later desperation in the second act. The third side of this triangle is Chris Trenfield, as Julian, the nerdy but adorable composer, who suddenly explodes into charisma as he conducts his own work.

The other thing about this production is that it’s often very funny – you don’t necessarily expect to laugh out loud at a dance production, but you do with this one – whether at the dancers of the Lermontov company walking through rehearsals with fags in their mouths, or the very funny sand dance in the music hall section in the second act.

I did wonder in advance whether the theme of a woman forced to choose between life and art would still feel relevant, but in the end that doesn’t really matter. This is still a thrilling human story, beautifully danced. My heart was in my mouth as Vicky’s story reached its tragic end.  If you can, go and lose yourself in this beautiful production.

The Red Shoes is touring to various venues:

Sweet as an orange


Nell Gwynn image
Laura Pitt-Pulford as Nell


I have to admit to a soft spot for both Nell Gwynn and Charles II. The former always stands out amid the court beauties of history – generally either bitchy or insipid – for her wit and warmth, while the latter seems to have been one of the few genuinely intelligent British monarchs – and one of even fewer with an identifiable sense of humour. So the real wonder is why it took me so long to manage to see Jessica Swale’s glorious play.

Although I’ve been missing out all this time (the play was first performed in 2015), I’m glad that I ended up catching it in its original home, the Globe. Although the original Globe was a hundred or so years earlier than the period the play covers, there’s something about the intimacy of the ‘wooden O’, and the closeness of the audience to the stage that feel right for the Restoration period.  Christopher Luscombe’s production makes good use of the way that characters can walk right through the groundlings to reach the stage, right from the first scene, which features a confrontation  between our heroine Nell and a heckler hidden among the real-life audience, with an unfortunate actor caught in the middle.

Laura Pitt-Pulford gives a winning performance as Nell, whose rise from orange-seller to King’s mistress, via a stint as an actress, is charted by the play. As well as having the necessary charm, she also sings beautifully. The catchy songs, particularly one about a giant hat, are one of the productions great strengths – you’ll have them stuck in your head for days afterwards. It’s nice to have a pay with a female lead, and there are some other good roles for women, with Mossie Smith very funny as Nell’s dresser Nancy, and Pandora Clifford giving not one but two beautifully bitchy performances as two rival royal mistresses.

It may be pleasingly female-dominated, but the men do pretty well out of it too. Ben Righton as Charles II strikes a nice balance between majesty and humour. He gets some of the best lines, including a perfectly-timed response to the exclamation of ‘Oh God!’: “Well, King. Next rung down.” Sam Marks gives a poignant performance as Charles Hart, the actor lover who Nell abandons for the king. Esh Alladi also puts in a funny turn as drama queen Edward Kynaston – an actor playing female roles, convinced that this fad for actresses won’t last long. There is even an appearance from a rea,l live – and very cute – King Charles spaniel (gender unknown), to the great delight of the audience.

The storyline is bit slight – girl becomes actress, girl meets king, they fall in love – and as a result, there’s perhaps not a huge amount of dramatic tension, but that doesn’t really matter. This play is one that can truly be described as a ‘romp’ and taken on that level it is utterly wonderful – warm, witty, fun and beautiful to look at. Not unlike Nell Gwyn herself, in fact.




Storm in a stocking


Tamsin Greig as Malvolia. Photo by Marc Brenner

Twelfth Night, National Theatre via NT Live


It’s perhaps appropriate that this staging of Twelfth Night begins by showing us the storm (featuring an extract of the shipping forecast in addition to the usual storm sound effects, a nice touch) which separates Sebastian and Viola, as its casting has created something of a storm in a tea cup. This production is what’s described as ‘gender fluid’ – several formerly male characters, most notably Malvolio, who is transmogrified into Malvolia (Tamsin Grieg). So far, so quite interesting but hardly shocking. Except it seems to have been the final straw for The Telegraph’s theatre critic, who wrote a piece worrying that the male lead was being killed off, and telling women to get their sticky mitts off male parts. I paraphrase, but only slightly.

I say: what a load of rubbish. The male lead is alive and well, as a quick glance at the RSC’s recent leaflet promoting their Roman season will tell you – the only woman on there is playing Cleopatra. I don’t particularly have a problem with that (well, maybe a small one), but equally, I can’t see why anyone (even if they do work for The Telegraph) could have a problem with a little gender-bending, especially in Twelfth Night, which is all about gender disguise and confusion. The only real question to be considered, is whether the production is any good – and this one is brilliant.

Tamsin Greig is a fine actress with a great gift for comedy, and her comic scenes are hugely funny – but she always captures the character’s melancholy and pain too. The closing image of her, alone after the rest of the principal cast have paired off to be happy is haunting. Why did Shakespeare create such a sad end for a character in what is meant to be a comedy?  His/her presence at the end of the play feels almost like that of Banquo at Macbeth’s feast. Perhaps his point is to do with the heedlessness and selfishness of love. Perhaps the glover’s son is making a class point, since the other character left alone at the end of the play is Antonio, the seaman who saves – and loves – Sebastian. Either way, if we’d stuck to conventional casting we’d never have missed out on this performance.


Oliver Chris as Orsino and Tamara Lawrance as Viola. Photo by Marc Brenner.


The rest of the cast is just as good. Oliver Chris’ Orsino is a simple soul –perhaps not quite Tim Nice But Dim, but edging in that direction – whose howl of relief at realising the person he has fallen in love with is not a boy but a girl in disguise is one of the play’s funniest moments. Phoebe Fox is a strong-minded Olivia, giving herself up to melancholy, but discovering passion can still burst through, while Tamara Lawrance is a lively Viola, with a particularly nice line in astonished expressions – she’s one to watch. Tim McMullen and Daniel Rigby (I wonder if that’s really all his own hair…) are a fine comic pair as Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, and Imogen Doel makes a good impression in the small role of Fabia (another gender-switched role).

The cast are great, but the set deserves a mention too – it’s a huge pyramidal structure, which revolves to reveal different spaces, meaning we rarely see the same thing twice. The gay bar with a drag queen performing Hamlet’s soliloquy as a torch song was a particularly nice touch.

This production is directed by Simon Godwin, who was also at the helm for the RSC’s recent production of Hamlet with Paapa Essiedu (which I also loved, despite my ambivalence towards Hamlet)  – he seems to have a deft touch with Shakespeare, an ability to bring out the themes of the plays in a way that makes them seem fresh.  I suspect I don’t always give directors the credit they deserve, so I’ll end by saying: keep up the good work Simon. And ignore any rantings from Telegraph journalists.

Twelfth Night, National Theatre until 13th May



The evolution of the fox


Ben Aldridge as Charlie


Run The Beast Down, Marlowe Studio Canterbury & Finborough Theatre London

This is a slightly unusual post for me. Although I work in a theatre, I rarely write about any of the shows I deal with – but I’ve recently had the rare and unusual opportunity to see a new play develop, from page to first performance and then onwards, and I wanted to share it. For my Twitter followers, this is the play I’ve been going on about recently! Hopefully, this post will help explain why.

The script for Run The Beast Down – by first time playwright Titas Halder – was submitted to a new writing programme called Roar (don’t ask why it’s called that, it’s too complicated to explain), run by The Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, where I work. So I first encountered it as a script, passed around the office and discussed.

It is, according to the script, ‘a play for one actor’. This one actor plays Charlie, a man in his late 20’s or early 30’s, Charlie loses his job in the City (as the result of a Lehman Brothers-style collapse) on the same day that his long-suffering girlfriend walks out on him. So far, so prosaic. But the script then heads off in some very unexpected directions, as Charlie stops sleeping, and finds himself being haunted by an urban fox… We hear all of this from Charlie himself, and he’s a highly unreliable narrator. How much of this is real, and how much is in his head?


Although everyone in my office agreed that we liked the script, we found it hard to imagine how it would work as a play. How the hell do you bring to the stage a script which involves a possibly imaginary conversation with a fox in cafe?

Well, after months of waiting, last week, we finally got the answer, with the opening of Run The Beast Down. The key to director Hannah Price’s vision is the music – the play comes with an electronic soundtrack, played by an onstage DJ (Chris Bartholomew). Tales about talking foxes might seem to more the realm of rural fairytales, but this is a very urban story, with a suitably urban soundtrack.

The urban theme is carried over into the back drop, with a set consisting of eight metal poles illuminated by ever changing neon lights. It’s scenery that gives no clue as what is really happening or how much of this is in Charlie’s insomniac imagination. The combination of the lighting and the music gives the whole production the feeling of a particularly vivid dream, the kind you get unexpected flashbacks to the next day.


But of course, however good the production, a one-man show stands or falls on the performance of one man. The man in this case is Ben Aldridge – he’s best known for his work on TV (in Our Girl, Fleabag and various other things), but, boy, can he cut it on stage too. He’s never off stage, there’s no scenery to hide behind, but he holds the audience’s attention for a solid ninety minutes. He captures the various characters – from his braying workmate to an overworked GP, to the talking fox itself – that Charlie encounters beautifully, striking the difficult balance between differentiating them, without stepping out of his main character. There’s a lovely detail in the way he uses his hands to mimic the ear movements of the fox during that conversation in the cafe.

It was fascinating to see Aldridge’s performance – and the production – develop between the first performance and the second one I saw, at the end of their week-long run in Canterbury. It’s not just that the production gets slicker, or that new elements have been added – although both of those things are true – but it’s got more confident in subtler ways too. For example, allowing more space for the audience to laugh.

This has given me a harder view of the recent controversy about reviewing previews. I might have been neutral before, but now I’m clear: It isn’t fair. I loved both the production and Aldridge’s performance on the first night, but it wasn’t a finished article (although whether live theatre can ever be that is debatable), it wasn’t something on which judgement should be passed.

However, putting that rant to one side – I’ll definitely be looking out for Hannah Price’s work in future, and I hope it’s not too long before Aldridge can be tempted away from TV and back to the stage. If you can squeeze into the Finborough Theatre in London in the next month, do go and check out Run The Beast Down – it’s a unique experience.