Archive for the ‘ NW theatre ’ Category

Little Eagles, RSC, Hampstead Theatre: review

By Rona Munro
Director: Roxana Silbert

Royal Shakespeare Company, Yuri Gagarin

In a recent episode of Doctor Who, the eponymous time lord said of man kind’s ambition to get to the moon “You saw a big shiny thing in the sky and you couldn’t leave it alone, could you?” Rona Munro examines our urge to reach up to the sky and touch the stars in this play about the first man in space – Yuri Gagarin – and the engineer who got him there, Sergei Korolyov.

It is almost fifty years ago to the day that Gagarin was sent up into the stratosphere in what has since been called little more than an catapult and a tin can. Still, they beat the Americans and that is what matters, we learn in Munro’s hugely ambitious docu-play. She attempts to cover in just under three hours the Cold War, Stalin’s regime, life in the gulags, Gagarin’s personal life and the Cuban missile crisis. It’s no wonder, then, that it feels too broad in scope for an evening’s entertainment.

Under Roxana Silbert’s direction the RSC troupe all put in solid performances – Greg Hicks is dealt a bit of a dud hand with an enigmatic grumpy ghost and Noma Dumezweni’s Doctor veers from being a sympathetic character to a hugely dis-likeable one. Darrel D’Silva in the lead role of Korolyov does a good line in Soviet scowls and stomping. But there is the feeling that Munro couldn’t decide whether to concentrate on the engineer’s personal story or that of the space race. And the space race story allowed her to have fun with aerials – men dangling from the ceiling by their waistbands against a star-studded backdrop.

Dyfan Dwyfor as Yuri Gagarin is bright-eyed and eager – a walking piece of Soviet propaganda and Brian Doherty as Khrushchev is a sort of Russian Boris Johnson, all bluster and pats on the back. But like all the characters in this far-reaching play, he is little more than a sketch.

Undoubtedly I now know more about the Soviet space programme than I did last week. But Munro’s play doesn’t go beyond the educational – it is a book-at-bedtime sort of a work: harmless enough. But for a play about the human urge to touch the sky, Little Eagles is disappointingly Earth-bound.

3 Comedy Masks


A Butcher of Distinction, Cock Tavern Theatre: review

Since I saw this play The Cock Tavern have had to suspend all their shows because of a dispute with the council over their entertainment license. See their website for the latest.

By Rob HayesCock Tavern Theatre Rob Hayes
Directed by Ned Bennett

The Cock Tavern Theatre in Kilburn is getting a bit of a reputation for gore. Barely a moment went by during the recent Edward Bond season without someone being murdered on stage. And there is a touch of the Edward Bond to this new play by Rob Hayes.

The scenario as the lights go up is: two recently orphaned boys sort through their father’s things. Their estranged papa has just killed their mother before killing himself. He has also sold off everything that belonged to this once aristocratic family, “including the art collection”. The twin boys are left with nothing and have come down to London, where their father spent most of his time, to salvage what they can. One is a goatherd and one is the butcher of the title. They have cut-glass accents and say things like “old boy” and wear tweed.

Ned Bennett’s production doesn’t apologise for the absurdist strain in Hayes’ script: in fact Bennett adds pauses to highlight the black humour in lines like “Don’t move Hugo. Stay still and let the man stroke your face.”

“The man” is Teddy, played by a sinister Michael Gould, a gigolo – a fact that becomes clear to the audience long before the boys realise (although they probably don’t know the word).

Sam Swann as the younger of the twins (by 10 minutes) could not be wetter behind the ears. His wide, dark eyes seem to take up half of his face and his snub nose is straight out of Enid Blyton. Ciarán Owens is the older, taller, stronger, more dominating brother, Hartley. He runs his fingers through his greasy hair and is constantly on edge. Swann and Owens both give finely tuned performances and their exchanges capture the contradiction always present in sibling relationships – constant bickering tempered by deep-seated affection.

Both characters appear to have stepped straight out of a Nancy Mitford novel, however, and are entirely unbelievable. No one refers to parties as “hootenannies” anymore or refers to Indian people as “dusky”. But the problem wasn’t that these characters were too absurd but that the rest of the play wasn’t absurd enough.

By far the most captivating scene of the play is the last one, in which Hayes evokes Renaissance writers like Middleton and Ford in the more gruesome touches. And there is more than a whiff of Sweeney Todd. The utterly bizarre but compelling last 10 minutes involve a sheep costume, a walking stick, a meat cleaver and a straw boater. And it is brilliant. Obviously Hayes couldn’t have pitched the whole play at this level and the structure of the work does drive towards the dénouement. But Hugo and Hartley seem to have strolled in to the play from a different universe and the piece would perhaps have had more force if the setting (a London flat), the other characters mentioned and even Teddy, were a touch more ridiculous.

This review originally appeared on The Public Reviews

Penelope, Hampstead Theatre: review

In a swimming pool drained of water, blood drips down a tiled wall. A man in a dressing gown that’s too short and over-sized glasses stares miserably at it, sponge in hand. This is the setting for Enda Walsh’s intricate, dystopian play, Penelope.

Enda Walsh

Walsh takes the ancient Greek tale of Penelope, wife of Odysseus, who is faced with 108 suitors during her husband’s twenty-year-long absence. Thankfully, Walsh’s play only presents us with four suitors – and the action takes place in something close to the modern day. Burns, Quinn, Dunne and Fitz are the last men standing in this competition for Penelope’s love. The blood stain is all that is left of the fifth man.

Each day for almost twenty years the men have attempted to woo Penelope via a CCTV camera and a microphone which relay into her house. They have just a few minutes each, every day. When the play opens, each of the men has had the same dream, warning them that today Penelope’s husband will return – and horribly kill them all.

Mikel Murfi’s production is minutely done. It has an irresistible rhythm, moving swiftly and seamlessly from monologue to mime to group dialogue. The whole performance has an intensity about it and Murfi manages to recreate the monomania of the characters in his audience by honing in on single objects – a sausage, a book, a CCTV camera, a helium balloon.

The first character we see is Quinn, played by Karl Shiels. He struts in circles in his tight red speedos and yellow loafers, slapping his chest and managing to appear at once aggressive and past-it. Dunne is the extrovert, played in leopard-print glory by Denis Conway. He scampers and flounces from cocktail shaker to sun-lounger. The more cerebral Fitz (Niall Buggy) is reading Homer’s Odyssey (which tells the story of Penelope). His speech to woo Penelope is one of the stand-out moments: “We are two souls longing for love to grow from a glorious nothing.” It is also, like much of the play, too much to comprehend in one go. This is a tightly wrought web of a play which would reward a second viewing – and in many ways demands it.

The final member of the quartet is Burns, the subordinate of the group. When Quinn hurts his fingers trying to eat a hot sausage, Burns runs over and blows on it. Aaron Monaghan in the role is part nerd, part victim: he gravitates to the corners of the stage and clears up after the other men – even pushing an imaginary box out of the way after a mime sequence. Sabine Dargent’s set places Penelope above and behind the men’s empty pool, in a glass corridor. From here she imperviously watches the men’s attempts at seduction on a TV screen.

The men live in a world of delusion but within this delusion Enda Walsh finds things to say about our reality – about power and hope and friendship. Beckett’s influence is tangible but this is no identikit Waiting for Godot. Instead, Penelope is a fresh fable, tightly performed.

4Comedy MasksReview first appeared in the Willesden and Brent Times

Tiger Country, Hampstead Theatre: review

Tiger Country Nina RaineWritten and directed by Nina Raine
Hampstead Theatre, Swiss Cottage

Tiger Country: no safety net, alone, trusting your instincts. According to Nina Raine’s new play at the Hampstead Theatre, this is terrain familiar to the NHS surgeon, ‘Once you open the skin you’re on your own.’

Raine’s play – which she directs herself – is a high-octane, unflinching fly-on-the-wall examination of life in Accident and Emergency. We meet Emily – a fresh-faced new arrival on the hospital’s staff: through her eyes we see the chaos, the maddening bureaucracy, the trauma and the apparent cold-heartedness of her colleagues. We meet patients and doctors – and in an effective bit of doubling, the same actors take characters on both sides of the clipboard. Raine draws us into one patient’s story and then wheels them off, just as we began to feel for them – mirroring the situation doctors face every day. We learn about the private woes and worries of the surgeons and all the while the NHS is hanging by a thread in the background.

Emily, played by Ruth Everett is the naïve new arrival: one registrar realises instantly she’s new because she’s ‘still worrying about people dying’. Everett minutely copies the mannerisms, the tone of voice, the slightly desperate frown of the newly qualified medical student. She is over-eager to please and petrified of making a mistake. More importantly for this drama, she cares and feels each case in a way which is clearly unsustainable.

Vashti is Emily’s polar opposite. In Thusitha Jayasundera’s hands she is hard-nosed and up-tight but not unlikeable. She has worked hard to get to where she is and had to change a lot to be accepted: her accent, her clothes, and, one suspects, her personality. Hers is the most fascinating story in the play and Jayasundera’s is one of the stand-out performances.

Her counter-part is John, played by a brisk Adam James, who gives a brilliantly realistic portrayal of an experienced, professional registrar: even when exhausted and at breaking point, he carries on. There is good work from Pip Carter as surgeon Mark, and Joan Kempson as senior nurse, Olga, quietly steals a couple of scenes.

Raine’s dialogue is sharp and – clearly – a joy to speak. Some of the monologues are brilliantly written, though it perhaps feels like we’re hearing the playwright’s thoughts rather than the character’s. Although informed and influenced by TV hospital dramas like Green Wing, Scrubs, House and Casualty, (it in fact shares a plot line with Green Wing), Tiger Country manages to be more than simply a hospital TV series for stage. The play examines what it means to care: whether we can care about each other, whether a doctor can care for a patient they hardly know or even one they have never met and whether caring matters. This is a vital play, born of its time: the NHS is being much debated and this is an eloquent voice to add to the mix.

4Comedy Masks

Until 5 Feb

This review was first published in the Willesden and Brent Times

It’s Raining in Barcelona, Cock Tavern Theatre: review

By Pau Miró
Directed by Tanja Pagnuci

The Cock Tavern Theatre does stirling work bringing lesser known gems to a Brent audience. It’s Raining in Barcelona by Catalan playwright, Pau Miró, is no exception. This production, directed by Tanja Pagnuci, is fringe theatre at its best: intense, thought-provoking and simply presented.

We meet Lali, who is a prostitute in the Pretty Woman-mould. She works in the evenings and brings clients back to the flat, where her boyfriend, Carlos, hides under the bed “to keep her company”. Lali is also obsessed by poetry: she hoards sweet wrappers in a shoe box because they have quotations by famous poets printed on them. We meet one client: a bookseller called David, who has been coming to Lali for two years. Very little happens: in fact, this play is more about what the characters don’t do.

Rebecca Herod as Lali is a breathy, petite, bird of a woman who is as transfixed by poetry as the audience are by her. Herod commands the stage – every detail of Lali is so finely tuned that we barely notice the improbability of such a character. Lewis Hayes as her boyfriend Carlos has a less minutely sketched personality and acts more as a sounding board for Herod’s Lali. His tough guy act teeters towards the comic – and if it weren’t for the play’s darker moments, it would be completely ridiculous. But in just over an hour, Herod and Hayes create a believable portrait of a long-term couple.

Sharon G Feldman’s translation can be stilted but then this isn’t a realistic play. Lali and David – prostitute and client – spend their time together painting her nails and reciting poetry. And there’s some heavy-handed symbolism – from the razor Carlos is always playing with to the seagull which squawks at opportune moments. Birds have been symbols for women since time immemorial: but surely the slight, airy Lali should be a more delicate bird than the cumbersome seagull? But Miró’s play – even through the lens of a translation and the distracting homing seagull – is a piece of captivating character study.

Not much appears to happen and yet the audience – myself included – were transfixed. This is a captivating piece of theatre, from a fascinating playwright and the Cock Tavern at its very best.

Until 29 January4Comedy Masks

First published in the Willesden and Brent Times

Subs, Cock Tavern Theatre: review

Subs, by R J PurdeySubs Cock Tavern Theatre
Directed by Hamish MacDougall

“It’s the first rule of subbing: never take anyone’s word for anything. Check, check and check again.”

R J Purdey’s play, Subs, takes a microscopic look at life on the sub-editors’ desk of the fictional magazine Gentlemen Prefer…(the dots are important). Sub-editors have the responsibility of checking the grammar and accuracy of all the articles in any magazine or newspaper. And they have a reputation for being a strange breed (a result of spending too long thinking about semi-colons).

Derek, one of life’s losers, is the chief-sub. With a depressed wife, two children and empty hopes of a promotion, it is no wonder he takes it out on his deputy. Finch, the deputy sub, is obnoxious, lazy and terrified of women: so when he learns a woman will be joining the team he is more than a little flustered – with often hilarious consequences.

Hamish MacDougall’s production is fast-paced, well staged and captures the politics and in-fighting of an office. When Finch is asked to switch places with the junior sub-editor he wails ‘But the seating line is symbolic. It’s the hierarchy made flesh and furniture.’ Michael Cusick is an irrepressible Finch and, amazingly, manages to both alienate and endear himself to the audience. He may be borderline offensive and chauvinist but Cusick once or twice lets the mask of lads’ banter slip to reveal a lonely, unfulfilled character.

Cusick does rather dominate the production – and his ranting tends to overwhelm in the Tavern’s small space – but Steve Hay as Derek has a good turn as the hopeless boss and Finch’s sparring partner. But Purdey takes their bickering beyond the realms of the realistic: the arguments are so extreme that neither Finch nor Derek would last five minutes in a real office. MacDougall’s direction occasionally allows the dialogue to run away with itself, meaning that some of the funniest lines are missed by the audience and pace is favoured over timing.

Naomi Waring as the bright young thing, Anna, doesn’t have much of a role, but her scenes with Finch inject some pace and wit into the second half. Junior sub James, played by Max Krupski, is similarly underwritten. But designer Jemima Carter-Lewis deserves a nod for her super-detailed set: she minutely recreates an office, right down to the desk clutter and retro Christmas decorations.

The production gets off to a slow start but warms up in the second half. It is an enjoyable evening of banter, in-fighting and politics – well worth a trip if you’ve not already had a day of that at the office.

3 Comedy MasksFirst published in the Willesden and Brent Times

Pins and Needles, Cock Tavern Theatre: review

Not often do you see Boris Johnson, Hitler and the Biblical king of Babylon on stage in one evening, but this is precisely what’s on offer in the Cock Tavern’s Pins and Needles.

Pins and Needles CockTavernTheatre

The show is a 1930s-style musical revue made up of comic sketches, satirical songs and plenty of dancing. It was originally created in 1937 in New York by the International Ladies Garment Workers Unions. But don’t let this put you off – in this new version by Joseph Finlay and Rachel Grunwald the tunes are brilliantly hum-able, the satire biting and the performances sizzling.

Unsurprisingly, given that the musical was created by a trade union, the show’s political leaning is decidedly left-wing. Lines such as “We’re going to rob the rich of their mystery” and song titles like “Sitting on Your Status Quo” set the tone and although the piece was written 70 years ago, director Grunwald and musical director Finlay have done a good job of making it current. A certain notorious London politician with bright blonde hair and a passion for bicycles makes an appearance, for example, and Cameron’s “big society” gets short shrift. Goldman Sachs, Swiss banks and Vodafone similarly come under fire.

Each member of the cast is impressive but Elain Lloyd’s powerful, velvety voice stands out, especially in the finale, which takes aim at capitalist greed. Dictators are the butt of the joke in “Four Little Angels of Peace”, in which Chamberlain, Mussolini, Hitler and Hirohito (played hilariously by David Barnes, Laura-Kate Gordon, Adam Walker and Matthew Rutherford) wear tinsel halos and toy wings while singing about their “peaceful” policies. Josephine Kiernan is a sassy school teacher in a toe-tapping number tightly choreographed by Nicola Martin and four devils torment a distressed Elizabeth Pruett in “The Song of the Ads” by telling her her hair is too drab, her shoes are wrong, she uses the wrong de-oderant and she won’t be happy unless she uses this product. Pianist David Preston does a great job providing the live music for all this, joined by a cool Matthew Rutherford on the double bass.

If there is a criticism, then it’s that the piece’s political edge feels blunter in pieces about 1930s America – for example, about Roosevelt’s “New Deal”. But overall this is a highly enjoyable evening which will not only have you singing the songs for days afterwards but give you plenty to think about.


The Emperor’s New Clothes

What do Equus, The Romans in Britain, recent productions of King Lear and Edward Bond’s The Fool have in common?

Daniel Radcliffe naked in Equus

They all featured people in the altogether, their birthday suit: nude. But is it necessary? What does nudity achieve on stage and is there an argument that asking actors to appear naked is, at best, objectifying them, at worst, exploitation?

As the theatre critic for a local paper in Willesden and Kilburn, I saw four out of six of the plays which made up the Cock Tavern Theatre’s Edward Bond season. Two of these featured nudity and I began to ask myself why playwrights and directors do it.

To take the Bond example first: Bond’s particular shtick is showing extreme violence on stage in an attempt to shock the audience into recognising the violence in our own society. The nudity is part of this. There is no question that nudity in Bond’s work is to do with exploitation. In The Fool, an old vicar is stripped first of his riches, then his outer clothes, then his under garments (this was set in Victorian times, so we’re talking long johns) and finally his under pants.

Ben Crispin as John Clare in The Cock Tavern's The Fool The character was being abused and exploited. But what about the actor? And remember that this was staged in the tiny Cock Tavern Theatre (let’s just get the pun about this being an apt place to stage plays involving nudity out of the way now). There was nowhere to hide for the actor, the audience were three metres away at most and there was nothing subtle about the lighting of this scene. I wondered whether the actor had known about this scene when he’d auditioned. And how much he was getting paid.

While the nudity here didn’t feel gratuitous, it was excruciating and made the audience’s position feel hugely inappropriate, heartless and voyeuristic. And perhaps this was Bond’s point – but it made me distinctly nervous about going to another play by him. And if I hadn’t been reviewing the season, I probably would have avoided the later shows. This particular scene felt too real – we weren’t watching people pretending to strip an old man naked and then pinch him all over. They were actually doing this.

But nudity needn’t be harrowing. Back in 2006, I saw Sam West’s production of Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain at the Crucible. What seemed like 10 completely naked men cart-wheeled across the stage, frolicked (there is no other word for it) in an enormous swimming pool and, aside from the notorious gay rape scene, generally had a whale of a time. The actors seemed to be liberated and there was no hint of awkwardness. This was a celebration of the human form.

One acting coach is firmly of the view that nudity on stage is exploitative and he makes a good case, but Michael Billington wrote this persuasive piece when Daniel Radcliffe was appearing in Equus some years ago, suggesting that nudity should just be one tool in a director’s kit (!) and nothing to fill newspaper columns about.

Personally, at the moment, I feel that if I ever see another naked, cowering man on stage, it will be too soon. What about you?

Red, Black and Ignorant, Cock Tavern Theatre: review

Edward Bond, Red, Black and Ignorant

Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Dir: Maja Milatovic-Ovadia

The final play in the Cock Tavern’s Edward Bond season takes aim at the atrocities of war. The storyline – in so far as there is one – revolves around a character called Monster and charts, according to the flyer, “man’s decline into greed and despair”.

Maja Milatovic-Ovadia’s production is thoughtfully staged and it was nice to see a more adventurous set in the theatre, courtesy of designers Julia Berndt and Vanda Butkovic. Melanie Ramsay is arresting as a fresh-faced, wide-eyed mother caught in the fray while Andrew Lewis delivers even the most overblown lines with weight and conviction. Alex Farrow is chillingly vacant as the granite-faced soldier who shoots his own father.

These highly accomplished performances, however, struggle to make sense of a bewildering script. The action takes place in a dystopian parallel world in which sons are sold to the state to join the army and there are murders on the street. Bond’s text (re-written for this performance) is highly stylised with some memorable lines – “There’s nothing wrong with him a good post-mortem wouldn’t put right”. It’s surreal and angry but you come away unsure what it is Bond’s exactly angry about.

He has several axes to grind: about the West, world leaders and the technology and machinery of war. How it dehumanises, numbs us and strips life of any value. These are vital points but Red, Black and Ignorant is too preachy, too pleased with itself and too moralising to make them well.

3 Comedy Masks




This review first appeared in the Willesden and Brent Times on 11 November 2010

There Will Be More, Cock Tavern Theatre: review

This is certainly not one to take the kids to. Edward Bond’s new play, There Will Be More, had its world premiere at the Cock Tavern Theatre in Kilburn last week, directed by Adam Spreadbury-Maher. The play starts with a mother killing her children and closes with incest. And there are precious few laughs in between.

Edward Bond There Will Be More at the Cock Tavern Theatre

Dea, played by Helen Bang, is the mother who silently and chillingly murders her two babies; the rest of the play examines the aftermath of these events, 18 years later. In Bond’s world, violence breeds violence. Dea’s husband, Johnson, played by Stephen Billington, is an up-tight military captain whose violent day job bleeds into his dysfunctional family life. There are everywhere echoes of the Greek tragedies, from Oedipus who sleeps with his mother, to Medea who murders her children (hence the name “Dea”). There Will Be More is Bond’s attempt to write an ancient tragedy for the modern age.

As the “wicked” mother, Helen Bang is initially chilling, silently applying her make-up before smothering her sons. The second Act, however, sees her transformed into an entirely reasonable woman before returning to apparent madness for the third. Bond’s play is all about how we define madness but the point is an age-old one and he adds little to it. Johnson, the militant military husband is played by a staunch Stephen Billington who expresses love through violence and imprisonment. Billington admirably manages to summon up a slither of sympathy from the audience for the repulsive soldier, by blurring the lines between right and wrong, madness and insanity.

Timothy O’Hara (who also played the lead in The Pope’s Wedding as part of the Cock Tavern’s Edward Bond season) plays Dea and Johnson’s son, Oliver. He is vulnerable, innocent but stained by the events in his parents’ past.

This is truly car-crash theatre: the events are horrific but the audience cannot look away. Spreadbury-Maher’s production does not shy away from the raw violence: the set is minimal and the only soundtrack is the audience’s gasps.

Bond’s writing goes to the darkest places you can imagine and then scuttles into the shadows. This level of violence on stage is hard to justify – the original Oedipus story is no less harrowing for the worst violence taking place off stage. Very little actually happens in this play after the first 20 minutes and the play’s structure is incoherent. Bond is trying too hard to shock and ends up blunting his political pen.