Review: The Humans, Hampstead Theatre

Better than Eclipsed??!! The Humans leave me disappointed at the Hampstead Theatre

“You can never come back”

Huh. The Humans arrived at Hampstead Theatre with the glow of its 2016 Tony Award for Best Play still shining, particularly as its original cast have come over the Atlantic with it. And while I’m hugely appreciate of the opportunity to see another member of The Good Fight cast onstage, and the cast as a whole really were excellent, the play left me somewhat cold and unconvinced of its prize-winning pedigree.

On entering, the heart sinks at the realisation that we’re relying on the much-abused trope of a family coming together around the dinner table and sure enough, beneath the façade of familial jokes and enforced holiday bonhomie (it’s Thanksgiving natch), there’s a whole world of secrets and lies waiting to burst forth. Writer Stephen Karam also layers in a trip to a whole other genre which certainly grabs the attention, but that’s not to say that it works. Continue reading “Review: The Humans, Hampstead Theatre”

Review: The Strange Death of John Doe, Hampstead Downstairs

I’m left unmoved by The Strange Death of John Doe, running at the newly press-covered Hampstead Downstairs

“I mean, where does a person begin and end, and when did they stop being a person?”

So it looks like the Hampstead Theatre’s policy of not having its downstairs shows ‘officially’ reviewed has been well and truly junked asThe Strange Death of John Doe is the second show to get the full press treatment after The Phlebotomist. And perhaps it’s just a coincidence that this one is directed by Edward Hall himself…

As it is, the Hampstead Downstairs’ remit as an experimental space has always been a bit of an iffy one, in reality this is more of a Royal Court Upstairs kind of theatre, and Fiona Doyle’s new play is no exception. An intriguing take on a horrific but underexplored aspect of the refugee crisis, vividly staged with movement by the late Scott Ambler. Continue reading “Review: The Strange Death of John Doe, Hampstead Downstairs”

Barely-a-review: The Phlebotomist, Hampstead Downstairs

An excellent Jade Anouka leads the cast of Ella Road’s debut play The Phlebotomist at the Hampstead Downstairs

“All these people are getting their dating profiles blood-verified. You know, shouldn’t we just go for the people we fancy?”

The Phlebotomist may be a little

but it’s also 

in the way that it takes a scalpel to a near-future obsession with eugenics that is less dystopian than creepily credible.

Running time: 2 hours (with interval)
Photo: Johan Persson
The Phlebotomist is running at the Hampstead Downstairs until 19th May

Review: Caroline, or Change, Hampstead

With the magnificent Sharon D Clarke at the helm, Caroline, or Change transfers to the Hampstead Theatre London with all its power intact

“Dressed in white and feelin’ low,
talkin’ to the washer and the radio”

Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s complex and challenging civil rights musical Caroline, or Change makes its long-awaited London return to the Hampstead theatre, more than a decade after its well-received National Theatre production took the Olivier for Best New Musical but found no further life.

Michael Longhurst’s production was first seen in Chichester last May (here’s my review) and whilst it is a shame that that original cast aren’t all present here (the glorious Nicola Hughes, Gloria Onitiri, Jennifer Saayeng all now elsewhere), it holds on to the titanic talents of Sharon D Clarke as Caroline Thibideaux. Continue reading “Review: Caroline, or Change, Hampstead”

Review: The Slaves of Solitude, Hampstead

“What does one do with the pickled walnut?”

The Hampstead’s failure to engage properly with issues of female creative representation on its main stage (out of seven shows for 2017, only one was written by a woman and none were directed by women) has meant it has dropped off my must-see list of theatres. But on reading the synopsis of Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude – adapted by Nicholas Wright, directed by Jonathan Kent, designed, lit and sounded out by men too natch – with its lead female protagonist, I was persuaded to revisit my stance.
And in some ways, I’m glad I did. For that leading character, Miss Roach, is played by the ever-marvellous Fenella Woolgar and she’s partnered by Lucy Cohu, another favourite actress, and there are moments in this gently played Second World War-set story that shimmer with effectiveness. Bombed out of her home by the Blitz, Miss Roach (“I do have a first name, but I don’t encourage people to use it”) finds herself swept up in a different type of conflict at the Henley-on-Thames boarding house where she now resides.
Forced to live with a set of characters considerably older than herself, an affair with a black US soldier and her friendship with a German émigré who then moves in simultaneously provides a diverting sense of excitement and a serious threat to the even keel of her archetypal English reserve. This is perfectly exemplified in a gorgeously staged scene where Roach finds herself on the fringes of the drunken carousings of an impromptu late-night house party, her conflicted balefulness communicated devastatingly by a wordless Woolgar, lit solely by the feeble glow of a table lamp. 
The subtleties of Hamilton’s novel haven’t always been best served by Wright’s adaptation though. There’s a stateliness and genteelness that rarely rouses the pace of Kent’s production, the thematic strength of how that resolve is used to plaster over a society crumbling under the pressures of war results in something almost too restrained. The vibrancy of Cohu’s flirtatious Vicki Kugelmann and the vituperative nature of Clive Francis’ Mr Thwaites cut through the reserve though, and the detail of Tim Hatley’s design with its screen-wipe device offers visual splendour to match Woolgar’s nuanced performance.
Running time: 2 hours (with interval)
Photos: Manuel Harlan
Booking until 25th November

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Review: Gloria, Hampstead

“She’s like an emotional terrorist”

Truth be told I hadn’t intended to see Gloria, my own little act of protest at the Hampstead’s continuing gender imbalance – six shows straight on their main stage both written and directed by men. But the delights of An Octoroon introduced me to the writing of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and he definitely feels like a playwright with a lot to say so I sucked it up and went to Swiss Cottage for a cheeky preview, ironically the location for the Women Centre Stage festival late last year.
Gloria sets out as a dark office comedy, shady and sharp as it navigates the ruthless ambition of a pool of young(ish) editorial assistants in the Manhattan offices of a national magazine. It’s a scathing satire of the journalism industry and the way it has evolved, or not as the case may be – time was that a foot on the bottom of the ladder meant you could reasonably expect to get to the top but times change, cubicle warfare has intensified, and in this uncertain modern world, you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.
Just exactly what that is is a surprise that unfolds magnificently in Michael Longhurst’s production. The barbed conversation between this group as they scope out the changing landscape is highly enjoyable – the sucking up to the boss, the secretive hopes for a book deal, the decline in journalistic standards, the rise of the internet (shudder!), particularly as Jacobs-Jenkins allows it to get as vicious as office chat can get, as pettiness curdles into outright savagery.
And once the shift comes, it is impossible to view Gloria without considering recent events that have rocked the UK. In a world where showing concern online is smacked down as virtue-signalling, where politicians must show the exact right amount of grief, where journalists trample on decency for the race for the scoop, we’re asked who has the right to tell whose story, can anyone legitimately ‘gain’ from certain events or only those most directly affected.
It’s thought-provoking stuff, especially since it is such a sea-change from earlier scenes, and even though the play finishes on the same darkly comic note, its concerns still niggle away at the conscience. Longhurst balances these well though I must confess to not being much of a fan of Lizzie Clachan’s design for once, the logic behind the soundstage escaping me, the viewlines of the (ugly) coffee shop penalising anyone sitting on the far left.
Performance levels are excellent though – Colin Morgan and Kae Alexander stand out as the most ruthless of the assistants, Bo Poraj traces the moving emotional journey of a quiet soul, and Sian Clifford is hauntingly effective, no matter which end of the rat race she is attacking from. Gloria is a brutally honest look at the post-boomer workplace and how certainties taken as a given by so many have been slowly eroded away, the impact thereof rarely taken seriously enough (until consequences such as Gloria force the issue that is). 
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Marc Brenner
Booking until 22nd July

Review: Deposit, Hampstead Downstairs

“Friends are uniting, to help each other’s dreams come true”

Keeping it brief for Matt Hartley’s Deposit as it closes this week. The Hampstead Theatre Downstairs was conceived as “an experimental” space where plays could be put on free from critical scrutiny and whilst that hasn’t necessarily been the way things have turned out (the programming has positioned it more as a companion to the Royal Court Upstairs rather than anywhere more adventurous), it has been a reliable destination for some pretty good theatre.
And in a rare case of the incubator effect coming into fruition, two plays which have previously played here have been brought back and deemed ready for the press (which also means their £5 preview tickets disappearing). First up is Deposit, a contemporary fable directed by Lisa Spirling about the challenges of trying to buy property in London where two couples test their friendship to the limit by renting a one-bedroom flat and sharing it to help them save that all-important lump sum.
As canny a plan as it is, splitting rent and bills, its realities soon make themselves painfully apparent. They’re basically all 30-somethings who are too old to be doing this, especially Mel and Sam who are on the sofabed, but the tensions that emerge pull in all directions – on the relationships, on the friendships, on the dream of owning property. 
The quartet of Karl Davies and Natalie Dew, Ben Addis and Nicola Kavanagh, play it interestingly on the shiny pennies of Polly Sullivan’s design and if the writing doesn’t quite dig deep enough into the larger issues of society’s relationship to the property market or the structural issues around it, the personal side presented here is gripping enough.

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 10th June

Review: Diminished, Hampstead Downstairs

“I’m not trying to justify it…that’s the fucking point”
The next couple of shows programmed at the Hampstead Downstairs are two shows that have previously done well – Deposit and Alligators, which interestingly have press nights scheduled, contrary to the usual practice there. For the moment though, it is the thought-provoking and morally complex Diminished – Sam Hoare’s debut play – that is occupying the experimental space.
In Polly Sullivan’s starkly uncompromising arena, designed in the round and directed by Tom Attenborough, we first witness a psychiatric session between the high-functioning Mary and her clearly intrigued doctor. They banter almost flirtatiously, dancing around diagnoses and discussions, as we edge closer to the revelation that she’s being held in a secure facility after the death of her severely disabled young daughter.
The degree to which she is responsible for that death is what occupies Hoare as he explores the murky morality around it. Bringing in her lawyer, her husband, a mother whose daughter has the same condition, we see the case for diminished responsibility being constructed and then taken apart by Mary’s refusal to agree to the plea of temporary insanity. The truth or otherwise of her exhaustion, her post-partum depression, debated for its private and public benefits to her case, to all similar cases.
Naturally it is rarely an easy play to watch but it is always remarkably even-handed. A superb lead performance from Lyndsey Marshal keeps you on a knife-edge about Mary -potential sociopath, grieving mother, either or both, her fiercely burning determination hits up hard against Gwilym Lee as her endlessly tolerant husband, Rufus Wright’s doctor, Wendy Nottingham’s sterling work as the would-be comrade. And the play wisely doesn’t condescend to offer easy answers, a flashback of a final scene and a brilliantly conceived reveal from Elliot Griggs’ lighting tease at potential clues but this is theatre bold enough to leave you with more questions than when you arrived, yet still feeling satisfied.
Running time: 75 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Robert Day
Booking until 29th April
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Review: Scarlett, Hampstead Downstairs

“Don’t you want to come home?”

Colette Kane’s I Know How I Feel About Eve played at the Hampstead Downstairs space in 2013 and she now returns there with Scarlett, another of her plays destined to only be reviewed by the odd blogger due to the no press policy there. I’d be interested to see if it will be open to the critical community when it moves to co-producing partner Theatre Clwyd next month as the rationale behind excluding press – to create “a unique experience” – has always felt slightly odd.
Be that as it may, Scarlett offers a sadly all-too-rare opportunity at the Hampstead to see a play that is written, directed and exclusively stars women, something they should be happy to be publicising. We first meet its London-based title character on a weekend away to Wales which has extended into something longer, exactly how long is unsure but she’s been looking at properties in the local estate agent and has found a dilapidated chapel and is ready to buy.
Kane shows us Scarlett in search of a new life, painstakingly working her way into the affections of the sceptical owner Eira and her far more amiable grand-daughter Billy, but soon throws in a twist as Scarlett’s mother and daughter turn up unannounced, ready to take her home. What follows is an examination of the different ways people react when they feel suffocated, whether by overbearing family members or all-encompassing grief.
Mel Hillyard’s production is a bit of a slow-burner, taking its time to put its pieces into place and even then, Kane’s writing tends towards the enigmatic as she toys the notion of whether Scarlett is experiencing some kind of spiritual awakening or if it is her sanity that has been stretched beyond breaking point. Kate Ashfield as Scarlett and Joanna Bacon as her outspoken mother explore this dynamic well with in their complex relationship, with Lynn Hunter’s butcher-loving Eira a fascinating counterpoint.
But the play’s key scene, for me, comes with a gorgeously written moment between the two youngsters. Gaby French’s impossibly-wise-for-a-14-year-old Billy and Bethan Cullinane’s university-age Lydia have nothing overtly in common but through the course of a gently probing conversation, begin to open up to each other awkwardly and yet so deeply honest. It is perfectly played by the pair and speaks to a real emotional truth about the stories we tell ourselves, and others, to deal with internal pain.
Polly Sullivan’s Welsh countryside design is attractive but perhaps a little too literal and it could afford to play with the space a little more experimentally. Its current configuration means Hillyard’s direction does tend a little towards the end-on when in fact the theatre is in shallow thrust, from the side I saw a lot of backs, but the run is still in its early days yet. An interesting play.
Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 25th March

Not-a-review: Four Weddings in a Funeral reading, Hampstead

“Fuck-a-doodle-doo”
It is slightly terrifying to think that it is 23 years since Four Weddings and a Funeral was released – the world will insist on reminding me I’m getting older… And though I don’t think I’ve actually seen it in about 20 years, the prospect of a reading of the film as part of the Hampstead Theatre Festival had quite the allure. Mainly because of John Heffernan and Jemima Rooper in the cast if we’re being honest, and they were worth it, but I’m low on time so I’m leaving it at that.