Review: Drive Ride Walk, Greenwich Theatre

“I can’t believe I’m falling again”

Drive Ride Walk is a piece of new musical theatre from Filament Theatre by Osnat Schmool, developed from a two-song 10-minute sketch into this hour-long show which combines 9-person acapella singing with physical theatre about commuting in London. It follows three different journeys through the capital: a cyclist winding her way through the traffic who has a chance encounter with a handsome pedestrian, a newly-qualified driver taking friends for a drive and a group of commuters who have to deal with an unexpected change to their daily routine.

It is very loosely structured and freeform in its nature, both in terms of its story-telling and the music itself and so to be honest, it proved to be quite a trying experience in all. Schmool’s score is rather flat, accompanied occasionally by cello and accordion but mainly eschewing songs for densely-packed vocal lines and murkily repeated phrases which resembled nothing so much as vocal doodling rather than bursting with musicality. My reaction to it reminded me of how I felt about John Adams’ I Was Looking At The Ceiling… in that whatever it is about certain kinds of music that appeals to some just flies right over my head. I just couldn’t see what they were trying to achieve here and though it was only an hour, it felt much longer.

It didn’t help that there was little sense of meaningful plot or character progression presented to us. There’s a lot of little glimpses into the daily lives of our group of protagonists and the hints of interesting stories suggested, Jon-Paul Hevey’s flirty stranger and Stuart King’s call centre worker promised some interest, but none of them are really pursued to any depth which left me frustrated about what could have been. And whilst it accurately portrays the mundanity of travelling around a busy city, by not providing anything more of substance, it doesn’t offer any reason to care about what is happening.

Things were exacerbated by the use of movement which was too rarely amusing, the etiquette (or lack thereof) of packed tubes and crowded zebra-crossings was wryly observed although hardly anything new, and too often painfully laboured. Whilst there was nothing to match the infamous simulation of sex through watering cans, the sequence in which the quote at the top was repeated and demonstrated by, you’ve guessed it, everyone falling over and over again and again in the stagiest of manners drove me to distraction.

The ensemble of nine were enthusiastic and delivered a tightly knit performance but that wasn’t enough to win me over with a show which really did feel like a work-in-progress rather than a fully-fledged work. Even the way in which the local choir was co-opted into some scenes felt like a wasted opportunity as they were barely used at all (although perhaps understandable if they are using a new choir local to each venue they visit). It is a bit mean but I cannot resist the bad pun: sadly this a show to drive, ride or walk right past.

Running time: 1 hour (without interval)
Programme cost: £2
Booking until 26th February then playing Stratford Circus and Jackson’s Lane.

(Not a) Review: Contact U.K., Soho Theatre

“We need have some boundaries…”

This isn’t a review of this show, Contact U.K., as it was a table reading of this new play by Michael Kingsbury which took place at the Studio on the top floor of the Soho Theatre, but more of a note for myself for completeness to my record of theatre-going and also, hopefully, the smugness I can have when/if this show makes it to the stage: I can say that I filled out a rather amusing feedback form and helped shape its progress!

I can’t deny that the cast involved played a big part in me wanting to attend to: Tara Fitzgerald is just wonderful full stop, Michelle Ryan is proving herself to be quite the versatile actress and Rupert Graves has a special place in my period-drama loving heart (hello Maurice!). Iain McKee made up the fourth cast member, recognisable to those of you who’ve seen Channel 4’s The Promise and we even got some bonus John Sessions as the narrator which was a pleasant surprise. Continue reading “(Not a) Review: Contact U.K., Soho Theatre”

Review: Gilbert & Sullivan – All At Sixes And Sevens, King’s Head Theatre

“A man is most successful when he knows the extent of his limitations”

Gilbert & Sullivan: All At Sixes And Sevens is a new play taking the late slot at London’s Little Opera House, aka the King’s Head. It is a rather odd set-up in which W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan meet up in Heaven, in the modern day, still estranged, to reflect on their often tempestuous creative partnership. This they do by recounting old stories and anecdotes, illustrated by snippets from a large range of songs from their repertoire, including Iolanthe, HMS Pinafore, The Gondoliers, The Yeomen of the Guard, The Mikado, Princessa Ida, Utopia Limited, Ruddigore, and The Grand Duke.

Rather surprisingly, it worked extremely well as a charming form of both tribute and biography, looking back at how they worked as a team, the things that drew them together, the conflicts that pulled them apart and the suggestions of how they actually felt about each other. And the way in which the music was integrated, random lines, verses or even more of songs which illustrated the point they were making was often beautifully done. It was perhaps less successful when it strayed into the more surreal comedy around being in Heaven and getting a little self-referential, it wasn’t quite as clever as it thought it was and to be honest, it didn’t need to stray down this path.

Kevin West’s twinkle-toed and twinkle-eyed Gilbert was my favourite of the two actors, playing the grudging curmudgeon well as the grumpier of the pair, the one less willing, at least initially, to forgive the past as he detailed the slights which had obviously kept him in bad humour. He did much of the heavy lifting with the singing too, rolling out more than one of the infamous patter songs with great confidence and a winning manner. Colin Baldy as Sullivan though was also goo, impressing with accomplished accompaniment from the piano as well as singing, though he was slightly less appealing as the seemingly needier of the pair, always the one pushing for more of everything.

I suspect that this will really only appeal to Gilbert & Sullivan fans: its format rewards those with a little knowledge of the music already, without that it is just a story being told with some random lines from some random songs thrown in for good measure. But with the Union’s all-male Iolanthe soon to be revived at Wilton’s Music Hall, HMS Pinafore to open as a main show here at the King’s Head and the ENO’s Mikado just opening, this provides a nice opportunity to see some of Gilbert & Sullivan’s work at a different slant, lightly enhanced with biographical touches and a genuine warmth for its subjects.

NB: It was only my second show at the King’s Head since its reinvention and it just happened to be a late one again, but I do wonder how sustainable this current run of programming is. Both 10pm shows I have attended have been very sparsely attended indeed and although this one was early in the run, it was a real shame to see it play to so few: perhaps they should limit it to fewer shows a week?

Running time: 60 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: free cast sheet available
Booking until 19th March

Review: A Bold Stroke for a Husband, Bridewell

“A man did a foolish thing once and will hear of it all his life”

The Bridewell Theatre has been running its Lunchbox Theatre slot for a while now, 45 minute long shows at 1pm and people being able to take their lunch in with them whilst enjoying a bit of theatre, but I hadn’t really been tempted as it is not conveniently located for my office and the idea of people eating during a show brings me out in hives. But, a fortuitous combination of a mid-morning meeting nearby and an intriguing play by a forgotten Georgian woman playwright meant that I went along to see A Bold Stroke for a Husband (I cheated a bit, eating noodle soup before I went in, but I took a chunky KitKat in with me though!)

The play is by Hannah Cowley, a contemporary of Sheridan but someone whose works have largely fallen out of favour, and this claims to be the first staging in 200 years of this particular work. In a nutshell, Don Carlos who, having abandoned his charming wife Donna Victoria, has signed away his estate in the throes of passion to the seductive Donna Laura, and so Donna Victoria is forced, with the help of her friend Donna Olivia, to dress up as a boy, Florio, to try and win the heart of Donna Laura and somehow reclaim her fortune. In the midst of all this Donna Olivia’s father, Don Caesar, wants to marry off his daughter to sort out his legacy, but she wants to get it on with Don Julio, whom she’s admired from afar but he’s a bit of a confirmed bachelor. Continue reading “Review: A Bold Stroke for a Husband, Bridewell”

Review: Racing Demon, Crucible

“What would be the proper Christian thing to do?”

Having hardly any willpower at all is not a good thing for a theatre addict trying to cut down and having decided that I would forego the David Hare season in Sheffield, all it took was one pint after Snake in the Grass and a casually whispered suggestion to sneak a day off work and off we popped to the Crucible to see Racing Demon. It is a play focused on the redoubtable institution of the Church of England and the battles it faces in remaining relevant to a modern society and what effective help can they provide in times of tangible hardship. It also whips through the pressures of the ordination of women and the acceptance of gays in the Church through looking at a team of ministers in a South London parish.

Daniel Evans has assembled a truly top-notch cast here, fully fleshing out the expertly characterised clergymen whether it was Jamie Parker’s evangelical but passionate young curate who stirs things up from the moment of his arrival, Matthew Cottle’s kindly Streaky who plods on with an appealing honesty or Ian Gelder’s superb Harry, being hounded out of the closet by a rapacious tabloid journalist. But even the bishops, perceived as the ‘enemy’ here, played by Jonathan Coy and Mark Tandy are powerfully persuasive as we come to understand the larger pressures they feel in a Church under threat from all angles. But it is Malcolm Sinclair’s central Lionel whose dilemma dominates proceedings and he is never less than utterly convincing as a man who is determined to do great good even whilst his faith wavers. Continue reading “Review: Racing Demon, Crucible”

Review: Great Expectations, ETT at Watford Palace

“I want to be a gentleman”

English Touring Theatre’s production of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations relocates the story of Pip’s advancement to nineteenth century India in this thrilling adaptation by Tanika Gupta. A poor village boy, Pip is given the chance to better himself after a frightening encounter with a convict and an engagement to regularly visit the reclusive Miss Havisham sets him on a new path that allows him to dream of being more than a village cobbler’s assistant. And when an anonymous benefactor allows him to move to Calcutta, the heart of the British Raj, he is free to pursue his dream of becoming a proper gentleman, part of the educated elite, in order to win the heart of the coldly alluring Estella.

Gupta’s reimagining works extremely well because Pip’s journey, with his aspirations to rise above his class and status, is given even greater impact by the fact that he is casting aside his cultural identity too, his Indianness, in the search to become the perfect educated gentleman, just like one of the ruling English. This makes the transformation he seeks to effect upon himself all the more dramatic, as depicted in a wonderful scene where he dons the waistcoat and cravat of his new station, and then provides a powerfully meaningful final transition in the last scene as he ultimately comes to recognise what his true self is. But also mixed in is another layer of racial tension: Magwitch becomes a black African convict, Estella is Miss Havisham’s “African princess” and so Gupta keeps the interplay much more universal than a simplistic Asian updating and she is unafraid to show both the comedy and violence in the story in its starkest forms.


Director Nikolai Foster (no relation!) manages the achievement of a great sense of fluidity to proceedings which is all the more remarkable when one considers that there’s 31 scenes here, reflecting the serialised way in which the story was originally published. Pulling in elements of traditional dance from Zoobin Surty and music from Nicki Wells (with Nitin Sawhney onboard as musical advisor too), the atmosphere is set perfectly and well-matched by Colin Richmond’s design with its saffron-dyed gauzy curtains which allows us to move effortlessly from murky graveyards to the burning sun of the village, from shadowed dusty corridors in mansions, to the bustling city streets of Calcutta and much more. Energy crackles from all aspects, from cast members bursting through the stalls to bowls of incense being lit in front of us, to create a real theatrical experience.

Tariq Jordan is exceptional as Pip, starting off as the naive youth oblivious to anything but his own desires and progressing slowly as experience is acquired, hearts broken, friends gained, dreams shattered, charting his maturing from boy to man and never letting us forget Pip’s humanity even when he is at his most blinkered. But this is a strong ensemble throughout: from Tony Jayawardena’s beautifully warm Joe Gargery and Kiran Landa’s wise-beyond-her-years Biddy, to Lynn Farleigh’s near-dessicated Miss Havisham and Simone James’ emotionally estranged Estella, there’s a real sense of clarity to all the characterisations here. Giles Cooper’s ever-so-English Herbert Pocket was a particular delight, as was Jude Akuwudike’s raw energy as Magwitch.

The only real criticism I found was that a couple of the more emotional moments were too heavily underscored by the swelling score that felt more akin to a Hollywood film, yanking at the heartstrings instead of playing to the more subtle poignancy of the actual play. But minor quibble aside, this is a superbly effective reimagining of Great Expectations which breathes a new vibrancy into this well-known story, which remains highly recognisable (the character of Orlick was the only one I could think of that has been omitted) and provides it with a timeless resonance, none more so than at the beginning of the final scene where a public speaker exhorts his crowd of listeners to “rise up brothers…break the shackles…we must argue our case for our right to determine the affairs of our own country”.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Playtext cost: £3.50
Booking until March 12th then touring to Cambridge, Brighton, Richmond, Guildford, Oxford and Malvern

Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews

Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Donmar Warehouse

“Can I get a definition please?”

A musical comedy at the Donmar? From the moment you enter the auditorium and see how Christopher Oram’s design has been translated down to the tiniest of details to create a school gymnasium, it is clear we’re in for something different and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a self-confessed scratching of an itch to do something fun for director Jamie Lloyd, is just that. Based around the tradition of spelling competitions at US high schools, it follows a group of six kids aiming to win this contest and qualify for the place at the national final. It also takes the step of inviting audience participation, four people were selected to take part and so the first third of the show is taken up with the early rounds of the competition and the increasingly amusing ways in which they made sure that timely exits were secured from the newcomers.

Originally conceived by Rachel Feldman and with music and lyrics from William Finn (I’ve never seen any of his shows, but a song from Falsettoland, What More Can I Say, is fast becoming a cabaret staple – Simon Burke, Reed Sinclair and London Gay Men’s Chorus just last year – and is utterly gorgeous) and book by Rachel Sheinkin, the show takes the form of a spelling competition but as each child takes their turn to spell, a flashback gives us the opportunity to learn more about these characters, their youthful angsts and ambitions as they struggle to decide who they really are in a world that doesn’t consider them normal. This was a preview performance from Tuesday 15th February, watched in the midst of a large group, not all of whom I sadly got the chance to talk to. Continue reading “Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Donmar Warehouse”

Review: Snake in the Grass, The Print Room

“We can’t live in a caravan”

Snake in the Grass is the London premiere of this Alan Ayckbourn play which is a rarity in itself as it marks one of his forays away from his more usual comedy. It is described by Ayckbourn himself as ‘a ghost play’, but it is more obviously a psychological thriller, threaded through with recognisable hints of class struggles and flashes of mordant humour. Directed by Lucy Bailey, who with Anda Winters have converted this Notting Hill warehouse into one of London’s newest new fringe venues, The Print Room.

Set in the grounds of a large country house, the play follows two sisters who are reunited after 20 years following the death of their authoritarian father. Annabel escaped her father’s clutches to Tasmania only to find new devils there, whilst Miriam stayed to care for their father but was driven to extreme measures. Finding themselves back together and then visited by a vindictive former nurse of their father’s who was dismissed, they find themselves having to deal both with the haunting ghosts of the past and the psychological threats of the present. Continue reading “Review: Snake in the Grass, The Print Room”

DVD Review: Macbeth

This filmed version of Macbeth follows on from the well-received Hamlet, starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart, that was also captured for posterity but given the filmic treatment rather than just recorded on stage. The entire adult cast, including Stewart and Kate Fleetwood as the murderous couple, from the original Chichester production reunited to film this in high definition in the gloomy tunnels and bunker-like rooms at Walbeck Abbey.

Director Rupert Goold relocates the action to the Cold War Era thus making war-torn Scotland something closer to Stalinist Russia:, the hallmarks of fascism are ever-present with giant posters of the ruler dominating rooms, a police state mentality prevailing with torture used to maintain fear and control over the people as the Macbeths seek to sate their bloodlust and desire for the crown through any means necessary.

I’m not too sure how I feel about Stewart as an actor, something about him just turns me off, but he is undoubtedly impressive here, demonstrating a clinical control over the verse and playing the dictator-like ambition turning to paranoid desperation with conviction. Fleetwood’s Lady Macbeth was chillingly effective as the driving force behind this blood-thirsty ambition, portraying a real malevolence that curdles inside her as the loveless marriage begins to crack.

Goold’s assignment of the weird sisters as surgical-masked nurses who are frequently seen around the edges of scenes puts a stronger emphasis on the supernatural side of things, suggesting the ominous inevitability of his fate and perhaps even manipulating it themselves. Polly Frame, Sophie Hunter and Niamh McGrady are all excellent though and the visual and sound effects employed on their performances adds an extra layer of disturbing menace.

As ever, Macduff and Malcolm’s killer scene dragged interminably, but there were nice performances from Tim Treloar as a bookish Ross, Suzanne Burden as the butchered Lady Macduff. But what shines as the biggest benefit to the whole thing is the use of close-ups to really capture the nuances of performances that could well have escaped people on the front row, never mind up in the gods. There’s a level of detail that one is allowed to observe here, that really elevates this from a mere recording of a staged production and demonstrating where this format has a clear value and shouldn’t just be dismissed as ‘no substitute for the real thing’.

Yes, this is not the same thing as going to the theatre but nor is it pretending to be and instead offers an opportunity that couldn’t really be equalled whilst sat in the stalls and made this an interesting and significant thing to watch.

Review: The Biting Point, Theatre503

“The march is coming…”

Ruth is refusing to come to terms with the recent past and the reality of her life now; Dennis finds himself trapped in a sordid mess very much of his own making; Malcolm is struggling to balance caring for his sister with trying to live his own life. The stories of these three people and how the personal affects and defines the political, often to extreme levels as a race riot approaches, make up The Biting Point, a new play by Sharon Clark playing at Theatre503 in Battersea, directed by Dan Coleman.

Read the rest of this review at Broadway World [link opens an external site]