Review: Electra, Old Vic

“They took his life. They took MY life”

There’s something fiercely elemental about Kristin Scott Thomas’ extraordinary performance as Electra that makes it the perfect choice for the in-the-round setting that the Old Vic has wisely kept for a season of work. The sheer depth of feeling she generates like a vortex that sucks us all in, with her at its dark heart, hollowed out by grief and howling through the floor at Persephone to unleash the power of the underworld or perhaps just swallow her whole to release her from the torment of her existence.

Why so sad? Well, her father Agamemnon sacrificed her sister Iphigenia which annoyed her mother Clytemnestra (along with his schtupping Cassandra) who then murdered Agamemnon with her new lover (and his cousin) Aegisthus. Electra thus swore to avenge her father’s death, sending away her young brother Orestes to return when he was old to enough to fulfil the deed, and remaining rebelliously in court with her sister as an almost impossibly embittered soul. Continue reading “Review: Electra, Old Vic”

2014 Offie Award Winners

Offies Awards - Off West End Theatre Awards

Best Female
Leanne Best for The Match Box at The Tricycle 
Lucy Ellinson for Grounded at The Gate
Vicki Lee Taylor for On A Clear Day You Can See Forever at The Union
Phoebe Waller-Bridge for Fleabag at Soho

Best Male
Joe Armstrong for The Dumb Waiter at The Print Room
James Cooney for Bottleneck at Soho
Michael Pennington for Dances of Death at The Gate
Jamie Samuel for Jumpers for Goalposts at The Bush

Best New Play
Bottleneck by Luke Barnes at Soho
Jumpers for Goalposts by Tom Wells at The Bush
The Match Box by Frank McGuinness at The Tricycle Continue reading “2014 Offie Award Winners”

2014 Offie Award Finalists

Offies Awards - Off West End Theatre Awards

Best Female
Leanne Best for The Match Box at The Tricycle 
Lucy Ellinson for Grounded at The Gate
Vicki Lee Taylor for On A Clear Day You Can See Forever at The Union
Phoebe Waller-Bridge for Fleabag at Soho

Best Male
Joe Armstrong for The Dumb Waiter at The Print Room
James Cooney for Bottleneck at Soho
Michael Pennington for Dances of Death at The Gate
Jamie Samuel for Jumpers for Goalposts at The Bush

Best New Play
Bottleneck by Luke Barnes at Soho
Jumpers for Goalposts by Tom Wells at The Bush
The Match Box by Frank McGuinness at The Tricycle Continue reading “2014 Offie Award Finalists”

Review: The Match Box, Tricycle

“Take a match to their thatch”

Frank McGuinness is definitely a playwright who never likes his audience to sit too comfortably and his latest play The Match Box is as emotionally demanding a piece of theatre as you’ll see in a long time. Sequestered on a remote Irish island, it’s a 100 minute monologue delivered by Sal, a Liverpudlian woman in exile after the violent death of her 12 year old daughter, caught in gangland crossfire as she walked home from school. And through the depths of her unimaginable grief, a tale of revenge and redemption emerges as the boundaries of forgiveness are tested to the extreme.

McGuinness constantly challenges us as we return to questions of what kind of justice, if any, can be exacted in such a situation and whether we could ever be capable of rational thought after such an experience or if such grief can have a transformative effect on us that we allow primal impulses to govern our actions. The debates it raises are compelling and complex and as Sal unravels her own feelings on the matter, its intensity forces us to confront our own morality and decide if things can ever be so black and white.

And under expert direction from Lia Williams, Leanne Best really does do a magnificent job as Sal, combining fierce rage and despair with a more reflective mood that breaks in occasionally as she reminisces about happier times and brings in other voices from her community. Williams ensures the mood of the piece is constantly shifting and keeping us engaged, Best directly addresses the front row at times, and the dry sense of humour that permeates the text adds the necessary texture to keep it from a slight sense of monotony that occasionally threatens.

But it remains a remarkable piece of theatre, a testament to the power of the monologue as a dramatic form and the kind of performance that will undoubtedly live long in the memory, especially in its excoriating final moments. 

Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)

Booking until 1st June

Review: Damned by Despair, National Theatre

“Look on this and learn. Let that be your punishment”

I don’t think there is another director who frustrates me quite as much as Bijan Sheibani. The devastating simplicity with which he tackled 2009’s Our Class and the elegiac beauty he brought to the Iranian-themed Bernarda Alba earlier this year has delighted, but he’s also responsible for making 70 minutes seem like a pained lifetime in Moonlight and threw everything including his kitchen sink into the multi-authored chaotic carnival ride that was Greenland. So it is hard to know what to expect from his work, but it seems sure to provoke strong emotion in me one way or another. Sadly, his latest foray at the National Theatre – Damned by Despair – errs towards the latter of the above categories. It is still in previews to be sure, but it is hard to imagine that this isn’t a fatally flawed production. 

The play is a religious epic from 1625, written by Spanish monk Tirso de Molina, and delves into sticky questions of spirituality such as is heaven is reserved for those who spend a lifetime believing and can non-believers be redeemed through the accomplishment of good deeds. This is subject matter of a deeply different kind to what our more agnostic tastes are now suited, but the difficulties inherent in translating such ideas to a modern audience are simply magnified by a clumsy new version by Frank McGuinness and some baffling directorial choices from Sheibani which swung from cringeworthy to laughable and almost always misguided – I fear some serious trimming will need to be done if there’s any hope for the production. Continue reading “Review: Damned by Despair, National Theatre”

Review: Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, Southwark Playhouse

“Laugh, you bastard, laugh. Don’t cry – they’ve won then.”

In the world of up-and-coming directors, Blanche McIntyre has rightly been gaining a lot of plaudits for her work at the Finborough and beyond, but to my mind Jessica Swale is right up there with her. With her Red Handed Theatre Company, she’s been building up a diverse body of work, whether turning her hand to reinvigorating classics like The Rivals and The Belle’s Stratagem with a sparkling fresh modernity, or lending a clear-sighted intensity to modern plays such as Palace of the End, which genuinely has to rank as one of the best productions I have seen in recent years. Her latest production for the Southwark Playhouse fits into the second of these categories as it is a revival of Frank McGuinness’ 1992 hostage drama Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me.

The set-up is simple, an intense three-hander which follows the experiences of an American and an Irishman being held hostage in Lebanon, and then later an Englishman, as they while away the hours and days trying to keep their spirits up yet dogged by the horrendous uncertainty of how close they are to death. Mainly they do this through humour and  flights of fancy of the imagination – re-enacting Virginia Wade playing at Wimbledon, picking their Desert Island Discs, introducing each other to their favourite drinks from the cocktail bar, impersonating rabbits, the Queen and telling some cracking jokes. But this enforced bonhomie can only distract them from the reality of the situation for so long and fractiousness frequently raises its head alongside the despair they’re all trying to hide. Continue reading “Review: Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, Southwark Playhouse”

Review: Crocodile, Riverside Studios

“I want to let you speak to me


The fourth play in the Sky Arts Playhouse: Live season, previewing at the Riverside Studios before live transmission on Sky Arts 2 is Crocodile, a new play by Frank McGuinness starring Sinéad Cusack and Pippa Bennett-Warner. A girl has been arrested for committing an unspeakable crime but is refusing to speak. When she gets a visit from a woman who has had legal training in London, the story of what has happened is slowly teased out but in doing so, the woman reveals more about her own motives than she is comfortable with.


Cusack gives a predictably strong performance as Woman, the would-be defence lawyer working in Africa, overly keen to help piece together the mysteries of what has happened whilst trying to conceal the issues in her own life. Bennett-Warner, recently so very good in Ruined, gives another excellent turn here as Girl, holding tightly onto her secret and struggling to be able to articulate the true scope of what has happened to her. She has a graceful stage presence, able to use silence as well as words to convey her depth of emotion and she was extremely good when the balance of power shifted between the two women, really coming into her own and forcing Cusack’s Woman onto the back foot.


There’s a different set up to the previous two shows I’ve seen in this run (I missed Hens due to a wedding): the cage-like box has been replaced by a large stone tray representing a holding cell, with a smattering of furniture. It’s a spare setting which suits the play, though the haze-filled room combined with the considerable heat proved to be a little too soporific. The use of percussion throughout by Corinna Silvester was a choice that didn’t really work for me, I felt it intruded rather than enhanced proceedings and was a real distraction especially at times of great revelation.


Altogether, this was probably my least favourite of this season so far. It was very well acted but just didn’t engage me as completely as the others: this may have been as much to do with the heat as anything, yet there was something missing here for me. Crocodile will be broadcast on Sky Arts 2 at 9pm on Wednesday 30th June should you wish to catch it yourselves.


Running time: 45 minutes
Programme cost: free
Booking until 27th June

Review: Ghosts, Duchess Theatre

“You do not question the received wisdom”

Ghosts, or Ghostsssss as it seems to be called in this production (this was an early preview), marks the directorial debut of Iain Glen, who also stars here alongside Lesley Sharp. Shocking beyond belief when originally performed in the nineteenth century as one of the first plays to mention syphilis (the ghost of the title) and a damning indictment of Victorian morality: today it has lost this scandalous aspect so the focus necessarily becomes more on the devastating effect of keeping damaging secrets and how the sins of the father are revisited on his son.

The play centres around Mrs Alving (Lesley Sharp), a embittered widow whose husband was a notorious philanderer yet Victorian wisdom and the advice of her spiritual advisor Pastor Manders (Iain Glen) dictated that she stay by his side regardless, despite society knowing full well what he was like. The return of her son Osvald (Harry Treadaway) who she sent to Paris to escape the corruption of his father marks the possibility of a new beginning but it seems history is doomed to repeat itself as those ghosts keep on whispering. Continue reading “Review: Ghosts, Duchess Theatre”

Review: Greta Garbo Came To Donegal, Tricycle

“‘So you approve of loneliness?’
I’ve made a career out if it, haven’t you heard”

Who knew penises were like buses? Having not seen one onstage all year in 2009, a couple popped up in Six Degrees… on Thursday, and a third came along today in Greta Garbo Came To Donegal at the Tricycle theatre in Kilburn. Frank McGuinness has taken a fact, Greta Garbo did in fact use a friend’s castle in Ireland as a retreat, and spun a fictional tale set in 1967’s Donegal where cultural and sexual change is threatening the established order, epitomised by the arrival of the Swedish filmstar.

Garbo (Caroline Lagerfelt) arrives at the house of an aristocratic painter friend, Matthew Dover (Daniel Geroll) with a view to maybe purchasing this property, but it is soon clear that they are both weighted down with the pressures of dealing with homosexual attractions, Dover with his wideboy South London bodyguard, Garbo with the housekeeper Paulie (Michelle Fairley), whose family in a cruel twist of fate used to own the house where she is now forced to serve. Garbo’s presence also awakes other frustrations elsewhere in the house with a young niece straining to escape the yoke of familial obligation and pursue her own dreams. Continue reading “Review: Greta Garbo Came To Donegal, Tricycle”