Review: The Killing of Sister George, London Theatre Workshop

“What are you doing?
‘I’m writing something very obscene about the British Broadcasting Corporation’”

With a BBC struggling to deal with its unruly stars and their personal lives under severe public scrutiny, one could be mistaken for thinking the world of The Killing of Sister George isn’t too far from our own. Which is part of the rationale behind Artful Theatre’s revival of the 1964 play by Frank Marcus, asking the question has anything really changed in the intervening 50 years. That gap between public perception and private reality has long inspired drama, from Harley Granville Barker’s Waste to the recent McQueen but here it gains an extra currency due to its exploration of lesbian sexuality.

Given the era Frank Marcus was writing in, this is never explicitly stated in the play and part of its enduring success has been that the dynamics of its sexual intrigues and twisted power games are universally applicable. Director Scott Le Crass clearly recognises this and so his production for London Theatre Workshop exercises restraint in showing any Sapphic shenanigans whilst leaving us in no doubt as to the true nature of the relationship between radio star June Buckridge and her younger ‘flatmate’ Alice ‘Childie’ McNaught. Continue reading “Review: The Killing of Sister George, London Theatre Workshop”

Review: 13, National Theatre

“Over the last year, it feels like it’s all falling apart…in this country…across the world…”

Mike Bartlett can probably lay claim to being one of the most interesting new British playwrights to emerge this century, steadily building his oeuvre of plays that pick at modern life and expose its shortcomings… And as his profile increases, so too have the stature of the commissions, moving from the Royal Court – where I saw his Cock  – to the Cottesloe at the National Theatre with last year’s Earthquakes in London and now graduating to the Olivier – the youngest writer in 10 years to be staged there – with his latest new play 13.

What is it all ‘about’ I hear you say. Well if that question is foremost in your mind then it is likely that you may be disappointed with 13, as it eschews a conventional sense of narrative for the creation of apocalyptic foreboding in a contemporary London that feels all too realistic. For it is a piece of writing that feels incredibly pertinent, full of up-to-the-minute references to public disorder, social media, student riots and the Arab Spring, concerning a society wracked with disturbing dreams and a crippling uncertainty. What Bartlett alights on is the importance of belief, not necessarily in God but having some conviction that things will be ok if we trust our instincts, and the succour that is gained from collecting as a group behind such beliefs. Continue reading “Review: 13, National Theatre”

Review: Women Beware Women, National Theatre

Women Beware Women is a cautionary tale of the consequences of the pursuit of wealth, power and lust in the 16th Century Florentine court written by Thomas Middleton. It takes up residence at the National Theatre, in the Olivier, as part of its Travelex season, so lots of £10 tickets should become available when the new season opens for booking to the general public on 30th April.

The plot goes a little something like this: Bianca, the daughter of a wealthy Venetian family, elopes to Florence with a poor merchant’s clerk Leantio. While he’s away on business the Duke of Florence sees Bianca and is determined to seduce her. Bianca leaves her husband when the Duke offers her a life of luxury. In a separate plot line, Isabella is faced with going into a loveless marriage with a rich yet stupid ward. She’s appalled when her uncle Hippolito confesses his love for her. But her aunt Livia, Hippolito’s sister, cunningly persuades Isabella that she isn’t related by blood, so she’s tricked into an incestuous relationship with her uncle. That’s clear, right? Continue reading “Review: Women Beware Women, National Theatre”

Review: All’s Well That Ends Well, National

All’s Well That Ends Well is one of Shakespeare’s so-called ‘problem plays’, not easily classified as a comedy or a tragedy, but this production a part of the Travelex season at the National Theatre, posed no problems for me. This is a confidently-acted, stunningly-mounted, assured production which really confirms to me that the NT have hit the ground running with this season of plays.

The programme describes the play as ‘Shakespeare Noir’ which is quite an apt description for it. The comedy, and there is lots of it, is often underscored by the darker turns of the plot, and there is little frivolity of the ‘hey nonny no’ type, which can sometimes seem quite glib. The play opens with a girl of little consequence save the knowledge passed down from her physician father, arriving at the court of the King of France and healing him of his ailment. Her reward is to marry the man of her choice, but her chosen nobleman, Bertram, objects to such a lowly match and sets Helena a seemingly impossible challenge to win his heart and subsequently heads off to war in Italy, but Helena is hot on his heels in order to try and fulfil the deal. Continue reading “Review: All’s Well That Ends Well, National”

Review: Shadowlands, Wyndhams

To be honest, I had to be somewhat dragged to see this show. I remember the film Shadowlands being out at the cinema and along with The Remains of the Day (also featuring Anthony Hopkins) neither one appealed to my teenaged self and that mentality remained with me even as this adaptation of William Nicholson’s play arrived at the Wyndhams Theatre. And boy am I glad that I allowed myself to be persuaded. I absolutely loved it and ended up crying bucketloads for almost the entire second half!

For the few who don’t know the plot, it concerns classic English novelist CS Lewis and his late-developing romance with American poet Joy Gresham, its an unexpected relationship for both of them, starting as a correspondence and then blooms into marriage. However Lewis’ Christian faith is severely tested when Joy is diagnosed with terminal cancer and everything he believed in is turned on its head.

As the central couple, Charles Dance and Janie Dee are simply resplendent, utterly convincing in the portrayal of their relationship. Dee captures the strength of character of this feisty woman which hides a certain loneliness that she ultimately fills and Dance is just mesmerising with a quietly powerful and striking turn as a man who every certainty in life is changed, firstly for the better and then for the worse with a heartbreaking intensity. The play also has fun in showing the repressed nature of so many men of the era, especially in the cloistered lives of Oxford dons, typified by John Standing’s gruff professor and Richard Durden’s buttoned-up brother of Lewis.

So an unexpected delight and one of the most moving things I’ve seen all year: highly recommended.

Review: The Letter, Wyndhams

Based on a real life scandal, Somerset Maugham’s The Letter takes place in the house of a plantation owner, Robert Crosbie, and his wife Leslie in the British colony of Malaya in the 1920s. With her husband away on business, Leslie claims that she shot a mutual friend, Geoff Hammond, in self-defence, following an attempted rape, and the play focuses on the steps taken by the wife’s lawyer to convince the court of her innocence. Matters are complicated somewhat following the discovery of an incriminating letter which throws doubt on her innocence and her lawyer is forced to make a huge decision in order to save her.


I imagine that Jenny Seagrove is aiming for impassive here as Leslie, but just comes across as wooden and completely devoid of emotion. It is as stiff a performance as I have ever seen, she never feels relaxed or comfortable on the stage and it was quite hard to watch. Matters are not helped by the plummy accents which permeate this production, but lend it the air of farce. Anthony Andrews was just dull as the lawyer who faces a dilemma and I didn’t give two hoots about him in the end. Jason Chan’s Chinese lawyer clerk does well to try and rise above the questionable racial stereotyping; Andrew Charleson’s blindly devoted husband is fine and Peter Sandys-Clarke’s British consul was nicely observed.



The scene changes were bizarre with a bamboo screen wheeling its way across the stage languidly and sapping any energy that might have been built up, with only the opium den scene providing any real interest. Altogether though, it is an unfortunately dull play, only the one vaguely thrilling moment at the very beginning, and it is riven with racial and sexual anachronisms and such a dated idea of stiff-upper-lipped British reserve which make it hard to swallow these days. But even with those edges smoothed, the play The Letter is just fundamentally dramatically unexciting and this production is therefore really not worth the effort.