Execution is Everything


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 20th October, 2016


Mike Poulton’s masterful adaptation of Charles Dickens’s classic cracks along at a fair pace, distilling the novel into a couple of hours’ traffic on the stage.  It’s a powerful piece of storytelling.  Domestic scenes are interspersed with vignettes of violence as the mob takes over Paris and wreaks vengeance on the aristocracy.  The French Revolution is the backdrop and the antagonist in this story of love and sacrifice.

Jacob Ifan is Charles Darnay who, despite having renounced his inherited title, finds himself in shtuck with the French tribunal.  Ifan is handsome and reserved – except when he is talking politics and then the character’s passion comes to the fore.  By contrast, Joseph Timms’s Sydney Carton is a livelier presence, a spirited nihilist whose swagger only serves to advertise his lack of self-esteem.  Timms is charismatic, commanding our attention.  Carton boxes clever to save Darnay’s neck on more than one occasion.  (Carton…boxes…? Suit yourself!)

Both men are in love with Lucie Manette (an elegantly emotional Shanaya Rafaat) – and external events conspire to bring the triangle to a devastating denouement.

There is sterling support from Patrick Romer as Dr Manette, Michael Garner as faithful Mr Lorry, and Jonathan Dryden Taylor amuses as servant/bodyguard Jerry, while Harry Attwell makes an impression as Stryver The ensemble is afforded many chances for some character cameos: Sue Wallace’s Pamela Keating and Rebecca Birch’s Jenny Herring stick in the mind – Dickens certainly knew how to give voice to the lower orders. Villain of the piece, Madame Defarge (Noa Bodner) personifies the kind of thinking that urges Brexit voting idiots to denounce all opposition as traitors.  The red of her skirt is a rare splash of colour in Ruth Hall’s muted costume palette, suggesting the bloodshed of those terrible times.

Mike Britton’s set evokes the Ancien Régime in decline, and Paul Keogan’s lighting intensifies the drama, contrasting dimness with moments of sharpness.  James Dacre directs, using contrasts for clarity and building a sense of a world in turmoil encroaching on individual lives.  The treatment of the poor – as typified here by Christopher Hunter’s cruel marquis – is facing resurgence in Britain today as the ruling classes demonise those less fortunate.  The shadow of the guillotine looms large in this story – perhaps we are overdue our own revolution.

To cap it all, Rachel Portman’s original score is striking, stirring, melancholic and tragic.

It all adds up to an excellent evening, an absorbing, gripping and moving production of which the Royal & Derngate in Northampton and the Touring Consortium Theatre Company should be very proud.

Great stuff and – if I might use the term – well executed!


A tale of two, sitting: Joseph Timms, Rebecca Birch and Jacob Ifan

Having A Couple


The Bear Pit, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 15th October, 2016


Jim Cartwright’s two-hander provides the perfect opportunity for a pair of actors to showcase their skills and versatility.  Set in a pub, somewhere Northern, it introduces us to the landlord and his wife and then a host of their customers, all played by the same duo, giving us different glimpses of relationships between couples (heterosexual, working class ones, that is – the play was written in 1989, pre-diversity concerns!)

It is clear from the start that the publican and his Mrs are going through marital strife, to put it mildly.  Behind their customer service smiles and bonhomie there is bile and invective which they vent on each other at every opportunity.  But as the play goes on, the reason for this animosity becomes apparent, culminating in a heartfelt outpouring of anger and grief.

Playing all the male roles is David T Mears – his ‘Moth’ with a roving eye but a dependency on his girlfriend’s purse is as hilarious as his bullying, control freak of a husband is frightening later on.  Lucy Parrott plays the female parts – her big-man ogling woman and also her brutalised, cowed wife are standouts for me, but really, all the characterisations from this pair are well-observed and depicted.  Mears also directs and  knows when to make things broad and when to hone in on more naturalistic details.

Cartwright’s script is funny and there is a heightened, poetic quality to his writing, giving soul to his characters’ monologues.  At the heart of the piece is the couple behind the bar, their bitterness and resentment.  It all comes out in the wash for the intense final scene.  We come away having seen behind public facades into private lives – Cartwright reminds us that we don’t know what personal hell someone might be going through beneath the surface.

This production upholds the Bear Pit’s reputation for high quality work.  Expertly handled and performed, this engaging piece is well worth 75 minutes of anyone’s time.


Public Parts


New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 14th October, 2016


Alan Ayckbourn’s new piece (his 80th!) is something of a departure while remaining very Ayckbourn in flavour.  Ostensibly, we are in the hands of an improv troupe who treat us to several skits in various genres, calling upon us to provide sound effects en masse, with the occasional brave individual selected for greater things…

There are two words to strike fear into the heart of a British theatregoer: audience participation.  Despite the cast’s assurances that we only have to take part as much as we would like to – or we can ‘sit there and sulk’ all night, you never lose the feeling that you might be called upon at any moment for ritualised embarrassment.  But of course, it’s great fun to see others getting up – and there is no shortage of willing participants.  Naturally, the volunteers cannot match the skills of the professionals and so the cast work hard to ad lib and joke in order to cover the inevitable shortcomings.  There are shades of The Generation Game and Whose Line Is It Anyway?

As for the skits, we get a very Ayckbournesque farce about a plumber and suspected infidelity, with a string of coarse innuendos; there is a Nordic Noir dumb show dubbed by audience members haltingly reading lines from scripts; a period drama of sibling rivalry – this is performed twice with an audience member standing-in for one of the roles; and a Victorian Gothic horror that gives the cast more to play with.  The material, deliberately shoddy, us by-the-by.  We are too intent on watching for our next cue to mimic birdsong or stamp our feet to take it in properly.   The grand finale is a conjuring trick, Find The Lady, writ large with huge cabinets.

There is much to enjoy and plenty of laughs but the set-ups can take a long time for little payoff.  All the way through, I’m waiting for the twist, for the reveal that this is all a spoof, a send-up of those gung ho theatre groups of little merit, for the hand of the dramatist to reveal itself once and for all, but it never comes.

Taken at face value, it’s an amusing night out and the energy of the performers just about keeps us interested and on their side.  A bit of fun but, unusually for Ayckbourn, there’s no bite behind the laughs.


Downright shabby (Photo: Tony Bartholomew)


Filthy Looker


Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London, Thursday 13th October, 2016


In a prologue, John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, announces “You will not like me.”  It’s a warning and a challenge, but I’m sitting there looking at Dominic Cooper and thinking, Mate, I’m in love with you already.

Cooper oozes charm as the world-weary gadabout, womaniser and wit.  An easily compelling stage presence, he gives us an anti-hero we can’t help but admire.  He knocks around with a great bunch of lads: George Etherege (Mark Hadfield), Charles Sackville (a powdered-faced Richard Teverson) and young hanger-on Billy (Will Merrick), as they satirise their way through life, drinking and whoring and committing acts of vandalism.  They are men in wigs behaving badly.

When Wilmot encounters actress Elizabeth Barry, he experiences love for the first time.  He coaches her to success on the London stage but, as a lover, is an abject failure.  Ophelia Lovibond is the perfect foil for Wilmot’s excesses.  Prim, perky and ambitious, she stands out among these larger-than-life, rambunctious characters.  Also excellent is Jasper Britton as a debauched yet regal Charles II, and there is strong support from Lizzie Roper as down-to-earth stage manager Molly Luscombe, and Nina Toussaint-White as prostitute Jane.  I warm to Alice Bailey Johnson’s long-suffering Elizabeth – we see she is as she is, due to Wilmot’s treatment of her.  Cornelius Booth is good fun as haughty, mannered actor Harry Harris, and Will Barton is a hoot as lugubrious manservant Alcock.

Tim Shortall’s set of shabby brickwork, tarnished gilt and wooden boards evokes the theatre and decay.  Well-worn and tawdry in its faded glamour, it’s a great fit for the sumptuous auditorium of the Theatre Royal – it’s practically an immersive experience and I purchase both an orange and a kiss from an obliging wench.  Director Terry Johnson keeps the cast skipping through Stephen Jeffreys’s erudite script – it’s an easily accessible glimpse of the period.

Eventually, perhaps inevitably, Wilmot’s lifestyle catches up with him and he falls into physical decline.  He renounces the booze and his atheism, exchanging one addiction for another – pious devotion; having lived life like a firework display, he kind of fizzles out like a damp squib.

I kind of wish he’d gone to his grave, railing defiantly against it, like Don Giovanni dragged off to hell.  Perhaps the death bed makes believers of us all…


This is a hugely enjoyable production, stylish and funny and sometimes obscene.  Dominic Cooper is in superb form (in every sense), a star turn among a constellation of supporting players.

'The Libertine' Play by Stephen Jeffreys performed at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London, UK

Dominic Cooper as The Earl of Rochester, Ophelia Lovibond as Elizabeth Barry ©Alastair Muir 27.09.16

Cavalier Attitudes


The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 12th October, 2016


Loveday Ingram’s exuberant production of Aphra Behn’s raucous comedy is almost a reversal of The Taming of the Shrew, in which a wayward character (here, the titular Rover) is brought to heel by the machinations of another (the wily Hellena).  In the Shakespeare, the shrew is completely cowed and rendered submissive; here it is more of a meeting of minds, a matching of appetites.  Things are on a more egalitarian footing from the off – in fact, it is the females who rule the roost, in terms of plot devices and spirit.

Joseph Millson is marvellous in the title role.  His Willmore is a swaggering braggart with ratty pirate hair and an Adam Ant jacket.  He exudes bluster and charm in equal measure.  He is outrageous and irresistible.  Faye Castelow’s Hellena is adorably lively and witty.  As her sister Valeria, Emma Noakes is a livewire, while other sister Florinda (Frances McNamee) is more elegant but none the less funny.  Patrick Robinson is suitably noble and upright as good guy Belville, but things take a darker turn when the gauche Blunt (Leander Deeny), gulled by a prostitute, seeks violent revenge on any female who happens across his path.  Even in these scenes, Ingram keeps the energy levels high – this is a show performed with unrelenting verve and brio.  The cast are clearly enjoying themselves immensely, transmitting that sense of fun to us, the lucky audience.

The carnival atmosphere is propagated and maintained by the superlative music, composed by Grant Olding, and performed live on stage throughout the action.  The Latin rhythms are infectious, the Spanish guitar, the muted trumpet – every note is delicious.  If the RSC doesn’t release a CD, they’re missing a trick.

A highlight for me is a flamenco-off between Dons Pedro and Antonio (Gyuri Sarossy and Jamie Wilkes, respectively); another is Alexandra Gilbreath’s melodramatic courtesan, holding Willmore at gunpoint – there is a wealth of things to enjoy in all the comings and goings, the disguises, the misunderstandings and the mistaken identities.  It’s fast-paced, rowdy, riotous fun, performed with gusto and charisma by a vivacious ensemble.  Ultimately, Millson dominates with his colossal presence, but we love him for it and egg him on.  Willmore is flawed, at the mercy of his appetites – indeed, the men are victims of their own desires – but Behn celebrates human frailties without moralising.  She was way ahead of her time.


Wild Rover: Joseph Millson as Willmore (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)



Dramatic Devices


New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 11th October, 2016


Almost thirty years old, Alan Ayckbourn’s vision of a dystopian near-future is still bang on the money.  In some ways, technology has almost caught up with the world of the play, with touchscreen tablets and face-time video messaging, and our fascination with robots continues to this day in TV shows like Humans and WestWorld.  (Not forgetting, of course, that we owe the word ‘robot’ to a 1920 play by Karel Čapek).  Science fiction not only predicts future tech but also warns us about it.  Here, the technology, not so different from our own, is recognisably frustrating with its glitches and flaws.  Meanwhile, the world outside is becoming increasingly violent, with thugs ruling the streets.  With homophobic and racist attacks on the rise today, this nightmarish world doesn’t seem too far-fetched in post-Brexit Britain.

Composer Julian, unable to work since his wife departed with their daughter, hires actress Zoe to masquerade as a life partner.  The aim is to convince both wife and an official that Julian is able to provide suitable care for his daughter and thereby gain access to his child.  When the actress doesn’t work out, Julian has to rethink his plan, adapting an android to play the role… And so the scene is set for some wonderfully farcical shenanigans and, due to the genius of Ayckbourn’s writing, some heartfelt emotional outpourings.

Bill Champion’s Julian is a broken man, who awakes from his reclusiveness through his meeting with Laura Matthews’s effervescent and ditzy Zoe.  That he gets what he wants – the composition of new music – but in doing so, loses everything, is genuinely tragic.  Matthews is an irresistibly lively presence and equally compelling in the second act when she plays the remodelled robot – played in the first act by Jacqueline King, who elicits both chuckles and chills as the wonky automated nanny.  King later appears as Julian’s estranged wife – the play is an excellent showcase for female talent.  Daughter Geain (Jessie Hart) also displays a duality – the play touches on gender roles and social conditioning.  Like the robot, we are programmed to behave and respond in certain ways.   There is also some excellent character work from Russell Dixon as wet-lettuce official Mervyn, and Ayckbourn, with his director’s hat on, orchestrates the comedy, the dramatic irony and the tension like a master.  Which, of course, he is.

It’s a play about how technology dehumanises us, getting in the way of our interactions, blocking rather than liberating our communications.

It’s also very, very funny.


Jacqueline King, Bill Champion, Laura Matthews and Russell Dixon (Photo: Tony Bartholomew)

Killing Jokes


Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Thursday 6th October, 2016


Arch comedy troupe Spymonkey present every onstage death from Shakespeare’s plays in one evening.  A bonkers premise, perhaps, but one which yields surprising results.  The death scenes, taken out of context, afford little possibility of dramatic engagement and so our enjoyment comes from the theatrical forms used throughout the evening.  Everything from puppetry (projected on screen via a live video feed) to contemporary dance is brought in to make for a series of inventive and hilarious scenes.  In fact, it feels like the show is parodying the very medium of theatre, especially its more avant garde aspects.  Certainly the ways Shakespeare is often presented to us come in for a lot of stick.  The through line is the off-stage drama, the relationship problems of the cast members, but that’s not what comes across.  The relentless parade of deaths – silly stabbings and poisonings in abundance – is fun but Shakespeare’s reflections on death and mortality – which tend to come after someone has died – are not given.  We’re keeping things light here – for which I am grateful – but you can’t help thinking of the transience of life, symbolically represented by a rubber fly on a wire!

As ever the performers seem tireless in their versatility.  Aitor Basauri hilariously mangles the blank verse while proving himself an accomplished physical comedian.  Stephan Kreiss brings Teutonic intensity to his clowning.  Petra Massey, a relentlessly funny woman, delights at every turn, while Toby Park adds a touch of melancholy with his marvellously evocative score.

Highlights for me include a joyous Titus Andronicus with a giant mincing machine, the murder of Cinna the poet performed by paper figures on a table top, and Cleopatra’s big production number, complete with dancing asps.  There is darkness here too but whenever the show veers in that direction, the mood is punctured by more silliness.  Director and Adaptor Tim Crouch keeps things tearing along, and the ideas keep coming.  There is cleverness underpinning the madcap mayhem and an anarchistic approach.  Shakespeare stifles creativity, it is claimed – not if this show is anything to go by!

It’s not every night you go to the theatre and see your namesake ‘casually disembowelled’ but there it is: Death Number 4 is one William Stafford in Henry VI Part 2.  And so I experienced a fleeting moment of vicarious fame.  Gutted.

A fabulously hilarious evening of satire and silliness that proves once more the supremacy of Spymonkey’s clowning, informed as it is by an intellectual animus and a celebratory approach to both form and content.


I see you, baby, shaking that asp. Cleopatra (Petra Massey) and her snakes, Aitor Basauri, Stephan Kreiss and Toby Park