Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 25th February 2023
Paula Hawkins’s best-selling novel is so effective because of its first person narrative, from the girl on the train herself. She’s an unreliable narrator, so we’re never sure if what she says happened happened or whether it’s her booze-tinted imagination. The stage adaptation by Duncan Abel & Rachel Wagstaff has to take a different approach as the Girl is revealed to be a fantasist, her story contradicting itself… A tough call for any actor taking on the role and here, Grace Cheadle rises to the challenge and nails it. Her Rachel Watson is off-kilter, brittle and bitter, but also vulnerable and appealing. We are with her all the way, happy to go along for the ride.
Briefly, the plot has Rachel commuting to work by train. Her emotional life is a bit of a train wreck and so she self-medicates with day-drinking. Through the windows she sees people’s houses and fantasises about who they are and what they’re called. One day, one of her regular characters is not there… A woman has gone missing and the police are involved. Can Rachel’s unreliable evidence be of use or will she implicate herself? To add to the mix, a couple of doors down from the missing woman’s home live Rachel’s ex-husband and his new wife and baby…and so a series of explosive scenes are set in train.
The multi-purpose set allows the action to zip along like an express train – we never have to wait for furniture to be shifted – and scenes are linked with video clips, extending the action beyond the set pieces: we see characters being taken in for questioning, for example, and there are clips of Rachel boozing on the train, to the distaste of other passengers.
The excellent central performance from Cheadle is supported by a strong ensemble. Particularly effective is David Baldwin’s Detective Inspector Gaskill; Baldwin has a casual, natural style but still means business. It’s a superb contrast with Cheadle’s more manic moments and self-doubt. Tom Lowde, as Rachel’s ex, and Victoria Youster as new wife Anna are perfectly smug and annoying (from Rachel’s pov) while Oliver Jones captures the volatility of Scott, the missing woman’s husband. Papa Yentumi’s therapist balances professional intonations with personal impulses, and Charlotte Thompson crops up repeatedly in flashbacks as the missing Megan, imbued with an almost saintly air (from Rachel’s pov) despite her bad behaviour. Completing the cast is Susan Keats’s police officer, a small but crucial part well conveyed.
Director Rod Natkiel keeps the action fluid and clear. The fast pace winds up the tension and the use of video flashbacks to display Rachel’s fractured memories works well. It’s just when we reach the climactic, violent denouement that things go off the rails and get a bit muddy and unfocussed. Perhaps the video screens could be used to augment the moment, seeing how they’ve been so integral to the rest of the production…
All in all, the production delivers the mystery, the tension, and the surprises of the story, and there’s plenty of humour to leaven the unpleasantness. An involving thriller that doesn’t outstay its welcome. All aboard!
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Grace Cheadle and David Baldwin (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
It’s 2015. When a Grindr hook-up between two middle-aged men turns out to be a surprise reunion between former schoolfriends, a chain of events is triggered that leads to the formation of a gender-swapped ABBA tribute act. Like it does. Ian Hallard’s wonderful script, full of barbed wit and brittle emotions beneath the surface, is an absolute belter.
Hallard appears as Peter, greying and good-natured, and an abbasolute ABBA afficionado. When the time comes, he makes an alluringly winsome Agnetha. James Bradshaw’s Edward is a neat contrast, waspish and snarky, and unhappy with his long-term partner. He is an excellent fit for Frida, the flame-haired siren of the Swedish supergroup. They audition for female artistes to portray the male members of the group. Nervous Josie (Rose Shalloo) gains confidence before our very eyes as Bjorn Ulvaeus, but the biggest surprise comes from the casting of Mrs Campbell, a woman in her sixties, as Benny Andersson. The part is written as a Scot but in this matinee performance, the role is taken by Tariye Peterside, who gives the character a hilarious Caribbean lilt, rather than the intended Caledonian. Peterside underplays her funniest lines to killer effect; you can’t help but love her. In fact, we root for the quartet from the get-go as they prepare for the first and only gig.
Enter the gorgeous Christian (played by the gorgeous Andrew Horton) a young Aussie who wants the group to perform at his 25th birthday do. He also offers to take publicity shots. Edward finds him irresistible (and who can blame him?) but does Christian’s professed penchant for older men mask an ulterior motive? The action is kept strictly backstage and there is a whiff of All About Eve to what transpires before the end. Completing this superb ensemble is the marvellous Donna Berlin as Sally, stage manager and best mate to Peter. Berlin imbues her role with heart and an arsenal of facial expressions that add to the comedy and reveal her genuine concerns for her friend. In addition to the onstage performers we get a pre-recorded Paul O’Grady as a radio host and, more wonderfully, a Brummie Miriam Margolyes as Peter’s unseen gran.
Janet Bird’s set makes use of the most famous palindrome in popular music with entrances in the As and scenic features in the doubled-back Bs. A revolve enables the action to move from place to place, and Bird’s costume designs trigger nostalgia for those 70s outfits. Mark Gatiss’s direction keeps things flowing, timing the punchlines to perfection and giving the characters room to breathe.
ABBA songs punctuate the scene transitions and lyrics pepper the dialogue, some of which will only be spotted by the die-hard fanatics. It culminates in a massively touching moment when, years later, the tribute act reunite for the first radio broadcast of ABBA’s first new song in decades.
It’s a play about friendships, the experience of older gay men, and being a fan. I’m not saying that ‘rainbow spectrum’ people have a monopoly on fandom, but we are rather good at it. Perhaps we’re filling a gap in our lives that no amount of dredging through Grindr can fulfil.
A hilarious, heart-warmer of a show with some saucy rejoinders and a whole lot of humanity. Just as society has learned that there is no shame in being gay, there is also no shame in being a fan.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Ian Hallard (Peter) and James Bradshaw (Edward) Photo: Darren Bell
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 6thFebruary 2023
There is a welcome drive in contemporary theatre for sustainability and being green. The RSC is at the forefront: they’ve been recycling the same 37 plays for decades! Seriously, anything that reduces or offsets an organisation’s carbon footprint can only be for the good, can’t it? Can this example of sustainable theatre sustain my interest?
People who are shipwrecked on desert islands know all about repurposing and upcycling in order to provide shelter for themselves, and so it is no surprise to see that Tom Piper’s set follows suit. What does surprise me is that after many years of being marooned, Prospero’s place isn’t a little bit tidier? Perhaps she just likes a junkyard aesthetic. I say ‘she’ because this production boasts a female Prospero, in the form of Alex Kingston; the parental qualities of the character as good a fit for a mother as the more-traditional father. What jars at first is the use of ‘male’ forms of address. This Prospero is still a Prince and a Duke and a master – which shows how firmly rooted gender is in our use of language.
In the central role, Kingston storms it, as her plots involve everyone else on her island. There is power and tenderness in her portrayal, her powers of sorcery (which would have got any woman burned at the stake back in the day) as convincing as her maternal affections. She is supported by Jessica Rhodes’s lively Miranda and Heledd Gwynn’s enthusiastic Ariel.
Director Elizabeth Freestone highlights the comedic elements of the script and utilises the physicality of the cast to create the effects of the magic. This also adds comedy (Joseph Payne’s Ferdinand, rolling around, for example) and also an atmosphere where potentially anything could happen. A particularly effective moment is the arrival of Ariel and the Harpies in front of a giant gilt-framed mirror. At other points, the impact is not as well focussed, making for a patchy overall impression.
Ishia Bennison brings warmth and humour as the garrulous, cross-gendered Gonzalo, while Peter De Jersey adds heartfelt grief as the King of Naples sorrows for his lost son. Both, separately and as part of the ensemble, are adept at the physical aspects of the performance: the opening shipwreck is stylishly and effectively depicted.
Tommy Sim’aan’s Caliban is all human and no creature, which, I suppose, highlights the racism and colonialism that have reduced him to a slave on his native island. I just prefer more of a touch of the ‘other’ to the character. Simon Startin’s Stephano and Cath Whitefield’s Trinculo make an enjoyably drunken double act, but it is Kingston’s Prospero that dominates the action and our engagement. Her delivery of ‘Our revels now are ended…’ is powerfully emotive and her heartbreak at releasing Ariel is quietly devastating. There is never any sense that Prospero and Miranda might be in jeopardy; Kingston is in control of everything.
Much value is added to the production by the original music and sound design, courtesy of Adrienne Quartly, and there is a lot to enjoy in this busy production. On reflection though, I would ditch the mirror, and keep the stage almost if not entirely bare. The physicality of the cast is more than enough to convey what needs to be conveyed. Recycled sets don’t have to be rubbish.
☆ ☆ ☆ and a half!
Staff meeting: Alex Kingston as Prospero (Photo: Ikin Yum)
Harold Pinter Theatre, London, Thursday 2nd February 2023
This revival of Sam Steiner’s hit play is a likeable and vibrant production. It tells of a society where a law is passed restricting individuals’ word counts to just 140 per day. It’s to reduce stimulus overload or something like that, but really it’s about control. We follow the relationship of Bernadette and Oliver as the law is proposed, protested against, voted for, and implemented, through a series of non-chronological scenes. Gradually, we piece together their love story and their communication problems.
As Bernadette, former Doctor’s companion Jenna Coleman is bright-eyed and assertive. A fledgling lawyer, Bernadette relies on words to do her job and so invariably she uses up most of her daily quota at work, to the frustration of Aidan Turner’s bohemian/socialist Oliver. Sparks fly between the two actors, the chemistry between them is almost palpable, but the nature of the piece requires the characters to be shut off from each other, unable to express themselves freely and fluently, and so we are ultimately shut out, and only know them in glimpses.
Played against a stylish backdrop of shelving laden with discarded objects, divided by strips of bright light, there is often only the briefest lighting change between scenes, a split second for the actors to change position and demeanour. Director Josie Rourke keeps the stage bare, allowing the dialogue to denote location – are they at home, in a restaurant, at a pet cemetery? – and Coleman and Turner approach each scene with the vim of members of a cocky improv troupe, and they’re both so appealing they take us along with them.
What we don’t get are answers to questions such as, How would such a law be policed? What would be the penalties for infringement, for going over your daily limit? How would it work in other spheres: hospitals, schools and so on. Pretty soon, the law courts are given exemptions, and so is the House of Commons, because, of course, the kind of politicians who would make such legislation, would look after themselves… The play skirts around Brexit like the elephant on the dancefloor. What kind of people would want something that impoverishes and restricts the lives of everyone in the country? Talk about being sold a lemon! Oliver is a driving force in protests against the word limit, while we in the real UK, are faced with having our right to protest criminalised by an increasingly authoritarian regime… The play is so close to touching on this.
As a love story, then, it’s a bit shallow. As a thought experiment, it engages but doesn’t really develop. “Bit cerebral,” mutters the woman next to me as she puts her coat on, and then proceeds to discuss with her companion where they will go for a meal. I spend longer thinking about the play and conclude it’s a fine idea that only scratches the surface, but it’s effortlessly enjoyable thanks to the actors who both approach their roles with, I’m going to say it, zest.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Aidan Turner and Jenna Coleman at loggerheads (Photo: Johan Persson)
Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 22nd January, 2023
Joe Landry’s adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic novel takes place in a New York radio theatre in the 1920s. We meet a troupe of half a dozen actors who will perform the play, taking on all the roles and the sound effects between them. This kind of setting allows the staging of material that would otherwise be too expensive, relying on the audience’s imagination to picture Gatsby’s vast mansion, for example. It also makes the staging of action scenes (the car accident) within reach.
Our host is Freddie Filmore, played by Louis McCoy who, as well as taking on the roles of Gatsby and Wilson is an excellent pianist; Jake Laurents (Thom Stafford, no relation) plays the story’s narrator Nick; Jason Adam brings humour to the role of Tony Hunter, the kind of actor who reads the stage directions as well as the dialogue, playing Tom Buchanan. Gatsby’s love interest is portrayed by Jessica Melia as Sally Applewhite; Terri-Leigh Nevin’s Lana Sherwood gives us an excellent Myrtle Wilson, complete with squeaky Noo Yoik accent; and Charlotte East’s Nellie North adds a touch of class as Jordan Baker. (I hope I’ve got everyone’s names right!)
All six prove their versatility in characterisation and demonstrate exceptional vocal skills. Director Alexandra Whiteley gives us plenty of visuals too in what was in danger of being a rather static affair. To see the cast create highly effective sound effects is a marvel to behold, especially the horse noises of Jessica Melia and the car noises of Charlotte East and Jason Adam.
There is some comedy with Jason Adam’s Tony getting things wrong, and I would have liked more of this tension, the pressure to get things right and not to miss cues. The action is interrupted for commercial breaks, where the cast sing the jingles. Illuminated signs encourage us to applaud when appropriate – not that I need much encouragement.
The second half allows the Fitzgerald to come to the fore for the dramatic and tragic denouement, using the techniques the cast have demonstrated so amusingly in the first, but the whole thing ends on a cheerful note with a joyful Charleston to see us off.
It’s the day after 9/11 – or, the 10th of September, 2001, and in an apartment in New York, a couple are going through their own calamity. Ben (Joe Palmer) is tightly wound, ignoring the incessant phone calls from his wife, while his boss/employer-cum-mistress Abby (Angela Hewitt) tries to coax him to do the Right Thing (i.e. fess up to his wife). Considering the biggest terrorist outrage in American history just happened a few blocks away, these two (Ben especially) are incredibly self-obsessed, paying only lip service to the tragedy and colossal loss of life. Ben hasn’t reported in at home and is presumed missing and/or dead. It’s a glorious opportunity to start afresh…if only he had the guts. If these two were anything like the rest of us, they would have spent that day glued to the news! I know I did.
Twenty years on, Neil LaBute’s play is beginning to creak. The immediacy has gone and we’re left with this two-hander about an unhappy couple. As Ben, Joe Palmer nails the emotional immaturity, whininess and egotism of the younger man, while Angela Hewett’s more mature Abby is able to keep it together for the most part. There is a lack of chemistry between them and it’s hard to see what they saw in each other in the first place, what about Ben would entice Abby to risk her professional career by dating a co-worker and underling. Everything from their personal concerns to who the hell is Audie Murphy is delivered with the same intensity, which deadens the humorous lines. At times it sounds like Ben is sounding off to his therapist. Lighter moments need to be lighter. There needs to be some level of playfulness between the two before the tension between them boils over. As a result, I found myself not caring about either of them.
It doesn’t help that the writing uses the soap opera technique of having the characters address each other by name every other line. In soap, this works as exposition for the casual viewer, but here, with only two characters, it’s not that difficult for us to remember who is whom. Once I caught on to this, it irritated the hell out of me.
The traverse staging allows a greater sense of intimacy in the already intimate Ron Barber studio, and the sparse furnishings suggest a classy New York apartment – stronger New York accents from the cast would also add to the sense of place and proximity to the tragedy.
Being the Crescent, production values are high, but the result is a solid production of a weak play. And if I never hear that bloody Nokia ringtone again it will be too soon.
☆ ☆ and a half
Angela Hewitt and Joe Palmer as the unhappy couple Abby and Ben (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
Festival Theatre, Malvern, Wednesday 23rd November, 2022
This slice of Victorian gothic begins with grief-stricken natural historian Professor Stokes (Maxwell Caulfield) narrating a spooky experience he has had to spiritualist Tom Beauregard (Michael Praed). And so we are transported to the site of this happening, a creepy old house by the sea, where we encounter housekeeper Mrs Hinchcliffe (Juliet Mills) and housemaid Florence (Chipo Kureya). And it’s not long before objects start moving seemingly of their own accord, to the accompaniment of plenty of bumps in the night.
Writer Michael Punter weaves an intriguing mystery; his dialogue is beautifully evocative of period and sensation. There is wry humour running through the piece, offsetting the moments of tension and surprise, which are superbly handled by director Charlotte Peters.
Maxwell Caulfield is in good form as the opinionated professor, and there is some superb character work from Juliet Mills, as a chummy version of Mrs Danvers. Chipo Kureya is their equal as the ‘sensitive’ housemaid, upping the supernatural ante. But it is Michael Praed who storms the piece as the American spiritualist, on the wrong side of the Civil War, looking and sounding every inch the debonair Southern gentleman. Young Kureya excluded, the other three must have hideous, decaying portraits stashed in their attics: how they resist the ravages of old age is perhaps the most mysterious supernatural element to the show!
Without giving too much away, there is also a splendidly eerie appearance by Will Beynon…
Dominic Bilkey’s sound design goes a long way to engendering atmosphere, while Nick Richings’s lighting plays on Philip Witcomb’s beautifully detailed set to create moments of terror and otherworldly occurrences.
It’s a well-made, good-looking production, with an interesting story and well-executed special effects. If I were in charge, however, I would tidy up some of the plot points so that all the information is revealed before the climactic action. This would mean there’d be no need for the coda scene, happening twelve months later, where two of the characters tie up the loose ends for the audience’s benefit.
Marvellously atmospheric and beautifully played, this is a spookily entertaining night out.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Stop! Nobody ordered a table dance! Juliet Mills, Michael Praed, Maxwell Caulfield and Chipo Kureya sharing a moment (Photo: Jack Merriman)
Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 17th November, 2022
Young couple Liz and JP are engaged to be married. To raise funds for their nuptials, they decide to create something exciting for their YouTube channel, something that will go viral and bring in the big bucks. Unlike most ‘influencers’ I’ve come across, this pair are an appealing couple of characters and we’re happy to go along with them when they opt for spending the night at an abandoned children’s home…
So begins a superb night of theatre, with the intimate black-box space of the Blue Orange pulling out all the stops to generate suspense and tension, using practical effects to shock and surprise and to get us jumping out of our seats. The action is enhanced by video footage, for scenic reasons and to develop the plot, as JP stumbles across VT of a creepy doctor conducting interviews with his juvenile charges. Alex Johnson’s set grounds us in reality, while his lighting design highlights the weird happenings. Dan Clarkson’s sound design punches up the scarier moments. Sights and sounds come at us from all quarters, keeping us on edge throughout.
Saul Bache makes JP an amiable extrovert, providing a rich vein of humour between the scares. Stephanie Simpson’s Liv is more level-headed (until things start to unravel, that is!) and the two spark off each other nicely. Thom Stafford (no relation) is wonderfully menacing as twisted Doctor Harding, whether he’s on screen or making a more personal appearance.
The script by James Williams and Alexandra Whiteley (who both also direct) is bang up-to-date, proving that ghost stories don’t have to be Victorian, using present-day vernacular and technology to create a thrill-ride of a play that puts the audience in the thick of the action. Ashley Walsh’s original compositions add to the horror movie atmosphere, and there’s a haunting version of You Are My Sunshine in a minor key that is wonderfully unsettling. Horror fans will recognise tropes from cinema, but they’re just as (if not more) effective done live before our very eyes.
The story covers a lot of ground: mystery, supernatural occurrences, psychological terror, buried memories coming to the surface… and does so effectively in a comparatively short running time. It’s an antidote to all the premature Christmas cheer out there, a perfect chiller for a wintry evening.
John Webster’s revenge tragedy, first produced in 1614, comes to the Ron Barber studio in this elegant, abbreviated version, directed by Andrew Cowie. A cast of nine hurtle through the action and, for the most part, handle the text well – especially when the characters are being angry or insane or both.
In the title role, Grace Cheatle is an appealing duchess, marrying her alluring femininity with a kind of playful innocence. She also marries her steward, in secret and against the wishes of her control freak brothers, Duke Ferdinand (Andrew Elkington) and the Cardinal (Tom Lowde). These are the villains of the piece but their dirty work is carried out by the formidable Robert Laird as ex-con and henchman for hire, Daniel de Bosola, who spies on the duchess and gets most of Webster’s best lines. “We are merely the star’s tennis balls, struck and banded Which way please them.”– A nice philosophy but it’s the duchess’s brothers who strike and band him around!
Elkington and Lowde each shine, especially in scenes of distress, and yet again the costume team at the Crescent come up trumps, realising the designs of Stewart and Rose Snape. Duke Ferdinand’s madness is more alarming than anything feigned by Hamlet.
Jason Adam makes an impression as Antonio the steward, and there is superb support from Fi Cotton as the loyal waiting woman, Cariola – grieving and getting strangled in heart-wrenching moments. Charlotte Thompson is assured and somewhat coquettish as the Cardinal’s fiery mistress, while Jess Shannon works wonders with the non-descript ‘nice’ role of Delia, Antonio’s friend – and survivor of the climactic massacre.
Andrew Cowie’s direction keeps the action moving at quite a lick and there are some splendid scenes in lantern light. The scene where the duchess is visited by a group of lunatics seems underdone, though. As the action reaches its denouement, he brings out the dark humour of the piece but, curiously, for a revenge tragedy, the stage is surprisingly blood free. Apart from a nosebleed on a handkerchief and a wax dummy painted with it, this is a remarkably sterile bloodbath. One of the delights of revenge tragedy is the copious bloodletting at the end. We have enjoyed seeing the mighty and powerful behaving extremely badly; similarly, their comeuppance must be extreme, washing their sins away with their own blood.
As ever, production values are high – but perhaps the budget doesn’t run to the laundry bill or contain enough for buckets of stage blood to be added to the props list! The chequerboard floor of Keith Harris and Michael Barry’s set suggests chess, symbolising the plots and stratagems of just about all the characters, the black and white squares the evil or good of their natures.
Stylish, elegant and gripping if a bit anaemic.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Fi Cotton and Grace Cheatle (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 1st November, 2022
This new play by Tonia Daley Campbell reveals the story of two women of colour, both princesses in their own right, who became goddaughters to Queen Victoria. As girls, they were spared the fate of their enslaved compatriots because of their royal heritage. In doing this, Victoria considered herself progressive.
The story is framed around a group of girls stumbling into a dusty room and discovering portraits of the two women. The women then come forward to introduce themselves. The time has come for their stories to be heard, having been excised from Victoria’s private journals.
Karina Holness shines as Sara Forbes Bonetta, proving herself a captivating storyteller. She is matched by Amrika Rani as Maharajah’s daughter turned suffragette, Sophia Duleep Singh. Appearing as an imperious and regal Queen Victoria, Skye Witney is perfectly authoritative while showing a human side to the woman who was the figurehead of the empire.
The lively bunch of girls are joined by a chorus of community performers. With the exception of Queen Victoria, no one leaves the stage. Modern commentary on historical events and attitudes provides a rich source of humour, and often what we hear is emotive and provocative. Director Lorna Laidlaw keeps everyone busy, so that scenes don’t become too static, but herein lies the problem of the piece.
There is a tendency to tell rather than to show. Events and incidents are delivered in reportage, as the leading players narrate their own lives rather than acting them out. The result is a wordy and informative evening that raises many important points, where didacticism replaces dramatic action.
There is a lot of ground covered. It’s not just the two women featured who have been erased from history. Rather than having Black History Month once a year, the entire education system needs a reboot. Above all, the play celebrates the contributions of black women, and it’s only right that these inspirational figures are acknowledged.
To repeat a quotation used in the play from Emmeline Pankhurst, “Deeds not words will change history.” Deeds, combined with words, make for a more effective drama!