Reviews Round-up: Dear Octopus 3.7★

National Theatre (Lyttelton)

Lindsay Duncan in Dear Octopus.Photo: March Brenner

After many years of neglect, Dodie Smith‘s 1938 play Dear Octopus gets a revival at the National Theatre. The critics were charmed by its gentle story of a family through the years but some found it unexciting.

[Links to full reviews are included but a number are behind paywalls and therefore may not be accessible]

Kate Kellaway in The Observer (4★) called it ‘a tip-top, fastidious, perfectly pitched production’. The Guardian‘s Kate Wyver (4★) thought it a ‘glorious revival’. Dave Fargnoli in The Stage (4 ★) described it as ‘a touching celebration of enduring love, family and forgiveness.’ Marianka Swain of The Daily Telegraph (4★) found the ‘sensitive revival’ ‘poignant, exquisitely performed theatre’. Although Tim Bano in The Independent (4★) thinks it’s ‘a slightly soppy, unfashionable play’, he found it ‘a pretty great pleasure to spend time in the company of this family’. The Financial Times‘ Sarah Hemming (4★) said ‘(director Emily) Burns’ delicately acted staging coaxes you to fall for this fretful, funny bunch and gently draws out the melancholy notes beneath the comedy’. In her Whats On Stage (4★) review, Lucinda Everett said it was ‘moving but never maudlin’. Paul T Davis at (4★) liked ‘the sublime script and performances’. Maryam Philpott at The Reviews Hub thought the play ‘sprightly, beautifully observed and full of hope’. Cindy Marcolina at Broadway World (3★) quite liked what she called ‘a gold mine of dry humour and psychological fun’.

Less enthusiastic was Clive Davis in The Times (3★): ‘some of the dialogue is showing its age’ and ‘sometimes you long for a little more pace and levity.’ Caroline McGinn in Time Out (3★) said it was ‘a pleasant revival and the Evening Standard‘s Nick Curtis (3★) found it ‘incurably quaint and dated’. Adam Bloodworth in City AM (3★) had a similar reaction: ‘Smith’s play feels deeply dated, the overlong first act stuffed with hammy..banter’.

They loved Lindsay Duncan. The Guardian said she gave ‘an imperious performance’. Caiti Grove at (4★) speaks of her ‘very genuine and motherly performance’.

Frankie Bradshaw’s set is praised, with The Telegraph saying the ‘ravishing revolving set is almost another character.’

Dear Octopus was at the National Theatre until 27 March. Buy tickets directly from the theatre.

Average rating: 3.7

Value Rating 53 (Value rating is the Average critic rating divided by the most common Stalls/Circle ticket price. In theory this means the higher the score the better value but, because of price variations, a West End show could be excellent value if it scores above 30 while an off-West End show may need to score above 60. This rating is based on opening night prices- theatres may raise or lower prices during the run.)

If you’ve seen Dear Octopus, you are welcome to add your review and rating below (but please keep it relevant and polite)

The Witches musical at the National Theatre – review

Daniel Rigby & Katherine Kingsley reach comedy heights in musical spectacular


Daniel Rigby and cast of The Witches. Photo: Marc Brenner

It’s hard not to compare the National Theatre’s The Witches with the

West End hit Matilda. Both originated as stories by Road Dahl, both have been turned into much-loved films before being transformed into musical spectaculars.

Good as this well-produced show is, The Witches never quite reaches the heights of its RSC rival. But it does offer an entertaining evening, especially if you want to take your older children to a theatrical show more inventive, and less cliched, than a pantomime.

National Theatre favourite Lucy Kirkwood has done a good job with the adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel, although it does take a while to get going. It could have gained from being half an hour shorter than its current two-and-a-half hours plus interval.

Still, her lyrics, jointly credited with the composer Dave Malloy, are sharp and witty. The latter clearly knows his way round musicals and has written varied hummable tunes appropriate to the different situations.

The plot goes back to the original story, losing the happier ending of the 1990 film. To remind you, a child discovers that a group of witches is meeting in the hotel at which he’s staying and they are planning to turn every child into a mouse. With the aid of his Gran, he sets out to thwart them.

The cast of The Witches

Director Lyndsey Turner was previously at the National with a very different show about witches. Following the tense drama of The Crucible,  she shows she is also a champion of fast-moving musical comedy. Supported by set and costume designer Lizzie Clachan, Ms Turner takes full advantage of the large cast, and the Olivier revolve.

My only reservation about Ms Clachan’s contribution is the surround of dark thorns which provide a contrast to the brightly colourful sets and costumes (and fill in the enormous Olivier space) but seem like too heavy handed a reminder that the world is a dark place.

Spectacular routines

There’s a Broadway chorus style number Magnificent, which introduces Mr Stringer, a character much expanded from the novel and played by Daniel Rigby as a frantic Basil Fawlty-style hotel manager, obsequious to his rich guests and rude to the less well off.

By the time there is an outbreak of mice in the building, Mr Stringer becomes hysterical and leads possibly the stand-out routine of the show- Out! Out! Out! It’s a dizzying number in which he and his staff prance round the revolve going from room to room looking for mice, placating complaining guests along the way. Daniel Rigby‘s contortions of face and body combined with a strangulated voice surely make him the finest physical comedy actor currently on the London stage.

Katherine Kingsley and cast of The Witches. Photo: Marc Brenner

The Grand High Witch is a superb villain, and Katherine Kingsley extracts every drop of evil from her cauldron. She is imperiously haughty, she snarls at everyone including the audience, and sings an hilarious song Wouldn’t It Be Nice, about how marvellous it would be for parents if they didn’t have children dominating their lives.

Both Daniel Rigby and Katherine Kingsley are a gift wrapped in a bowto this musical. They take the foundations of words, music and situation, and build upon them until the comedy reaches summits of laughter.

The good adult, so to speak, is the boy’s cantankerous elderly gran, beautifully played for laughs and pathos by Sally Anne Triplett. She sings a gorgeous song with her grandson Luke called Heartbeat Duet.

Let’s go back to the comparison with Matilda. Where the earlier musical scores is that its child hero survives intact to the end whereas Luke is turned into a mouse halfway through. At that point, his character alternates between being a mechanical mouse and a  boy in a costume. I know we often need to use our imagination in theatre, but this particular concept failed to fire mine.

One other caveat. Although this is a family show, it is not for young children. It’s not only the complexities of the plot and the darkness of some of the events (Luke’s parents die early on), the language and length are too much for anyone under about ten years old.

Still, for the rest, children and adults alike, there’s plenty of spectacle and comedy in this musical

The Witches performed at the National Theatre’s Olivier Theatre until 27 January 2024.

Paul paid for his ticket.

Click here to watch the video of this review on the YouTube channel Theatre Reviews With Paul Seven





Infinite Life – National Theatre – review

Annie Baker’s outstanding play about women coping with pain


Two women sit next to one another, one is wearing a rucksack, in a stage production of infinite Life by Annie Baker
Christina Kirk & Marylouise Burke in Infinte Life. Photo: Marc Brenner

Infinite Life by Annie Baker, which I saw at the National Theatre’s Dorfman, is a play you might find riveting or soporific, or both. Five women all have illnesses that are causing them chronic pain but that conventional medicine has been unable to treat. Desperate for a cure, they have resorted to fasting in a retreat in California.

They lie on sun loungers, they doze, they sip their water or green drinks… and they talk. There’s no action, no emotional explosions, no-one dies, and no dramatic plot twists, although there is an interesting development at the end.

It sounds like a snooze-fest, and in fact some members of the audience did doze or even leave, but I was engrossed by this outstanding play.

Infinite Life may remind you of Waiting For Godot and its days apparently repeating into infinity. Like Beckett’s play, there is not much drama but a lot going on beneath the surface and quite a bit of humour. For good measure, there is the doctor in charge of the clinic, and possibly their fates, who is mentioned frequently but never appears.

Why is it called ‘Infinite Life’? I think, because the five women are so consumed by their pain that they live very much in the moment, unable to think of life beyond it.

I understand that you may prefer loud over quiet, fast over slow, witty comedy over gentle humour, but personally I loved the way every sentence of Annie Baker’s dialogue seems carefully constructed to work on two levels, and rewarded concentrated listening.

There’s the surface of apparently inconsequential talk about what they’re reading, their lists of diagnoses and failed treatments, their chat about sex. Then there are the implications of what they’re saying in the context of the pain they are feeling, as well as the hints of the lives they have led and will lead outside of this moment of suspended time.

Even Annie Baker’s trademark pauses and silences as the women gather their thoughts, or get lost in them, reinforce the disorientation caused by fasting. They also provide us the audience with moments of contemplation.

If you’re expecting their pain to be a metaphor for life, you’ll be disappointed. It is what it says on the tin. As one of the characters says: ‘If pain doesn’t mean anything, it’s so boring. But if it means anything at all then I don’t know if I can bear it.’ It is what it brings out in their characters that stands out.

It is certainly not as depressing as you might imagine. Most of the time, rather than feel sorry for them, you admire these women’s resilience, and the mutual respect inspired by their confinement together and common predicament. Their conversations are leavened with some very funny lines. I could have carried on listening to their conversations long beyond the one hour 45 minutes.

This is a joint National Theatre and Atlantic Theater Company production but the effort has been put in by the Americans. Thanks to an agreement between the British actors’ union and American Equity, the off-Broadway production has been transported set, creatives and cast. And what a cast we were privileged to see! Annie Baker has created five strong characters. Directed by James Macdonald, all the actors do a superlative job at subtly suggesting their suffering, their vulnerability, their fortitude and their inner life.

The women are mostly in their sixties or seventies. Marylouise Burke as Eileen, the oldest, shuffles slowly on and off stage, carefully laying out her cushions on her lounger, moving with delicate precision as if every movement hurts.

Mia Katigbak plays Yvette, precise and firm in her thoughts, and who reels off a tremendously long list of ailments, but also reveals her desperation for the fasting to be a cure. Brenda Pressley is Elaine, reserved and determined. As Ginnie, Kristine Nielsen has a twinkling eye and a playful manner.

Christina Kirk plays Sofi, at 47 the youngest of the cohort. She is tortured, and self torturing, at times blaming herself for her illness. You might think that chronic pain would push sex off the agenda. Far from it. While the older women muse on sex, she is still wracked by desire: forbidden lust that has jeopardised her marriage, the sex itself that is debilitatingly painful, the desperate belief that orgasms might be the cure. In the night, she leaves voice messages about her agony for her husband, and sexual fantasies for her platonic lover.

Incidentally, this was the second National Theatre production running I’ve seen (The House Of Bernarda Alba being the first), in which a woman has masturbated on stage. I’m hoping this isn’t now mandatory because the next show I’m seeing at the National is a family show, The Witches.

Sex crops up quite frequently as a subject for conversation. Someone wonders if bad sex is the cause of illness. On another occasion, there is an extended discussion after someone reveals that a cousin describes pornography for blind people. We always learn about their characters from what they say.

Some time into the play, a solitary man appears. Nelson is mature and attractive enough to make the women take notice. His character is much more thinly drawn than those of the women but Pete Simpson exhibits a believable arrogance. Unlike the others, he has a specifically identified and, it would seem, mortal disease. He seems to be introduced for two reasons. I’ll come to the other later but the first is to provide a contrast to the women’s camaraderie. ‘I don’t want to sound like a dick,’ he says, then proceeds to do just that.

He is the only character who contends that his agony is worse than that of the others. Sofi says to him: ‘You don’t actually know if your level of pain that night was worse than my level of pain on my worst night. It’s impossible to know.’ Until then, I hadn’t fully taken on board how, for the women, their suffering is not a competition. They realise that, like sex, everyone has their own unique, incomparable experience of suffering. And as an audience, we cannot make a judgment. They and we can only offer a gentle sympathy.

Privately it may be different. Eileen, who seems the calmest of all, has a moment alone on stage when she says: ‘This is the night you heard me screaming. I said terrible things …I said none of you have ever been in this much pain …I said it’s a conspiracy..I said …A minute of this is an infinity.’ Not something any of them would actually say out loud to one another: they keep their all-engulfing agony to themselves. 

When they’re not talking about sex or illness, the women often talk philosophically about what they have read, and again we can see how what interests them reflects on their own lives-  how did a similarly ill woman go about setting up a successful business; does an Asian pirate, brought up in a certain culture (for which, perhaps, read afflicted by sickness), have the free will to choose his actions or is he bound to act in a certain way?

Boring or entertaining or both?

Most significantly, Sofi is trying to read George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda. This is not a random choice by Annie Baker. When asked what it’s about, Sofi says that so far the book is concerned with Gwendoline and her suitors. Those familiar with the novel will know that Gwendoline is self-obsessed, contained in her own world, much as people in constant agony are.

She says: ‘If I’m not reading it all the time it seems really boring, but once I’m into it, it’s like the most entertaining thing in the world.’ Is Annie Baker giving a knowing wink to the audience about this play?

Sofi is finding it hard to get beyond page 152. The sentence she gets stuck at says irrational fear can stop you doing what you know is achievable. Something else to think about, and certainly relevant to the test Nelson provides for Sofi on whether she will act on her sexual desire.

Dusk follows day, night takes over, then another day in the blazing Californian sun begins. Lighting designer Isabella Byrd dims the lights into moonlight that actually feels cool, then slams on a sudden migraine-inducing flood of daylight. The women’s current lives may be an infinite loop as each day merges into the next but there is a finite time frame to the play. It begins with the first day of Sofi’s stay at the retreat and ends on the day she leaves.

Four women doze on sun loungers in the Atlantic Theater proudction of Infinite Life
Christina Kirk, Kristine Nielsen, Brenda Pressley and Mia Katigbak in Infinite Life. Photo: Marc Brenner

The set, from the New York design collective, dots, suggests the monotony of fasting. It is minimal and never changing. In front of a beige background, there’s a patterned breeze block wall of a similar colour, about two metres tall. In front of that there are a number of loungers. The cheap nature of the wall and beds implies that the so-called clinic is a new age sham designed to make money from desperate people who have been failed by medical science.

For the majority of the play, the women lie down as if their loungers are islands in an ocean of agony. They talk but they don’t make physical contact or delve deeply into each other’s lives. Then, as we reach the final minutes of the play, there is a moment between Sofi and Eileen, which does seem to take us forward.

They touch each other, both mentally and physically.  It’s a human connection that suggests we need not be alone in our pain. This seems to point to a way in which we can possibly learn from it. Perhaps by moving from the inward-facing world of Gwendoline to the outward-looking and more empathetic behaviour of Daniel Deronda himself.

Annie Baker is that rare class of writer who can create a funny, moving play about the human condition, without resorting to easy messages and emotional manipulation.

Infinite Life was performed at the Linda Gross Theater in New York from August 18 to October 15, 2023, and from 22 November 2023 to 13 January 2024 at the National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre.

Paul purchased his ticket.

Click here to watch the video of this review on the YouTube channel Theatre Reviews With Paul Seven

Visitors by Barney Norris – The Watermill – review

Threatened theatre produces a jewel of a play


Tessa Bell-Briggs and Christopher Ravenscroft in Visitors. Pamela Raith Photography

The Arts Council has cut its annual funding to The Watermill Theatre in Newbury which will be a tragedy for UK theatre if they are no longer able to produce shows like last year’s Whistle Down The Wind, Bleak Expectations (soon to open in the West End), or their current production of Visitors.

Visitors was written by Barney Norris about ten years ago and has been revived with the author now directing. It is a sad but ultimately uplifting play about the long-lasting relationship of an elderly couple, one of whom is succumbing to dementia, contrasted with the rootlessness of newer generations. It is beautifully written, both in its construction and in its language.

After my recent visit to A Little Life where I was bombarded with blood, violence and video, it was something of a relief to be witnessing a play that relies on actors and words- pure but never simple. The Watermill has a small stage and the designers Good Teeth use it well to create a farmhouse sitting room made for two and, to the sides, a suggestion of the ripe wheat fields that were the business of the farm and now being symbolically harvested.

The occupants are Edie and Arthur, now well into their old age. In many ways, the play is a eulogy to a rural way of life that has been lost in our consumer-driven metropolitan world. They met as very young people and have adapted to each other in the same way as they have lived their lives, with a kind of make-do-and-mend. They may not have had the family or the holidays they would have liked, but they have happy memories, especially of a wedding on a beach. They have come to rely on one another and take strength from their shared experience. They talk, well Edie talks mainly, but now, as Edie puts it, her dementia has created a dam that holds back what she wants to think and say.

Barney Norris is clearly interested in the power of roots and tradition. His adaptation of Lorca’s Blood Wedding at Salisbury Playhouse in 2020 was firmly set in the community of Salisbury Plain. In Visitors, the Wiltshire farm has been in Arthur’s family for three generations, but the continuity that it, and the elderly couple who have lived there all their married life, represents is under threat. Their son Steve isn’t interested in taking over the farm and has pursued a career in insurance. A young carer, Kate, has been drafted in to help them in their old age but she is neither skilled nor certain to stay.

The restless attitude of the newer generations contrasts with the stoicism and acceptance of the older one. Steve is dissatisfied with his life and whose marriage is on the rocks. The millennial Kate is drifting aimlessly. As Edie says to her: ‘You’re unsure because you could be anyone, really, and you don’t know which life to have.’ Edie may wonder what other lives she might have led, but is content with the one she did.

If Steve and Kate are visitors to Edie and Arthur, Edie in her more lucid moments regards us all as visitors to the earth for the duration of our lives, and sees that we must make the most of it, which she fears Steve and Kate will not, given the illusion of choice that today’s rootless world offers.

As the play moves towards the inevitable closing of the door on Edie and Arthur’s life together, we learn more about all four characters.

An authentic portrait of old age

Edie is revealed to be well-read and quite a philosopher, and, in her use of language, a poet. Her brain may now be letting her down in her interactions with others but she sees the patterns of sunlight across the room and over the wheat fields, changing but eternal. Tessa Bell-Briggs as Edie seamlessly segues between warm awareness and drowning in dementia, while always retaining the sense of who she is.

Three characters sit in a circle chatting and laughing in a scene from Visitors at The Watermill Newbury April 2023
Tessa Bell-Briggs, Patrick Toomey and Nathalie Barclay in Visitors. Pamela Raith Photography

Arthur is quiet and, like many men of that generation, not given to showing his emotions, which makes the moment all the more poignant when, contemplating the prospect of Edie going into a home, he breaks down in tears. Christopher Ravenscroft gives a deep performance as a shy, gentle man whose eyes twinkle with contentment and who is horrified when his lack of social skills causes him to say the wrong thing. It’s a portrayal so authentic, you feel you know him from somewhere.

Patrick Toomey plays the middle-aged, but yet to grow up, son. As we find out more about him, his initial crassness gives way to a sense that, despite his different life choices, he is like his father in his inarticulacy and social blunders.

Nathalie Barclay is Kate, the slightly on edge young woman with blue hair who finds temporary security by caring for his parents.

Despite how I have described the play, Visitors is celebratory rather than depressing. Yes, all life is temporary and usually ends badly, but Edie and Arthur have had a fulfilled life, made so by things that can’t be accounted for by economists and marketers, like tradition, love and acceptance. I thank Barney Norris for putting it on record before people like Edie and Arthur end their visit to our world and their way of life disappears forever.

Visitors is running at The Watermill until 22 April 2023.

Paul was given a review ticket by the producer

Click here to watch this review on our YouTube channel




Wodehouse in Wonderland – review

Robert Daws charms as the great comic writer


Production photo from Wodehouse in Wonderland February 2023 showing the actor Robert Daws as Wodehouse laughing and holding up a dry martini
Robert Daws in Wodehouse In Wonderland. Photo: Pamela Raith

There’s a lot to enjoy in this one-man play about PG Wodehouse, especially since the man in question is the very talented Robert Daws.

The world is divided between those who love PG Wodehouse’s books and those who hate them. Well, that’s not strictly true because there must be a large proportion of the world that has no opinion at all about him. But if you do have a positive view about the man known to his friends as Plum, I think you’ll like Wodehouse In Wonderland which I saw at the Haymarket in Basingstoke.

I say ‘think’ because, although there are many quotes from the great man’s books, this is not a play about Jeeves And Wooster, or Lord Emsworth. Instead, it’s a dip into the mind of the man himself, and Wodehouse alone on stage is not as funny as his books.

Then again, what do I know? I’m reminded of Plum’s opinion of reviewers: “Has anybody ever seen a drama critic in the daytime?” he said.  “Of course not. They come out after dark, up to no good.”

For someone who seems quintessentially English, Wodehouse spent a lot of time in America. As a young man in the period after the First World War, he was there writing the lyrics to a number of successful musical comedies, working mainly with Guy Bolton and the great composer Jerome Kern. After the second world war, he took up permanent residence in the USA and never returned to England. And it is quite late in his life that we meet him in his home in New York State.

We’re treated to much Wodehouse wit, as he talks in letters to his beloved daughter Leonora (“without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time”), and to an unseen biographer who asks him earnest questions about the effect of his almost parent-less childhood on his writing.

William Humble’s script is certainly amusing, and Robert Daws is such a brilliant actor that he is able to capture the whole audience with a smile and an anecdote.

But compared to one of Wodehouse’s novels, this delightful play lacks one crucial element. As the man himself said: “If they aren’t in interesting situations, characters can’t be major characters.” In the first act at least, Wodehouse isn’t in an interesting situation. There is none of the great conflict that you get between say Jeeves and Wooster, nor the complex plots that Wodehouse spent weeks working out and that propelled his characters into ever more hilarious plights. Truth be told, unlike his characters, Wodehouse is not larger than life.

A delightful but not entirely successful attempt to pin down Wodehouse

Not only that, he erects a considerable defence to prevent anyone from discovering any interesting depths. He won’t allow his biographer- or us- to dip into more than the shallows of his mind. He once said: “It was not that I had any particular message for humanity. I am still plugging away and not the ghost of one so far, so it begins to look as though, unless I suddenly hit mid-season form in my eighties, humanity will remain a message short.”

So, writing a play about PG Wodehouse is a challenge, somewhat like keeping a souffle from sinking. William Humble only meets it fully when we get to the second act. It’s then that the twin tragedies of Wodehouse’s adult life are revealed. As he put it himself: “it’s always just when a chappie is feeling particularly top-hole, and more than usually braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with a bit of lead piping.”

Add to which, he was ostracised or, as he might have put it: “the supply of the milk of human kindness was short by several gallons”. We see, illuminated in flashes as it were, the depths to which he must have sunk, before pulling himself back up using the safety line of writing comedy.

Production photo from the play Wodehouse In Wonderland February 2023 shows the actor Robert Daws istting at a desk with a typewriter next a window with a sunny view
Wodehouse in Wonderland. Photo: Pamela Raith

And writing was his life. Whatever else there was going on, he worked hard at his typewriter, turning out three or four books a year.  He appears frivolous and out of touch with the real world. Indeed, his critics describe him that way, and dislike the way he creates a bubble in which his characters and their stories exist. Yet, from the extracts that William Humble regularly inserts into the proceedings, we can tell that Wodehouse showed a level of craftmanship his contemporaries struggled to equal. His contortions of the English language are priceless and, even though his characters are not realistic, they are vividly real.

Oh, and he sings songs. I mentioned Wodehouse’s early success as a lyricist. In the 1920s, he was renowned as much as a writer of musical comedies as he was a comic novelist. We’re treated to quite a few of his songs in this play. I’m pleased to report Mr Daws has a fine voice.

It’s not easy to keep a show visually interesting when you only have one person on a stage and no special effects, but director Robin Herford injects a good rhythm into the production.  The design by Lee Newby is just right. It’s a naturalistic reproduction of a study with a writing desk dead centre, in a bright and beautiful house where, metaphorically, the sun always shines.

To sum up, this is a slightly flawed play but still a pleasurable evening, made exceptional by the quality of Robert Daws’ performance. You can’t help but be charmed by him, as charmed as I imagine you would have been by meeting Plum himself.

This is a production that could easily run in the West End, where you would pay £100 to see it. On this tour of the UK, you can probably catch it for under £30. Top hole, I say.

Wodehouse In Wonderland is touring the UK until the end of April 2023. More details at

Paul received a free review ticket from the producer.

Click to watch this review on YouTube

Sophie Okonedo & Ben Daniels in Medea – Review

Powerful performances from Okonedo & Daniels

Production photo from Medea at sohoplace theatre in London February 2023 showing a woman holding up her hand in the rain
Sophie Okonedo in Medea. Photo: Johan Persson


You may well be familiar with the horror story of Medea. It began as an Ancient Greek myth and was immortalised in a play by Euripides. In this review, I’ll be talking about how it ends. If you don’t know, and want to have the extra tension of wondering whether or not she will commit the terrible act of violence that is threatened from the beginning, you may want to stop reading.  Although, if you do, you’ll miss me talking about a stunning theatre production featuring Sophie Okonedo and Ben Daniels giving two of the most powerful performances I’ve seen.

In Euripides’ version of the myth, Medea kills her children as an act of vengeance against her husband who has left her for a richer, more influential and younger woman. Stories of parents murdering their children make headlines to this day, and no doubt such an act was just as shocking to the Ancient Greeks. But what Euripides does, while not in any way whitewashing the monstrosity of the act, is to lay out everything that led to it. 

Unlike the other ancient classic currently gracing the London stage, namely Phaedra at the National which I saw and enjoyed last week, this production makes no attempt to modernise the story. Yes, the characters wear modern dress but it’s fairly plain, and the set, designed by Vicki Mortimer, is almost bare. Such details as there are, are telling– a low wall concealing a staircase to a basement (where the final horrors take place) is made of stone (a word that is used frequently in the play to describe Medea); high above hangs a giant golden headband or crown which parallels the circular stage and predicts the headband that is weaponised later in the play. Even a table and chairs which could denote the possibility of sitting and talking things through are removed before a word is spoken.

And this is all happening in the round, at the wonderful new theatre @sohoplace. So it’s like being in an Ancient Greek amphitheatre, where the audience was all around, drawn into the play and treated as witnesses and judges. Even more so, because no-one is more than a few rows from the actors. In fact, the chorus of three women sits among the audience, making us all feel like we’re the women of Corinth trying in vain to understand and intervene. 

Even the adaptation is a classic, the 1947 version by American poet Robinson Jeffers, which has both the natural flow of modern English and an accentuated use of metaphor. ‘Stone’, ‘bone’ and ‘dog’ run like a motifs through the play.

Medea has been wronged and she wants revenge. She played a major part in the success of her husband Jason (of Argonaut and Golden Fleece fame) only for him to betray her by leaving her for the daughter of Creon, the King of Corinth . The play is a series of ‘interviews’ between Medea and the powerful men in her life: Creon, Aegheus the King of Athens, and of course Jason.

 From the very beginning of Robinson Jeffers’ adaptation, Medea is full-on angry and prepared to be as evil as required in response to the perceived evil of Jason and of the male-controlled society that has demeaned her. And what this means is that Sophie Okonedo can let rip with her anger and her anguish from the start.

Euripides’ explanation, Daniels’ provocation, Okonedo’s persuasion

I guarantee you will rarely have seen a performance like that of Sophie Okonedo as Medea.  She’s mad with anger, yet able to outargue and deceive these men with smiles and guile. She cries proper snotty tears, she smiles like a tiger, her eyes turn to stone, all in a minute. You may know what’s going to happen, but the tension is palpable, because, even when given an out, the men patronise her, and, even though they know she is to be feared, underestimate her.

As modern people, we are more into the idea of atonement and forgiveness but we understand the visceral need for revenge, and while we may not see it as noble in the way the Greeks did, this play helps us comprehend why Medea feels she has no alternative but to carry out her gruesome vengeance and we feel her heart breaking at the thought of it.

Production photo from Medea at sohoplace theatre in London February 2023 showing a man in a vest in the rain
Ben Daniels in Medea. Photo: Johan Persson

In an astonishing piece of theatre, director Dominic Cooke has one actor Ben Daniels play all the male parts, thus emphasising that it is men generically who rule society. Even so, Mr Daniels, in a performance as powerful as Miss Okenedo’s, gives each of them a distinct personality: the selfish Jason, the weak King Creon, the shallow King Aegheus. And he constantly walks round the edge of the stage, usually in slow motion, showing she is encircled and trapped by men who disrespect Medea and take all chance of justice away from her.

The panic of the women around Medea, especially Marion Bailey as the Nurse, piles on the stress.

This is a most tense and ultimately devastating 90 minutes. You don’t actually see any of the deaths but I can tell you the hairs on my neck stood up when Medea went down the stairs to kill her children.

And this is where it goes wrong as a play. It may, or may not, have worked for the ancient Greeks- but for a modern sensibility, murdering your children crosses a line, even with all of Euripides’ explanation, and Ben Daniels’ provocation, and Sophie Okonedo’s persuasion. It is too much like a terrorist justifying killing innocent people.

Medea can be seen at sohoplace theatre in London until 22 April 2023.

Paul paid for his ticket.

Click here to watch this review on the YouTube channel Theatre.Reviews With Paul Seven

Phaedra with Janet McTeer – National Theatre- Review

Janet McTeer excels in a dramatic tale of forbidden love by Simon Stone


Production shot from Phaedra at the National Theatre in February 2023 showing the cast standing in a sitting room
Phaedra at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

On the whole, I loved Phaedra by Simon Stone at the National Theatre‘s Lyttelton auditorium. There was just one element I didn’t like. First, let me tell you what was so good about it.

Don’t worry if you’re not keen on Greek tragedy. This is not a production full of togas and choruses. It’s a bang-up-to-date tale of a politician who has an affair. The essential story of Phaedra is still there, as told in Ancient Greece by Euripides, in Ancient Rome by Seneca the Younger, in the middle of the last millennium by Racine, and many times over since including relatively recently by Sarah Kane.

It’s always been a tale of forbidden love, originally of a princess falling in love with her stepson, but in this new version, the young man is already in his forties and he’s the son of a former lover. So, not a stepson, and certainly not a young man being taken advantage of. I guess most of us can understand the way love, or lust, can overtake reason. The forbidden love is, on the face of it, that of someone whose passionate feelings lead her into infidelity- simple adultery, although not so simple, as it turns out.

Our protagonist, called not Phaedra but Helen, is a shadow cabinet minister. You might think her forbidden love is not so much for someone other than her husband but her love for herself.  This play is dominated by an examination of a certain kind of liberal middle-class people who have no moral code beyond what they feel.

We first meet a family bickering over breakfast. A teenage son is uncontrolled in his language or subject matter in front of and towards his parents. The older daughter, just visiting, is not much less restrained. The affable father jokes with them about sex. It seems to be a family without boundaries. You may or may not approve of the liberal principle of treating the children as equals, as quasi-grown-ups but, in this case, the children seem to have become self-centred and lacking in respect. Helen, the mother, leads by example. This is brought home by the way they speak over one another, barely listening. You may find this scene appalling or laugh-out-loud funny or both.

The self obsession extends beyond family to the rest of the world. Helen can be seen as the patronising face of first world- imperialist, even- attitudes towards other cultures. For example, when Helen spent time in Morocco, she didn’t bother to learn the language, and she hasn’t taken the trouble to find out where her black, best friend was born.

Production shot from Phaedra at the National Theatre in London February 2023 showing Mckenzie Davis holding Assaad Bouab's face and staring into his eyes
McKenzie Davis and Assaad Bouab in Phaedra. Photo: Johan Persson

Then Sofiane arrives. He reminds Helen of his father- her past Moroccan lover, a man who died in a car crash and whose letter to his son provides an intermittent sub-titled voiceover expressing hope and regret. Sofiane makes clear he reciprocates the feelings Helen has for him. It’s not just that he’s like his father physically, he too is a political activist and that reminds her even more of how she not only has traded physical excitement for a boring marriage but has given up the thrill of activism for the compromise of party politics. I don’t need to tell you how often an older person has an affair to try to recapture lost youth.

Despite changes to the plot and the modern setting, this is still a Greek tragedy in its structure. I won’t go any further with the story, except to say Simon Stone has retained those ancient ideas that people who misbehave get punished, and revenge moves through the generations. So, there are many twists, and it does all end badly. In fact, the ending is very dramatic, almost melo-dramatic.

It’s a well-told story with much comedy and many great set scenes. One in particular takes place in a restaurant where the family and close friends are gathered for Helen’s 60th birthday. Revelation follows revelation in a scene that wouldn’t go amiss in a farce, with glasses smashing, home truths spewing out, and Helen all the while lamenting loudly about the distraction from her celebration.

Production shot from Phaedra at the National Theatre in February 2023 showing Janet McTeer leaning against a glass wall
Janet McTeer in Phaedra. Photo: Johan Persson/

The acting is marvellous.  Janet McTeer is so on point as this totally self-absorbed politician. She talks at speed, with passion and intensity, and expresses her feelings so naturally, that you forget she’s acting. The script gives her the platform for what will surely turn out to be one of the acting performances of the year.

Paul Chahidi as her husband Hugo is terrific too in the role of this put-upon husband and father who manages to keep afloat with jokes and diplomacy. He’s charming and likeable, but also exudes insignificance. You can see why he appealed to the dominating Helen, but also why she was ready to be unfaithful to Sofiane, played by the handsome, charismatic Assaad Bouab.

All the cast impress but a special word for Akiya Henry as Helen’s friend and fellow shadow cabinet member Omolara. She portrays an easy-going person who seems to take Helen’s ignorance of her background and her mockery of her religion with good humour, but you sense an iron core that emanates from her moral grounding (something Helen lacks) and she has the kind of painted smile that conceals an objective, calculating mind.

Canadian screen star Mckenzie Davis makes an impressive stage debut, riding a rollercoaster of emotions as Helen’s daughter Isolde.

No thinking outside the box

So what didn’t I like? The design. All the action takes place within a revolving glass box . This was an interesting coincidence because only the night before I saw Phaedra, I saw The Lehman Trilogy which also features a revolving glass box. But, whereas the latter worked, this didn’t. The effect is perhaps of making the audience feel like the Greek and Roman Gods who would look down on humans and their folly. Or it could suggest the way in which the characters are trapped, in this case in a cycle of betrayal and revenge. The many uprights may have been intended to reinforce the idea of the characters being in a prison but they too often obscured the faces of the actors. It was a shame not to see the agonies their characters were going through.

The biggest problem caused by the design is that every change of scene took forever. Sometimes the scene change was longer than the following scene! When you’re dealing with a raised box with awkward access and egress, everything takes much longer than it would if the action had taken place on the stage floor and scenery could be rolled on and off easily. The extended blackouts would have been intolerable but for Stefan Gregory’s hypnotic sound which played as we waited.

Designer Chloe Lamford’s talent is beyond question, and the sets within the box did look fantastic. It’s just the box that didn’t work.  I don’t want to lay all the blame at her door because it could well be that she was simply doing what director Simon Stone wanted. The last production by him that I saw was Yerma at the Young Vic, and that too took place behind glass walls, so maybe it’s his thing.

Phaedra performed at the National Theatre until 8 April 2023

Paul received a free review ticket from the producer.

Click here to watch this review on the YouTube channel Theatre.Reviews with Paul Seven

Emma Corrin in Orlando – Garrick Theatre – Review

Crown star Emma Corrin is mesmerising in comedy about gender freedom


Emma Corrin as Orlando at the Garrick Theatre 2022
Emma Corrin in Orlando. Photo: Marc Brenner

It may be nearly a hundred years since  Virginia Woolf wrote the novel Orlando, but it’s only todat that our society has caught up with its story about the fluidity of gender, desire and time. As the novel, quoted in the play, says: ‘If you can just live another century.’

Emma Corrin, probably best known as young Princess Diana in The Crown, plays the eponymous protagonist. When the play begins, Orlando is a young male aristocrat in the court of Queen Elizabeth I.

In our first encounter with him, we catch a glimpse of a penis. It’s a startling and funny moment that sets the scene for the rest of the evening. His trusty servant-come-dresser-come-tutor-come-guardian angel Mrs Grimsditch tries to get him to put his trousers on. Deborah Findlay is funny, warm and down-to-earth, providing a necessary foil for Emma Corrin who gives a mesmerising performance as the romantic, confused, freedom-loving hero. The symbolic trouser-wearing is a motif throughout the play.

Even if they prefer the non-binary pronoun ‘they’, Emma Corrin, of course, doesn’t have a penis. It’s a theatrical prop. Before long, Orlando has lost that organ and mysteriously become a woman, as well as moving on many years to the court of James I without getting much older. To confirm the sex change, we catch a glimpse of her breasts, which I think were real but this is theatre, a world of pretence, so who knows?

In fact, theatre is a theme of this play. It moves through many theatrical styles as Orlando navigates from Elizabethan (a hint of Shakespeare) to Jacobean to Regency to Victorian times to the gradual liberation of the modern era. This substitutes for the literary journey that Orlando undertakes in the original novel. Theatre is not as effective a barometer for the changing attitudes to women, but it works nicely as a metaphor for being whatever you want to be.

To support the theme, Michael Grandage and designer Peter McKintosh have created a set that looks like a bare stage with brickwork and a large metal door. It’s populated with the trappings of a theatre- ropes and counterweights, a large costumes basket, a clothes rail, a stepladder and more. The set frequently features a bed that starts large and becomes much smaller in Victorian times (the worst of all periods for women). Having set up the theme, I think Neil Bartlett could have put it across more strongly in the script. There seems to be no equivalent of the constantly changing book that Orlando is writing and that provides a unifying thread through the novel.

From the start, this dramatised version offers the kind of inventive freewheeling imagination found in the original novel, because no less than nine Virginia Woolfs appear, speaking together and separately, to tell us the multi-faceted story of Orlando.

View of Emma Corrin's naked back in Orlando at The Garrick Theatre London
Emma Corrin in Orlando. Photo: Marc Brenner

Much as she liked being a man, Orlando likes being a woman more and that’s how they remain, as the play develops into a romp through three centuries of the history of women in our society. And just as there are many different Virginia Woolfs, Orlando discovers there are many different ways we can desire. They also realise that time is elastic rather than linear, and that (spoiler alert) life needs to be enjoyed go the full in the here and now. It is above all a story that lauds the freedom of poetic imagination above the prosaic.

Orlando finds out what it is to be a woman, an experience made more shocking by them having been a man. They experience the disturbing effect a bare leg can have on heterosexual men and the way misogynistic men subjugate women. They realise that women can love each other, that love and betrayal go hand in hand. They find that men and women can dress up as each other for practical as well as sexual purposes.

Emma Corrin and Deborah Findlay stand shoulder to shoulder in a scene form Orlando at the Garrick Theatre 2022
Emma Corrin and DEborah Fidnlay in Orlando. Photo: Marc Brenner

Orlando is an everyperson rather than an intrepid hero or overpowering genius. Emma Corrin is tremendous at portraying the inarticulacy of the character, the frequent lack of understanding, but also the enthusiasm and optimism. They dominate the stage with their wide eyes, knotted features, hesitant speech, squirming body and sparkling smile. It’s a performance that is both funny and sad, and thoroughly engaging. As with the relationship between Orlando and Mrs Grimsditch, Emma Corrin’s youthful exuberance is balanced by the twinkly-eyed experience of Deborah Findlay.

In a play where gender is fluid, an entirely female cast bar one takes on all the roles, which of course leads to some mockery of men. Lucy Briers memorably plays a blustering naval officer who moves like a bantam cock. She also provides a haughty Queen Elizabeth.

Although writer Neil Bartlett couldn’t hope to convey the depth and complexity of Virginia Woolf’s novel, he does pick the important themes and moments, and by introducing the author onto the stage we get to hear direct quotes from the novel in her stream-of-consciousness way of writing.

Missing, in this fast moving 80 minute play, were the deeper relationships. Orlando’s first love Sasha whom they never forget, is played with verve by Millicent Wong, and their last Marmaduke is given a sensitive portrayal by Jodie McNee. But these lovers flash by as we skim across the surface of Orlando’s life. Their journey is not always pleasant, but it is ultimately optimistic.

Orlando is an entertaining evening thanks in no small part to Emma Corrin who displays all the signs of being a great star of the stage.

Orlando is playing at the Garrick Theatre in London until 25 February 2023.

Click here to watch this review on our YouTube channel Theatre.Reviews With Paul Seven 

Elton John’s Tammy Faye – Almeida Theatre – review

Like Tammy Faye herself, the musical by Elton John, Jake Shears & James Graham is good but flawed


Actors Andrew Rannells and Katie Brayben stand together singing a song in a scene from Tammy Faye the musical at the Almeida Theatre
Andrew Rannells and Katie Brayben in Tammy Faye

The music for Tammy Faye the musical is by Elton John. It’s hard to tell at one listen how catchy the tunes are but they’re in the style of his glam rock heights and a few certainly get the heart racing. His lyricist is Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters fame. He does the job of illustrating what’s going on but on first hearing the lyrics are sharp but without any of the unexpected words or rhymes that you find in the very best.

The book by James Graham is funny and revealing. He’s maybe a little too interested in the story of the rise and fall of TV evangelists in 1980s America than that of Tammy Faye herself, despite it being the most human of tragedies.

James Graham clearly believes in the adage “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So, this musical is another example of him giving us a history lesson and telling us why it’s important.
In This House, he told us about what happened behind the scenes in 1979 during a minority Labour government. In Ink, he wrote about the rise of the Murdoch-style tabloid. In Labour Of Love, he examined the last few decades of the Labour Party.

His most recent play Best Of Enemies, which has just opened in the West End (I gave it a 5 star review when it premiered at the Young Vic a year ago), tells us about two what we would now call political pundits who faced up to one another in the first popular TV debates in America back in 1968 (when President Nixon was elected). He showed that it sowed the seeds of today’s polarisation between the liberal left and the conservative right.

In Tammy Faye, he again goes back to the early days of television and the rise of the conservative right. Evangelists, following in the footsteps of Billy Graham, were inspiring masses of people in churches and arenas with their fiery sermons. Then they discovered television and in the 70s and 80s became known to millions who paid massive amounts of money to their churches, a lot of which they pocketed. More importantly, perhaps, is their association with politics in America.

I thought Presidents had ended their speeches to the nation with ‘God Bless America’ since time immemorial but I learned from this musical that President Nixon was the first to use it. Prior to that, Presidents carefully stuck to the constitutional requirement to keep church and state separate.

The evangelists expanded on this, with the help of Ronald Reagan, to create the so-called Moral Majority and a Christian right. One evangelist Pat Robertson, played in this production as a smarmy snake by Nicholas Rowe, even put himself forward as a potential Republican Presidential candidate. Ever since then, the Republican Party has relied on the Christian right to deliver them substantial numbers of votes, and has tailored its policies accordingly. So, the establishment of women’s and gay rights has been slowed down, and, in the case of access to abortion, reversed. So, very relevant to today’s world.

Anyway, that’s the history lesson, and you really wish James Graham had been your history teacher in school. The characters he creates are funny and frightening at the same time. Take the evangelist Jerry Falwell, Tammy’s nemesis. He is portrayed as a humourless, negative, mean-spirited man with narrow eyes, a dead voice and a hangdog expression. In one of the many funny lines, it is said he didn’t die of heart failure, he lived with it. It is actually hard to believe this character could evangelise anyone but the brilliant performance by Zubin Varla sends a chill through the auditorium.

Dancers on stage in a scnee from Tammy Faye by Elton John
Tammy Faye the musical

Tammy herself is seen rising from a tacky Christian puppet show to faltering TV presenter to the star of America’s biggest Christian channel, and the founder of a Christian theme park (“like Disneyland but with better people”).
Of course, it’s her husband Jim Bakker who initially gets top billing, because the evangelical Christians believed that a woman’s place is in the home or, if not, as a support for her husband. All the evangelical men we meet behave badly, eventually succumbing to pride, greed, adultery or some other sin. Her husband too lets her down.

He’s played by American actor Andrew Rannells who is extremely funny whether he is being nervous at being on TV, pompous when he believes himself to be in control, or snivelling at his failure.

Tammy’s star shines because she is not the stereotype mousey housewife. She is bright in brain, eyes and dress- great glittering costumes from Katrina Lindsay by the way. She is witty, and she’s compassionate to the point of crying on a regular basis. It takes someone exceptional to play a funny, warm woman who can also belt out high octane songs. This production has such a performer in Katie Brayben who has a beautiful voice and powerful lungs, and can hold the entire audience in her hands. Even when she is brought down by her only too human failings, we continue to love her because she exudes goodness and humility and humour.

What really sets her apart, other than being a woman in this man’s world, is that, while the others preach hate, she preaches love. Her fellow evangelists are homophobic and consider AIDS to be a plague sent by God. She says Christians should love everybody. She brings people onto the TV show who would normally be persona non-grata to evangelicals, including most famously a gay pastor who has AIDS. This occupies a small amount of the show but is immensely moving.

But this isn’t a play, it is a musical and so stands or falls on its music. Elton John is experienced at writing musicals. He has had hits with The Lion King, Aida and of course Billy Elliott. He knows how to integrate the music with the plot so that it keeps the story moving and adds to its depth. You could easily imagine songs like If Only Love, which is a beautiful ballad, Empty Hands, If You Came to See Me Cry or Right Kind Of Faith slotting neatly into his 1970s songbook, (though perhaps not on a greatest hits album). They are stirring and often accompanied by a large chorus line of dancers, choreographed by Lynne Page. However, none of the songs are quite showstoppers, except maybe the finale See You In Heaven which certainly gets people bouncing in their seats.

Bunny Christie’s set is just right. She leaves plenty of room for the actors to move on a relatively small stage but At the back is a set of 25 identical openings that act as TV screens but are also windows out of which characters poke their heads to contribute to and comment on the on-stage activity.  These include, hilariously, the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The director is Rupert Goold, who is the Almeida’s Artistic Director. You can see his hand in making this such a slick, punchy musical.

So why isn’t it a five star musical? I think the problem is that, interesting as the story of the rise and fall of the male TV evangelists is, it’s not that engaging. Yet so much time is spent on them that the central character of Tammy ends up being shortchanged. She and Jim are clearly fascinating, tragic people but they’re not explored enough, which meant I wasn’t able to get fully engaged with their story either. So, like Tammy Faye herself, this musical is very good but slightly flawed.

Click here to watch this review on the YouTube channel Theatre.Reviews With Paul Seven

Tammy Faye performed at the Almeida Theatre until 3 December 2022

The Sex Party – Menier – Review

Terry Johnson’s new play about ‘Swingers’ is a mess


Man and two women in conversation in a scene from the play The Sex Party
John Hopkins, Lisa Dwan and Molly Osborne in The Sex Party. Photo: Alistair Muir

It’s hard to describe how disappointed I was by my visit to the Menier Chocolate Factory to see The Sex Party. In the past, I have laughed at and thoroughly enjoyed plays by Terry Johnson, from Insignificance and Dead Funny to the recent Prism, but The Sex Party, both written and directed by Mr Johnson, turns out to be a very po-faced comedy.

There’s no sex and not much partying. But that’s not why I was disappointed. I fully expected Terry Johnson to be dissecting the party-goers rather than, metaphorically, taking off his undies and joining in. It had hints of the play it could been, one that used laughter to skewer middle-class liberal hypocrisy, and provoked thoughts about gender and sexuality. Instead, The Sex Party is so sensitive about doing and saying the right thing, all the light-heartedness has been sucked out of it.

At every turn, something else is thrown in to expose the limits of the apparent libertarianism of the people who are taking part in this orgy. So thick and fast do they come, that you hardly have time to consider the implications of one point, before we move on to the next one, until you wonder how much more will be loaded onto the ship before it sinks. Add to which, the play’s characters are just too lightweight to carry its heavyweight themes.

The play is entirely set in Tim Shortall’s naturalistic set which wonderfully recreates a kitchen in affluent Islington. Now, I know it’s not unusual for people at a party to gather in the kitchen, but there was meant to be an orgy taking place. That was through the door to the right. There was also a door to the left leading into the garden. A perfect set-up for a French farce, you might think. Think again. No, this is about what happens in the kitchen.

That’s where we meet all the couples. That’s where we learn about their relationships, and what happens when sexual permissiveness puts those relationships to the test. And that’s not the only trial these party-goers face.

 man and two women in conversation in a scene from the play The Sex Party at The Menier Theatre
Molly Osborne, Jason Merrells & Lisa Dwan in The Sex Party. Photo: Alistair Muir

So, couples start to arrive. The host Alex is friendly and organised but somewhat world-weary and dissatisfied- and reluctant to leave the kitchen. Jason Merrells is very good at portraying that point when a mature man is going from craggy to seedy. His much younger partner Hetty, played by Molly Osborne, is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and looking forward to lots of sex with lots of men. Jake and Gilly, played by John Hopkins and Lisa Dwan, are first timers and are there to watch and maybe have sex with each other, but not with anybody else. However, it seems Gilly is keener to experiment than uptight Jake, but she needs a lot of alcohol, as do most of the characters.

In an interview with Terry Johnson in the programme, he talks of the need to get a big laugh in early, so the audience knows it’s a ‘laughing audience’. The play succeeds in that respect when Gilly says that her safe words during sex are ‘Don’t stop’.

Other couples- and more very good actors- follow. Jeff is played by the great Timothy Hutton. What a coup to get this Oscar-winning film actor and splendid stage performer to make his London debut in this play. His character is , and Mr Hutton is magnificent in the role of a rich, right-wing American. He and his plain talking Russian wife Magdalena, played with a heavy accent by Amanda Ryan, are both experienced partygoers. The insults this couple throw at each other certainly liven up the evening, but then, insulting each other turns out to be par for the course for all the guests.

The final couple are Tim, high on drugs, and Camilla, an uptight radical feminist, played by Boris Johnson lookalike Will Barton and Kelly Price. I don’t think we ever find out what they have in common, except perhaps that he likes to be dominated and she likes to have the keys to the cage.

So, they’re there to take part in an orgy. But we’re not. It’s clear we’re not here to be titillated, nor to exploit these actors. There’s no sex going on in the kitchen: a little bit of kissing, but no other physical contact. And, whatever might be going on elsewhere, there’s no nudity. The women do wear lingerie, and two of the men bare their chests, but that’s the extent of it. This is a serious comedy.

A major problem with this play is that, with the possible exception of the host Alex, all these characters are caricatures. They all seem like they’re from a 1960s bedroom farce.  I suspect this is a deliberate ploy by Terry Johnson, so that our expectations can be eventually confounded. The difficulty is, when it seems like they’re only there for the laughs, it is extremely hard to believe in them, or their situations.

Act One seems to go round in circles, arriving again and again at the same question of will they, won’t they do whatever it is they are arguing about doing, or not doing.

An aggressive man is held back in a confrontation with a trans woman in a scene from the play The Sex Party
John Hopkins, Timothy Hutton, Kelly Price & Pooya Mohseni in The Sex Party. Photo: Alistair Muir

Then at the end of act one, the arrival of Lucy, a single person, changes everything, because Lucy is a trans woman. And to the great credit of the production, she is played by a trans woman Pooya Mohseni, who is an excellent actor and brings elegance and sensitivity to the role. So act two resumes with the gang cross-examining Lucy but soon the situation is reversed as the play explores the attitude of these heterosexual cis men and women’s toward sex with a trans woman. The limits of their liberal views are severely tested.

In that interview I mentioned, Mr Johnson says: ‘ Everyone is very careful now. I was full of resentment about it before I took this play on. But I’ve had to adjust to a whole new vocabulary and attitudes.’ Well, he certainly has. The play feels sanitised. Even innuendoes are given short shrift. I understand that many sexual jokes that once had people rolling in the aisles may now be considered offensive, but good comedy is grounded in the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be. I find it hard to believe that a largely middle-aged and often nervous set of people at a sex party wouldn’t have made the occasional double-entendre. Still, perhaps we should be thankful that we were spared the ‘thank you for coming’, ‘thank you for having me’ kind of humour.

I think The Sex Party could have worked well as a play, if it had been less concerned about causing offence, and if it hadn’t tried to shoehorn every gender and sexuality issue you can think of into its two-and-a-bit hours. I’m exaggerating, of course, but here are a few examples: a reference to trans women competing in women’s sport events is lobbed in and batted out within seconds; there’s an interesting but fleeting moment when it’s suggested that although the women appear to be enjoying the freedom of choosing their lovers, the men may still be calling the shots; someone reads out a list of the many genders we can identify with in our modern world that is so tedious, the play loses all momentum. By the time two more serious incidents occurred, instead of taking in the implications of them, I was wondering how much more would be stacked on and taken away from this Jenga of a play.

It also ties itself in knots. There’s a moment in the first act, a kind of precursor to the transgender debate of the second act, when it’s pointed out there are no black people at the party. I thought this could have been explored further but the play moved on, leaving me, at least, to ponder the irony that there are no black actors in the cast.

Every so often there were noises off in the form of loud bangs. I know it was probably a loose door but I couldn’t help wondering if it was the sound of so many half-baked ideas clunking to the floor.

The Sex Party can be seen at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 7 Jnuary 2023

Click here to watch this review on our YouTube channel Theatre Reviews With Paul Seven