Boys From The Blackstuff – review

James Graham brings Yosser Hughes to the stage


An bloodied male actor stands with his arms open in a scene from the stage prodcution of Boys From The Blackstuff at the Garrick Theatre Kondon
Barry Sloane in Boys From The Blackstuff. Photo: Alistair Muir

I wonder whether, in the normal way of things, James Graham, author of Dear England,  or any other contemporary dramatist, would write a stage play about some men in 1980s Liverpool who have lost their jobs and commit benefit fraud? Possibly not, but then, this is Boys From The Blackstuff, a TV legend from the early 80s. So, how does it translate onto the stage? And was it worth the effort?

I wonder if you have even seen the TV series by Alan Bleasdale? And if you have, how much do you remember of it? (You can catch up with it on BBC iPlayer.) If you’re a fan, you may enjoy this version as an exercise in nostalgia. However, because you might not know the incomparable five-part TV series by Alan Bleasdale, I’m not going to  compare this two hours and a bit play with it. Instead, I’ll consider whether it stands up as a theatrical drama in its own right.

The first act is very bitty. There’s far too much in the way of introductions and scene setting. We meet the five ‘boys’ but they appear in a series of fragmentary scenes. We don’t really get to know them.  Certainly not well enough to care about their fate, which is inevitably to be caught by the benefit fraud sniffers.

What kept my interest during the first act was the production itself- the varying pace of Kate Wasserberg‘s direction, encompassing rousing ensemble singing, fast-moving crowd scenes, and moments of still sadness; the rusty industrial set by Amy Jane Cook; the video by Jamie Jenkin of black and white images of 1980s Liverpool  projected at the back of the stage, so often returning to the swirling waters of the Mersey, which was the source of Liverpool’s glory years as a port.

But the docks are already in decline, our heroes are not dockers but roadworkers, or rather they were. We find out how they brought some of their problems on themselves, and there are many reasons, including greed and selfishness, why they don’t appear to deserve our sympathy. The emotional engagement only picks up when a tragedy occurs. The scene when someone falls from high up is performed in slow motion and immediately segues into a rainy funeral. It’s a wonderfully theatrical moment.

‘I am a human being’

The second act is altogether more involving as drama. The narrative brings the main characters into focus. Chrissie, played to perfection by Nathan McMullen, is the ‘nice’ guy who tries to be their leader and faces a conflict between principles and practical need. Philip Whitchurch as George, their mentor, brings passion and compassion to the part of an old, dying man. Aron Julius is the restless Loggo, and Mark Womack plays the dignified Dixie, dragged down by his situation.  And then, of course, there is Yosser. Even if you’ve only vaguely heard of  Boys From The Blackstuff, you will probably be aware of Yosser Hughes and his catchphrases ‘Gissa job’ and ‘I can do that’. In the first act, he is comic relief. In the second, we get to see the depth of his mental illness. It is a monumental performance by Barry Sloane that conveys every inch of Yosser’s anger and pain. These are all men for whom life has not turned out as expected and who are struggling to find their self respect in a world that has rejected and persecuted them. ‘I am a human being,’ cries an anguished Yosser.

The cast of Boys From The Blackstuff. Photo: Alistair Muir

But it’s not all anger and pain. There is considerable humour. In a scene that had me laughing out loud, Chrissie’s wife Angie, played by Lauren O’Neill (who is outstanding in multiple roles) pretends not be home, and crawls back and forth on her knees, talking through the front and back doors to callers as well as answering the telephone. Just as comically tragic is Yosser’s meeting with the priests from the Catholic and Protestant churches, at either end of the ironically named Hope Street. Both conversations are an indictment of established religion. Seeing a similarity between free will and free markets, he says, ‘So God’s a tory.’  And, when the friendly Father says ‘Call me Dan’, he speaks the much-anticipated line ‘I’m desperate, Dan’.

The rest of the cast are faultless, and take on a number of roles but I’ll make particular mention of Dominic Carter who plays theshady builder Molloy and Jamie Peacock as the hapless benefit fraud investigator.

An article in the excellent programme talks about the ‘current political parallels’ but they are not always easy to grasp. It’s not that the plight of many working class people under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government wasn’t tragic. Traditional industries were decimated in her relentless battle against the unions, and the lives of the people employed in them destroyed. It’s just that it’s a long time ago. There is still the gap between rich and poor, maybe even getting greater, and benefit cheats are still demonised while corporation tax evaders are virtually ignored. I imagine the modern day equivalents of those Boys from the Blackstuff being employed in low wage and zero hours jobs fulfilling our orders in vast warehouses or delivering takeaways on bikes to our homes, as part of a non-unionised service economy.

Perhaps it’s in the treatment of people who need help not demonisation that the stories most resonate today. Sadly the play tries to cram too many stories into the time available.  As a result, we lose some of the sympathy that we might otherwise have felt for these lost boys, had we had the chance to get to know them better. Nevertheless, it is a powerful drama, extraordinarily well acted.

Boys From The Blackstuff opened at Liverpool’s Royal Court, before transferring to the National Theatre, and then the Garrick where it can be seen until 3 August 2024. Tickets are available from

Paul was given a review ticket by the producers.

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Two Strangers (carry a cake across New York)

New British musical is an old-fashioned romcom


Two actors in evening dress high kick in a scene from Two Strangers carry a cake across New York at the Criterion Theatre in London
Sam Tutty and Dujonna Gift in Two Strangers. Photo: Tristram Kenton

If you’re a fan of romcoms, I think you’ll like this sweet- but not saccharine- musical comedy. Two Strangers (carry a cake aross New York), and this is not a spoiler, is set in New York, but it feels very British. A naive British man and a cynical female New Yorker meet because of a wedding. Think Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings And A Funeral. In fact, if anyone is planning a remake, Sam Tutty would be a shoe-in for Mr Grant, and Dujonna Gift would be a blooming sight better than the insipid Ms MacDowell.

It begins with a naive British man who only knows America through the movies meeting a cynical female New Yorker, because of a wedding. He is the son of the groom, she the sister of the bride. They are the ‘two strangers’. As for the cake, well, that is what Alfred Hitchcock and other filmmakers used to call a McGuffin, in other words a device, unimportant in itself, but vital to moving on the plot.
What Kit Buchan’s amusing script is really concerned with is their burgeoning relationship with each other and, perhaps even more importantly, the two characters discovering themselves. There are a few twists which, frankly, you might see coming from a long way off but the ending helps keep the show from being completely predictable.
Two Strangers has the comforting feel of the kind of musical that Cole Porter or the Gershwins were so good at, and the musical style also reminds one of that bygone era. But let’s not get carried away- while Kit Buchan provides some clever lyrics and Jim Barne‘s compositions range from smoochy to stirring, they are not the Gershwins. There isn’t a showstopper in sight. In fact, I didn’t come out humming even one bar of any of the songs.

Sam Tutty and Dujonna Gift are the top

Nevertheless, Two Strangers is an enjoyable musical comedy with an appealing mix of jollity and pathos. It would be easy for these two slightly clichéd characters to have grated but the two actors, who are actually both British, are very good. There seemed to be more affection than chemistry between them but both are charming, funny and have pleasant voices: his nice and easy, hers powerful. Sam Tutty, who has already made a name for himself in Evan Hansen, establishes a good rapport with the audience, thanks partly to his particular skill at using his facial expressions to comic effect. Dujonna Gift conveys strength that hides vulnerability.
Sam Tutty and Dujonna Gift in Two Strangers. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Tim Jackson directs and choreographs with a light comical touch.  Soutra Gilmour’s set may be low budget but it’s clever. Two piles of suitcases which set the scene for the opening meet-cute at the airport, also suggest the towers of New York. Specific elements of it adapt for the later scenes, becoming cupboards, tables, and so on.  A revolve mimics a luggage carousel but also keeps the show moving, literally, by bringing the characters together and pulling them apart.

Since its premiere in Ipswich nearly five years ago, and its re-launch at London’s Kiln Theatre, Two Strangers has come on leaps and bounds. It certainly deserves its run in the West End at The Criterion. For me, it didn’t quite reach the heights of great musical comedy but it is a good romcom that will leave you with a smile on your face.

Two Strangers (carry a cake across New York) can be seen at the Criterion Theatre until 31 August 2024. Tickets from

Paul paid for his ticket.

Click here to find out what other reviewers said about Two Strangers, its average rating, and its Value Rating.

Ben Whishaw in Bluets – Royal Court Theatre

Bluets is a dream of a show

Ben Whishaw in Bluets at the Royal Court. Photo: Camilla Greenwood

Bluets is not a theatre show, it’s an unusual hybrid of stage and screen. It certainly won’t appeal to everyone, particularly those who love pure theatre. On the plus side, it’s not like far too many recent gimmicky stage productions where video is used to provide close-ups or scenes of what’s happening off-stage. Normally I would avoid that sort of thing, but this is something special.

It’s the making of a film, live, with the actors reciting words from Maggie Nelson’s book Bluets, while carrying out actions that are projected on a large screen. I admit this sounds more like something you might see at Tate Modern, and without the presence of Ben Whishaw, maybe it wouldn’t have made it to the stage of the Jerwood Downstairs theatre at the Royal Court. Having said that, director Katie Mitchell does have a long and distinguished record of creating what she calls ‘live cinema’. But, if it does sound strange, or even off-putting to you, I can only say I found Bluets both fascinating and deeply moving.

Let’s start with the words. After all, it is based on a book of what could be called short prose-poems, in which Maggie Nelson describes and meditates on three recurring themes- the effect of and gradual recovery from the breakup of a relationship, a close friend’s reaction to becoming a quadriplegic, and her fascination with the colour blue, which is genuinely interesting.
Kayla Meikle in Bluets. Photo: Camilla Greenwood

The language- its rhythms and metaphors- is poetic and moving. It’s also quite funny in a self-deprecating way. For example, she is excited to come across a book called Deepest Blue (I think) in a bookshop, only to find it’s about depression. She hastily puts it back, only to tell us she bought it six months later – pause- ‘online’.

Ben Whishaw will have sold many of the tickets and he does deliver, with a sad voice and a twinkling eye, but so do the other two actors Emma D’Arcy and Kayla Meikle. The trio sit in a row, sharing the lines, so that the words are delivered almost staccato by their alternating voices. The effect is to make you concentrate and hear every word. I found that the varied voices and personas made the author and her highly personal subject matter seem more universal.
Emma D’Arcy in Bluets at the Royal Court Theatre. Photo: Camilla Greenwood

Then there is the videoing. Each actor has a table next to them, a camera in front of them, and a monitor behind them. The film, shown on a big screen above them, illustrates what is being said. The actors sometimes stand in front of the monitors, as if they are green screens, and this, thanks to superb lighting by Anthony Doran, converts onto the large screen as them seeming to walk down a street, drive a car, or dry their hair in a changing room. Often, the actors’ heads or hands are viewed in close-up as they rest on a pillow, or touch each other, or handle blue objects. It is an extraordinary experience to watch them talk and move, sometimes in synch, and then see this, combined with some pre-recorded moments, become a movie before one’s eyes.

Cinema, which is usually immutable, becomes a live performance. The way it can change in small ways from night to night suggested to me the way our mental lives -feelings, memories, dreams- change with each circumstance and in each moment. The live video is a masterpiece in coordination, designed by Ellie Thompson and directed by Grant Gee.
The adaptation of Maggie Nelson’s book by Margaret Perry is a fine work in itself, and the soundtrack by Paul Clark, which mixes music, nature and street sounds, is as disturbing and reflective as the language.
Bluets is only 70 minutes long but it has the timeless quality of a dream or a memory.
This is the opening production of the first season by the Royal Court’s new artistic director David Byrne. After a lacklustre period under Vicky Featherstone, when I all but stopped going to the Royal Court, I am now looking forward to some exciting times ahead.
Bluets can be seen at the Royal Court until 29 June 2024
Paul was given a review ticket.

Machinal – Old Vic – review

A visceral performance from Rosie Sheehy in Sophie Treadwell’s classic expressionist drama


A woman sits in a chair surrounded by lawyers, reporters and with a judge behiund her in a scene from Machinal at the Old Vic
Rosie Sheehan in Machinal at Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Machinal was written in 1928 by Sophie Treadwell who based her expressionist play on a recent true crime story of a woman who had murdered her husband. In this review, I’ll try to define expressionist theatre and describe a  performance that could be the launch of a stellar career.

But let’s start with the title. In recent years it has tended to be pronounced ‘MaSHinal’. The logic is that it’s a French word and that’s how the French pronounce it. However, the word means ‘mechanical’ so there is a logic to pronouncing it ‘MaCKinal’, if you want to convey the theme of a play in which a woman is crushed by a mechanised, soulless society. Indeed, that’s how it was pronounced during the original Broadway production back in 1928. Add to that, the current lead Rosie Sheehy says that’s how it’s pronounced, and since she is what turns this production from good to great, I would be happy to accept that. Except… the playwright Sophie Treadwell said it should be pronounced ‘MaSHinal’. And given that the play shows a woman being marginalised and ignored, it seems wrong to do that to the author. So, with due respect to Rosie Sheehy, I’m sticking with with ‘MaSHinal’.

Machinal tells the story of a young woman- named only at the end- who feels trapped by society, is repelled by what goes in around her, and is consistently betrayed by men. We see her feeling claustrophobic on a crowded train, in an office where she is struggling as a typist and mocked for her lateness by her colleagues, at odds with her unsupportive mother played by Buffy Davis, unhappily at home with her repulsive husband- a slimy businessman played by Tim Frances. Then, she is liberated by an affair. After that, there is no going back, and she frees herself from her husband- and stop reading now if you don’t want a spoiler, although I think it is expected by all involved that you will know she goes on to kill her husband- and is then tried by judge, jurors and lawyers who are all men.

All this is told as a piece of expressionist theatre. Expressionism is in many ways defined by what it’s not. What it is not is naturalistic or realistic- the dialogue, the acting, the sound, the whole production combine to evoke a visceral reaction from the audience. Of course, naturalistic theatre can evince an emotional response but that comes from our observation and identification with the drama.

A gripping production

A woman in a striped dress sits in a cage in a scene from Machinal at the Old Vic
Rosie Sheehan in Machinal. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Sophie Treadwell divides her play into nine scenes, although Richard Jones‘ production, which originated at the Theatre Royal Bath, adds an opening scene in which the Young Woman is entrapped on a train. Each scene has a generic title that is raised above the set, like ‘At Business’ or ‘Law’. While everyone else is sharp suited , wearing black or grey, and moving with precision, Rosie Sheehan’s character is sweaty and clad in an ill-fitting blue dress. She too doesn’t fit. She’s not even comfortable in her own body, moving jerkily and nervously. While not actually shy, when she speaks, she is often inarticulate and stuttering as she tries to express her need for freedom.

The machine-like life around her, driven by industrial capitalism, is shown, not only by the way people look, but by the way they move mechanically, and talk in repetitive language. The set, designed by Hyemi Shin, is a bright, sickly mustard yellow that forms a triangle on the stage with the apex at the centre back, reinforcing the idea of being trapped. The blank walls at times accommodate doors and apparent windows. Props are wheeled on and off.

Sound, designed by Benjamin Grant, is often sharp, discordant and industrial, setting us on edge- for example, a pneumatic drill accompanies the woman giving birth- although sometimes there is the more comforting sound of a spiritual. Adam Silverman‘s lighting design is stark, sometimes strobe, and on a couple of occasions disconcertingly pitch black. One of those times is the moment she experiences sexual ecstasy with her lover played by Pierro Niel-Mee. Significantly, this and other key transformative moments in the woman’s life are not actually shown, which means we are not distracted from the way she is abused and crushed by the men who rule her life and society as a whole.

It occurred to me that the scenes are almost like the Stations of the Cross which depict Jesus heading for his crucifixion.

We don’t gain a lot of insight into the woman’s character. Although a modern audience might suspect she has mental issues of some kind, she is deliberately portrayed as quite ordinary, boring even. She is an Everywoman. The play doesn’t excuse her actions but it does explain the pressures that led her in the direction she took. What is great about Machinal and Rosie Sheehy‘s anguished performance is that we experience at a molecular level the woman being torn apart. Yes, there are moments when it becomes melodramatic, but the one hour and 50 minutes, without interval, fly by in this gripping production.

Coincidentally, there is a new exhibition at Tate Modern which looks at a group of expressionist artists from the early 1900s called Blue Rider that included Wassily Kandinsky, Gabriele Münter and Marianne Werefkin. Incidentally, given the feminist standpoint of Machinal, it’s interesting that Blue Rider included and respected female artists, which wasn’t the case with Sophie Treadwell working in theatre. The exhibition is well worth a visit, and the range of work, from the clearly representational to virtually abstract, shows that the common feature of expressionism is an attempt to use shape and colour to convey the feeling of a person or place, rather than the more visually accurate observations made by their predecessors, such as the Impressionists. There are times when you enter a room, it feels like the paint has been thrown in your face.

Machinal is at the Old Vic until 1 June 2024. Click to buy tickets direct from the theatre

Paul was given a review ticket by the theatre.

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

Read a roundup of other critics’ reviews of Machinal, their average rating and the show’s Value Rating here.


Much Ado About Nothing – Watermill – Review

Shakespeare’s supreme comedy is slapstick fun


Two actors playing Benedick and Beatrice wearing masked ball disguises in the Watermill production of Much Ado About Nothing
James Mack and Katherine Jack in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo: Pamela Raith

Much Ado About Nothing is my favourite Shakespeare comedy. I’ve seen many productions, so believe me when I say that, if you’re in the Newbury area, The Watermill’s new slapstick version is well worth your time.​

The play has two, maybe three plot strands. There is a comic romance between Benedick and Beatrice which is probably as perfect as any ever written. Parallel to that, there is a more ‘serious’ relationship between Benedick’s friend Claudio and Beatrice’s cousin Hero. There’s also a lot of funny business involving the Night Watch having knowledge of a crime but being so pompous and stupid as to not recognise the significance of the evidence they have.
The ‘Nothing’ in question is not simply as we understand the word today. In Shakepseare’s time the word noting sounded the same as nothing and related to observation. So the two romances hinge on hoaxes in which the lovers observe false reporting. In the comical thread, Benedick and Beatrice, who spend the early part of the play covering their feelings by insulting one another, are brought together; but there are terrible consequences when Claudio is led to believe Hero has been unfaithful.
The former is the highlight of the evening, with Benedick and Beatrice in turn hiding, while their friends pretend they don’t know they’re there. The adaptor Tom Wentworth and director Paul Hart have chosen to emphasise the comedy of this to the point of slapstick. This is overdone at times but mostly it makes for an amusing evening, especially since James Mack as Bendick is superb at physical comedy. He has a cheeky smile when he delivers his barbs against Beatrice, and he submits his body to numerous indignities, not least having his face daubed with blue paint.
We get a double dose of farce in this production, as there already much built-in silliness in the form of Dogberry, the man in charge of the Night Watch, whose self importance and misuse of language (‘O villain! thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this’) is always a joy. Hayden Wood uses his rubbery face and lanky stature to great comic effect.  He even includes a comedy routine for those who stay in the auditorium during the interval, followed by humorous interaction with members of the audience.
Something is lost in this concentration on farce. Augustina Seymour playing Don John, who conducts the plot against Hero, is given little opportunity to establish her malevolence, and we don’t gain enough insight into why Claudio, played by Fred Double,  goes from being head over heels in love with Hero (Thuliswa Magwaza) to turning against her so easily, when his love is tested.
His failure needs to be given proper weight, to make all the more moving Benedick’s reaction when his love for Beatrice is tested.

Beautiful speech and sublime singing

 Shakespeare takes great joy in Benedick and Beatrice’s language, both their witty insults and their heartfelt romance, and I was pleased to hear James Mack and Katherine Jack speaking the words beautifully.
Priscille Grace in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo: Pamela Raith

The production is set in 1940s Hollywood, which is a mixed blessing. Designer Ceci Calf does miracles in fitting onto The Watermill’s small stage so many props and flats to help the comedy and suggest film sets, but not enough is done to conjure up the glamour of the period. That’s left to the gorgeous costumes. More of a problem is the lack of clarity about exactly how what you might call the ‘real life’ scenes were supposed to integrate with scenes that were apparently being filmed for a movie. Dogs have had more coherent dinners.

Still, the setting was worth it, if only because if provided the opportunity to weave in some songs from the 40s like When I Fall In Love, It Had To Be You and I Can’t Give You Anything But Love. As is traditional in Watermill productions, the actors play instruments but, in this case, nearly all the singing is done by Priscille Grace. Her sublime phrasing and the range of her voice are so good that I felt a frisson of excitement every time she approached the microphone.
Even if this production doesn’t quite do justice to depth of Shakespeare’s play, it is an enjoyable evening’s entertainment. I thoroughly recommend Much Ado About Nothing at The Watermill.
Much Ado About Nothing can be seen at The Watermill until 18 May 2024
Paul was given a review ticket by the theatre.
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Underdog: The Other Other Brontë – National Theatre- Review

Gemma Whelan is a winner in this romp through the lives of the Brontes


Three actors Adele James, Gemma Whelan and Rhiannon Clements gather round to read a letter in a scene from Underdog: The Othe Other Bronte at the National Theatre
Adele James, Gemma Whelan, Rhiannon Clements in Underdog_ The Other Other Brontë. Photo: Isha Shah

It might be better if you know nothing about the Brontës and simply watch Sarah Gordon’s play Underdog as a portrait of the competition and mutual support that often co-exist among sisters, and of the challenges of being a female novelist in early Victorian times. If you do know a bit about them, you may be annoyed at the liberties taken by this interpretation of their relationship. On the other hand, like me, you may find it jolly good fun. It certainly gains from having the mightily talented Gemma Whelan as Charlotte Brontë.

Let’s start with Ms Whelan.  It’s only right, since she begins the play. She enters through the auditorium, chatting to audience members about the Brontë novels. Unexpectedly, for the author of one of those ‘dour’ books, she’s wearing a bright red dress. She goes up on stage and explains that we are going to hear her story.

As promised, Gemma Whelan and her character dominate the whole evening. She is cocky and nervous, knowing and naive, likeable and unpleasant, and very funny. Supported by Natalie Ibu’s sharp and speedy direction, she holds us- and her sisters- in her grip throughout the evening.

This is a good point to tell you about the set. I know we don’t buy tickets to see the design but Grace Smart’s is impressive. At the beginning, there is a thick carpet of moorland gorse and heather. Almost as soon as Charlotte has mounted the stage, this flies upwards until all we can see is the mass of brown roots underneath. Three black walls are revealed that, combined with the ceiling, represent wonderfully the claustrophobia and earthiness so often associated with the Brontë sisters.

One nice touch is the use of a revolve to indicate more frantic activity, or at the start of act two the long slow coach journey to London, complete with theatrical coconut shells clip-clopping. The set has one more surprise at the end of the play when the back opens up to indicate that Charlotte and the other Brontes are nowadays known to the whole world.

The Other Other Brontë of the title is not the middle sister Emily, who wrote Wuthering Heights. Emily’s character isn’t explored so deeply as the other two but then she was the most keen to preserve her anonymity and she died young. So less is known about her. That doesn’t stop Adele James making a good fist of playing a middle sister who challenges the elder and defends the younger.

No, the other other Brontë is the youngest sister Anne who wrote the less well known Agnes Grey and The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall. Anne is played by Rhiannon Clements with an excellent combination of inner strength and outer submissiveness.

The play suggests Charlotte was jealous of Anne’s talent, that she stole the premise of Agnes Grey for her own novel Jane Eyre, and that Anne let her eldest sister walk all over her. Charlotte waivers between undermining her youngest sister and giving her love and support. In fact, this is the greatest joy of Underdog, the way in which many sisters close in age are both competitive and supportive. (This subject has become almost a theme at the National lately, with the great Till The Stars Come Down, The House of Bernarda Alba and Dancing At Lughnasa all featuring sisterly rivalry and solidarity.)

There is a scene, where Charlotte confident of her work but not of her looks, is welcomed into London’s literary grandees’ club (shown as a kind of disco- just one of many amusing anachronisms). On a high because her talent has been recognised, she shrugs off Anne’s concerns. But when she is insulted for her lack of femininity, she turns desperately to her sisters for reassurance.
By the way, the sisters’ ‘coarseness’, which at that time was how many perceived their writing and therefore the women themselves, is given substance in the play by their use of modern expressions and a huge amount of swearing, all to great comic effect.

Liberty-taking, laughter-inducing

Gemma Whelan in Underdog. Photo: Isha Shah

Here’s some of the historical background.  Back in the first half of the 19th century, women novelists were expected to write romances set in polite society. It was unacceptable to many critics that novels that involved class discrimination, male violence, substance abuse and more, as the Brontes’ did, could be written, or read, by women. Therefore, all three sisters submitted their first novels to publishers under male pseudonyms, something Charlotte and Anne were keen to give up, but which Emily clung to.
Charlotte outlived her younger sisters. After their deaths, she did stop a reprint of Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, despite its success. She also seems to have been the most determined among the three to gain respect in literary society, and worked with Elizabeth Gaskell to this end.

Sarah Gordon uses these facts to support a thesis that Charlotte was ambitious and competitive, while the other two were not, and that Charlotte pushed her own work at their expense. The reality may be different, but let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good story. And it is a good story, full of comedy and a little pathos, and some interesting ideas.

The many other parts are played by a small group of men, including Nick Blakeley as a snooty Elizabeth Gaskell, Julian Moore-Cook as the slimy publisher George Smith and James Phoon as the the Brontes’ troubled alcoholic brother Branwell.

Underdog is primarily about three sisters, and 19th century attitudes to women, but there is an undertow that questions how what we know or think we know about artists influences our appreciation of their art. However, apart from the boisterous relationship of the sisters, everything else is touched on lightly, and the main emphasis is on fun. Which it is.

Underdog can be seen at the National Theatre’s Dorfman studio until 25 May 2024 and then at Northern Stage in Newcastle Upon Tyne (7 to 22 June).
Paul was given a review ticket by the theatre

Watch this review on the YouTube channel Theatre Reviews With Paul Seven

Michael Sheen in Nye – review

Michael Sheen’s titanic tribute to founder of NHS

A scene from Nye at the National Theatre London in which actor Michael Sheen is lying on a hospital bed with actors Roger Evans and Sharon Small standing either side of him
Roger Evans, Michael Sheen and Sharon Small in Nye. Photo: Johan Persson

A man is dying in a hospital bed. He is flanked by his wife and his oldest friend. Heavily sedated with pain killing morphine, his brain takes him back to significant episodes in his life. And what a life. Because this Aneurin Bevan known as Nye who spearheaded the foundation of the National Health Service.

In the course of the evening, while we do learn something about how the service came into being, much more to the point we discover why it was so important to this man and what made him into one of the Labour Party’s most powerful figures.
Playwright Tim Price’s concept is superb. For the entire play, Nye is on stage in his pyjamas and often in his hospital bed. This may remind you of Dennis Potter’s TV drama The Singing Detective, and there is even a sequence in which Nye sings Get Happy to the backing of a brass band. Whatever the inspiration, it’s a highly effective device.
It may be fair to say that, because of the constant presence of Nye, the production would not succeed without an actor of exceptional brilliance in the role. Fortunately, in Michael Sheen, it has one. He never overplays the part, tempting as it must be when portraying one of the twentieth century’s great orators. Nye himself may have had a huge ego, he may have been disloyal, and these characteristics are hinted at, but what we are given by Michael Sheen is a man scared by his present condition and wondering desperately whether his life has been worthwhile. It is a magnetic and moving performance.
A scene from Nye at the National Theatre in London in which Michael Sheen in pyjamas with a book in his hand is being held up by other cast members
Michael Sheen and the cast of Nye. Photo: Johan Persson

Vicki Mortimer’s clever set uses green hospital-style curtains to open to reveal a whole ward of beds, and close to provide the intimacy of a single room. The beds and curtains also move around to create a schoolroom, the House of Commons, a library, the local council chamber and a parliamentary tea room. A low ceiling from which hang the lights emphasises depth and human scale. The lighting designed by Paule Constable enhances each scene: flat fluorescent for the ward, green laser for the coal face, and so on.

So, we encounter Nye bullied by a teacher because his stammer, and receiving solidarity from his friends including his lifelong friend Archie Lush, given a solid portrayal by Roger Evans, and it’s he who helps him overcome his stammer by introducing him to the miners’ free library where he learns alternatives that avoid the traps of words beginning with ‘s’. And of course, it’s his wide vocabulary that helps him become one of the great orators of his time.
We see how he organises the mine workers in his home town Tredegar. How he was a lone and unpopular voice opposing that other great orator WinstonChurchill during World War Two. Tony Jayawardena giving a very amusing version of the wartime leader as a charming persuader, symbolically dancing light on his feet.
In the post-War Labour government, Nye becomes Health Minister and forces through the National Health Service against considerable opposition both from within his own party (a egocentric patronising Herbert Morrisson is played by Jon Furlong) and from the doctors. He sues tactics learned from his youth, his brief time in the mines and his time in local politics, as well his power of persuasion. Although in the end the doctors are brought round by throwing a lot of money at them. The use of a stark black-and-white video created by Jon Driscoll is hugely effective. First it shows the myriad challenges facing the new universal health service and overwhelming Nye, especially when people step out of the screen to tell their personal story. Then it shows the faces of the doctors harsh, greedy and recalcitrant.
On a personal front, we learn how his poetry-loving mineworker father who died from coal dust in the lungs influenced him. And how he met and wooed his wife and fellow MP Jenny Lee. Sharon Small is wonderful as the far left feminist, sharp of mind and tongue.

A worthy swansong for Rufus Norris

There are elements of a history lesson, but ultimately this is the story of a man and his mission. It is told with humour and compassion. Director Rufus Norris, in his last production as Artistic Director of the National Theatre, uses the stage to the full, creating a feel that is both epic and intimate. There are complex scenes choreographed by Steven Hogget and Jess Williams, there are small moments of passion and poignancy.
Now, you can say, as some critics have, that the other characters have little depth, and that may be true but this is a play about Nye Bevan. You may even say that it is not a full picture of him or the full story of the formation of the NHS. That may also be true, but why expect it to be something that it doesn’t claim to be? What we are given are the episodes that stand out in a life as remembered by a dying man.
When death finally arrives, he asks plaintively: ‘Did I look after everyone?’ It is a moment that brought tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat, and I was not alone. Tears for the loss of someone who we have come to care about, and maybe also for a health service that was started with such high ideals.
Nye is at the National Theatre until 11 May, after which it will transfer to Wales Millennium Centre from 18 May to 1 June. There will also be a National Theatre Live broadcast in cinemas from 23 April.
Coincidentally on the same day as I saw Nye, I also watched The Human Body at the Donmar Warehouse in which Keeley Hawes as a local GP and Labour politician is involved in ushering in the NHS at local level while having a Brief Encounter-ish affair with a film star played by Jack Davenport. If you’d like to know what I thought of it, click here.

Keeley Hawes in The Human Body – review

Keeley Hawes and Jack Davenport rise above a messy play

Actors Keeley Hawes and Jack Davenport hold each other with a camera operator in the backgound in a scene from stage play The Human Body by Lucy Kirkwood at the Donmar Warehouse
Keeley Hawes and Jack Davenport in The Human Body. Photo: Marc Brenner

The Human Body at the Donmar Warehouse in London tells the story of a middle-aged love affair to the background of the birth of the NHS.

Lucy Kirkwood‘s inspiration is Brief Encounter and other British films of the immediate postwar era that looked at women in a changing society. To hammer the point home, there are multiple occasions in the production when the action is videoed and shown on the back wall as a black-and-white film. Video has been used quite a bit in theatre productions recently, notably in Ivo von Hove‘s  A Little Life and The Picture of Dorian Gray, but Ivo von Hove this isn’t. For me, the filming was a distraction, not a reinforcement, made worse, much worse, by having cameras and camera operators on stage, getting in the way, and killing the moment.
Maybe Lucy Kirkwood and the directors Michael Longhurst and Ann  Lee meant us to be alienated so that, rather get too tied up in the love story, we could observe from a distance the parallels between the revolution in health care and women’s desire to abandon pre-war traditional behaviour.
The argument for universal health care is strongly made, the case for an affair between a rising politician and a fading movie star more uncertain. She rarely goes to the cinema and he is disinterested in politics, albeit able to quote Charlie Chaplin’s inspiring anti-fascist speech from The Great Dictator. Perhaps part of the attraction lies in each being outside the other’s world.
There is certainly a physical attraction between the two- the dice are definitely loaded by having them played by Keeley Hawes and Jack Davenport–  and they do have in common that both are unhappy in their marriages, but, as in Brief Encounter, good old fashioned guilt and duty threaten to pull them apart. The echoes of the film are many but with some crucial changes. She, not he, is the GP. Both have greater reasons than a simple morality to stick with their spouses. And the sense of guilt and duty, in her case, extends beyond her family to take in the Party and her patients. The physical consummation of their affair is more satisfactory, shall we say, than in Brief Encounter.
Lucy Kirkwood’s dialogue is touching, heartfelt and funny and it’s an absorbing ‘will she, won’t she’ story. Ben and Max Ringham‘s score works well, sounding more like the tense background to a 1940s thriller than the stirring Rachmaninov piano notes of Brief Encounter. If only the production was as fast or exciting as the music.
Keeley Hawes plays a multi-tasking modern woman, not only a GP and would-be Labour MP, but also a wife and mother. Her husband has been disabled when fighting in the war. So, whether to save her marriage is just one of many choices she has to make. This makes the story more interesting as well as giving Ms Hawes many opportunities to display a middle-class stiff upper lip hiding a volcano of emotions.   Often, when containing her feelings, she adopts a tight smile, but when she laughs, it’s as if an extra light shines on the stage. Her speech in favour of the new socialism and an end to Victorian values was so passionate, it actually received a round of applause from the audience. At all times, she commands the stage.
Admittedly, she is probably too glamorous for the ordinary woman she is meant to be. In fact, there is an unintentional moment of humour when her husband says ‘I hate your body’. There were audible intakes of breath from some people in the audience on the night I was there, as if they couldn’t believe anyone would reject the immaculate Keeley Hawes.

Top Class Cast

Tom Goodman-Hill, Siobhan Redmond & Pearl Mackie in The Human Body. Photo: Mar Brenner

All the actors are top class. Jack Davenport was full of self deprecating charm as a gone-to-seed film star. Siobhan Redmond, Pearl Mackie and Tom Goodman-Hill excel in multiple parts. Thank goodness, because they save the evening.

I can’t help feeling this play was not designed for the Donmar. Fly Davis‘ mainly dark blue set design with a revolve creates a sense of the monochrome austerity of the late 1940s and, with the audience on three sides, she wisely keeps the props to a minimum. However, unless you sit in the centre block of seats, your view of the high-up screen will inevitably be partially obscured. Much more detrimental than this, though, are the many scene changes which should have been fast moving and fluid but are slowed down by mobile props- tables, chairs and so on- being trundled on and off the empty stage via the aisles in the auditorium. Worse than the time this consumed in an already overlong play is the distracting noise of the wheels and of technicians whispering into headsets.
Earlier in the day, across the river at the National, I had seen Nye, the epic story of the Labour politician who was the driving force behind the creation of the NHS. The Human Body might have been a counterpoint, offering a microcosm about the creation of the health service at a local level. Instead, while strands of the story do offer insights into the struggles within the Labour Party, and the resistance of the medical profession and the need for free healthcare, these are not the focal point. However, along with the other distractions, they are enough to take the focus away from the conflicted love affair.
The Human Body is at Donmar Warehouse, London, until 13 April. Click here to buy tickets directly from the theatre.
Paul paid for his ticket

Richard Hawley & Chris Bush’s Standing At The Sky’s Edge – Gillian Lynne Theatre – Review

Sheffield high-rise musical hits the heights


Standing At The Sky’s Edge. Photo: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

With a book written by Chris Bush and music by Richard Hawley, both born in Sheffield, and direction by Robert Hastie, who is the Artistic Director of the city’s Crucible theatre where it began life, Standing At The Sky’s Edge is Made In Sheffield, just as much as the steel for which the city was famous. Yet it has a universal appeal, as shown by its the National Theatre and now to the West End.

Starting in 1961 and spanning nearly sixty years, the musical tells the story of three families who at separate times live in a high-rise flat in the huge Sheffield housing estate called Park Hill. Their narratives later intersect but initially it seems like a portrait of three discrete times adding up to a history of modern Britain. There’s the socialist optimism following the second world war; the decimation of industrial Britain and the destruction of working-class communities during the Thatcher years (Act One concludes with a shocking riot to the tune of There’s A Storm A-Coming); and today’s liberal-minded but materialistic services economy. I assume Chris Bush leans to the left but she wears her socialism lightly.

They all have their histories, their tragedies, and most of all their love stories. A neon sign says ‘I love you Will u marry me’ replicating the real sign on the flats which itself was based on a famous piece of graffiti.

The main interest is in characters who try to make the best of their situations, even if some fall through the cracks. Her dialogue flows as smoothly as the River Sheaf.

The musical begins with a traditional British working-class couple moving in, thrilled to have all mod cons. Rachael Wooding as Rose is excellent as she goes from excited young wife to strong partner when her husband loses his job following the steelworks closures and to a weary acceptance when life often doesn’t work out as expected, exemplified in her heart breaking rendition of After The Rain. Her husband Harry, played by Joel Harper-Jackson, makes a journey too, starting as a confident provider, then falling apart as so many proud working-class men did without a job to give meaning to their lives.

Next, as the estate becomes run down, we see the arrival of immigrant refugees.  Joy has been brought by her aunt and uncle from Liberia to the safety of Sheffield. Played by   Elizabeth Ayodele, she undergoes a transformation as she rebels against the values of the old country and adopts the culture of Sheffield, including a change in accent.

Finally, we meet Poppy, perhaps the one with whom we will feel the most in common. She’s a marketing person from London who has headed north to get over a broken relationship. Although she has the least dramatic story, mainly relying on jokes about today’s middle class lifestyle, it’s hard not to be touched by Laura Pitt-Pulford as she conveys Poppy’s desire to be part of a community.  Lauryn Redding as her desperate ex belts out a rousing version of Open Up Your Door.

Laura Pitt-Pulford, Elizabeth Ayodele and Rachael Wooding in Standing at the Sky’s Edge. Photo: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg.

Chris Bush’s witty, angry and moving script finds parallels in the different eras, so that all three families eventually appear on the stage at the same time, their conversations overlapping. It’s a real sense of how a building retains its history and a way to see how much ostensibly different people can have in common. It reminded me of some of Alan Aykbourn’s experiments in presenting more than one narrative simultaneously on stage. The disadvantage of this approach is that it’s harder to become involved with individual stories.

The selection of Richard Hawley’s poetic songs creates an impressive soundtrack for a rock musical but there is plenty of variation in style. A blistering bluesy version of the title number opens Act Two.  The many excellent songs, angry, poignant or passionate, augment what’s happening on stage and are wonderfully performed but inevitably they seem too often as if they have been tacked on to the story rather than integral to it, like the blistering bluesy version of the title number that opens Act Two.

Robert Hastie moves these various narratives deftly around the set and at tiumes has the whoile cast of over thirty players interweaving on stage. Lynn Page’s clever choreography at times had the cast moving in a rhythmical walking motion and swaying embraces, uniting different times, generations and classes.

Ben Stone’s set is magnificent, filling the stage with a three storey section of a building with the features of a Park Hill high rise. The main action takes place on a basic but sufficient representation of a flat while the upper two floors are occupied by a large band. The flat apparently offers a glorious view of Sheffield but for us it is down-to-earth.

Standing at the Sky’s Edge is an excellent musical that not only has much to say but says it from the heart. It deserves a long life in the West End.

Standing At Sky’s Edge continues at Gillian Lynne Theatre until 3 August 2024.

Click here to buy tickets directly.

Paul was given a review ticket by the producer.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

Ralph Fiennes as Macbeth – review

Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma offer a glimpse of greatness


Indira Varma holds Ralph Fiennes in a scene from Macbeth touring theatre production February 2024
Ralph Fiennes & Indira Varma in Macbeth. Photo: Marc Brenner

Ralph Fiennes wanted to take this production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth away from the traditional theatrical venues and audiences, so it has popped up in a warehouse-like hall in London’s Docklands. Apart from the possibility of attracting a new audience, there are other advantages to a venue like Dock X.

For a start, Frankie Bradshaw can begin her fabulous set design before you even enter the auditorium, by making the lobby or antechamber an immersive scene that conjures the aftermath of a battle. There’s a burning car, rubble and patrolling soldiers, as you might have seen on news reports from Gaza or Ukraine.
This is important because, although this production by Simon Godwin, constantly reminds you that you are in a war zone, the set itself, once you are inside the auditorium is a plain stage rising via wide stairs to a mezzanine, emphasising the domestic situations in which the play largely takes place, rather than battlefields.
The temporary seating is on three sides which adds an appropriate intimacy. I must say, though, I would rather sit in an actual theatre any day than this shed, into which well over a thousand people were crammed with apparently no consideration given to the torture caused by minuscule legroom and cheap plastic seats.
Anyway, enough of the venue, what about the show? Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, surpassed only, in my opinion, by King Lear. Its supremacy derives from its complexity: the constant psychological battles between good and evil, duty and ambition, fate and free will, truth and lies, and so on. I go to every production hoping it will shed light on the play’s depths, and guide us through the states of mind of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, as they make their bloody decisions.
In this production, we are constantly reminded that we are in a war torn country, and, as the cast are in modern dress, that it could be one of today’s many conflicts. There has been a rebellion and an invasion, and Macbeth has played an important part in the King’s victory over the opposition.
The sound of artillery is frequent and loud. But does that explain the Macbeths’ ambition? I don’t think so. If anything, the reminder of today’s awful fighting is a distraction, because it is unnecessarily upsetting. I saw this show on the day of the 2nd anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Someone who was sitting near me and had experience of that war, didn’t return for the second half, apparently because they found it too traumatic.
The background of conflict seems to me irrelevant to a play primarily about the consequences of overthrowing a legitimate government (even if it’s one with which you disagree) and such themes as whether the end can justify the means, and how one evil act leads to another.
Perhaps this is a good point to run over the plot, if you’re unfamiliar with Macbeth. The Scottish lord and soldier meets three Weird Sisters, or Witches, who predict that he will become King. He’s quite excited by this prospect but seems prepared to let it happen naturally until his wife persuades him to take the opportunity to kill the monarch while he’s staying with them. The weird women also predict that his friend Banquo’s heirs will become Kings, so he decides to kill Banquo. MacDuff joins the English in opposition to him, so he puts out a contract on the MacDuff family. All very Putin. In the end, he suffers the consequences of his actions.
Actor Ralph Fiennes stands holding a knife in a scene from Macbeth touring production February 2024
Ralph Fiennes in Macbeth. Photo: Matt Humphrey

So, what do Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma as the murderous couple tell us about the ‘why’ of all this? Both actors bring out the richness of their roles. We first meet Mr Fiennes’ Macbeth as he lumbers onto the stage. He talks like a blunt soldier. He’s slightly stooped, he looks tired, as if he is exhausted rather than exhilarated by his victories. Maybe this explains why he’s not in a hurry to embark on another round of killing and thinks he might leave his succession to the throne to ‘chance’.

His wife on the other hand, bright eyed, articulate, and sophisticated in dress and manner, can’t wait. Ms Varma is clipped and matter-of-fact as she pushes him toward the deed. It’s then we get the first of many speeches in which Shakespeare expresses Macbeth’s internal arguments, sometimes to others, sometimes to himself. At first, his objections seem to be to do with etiquette: he is the King’s subject, obliged to be against assassination; that he is his host, who should be providing protection.
Ralph Fiennes is magnificent at these moments. He rightly acknowledges the speeches for the powerful poetry they are, and almost stepping out of the body of the plain soldier, to address the audience and explain his thinking. He articulates the lines beautifully, yet sounds as if he’s just thought of them, and he conveys their meaning with clarity. It’s an absolute pleasure to hear Shakespeare’s poetry projected to the back of the auditorium without any apparent strain. And I know because I was in the back row.
Indira Varma’ injects a moment of black comedy when Lady Macbeth loudly castigates her shaken husband for bringing the bloody knives out of Duncan’s bed chamber.
There’s a lot in the play about being a ‘man’, not a weak ‘woman’. Having initially seemed emasculated by his wife, Ralph Fiennes’ Macbeth becomes almost giddy following his killing spree, laughing and dancing nervously between appearances of Banquo’s ghost in the middle of a dinner party. It’s a funny moment but Indira Varma’s eyes show Lady Macbeth’s concern that her husband is becoming unhinged and uncoupled from her.
Guilt affects them both in different ways, Lady Macbeth cannot escape the thought of the horror of the crime they have committed and is driven to madness and suicide. The scene in which she tries to wash invisible blood from her hands was chilling. In fact, Indira Varma almost stole the show, except…
Ralph Fiennes as Macbeth, having begun the play hunched and exhausted, becomes more and more frenetically alive, and more reckless, even as he perceives the futility of life: the ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ speech, the last great examination of the consequences of his actions, is spoken to perfection, with the final conclusion that life ‘is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’, hanging in the air like a warning to us all.
The adaptation by Emily Burns makes the play move along at a pace, as it should, although she has excised the drunken Porter scene. I know a lot of people will be pleased to lose what they say is an incongruous piece of bawdy comedy in the midst of the murder of the King, but I think it offers a relief from the tension and a kind of parody of the chief villain’s antithetical way of expressing himself. I know you’ll want an example. So, a typical Macbeth declamation goes: ‘I should against his murderer shut the door, not bear the knife myself.’ The Porter uses the same form to say: ‘Drink provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.’
I did like the way the Weird Sisters permeated the play. I find the supernatural nature of the Witches a difficult element of Macbeth, even though they are essential to driving the plot but here, in everyday clothes and played by Lucy Mangan, Danielle Fiamanya and Lola Shalam, they come across as ordinary young women, maybe even displaced citizens, whose looks of mischief suggest they are passing on their predictions to expose and undermine those in charge.
I’d also pick out the performances of Steffan Rhodri who gives the loyal Banquo, solidity and a skeptical eye, and Ben Turner as MacDuff whose heartbroken reaction to the murder of his family was palpable.

So, for me, a slightly disappointing production, and a terrible venue, but a glimpse of greatness in the performances of Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma.

Macbeth toured the UK and performed in Washington DC in 2024

Click here to watch this review on YouTube