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.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

Peppa Pig’s Fun Day Out – review

Peppa Pig brings home the bacon

★★★

Peppa, George and Daisy (Perrie Sunuwar) in Peppa Pig’s FGun Day Out. Photo: Barry Rivett

Peppa Pig celebrates her 20th anniversary this year with a new stage show Peppa Pig’s Fun Day Out.

In the last two decades, challengers for her crown have come along in the form of Hey Duggee, Bluey and a production line of live shows based on Julia Donaldson’s perennially popular stories. So, is 20 year old Peppa the attraction she once was? I soon got my answer when I saw that three performances at The Mast in Southampton were all but sold out.

The first fans of Peppa may now be grown-ups and even have pre-school kids of their own but it seems there is still appeal in these simple tales of family life. But does Peppa live on stage still offer a fun outing for a preschool child?
The production company has done an excellent job is creating the look of the animated series seen on TV. Simon Scullion’s set is colourful and, important point this, doesn’t feel it’s been done on a budget, which small scale children’s shows often do.
The plot- and I use the word as loosely as a four year old ties their shoelaces- takes us on a visit to the zoo, and, after the interval, a trip to the seaside. The fun day culminates with a birthday party.
A small cast of familiar characters are on the outing- Peppa and little brother George, of course, as well as Danny Dog and Susie the Sheep. These are puppets manipulated by actors behind them, who also provide their voices. Amy Brooke‘s interpretation of Peppa is spot on.
There occasional appearances by Mummy and Daddy Pig, and Miss Rabbit, who are played by actors in costumes. Holding the show together is a human, Perrie Sunuwar as Daisy, who maintains a high energy and infectious enthusiasm as she conducts the action and the audience.
Richard Lewis and Matt Lewis’s script for Peppa Pig’s Fun Day Out crams in most of what you might hope for in a show aimed at young children: there are little puppet animals flying around at the end of sticks, fluorescent creatures  in the dark, and blue undulating cloths creating waves. There’s no mud which may be a disappointment to some Peppa fans but there is quite a bit of water spraying, to the extent the first few rows could be labelled a Splash Zone.
There’s plenty of participation in the form of songs, physical routines and verbal interaction, but this is an age group that’s still learning about socialising and joining in, so I would suggest that you gear your child up for copying Daisy.
The production directed by Richard Lewis moves quickly and there’s lots of activity but, at over an hour including interval, some children may get bored, because not much actually happens. You won’t be expecting the humour of Hey Duggee, the depth of Bluey or the poetry of Donaldson, but you might have hoped for a life lesson or some mild peril to engage those little brains.
Perhaps this is why it is advertised as being suitable for even the youngest child. I would disagree. I think any child under three will struggle with even as undemanding a stage show as this: the concept of theatre may be a puzzle to them, they may find it hard to concentrate, they may be frightened of the dark or of large numbers of people. I say: restrict the age to three and over and make the show a little more challenging.
That aside, Peppa Pig’s Fun Day Out is well done and offers a good introduction to the magic of theatre.
Peppa Pig’s Fun Day Out is touring the UK throughout 2024.  Click on the website peppapiglive.com for dates and links
Paul paid for his ticket.

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane – review

Neil Gaiman’s fantasy story is adapted into a theatrical spectacle with a heart

★★★★★
Keir Ogilvy, Millie Hikasa & Kemi-Bo Jacobs in The Ocean At THe End Of The Lane. Photo: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Maybe, like me, you’ve never got around to seeing The Ocean At The End Of The Lane. Yes, it has been around a while. It opened at the National Theatre in 2019, then Covid intervened. Then it was revived and a tour throughout this year has finally seen it wash up at the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End. There have been plenty of opportunities, so what’s your excuse?

Let me give you mine. It’s a children’s show, or even if it’s not, it’s a fantasy, or even if it is rooted in real life, it’s all spectacle and no heart. Well, I’ve finally seen it, and I can tell you, none of these excuses hold up.
The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is a stage adaptation of a novel by Neil Gaiman.  The idea of bringing this story to the stage came from a true theatre person: Katy Rudd. She knows theatre, she loves theatre and she knows how to make a magical show.
I’ve got to be careful here because the word ‘magical’ is loaded. There is a whole literary genre known as magical realism, wherein an ostensibly real world has unnatural things going on. Then there’s the magic that is more properly called ‘tricks’, which theatre is full of. Then again, there is the magic of theatre that involves no tricks but somehow transports you into another world.
All these forms of magic combine in this production.
The story concerns a child. So is it a children’s show? Well, older children will probably enjoy it, but the answer is emphatically ‘no’. It’s very much about how we as adults lose our ability to see beyond the world in front of us and enter into the world of imagination.
We meet a particular adult who is reminded of something that happened to him as a child- or may have happened. Cut to an unhappy 12 year old, already regarded as weird because he seems to prefer books to people, who has gone through the trauma of losing his mother. Keir Ogilvy is magnificent in this part, a stuttering, gangling, wide-eyed performance.
He meets a strange girl called Lettie, a Peter Pan like character played with energy and passion by Millie Hikasa. He also gets acquainted with her mother and grandmother, who seem to know things well beyond the time and space they occupy.
Thus begins a fantastic adventure that takes place on their farm and in his house.
So, yes, it is fantasy but not Star Wars or Marvel Universe fantasy. This is the everyday world you and I might occupy, suddenly host to strange goings on.
Like a monster from another parallel world being let in ours and wreaking havoc. And what a monster. Guaranteed to send chills down your spine. Until it is personified in the form of a sinister lodger- Ursula, played by Charlie Brooks, with mad eyes and a steely smile). Then the battle begins.
The stage is filled with the kind of spectacle, that is far more impressive than cinema CGI because it is being created before your eyes with smoke and coloured lights and swirling cloths and people in costumes.

There is no better moment of stage

Three actors, namely Laurie Ogden, Charlie Brooks and Trevor Fox, sit round a kitchen table in the stage play The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Laurie Ogden, Charlie Brooks and Trevor Fox in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Photo: Pamela Raith

magic than when Ursula disappears through a door stage right and instantly reappears through another door stage left. Then more and more doors appear with Ursula appearing here there and everywhere until your brain is overwhelmed. Members of the audience were gasping with astonishment. 

And in this eulogy to theatre, we are shown how some of the magic works- we see the ensemble of ‘stage hands’ who carry characters through the air when they are flying, falling or swimming; or moments when a scene ends and the stage hands move in to remove scenery only to find the characters decide to carry on talking, so they pause and replace the props. We see the mechanics, but still imagine it to be ‘real’. I use the word advisedly since, as this play reminds us, your perception of reality, present and past, will be different to mine.
The point is, like all art forms, theatre stimulates our imagination, then requires our imagination in order for it to work. And, as this story underlines, imagination is what enables us to see the truth about the world and how to change it,
If it were purely to enjoy the magic of theatre, I would recommend seeing this show. But there is more, much more, and that’s in the power of the storytelling. The boy regularly quotes from The Chronicles Of Narnia but also Alice In Wonderland and Peter Pan.
Like many great stories, The Ocean At The End Of The Lane engages the heart as it takes us into the world of this lonely young misfit. It leaves us simultaneously uplifted and sad.
It is irrelevant whether the events really happened or were invented as a way of coping with an unfriendly world. The story of threatening monsters, benevolent witches, and a faithful friend is grippingly real for him, as it is for us.
Neil Gaiman is one of the great storytellers, and all praise to Joel Horwood too for adapting the story into two and bit hours of character-driven adventure.
The other actors deserve recognition. Trevor Fox, who plays the boy’s father and the boy as an adult, is as funny, melancholy and eccentric as adults so often are in children’s eyes. Laurie Ogden is suitably annoying and obnoxious as the boy’s sister. Kemi-Bo Jacobs is Lettie’s gentle, loving mother. Finty Williams makes her grandmother seem as old as the hills but has a glint in her eyes that show she is as sharp as a brand new knife.
While I’m giving credits, I must praise- or more properly bow down to- set designer Fly Davis, Costume and Puppet Designer Samuel Wyer, Lighting designer Paule Constable, and Magic and illusions director Jamie Harrison.

So, even if you normally shun shows about children, or flee from fantasy fiction, or sidestep spectacle, I urge you to make an exception and go to the Noel Coward Theatre to see this 5 star show about the power of storytelling.

A View From The Bridge – Headlong – review

Headlong’s version of Arthur Miller’s classic is well acted but over egged

★★★

Jonathan Slinger & Katy Bushell in A View From The Bridge. Photo: The Other Richard

A View from The Bridge is a modern classic. Rooted in ancient Greek tragedy, it was written by Arthur Miller, a man who has a claim to be the greatest playwright of the twentieth century.

When you produce a new version of a classic play, inevitably some of your audience will have memories of previous productions. In Britain, Alan Ayckbourn’s 1987 National Theatre production with the great Michael Gambon and Ivo Von Hove’s 2014 Young Vic production starring Mark Strong both loom large as benchmarks. They may be hard acts to follow, but theatre demands new productions. Of course, you can watch a film of the Young Vic production, but a stage play is designed to be a unique nightly collaboration between actors and us the audience.

So I looked forward to Headlong’s production, which has been co-produced with Chichester Festival Theatre, Octagon Theatre Bolton, and the Rose Theatre. Thanks to the accomplished well-directed cast, Headlong’s A View From The Bridge is worth seeing, but, in an over egged production, the director doesn’t allow the play to speak for itself.

Let’s start with a brief summary of the plot. Eddie Carbone is a longshoreman or dock worker in New York. He lives in an Italian American community, just below the Brooklyn Bridge. And Miller tells us that title refers to us- the middle class audience with our modern outlook- observing from the bridge this normally out-of-sight working class community rooted in a more ancient culture.

Eddie and his wife Beatrice have brought up her dead sister’s daughter Catherine who has now arrived at that moment when a child becomes an adult. (It’s around 1950, so we must accept that kids grew up more slowly in those days.) Eddie still sees her as the little girl he needs to protect but that feeling is now coloured by an unacknowledged sexual attraction.

Then two of Bea’s cousins arrive from Italy. The brothers are illegal immigrants, what we might call today economic migrants who have escaped the poverty, in Rodolpho’s case to become an American citizen, in Marco’s case to earn money to support his family.

Things start to go wrong when Catherine and Rodolpho fall in love. Eddie is jealous but hides this by implying that Rodolpho is really gay and is tricking Catherine into marrying him in order to gain US citizenship. Eddie’s inner conflict and how this inarticulate working class man deals with it is the core of the tragedy of this play.

The cast are uniformly excellent and Holly Race Roughan’s production gives them the space to savour the language of the play. Jonathan Slinger as Eddie brings out the frustration, ignorance and anger required in the role, as he swaggers, slumps, stares and rages.

Rachelle Diedericks as Catherine starts naïve, barely recognising her own sexual power. She matures until by the end of the play she is confident enough to shout down Eddie. It’s a subtle blossoming that marks Ms Diedericks as an actor to watch out for.

Eddie’s conduct is appalling and it’s hard to feel sympathy for him but he presents a challenge for Catherine and Beatrice, who both love him, and are in many ways the play’s ultimate victims.

Bea is possibly the most interesting character. She clearly envies Catherine and encourages her to take advantage of opportunities she never had. Kirsty Bushell imbues Bea with an inner strength and confidence which give her a power over Eddie, and for much of the play she is able to subdue his more extreme behaviour.  She is frustrated by Eddie’s lack of sexual interest in her and her constant revealing of her legs can be taken as a sign of her own active sexuality.

Why is Eddie not interested in her? It is not simply that he is distracted by Catherine. The text hints that he may have, again uncoinscious, homosexual leanings, which adds another layer to this complex play. Maybe Eddie is even attracted to Rodolpho.

It’s possible that Arthur Miller would have developed this more, if he’d written the play today, but this production decides to do the job for him by featuring a fantasy male ballet dancer performing homoerotically in front of Eddie. I don’t know why Holly Race Roughan, who us s talented director, felt we needed this aspect of the play marked with a fluorescent pen. Just as earlier, when we first see Catherine, she is on a children’s swing, a prop that seems to clutter the stage and serve no purpose except to underline her adolescence. It’s as if the director doesn’t trust the text to make the point without underlining it.

The Headlong production of A View From The Bridge

As for Rodolpho,  Luke Newberry plays him as artistic, sensitive and passionate, but without any obvious sign of him being gay. Like the modern American he aspires to be, Rodolpho sees the value in the virtues of compromise and forgiveness.

By contrast, his brother Marco, in a beautifully restrained performance by Tommy Sim’aan, is strong and silent except for the moment when he dramatically takes centre stage to show Eddie who is the alpha male.

The conflict between the rule of law and the code of the Italian community is another major theme. And Eddie’s self-inflicted downfall comes from his breach of the code, and his recourse to the law. This makes the part of the lawyer Alfieri pivotal in raising questions about the limits of the law in providing justice, particularly in a community which in the past has sorted out its own forms of justice. Nancy Crane takes on this role, possibly the first time a woman has played the part. She is authoritative and sympathetic, in a way appropriate to someone who is also a narrator-cum-Greek chorus, a role designed to remind us that we are outsiders viewing the unfolding tragedy.

The austere set by Moi Tran comprises a claustrophobic shiny black wall and stage, with an oppressive neon sign saying Red Hook, the name of the neighbourhood, that might have looked good in an art gallery but was over the top for this family drama. A staircase and high walkway are a further indication of how low this family are. The main props are a number of wooden chairs. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time to make the chairs double as the heavy bales the longshoremen carry, but it didn’t really work.

I regret I have one more criticism to make of the directing. During the final moving final tableau, a very large member of the cast stands at the front of the stage, blocking the view of a significant part of the audience. This is frankly unforgivable.

Having got that off my chest, let me say that, generally, Holly Race Roughan has put together a decent version of A View From The Bridge. It has light and shade, variations of pace, and dollops of tension. But, if the creative team had done less, they could have achieved more.

A View From The Bridge opened at Octagon Theatre Bolton on 8 September 2023. It can be seen at Chichester Festival Theatre until  28 October and at Rose Theatre from 31 October to 11 November 2023.

Paul was given a review ticket by the theatre.

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

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 cahootstheatrecompany.com/wodehouse-in-wonderland

Paul received a free review ticket from the producer.

Click to watch this review on YouTube

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – touring stage version – review

Golden Oldies Shine In This Gentle Comedy 


★★★

Production photo from the 2023 touring stage production of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel showing some members of the cast standing next to others seated at a table
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Photo: Johan Persson

You’re probably familiar with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The film of that name spawned a sequel and a reality TV show. Now there’s a play of that title currently touring the UK.  Starring are three big names with a long history on stage and screen: Paul Nicholas, Hayley Mills and Rula Lenska. I won’t describe them as old, it’s simply that they’re the same age as old people.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is primarily about retired people and aimed at that market, but there’s no reason why a younger audience (by which I mean people under 60) shouldn’t enjoy it. It’s a story of the triumph of love and hope over adversity.  When I worked in theatre, I remember the midweek matinees were very popular with retired people, so much so that one member of the front of house staff looking from the back of the auditorium at all the white hair, described the audience as the cotton fields. A description I was reminded of when I saw this touring show when it stopped off at Chichester Festival Theatre.

Yes, I am aware that I’m now one of them. So I do know first hand the challenges of getting older, not least of which is the fear of failing memory. And this play doesn’t help, because I found myself thinking ‘I don’t remember some of these characters or sub-plots from the film.’ Well, it turns out it wasn’t a senior moment I was having. Because, despite the title, this play is not based on the film you’ve seen. Like the film, it is inspired by These Foolish Things, a novel by Deborah Moggach. The play is certainly similar  to the film and no worse where it differs.

The shared idea is that a number of retired Brits go to a hotel in India because it’s cheap- oh, and the weather is hotter than good old Blighty. They all have slightly different back stories which are slowly revealed, usually with a twist. Younger generations are represented by a mother and son who have falsely marketed their run-down hotel as being somewhat better than it is. The son is being pressured to marry for money so they can do it up. He would rather marry for love.

It’s as if the play has been fitted with a pacemaker during the interval

The play’s first act gets bogged down in the set-up. The consequence is that it moves at the pace of a 90 year old using a zimmer frame. It probably didn’t help that the actors had a lot of ground to cover on Chichester’s large thrust stage. I took my seat for the second act in trepidation but then the twists emerged and the characters took on new leases of life. It’s as if the play has been fitted with a pacemaker during the interval. And maybe a catheter too as joy, sadness and humour flow in abundance. There’s also a smattering of social commentary too, on India and its call centres and caste system, and on the British attitude to class and to care.

As their characters begin to see more purpose to their lives, the older actors begin to look brighter and move faster, showing that their first half entropy was just an act.

Production photo from the touring theatre production of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in February 2023 showing the cast dancing on stage
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Photo: Johan Persson

Of the three stars, I found Hayley Mills the most impressive- investing her lines with clarity and urgency- as her character Evelyn came out of her shell. Rula Lenska was full of fizz as the never-too-old-to-have-fun Madge. I was disappointed with Paul Nicholas. He’s a fine actor and portrays the soft-spoken, retiring character of Douglas well enough but he doesn’t quite convince as a grey, brow-beaten husband. The fact is, he’s just too handsome, despite the disappearance of his golden locks, and there’s no concealing his natural vivacity.

The rest of the cast perform well. One of the characters talked of ‘adventure til dementia’ and it is a delight to see these mature actors- Eileen Battye, Richenda Carey and Andy de la Tour continuing to ply their trade and give us a first class example of why old people should not be written off. Of the younger actors, I particularly liked Nishad More as the put-upon Sonny, who displayed appropriate sheepishness in the face of his domineering mother Mrs Kapoor, played with gusto by Rekha John-Cheriyan.

Lucy Bailey directs this large ensemble with finesse and the set by Colin Richmond is just the right blend of the magnificent and the dilapidated. I would have loved to have heard more of the music composed by Kuljit Bhamra which conjured up both ancient and modern India.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is touring the UK with dates annnounced until June 2023 marigoldshow.com

Paul paid for his ticket.

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

The Two Popes – touring – review

★★★

Production photo from The Two Popes at Rose Theatre near London showing Nicholas Woodeson holding Anton Lesser in September 2022
Nicholas Woodeson & Anton Lesser in The Two Popes. Photo: Manuel Harlan

If like me, you have little knowledge of the Roman Catholic Church and even less interest in it, you might think an evening with not one but two popes would be akin to a visit to the Spanish Inquisition. In fact, this combative conversation between Pope Benedict XVI, who abdicated in 2013, and Pope Francis, who replaced him, is both intriguing and amusing.

It helps that one is deeply conservative and the other highly liberal, so there is plenty of room for conflict. It helps even more that these two contrasting kings of Catholicism are played by two sovereigns of the stage, Anton Lesser and Nicholas Woodeson.

Benedict XVI’s abdication was almost unprecedented. (I say ‘almost’, because a pope did abdicate 700 years previously.) Anthony McCarten’s play about this conservative German and his successor, the liberal Argentinian Cardinal Bergoglio, was first produced by Northampton’s Royal & Derngate Theatre in 2019, before Covid intervened. Their Artistic Director James Dacre directs this revived co-production, which I saw at the Rose Theatre in Kingston before its tour to a number of regional theatres.

Mr McCarten, who previously wrote The Theory Of Everything, Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody as well as the film version of this play, recently penned The Collaboration. It’s another play about two people with contrasting characters and views, the artists Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. It was very enjoyable and is now on its way to Broadway following a run at the Young Vic.

You can see why the idea of a meeting between these two very different popes intrigued Anthony McCarten. The facts of the transfer of power are true but the details of what conversations may have taken place come from his fertile imagination.

The two popes don’t get together straightaway. Initially, we meet each of them separately, beginning with Pope Benedict played by Anton Lesser. We find him in his apartment with a German nun, played by Lynsey Beachamp. They share a conservative nostalgia for their country of birth that manifests itself in the food they eat and the German whodunit series that they watch enthusiastically on TV. He moves stiffly, conveying both old age and, metaphorically, a rigidity of views. Mr Lesser has a clipped but silky way of speaking, that conveys both authority and warmth. The warmth is important because he is publicly perceived as ‘God’s rottweiler’. The reality is, we learn, that he is more shy than cold, more a scholar than a front man. He didn’t want the job of Pope and he still doesn’t.

Without this insight into Benedict’s human side, this would be a very one-sided play between a cold fish and the warm human being that is Cardinal Bergoglio. We meet the latter on a visit to a slum church in his home country of Argentina. Played by Nicholas Woodeson, he has an impish smile and bounces round the stage like a Duracell bunny. He too chats with a nun, played by Leaphia Darko, but this time about his liberal views, which appeal to the poor of the developing world. Ironically, he too wants to retire from his job.

Although they are as different as The Telegraph and The Guardian, Pope Benedict is aware that the Cardinal is his likely successor, and that he can prevent this from happening simply by accepting the Cardinal’s resignation. He decides to meet him and check him out.

The first meeting is very much a clash of views, which frankly I found a little tedious, but I suspect someone more interested in the Catholic Church might find it fascinating.

Anton Lesser & Nicholas Woddeson in The Two Popes. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The second act really takes off, as the two find out that despite their differences, what they have in common may be what is important. We know the outcome so it’s not exactly edge-of-your-seat stuff but the exchanges are funny at times, interesting at others, and sometimes quite moving, as when the two confess their weaknesses and shortcomings. It is a joy to see the interaction between these two great actors.

The set, designed Jonathan Fensom, comprises an artificial proscenium arch onto which a marble surface and the scene locations are projected- in Latin! This reinforces that what is happening is contained within the solidity of a church that has been around for two thousand years. So maybe these two popes, while appearing to be taking the church from one extreme to another, merely represent a natural adjustment that has and will take place again and again over time.

The Two Popes is at the Rose Theatre until 23 September 2022 and will then tour to Cambridge Arts Theatre (27 September-1 October), Cheltenham Everyman (4-8 October), Northampton Royal & Derngate (11-15 October), Oxford Playhouse (18-22 October) and Theatre Royal Bath (25-29 October).

Paul was given a complimentary review ticket by the producers.

Click here to watch this review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

 

Christina Bianco in The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice – review

Shobna Gulati, Ian Kelsey and Christina Bianco delight in Jim Cartwright’s classic comedy

★★★★

Production photo of Christina Bianco, Ian Kelsey and Shoibna Gulati in the 2022 touring production of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice
Christina Bianco, Ian Kelsey and Shoibna Gulati in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. Photo: Pamela Raith Photography

Touring productions are the Cinderella of British theatre. Given the choice, actors will often prefer to work in one place, preferably London. So, when I saw that two former soap actors and a YouTube sensation were heading the cast of the new touring production of The Rise And Fall of Little Voice, I feared the worst. How wrong I was.

Jim Cartwright’s play about an introverted young woman mourning her father and badly treated by her mother, who finds escape in the music of classic female singers, has been revived many times. The challenge for all the actors in this show is that there has also been a film version that is imprinted on most of our brains. Brenda Blethyn as the horrendous mother Mari Hoff, Michael Caine as the smooth talking showbiz manager Ray Say, and of course Jane Horrocks as LV, or Little Voice. So the cast have to work very hard to make you forget those definitive performances. None more so than the person playing LV. In some ways, the challenge is not to mess it up.

With the part of Mari, Jim Cartwright created one of theatre’s great monsters: a selfish woman with no redeeming features whose only concern is her own love life, and who abuses not only her daughter but the English language. Shobna Gulati grabs the part with both hands and extracts every ounce of comedy out of it. She relishes the outrageous puns (“I did it my Ray’) and dishes out malapropisms with a perfect deadpan delivery. When criticising LV for her lack of politeness, ‘She can’t even be swivel’ or, referring to her age, ‘at my time of strife’. Visually, her bosoms are barely contained by her garish outfits, and she totters precariously in tight skirts and high heels. In fact, the dresses and makeup are so over the top that many drag acts would find it hard to compete. Her physical comedy is a joy, especially when she’s playing being drunk. She literally throws herself into the role and gives it, as her character would say, one hundred pesetas. I loved the moment when she pulled Ray onto the sofa, her legs flailing in the air.

Ian Kelsey gives us just the right mix of sleaziness and desperation. I last saw him thirty years ago as Danny Zuko in Grease. He’s still offering roguish allure but, here, as Ray attempts to exploit LV, he adds an underlying nastiness. Mr Kelsey conveys perfectly the ageing charm and sense of failure that make his character comically pathetic.

Christina Bianco creates a good impression

Production photo of Christina Bianco in the 2022 touring production of Jim Cartwright's The Rise and Fall of Little Voice
Christina Bianco in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. Photo: Pamela Raith Photography

I’d never heard of Christina Bianco until now, which is clearly my bad since she has 123,000 followers on YouTube and her impressions of singers have been viewed over 25 million times. So, how well can she sing?  We get glimpses as the first act progresses, then there are two nightclub performances, which LV is pushed into making. Not only does she sing beautifully but her impressions of Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Bassey and many more are spot on. After all these years, very few in the audience will be taken by surprise when, after all the silence and whispers, LV reveals her diva singing voice, but the tingle down the back of the neck that Ms Bianco creates is still powerful enough to merit a round of appreciative applause.

If you want a taste of how good Christina Bianco is at impressions of singers, watch her on YouTube singing Let It Go (there’s a choice but I’d recommend the video from a year ago). As for her Lancashire accent, admittedly she’s an impressionist, but it’s spot on. You would never know she’s from New York.

She is uncannily like Jane Horrocks but it would be unfair to dismiss her performance as an impression because there is little leeway for playing the role differently. Jim Cartwright wrote the part of LV for Jane Horrocks and she played it both in its National Theatre premiere and on film, so that is how the part is meant to be played. The important point is, Christina Bianco is entirely convincing as someone traumatised by grief and parental abuse, who continues to be bullied until she finds her own voice.

Akshay Gulati is believable as the shy would-be boyfriend of LV and William Ilkley makes a cringe-worthy Mr Boo, the club owner and MC.

Fiona Mulvaney is excellent as Mari’s friend Sadie. I can’t help feeling the part of a stooge who says very little other than ‘Okay’ is reminiscent of the kind of one-dimensional character you’d find in an old fashioned sitcom. That’s just one of the ways this play is now showing its age. Also, this mainly pacey play seemed to me to be drawn out at the end.

The set designed by Sara Perks takes the form of a two up-two down house with the front and part of the roof torn off, as if giving us an unauthorised glimpse into what would normally go on behind closed doors. It’s crowded with furniture and other cheap objects, adding to a strong sense of the tastelessness of Mari’s tawdriness, and the claustrophobia of working class life.

Bronagh Lagan is the director responsible for a production that gives laughter, pathos and joy in equal measures.

[Edited 2 April 2022: extended description of Shobna Gulati’s performance.]

Click here to watch this review on the One Minute Theatre Reviews YouTube channel

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice 2022 tour dates:
28 March – 2 April The Capitol, Horsham
4 – 9 April Exeter Northcott
11 – 16 April Malvern Theatres
18 – 23 April Theatre Clwyd
25 – 30 April Theatre Royal Brighton
3 May – 7 May Derby Theatre
9 – 14 May Salisbury Playhouse
16 – 21 May Liverpool Playhouse
23 – 28 May Wakefield Theatre Royal
30 May – 4 June Crewe Lyceum Theatre
6 – 11 June The Lowry, Salford
13 – 18 June Blackpool Grand
21 – 25 June Mercury Theatre, Colchester
27 June – 2 July Richmond Theatre
4 – 9 July York Theatre Royal
11 – 16 July Everyman Theatre Cheltenham

 

 

 

Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) – review

The Funniest Show in The West End


★★★★

Production shot featuring the cast of Pride asnd Prejudice Sort Of at the Criterion Theatre London
Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) at The Criterion

Some critics have acclaimed Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) as the funniest show currently in London’s West End. I was late seeing this little gem at The Criterion, but I can’t disagree.

It is an outstanding achievement by Isobel McArthur. She not only wrote it, with a little help from Jane Austen, she also co-directed it with Simon Harvey, and stars in it.

What’s particularly clever about her take on Pride & Prejudice is that, although it’s a spoof, it is extremely faithful to the story.  Much of the comedy derives from the same situations that are funny in the book, and it is, at key moments, quite moving. I was surprised at how touched I was by the ending.
So, she has paid homage to the qualities of the story and some of the dialogue, while extracting a great deal more lol.

It’s funny before it even starts, when we’re presented with the concept of five modern working class women playing early 19th century maids who recreate the story with makeshift costumes and props. So we have the bathos of this classic story and its characters being presented from today’s perspective. There’s 21st century language, including a lot of swearing: Darcy is described as a ’twat’ (and that’s one of the milder insults). Elizabeth tells Mr Collins exactly what he can do with his marriage proposal. So, there’s the shock of seeing Jane Austen’s reserved characters, who normally use sensitive language, mouthing expletives. But there’s also the anachronism of party food at a ball being Pringles and Wagon Wheels.

Is there no end to Isobel McArthur’s talents?

Of course, the basic material is great. Pride & Prejudice is not only Jane Austen’s most popular work but one of the most read novels written in the English language. That’s thanks in no small part to the character of Mr Darcy, played over the years on screen by Laurence Olivier, Colin Firth and Matthew McFadyen. To that pantheon, we can now add Isobel McArthur.

There have been many excellent takes on Pride & Prejudice, like Lost In Austen, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies and a Bollywood musical Bride & Prejudice. It is without question a crowded market, but Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) manages to stand out.

To add to the enjoyment, it’s actually a musical comedy. The story is interspersed with moments when the characters grab a microphone and sing classic romantic pop songs like Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, Holding Out For A Hero, Young Hearts Run Free and You’re So Vain (about Darcy of course). And Lady in Red, a song by Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s relative Chris de Burgh! It’s tremendous fun, a bit like karaoke at a hen night.

The cast of five take on all the parts. Isobel McArthur is a wonderful Darcy. She conveys very well the stiff reserve that conceals a romantic heart. In addition, she plays an even more coarse than usual Mrs Bennet. Tori Burgess creates a truly obnoxious Mr Collins, Christina Gordon plays Lizzie’s sister Jane and the appalling Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

There were two understudies on the night I saw it, which is par for the course at the moment in theatre, mainly because of the Covid. I had been looking forward to seeing Hannah Jarrett-Scott and Meghan Tyler who are both highly experienced actors and were very well reviewed. However Annabel Gordon did well as quietly desperate Charlotte trapped in her hellish marriage, as well as playing the soppy Charles Bingley. Leah Jamieson acquited herself well as the strong-willed but annoyingly self-satisfied Elizabeth Bennet.

Sometimes the characters are too much of a caricature and I did expect, having set the idea in motion, that the play would give us more of the maids’ angle on events than it actually did. But it is rich in ideas and displays non-stop creativity.

I particularly liked the moment when Elizabeth looks at a painting of Darcy and Isobel McArthur slides behind the empty frame to pose as the portrait, whose eyes then follow Lizzie round the room.

There is one simple set, designed by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita, that suggests a rich household, not dissimilar in décor to the lovely Criterion Theatre, using minimal props, and with books as a motif. It features a magnificent centrepiece of a wide staircase that winds all the way up to the flies, with steps supported by books.

This is a light hearted and lightweight play. It doesn’t have the depth of Laura Wade’s Austen inspired comedy The Watsons, which I saw at The Menier, and which was due a West End transfer before Covid struck. Nevertheless, it’s just what you need to cheer you up in a year that has started as depressingly as the last one ended.

Covid is scaring audiences away from theatres, which is a shame, because this is a show that should be selling out, and looking forward to a long run, rather than closing prematurely. I recommend you to see it while you can.

Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) is performing at the Criterion Theatre in London until 6 February. An autumn 2022 tour is planned with a possible return to London in 2023.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

 

The Time Machine at London Library – review

An entertaining evening full of fun and frightening facts but light on drama ★★★

Production photo of Leda Douglas in Creation Theatre's The Time Machine at The London Library in March 2020
Leda Douglas in The Time Machine at London Library.Photo: @Ri chardBudd

The Time Machine offers an opportunity to tour the magnificent London Library. This 180-year-old private lending library is housed in a grade II listed building in Mayfair. It has had among its members Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, Agatha Christie and of course HG Wells.

It’s his novel The Time Machine that inspired Creation Theatre’s entertainment. The audience is restricted to groups of twenty. We meet a time traveller in a lobby area. Ours is played by Leda Douglas. She’s charming towards us but she’s breathless and clearly on edge.

She takes us on a journey to various points in the future represented by the different rooms in the library. We don’t go many years ahead but far enough to be in the dystopian world that has terrified her.

Although it purports to be the true story of secretive time travel that has been going on for about forty years, The Time Machine is really a warning that what we do now affects the future, that our polluting the planet and our scientific tinkering is going to get us in trouble. Or should I say even more trouble?

Interestingly the show which was written last October predicts the current virus epidemic. Did they go back in time and alter the script I wonder?

Anyway, along the way, we meet an amusing computer (Graeme Rose) which is clearly where Alexa and Siri are heading if the backchat is anything to go by. We encounter a scared scientist played by Sarah Edwardson. And finally a chat show host played with gusto by Funlola Olufunwa. Other members of the creative team were Ryan Dawson Laight (designer) and Matt Eaton (Sound Designer).

The play seems to stick the blame for our apocalyptic future on rich capitalists and corporate greed rather than humanity in general. Any way you look at it,  the message is bleak and there’s little hope.

This play about time is a timely warning

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of fun to be had in Jonathan Holloway’s witty script. This mainly stems from the notion that once people go back in time, they mess around with the future and ‘every effort might be rendered redundant at any second’. So familiar names are thrown about in totally unfamiliar contexts. Oliver Hardy marries Virginia Woolf and invents time travel. Events are not quite as we remember them: I’m pretty sure the first man on the moon wasn’t Japanese.

There is also a lot of delight taken in exploring the mind-blowing nature of time. Are there multiple universes? Is time a loop?

Amusing as the story of time travel was and frightening as the information was about the way the future is likely to turn out was too, the show’s weakness is that it promises more than it delivers.

We’re told by our guide to be careful, to stick to the walls because of the dangers we may encounter. People are liable to shift shape, or their socks might change colour, or the dreaded Morlocks might appear from under the ground. But actually, none of this happens.

I wasn’t expecting a Disney ride or Doctor Who effects but the odd scary or simply dramatic happening might have been expected following the introduction.

Not enough drama in this crisis

Here are a couple of examples. In order to travel in time, we hold up our arms and our guide holds a briefcase and says “Zoom!” I guess time travel could be as prosaic as that and maybe director Natasha Rickman wanted to avoid the clichés of strobe lighting and loud electronic noise but it did feel a bit flat.

Production photo of Graeme Rose in The Time Machine at The London Library in March 2020
Graeme Rose in The Time Machine. Photo: @RichardBudd

On one occasion, we arrived in a book-lined room with leather armchairs, where we were told about the first time trip. It happened in the basement of Studio 54 New York to the soundtrack of Donna Summers’ I Feel Love. There was talk of the music being turned up and a prospect of disco dancing but, no, we stayed seated in our lovely leather armchairs.

So, although we’re told that the world has been turned upside down and inside out by the constant changing caused by people travelling back in time, nothing ever happens physically to disconcert us.

What is as disconcerting and frightening as a horror film are the many startling facts about the past, present and likely future. I assume these are accurate since The Wellcome Centre for Ethics And Humanities was involved in the production. In fact, there is the odd moment when it seems more like a lecture than a play.

Even if the production seems determined not to make a drama out of a crisis, The Time Machine offers an entertaining evening as well as being a timely wake-up call. And the setting is amazing.

The Time Machine can be seen at The London Library until 5 April 2020 and in summer 2020 at The Museum Of Natural History, Oxford. For more information about The Time Machine, visit www.creationtheatre.co.uk/whats-on/time-machine/

Click here to watch the video of this review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Paul Seven Lewis was given review tickets.