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.

The Confessions at the National Theatre – review

Hi Alexander Zeldin reveals the extraordinary life of an ordinary woman


The Confessions at the National Theatre. Photo: Christophe Raynaud de Lage

What does a person’s life amount to? How much do we really know about what went on, or goes on, in someone else’s life, even if we’re friends or family. Alexander Zeldin who has written a series of successful plays about ordinary people based on interviews, this time has decided to find out about his mother’s life, on the surface another ordinary person. A life she told him and tells us that is not interesting. Not an encouraging opening line when you know you have two hours without an interval to sit through but it turns out to be blatantly untrue.

Because, and this is part of what writer and director Mr Zeldin is saying, everyone has a story worth telling, if you tell it right. Which is what he does as he picks out key episodes from his mother’s life that show what women had to cope with in the sexist, racist sixties and seventies, first in conservative Australia and then in ostensibly progressive Europe, and how, as they say, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

We first meet Alice as an older woman, played by Amelda Brown, standing in front of a red curtain. The curtain is drawn back and her story begins. Young Alice appears, acted by Eryn Jean Norvill. You can believe they are the same person at different stages of their life. Both have a ready smile and a vulnerability that make you empathise, as her creativity is suppressed by those around her: “You don’t need to set the bar at an unrealistic height for yourself,”says her first husband.

Also revealed is Marg Horwell’s clever set. It occupies a standard proscenium arch but, within that, there is smaller space , giving two areas for scenes to take place. Often we see the scenes changing, and how the set is constructed, as if all the memories are in the same space, in other words Alice’s mind.

The fact that it is patently a piece of theatre, from the set itself to the way the older Alice observes the younger one, sometimes smiling, sometimes distressed, enourages us to consider what is false memory, wishful thinking, interpretation, or just plain made up.  Alice and a friend even argue over what happened in a particular shared memory- one we have witnessed earlier. As her second and much nicer husband says: both memories can be true. So it is clear that we are being told a story, and indeed our memories are a story we tell ourselves.

It is, as people are fond of saying these days, Alice’s truth, or perhaps to be absolutely fair, Alexander Zeldin’s interpretation of her truth, and as such it speaks to our hearts. Even while theatricality reigns, we are convinced of the truth of what we are being shown, and this is partly because the conversations between people are totally natural. They talk over one another, falter, and fail to finish sentences.

Many of the men in her life attempt to bring her down. We also see from early on how women, from school friends to her mother to a right-on feminist, try to undermine her confidence. Like the men, in order to make them feel better about their own situation, they have to diminish others.

A truly shocking scene of sexual assault

Alice’s first husband Graham is pretty nasty, but the worst man she meets is Terry, an art historian. Graham is initially stiff and shy but eventually is revealed as possessive and rigid in his thinking. He insists against her objections on having sex to make a baby (“I’ll only take a few minutes” he says).

Terry is big headed and narcissistic. She gets the better of him in an argument about art and he regains his self respect by raping her. A scene that is played out behind a door in excruciating silence. A truly chilling moment. Followed by an extraordinary scene of retribution in which the older Alice gets him to strip naked. She too takes clothes off, then denies him sex, thus teaching him a humiliating lesson in consent. I imagine the reason it’s the older Alice doing this is because it’s what she wishes she had done at the time rather than what actually happened.

Eryn Jean Norvill in The Confessions. Photo: Christophe Raynaud de Lage

Both these brutal men are played by the same actor, Joe Bannister, who creates two very  different characters but shows us that they are cut from the same threadbare cloth.

Similarly, the two women who try most to eat away at her confidence – her mother and the feminist Eva – are both played by Pamela Rabe, again an impressive acting achievement in creating two contrasting but comparable characters, one passive aggressive, the other a larger-than-life bully.

The other actors are just as talented, often in multiple parts, and often making the same point about similarities. Jerry Killick plays two obnoxious men, a neighbour Eldon and a lecturer Joss. Brian Lipson is Alice’s caring but ineffective father and her kindly but nervous companion Jacob.

Yasser Zadeh plays various sincere, emotional young men including her friend Leigh. Lilit Lesser as Pat, a naval officer, shows that men don’t have a monopoly on racism, militarism or immorality. Gabrielle Scawthorn is Alice’s friend Susie who swaps one restricted life for another.

A quick word of praise for the lighting by Paule Constable: the house lights stay up for the whole show but there are many subtle changes of mood. And Yannis Philippakis provides dramatic sonorous music.

In the end, you are uplifted by Alice’s ability to survive what her mother called a world full of hard surfaces, thanks to her resilience and self belief. There is a fantastic moment, when the smaller arch turns around completely and she steps through it like Pierrot in the painting by Watteau that she so admires.

When her son played by Lilit Lesser, who could be the author, eventually arrives on the stage and is revealed as a rude, angry teenager, we have proof that children don’t know their parents and only see them from their selfish point of view, unless they take the trouble to find out more, as the brilliant Alexander Zeldin has, in this extraordinary story of an ordinary life.

The Confessions can be seen at The National Theatre until 4 November 2023 and then at Comédie de Genève (8-12 November), Théâtre de Liège (15-18 November) and Comédie de la Clermont (22-24 November).

Paul paid for his own ticket.

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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.

Rock Follies – Minerva Chichester – Review

Legendary TV series returns as a musical

Three female actors standing in a line raising their right arms in a scne from Rock Follies at the Minerva Theatre Chichetser in July 2023
Zizi Strallen, Angela Marie Hurst & Carly Bawden in Rock Follies. Photo: Johan Persson

Back in 1976, when Rock Follies first appeared on the nation’s screens, TV was very different to today. There was no satellite or streaming, not even recorders, so whereas nowadays 3 million viewers is considered a success, back then Rock Follies had 15 million people watching live.

Consequently, many older people will remember it well, however anyone under, say, 60, may be puzzled as to what the fuss is about. So first, a bit of background. It’s hard to imagine now but in the 1970s, women were rare in the British pop charts and female groups were non-existent. The pop industry was dominated by men both on and off stage. Rock Follies imagined the fate of a female singing group.
And that fate at that time was always likely to be one of chauvinism and exploitation. Equal pay for women had only come into law a few months before the series began. The assumption was still that women in the music industry would be secretaries or groupies. It was a very different world, although the Me-Too movement has shown that less has changed than we might hope.
The title Rock we understand, but why Follies? I’m not sure. Perhaps the creators wanted to reassure an older audience who might be wary of a TV drama about rock music that it would be in the tradition of the spectacular song and dance ‘Follies’ from the early part of the 20th century. Or maybe it was meant to be an ironic suggestion that the idea of a female rock group was a foolish fantasy.
In fact, there’s a lot of irony involved in Rock Follies. Given the way the three singers are treated in the drama, it’s ironic that the people who actually came up with the original idea were also three women but it was used without payment or credit by the television company. Only after a court case are Diane Langton, Gaye Brown and Annabel Leventon getting the recognition they deserve, including a credit in the programme for this new musical version at the Minerva Theatre.
And,  although it is a story of three feminist women who challenge the male world by writing and singing their own songs, the original screenplay and lyrics were written by a man, Howard Schuman. That’s not a criticism. Mr Schuman created great characters and a compelling story. The songs were also composed by a man, the talented Andy Mackay from Roxy Music.
In the current production, the backing musicians are all men. A good band, by the way, led by Toby Higgins.
So when the women call themselves The Little Ladies and then have to explain ‘it’s ironic’, the question is always there: how ironic is it when they are patronised, abused and exploited by men from the music industry, and manipulated into being something they don’t want to be? The women also encounter chauvinist journalists, drugs and messy personal relationships. They do try to stand their ground and some of the best moments are when the men are put in their place.  Eventually, they are driven apart by internal rivalry and differences. (By the way, a lot of young male pop artists were also abused and exploited.)
It’s been the job of Chloë Moss to take all the riches of ten hours of TV drama and reduce them to a two-and-a-half hour musical, while integrating nearly all of two albums worth of songs. On the whole, she does a good job, retaining the essential elements, and making a few changes for the sake of a much shorter story arc. Where I think she could have done better is to have slowed the pace a little. We rush through scene after scene. This is partly because there are over 30 songs to fit in. Good as they are, and often accompanied by some delightful choreography by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille, they don’t tend to advance the story or reveal character.
Consequently, there is even less time to get to know the characters and be involved in their experiences. The dialogue is often a brief exchange that can sound stilted. Having said that, the musical could have done with the women performing more than one song in a row, maybe at the end. That way, they could have got the audience clapping along and appreciating the women united in ‘girl power’.

Strong singers

Philippa Stefani and cast in Rock Follies. Photo: Johan Persson

The main characters are well drawn. Dee is a strong feminist and the driving force of the group. Played by Angela Marie Hurst, she has, and is meant to have, the best voice- a stirring top note-hitting soul sound. Anna, played by Carly Bawden is the intellectual. She’s thoughtful but also unable to cope with pressure. Zizi Strallen is the funny, privileged Q, who avoids confrontation, and has, as someone says, splinters in her bottom from sitting on the fence.

The two people who try to guide them with some degree of care are Harry, played as kindly but weak, by Samuel Barnett and Kitty, a plain speaking, forceful American, played by Tamsin Carroll, who probably gets the most laughs. Philippa Stefani, a late addition to the group, is a plain-speaking Geordie called Roxy who adds another powerful voice.
The others are pretty much one dimensional but, in the time available, it would unfair to expect them to be anything more. The cast including Fred Haig, Stephenson Ardern-Sodje and Sebastian Torkia bring them to life.
Designer Vicki Mortimer makes clever and appropriate use of flight cases (those black boxes with metal edges that are on wheels and contain sound equipment) to represent all the furniture as needed- dressing tables, chairs, even a bed. They roll easily on and off and around the otherwise empty stage floor with the minimum of fuss but the maximum of effect.
In such an open space, lighting plays a vital part. Paule Constable‘s design is excellent at conveying the varying atmospheres of a pub, an office, a recording studio, a dressing room, a TV chat show, and of course a concert stage.
For me, Rock Follies didn’t quite work in the Chichester Festival Theatre’s Minerva Theatre. It’s an intimate theatre with the audience on three sides. There’s no reason why a musical shouldn’t work there. I recall a brilliant production of The Pajama Game. But it does require the actors to play to all three sides.
Unfortunately, the back of the stage is filled with a structure that accommodates the live band at the top and a small stage for the occasional song sung at a concert. I don’t doubt this was brought about by necessity but it has the effect of forcing the cast too far forward into the open space.  Director Dominic Cooke moves the cast around in a smooth flowing performance but they inevitably pitch too much of the show to the centre with their backs, or at best their sides, often being all that can be seen from the extreme edges of the seating. If you do decide to see this show, I strongly recommend that you sit in that centre block.
Nevertheless, Rock Follies is an entertaining musical blessed with some very good performances.
Rock Follies runs at the Minerva until 26 August 2023
Paul was given a review ticket by the producer

Guys And Dolls – Bridge Theatre – review

Daniel Mays & Marisha Wallace lead an extraordinary theatrical experience


The cast of Guys And Dolls at the Bridge Theatre London dance on stage
Guys And Dolls at the Bridge Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

From the moment you walk into the auditorium at the Bridge Theatre and see the in-the-round arrangement, with half the audience milling about on the stage floor, neon lights hanging above them, you know this production of Guys And Dolls is going to be something special.

If you’re not familiar with Guys And Dolls, you might wonder what makes it for many people including myself the greatest musical. Of course, there are other candidates but it’s hard to find another that offers quite such riches. Thanks to Abe Burrows, and the source material by Damon Runyon, it has a clever, fast moving, romantic plot with witty, captivating dialogue. This is integrated with a packed score of classic songs by Frank Loesser from solos to duets to trios to ensembles, that set the mood, carry the story forward, and bring out all the complexities of the characters.

Until now, Richard Eyre‘s legendary National Theatre production of 1982 (for those of us that saw it) is probably the one every other production is judged by, but the Bridge Theatre‘s Nicholas Hytner has produced a rival.

The overture begins, the neon signs fly upwards, and risers appear out of the floor. Designer Bunny Christie has choreographed the rise and fall of numerous platforms across the whole of the stage area as beautifully as Arlene Phillips has the dancing. Working in the round is never easy for the lighting designer, but the stage, or stages are cleverly lit by Paule Constable so all is illuminated without the light getting in your eyes.

It took some time for my jaw to stop dropping, as the incredible front-of-house staff, many in police outfits, gently corralled the crowd out of the way of the many different interconnecting platforms going seamlessly up and down.

And that’s just the beginning of the way director Nicholas Hytner tackles the challenge of presenting a musical that, for all its qualities, is still riven with the sexism of the 1950s. By making a significant chunk of the audience part of the show, they (and by proxy those of us who were sitting)  join the strange parallel universe of Runyonland, a world with stylised language, comic criminals, and binary guys and dolls. In this fantasy world, the men can all be gamblers and wastrels following Nathan Detroit’s floating crap game, and the women can all be Christian missionaries or strippers- the classic virgin or whore, until the happy ending brings us back to a more normal world, as if we have woken from a dream.

Then there’s the way Mr Hytner has cast the show. There are two love stories that give Guys And Dolls its momentum. For a bet, gambler Sky Masterston needs to seduce Sarah Brown, the buttoned-up leader of a Salvation Army-like mission. And Nathan Detroit needs to keep stringing along his hapless fiancée of 14 years, Miss Adelaide. In other words, the women are presented in the musical as the weaker sex. So, as if to make up for this, the production gives them the best and strongest voices in the show.

That’s no offence to Daniel Mays in the role of Nathan Detroit who has a decent singing voice. He sings his big duet Sue Me with great poignancy, but it is not challenging as a song, given that it was originally written for Sam Levine who was tone deaf. Andrew Richardson as Sky Masterson also sounds perfectly good but Celinde Schoenmaker as Sarah has a big lunged, high note hitting voice. And Marisha Wallace, who plays Miss Adelaide has a voice that could blow the roof off, and a personality to match. So while Miss Adelaide is a slave to her love for Nathan, in every other respect she comes across as a liberated, strong woman.

When Sarah and Adelaide sing the duet Marry The Man Today, they match one another note for note and provide one of the highlights of the show.

The rest of the cast are racially diverse, which is another way of pulling the musical into the present day.

The tone of the musical is set from the first number when out of the bustling crowd of actors and audience emerge a trio of petty criminals who sing Tinhorn Fugue, a song about betting on horses in which the actors sing different lyrics simultaneously to the same tune. The complexity of this circular canon delights and exhilarates, and sets us up for a musical which will continue to excite those emotions.

And what emotions they are. We’re quickly plunged into the first meeting between Sky and Sarah in which they sing the beautiful romantic song I’ll Know in which each describes their ideal lover.

The transformational power of love is the driving force of this musical, or, as the song puts it: ‘When you see a guy reach for stars in the sky,
you can bet that he’s doing it for some doll.’ In this production, the sexual side of love is accentuated. Miss Adelaide’s cabaret act is raunchier than I’ve ever seen it, especially when the Hot Box dancers give us a highly suggestive strip show to the tune of Take Back Your Mink; and in the Havana night club to which Sky takes Sarah, there is some very sensual dancing, at times between male couples (another nod to modernity).

Arlene Phillips’ dance routines are outstanding

Guys And Dolls at the Bridge Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

And that trip to Havana is the point at which Sky and Sarah fall in love. Sarah, having got drunk, gets in a fight, then sings the stand-out song If I Were A Bell. Celinde Schoenmaker hits jaws and notes with equal force. For me, this was the best of legendary choreographer Arlene Phillips’ many outstanding dance routines, as Sarah leaps on and off lampposts and free falls into Sky’s arms. Both song and movement express the exuberance of falling in love.

Daniel Mays is peerlessBack to the floating crap game: before Andrew Richardson‘s slightly rumpled Sky Masterton sings a tense version of Luck, Be A Lady, Nathan Detroit is found squirming in the threatening presence of the gangster Big Jule, played by Cameron Johnson. While Daniel Mays is perfectly capable as a singer, as an actor he is peerless. Think Del Boy Trotter meets Arthur Daley and you get some idea of his realisation of a character who is both dominant to those below him and submissive to those above. Nathan may have a New York accent but in Daniel Mays’ hands he is straight out of the East End, titfer and all.

Then, as the gamblers assemble in the Mission Hall, we come to the moment we’ve all been waiting for: Sit Down, You’re Rocking The Boat, another fast, intoxicating song. It’s a classic 11 o’clock number (the name given to a showstopper that comes near the end of a musical), and Cedric Neal as Nicely-Nicely Johnson certainly does stop the show!

The song gets the many encores it deserves and the audience expects, not only for Mr Neal’s enthusiastic singing but also for the way the congregation sway in unison in their seats- yet another inventive dance sequence choreographed by Arlene Phillips. It’s a climactic moment that catapults us to the resolution of the plot.

But it ain’t over til it’s over. After the finale featuring the song Guys And Dolls, and the bows and the applause, the cast stay on the floor to dance with the audience, as the orchestra under the direction of Tom Brady plays us out.

If I have one reservation, it’s this. It’s inevitable that, with the risers going up and down, there is minimum scenery. No problem most of the time, but occasionally you may lose track of where we’re supposed to be.

One last thing. While the show is intended to be immersive and is aimed first and foremost at those standing on the floor, not everyone will want to stand and look up for over two hours. If you decide to buy a seat, the best in my opinion are in the centre of stalls rows BB and CC. In these seats, you will be level with the actors on the raised platforms, and feel close to the action. You will also be able to see the splendid orchestra on the opposite side of the auditorium at the back of the circle, and, as a bonus, you will have easy access to the onstage party at the end of the show.

Guys And Dolls is at The Bridge Theatre until 2 September 2023

Paul paid for his ticket

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




Jonathan Bailey & Taron Egerton in Cock – review

Celebrity casting maybe, good acting definitely


Production photo from Mike Bartlett's comedy Cock at the Ambassadors Theatre in London showing Taron Egerton and Jonathan Bailey. March 2022
Taron Egerton & Jonathan Bailey in Cock. Photo: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

Let me make clear from the start the ‘cock’ of the title does not refer to a penis, although there are quite a few references to penises in the play. So, no jokes about limp performances (there weren’t any), standing up at the end (they did) or Mike Bartlett’s Cock not being very long (it’s only 105 minutes).

The title alludes to a cock fight, because it’s about a love triangle in which two people are rivals for a third person’s love and he struggles to choose between them. It’s a play about an ostensibly gay couple one of whom finds himself attracted to a woman, and, although interesting questions are asked about how we define people’s sexuality, it’s primarily a comedy.

And since you ask, although sex is referred to regularly throughout the play, and it is quite erotic at times, the actors keep their clothes on and use stylised movements to indicate physical activity. I’m pretty sure no intimacy advisor was needed.

There are two star names in this play. So, let me start with their performances, and say that both earn their place on the stage, not because they’re celebrities but because they’re damn good actors.

Taron Egerton is best known for his performances in the films Rocketman and Kingsman, but he is RADA trained and has appeared at the National Theatre. Here he is the unnamed M (for Man, get it?). He gives a nuanced performance as what appears to be the dominant lover in a long term relationship. He plays to perfection this swaggering character who hides, in a very masculine way, his need for love. Mr Egerton has a wonderful ability to switch from a jaw jutting bully to soft and red-eyed with tears, and he delivers lines of waspish humour with a lashing tongue.

Jonathan Bailey is one of the many ridiculously attractive people from Bridgerton and destined to become the central character in the second series. He too has a good track record in theatre, including an Olivier Award. He plays M’s partner, the only character given a name, not that ‘John’ is much of an ID. His character is painfully indecisive. Mr Bailey provides many enjoyable moments of comedy, as he grimaces with his face and contorts his body in a child-like way, whilst avoiding making his mind up. If anything, there is just a little too much goofiness. We know he is suffering because there are moments outside of the action when he is alone and bathed in harsh light screaming silently, but in his interaction with the other characters, he doesn’t show quite enough of this angst.

Both are physically right for the parts, Mr Bailey thin and gangly, Mr Egerton stocky and muscular. Not quite Laurel and Hardy, but it would hard to imagine either playing the other role.

An impressive production

What you notice when you enter the auditorium is Merle Hensel’s impressive set. It’s chrome or some similar polished metal curved around the sides and back of the stage. There’s no escaping it. There are no distracting props and the one way in and out is a concealed revolving door. All that happens is reflected back on itself, conveying the way these characters are trapped in their relationships and unable to see beyond them. There are some hanging fluorescent strips which come down from time to time and these along with other lighting changes from dark to brilliantly bright, orchestrated by Paule Constable, match and enhance the mood changes.

First, we meet M and John. They’re relaxed in each other’s company. There’s a lot of affection. There’s also a lot of sniping and bickering, but anyone who’s been in a long term relationship will recognise how natural this is, because it is easy to get into negative ways of behaving.

However, there is a problem with this relationship. The cliché of a seven year itch perhaps. John has had sex with someone else. Shockingly for both of them, given that M is gay and until now John has thought of himself as gay, the other person is a woman. M’s dominating character and the way he resorts to unpleasantness hint at why John might have been tempted to stray. It has to be said that, while the insults may hurt John, they are funny for us to hear, for example when he launches into a string of offensive terms for someone who is attracted to women.

The cast of Cock. Photo: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

In the second act, we see how this other relationship began and developed. Jade Anouka (you may recognise her from His Dark Materials) is excellent as the woman with whom John has an affair and falls in love. Her character is called W (for woman). There isn’t so much potential for comedy in this part, but Ms Anouka exudes the love and need for love of her character. John shows nervousness but clear attraction, and there’s a gentleness and respect between them that wasn’t apparent in John’s relationship with M. But of course he is still attracted to M, and Mr Bailey is at his comic best when he is confused about what he wants, beyond wanting to please everybody. It is his indecisiveness that enables his lovers to mould him into what they need.

Stylised movement is moving

This is a good point to mention the way they first make love. As I said earlier, there is next to no physical intimacy beyond a kiss or a hug. They keep their clothes on. You’ll also remember I said the set is bare of any props. Throughout the play, body movement expresses thoughts and feelings without resorting to obvious mime. So much of the physical action is left to your imagination.  For example, a whole meal is served in the third act without any sign of a table a bowl or cutlery.

Going back to this first encounter between John and W, they indicate through the dialogue what they are doing, while staying physically separate on stage. She wants to see his naked body. He moves his hands to indicate the shedding of clothes without literally miming taking off each item.  Similarly, they describe him exploring her vagina but what we see, from memory, is him touching his leg and her using her body to express the excitement she is feeling inside. This exploration of each other’s bodies is highly erotic, proving perhaps that the best sex is in the brain. I congratulate director Marianne Elliott is for utilising this remarkably effective element, and the movement director Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster for making it work so well.

This and the set and the lighting could only happen in a theatre and all contribute to a complete experience that enhances what’s said. Talking of which, Mike Bartlett has an excellent ear for dialogue- just the exchanges you would expect both from a long term relationship and a first meeting.

If I have a criticism of the production, it’s that it looks too good. It’s so stylish with its cold encompassing metal and its stylised movement that it takes away some of the raw feeling from these relationships.

The third act is the cock fight. M invites W to join him and John for dinner. It feels contrived but gives us the showdown we want. M brings along his father for good measure. He’s called F (of course) and is played by Phil Daniels, in a performance that shows a parent’s blinkered affection – he wants his son to be happy- and gives us insight into the limitations of both liberal tolerance and a view that defines people by their sexuality and gender.

M and W each think John has chosen them and is going to take the opportunity to reject the other. As the evening progresses, there’s verbal sparring, and increasingly desperate emotion as it becomes clear how much each of them needs John. He meanwhile continues to be pulled one way and another both by his feelings and by what box he should tick, with the possibility that it’s all ‘cock’, as in cock and bull.

Cock is funny a lot of the time, it lectures some of the time, and it’s not as deep as I suspect it thinks it is, but as a look at the way hearts break the rules set by our brains, it’s full of insight, especially in the hands of its starry cast.

Cock is running at the Ambassadors Theatre in London until 4 June 2022

Paul received a press ticket from the producer

Watch the review of Cock on YouTube


Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle

Take a chance on this love story with Anne-Marie Duff & Kenneth Cranham


Click here to see my review of Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Anne-Marie Duff & Kenneth Cranham in Heisenberg The Uncertainty Principle by Simon Stephens at Wyndhams Theatre London
Anne-Marie Duff & Kenneth Cranham in Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle

I predict you’ll like Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle but whether you do or not depends on so many factors. An evening at the theatre is unpredictable, like the relationship that’s the subject of Simon Stephens’ new play.

Don’t let the title of put you off. It isn’t about quantum mechanics or science generally, it’s a charming love story, albeit an unlikely one.

The title does hint that it’s not a stereotypical romantic comedy designed to tug at our heartstrings. It’s more of a study of how two apparently incompatible people- a wild forty-something woman and a buttoned-up old man- start by thinking they want one thing to achieve contentment but end up finding something else is what they needed.

Anne-Marie Duff & Kenneth Cranham are masterful

The characters are complex and contradictory. The woman even contradicts herself in the same sentence. She is over the top with confidence when she feels in control, falls apart when she doesn’t. The man is outwardly calm but he cries without warning.

As in a good mystery story (or the science of quantum mechanics), you sense that much lies between the lines of the script. It is crammed with clues and hints about their characters and why they might be attracted. As the man says of great music, it exists in ‘the spaces between the notes’.

This calls for masterful, nuanced acting and that’s what we get from Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham. Listening to them is like hearing a violin and cello recital.

Nodding to Heisenberg’s theories about atomic particles, the play shows that we can only ever think we know people and we can’t predict how they will behave. There’s a lot to savour in noticing how your first impression of the characters- her unbearably loud, him boringly quiet- changes as you get to know them and see them react to each other. Add to which, there is pathos in the losses that have shaped their lives, plus a lot of humour, particularly about getting old.

Marianne Elliott’s brilliant production

Bunny Christie’s fabulous minimalist white set reinforces the sense in Marianne Elliott’s brilliant production that we are observing a scientific experiment. It has no scenery or props to distract us. With each scene, the colour of Paule Constable’s lighting changes and the proscenium arch aperture alters from square to letterbox to oblong to almost crushing the woman at one point. This all affects our perception of what’s happening.

The play and the way it is presented inevitably make one think about the art of theatre. Heisenberg, in a different theory, talks about scientific experiments and the way atomic particles behave differently when observed. As an audience, we are observers. You may react differently to the person sitting next to you. Your enjoyment will be affected by that night’s audience (as will the performance). Like atomic particles, these two people’s fictional lives are changed unpredictably by each other but also by the audience’s observation of them in a play.

Simon Stephens has wrapped an unexpected love story around a fascinating look at the way theatre itself is an unpredictable experience.

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle is at Wyndhams Theatre, London, until 6 January 2018. Click here for tickets for Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle.

Below is the review from One Minute Theatre Reviews YouTube channel