When I sat down to watch Unicorn Theatre’s new production of The Canterville Ghost, I was not in the best of moods. Things up till that point had been rather chaotic (the show started 15 minutes late, and I overheard families complaining about being seated apart due to confusion over seating) and the disability access could have been better. I was worried about my ability to be objective. It turns out I needn’t have worried, because new artistic director Justin Audibert’s production is so effortlessly smooth and sparky it would warm the coldest heart.
The plot is simple: a family of up to the minute gadget-loving Americans decamp to rainy tea-obsessed old England, where they treat a series of horrifying ghostly events with indomitable spirit. Slightly disappointingly for a play with “ghost” in the title it is not scary or spooky and the sole mystery is revealed almost immediately, but it’s just so much good fun.
The cast are without exception a joy to watch (though the stereotypical gender dynamics of nagging perfectionist wife and laid back husband could stand to be updated), with special praise going to Safiyya Ingar’s Virginia whose genuine empathy towards the ‘ghost’ provides a much-needed counterbalance to the boisterous humour of the rest of the cast, and to Paul McEwan’s Sir Simon who leaves no scenery unchewed, but in a good way. The magic tricks used to break up the scenes in the form of adverts for the ghost-removing products broke up the narrative too much, but the younger members of the audience were certainly enthralled.
The thing that stands out most from this production is the obvious utter commitment from everyone involved to give a child audience the most entertainment possible, without patronising them. The script isn’t afraid to go to dark – and gory – places, but don’t kids love that? This adult certainly did.
From the sublime to the ridiculous via Vauxhall and prize for the funniest and filthiest Christmas show of the year goes to Above the Stag’s annual LGBT panto which this year is a retelling of Pinocchio. Jon Bradfield and Martin Hooper’s mile-a-minute script is directed with spunky flair by new artistic director Andrew Beckett.
Man-mad Gepetta (an astounding Matthew Baldwin, who looks like Lucille Ball on acic, sounds like David Niven, and rules the entire production with an irreverent wit) and her lonely only-lesbian-in-the-village niece Cornetta (a touchingly relatable Christy Bellis) are art thieves on the run from the Vatican. With their slutty pussy (a louchely confident Briony Rawle, dressed as the year 2005), they try to survive, keep their heads down, and pursue romance.
When Dami Olukoya’s sparkly, take no shit lesbian fairy turns Pinocchio into a real boy whose finds it’s not his nose that grows longer when he lies, they are pitched into a war with with local evil landowner and fox Figaro (Christopher Lane, playing the villain with what can only be described as “moustache-twirling glee” despite absence of actual moustache). What follows is two hours of devilry, topless Sunday league Brummie footballers, magic Cadbury’s creme eggs, abandoned amusement parks, farting donkeys, a retelling of the Biblical tale of Jonah and the Whale except with drag and ballroom dancing… oh, look, it’s a panto, okay? It doesn’t need to make sense.
Though for all the ridiculousness it does manage to make sense, and beneath the puns and non-stop gags (the action takes place in the Italian hamlet of Placenta, the kind of place people move to “after birth”) is real empathy and belief in the transformative power of love, or at least the discovery of your small town’s one lesbian bar. In a recent Stage article Beckett announced his intention to make London’s LGBT theatre more reflective of the diversity of the LGBT spectrum, and as much as I love Above the Stag it does have a history of producing plays primarily about about white, cis gay men. Pinocchio isn’t perfect, but to see so much lesbian representation in a panto is not just enjoyable, it’s damn important.
Panto is pretty gay already, but this production is deliciously, unashamedly queer: it doesn’t so much flirt with its audience as shag it senseless behind the alley then send it home missing its wallet. I’m sure Jared Thompson (whose weapons-grade boyishness manages to stay this side of cloying) in donkey ears and a dog collar is meeting someone’s very specific fetish, but all shades of gender and sexual identity are welcome at Above the Stag.
If I was a different kind of critic I could write an insightful analysis of the satirical examinations of capitalism and the class system subtly seeded through this clever, zingy script. But I’m not, so I’ll just say: wasn’t it great how they got out of that whale?
It’s a cliche to describe a newer playwright’s work as “like X meets Y”, but less annoying than the usual bromides that could be accurately used to describe this play: heartwarming; tear-jerking; hilarious. So let’s just say that the Last Noel does what Annie Baker attempted to do in the Antipodes, set within a framework of an Alan Ayckbourn play. Which is to say it’s about family, and about story: those we tell, those we share, and those we pass down when we are gone. The stories that let us achieve a certain degree of immortality, which is why anyone really tells stories.
Set on a date that is not Christmas a family gather: a daughter (Anna Crichlow, gorgeously multi-layered), uncle (Dyfrig Morris, brilliantly acerbic), and grandmother (Annie Wensak, heart breaking, and dressed exactly like my late mother – which is to say exactly like every thirty-something middle class suburban English person’s mother, except in that multi-boobed jumper that recently went viral, in what I hope is an intentionally anarchic moment). They’re preparing to celebrate Christmas Day early with their respective mother/sister/daughter, for reasons that don’t become properly clear until the end.
It’s a remarkable thing when a play that breaks the fourth wall and plays with structure and meta-theatricality so much also somehow manages to be a masterclass in naturalism. Perhaps this is a cultural thing, but there is not a single moment in the Last Noel that I couldn’t identify with to the depths of my soul. Even if your own Christmases didn’t involved crackers and the dreaded sprouts (hey, I like sprouts), even if you don’t celebrate Christmas at all, there’s something deeply relatable about the universal yet unique rituals that come to define a family. The same fights, the same food, and of course the same stories.
Between shared biscuits (with the audience, if you’re lucky*) and songs both comedic and sentimental – a boozy re-telling of the 12 Days of Christmas being a highlight – a portrait of a family in crisis emerges. It’s all fairly low stakes, until suddenly it isn’t. Stories confer a certain type of immortality. Please, if you only see one Christmas show this year, go and share theirs.
*I wasn’t, but I’m not bitter about it and definitely didn’t tweet to tell Chris Bush that she owes me a biscuit.
Wunderkind actor-writer Arinzé Kene (how can one man be so talented?) knocked it out of the park again last night, with the revival of his 2011 play Little Baby Jesus. Directed by JMK Award 2019 winner Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu, this play reinforces the Orange Tree Theatre’s already solid reputation as a home for groundbreaking new writing.
Three actors portray three main and multiple secondary characters to tell simple (until they turn horribly dark) stories of every day school life for black teenagers growing up too fast. Rachel Nwokoro, Anyebe Godwin and Khai Shaw bring a captivating onstage charisma and physicality, exactly capturing the lanky-electric shock energy of adolescent bodies not yet fully in control of their own power. Nwokoro is exceptional, bringing moments of real empathy to her gobby, mardy Joanna. Godwin’s multiple characters show the full range of his maturity and versatility, while Shaw’s well-pitched child-clown Rugrat grabs the attention, but his moments of quite watchfulness suggest he’s capable of much more.
Three future stars, but the production well utilises the Orange Tree’s in the round space to make the audience a fourth character. Most of the reviews for this play (mainly written, as is this one, by a white – or in my case mostly white – critic) seem to shy away from acknowledging that the characters are black – the phrase “inner city” or “urban” used frequently, but not “black”. But blackness and the black experience is the very DNA of this play. The opening scene, in which Godwin rejects his earlier immature desire to be mixed race to praise God for “this beautiful black skin” (leading to some of the loudest cheers I’ve ever heard in a theatre) gives way to a stunning monologue on the body politics of race, moving effortlessly from the different types of textured hair hair to the mass rapes of female slaves in pre-Civil War America. It’s incredibly well-observed, and in this celebration (or sometimes lamentation) of the experience of blackness, the audience – certainly more “diverse” than you’d normally see on a Tuesday night in Richmond – found themselves, and found their own voices. The play doesn’t involve audience interaction, except a little onstage pre-show heckling, but the fourth wall feels entirely absent. Indeed one of the funniest moments in a very, very funny play involved Nwokoro responding in-character to a particularly enthusiastic audience member.
The play moves on a dime, flipping between broad physical comedy, quotidian epics where a trapped carpet becomes the stuff of legend, and incredibly dark… well I’d say tragedy, but at points it’s closer to horror. After a hilarious first half directed with great verve and humour, the second half moves into more serious and contemplative mode. The play’s epilogue, where the teens urge the audience to be true to themselves with a series of greeting card-esque platitudes, strikes the only bum note in the production. It’s trite and acts as an unnecessary full stop in a production that relishes in its lack of neat endings. In life, sometimes the best stories are messy and unresolved, and real.
It’s one of the things old people are known for, isn’t it, rabbiting on? So it makes sense, in a way, that a play created to be performed to audiences of older people and those living with dementia jumps and twitches between multiple characters and subplots.
I saw Paradise Lodge, a play about dementia, at the Chiswick Playhouse, ahead of a run which includes performances in local nursing homes and dementia day centres.
Paradise Lodge’s ‘Doodlebugs’ are a ukulele duo (‘Eric’ played by Steve Cooper,also the writer, and ‘Kylie’ – well, today she’s going by Kylie – played by Sophie Osborne), performing in the depressing titular nursing home, whose renditions of ’40s classics are disrupted by cracks in their own relationship, a storyline that is in turn interspersed with more naturalistic scenes showing the realities of dementia and of caring. This kind of meta-theatricality means the play works on various levels. The contrast between the professional over-cheeriness and the often grim realities of nursing homes pulls no punches. Indeed, fourth wall-breaking references to fictitious audience members having soiled themselves made me gasp, considering the real possibility of this happening in future performances. Dark. But as I discussed with Cooper after the show, elderly people are not stupid. Even with dementia, they are acutely aware of their own bodies. Who could not be? If you live in a nursing home that smells like boiled cabbage and human shit you know you live somewhere that smells like boiled cabbage and human shit, and no amount of sing-songs will make you forget that.
The hour-long show goes through the pressures and anxieties of caring for loved one with dementia, and the horrifying process of losing the inability to care for oneself. The show is saved from bleakness with moments of humour, songs, and real human connection.
And all of this is all very easy to write, but I have to confess to a slight failure at first to emotionally engage. I’m not sure if I am the right person to review this play, having no experience of ageing, older relatives or loved ones with any age-related disease. (One of the few benefits of having a genetic code that resembles a well-worn doggy chew toy is that your entire family tend to drop dead long before senility can become a problem. See? Warned you it was dark.)
But it started with a rabbit, and ended with something more profound. Proust’s famous Madelines gave rise to the concept of the Proustian rush, an object that instantly evokes a sense memory from the long past. Proustian rushes abound in the play; a holiday postcard, a song. For me it was a rabbit, run run running from the farmer with his gun. Such a silly, horrible little song. But suddenly I was transported to my mother’s knee, and I was in tears. Strange, the tricks our memories can play on us.
Wikipedia informs me that ‘Run Rabbit Run’ was – unfathomably – Churchill’s favourite song (he never got to hear Beyonce, though the Paradise Lodge audience do), and Churchill pops up here, too. It’s interesting that any form of nostalgia for or associated with elderly people (eld-stalgia? In Germany ‘olstagie’ sees communist artefacts of the DDR re-imagined as commodified remnants of an apparently simpler time) is based around WWII. Someone who was ten when the war started would be 90 today; the average OAP is more likely to be nostalgic for Elvis, not Vera Lynn.
But that’s memory for you.
Of course Kylie isn’t interested in any of this. Young and ambitious, her head full of dreams of West End stardom. Twining a subplot so completely about youth with the story (told in flashbacks) of Paradise Lodge patients as they struggle to comprehend – over and over again – that their loved ones are long dead, doesn’t fully work. There’s a lot of interesting potential to explore themes of identity and memory, but the comic metatheatricality of the play-within-a-play (in a nursing home, in a nursing home) isn’t quite as well-integrated with the beautifully poignant story of two older people as it could be.
But at that point I was still crying, lost to my own memories. My mother — my very recently deceased mother — wore a red headscarf wrapped to create two sticky up points like bunny ears, and her nickname was rabbit. Steve Cooper was inspired to write this play by his own experience of caring for his mother-in-law, and more than anything the play exists as a homage to her. And I guess in part I am writing this review as my own homage. People become lost to us in all sorts of ways, but they can live forever in memory.
And so the Doodlebugs will leave their audience, real and imagined. Eric will continue to be so painfully, ineffectually compassionate. Future Kylies will come and go, stars in their eyes. Audiences of people with dementia will see this play, and write their own reviews in their heads which we will never get to see, and they would probably be more interesting than mine. And my mother will run forever, because rabbits never get old.
Fanny & Stella: The Shocking True Story opened last week at the Above the Stag Theatre in Vauxhall. The true story of Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, who scandalised the country by living as women and engaging in “conspiracy to commit sodomy” (a lot). Boulton and Park’s story is one I’ve been fascinated with since first reading Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England, the 2013 non-fiction book which also inspired this production.
Glenn Chandler’s “play with songs” shows how drama can go so much further than documentary, both in exploring the psychological and socio-cultural constructs of gender and dress, and in centering Fanny and Stella as the narrators of their own story. The play takes the form a show performed in a working men’s club by the pair themselves after their arrest and trial; we the audience are watching the story exactly as Fanny and Stella choose to tell it to us. We seem them bicker between themselves (and with their put upon theatre manager-turned-unwilling actor, played to great effect by the hilarious Mark Pearce), and force the audience to vote on their guilt after a subversively brief and campy recreation of their trial, following brutal interrogation and incarceration in Newgate Prison.
Fanny & Stella is hilarious, campy, and high energy; kicking off with the earworm-inducing ‘Sodomy on the Strand’. The production hangs on the brilliant performances of the two leads, Kieran Parrott and Tobias Charles (making what the programme notes is his professional debut, and one that indicates a long and successful career to come). But what’s most interesting is what’s missing. By allowing Fanny and Stella to control the narrative, we see only what they want us to see. And what they want us to see is a performance, an illusion. The framing device empowers the characters and certainly makes scenes forced intimate examinations easier to watch. We are allowed a glimpse into the glamorous world of sisterhoods and loving marriages between men. They choose not to show us (at least too much) the other side: the abuse and oppression, the prostitution, the early deaths. LGBT people don’t need to see; we live it. We’ve lived it for far too long. Ernest Boulton/Stella and Frederick Park/Fanny are commemorated with one of the UK’s famous blue plaques outside their old lodgings in Bloomsbury. The plaque reads, simply, “Victorian crossdressers.”
Miles Jupp’s one-man show ‘The Life I Lead’ (essentially a biography of actor David Tomlinson, best known for his roles in Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks) opens this week at Park Theatre after a national tour.
Over the course of an hour and a half Jupp brings Tomlinson’s genial buffoonery and gentle good humour to life. After a slow start, the laughs start to come thick and fast as Tomlinson reflects on his experiences of working with Walt Disney (despite rather putting his foot in his mouth); nipping round the other end of Shaftesbury Avenue to try to further a romance conducted almost entirely during the intervals of their respective farces with the actress who would become his wife; and his first steps towards an acting career, in the days when his hat-acting (a hilarious physical comedy sequence) was much in demand, his speaking-acting substantially less so.
What at first seems like a light-weight but entertaining portrait of one of the now dying ranks of the ‘gentlemen actors’ (complete with musings on what it is to be English) takes a sudden lurch into a very dark place with a rather matter-of-fact recital of the murder-suicide of his wife and step-children only two months after their marriage. That such a horrendous tragedy is so briefly touched upon (and so swiftly moved on from) is at first shocking, but feels increasingly respectful towards a man whose fundamentally “glass half full” attitude saw him overcome great trauma and personal conflict to find lasting love, success and happiness. Underpinning Tomlinson’s one-liner-bestrewn chatter about children and holidays in the sun is a rather dark and complex examination of father-son relationships. Tomlinson reflects on his relationship with his own son, one of the first children in the UK to be diagnosed with autism, and gradually teases out the root of his own distant relationship with his forbidding father. Darkness and light, pain and humour. Was ever comedy not thus?
Jupp perfectly captures Tomlinson’s complexities and overall sweetness, combining physical comedy and vulnerability with an overall lightness of touch. The framing device doesn’t quite work and feels unnecessary, but James Kettle’s script is a thing of subtle joy. Audiences may know Tomlinson as Mr Banks, but his celebrity is not the focus of this play. Rather it’s simply a portrait of a man; a son and a father, who lived a life not of quiet desperation but of quiet hope despite despair
RomanceRomance, the all-male gay musical which opened at the Above the Stag Theatre in Vauxhall, is a beautiful and ornate chocolate box of a production. This new adaptation gender-flips the 1987 Broadway original, which featured three heterosexual couples and explored deceit and fidelity in relationships.
Comprising two separate one-act plays (unrelated bar the unifying theme of love), we move from 19th century upper-class Vienna to 21st-century upper-class New York state in a flurry of beautiful homes, silk dressing gowns, and soft pink light. The plots of both are lightweight: a wealthy but jaded man-about-town pretends to be an impoverished artist to try to meet someone who loves him for more than his money and falls in love with another wealthy but bored dandy who is also pretending to be… you get the drift. Their delicate and saccharine romance reaches moments of near-drama when one or other idly ponder how their poverty-stricken other half can afford to splash money on first class travel and vacations, but even their eventual joint exposure doesn’t cause more than a brief uneasy moment. Flash forward a hundred years and two married men, best friends since college, spend a long night discussing — but no more than discussing — the possibility of cheating on their respective husbands.
As a production, it is utterly lovely. Like being cocooned in a music box made of silk and feathers. The cast is uniformly excellent, the 19th-century piece in particular performed with charming arch uber-campness. The songs are delightful if not especially memorable (the witty and fresh choreography and effervescent energy more than compensating) and many scenes, especially a perfectly performed musical number about aging in the second half, are extremely funny.
It feels pedantic to pick holes in such a sweet frothy production; like kicking a particularly fluffy kitten or putting a fist into a lemon meringue pie. But I keep going backward and forwards trying to interrogate the political subtext of the play, or decide whether there even was one. One the one hand, it’s refreshing and even liberating to see happy low-stakes gay romances on stage after so many decades of gay theatre = AIDS. (The main exception to that rule, Bent, isn’t exactly a laugh a minute. The LGBT stage canon desperately needs more joy and fluff, and where better to steal it than the worlds of 19th century Vienna, and musical theatre?) And truly there’s something comforting and weirdly hypnotic about the lack of real conflict. But on the other hand all six lead characters seem so firmly to inhabit a world of unquestioned wealth and privilege, there is such a complete absence of diversity, it’s frustrating to not see this explored more. The production blurb teases: “Two bored high-society lovers disguise themselves as struggling members of the working class. Can their love survive without the comforts and luxuries they’re used to?” But we don’t see this; both continue to spend money freely, and neither seriously questions how a supposedly impoverished person can afford such luxuries. Perhaps this is all a very subtle clever satire on the obliviousness of the ultra-privileged? Perhaps watching two gay men in long-term monogamous marriages agonise over the very possibility of infidelity is stereotype-breaking in and off itself? Perhaps, at the end of the day, portraying same-sex love in all its sweet, stupid, boring, beautiful, young, old, ice cream-eating, black tie-wearing glory — perhaps that is revolutionary enough?
Although in my non-blogging life I inhabit the world of ‘new writing,’ one of my secret passions has always been restoration comedy. But amongst the pretty frocks and byzantine misdealings (and excellent jokes and good fun), there’s usually a heteronormative reduction of women to marriageable/unmarriageable objects which fits badly with my feminist anarchist Royal-Court-Upstairs credentials.
I’ve long praised Paul Miller’s work in establishing the Orange Tree Theatre as a must-visit home for some of the most radical and brave new writing in London, while not alienating their core Richmond-dwelling audience base. Alongside boundary-pushing work like Pomona and An Octoroon, they have quietly captured the market in feminist deconstructions of restoration comedy, the genre I never knew I needed. A couple of years ago I reviewed the joyous Lottery of Love for this blog. Now the chaise longue has been dug out of storage for this re-imagining of William Congreve’s 1693 marriage farce The Double Dealer.
The production starts with the actors as actors, preparing the stage and audience for what’s to come: a wedding, or a play? Both? Is there a line between the real and the fictional? A newly-written prologue warns/reassures the audience that the plot doesn’t really matter, to sit back and enjoy the ride. Indeed, the plot is almost impenetrable: a young couple plan their wedding, but various baddies plot and scheme to split them apart (then plot and scheme against each other), only to be exposed and expelled via the simple plot device of forgetting to check behind curtains.
Characterisation is not this play’s strong point, and what makes the Double Dealer hard to connect with is the really quite extraordinary stupidity of the characters, so trusting of their Iago-like friends they ignore being flatly told, “Hey, I’m plotting to break up your marriage and have you cast out of your family!” I suppose there’s a subtext about the human tendency towards believing what we want to believe based on emotive reasoning while turning a blind eye to evidence and what’s objectively best for us (and thank god the production didn’t try to turn it into some kind of tired Trump/Brexit metaphor). But it doesn’t quite go far enough, and certain scenes, like a woman staging her own faked rape, straddle an uneasy line between physical comedy and problematic gender politics.
What saves the production is the acting. Edward MacLiam steals the show as the gleefully mendacious Maskwell (because he wears his lies like a mask, geddit?), turning in a performance versatile enough to encompass the character’s intelligence and manipulation while remaining panto-villain comedic enough that his eventual fall doesn’t feel too silly. Zoë Waites’s multi-roles to perfection flipping (sometimes within the same scene) between the naive innocent heroine Cynthia, and the villainous Lady Touchwood. Jenny Rainsford, Jonathan Coy, and Simon Chandler also turn incredible and layered performances while embracing the physical comedy and sheer silliness of this play, while the always watchable Jonathan Broadbent is sadly underused.