Good Ship Comedy sets sail for new home in Camden

Sad times on Monday night in Kilburn as the Good Ship hosted its final Monday-night comedy gig. The Good Ship closes this weekend after changes to its licence has made it unprofitable and forced owner John McCooke to sell.

Monday night comedy was a core part of the formative years  of the West Hampstead community initiative I began in 2009. Thus it seemed fitting for a few of us to return on Monday to say farewell. It was a busy night. A great line up kicked off by Matt Winning (if you don’t know him – go see him), with local favourite Jay Foreman on the bill as well as one-time hosts Jonny & the Baptists. Angela Barnes will go down in comedy history as the woman who closed the final night – and she did a storming set.

Angela Barnes headlines the last night of Monday night comedy

The Good Ship always had a special place in my West Hampstead heart. For a couple of years around 2011/2012, a constantly evolving group of locals – initially loosely coordinated by me, but increasingly just turning up because they’d know someone there – would head along for an evening of (mostly) high-quality comedy hosted then by the irrepressible Juliet Stephens.

The Good Ship was a different sort of comedy night: low-key, friendly, light on the heckling, rich on the applause – and it even had a weekly raffle, free with your ticket entry. It attracted a mixed crowd. At just £4, it was well within the reach of most, so students from the Central School of Speech & Drama in Swiss Cottage were always well represented. But there were also some older people for whom it was clearly a friendly escape.

There were characters like Freddy, who some of you will remember from his stints as our doorman at whampgathers; there were running jokes about Fisk (look it up) and the bag of shit from the poundshop. But newcomers were always warmly welcomed and even the quieter nights were good fun, while the buzzy nights could be a pounding success with laughs reverberating around the pit. It was an integral part of creating a community.

Jay Foreman with his astonishing tube station song

Comedians themselves liked The Good Ship. It was a safe space to try out some new material – on one of my very first visits there Ed Byrne popped in to do 5 minutes – and the Edinburgh preview shows were a ridiculously good value way to see top stand-ups deliver full shows for a fraction of the price you’d pay once they reached Scotland.

Juliet finally moved on and after a few different interim hosts, her place at the helm was confidently taken by Ben Van der Velde, who has masterfully steered the Good Ship Comedy for the past few years. Ben has rebuilt the momentum of the club and kept that friendly vibe. Wonderful news therefore, that even as we mourn the end of the Good Ship, the comedy night will continue from November 6th at a new venue. The Colonel Fawcett pub in Camden will host; the name will remain (hopefully in perpetuity – no-one wants to see “Unfawced Laughter”) and (eek) the price will go up. By £1. Details and tickets here.

It’s going to be a a challenge to rebuild in a new venue, so do go along and support it if you can. The pub is really close to Camden Road overground station, so it’s really no big deal to get there from West Hampstead or Kilburn. The line-ups are just as good but any comedy night is really only as good as its audiences. The Good Ship’s always had one of the best. Long may it sail.

Full house for Downton star’s romp through an illustrious career

Jim Carter. Photo by Eugene Regis

Jim Carter. Photo by Eugene Regis

Local actor Jim Carter, best known for playing Carson the butler in Downton Abbey, broke all records at West Hampstead Library on Wednesday night by drawing the biggest crowd for a Friends of West Hampstead Library event since Stephen Fry in 2001. The “house full” notice went up at 7.30pm, just as the event started.

The evening, hosted by FoWHL Chair Simon Inglis, began with Jim playing a guessing game with the audience based on key elements of his acting career. With typical generosity he handed a bottle of champagne to the winner.

With Simon as a foil, the two of them made a fine comedy turn as Jim embarked on a riot of anecdotes, starting with his story of how he abandoned a university degree in English for a career in street theatre in Brighton. One early performance for kids, he recalled, was interrupted by an invasion of Mods and Rockers. Punch and Judy ended up in the sea while Jim, dressed head-to-toe as a thistle, ended up being chased along the beach by a psychopath in a leather jacket. An unusual seaside memory.

He then took us on a tour of America. His first visit was to enrol with a circus school. He then returned with the legendary Ken Campbell and his surreal roadshow. All he needed at that time, he said, was a rucksack and a pub. Then it was back for the National Theatre’s triumphant run of Guys and Dolls and a meeting with fellow actor, Imelda Staunton. They married a year or so later.

Clearly Jim is a proud resident of West Hampstead, with a long record of community and charitable work. He spoke with particular pride of his six years as president of Hampstead Cricket Club in Lymington Road – especially the setting up of a women’s team – also of the fundraising evenings he is putting on at, and for, the Tricycle Theatre. (Note, Jim’s event with Maggie Smith and Judi Dench is sold out, but there are still tickets available for Danny Boyle on March 26).

A packed house. Photo by Eugene Regis

A packed house. Photo by Eugene Regis

Finally, as no doubt many in the packed audience were hoping for (one fan had reportedly come over from Germany especially for the evening), the conversation arrived at Downton Abbey. Jim entertained us all with stories of life upstairs and downstairs (for the actors as much as the characters), and a recollection of George Clooney’s visit to the set. Apparently after he kissed Maggie Smith’s outstretched hand she affected a theatrical swoon and fell off her settee. Asked if a Downton movie is on the cards, he revealed that the actors were all in favour – they had all enjoyed working together – but that the script would have to be good.

The evening was an hour of theatre, full of nostalgic generosity and Falstaffian humour. It’s a long way from his roots in Harrogate to West Hampstead, but Jim Carter took us with him every step of the way. And to cap it all, Simon was able to announce at the conclusion that Jim had kindly consented to follow in Stephen Fry’s footsteps by becoming a patron of the Friends group.

The author is FoWHL writer in residence

Tricycle’s theatre to close for a year in multi-million pound revamp

Last Thursday, the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn held an open day to show off its plans for the “Tricycle transformed“. We learned that the Tricycle really will be transformed. The theatre will close on July 2nd, at the end of the current show (The Invisible Hand), and will remain closed “for about a year”. Fear not, film fans, the cinema will remain open.

Better sightlines and more seats as "scaffolding" style replaced. Image via Chapman Waterworth

Better sightlines and more seats as “scaffolding” style replaced. Image via Chapman Waterworth

The project has two main goals. The first is to open up the entrance on the Kilburn High Road and completely renovate the theatre. To make it easier to understand — a quick history lesson. The Tricycle Theatre was originally the Foresters Hall, but was acquired by Brent Council in 1980 as a permanent home for the Wakefield Tricycle Touring Theatre Company (so that’s why it’s called the Tricycle). Recently Brent/the theatre also acquired a long lease on the Order of Foresters shop, next door to the current entrance. The plan is to put a café there and so make the Kilburn High Road entrance much more prominent.

The second, and arguably more significant change, is the complete transformation of the theatre. Out goes the 1980s scaffolding seating arrangement, down goes the floor level to allow step free access for disabled theatre-goers (and the number of wheelchair places will rise from two to up to eight), and up goes the number of seats overall, by 50 to 290, with improved sightlines. Not to mention there will be more, and better, loos. Plus, the stage will be enlarged and the original Order of Foresters hall proscenium arch will be more visible.

Overall my impression was it had been well thought through and it will tie the theatre and cinema sides of the Tricycle together. The one controversial issue that arose during the discussions: whether or not to keep the Tricycle carpet. Locals were keen on keeping it, the architects less so … We’re running a poll on Twitter to see what you think.

Should it stay or should it go?

Should it stay or should it go?

All this work doesn’t come cheap, but the Tricycle’s fundraisers have already got an impressive £5.5 million (£2.5 million from the Arts Council and the rest from trusts and donors). They still have a further £750,000 to raise; if you have some spare cash in search of a good cause there are ways to support the project on the website, such as dropping a grand to name a seat.

Review: Come In! Sit Down!

The award-winning Muslim and Jewish theatre company, MUJU crew, have brought Come In! Sit Down! to The Tricycle Theatre in celebration of their tenth anniversary. The piece is a devised sketch show, tackling perceptions of Muslims and Jews in Britain, and the challenges faced by those communities. It doesn’t sound like that would be a barrel of laughs, but the cast take great delight in sending themselves up, holding a fun house mirror up to some difficult and controversial subjects.

Dominic Garfield & Stevie Basuala

Dominic Garfield & Stevie Basuala [Photo courtesy of Rooful.com]

The performances across the board are very strong. Each of the actors brings their own skills to the group and for the most part they are well cast. Particular stand outs for me were Lauren Silver’s Jewish mother routine and Dominic Garfield’s Disney terrorist (to explain will give too much away!). There’s a great rapport among the company, and their enthusiasm and energy is infectious.

The musical numbers are very strong, and were the highlight for me. Although not all of the cast members have outstanding voices, they can all carry a tune, and it’s the sheer enthusiasm of the team which carries things along at a good pace.

Some sketches worked better than others, but that could be that the mixed audience missed some of the in-jokes, which would go down well with a mainly Jewish or Muslim crowd. The high points were very pertinent, but the message started to feel rather one-note as the piece went on, and at times it did feel like the audience was being rather ‘hit over the head’ with the inevitable commentary on terrorism. I would have liked to see a more nuanced approach, with the headline-grabbing material interspersed with more ‘everyday’ experiences.

My companion for the evening observed that the show has the feel of a weekly revue, with that slightly anarchic frenetic edge, and the sketches as a collection of hits and misses. While this is to be expected of a show that is being put together with very tight deadlines every week, one would expect a theatre piece, which has been developed over a longer time, to have been tightened up a bit, with some of the less-successful sketches re-worked or put out to pasture.

Overall though, the hits outweigh the misses, and at around 75 minutes, it’s a fun show with great performances, which whips along at a brisk pace. Its irreverent approach won’t be for everyone, but it’s great to see very talented people from Jewish and Muslim backgrounds coming together to challenge perceptions while making us laugh quite a bit.

Come In! Sit Down! runs at the Tricycle Theatre until Sunday 2 August. Tickets available here.

La Traviata at The Tricycle

As a total opera novice, I was not sure what to expect when I sat down in the Tricycle’s auditorium for two hours of Verdi. Would I be able to suspend my disbelief and go along with all the characters singing at each other? Will the operatic performances just be too big for the tricycle’s small theatre? Will I even understand any of it?!

I needn’t have worried. OperaUpClose have spent the last six years developing opera performance for small spaces, having started with La Boheme in the now sadly defunct Cock Tavern Theatre on Kilburn High Road. Their work is designed to be accessible to everyone, and for an intimate ‘up close’ performance. They have even managed to bag themselves an Olivier Award for their efforts.

This production of La Traviata has been around for a while, but has been revived for a short run at the Tricycle. Artistic Director Robin Norton-Hale has translated Verdi’s original into an English version, so there’s no need to worry about not speaking Italian, and the score has been edited, zipping along at a pacy 2 hours 15 minutes, including interval. Yes, I was in the pub by 9.30!

Verdi's La Traviata_poster

The story, which will be familiar to many, focuses on lovers Violetta and Alfredo, and their doomed relationship. This version is set in 1920s America, and the set and costumes are really stylish, with the entire cast permanently dressed to the nines – Violetta manages to look glamorous even when wearing pyjamas! We are instantly drawn into this world of parties, dancing and champagne, but even at the opening it is clear to see there is a darker side to all the frivolity.

The set looks great, a lovely touch is the subtle backdrop of a proscenium arch and curtain, behind the set, serving as a reminder that this is, after all, theatre. There are a couple of slightly clunky set dressing moments, which are carried by the musicians and it is a shame that they end up tucked away in the corner of the action, barely visible. The trio keep the piece moving along nicely, adding backbone to the muscular vocals on display, and are given the occasional moment to shine, but this production is all about the voices.

As Violetta, Louisa Tee steals the show. Her vocal dexterity is mesmerising, and she carries herself so well, exuding charm and vivacity, it’s easy to see why Alfredo is so enamoured of her. Robin Bailey’s Alfredo has a less-polished delivery, but the raw edge to his voice really worked for the character and I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up whenever he sang. In a good way. During the run, four of the five cast members are on rotation, with three singers alternating for each of them. I don’t know if this is a regular practice in opera, but I can certainly see the need to protect the performers’ voices, as they are absolutely giving their all.

The English translation worked for me, because I am only a little familiar with the Italian original, but I can imagine that purists would find it jarring. There were a few moments where the singers seemed to struggle with the phrasing, trying to fit the English words into a rhythm created for Italian, and I couldn’t help but feel that some of the beauty of the arias was, literally, lost in translation.

These moments were, for me at least, few and far between, and I had no trouble losing myself in the story and getting caught up in the emotion. Within a few minutes I had ceased to be aware that the cast were singing in this elaborate manner and I was transfixed. The drama is high, with little room for subtlety, but this is opera, after all, and a thoroughly enjoyable night at the theatre. I’m not ashamed to say I left the auditorium with a tear in my eye, and I will be going back for more.

La Traviata runs at the Tricycle Theatre until 4 July. Catch it while you can!

Review: After Electra at the Tricycle Theatre

It’s Virgie’s 81st birthday, and she gathers together her friends and family for a celebration, and an important announcement. Virgie intends to kill herself. The play follows the reaction to Virgie’s declaration and explores how the choices we make can change our lives forever.

Virgie is a woman who has always been torn between her art and motherhood, and it becomes apparent that her dedication as an artist has severely compromised her relationship with her children Haydn and Orin, who are, as adults, scarred by her neglect. Virgie’s sister Shirley, and friends Tom and Sonia, make up the rest of the party, all coming to terms with Virgie’s announcement, trying, and failing, not to give in to the absurdity of it all.

Marty Cruickshank as Virgie (Photo: Steve Tanner)

Marty Cruickshank as Virgie (Photo: Steve Tanner)

None of the characters are particularly likeable, they are all self-involved and thoughtless, but in that they are relatable and frequently very funny. Tom the actor, and his long suffering wife Sonia, provide a lot of the comic relief, as two people more or less tolerating each others’ eccentricities. It’s hard to tell if Virgie really wants to die, is succumbing to madness, or if this is all some play for attention, but ultimately it is the question of control over one’s own existence, and of dealing with loss, which the play forces us to address. While this is a comedy, and I frequently laughed out loud, it is also a moving tale of family and friendships, and the lengths we will go to in order to find a sense of normality in the chaos.

Rachel Bell, as Shirley, the officious younger sister, steals the show in a really well written part, just the right amount of self involvement, tempered with pathos and played with the perfect level of self awareness. She has some great lines and delivers them with total relish, you can’t help but warm to her despite her apparent cold heartedness, which, as the play develops, we learn is really just her mode of survival.

Haydn, Virgie’s daughter, is believable, real, less a caricature than the others, and genuinely seems somewhat lost. Veronica Roberts has a lovely subtlety in her performance, we see glimpses of the rage burning within, but this is someone who has learned to swallow her pain, leaving her unable to connect intimately with others. Her sense of daughterly duty is something many will relate to, doing the right thing no matter how much it costs her personally. Her interaction with Roy, the poor cabbie who finds himself inadvertently caught up in the drama, is a real highlight.

The one misstep is the character of Miranda, a former student of Virgie, who appears in the final scene, to provide a new perspective on the story we’ve been fed piece by piece throughout the play. Unfortunately her wide-eyed youthful exuberance jars with the ageing melancholia of the other characters, whom we have been investing in from the start. It’s an interesting proposition, that we would open up and confide in a relative stranger, while hiding truths from our nearest and dearest, but I found Miranda’s complete lack of tact and diplomacy wildly irritating and so in the end the message was somewhat lost on me. But perhaps that’s the point.

Set and Costume Designer Michael Taylor has done a fantastic job of bringing a flavour of the Essex coast to North West London, completely transforming the stage at the Tricycle, so the action is thrust into the horseshoe auditorium. Virgie’s home feels lived in but isolated, windswept, with autumn creeping around the door.

Given the uncomfortable and dark subject of suicide, it takes a while for the audience to really get into the comedy of the piece. But this is a well-directed ensemble, with several strong performances, finding the humour in tragedy, without playing for laughs unless it is appropriate. A few choice nods to the Electra myth work really well without being heavy handed and I found myself laughing in recognition at the pain and pathos of life and its inevitable end.

After Electra is at the Tricycle Theatre until 2 May 2015.

Read our interview with director Sam West.

Interview: Sam West’s After Electra is “hotter and faster” at the Tricycle

After Electra opened at the Tricycle Theatre last night. We sat down with the director (and acclaimed actor) Sam West to find out more about the play and his take on Kilburn.

The full cast of After Electra. (Photo: Steve Tanner)

The full cast of After Electra. (Photo: Steve Tanner)

The play is called After Electra, should we expect a Greek Tragedy?

No, you should expect a black comedy, inspired by a Greek Myth but certainly not one you need to know anything about Greek drama to enjoy. The play is about an 81 year old artist called Vergie, who calls together her daughter and best friends on her birthday and announces she’s going to kill herself and they argue and try and stop her. It is very funny! It’s mostly about the difficulty of balancing work and children. In the original story, the Electra Myth, Electra and her brother Orestes kill their mother Clytemnestra, that doesn’t happen in this play, it’s mostly a comedy about what to do when you want to kill your mum!

We’ve all been there…

We’ve all had those feelings! And the Greeks put on plays about it so you didn’t go out and kill your mum. April De Angelis, the writer, has very carefully and cleverly written it about a woman who is a very accomplished artist and feels a calling towards her art, more than she does towards her children. So it’s a lot about what you do when you feel like that really, because I think one of April’s points is that men, on the whole, don’t get pilloried when they go off and excel in business and neglect their children and women, if they do that, get put on the front pages. They’re expected to have this bottomless well of unselfish motherhood, and the play is about what happens if you find that you don’t have that.

The play features several strong female roles and a generally older cast…

Yes, it was written in response to a request from Plymouth Theatre Royal, where it started, as a way of improving the situation about the lack of decent roles for older women. Because we have a lot of very good older actors who aren’t getting the parts… there are fewer meaty roles. It’s a cast of eight, only one of whom is under 30, and although the leading character is 81, there are very good parts for people in their 60s and 70s.

After a successful run in Plymouth, you’re bringing the play to London. How did the transfer to the Tricycle Theatre come about?

Yes, it’s a Plymouth production and the Tricycle decided that they wanted to pay for it to come to London so, although we’ve been working in tandem with them, it’s not a co-production. We’re delighted that Plymouth work gets a chance to be seen in the capital because we’re all very proud of it and most of the company live in London. Because Plymouth is a local regional theatre, it’s important for it to go to a theatre which has a good feeling of constituency, a good feeling of localism, like the Tricycle does. Not all London theatres feel like the Tricycle, do they? Some of them feel like posh transfer houses, where you put on things for a small metropolitan audience. But the Tricycle, whenever I’ve been, has always felt like a theatre that is really in the heart of its community and I’m really pleased that we’re taking it there.

And has the transfer been a smooth one?

Yes, though we’ve had to cut a metre off the set! It fills the space quite well but the stage at the Tricycle is not quite as wide as the Drum in Plymouth. Because the Tricycle is a bit like an Elizabethan theatre, a sort of horseshoe, there are some really interesting angles from where to see the show, which I was very pleased about when we brought it in. It would have been boring to have to add a metre, that would have made everything take slightly longer, but in fact we’re sort of squeezing it like a box, so the pressure should get slightly bigger and the show should get slightly hotter and faster.

Have you performed at the Tricycle in the past? Are you familiar with Kilburn?

I’ve never performed there. I’ve rehearsed there and I’ve seen many things there. I rehearsed a Donmar production there about 6 years ago and was delighted to be going there every day for 5 weeks, but this is the first time I’ve put a show in. I live in North London and have friends in the area, so it’s a pretty easy journey for me. I’m very fond of Middle Eastern food, and we’ve been trying out the various Turkish and Lebanese restaurants in Kilburn, which has been really great.

So, why should locals come to the Tricycle and see the show?

Because it’s very funny and quite short! (Laughter) It’s a play for anyone who is a mother, or who has one. It can’t fail to teach you something about your mum, and if you’re a mum it can’t fail to teach you something about your children, and it is pretty funny, but will make you think a bit. It’s done by ten o’clock, so you can still go the pub afterwards!

After Electra is on at the Tricycle Theatre from 7 April to 2 May.

Theatre review: The Dissidents

Last week the Tricycle Young Company took over the Tricycle for a festival of theatre, film, music and poetry. Headlining the takeover was The Dissidents, an energetic play with a large ensemble cast, all aged between 19-25. It was written by Shamser Sinha for the Tricycle Young Company, and depicts life in contemporary London for young people living on the breadline.

Members of the Tricycle Young Company (photograph: Mark Douet)

Members of the Tricycle Young Company (photograph: Mark Douet)

We catch a glimpse of the experiences of brother and sister, Juan and Selena, who are struggling to make ends meet after the death of their father. Their lives are overshadowed by austerity measures, including their final moments with their father in an overworked NHS hospital, and Juan’s brief career at Poundland as part of the government’s ‘back-to-work’ scheme. The play encapsulates the anger and frustration of its young characters, who feel they are being stereotyped and criminalised, without being given the opportunities they need to improve their situation.

The production made great use of the stage, transforming it between scenes within seconds into familiar urban settings. Many members of the cast played multiple parts, and the quick changes between scenes and characters made the play a little hard to follow in places. The dream sequences were particularly well choreographed however, making use of the large cast, and creating an eerie, disturbing atmosphere.

Stevie Basaula and Tania Nwachukwu did a fantastic job as Juan and Selena, particularly in the emotional final scenes. The play could have done with a bit of polishing, but overall it was a very enjoyable evening and it would be great to see more of the Tricycle Young Company.

Review: The 2000 Year Old Man at JW3

Taken from the famous 1960s recordings by Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, this specially commissioned adaptation is a live re-creation of material from The 2000 Year Old Man sketches, in which an interviewer questions a man who claims to be 2000 years old and shares his memories and opinions on the history of civilisation, in a broad Yiddish accent.

BLAKE_EZRA_2000_YEAR_OLD_MAN012

The hour-long show is funny and engaging, and very much a celebration of a simpler time for comedy.  There are decent performances from both sides, with Chris Neill’s Interviewer nicely understated to balance the larger-than-life 2000 year old man, played by Kerry Shale, enthusiastically channeling Mel Brooks.

The energetic performances go some way to bringing a modern feel to the work, it is pacy and they have made the most of the opportunity to physicalise what is essentially a verbal exchange, but for the most part the material itself feels, unsurprisingly, dated. There is very little subtlety at play and I think modern audiences expect to find layers in comedy which are simply missing from the broad stereotyping and sex gags we are presented with here. It’s funny, sure, but all just a bit one-note.

In putting the piece together, Kerry Shale has selected moments from the original recordings to create a cohesive whole. I’m sure this was quite an undertaking, and the team have done a great job of constructing the show so you can very rarely see the ‘joins’. There are a few moments which are laced with satire and this is where the work felt fresh and relevant, and got the biggest laughs of the night.

I went into the show with no knowledge of the original sketches, and I’m sure fans of Brooks and Reiner would appreciate this homage in a way that I, in my ignorance, am unable to. At an hour, it’s the right length and is a fun, lighthearted show that entertains and does provide several laughs, just not side-splitting ones. It’s a show which works well in the JW3 hall, a fantastic performance space, and I hope it will find an appreciative audience who are looking for good, old-fashioned gags.

The 2000 Year Old Man runs at JW3 until March 22nd.

Review: Multitudes at The Tricycle Theatre

MultitudesTricycle

Bradford. On the eve of a Conservative Party Conference the country is in turmoil and one of its most multicultural cities awaits a visit from the Prime Minister.

Multitudes, a play by actor and new writer John Hollingworth, focuses on a modern British family dealing with the issues of multiculturalism in their everyday lives. Kash, a liberal Muslim and widow, and parliamentary hopeful, prepares his address to politicians about the state of the nation. At the same time, his girlfriend Natalie converts to Islam and supports women at an anti-war protest, while his teenage daughter Qadira is looking at more radical action. The family is completed by Lyn, Natalie’s mother, a local Tory big shot who frequently airs her own views about multicultural Britain. As the nation questions immigration policies and military support in the Middle East, the family faces its own internal conflict of faith, belonging, and who gets to call themselves British.

There’s no denying that this is a bold and urgent new work, incredibly timely in light of the recent events in Britain, across Europe and the Middle East. Hollingworth is addressing a really important issue affecting contemporary Britain, and it is done in a way that doesn’t try and offer solutions, but simply forces us to look at the realities of the situation in a way that is not only accessible, but at times very humorous.

And that is part of the problem with the play. In a bid to make these representative characters more well-rounded, Hollingworth has written some great dialogue and there are many laugh-out-loud moments. During the first act this generally works well as we get to know the characters and it balances out the message we are rather heavy-handedly being given. However, the tone of Act Two is darker as the pace of the action picks up, and the quips and jibes still at play feel very out of place.

While Natalie, played well by Clare Calbraith, is relatable, the other characters often feel like stereotypes, and it’s hard to believe that Kash, even as a wannabe politician, would be so focused on his image in the media that he would fail to care when Natalie is injured in the protest, or ignore the worrying behaviour of his daughter. Credit though to both the direction and the performance from Jacqueline King; xenophobic little-Englander Lyn is, if not exactly likeable, a somewhat sympathetic character who simply feels out of her depth and desperately clinging to a familiarity that no longer exists.

I would have liked to know more about Qadira’s motivations, as her storyline is incredibly resonant and timely, but we are given very little insight into her past, and any understanding of how she came to think the way she does is lost behind a teenage sulkiness, which makes her more difficult to empathise with or take seriously until it’s too late.

Special mention must go to Asif Khan, who plays a range of supporting roles with real conviction and fantastic physicality. He has fun with the different roles without straying into parody and has a great energy on stage which draws you in.

It is a slick production, and the scenography, made up of a bare brick wall and sliding metal doors, works really well, used to create intimacy in the space, but also reinforcing the starkness of a place with confused identity, where the fenced-in protest camp is ever-present off-stage.

This is a brave attempt at addressing an issue that resonates across the UK and beyond, but I can’t help feeling it would have more impact if it had opened in Bradford, directly addressing the people it purports to represent. An engaging enough production, it is strangely both overzealous and not hard-hitting enough, so fails to really grab you by the throat and make you think harder about a challenging aspect of the modern world. And that is a missed opportunity.

Review: Happy Birthday Without You

Photo by Luke Pajak

Photo by Luke Pajak

Violet Fox is a self-proclaimed “live and visual spoken word vegan solo artist and occasional collaborator”. Don’t let that put you off though; this show isn’t quite the tirade against men and carnivorism that you might expect. Fox is the fictional creation of Sonia Jalaly, the writer and star of Happy Birthday Without You. In mock-autobiographical style, Fox tells the story of the traumatic birthdays of her childhood, and her relationship with an alcoholic, balloon-popping mother.

The show has its dark moments, but mostly it’s just highly enjoyable silliness. At one point she literally brings her emotional baggage on stage (complete with a taxidermied cat), and although the birthday anecdotes help to give it structure, the show works mainly as a springboard for Jalaly to showcase her knack for physical comedy and impersonating Broadway dames. Her voice is actually rather good and she has the audience in fits of laughter with impressions of Julie Andrews, Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe, all singing ‘Happy Birthday’ in their own unique styles.

Photo by Luke Pajak

Photo by Luke Pajak

As she gets the audience to pass around party bags and blow up red balloons to throw on stage, Jalaly helpfully throws out a few quotes for theatre critics – “look the lights have come on, it’s so immersive” and, to be fair, it is a pretty immersive experience. Parts of the show feel more like a stand-up performance in the way she speaks to, and interacts with the audience.

So if you like comedy, balloons and caterpillar cakes, this show is for you. Sadly its short run at the Tricycle is over, but if you can catch Sonia Jalaly in any future productions, I would highly recommend it.

Review: A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts at The Tricycle

Eight actors hang out on stage, warming up in their gym gear, chatting to the audience a little, as if waiting for a rehearsal to begin. The show has quietly started as we walk in, but gets going when one of the performers’ names is picked out of a hat by a member of the audience and they become the focus of the action. What follows is a series of vignettes; snapshots of a life lived so far, tales of love and loss, interspersed with lots of physical challenges and silliness.

Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts Tricycle

 

Our protagonist for the evening is Stevie (Steven Webb), who brings the audience into the action enough to make you feel involved, but not so much that you’re terrified you’ll be picked on for a bit of participation! His energetic, physical commitment to the performance is staggering and I found myself trying to catch my breath, after watching him writhe around the stage with gusto for an hour and a bit.

The cast are clearly having fun, and you can’t help warming to them and their antics, about which I will say as little as possible. For all its big energy, there are also several smaller, beautifully observed moments, which add depth and poignancy and raise the show to another level. Though admittedly there is something profoundly enjoyable about watching two people wrestle in a bid to remove each other’s shoes.

Inevitably, with an ensemble piece like this, you don’t get to see as much of some of the performers as you do others, and my guess is this varies depending on who is pulled out of the hat each night. It seemed a shame that not everyone was equally involved and I would have liked to see a few more scenes with the whole cast taking part. One stand out performance was that of Hammad Animashaun, whose deadpan comic delivery was perfectly judged.

For the most part the bare-chested honesty of the piece works but it’s not without its flaws. A couple of times the action feels self-consciously ‘edgy’ and wanders into cliché territory. One scene using very well known Shakespearian dialogue is, in my opinion, a misstep, and breaks the pacy, frenetic feel of the show.

With its stripped back set and simplistic lighting, the show often feels like a well polished student production, which some might see as a negative, but actually it’s the raw youthful energy of the performers, with their well-developed improvisational skills, that keeps the show fresh and engaging. It’s the sort of show that could work in all sorts of spaces, and at times I wanted them to burst forth from the proscenium arch and take over the whole auditorium. I felt they wanted that, too.

This young theatre company is definitely one to watch. This is exactly the sort of show that is perfect for the Edinburgh Fringe, where it ran to critical acclaim. I hope it can find the right audience in NW6, one that will embrace the non-narrative structure, admire the honesty and openness of the performances, go along for the energetic ride and be ready to laugh. A lot.

Win a pair of tickets to the show!

Review: Lionboy at The Tricycle Theatre

lionboy

Lionboy is this year’s family show at The Tricycle Theatre. Suitable for everyone aged 8 and up, it’s a riotous adventure based on Zizou Corder’s novels. Elsie Oulton, 13, went to review it for West Hampstead Life; here’s her verdict.

Having not read the book, when I went to see the Lionboy production at the Tricycle, I had no idea what to expect. There was a cast of around 8, who each helped to tell the story by playing many different parts, including percussion and sound effects on stage. It was a vibrant and tense production, and the lead, who played himself and the lions, was amazing. There was also the use of shadow puppets to help tell the story, which were really cool. The use of props was also extraordinary, for example using swaying ropes to represent a river, and ladders make a prison, giving the Corporacy an eerie atmosphere. The circus family on the ship were particularly colourful and bizarre. My favourite was the French bearded woman, who was very witty and talked to the audience a lot. All the children in the audience were totally gripped, booing, hissing, cheering and shouting. Overall, I think that it was a great production, which glued you to your seat, and left you wanting more. See it!

Lionboy runs until January 10th. Book tickets here.

True West Tricycle

Review: True West at The Tricycle

It only took a short westerly stroll for this writer to see the new blockbuster play at The Tricycle, pity the Guardian journalist who had to go all the way to Santa Fe to interview the playwright Sam Shepard. Tuesday was press night however and it was nice to see Tricycle supporter Meera Syal and a rather photogenic chap I smiled at assuming we’d met at Whampgather but no, I had just seen on an episode of Sherlock.

True West is a wonderful exploration of the American dream. Two brothers represent different interpretations of the dream of heading out west and the flaws in both visions.  What’s success in Hollywood vs freedom in the desert? The curtain frames the stage horizontally to offer a familiar Hopper-style peek into an American domestic setting which transforms as the play progresses.  Performances from the brothers are intense as their interactions straddle affection, exasperation and violence. Credit to the toasters, golf club and typewriter that make a surprising impact. The play was written in 1980 but resonates today and although intense, is very funny at times. Buy your ticket now before it sells out.

Review: The Kilburn Passion delivers tears and laughter

As a former Kilburn resident who has now somehow found herself living on The Other Side Of The Heath, I jumped at the chance to saunter back down my favourite high road to review The Kilburn Passion on its opening night. Initially performed in April as part of the Tricycle Theatre’s ‘Takeover Festival’ by its Young Company, the group of 19-25 year-olds have been welcomed back for a short run, due to popular demand. Having clapped, gasped and sobbed my way through it, it’s easy to see why.

The vivacious, brightly-dressed ensemble cast have a genuine and apparent bond as a company which shines through their performance of Suhayla El-Bushra’s collection of vignettes of the interconnecting lives of Kilburn residents.

All walks of life are presented in the actors and their characters; the bus driver pushed to the edge, the fashion retailer with delusions of grandeur and the struggling young family – all are portrayed with understanding, tact and wit. Their tales take us on a walk through the details of their own lives and histories, whilst the wider story forces us to examine our interactions with those we’re involved in as well as the people we may not pay attention to.

Usually put off by shows with “dancy bits” and musical numbers, (and such a high concentration of young talented over-achievers), I found the energetic, modern and impressive choreography and use of sound perfectly captured the spirit of Kilburn, with obvious passion. You cannot help but get swept up in the performances of this cast.

Peppered with perfectly-timed laughs and fly-on-the-wall glimpses of relationships of all sorts, The Kilburn Passion holds a mirror to our own experiences of work, community and time spent on any London high street.

My love of Kilburn is no secret. I was even moved to write my own rambling praise of the place on my walk to the theatre. But stand-out performances by Nathan Powel and Jade-Marie Joseph in particular moved me to tears, thigh-slapping laughter and to participate in a well-deserved standing ovation – the first I’ve witnessed at the Tricycle in 6 years of visiting.

The Kilburn Passion runs until Saturday August 9th.

Tricycle Theatre rejects Jewish film festival over Israeli embassy sponsorship

The Tricycle, Kilburn’s highly regarded theatre and cinema, has found itself embroiled in controversy this evening after announcing that it will no longer be part of the UK Jewish Film Festival.

The cinema was due to screen films at the festival, which takes place in November.

In a statement, the artistic director of the theatre, Indhu Rubasingham said

The Tricycle has always welcomed the Festival and wants it to go ahead. We have proudly hosted the UK Jewish Film Festival for many years. However, given the situation in Israel and Gaza, we do not believe that the festival should accept funding from any party to the current conflict. For that reason, we asked the UK Jewish Film Festival to reconsider its sponsorship by the Israeli Embassy. We also offered to replace that funding with money from our own resources. The Tricycle serves many communities and celebrates different cultures and through difficult, emotional times must aim for a place of political neutrality.

We regret that, following discussions, the chair of the UKJFF told us that he wished to withdraw the festival from the Tricycle.

To be clear, at this moment, the Tricycle would not accept sponsorship from any government agency involved in the conflict. We hope to find a way to work with the UK Jewish Film Festival to allow the festival to go ahead at the Tricycle as it has done so successfully for the past 8 years.

The theatre has, unsurprisingly given the strength of feeling on this emotive topic, come in for a fair amount of criticism for its decision, with many pointing out that other festivals it holds receive funding from governments that some people would consider parties to conflicts. The statement above does specify that it is the specific conflict in Gaza that it is objecting to, but that will be of little comfort to those who feel its actions are politicising the arts.

Judy Ironside, executive director of the UK Jewish Film Festival, said

The Tricycle Theatre have shown themselves unwilling to work with what is clearly an apolitical cultural festival is tremendously disappointing. They have chosen a boycott over meaningful engagement – to the great detriment of this celebration of Jewish culture, which is of course intrinsically connected to the state of Israel.

We pride ourselves on showing a diverse programme of films, which present a comprehensive view of international Jewish life and Israeli films are of course an important part of that.

We have always sought to convey a wide perspective on the conflicts in the Middle East and initiate open dialogue with our audiences and guest speakers; and the Israeli Embassy have always supported us in this. The Tricycle have refused to take this into account in their decision.

On social media, accusations have also come of anti-Semitism from some critics, which given the Tricycle’s long-standing association with the festival seems a spurious argument, but there’s no doubt that the decision will rankle for a long time within the Jewish community.

Today should have been a day for celebration for the Tricycle as its Youth Theare project The Kilburn Passion returns to the stage.

Review: Making Stalin Laugh @ JW3

You’re probably familiar with David Schneider from his work on The Day Today and I’m Alan Partridge. At the very least, you’ve almost certainly stumbled upon his prolific Twitter presence – short, snappy laughs often accompanied by amusingly-Photoshopped images. However, like me, you probably weren’t aware that before becoming an actor, writer, director and power-Tweeter, he researched a doctorate in Yiddish Drama at Oxford.

During his studies, he came across the intriguing GOSET – the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre. The company’s stars, stories and stage productions kept cropping up, and their influence on Russian life, Yiddish culture and the arts became hard for Schneider to resist.

MakingStalinLaugh

During its heyday in the 1920-30s, the GOSET’s charismatic artistic director Solomon Mikhoels was world-renowned, collaborating with Chagall and praised by Shostakovich. By the mid-1930s, the company went from being celebrated and adored to being accused of counter-revolutionary acts, to the point that a bad review could literally be a death sentence.

Making Stalin Laugh, commissioned by West Hampstead’s impressive JW3 cultural centre, is not a classic wartime tale of ordinary people triumphing over adversity in the face of terror. Schneider has found in the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre a unique story that definitely needs sharing.

The group of talented, culturally important celebrities struggled to ensure that “the show must go on” in spite of defection, the Second World War, purges and post-war anti-Jewish executions.

Schneider focuses specifically on his knowledge of Yiddish culture, rather than ‘Jewish life’, and flexes his joke writing muscles throughout the second half with some excellent stand-out one-liners. As political tension grows and the world around the theatre becomes unpredictable and deadly, the cast deliver Schneider’s short, snappy tweetable pun-style laughs perfectly.

Darrell D’Silva is well-cast as egocentric, promiscuous genius Mikhoels. The rest of the cast work wonderfully together, sharing vodka-soaked highs and lows in each other’s arms.

Beverly Klein offers excellent comic delivery as witty seasoned actress Esther, but D’Silva’s towering Brian Blessed-esque grandeur and self-referential Topol/Tevye-style egotism overshadows any hints of stand-out performances or sub-plots. Tangled romances and vague mentions of back-stories are left undeveloped to make way for the caricature of Mikhoels. This may be an honest interpretation of life in a theatre company alongside such a personality – arrogance, affairs and all – but it left gaps where the audience needed to develop sympathy and understanding.

The political backdrop is, aside from a couple brief moments or scenes, spoken about rather than performed or experienced. Whilst the focus remains, rightly, on the lives and work of the GOSET, I found it hard to feel concerned about anything the characters claimed to be going through because I didn’t go through it with them.

The GOSET’s story has all the ingredients of an engaging and captivating script – fame, ego, scandal, sex and spies – but ‘Making Stalin Laugh’ fails to provide the audience with quite enough character depth for us to feel as sad as we should when faced with loss and, essentially, the end of Yiddish culture in Europe.

Making Stalin Laugh runs at JW3 until 9th July. Full details and tickets here.

Sunny Afternoon shines at Hampstead Theatre

Sunny Afternoon is a musical that charts the rise of The Kinks, incorporating (unsurprisingly) the music and lyrics of Ray Davies and a new book by Joe Penhall, the Olivier-award winning playwright.

The story follows the ups and downs of The Kinks, from their working class north London beginnings, through the World Cup winning “Sunny Afternoon” of ’66 to finally playing to a sell-out Madison Square Garden. Along the way it explores some of the controversies that plagued the band, including legal battles with their management, being blacklisted in America and strained relations between band members.

The fact that Ray Davies, a prolific songwriter, frequently drew inspiration from events around him means that The Kinks’ back catalogue fits seamlessly into the narrative. The variety of song performance style also helps; sensitive acoustic duets sit alongside concert-style performances complete with backing dancers in wonderfully evocative ’60s outfits. The set is similarly evocative of the early ’60s and director, Edward Hall, has even gone so far as to include a catwalk style extension to the stage, which adds to the concert-feel and draws the audience in.

The stage is liberally scattered with musical instruments, which the actors switch between with ease. The cast itself was well balanced; I particularly enjoyed John Dagleish’s understated portrayal of Ray Davies, a man who by his own admission is self-conscious and publicity-shy.

At times the performance felt a little raw, but given this was only the third preview show I am sure that these will have been polished by the official opening on 1st May. Overall it was a great show, the depth of The Kinks’ back catalogue is sensitively showcased in a fun yet gentle and at times moving production.

I would recommend it, regardless of whether you are a Kinks fan, but expect to spend the following few days humming many of their songs!

Sunny Afternoon runs until May 24th. More details and booking here.

Get passionate about Kilburn in new Tricycle play

The Tricycle Theatre has always been vocal in its support of young people but for the first time, Kilburn’s premier cultural venue is putting its money where its mouth is and handing over control of the building for a week to the Tricycle Young Company. During The Takeover Festival, which runs from March 30 – April 5, this group has programmed a week of theatre, film, music and poetry.

Tricycle Young Company members

Tricycle Young Company members

During the week, seven new plays will be performed by young people aged 11-25 on the Tricycle stage, including some written and performed in partnership with the National Theatre. The biggest production is The Kilburn Passion, written as a new commission by Suhayla El-Bushra, a successful writer for stage and screen, former resident of Kilburn and herself a one-time member of the Tricycle Young Company.

The drama takes place along the Kilburn High Road, and anyone familiar with the area will “definitely recognise a lot in the play,” according to cast member Hayley Konadu. It tackles issues such as the stereotypical perceptions of Kilburn and its community that are familiar to many of us.

There’s something in it for everyone, says director Emily Lim, whether or not you’re familiar with Kilburn High Road. “Most people in the company are local, and there’s a lot of diversity of experience that has gone into the play. Londoners tend to look at our shoes rather than looking into people’s eyes, so it’s about questioning why we’re so hesitant to look and see and listen to the people around us and to place ourselves within a broader context of relationships and friendships and networks and community.”

“Suhayla was inspired by the Easter tradition of a Passion Play and we’ve really enjoyed the idea that a passion play was something traditionally performed by a community for its own community, and it’s also about a community.”

The play’s genesis was a very collaborative process, with El-Bushra meeting the Young Company at the outset and incorporating their ideas and personalities into the finished work. Emily explains “Suhayla’s brief was to write a piece that reflected Kilburn, and a piece that reflected our company of young people to unlock the spirit of what this company is and what makes them tick.”

It’s also been a rare opportunity for young people aspiring to careers in performing arts to work with a professional team of lighting and sound designers and stage managers. As well as supporting the young performers’ professional development, Emily is keen to point out that the scheme is “also hugely about personal development and creating a culture of support and kindness because we think that’s how we’ll create our best work, and we know that this work helps our young people to learn more about who they are and what they can be.”

As well as being a fun process, it’s clear that a lot of work has gone in to the creation and evolution of The Kilburn Passion and that the cast has risen to the challenge and the high expectations placed upon them.

As Hayley explains, “The Tricycle has always supported the youth, but the Takeover is taking it one step further. We’re the next generation, so why not push us to greater things? The pressure is good, because it forces us to act professionally. Because sometimes you’re treated as ‘just the young company’. But where’s the line between young company and professional? I like the way they’ve forced us into the professional world: ‘This is how you do things.’ And the best way is by learning.”

Hayley’s enthusiasm for the project shines through as she explains the evolution of the play. “The rehearsal process has been amazing. We started in September with our selection workshops based around what we like, what we don’t, what we’re passionate about, and what we want to have in our play – because The Kilburn Passion is a play that has come from us. Suhayla’s taken all the ideas we’ve put into it and just connected it up into an amazing play.”

Emily says “It’s the first time that the building has done anything like this, and put so much faith into its young people, and by giving us the main stage to perform on and giving such a high level of professional investment in terms of the creative teams and the writer that we’re working with, it’s showing an incredible amount of belief in the work and it’s making a very important statement that reflects the Tricycle’s whole ethos about bringing marginalised voices into the mainstream and it’s very unique in London.”

The Kilburn Passion runs from April 3-5 and West Hampstead Life readers can get discounted tickets by entering the code WestHamp when they book online.

New plays and new seating policy at the Tricycle

Indhu Rubasingham, entering her second year as Artistic Director at the Tricycle Theatre, has announced the new season of plays and some changes to the seating policy.

The new season opens in September with the UK première of Colman Domingo’s award-winning A Boy and His Soul. This is followed by the world première of Handbagged – Moira Buffini’s take on the relationship between the Queen and Margaret Thatcher. Rubasingham herself directs Stella Gonet as Margaret Thatcher and Marion Bailey as Elizabeth II.

Starting in November,  Kathy Burke directs a major revival of Mary J O’Malley’s Once a Catholic; and to complete the season, the multi-award-winning Red Velvet written by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Rubasingham, returns to the theatre ahead of its transfer to New York. Adrian Lester reprises his role as Ira Aldridge. Chakrabati and Lester also join the Theatre as Creative Associates, along with Rosa Maggiora.

New seating policy
Starting in September, the theatre will also introduce allocated seating throughout the auditorium. This means ticket-holders will no longer need to queue for seats before performances (hurrah – it can be a bunfight at times!). The theatre will also have some £8 preview tickets, cheaper than it’s previously been able to offer. Normal ticket prices will stay the same. Concession tickets will save £2 Tuesday-Saturday. There’s also a season ticket deal: book for three or more plays at one go and save 20%. Finally, there are a limited number of £10 tickets available for people aged 25 years and under for Monday–Thursday for the first two full weeks of A Boy and His Soul, Handbagged and Once A Catholic.

The Tricycle is also re-launching the Tricycle’s Young Company. This is free, and open to 11-25 year olds. It provide opportunities to make high quality theatre productions, and develop skills, confidence and professionalism. In March 2014, a Tricycle Takeover festival will see the Young Company present at least two new works.

Indhu Rubasingham, commenting on the new programme, said “It’s an exciting time for the company, seeing us collaborate with so many writers, actors, and directors, and to reach out to new audiences both here, and in the US, with such a diversity of work.”.

Loyalty at Hampstead Theatre – review

Loyalty, written by Sarah Helm, is set during the run-up to the Iraq war, and around the period of the inquiry into it. She brings a unique insight into the machinations of government at this time – she is the wife of Tony Blair’s chief of staff Jonathan Powell. She is also an experienced Middle East correspondent.

The play, described as a “fictionalised memoir“, stars Maxine Peake as Laura a staunchly anti-war journalist with experience in the Middle East who is married to Nick (Lloyd Owen), who happens to be chief of staff to a prime minister called Tony (Patrick Capaldi). As you can see,
the fictionalization only goes so far.

It’s a compelling play with some chilling moments and a genuine sense of internal conflict. Peake starts off perhaps too shrill, but settles into a more believable character that balances excitability with a sense of conscience and inquiry. Owen, understated throughout, is a convincing foil. Capaldi musters up a rather enjoyable Tony Blair, cutting something of a tragicomic figure throughout.

There are some poignant scenes that resonate very strongly today – Murdoch pops up at one stage telling Tony that war is the right decision. This leads to some lines getting laugh where perhaps laughs weren’t intended (unless such scenes have been hastily added in light of recent events).

Edward Hall’s production is pacey, especially the second half, with good sets and a strong supporting cast. I recommend it.

Loyalty runs until August 13th at Hampstead Theatre.

Cock Theatre closes for good

Earlier this week, the popular and very highly regarded Cock Tavern Theatre in Kilburn was forced to close temporarily when it was discovered that the pub above which it operates didn’t have a licence for “upstairs entertainment”.

It was hoped that this could be resolved quickly using a series of Temporary Event Licences while a permanent licence was sorted out. But Adam Spreadbury-Maher, the artistic director, announced today that the theatre would have to look for new premises after discovering that complying with Brent Council’s Health & Safety requirements regarding the fire exits would be prohibitively expensive. Quite whether the risk was really that great is no doubt moot. At my recent visit, I can’t say that I noticed the stairs were especially steep or narrow. UPDATE: The Independent has more detail on this story.

All performances have thus been cancelled and the theatre is in the process of trying to reimburse people while it moves to new premises.

It does seem hard to believe some sort of compromise could not have been reached, and instead Kilburn loses another high-quality arts venue.

74 Georgia Avenue at New End Theatre

Academy-award nominated Murray Schisgal’s play is something of an oddity. For a start it’s only 40 minutes long. Daniel Dresner is Marty, a man returning to the home of his Brooklyn youth. Nathan Clough is Joseph, the current tenant of 74 Georgia Avenue and the son of the janitor of the neighbourhood’s old synagogue that Marty’s family used to attend. Over the course of one evening the two men find some common ground through Joseph’s mysterious transformations.

The underlying idea of the play was interesting but the execution and its brevity made it hard to connect with the characters. Dresner, slightly overdoing the De Niro-esque hand wringing, was never entirely convincing until a lengthy speech towards the end. Clough was more believable but as he morphed into ghostly figures from Marty’s past it was hard to suspend disbelief entirely. Some strange lighting changes didn’t help the cause.

While the storyline may appeal to the Jewish community, it proved a little inaccessible for me and the narrative wasn’t given time to evolve and compel me to care about the characters. It would probably work better as a short story but would always be a challenging play to stage.

74 Georgia Avenue is on at the New End Theatre until March 19th

*Disclaimer: I received a free ticket courtesy of the theatre

Still Life at Pentameters Theatre: review

Pentameters Theatre (the little one above The Horseshoe pub in Hampstead) has a Noël Coward double-bill on at the moment. In 1935, Coward penned a series of short plays in a series called “Tonight at 8.30” and two of them – Red Peppers and the more famous Still Life – are directed by Aline Lewis in the intimate theatre.

Red Peppers, the first and shorter of the two, combines music hall revue tunes with backstage carping as the married couple who are the Red Peppers bicker with each other, the musical director and the theatre manager in an entertaining half hour of banter. It’s a very light piece, but enjoyably funny – if perhaps a bit shouty in this production, especially given the proximity of the audience.

After a short interval (aka pop back to the pub), we are treated to Still Life. This one-act play is better known these days as Brief Encounter – David Lean’s film for which Coward wrote the screenplay, extending this original work. The story is simple enough – we see the growing complicated romantic affair between housewife Laura and local married doctor Alec, which is contrasted with the straightforward flirting between Albert and Myrtle who both work at the train station where all the action is set.

The play works well on this small stage. The two lead actresses, Fiona Graham (Laura) and Déirdra Whelan (Myrtle), are especially good. The play suffers from Alec’s dialogue becoming a little stilted as the play progresses and this felt even more awkward in the hands of Elliot James. He simply looks too young for the role and, while Fiona Graham’s portrayal of Laura exuded the mix of guilt and passion it needed, the chemistry between her and James was lacking – his performance never quite finding the balance between repressed emotion nor unadulterated lust. He is, fittingly, at his best in the poignant final scene, which captures the transient nature of the whole affair rather well. The play would also benefit from more sense of how time moves on from one scene to the next, which would also help reinforce the depth of feeling the two protagonists have for each other.

After my last negative review of a Pentameters’ production, I’m delighted to say that this was an evening well spent. It’s not challenging or demanding theatre – it’s Noël Coward after all – but a very enjoyable local night out that will have you tucked up well before bedtime dreaming of bath buns, milky tea, and the vagaries of love.

Red Peppers & Still Life runs until March 13th at Pentameters Theatre.
Ring the box office on 020 7435 3648
*Disclaimer: I received a free ticket courtesy of the theatre

small hours at Hampstead Theatre – review

small hours is different. It would be as at home at Tate Modern as it is in the Hampstead Theatre’s Michael Frayn space. Indeed as the small audience (restricted to just 25 per performance) assembled in a hallway, we were told this was an “installation”. We were then asked to remove our shoes.

The play, directed by the sometimes divisve Katie Mitchell, takes place in a closed off large living room. The audience sits around the sides of the room on furniture; the atmosphere is intensely claustrophobic. Over the course of the hour there is almost no dialogue, but the play is far from silent. There is a palpable sense of the uncomfortable as actress Sandy McDade paces around the room confronting her inner demons. The interruptions come at first from the radio and then a phone ringing that makes everyone jump. Then we hear a baby crying.

As we move through the small hours of the night, the room becomes filled with noise to drown out the crying child. Nigella’s perfect life blares from the TV, the vacuum cleaner hums and, finally, music is cranked up high as the woman seems to force herself into a series of trance-like states. She checks on the child once or twice; then the dawn chorus begins and a new day begins.

This work by Lucy Kirkwood Ed Hime is a play wthout drama – it creates a mood but does little with it. There are references to all the (en)trappings of many women’s lives: children, husbands, mothers, cleaning, cooking, make-up. But empathy is hard to come by with such a stark production and a performance that switches strangely from the naturalistic to the stylised.

I’m glad I saw small hours, but wouldn’t choose to see it again and would recommend it only to people who are prepared for something a little unconventional and deliberately lacking in exposition. I found it intellectually interesting but not especially stimulating.

small hours is now playing at Hampstead Theatre until Feb 19th
Book tickets

Review: The Nutcracker at Pentameters Theatre

This was my first time at Hampstead’s smallest theatre. Pentameters is a tiny space with about 50 seats, accessed from some narrow stairs behind The Horseshoe pub on Heath Street. The stage is surprisingly big and, for this adaptation of The Nutcracker, creatively adorned.

Purists expecting a faithful rendition of Tchaikovsky’s ballet are in for a shock. Theatre company Butterfly Wheels has developed a slightly sinister adaptation of the classic story in which a child’s Christmas reality and fantasy collide. Unfortunately, the execution does not live up to the creative ambition.

Aside from the instantly recognisable Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy (who is portrayed as some gilded homage to the Maschinenmensch in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis), the music veers to the contemporary. At times this lends the whole production the feel of a German high school’s attempt at rock opera. And not entirely in a good way.

The story itself is told in a rather staccato fashion, and at times the libretto feels as wooden as the Nutcracker himself although there are some nice multimedia elements. The only male actor in the production, Tim C J Chew, is quite good as the Prince and the dolls that come to life are entertaining in a pantomime sort of way but one leaves the theatre feeling more bewildered than enchanted.

At £12 for adults (£10 concessions, £5 for under 5s, but seriously don’t take your under-5) it’s quite expensive, especially when you consider that for £15 you can see the outstanding Midsummer at the Tricycle. However, if you’re flush with cash this Christmas holiday season and like a healthy dash of alternative with your festivities then maybe wend your way up to Pentameters for something a little different. Take your 9-year-old – they’ll probably love it.

The Nutcracker runs until January 6th at Pentameters Theatre.
Ring the box office on 020 7435 3648
*Disclaimer: I received a free ticket courtesy of the theatre

Midsummer [a play with songs] at The Tricycle Theatre: review

Midsummer was a hit at Edinburgh. It is actually set in Edinburgh at midsummer and is simply a story of boy meets girl, or rather girl meets boy. The girl is a divorce lawyer, the boy a petty criminal. Over the course of the play they let us look into their lives as 35 year-olds. They don’t especially like what they see, but we love them. We cannot help but love them.

It is an astonishingly good play. David Greig’s script (he also directs) flows effortlessly and convincingly from appropriate dialogue to poetic musings. Attempts to do this jar in many modern scripts, but never once does it seem out of place here. The staging is great – there’s no interval, no set changes, and definitely no fourth wall. With just a bed and a few props, the cast of two work their magic. Yes, just a cast of two. At times they each morph into other characters – which sounds odd but works brilliantly. I can’t recall seeing a production that plays so smartly with the suspension of disbelief yet never once disengages you from the unfolding drama.
The two actors are faultless. Cora Bissett perhaps has the edge, but it’s really unfair to split them. Matthew Pidgeon turns “Robert… Rob… Bob… fuck” into a tragic hero on a par with the best. These two are a double act and utterly convincing. Over a drink after the play I tried hard to think of faults with this production and struggled to find one.

Throughout Midsummer there are musical interludes penned by Gordon McIntyre – it is after all “a play with songs”. These work rather well – rather like music in a TV drama, except here it’s the cast that sing and play guitar. Again, sounds a bit odd – works like a dream. Seems a bit Dennis Potter doesn’t it. Well, he was brilliant too.
I can’t recommend this highly enough. It is both hilariously funny, utterly engaging and incredibly moving as the characters come to terms with what they are doing with their lives. And it’s on our doorstep. Go and see it. 
Midsummer runs until January 29th at the Tricycle Theatre.
There’s even a singles night on December 21st (midwinter, geddit)
*Disclaimer: I received a free ticket courtesy of the theatre

Review: .45 at Hampstead Theatre

If Martin Scorsese collaborated with Tennessee Williams, you might end up with something like Gary Lennon’s superb .45.

Set in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen in 1977, this play bristles with sexual tension, moral ambiguity hangs thickly in the air, and there’s an ever present sense of danger. It’s a moody drama set to a blaring CBGB’s soundtrack.

The cast is excellent. Natalie Dormer is particularly compelling as Pat, the woman at the heart of the story who is loved by everyone. She combines strength and vulnerability perfectly, while her scenes with Daniel Caltagirone who plays her boyfriend Ed are as loaded as the handguns he pulls.

Despite the urging of her friend and would-be lover Vic (a superb Katie Wimpenny) and reformed tough guy Reilley (Chris Reilly), Pat simply can’t just walk away from Ed. “I love him ‘cos he’s home,” she says. “We suffer well together.”

It is the introduction of social worker Kat (Emma Powell) that disrupts the cycle of violence. At first her presence jars; her repression too stylised in contrast to the overt sexuality of the other characters. Indeed her first scene is the weakest in the play – it’s an unexpected gear change and the staging is initially confusing. If I had a criticism of the play it would be that Kat’s emotional release is too staccato, and thus less believeable, but this is being picky.

.45 was made into a film starring Milla Jovovich and directed by Lennon (who wrote cult US TV series The Shield). I have not seen it and have no desire to. This is a great example of a play that works brilliantly on stage. The confrontations between characters are immeasurably more powerful when they are happening right in front of you, but the most violent scenes happen off stage and leave the audience to explore its own dark imagination. 

The play, directed by Wilson Milam, is in Hampstead Theatre’s Michael Frayn Space – a small stage downstairs. The intimacy this provides is very suitable for the stifling atmosphere of the apartment and bar where most of the action is set, but why squirrel this away in some ‘alternative’ space? It’s the first time the play has been staged in the UK and, sure, it won’t be to everyone’s taste – there’s a lot of swearing and sexual references. But if you think that going to the theatre can be much more than a pleasant evening of mediocrity, then buy tickets to plays like this and prove to theatres that there is a demand for more engaging and challenging work even from the typical Hampstead Theatre audience.

Watch an interview with Natalie Dormer below, and for interviews with all the cast, visit the Hampstead Theatre’s You Tube channel. Then go and buy tickets for the damn play already.

.45 runs until November 27th at the Hampstead Theatre
Book here

*Disclaimer: I received a free ticket courtesy of the theatre

Review: The Saloon Singer at New End Theatre

Holly Penfield has a one-woman show (+ band and bartender!) at Hampstead’s New End Theatre. The Saloon Singer sees the cabaret artist link together a collection of songs from “One for the Road” to “Rhythm of Life” via “The Boys in the Backroom” and a host of others – some classics, some less well-known.

In a variety of glam outfits and wigs, Penfield channels Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe and Julie Andrews, among other sultry sirens, and also gives us a rather good self-penned song. In between the music, an overly breathless Penfield coquettishly declares her love for the audience, the silver screen and hats with shoes on them.

There’s rather a lot of audience participation, as she hauls a succession of men on stage. When it’s just to be sung too and mildly embarrassed I don’t mind this too much, but the poor guy dragged up during the finale could barely have looked more uncomfortable and there was something ever so slightly distasteful about seeing this woman of indeterminate age ‘riding’ a hapless punter who had presumably paid the full £18 for his ticket.

It’s a 90 minute show, with a ‘pause’ rather than an interval, during which Joe the bartender (who’s on stage for the whole thing) hands out free glasses of wine, which is a nice touch. I can see it working well in a cabaret club setting where Holly would be able to roam among the audience, but the stage version didn’t do it for me. The script – such as it is – is loose to put it mildly, which means she occasionally loses her way but the very act of staging a show like this in a theatre rather than a club means the audience has certain expectations.

I would rather have just had the songs because there’s no doubt that Penfield can sing – the highlight of the evening was her rendition of The Eagles’ track Desperado. In what one assumes is the latter part of her career, playing to her strengths would seem to be the way forward.

The Saloon Singer runs until October 24th. It starts at 9pm, so there’s time for a drink at one of the nearby pubs or a burger at Tinseltown on the corner (where they kindly gave me a free smoothie!)
Book tickets

*Disclaimer: I received a free ticket for the play courtesy of the theatre

Review: Enlightenment at Hampstead Theatre

In a scene towards the end of Enlightenment, one of the characters is wrapped in a sheet; one assumes the impression of a straitjacket is deliberate.

Three-quarters of the way through this production, I was feeling similarly constrained. I wasn’t being led down blind alleys or fed red herrings. Any room for speculation was blocked by some awkward dialogue. I was interested enough to want to know how the play would end, but the route to get there didn’t excite me quite enough.

This was a shame, because there was much to like about Ed Hall’s debut as artistic director of the Hampstead Theatre. The stark set, which subtly morphed from a home into a clinical examination room of hope and fear, worked well. The bombflash lighting changes were effective, and the ghostly projected images provided an opaque netherworld contrast to the characters’ attempts to rationalise their situation.

The acting too was generally good. Julie Graham, on stage for most of the play, was at her best when wracked with emotion. Richard Clothier was excellent in the role of frustrated tired husband, while Daisy Beaumont’s parasitic journalist channelled Davina McCall too closely for comfort. Tom Weston-Jones never truly convinced no matter which side of his character he was showing, but he had stage presence – essential for his scenes to be believable.

No, the production was good. It was Shelagh Stephenson’s play that I struggled with. It flitted around themes such as truth, benevolence, self-deception, hope, love, narrative and security. Yet it also found time to throw in the bourgeois decadence of capitalism, geopolitics and the nature of modern media. Highly contemporary, but perhaps a little ambitious. Worse, the philosophical musings seemed misplaced against the powerful emotional torture that was the backbone of the entire play.

The story also stretched the bounds of credibility once too often. I can turn a blind eye to some dramatic licence, but the third time around you start to lose empathy with the characters.

Stephenson’s story might be better suited to television than the stage. It needed to be faster-paced, and give more time to the evolving tension between Weston-Jones and Graham’s characters. A screenplay would be less ponderous and might do a better job of showing not telling. It might also feel less obliged to seek the laughs, which jarred at times – for this wasn’t always gallows humour. A bleaker interpretation of the script might have made the narrative more compelling without sacrificing the barbed one-liners.

Once again, the Hampstead Theatre has produced a crowd-pleaser and doubtless plenty of people will enjoy it. But for me it didn’t live up to its billing as a “mesmeric thriller”. Its strength is as a dark emotional exploration of the horror of the unknown.

Enlightenment runs at The Hampstead Theatre until Oct 30
Book here

*Disclaimer: I received a free ticket for the play courtesy of the theatre

Review: Darker Shores at Hampstead Theatre

At several points during Darker Shores, the characters debate whether things are real because we perceive them, or whether they are real because we feel them. The 11-year-old boy next to me for last night’s performance both perceived and felt the reality of this Victorian Christmas ghost story all too vividly. Director Anthony Clark was clearly doing something right.

Michael Punter’s new play engages with the theatricality of ghost stories rather well. It begins by nicely blurring narration into action, thereby disrupting the audience’s understanding of what exactly is real and what exactly is now. If this makes it sound pretentious, fear not. Thanks largely to Tom Goodman-Hill’s outstanding performance as natural scientist and would-be Darwin refuter Gabriel Stokes, this is a play that seeks to entertain not confuse. Goodman-Hill dominates the play, even more remarkable when you learn that he was a very last-minute replacement for Mark Gatiss. The crumbling of Stokes’ crisp surety in the face of the inexplicable is far more convincing and compelling than Julian Rhind-Tutt’s evolution from Confederate impresario to fragile soul suffering post-traumatic stress. Indeed, in the first half, Rhind-Tutt’s Tom Beauregard appears lost at sea – his elongated southern vowels struggling in quieter passages and never quite convincing as either a Doctor of Spiritual Science or as a 19th century Derren Brown. He ups his game in the second half and some sort of equilibrium is restored between the male protagonists.

The two are joined on the Gothically draped stage by Pamela Miles’ doughty Mrs Hinchliffe, whose secrets are closely guarded in the folds of her housekeeper’s black dress, and by Vinette Robinson as cockney sparrer voice-of-reason Florence Kennedy. Kennedy initially seems too simplistic a character, but it is clear she has a larger part to play in the tale and both women perform well, especially Miles whose part is more subtle.

Amid the trickery and illusion (of which there is plenty) the frights and scares vary considerably in their intensity. Some of the moments that should shock are sadly rather rushed with not enough dramatic build-up. The 360-degree sound effects, on the other hand, are extremely effective at bringing the audience right into the action. The first sighting of the ghost is particularly well done, and spooked my young neighbour more than a Dalek ever would (he told me this during the interval).

Although the main stage is left relatively uncluttered, the wings are full of shadows and spotlights and curtains and columns. This has the excellent effect that you start to expect something to happen out of one of these dark corners every time a spirit is summoned. Yet the final revelation is a delicious surprise.

There is much humour in the play, largely based on superb delivery and timing, but on occasion the comedy releases the tension before rather than after a more dramatic moment. And as the audience relaxes into its seats instead of perching on the edge of them, it becomes harder to ratchet up the spook factor. This conflict sadly was the play’s weakness for me. It became harder to care about the characters and the resolution of the story and came perilously close to drifting into pantomime – albeit a well acted, grown-up pantomime. This was reinforced by a rather clunky exposition scene near the end that felt as if it should have been integrated more smoothly into the text.

Overall though, it is hard to carp. It was definitely a very enjoyable evening, contained some excellent performances and I would certainly recommend it for Goodman-Hill’s acting alone. 7/10

Darker Shores by Michael Punter
Hampstead Theatre until Jan 16th

*Disclaimer: I received a free ticket for the play courtesy of the theatre.
Image from Hampstead Theatre website