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Early Doors: Apollo Hammersmith (and touring)

October 24, 2018

Seen at the performance on 2nd October 2018.

Do you like circuses? I loved this one. So glad I was in the regiment, not just wishing I was there.

If those phrases meant anything to you, then you too must be a fan of this mid 2000’s sitcom set in Northern pub “The Grapes.” Nothing ever happens, except that it does. Landlord Ken (John Henshaw) lives with mother Jean (Judith Barker) above the pub. He lusts after barmaid Tanya (Susan Cookson) and it is this triangle that forms the basis of this brand new just-for-stage script.

Downstairs, crotchety barfly Tommy (Nick Birkinshaw – his casting explained with a terrific one-liner) is the most instantly memorable of the drinking population. Corrupt coppers Phil (James Quinn) and Nige (Peter Wright) drop into the kitchenette (super stage design by Liz Ascroft) to regale Ken with their lazy exploits and relieve him of all spirits – literally.

Also back are likely lads Joe (Craig Cash) and Duffy (Phil Mealey) whose lives have moved on now that internet dating is possible. A good sub-plot involving Debbie (Lisa Millett) makes the most of this pair… when they can get their lines out and stop “corpsing,” that is.

Sadly, Eddie and Joan are gone, but replacements June (Vicky Binns) and Freddie (Neil Hurst) are in the spirit and deliver the odd line to great effect.

For nearly two hours, the Cash and Mealey script delivers a strong plot – nicely tied up by daughter Mel (Laura Woodward – pleasant singer, too). There’s old and new jokes, one-liners galore and space for genuine emotion not just pathos.

Frankly, you’ve got to admire the intelligence of the writing and love any show opening with a fabulous musical theatre back-reference. That’s both confidence and class.

The newcomers to the cast, mostly replacing actors who have passed away… plus a few way too expensive to do this old tat (joke) blend in seamlessly with the old regulars. Both they and the audience are as one, having a good time and also finding out a little more about ourselves and humanity in the process.

Fans will love this, newcomers may well get the appeal and want to watch the original programmes.

To the regiment, glad I was there.


4 stars.

Once: Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch

October 17, 2018

 (Seen at the afternoon performance on 11th October 2018).

Czech Girl (Emma Lucia) sees angry Irish Guy (Daniel Healy) busking in the street. Each carries gaping open wounds where recent love has gone wrong. Each also carries the spirit of music within themselves, and it is this which draws them together. How dreams are realised and lives begin to move on is the theme of the show, and the story is lyrical yet literal, with a searing emotional honesty.

Director Peter Rowe has taken the original West End and Broadway version to new heights, with a more cinematic approach than previously. Scenes move more quickly, musical interludes working as “establishing shots” to ease each transition.

Gone are the formal rows of chairs at the sides of the stage. The evocative (Libby Watson) multi-purpose set has characters relaxed around pub tables or between musical equipment. Beds, workshops, offices and the entire Dublin cityscape are rolled out as required, with a lovely ‘cliff and sky’ moment too.

This allows the entire cast a more fluid realism in performance, giving them the opportunity to discover hitherto hidden dimensions within both their characters and even the plot.

Strongest is the dynamic between Guy and Girl. This time, the lacerations of their hearts are at the forefront of their minds. Guy is simply angry, Girl lost and keeping steady because it is Czech tradition.

Emma Lucia reveals everything with an “If You Want Me” of yearning sensuality, the best rendition I’ve ever heard and given extra life with a terrific trio routine as it develops.

Daniel Healy’s defining moment is literally “Gold” (though his mirror-posing “Broken Hearted Hoover Sucker Guy” is hilarious – Elvis may never be the same again).

The show is very much an ensemble piece, though, and each member of the ensemble is an extraordinarily special actor / musician.

Kate Robson-Stuart eschews the original stereotype, making Reza fully a strong woman in a foreign land. Already a free spirit used to manipulating all for her own purposes, but now using it as a defensive weapon as well, with high intelligence and a rather stunning shoulder tattoo.

Also in the Czech tribe, Susannah van den Berg plays a mean accordion and stands a strong matriarchal figure. A little note for  Lily-Anne Wilkin (Ivonka) who clearly enjoyed the wonderfully tribal “Ej, Pada, Pada, Rosicka” as much as anyone.

Speaking of, James William-Pattison (Andrej) and Lloyd Gorman (Svec) are wished much luck in the “lucky suit” and deserve success with both careers and curing their Soap Opera / coffee addictions.

For the native community, Peter Peverley (Da) has a wisdom (and lovely sly wit) Guy will hopefully inherit. Samuel Martin (Bank Manager) deals skilfully with both rendering “Abandoned In Bandon” and a critique, delivered with an impeccable timing that should make Simon Cowell consider retiring.

Later, Caolan McCarthy (Eamon) does a lovely job evolving his mental attitude during a 24 hour recording session. Sean Kingsley (Billy) gets a longer time-frame but does likewise and seizes the opportunity to be truly memorable even in brief appearances.

The same is true for Rachel Dawson (Ex-Girlfriend). A cliché is that a good actor is noticed for a tiny role. This really is that cliché. Her perfect, truly perfect, phone call scene must be a calling-card. The reaction is beautifully played also by Guy and Girl.

In true Irish fashion, perhaps the only “but” is that the “pre-show” seems a little too formal, with the tuning-up a little less convincing than the West End’s original freer “jam session.” The show doesn’t quite begin with the same unexpected evolution – a simple lighting cue on a line, almost – which would be lovely to have back. Such a minor quibble as to be meaningless in this glorious revival.

At the time of writing, the Ambassadors Theatre in the West End is unexpectedly free. If Reza and Billy were to go and seduce / threaten the owner, while Guy and Girl tap Bank Manager for the extra cash…

If only. I made a 4 hour round-trip to get to this, and it was worth every second. There’s still a few performances left, if you can, just go. This production’s new sunlight is purest Gold.


5 stars, standing ovation and full-fledged sobbing.


Dance Nation: Almeida Theatre

October 10, 2018

(Seen at the afternoon performance on 8th September 2018).

From “A Chorus Line,” through “Fame,” to “Glee” and “Dance Moms,” the USA has been crazy about telling the stories of “What I Did For Love.” To dance for an audience, whatever the cost.

Clare Barron’s angle is Dance Teacher Pat’s (Brendan Cowell) local after-school “Dance Company” (as we Brits have learned to call them). Seven pre-teen girls and one boy doing their all to beat the local competition and make it from ‘regionals’ to the ‘National‘ contest in Florida.

We get a series of decently choreographed (Aline David) routines, interspersed with monologues, duologues and occasional group dialogues as hopes, fears and intergroup friendships and rivalries are played out.

The twist is just how explicitly these children express themselves. Bodies are changing, hormones are kicking in and the scary dealings with menstruation, virginity and coming to terms with the roles they will play in their lives are the central themes. Chants of “pussy” (and descriptions of interactions and intensely personal relationships with them); stress and self-harm, irrationally built and demolished dreaming all play a part. It’s tough being 11, 12 and about to be pushed into a whole class above, where once the biggest fish must fight to rise again.

Given the content, it’s no real wonder that adults play the children. Unfortunately, to my mind at least, it rather loses the edge of innocence that may lend the words true verisimilitude. While I also accept there is a dimension of contrast in the decision, it’s actually distracting to consider the idea when the concept is that the children are discussing and expressing themselves through the medium of their childish bodies in the first place.

The other problem is that it all feels to knowing. I’m no expert in children, but the lines spoken seem to come from a far more adult perspective than might be expected – retrospective rather than in very current development. There’s more than a hint that the author doesn’t fully trust her own understanding of youngsters either, undermining further confidence in her central concept.

Still, the performances are mostly interesting. Stand-out dancer Amina (Karla Crome) deals with tricky situations with honesty. Pressured Zuzu (Ria Zmitrowicz) is lumbered with melodramatics in excess of even her tender years and manages some credibility.

Connie (Manjinder Virk) and Dance Teacher Pat have probably the most shocking scene of adult betraying child, and play it well. Token male child Luke (Irfan Shamji) isn’t given much to do – probably even surplus to the play itself – but makes the most of a neutered role.

The neat Samal Blak design of rehearsal mirrors and trophy shelves is effective, and Moritz Junge (costumes), Lee Curran (lighting) and Marc Teitler (sound and composition) lend the whole an authenticity the writing sometimes lacks.

And at that point, I was really prepared to let the production slide. It was mildly interesting, covered no new ground and shocked in a rather crass manner when intelligent alternatives were available. Still, at least it wasn’t dull.

Sadly, that was all totally undermined on my way home. Got off the underground train at my station, just as a delightful 6 year old girl also alighting with her family pipes up, “that journey was a right pain in the bottom.” Smackdown, Clare Barron. Sorry, but you lose, game, set and match to that, and nothing more can be said.


2 stars.

Holy Sh!t: Kiln Theatre

October 3, 2018

(seen at the evening performance on 25th September 2018).

Juliet and Simone met at Oxford University, and remain friends after 20 years. Now married with children, they are fighting for places at the only decent school in the area.

St Mary’s is a church school, and it’s “knees or fees” to get in and avoid paying for the private school alternative – 40 ticks in the church register built up each Sunday. Juliet finds her Christian faith “re-awakening.” So does Simone… except that Simone is Jewish.

Alexis Zegerman’s comedy drama is built on wonderfully observed characters. Each has depth and history, and even better, Zegerman isn’t afraid to “drop a bomb” whenever things are getting cosy. This happens pretty often, but for those expecting a left-wing polemic, this really isn’t it. Probably the most right-wing views I’ve heard in theatre for a long while, in fact.

Topics range from the central one of just wanting to “play the system” as everyone else does, forced to as the system doesn’t work; through where racism comes from and may be going, to simply fitting in and how a parent must sacrifice for a child’s future.

For the most part, it motors along pretty well. The off-stage children play pivotal roles, and there are some interesting avenues of morality and culture that beg for a sequel or at least an extra few minutes of exploration.

The second half (particularly the final scene), is far stronger than the first. The fact it makes sense of the whole preceding couple of hours redeems the entire play, making audiences forgive the odd longue.

Daon Broni (Nick Obasi) gives the performance of the evening, an impressive piece of technical acting requiring a mood to be held for a prolonged period before release in a delivery that stuns the audience into silence.

Wife Claire Goose (Juliet Obasi) is successful in being exactly the woman everybody knows. 40-something, highly educated but turning to mush due to childcare and existing on one income, body-clock ticking for a sibling. That she keeps her acting within reality even as the script spins is sound work.

Dorothea Myer-Bennett (Simone Kellerman) works through the peculiarities and contradictions required of her with some aplomb. Probably a candidate for the revival of “Starlight Express” (you have to have been there, in-joke) and more than scheming, yet keeping a degree of sympathy even as sharp intakes of breath are required.

Daniel Lapaine (Sam Green) gets the only false note in the production. Guess what? The author goes for a “middle aged white man who can’t grow up and has a light drug issue and isn’t keen on responsibility.” With that lazy stereotype, Lapaine manages to find a degree of humour and shows more humanity in a moment every parent dreads than the writer probably intended.

It isn’t perfect, thanks to this flawed character, and sometimes the scripting feels like the odd idea could be removed if it can’t be explored properly. Still, it’s highly original, the dialogue is mostly crisp and the acting pulls through any shortcomings.

Worth seeing, particularly if you can get a baby sitter for that 4 year old who needs a place at a good school – there’s ideas here this application season…


Four stars.

Peter Hall: A Service of Thanksgiving

September 26, 2018

Westminster Abbey, 11th September 2018.

For the record, without the kindness of Sir Peter Hall taking a few moments to chat to a couple of teenagers at the National Theatre following the press night of “Martine,” there could well have been no His gentle interest made me feel even more “at home” in his theatre, and the variety of work he produced there sparked the lifelong passion that is both work and leisure interest.

To lose him to such a tragic illness was shattering to an entire community last year. A year later, to be able to say a proper “goodbye” at a service open to the public at Westminster Abbey was an honour.

Memorial services for much loved and hugely important people are something I’ve never attended before, so this was a novel experience. The surreal began outside, having figured out exactly where the “Sanctuary and Great West Door” were (just follow the other people in suits) and finding it swamped in barriers. Some of the “great and good” (and others who could afford taxis) drove between the mesh railings. Us pedestrians detoured a quarter-mile around the entire issue, a formally-dressed stream running behind “sightseers” either there star-spotting or just irritated that the place was closed to tourists for the event.

Once on the far side, “volunteer ushers” provided directions and ticket checks, paparazzi photographed everybody, and I do mean everybody, in the hope that someone might be worth it!

Directed into the Nave, over 1000 admirers lucky enough to secure tickets were treated to an “Order of Service” as well as a hardback copy of Sir Peter Hall’s lecture on “Shakespeare’s Verse” to Trinity College as keepsakes of a remarkable life and career. That some saw fit to hawk them on Ebay later that evening upset me more than I can say.

Twenty minutes before the service proper began, the London Philharmonic Orchestra gave us “Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli” by Tippett, as TV screens (on which we would watch much of the service obscured by Organ Gallery) showed slides of productions in his stunningly varied career.

Dame Judi Dench opened proceedings with a scene from Act 5 of “Antony And Cleopatra,” reminding us that he did “bestrid the ocean” in his way. Soprano Lucy Crowe, the choir and orchestra gave Intoitus and Kyrie from Requien k626 by Mozart, followed by “He Who Would Valiant Be” and the Bidding from the Dean of Westminster, Dr John Hall.

Sir David Hare gave the tribute from a pulpit close to where I was sitting. A reminder of how Sir Peter supported him after the first night of “Plenty” against a Board wishing to close the production due to the reviews.

The “Serenade” from Don Giovanni had Sir Thomas Allen’s unamplified voice reach all corners of the Abbey, before Gregory Doran read from Ecclesiastes 3 (To every thing there is a season).

Ralph Vaughan Williams “The Cloud-Capp’d Towers” from “The Tempest” was followed by Vanessa Redgrave at the lecturn reading 1 Corinthians 13 (When I was a child).

Sir Trevor Nunn then gave the Address. A memory of their first meeting, a recount of the battles given in protecting the arts from public spending cuts, but most of all, a recollection of two Suffolk boys who called each other “mate.” Heartfelt and heartwarming.

“Jerusalem” followed – and yes, the mighty Abbey Organ, a thundering hymn, why shouldn’t a monkey join in with gusto. And I did.

Alone on the stone floor in front of the High Alter, actor David Suchet proceeded to do his best to remind us just how magnificent Peter Shaffer’s writing could be in the hands of a great actor and director. Act 1, Scene 5 of “Amadeus,” as Salieri hears Mozart’s music for the first time would have brought a house down – and did the Church equivalent.

If that wasn’t moving enough, the Hall children gave thanks as prayers were said for the wisdom and spirit of Sir Peter Hall, his family whom he loved above all else, those who mourn him and the theatrical community. Those, I take to my heart.

A blessing, then the Monteverdi Choir’s version of “Es Ist Nun Aus Mit Meinem Leben” by JC Bach, a further blessing and, to end, the final scene of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” performed by Sir Ian Holm, Lucy Crowe, Tim Mead, the Choristers from the Choir of Westminster and the orchestra.

The clergy and some guests left to the sound of JS Bach’s “Sinfonia to Cantata 29” before the church bells rang out loud around Parliament Square in his honour.

A few minutes wait, and we re-emerged into the sunlight of early Autumn London. Crowds still behind barriers, photographers still active – but thankfully no detour around barriers to get back to the tube. Moving, memorable for all the right reasons, intense and bittersweet. A truly family occasion, atmosphere to match, which the Hall family were kind enough to share. A fitting tribute to a talent the like of which we shall never see again.

Portable Air Con for British Beginners

August 30, 2018

A digression, but I wanted to put something online, as I couldn’t find anything that helpful!

I was a total newcomer to the idea, as are most Brits. Finally decided in April 2018 to “go for it” and was promptly confused by a billion contradictory views online – mostly Americans who don’t understand the British climate or how our homes are built, and who sneer at anything other than built-in systems for regular use.

Luckily, I found a helpful expert at to steer me through, so I wanted to share everything I found out while deciding to purchase the particular model – KYR25 that I ended up with.

First and foremost, what everybody wants to know is… is it worth spending £300 on, rather than just buying a £20 fan? Answer: yes. Fans blow hot air around, this actually changes the room temperature in a way you can feel, just like walking into an air-conditioned shop from the street.

In the very hottest 34 degrees of 2018, my 4.5m long, 3m wide, 2.5m high work-space cooled at least 10 degrees in 20 minutes, and stayed that way for 90 minutes or more once the machine was turned off.

Don’t get hung up on exact temperatures. Online reviewers seem to simply quote them to scare you and put you off buying. My rule is that if outside is 34 (Celsius – used throughout this article), provided you feel cool, that’s all that matters. I did, job done. Obviously, your room will feel even cooler if it is slightly cooler outside (at 28 degrees I had to turn the machine off as the room was too cold).

What is important when buying is the BTU output matches your room size. 9000BTU for me was fine; in a bigger room, 14000+ is required, or you will be wasting your money. The cheap 5000BTU machines are not worth it unless you live in a tiny home, apparently.

Second massive question is “venting.” Portable air conditioners need somewhere for the hot air to go, and they have hoses in the back (this one on this model is 15cm wide and 1.7m long) that they push it out through. It is wire and plastic and concertinas up like a Slinky, but holds its shape as required.

It’s tempting to “kink” the hose to go around corners – but you mustn’t, the gradient must be like a drain, straight and gentle as possible (I found a 30 degree slope was fine) to a window…

… yes, a window. A normal, British, side-opening double-glazed window. Aircon companies make a great deal of aircon going out of a sash window and give you a thing to stick between the bottom of the sash window and the sill, to fill the gap. Most of us Brits don’t have those, do we? And it’s all scary and counter-intuitive to open a window on a hot day and leave a gap around the vent hose!

Don’t worry. This machine works just fine. OK, it’s not like a sealed car, where the temperature can drop rapidly with all the windows up; but you still feel perfectly cool even as those outside fry. Air conditioned rooms require air-flow anyway, and that gap provides it. You can buy nets to cover the gap (mostly from insects, I’d guess) but I don’t see the point. And regarding outside noise – well, the machine is pretty loud full-tilt and the “white noise” it puts out more than covers outside sound, I’d say.

If the hose won’t reach a window, this model lets you add an extension to a maximum 4 metres. No more, or it will burn out the compressor.  The extension (bought separately) is pretty easy to add, but won’t always stay in place, as the hose unscrews from the joining device if you move it too often.

You can also put the hose (keeping it straight) to vent into another room rather than outside… BUT… the other room will become a wallpaper-steaming-off swamp in a few minutes, unless you open the window in there. Alternatively, you can get a hole in the wall put in (you get a wall lining collar to allow it) – but that seems extreme, remembering that hole will be there come winter…

So, the machine itself. It resembles R2D2, about 70cm high, 30cm wide, 30cm deep with an extra 30cm hose sticking out behind. Weight is 22kg – the same as a full suitcase, and equally hefty if you want to move it up and down the stairs in your house. Trundles happily over carpet between rooms on the same level on its wheels, though. Be aware of the room needed to store it – the weight means boosting it up a loft ladder is probably out.

Setting up is easy. You have to screw the hose into the back. Stretch a bit of hose out, and turn until it feels firmly in place. Every time you move the machine and concertina the hose up to pack away, give it a turn to stop the hose falling out.

Every 11 days of use (144 hours maximum – 12 hours on / 12 hours off) you need to wash out the filter. That’s quite hard to take out as you have to take off the hose and hose mounting, then pull the filter out. The filter is part of the outer casing and feels flimsy. I am scared of breaking it, so, I hoover the filter instead.

Like a small child, the machine also needs a quick wee every so often. Though the advertising says it doesn’t need emptying, actually it does as the compressor saps some water out of the air. Just unbung the drain hole, tilt it a bit, and a cupful of liquid will come out every 8 hours use or so. No biggie.

There’s a load of choices of settings – I’ve not explored most of them, as I find “fast fan / auto / cool” works for me. Loud on this setting, as in gentle motor-bike idling in the street with your windows closed, but effective. You set the temperature, it reaches the temperature then just goes off and on to maintain it.

In practise, the machine doesn’t seem to feel it has reached its goal and hasn’t gone into that maintenance mode for me even on a cooler day. Doesn’t matter, it’s made my room cold and I’m able to turn off or just ignore it. That’s what counts.

Other small niggles may be the amount of space it takes up with the hose extended correctly to reach a window, and the vents at the front not really staying adjusted at an angle but happier left pointing up or down.

So, I worked without feeling tired right through the heat-wave. The only other real problem is kicking everyone else out of your office, as they find any excuse to drop by and savour the cool.

That’s about it. Oh, and remember to buy from January to April, before it gets hot, prices go up and models you select are out of stock. Air conditioning does make a difference, and I hope this helps somebody else ride out the summer as I did.

Bring It On: Southwark Playhouse

August 15, 2018

(seen at the afternoon performance on 11th August 2018).

Following the triumphant “13” at the Ambassadors Theatre in 2017, the British Theatre Academy return to American High School culture, a little bit older, a little bit wiser in a Tom Kitt / Lin-Manuel “Hamilton” Miranda / Jeff Whitty confection celebrating cheerleading and the US teen.

Campbell is looking forward to her Senior Year as elected Head Cheerleader, rounding out her Truman High School career in style. A spanner in the works finds her transferred unexpectedly to the tough Jackson High. No cheerleading squad, no adoring circle of friends… just fellow ex-Trumanite and cheer Mascot Bridget-the-unpopular. “Sink or Swim” is the motion now.

It’s a pretty long-winded setup, taking almost 30 minutes to reach the good stuff, but it’s worth the journey. For those who know Miranda’s earlier work, this has plenty of the elements that make “In The Heights” such a wonderful slice of true life – unfettered honesty about interpersonal relationships; the obvious made even more glaringly so.

The more experienced Kitt and Green provide the soundest structure to his early effort. Kitt’s score isn’t that memorable, though the odd ballad, in particular, sticks. With Kitt, though, Green pours on the attitude to keep the book characters engaging and witty enough to sustain the show.

Tom Paris (Set and Costumes) gives us an open space with two-tone lockers and floor, plus the odd simple bench, mirror and road sign – and plenty of cheerleading outfits and Unicorn Onesies – don’t ask.

Director / Choreographer Ewan Jones keeps the action flowing for all three sides of the audience, and creates some impressive ensemble dance routines. The older cast members cope better with these than the youngsters (a little extra mirror-rehearsal may help tidy and tighten slightly “Do Your Own Thing” in particular) but “We Ain’t No Cheerleaders” and “It’s All Happening” are impressive.

Where British Theatre Academy score biggest, however, is the cast. This is a library of all the theatre performers we will be fighting online for tickets to see over the next half decade or so.

Victim Campbell (Robyn McIntyre) proves her ability by selling a weaker song “One Perfect Moment” in show-stopping style. It can be impossible to love a bitch, but she maintains her edge while never losing sympathy. Her scenes with Danielle (Chisara Agor) are emotionally explosive, as Agor’s remarkable charisma enters the mix. A triple-threat likely to reach the top very quickly.

Fellow victim Bridget (Kristine Kruse) will probably end up with Mischief Theatre at some point. Comic, yes, but with a self-assurance that transcends pity, and a sure understanding of character.

For the rest of the Truman gang, sidekick Skylar (Isabella Pappas) is another step towards a stellar career. Character acting is as natural to her as breathing, facial expressions simply hilarious, and a stage-holding song “Tryouts” demonstrates her range still further.

Loyal Kylar (Clair Cleave) is a versatile MC too, Campbell’s boyfriend Steven (Samuel Witty) is credible, later work with Eva (Sydnie Hocknell) proving that both can produce a very broad range of emotions as required.

At Jackson, La Cienega (Matthew Brazier) is vivid, and to be congratulated on his sound Dance Captaincy and cheerleading supervision on the show. Twig’s (Ashley Daniels) evolving love-life is a lovely piece of sensitivity, with Nautica (Mary Celeste) making the most of her role in proceedings.

Notes too for Cameron (Clark James), Tyler (Ben Terry) and Jake (Morgan Howard Chambers), also Woman (Millie Longhurst), all of whom for dance ability and strong acting add something to the show at many points.

An acknowledgement to the rest of the ensemble too, too numerous to mention but always effective and surely the generation to come once the current “oldies” are safely transferred to less desirable show casts…

So, second year of my own encounter with British Theatre Academy work, and I’m certain it won’t be the last. There’s still a couple of weeks left to see stellar work at below star prices, and I do suggest that you take it.

4 stars.


Photo credit: Eliza Wilmot. Used by kind permission.


And that’s it for the season. I’ll be on summer blog break until the leaves turn around on 26th September 2018. Have a good one, all!