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This was Sam Steiner’s playwriting debut, premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015 a year after he graduated. Not many first plays make it to a West End stage, but here this is 7.5 years later, a showcase leveraged by two TV actors with big followings.

At first, we seem to be witnessing snatches of the evolving relationship between Bernadette, a family lawyer, and Oliver, a musician, who met at a pet cemetery! It’s non-linear, like a jigsaw puzzle for you to piece together yourself. Then a political dimension is introduced, as we learn about the proposed Quietude Act, which will limit everyone to 140 words a day (as it happens, also the original Twitter word limit). The relationship and the politics merge as Oliver becomes a campaigner against and Bernadette more circumspect. Each scene is little more than soundbites of conversation, eventually referring to and mirroring the new rules. It’s played in front of designer Robert Jones’ wall of life, lots of everyday objects which are variously illuminated.

It’s a clever piece, maybe too clever for its own good, performed with great precision by Jenna Coleman and Aidan Turner (though you’d never know if they weren’t word perfect!). Jones’ design is very effective in making what is a chamber piece work in a proscenium theatre, and Josie Rourke’s staging does animate the play. If you feel a ‘but’ coming on, you’d be right! It’s billed as a Rom Com, but there isn’t enough Rom or Com; there was a lack of chemistry and laughs were few and far between on the night I went. It’s hard to overcome the implausibility and unenforcability of the Quietude law, to the point that it gets in the way, and the staccato style eventually becomes irritating. It’s only 90 minutes long but it doesn’t really sustain its length.

There isn’t enough new writing in the West End, so that makes it welcome, but it’s only fair to compare it with the others, like Best of Enemies and The Doctor, particularly at £85 stalls non-premium for a two-hander, and on that basis it doesn’t hold up. It has its moments, but I left the theatre still hungry.

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A 20th Century classic, a favourite play by a favourite playwright, my sixth production. High stakes. When I left the theatre, though, it felt like I’d seen it pass on to a new generation, taking a fresh look without in any way damaging the legacy. What a wonderful start to a new theatrical year.

Blanche and her sister Stella have a Mississippi plantation heritage. Stella left some time ago to pursue a new life in New Orleans, in love with her man Stanley, at home in her new community. Blanche presided over the loss of everything they had, now leaving Laurel to make an unexpected visit to her sister in her two-room apartment in this very different world. At first she seems a fantasist, needy and vulnerable, somewhat manipulative. It takes some time before the underlying mental health issues reveal themselves.

Rebecca Frecknall demonstrated her understanding of, and affinity with Tennessee Williams with Summer & Smoke, also at the Almeida, four years ago. This impressionistic, very physical staging, also finds new depth by abandoning realism in favour of visceral emotion. On a relatively bare, relatively small platform, with the audience wrapped around, there is an immediacy, an intimacy and pace which draws you in quickly and never lets you go. Blanche’s plight and fate, in reality TW’s sister Rose, has never felt so real.

I jumped on a number of occasions at Stanley’s sudden fits of rage. Paul Mescal prowls around with an animal magnetism, unpredictable, violent and misogynistic; yet you can’t fail to be sympathetic to the contempt shown for his immigrant status and working class roots. On TV, screen and now on stage, Mescal proves to be a rare talent. I’ve seen Jessica Lange, Glen Close, Rachel Weisz and Gillian Anderson as Blanche, yet Patsy Ferran’s is a more complex interpretation, a fascinating evolution to Blanche’s true self, from provoking laughter at her affectations to genuine shock at her tragedy.

I’ve also been lucky to see fine actresses like Ruth Wilson and Vanessa Kirby as Stella, and Anjana Vasan joins them with a pitch perfect characterisation which conveys the love that proves stronger than the abuse Stanley subjects her to. In an exceptional supporting cast, Dwane Walcott’s passionate Mitch, whose love for Blanche proves unrequited, stands out. The music played live by Tom Penn on a drum-kit above the stage provides even more tension, and more jumps of surprise.

In just three shows, the third being the reinvention of Cabaret still in the West End, Frecknall has proven to be one of the most exciting new talents. Here, the relative youth of the cast and the intensity of the staging make it an electrifying yet respectful revival. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

One Woman Show

I managed to overcome my aversion to solo shows again, pleased I did, now wondering if I’ve banished it for good. Liz Kingsman’s One Woman Show is clever, funny and hugely entertaining.

We’re about to see the show Wildfowl when we’re informed it is being filmed so that an important producer who can’t make it, any performance of it, can see it, so outwith the One Woman Show we meet others like a technician and stage manager, with other voices off.

The protagonist is a twenty-something living in London, working for a wildlife charity, doing what you’d expect a twenty-something to do around town. Bars, internet dating, dining, wearing your flatmates clothes and living their life as well as your own. The tropes, stereotypes, emotional traumas, dependancy on social media, social gafs, it’s all there.

It’s a parody of the one woman show as a genre (think Fleabag) which is the third level. The filming is an attempt to pick up a big shot producer to take it big-time. So we have the promotion of the show which is a parody of the genre. Simply brilliant, beautifully written and expertly performed, by a twenty-something like the protagonist of Wildfowl.

The audience were clearly captivated, the smile never left my face, I laughed out loud much of the time and I left the theatre in sheer admiration of the skill of Liz Kingsman. I doubt she would offend anyone who has preceded her with a one woman show as it’s more affectionate homage and gentle satire than vicious put-down.

A delightful 75 minutes.

The first full year of theatre going since 2019 and I saw 129 shows in the 42 weeks I was in the UK (my travels resumed too!). A good indication of its quality was that a third made my long list.

BEST NEW PLAY – PATRIOTS at the Almeida Theatre & MIDDLE at the NT’s Dorfman Theatre

It was a particularly good year for new plays, perhaps because playwrights had more time during lockdown to craft and perfect their work. There were twenty contenders and after much deliberation 7 rose above the rest. Nell Leyshon’s Folk at Hampstead, about the song collecting of Cecil Sharp, proved a real treat, as did Marvellous, the life-affirming inaugural offering @sohoplace about the extraordinary Neil Baldwin. At the National, an adaptation of Sheriden’s restoration comedy The Rivals, Jack Absolute Flies Again, was by far the funniest new play, whilst down the road at the Young Vic The Collaboration was a fascinating examination of an unlikely relationship between two artistsWarhol & Basquiat. Prima Facie was a great play exposing the broken legal system of trials for sexual offences, but it was really all about the sensational star performance from Jodie Comer. It was two plays about relationships – Peter Morgan’s Patriots, about Berezovsky, the kingmaker of both Putin & Abramovitch and David Eldridge’s Middle about the divergence of a couple in mid-life, that stood out most.

BEST REVIVAL – The Crucible & The Corn Is Green at the NT and Handbagged at The Kiln Theatre

I couldn’t choose between the three, and there were six other very good contenders too. I’ve seen quite a few productions of The Crucible, but few had the intensity of the NT’s revival in the Olivier. Next door in the Lyttelton, what made The Corn is Green was the addition of singing by the miners, fully anchoring the play in Wales. I was surprised how much Handbagged, about the relationship between Thatcher and the Queen, resonated twelve years on and how clever and funny it still was.

The six ‘bubbling under’ were the return of Jerusalem after 13 years as good if not better than before, two Shakespeare’s at the NT – Much Ado About Nothing and Othello, Age of Rage – a Greek Tragedy ‘mash up’ from Amsterdam, a timely revival of Roy Williams’ Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads in Chichester and To Kill A Mockingbird, transferred from Broadway to The West End.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – TAMMY FAYE at The Almeida

Every year is a lean year for new musicals these days, but this new musical had it all – great book, lyrics and music, given an audacious production with as fine a set of performances as you could hope for.

The Band’s Visit, about an Egyptian band lost in Israel, was a joy, understated and full of hope, which could have won in any other year. I loved Newsies too, but more as a dance showcase than a musical. The others on the long list were Mandela at the Young Vic, Local Hero in Chichester, Bonnie & Clyde in the West End and The Lion, though I was late to that party.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – Spring Awakening at The Almeida, Crazy for You in Chichester and Billy Elliott at Curve Leicester.

A leaner than usual year for musical revivals; covid related costs and delays I suspect, but these three matched (Billy) or bettered (Crazy For You and Spring Awakening) all previous productions. Four of the seven contenders were in the regions (the other two being a terrific revival of Gypsy in Buxton and Terry Gilliam’s Into the Woods exiled to Bath). As much as I enjoyed Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club and Oklahoma at the Young Vic, they didn’t match these three.

So that’s it for another year. Here’s to as much, if not more, in 2023.

Watch on the Rhine

American playwright Lillian Hellman has a much higher profile than you’d expect for someone who only produced eight original plays and three adaptations. This is partly because of her other work – screenplays, memoirs, a novel and the original book for Bernstein’s Candide – but also because of her politics; she appeared before the Committee on Un-American Activities and was subsequently blacklisted by Hollywood.

I can only recall revivals of two of her other plays in my 40 years of theatre-going in London – Little Foxes in 2001, also at the Donmar, directed by Marianne Elliott with acting royalty Penelope Wilton, and The Children’s Hour ten years later in the West End, directed by Ian Rickson, with Keira Knightly and Elizabeth Moss.

The play is set in 1941 in the home of a wealthy family near Washington DC, widow Fanny Farrelly and her single son David, a lawyer. The US has yet to enter the 2nd World War. Fanny’s daughter Sara has been in Germany for 20 years, married to Bavarian Kurt, with three children. Kurt has been active as an anti-fascist in both Germany and Spain. As war approaches, the family make their way to Sara’s homeland, which her children have never visited, to see the grandmother they’ve never met.

Fanny has long-term guests, down at heel Romanian Count Brancovis and his American wife Marthe, whose marriage is on the rocks and who seems to be carrying a torch for David. Despite being European, Brancovis’ politics and sympathies seem very much at odds with Kurt’s and they clash, before the Count sees a way of making money quickly from the situation, through blackmail.

It’s an interesting piece, though it feels its age and creaks more than a little. The first part contains a lot of background and scene setting, but it does evolve into more of a thriller after the interval. Ellen McDougall’s production serves the play well. It’s framed by a giant period TV set (designer Basia Binkowska) and starts and ends with brief projections, as if we’re watching an old black & white TV programme.

I was looking forward to seeing Patricia Hodge on stage again, but her understudy Jane Lambert provided excellent word perfect cover. It was good to see favourite Kate Duchene again though, as Fanny’s French housekeeper. Both Mark Waschke and Caitlin Fitzgerald give passionate performances as Kurt and Sara, and the three children are outstanding.

It isn’t a great play, but its a welcome revival given an excellent production.

Kerry Jackson

Yet another occasion where reading reviews is bad for your health. I almost didn’t go to see this on Monday, snow and travel disruption adding to the critical mauling, but I’m glad I did. April De Angelis’ new play has its flaws, but it’s very much a play for our times.

She’s putting up a mirror to our new world, where everything is black and white, no shades of grey, and you’re either for or against everything. Class wars, Brexit v Remain, gentrification or preservation, woke and anti-woke. We either sympathise with immigrants and the homeless or we see them as parasites, to be sent home or left to rot.

The setting is Walthamstow Village, where working class Essex girl Kerry is trying to fulfil her dream and ambition of owning a Spanish tapas restaurant. Her chef Athena is struggling to get Leave to Remain even though she’s been her since she was 5; a hold Kerry has over the person who is clearly key to her chance of success. Outside homeless Will is putting off the customers. She seeks to recruit local worthy Stephen to deal with this, and at the same time publicise her venture in his news sheet for the gentrified. Stephen is recently widowed and he and his gap year daughter Alice are struggling to move on. An unlikely relationship develops between Kerry and Stephen, as ex-copper Warren, a very old and very vague acquaintance of Kerry, turns up with only one thing on his mind.

The problem is that De Angelis throws in the kitchen sink and allows her characters to become caricatures and stereotypes spouting cliches, and the humour sometimes crosses the line to gross, even for someone as broad-minded as me (well, I suppose I would say that!). This waters down a potentially strong argument that our divisive world, fuelled by social media and fake news, is exceedingly unhealthy, sacrificing intelligent debate and free speech at the alter of point-scoring.

The cast work hard to develop these characters and get every laugh they can, though I thought Fay Ripley was dangerously close to over-acting on occasion. The most successful characterisations were Madeline Appiah as Athena, Michael Fox as Will and Gavin Spokes as Warren. I would have expected its flaws to have been ironed out before it got on one of the National’s stages, particularly by a director of the quality of Indhu Rubasingham. Still, I don’t regret going and making my own mind up, which is more 3* than 1* or 2*. Decide for yourself.

Newsies

Disney does industrial action! Well, 123-year-old American industrial action. It took 20 years for the film to get to Broadway and another 10 for it to cross the Atlantic. This is a new production by Matt Cole, a choreographer-director who turns it into a thrilling immersive dance drama. I loved it.

It’s based on a real 1899 strike by newspaper boys, most of whom lived rough, when newspaper baron Pulitzer increased the price he charged them by 20% so that he could increase his bottom line. Those that crossed him ended up in a ‘refuge’ i.e. workhouse, but this doesn’t deter Jack from persuading his newsie brothers to stop buying and distributing the newspaper. He’s helped by a front page story by Katherine in a rival paper, then blackmailed by Pulitzer. That’s when he realises Katherine isn’t who he thinks she is. Almost defeated, she comes to their rescue again and Jack’s trust in her pays off.

The Wembley Park Troubadour Theatre is an aircraft hanger like space, but it serves this show well, helped significantly by Morgan Large’s design. A three-story metal backdrop and walkways around and through the audience (think Starlight Express on a larger scale without trains!) create the epic and immersive feel, yet intimate scenes work well too. Nigel Lilley’s band sound great and for a venue like this Tony Gayle’s sound design was outstanding. The star of the show though is its stunning staging and choreography involving a multitude of styles, athletic & acrobatic, including street, tap & ballet, executed by a hugely talented young cast. Many of these numbers are showstoppers, which get their own standing ovation mid-show. You can’t fail to be thrilled.

Michael Ahomka-Lindsay s superb as Jack, with Bronte Barbe excellent as his on-off-on love interest. There’s a lovely pairing of Ryan Kopel as Davey and Oliver Gordon as his young brother Les, who often steels the show. It’s a big cast to fill a big stage and their enthusiasm was infectious. A fantastic showcase of young talent. It all adds up to an uplifting show which is well worth the trek to Wembley for a SW Londoner like me. Go!

Mandela

It’s a real challenge to do justice to 20-30 years of personal and political history in an evening on stage. Cape Town Opera’s Mandela Trilogy, which visited the Royal Festival Hall six years ago in a semi-staged production, didn’t really pull it off (they attempted a longer period). This does though, in just two hours, by focusing on key moments, and by using music and dance to great effect.

We start when peaceful demonstrations are violently suppressed by the apartheid government, driving campaigners towards a more radical form of protest. This leads to the arrest and imprisonment of Mandela and his colleagues for 27 years, during which the unrest continues and the campaign becomes international, with Oliver Tambo successfully drumming up support and promoting sanctions that prove key to the ultimate demise of apartheid.

It’s also the period when Mandela’s five children are growing up without him. His wife Winnie is imprisoned, which has a profound effect on her, with anger and violence coming to the fore, at odds with her husband’s view that reconciliation is the way forward. The show doesn’t shy away from this. It ends as Mandela is released after 18 of the 27 years, as the ANC succeed in their aims.

The simple setting, shades of brown green and ochre, and excellent costumes are very evocative of both the location and period, as is the choreography. I really liked Greg Dean & Shaun Borowsky’s score, virtually sung through, with particularly rousing choruses that take your breath away. Perhaps because it sets scenes in different locations years apart, the staging feels a bit staccato, but this didn’t really hamper the storytelling.

It’s brilliantly performed and sung by an exceptional cast led by Michael Luwoye as Mandela and Danielle Fiamanya as Winnie, who excel in both acting and singing. Luwoye has great presence, nailing that distinctive voice, and Fiamanya’s vocals are stunning, with her transition from housewife and mother to single-minded, defiant woman superbly handled.

The audience rose to its feet in appreciation of the performances, but it also felt like we rose in tribute to its subject too. Definitely a show to catch.

Orlando

It’s hard to believe this play is adapted from a novel that’s almost 100 years old, set in the 300 years before that. Given the topicality of gender fluidity it feels bang up-to-date. Great timing.

Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s relationship with Vita Sackville-West, it’s been adapted before as a film (with Tilda Swinton) and as a solo stage performance, but I think this is the first fully formed play. It brings adapter Neil Bartlett and director Michael Grandage back to our stages after a few years away, and pairs relative newcomer Emma Corrin with stage veteran Deborah Findlay.

It starts at the end of the sixteenth century, when the teenage Orlando is a page to Elizabeth I, and sweeps through the next twenty years of his life across three centuries and two countries during which time they change sex more than once and encounter a whole host of historical and literary characters. Its feminist perspective just a decade after women first voted was way ahead of its time and it’s cry for gender and sexual liberation even further ahead.

Bartlett’s adaptation playfully updates Woolf’s language without interfering with her intentions. She’s onstage much of the time as narrator(s); the moment when you first meet her (them) is a delight. The nine actors play a multitude of roles of both sexes too in a virtuoso ensemble performance greeted by loud cheers at the curtain. Deborah Findlay is thoroughly engaging as Orlando’s loyal retainer, talking direct to the audience, cheekily, also narrating. I was hugely impressed by Emma Corrin in what I think is only her second West End performance.

It’s only 80 minutes but it’s a delightful concoction.

Othello

I’ve lost count of the number of productions of this play I’ve seen, but few of them unfolded like a thriller, or seemed to fly by so quickly. Clint Dyer’s production is a very fresh take on Shakespeare’s tragedy.

The setting feels like a 1930’s fascist state. There’s a silent chorus, called ‘system’, all dressed in black, who sit on steps on three sides of a rectangular amphitheatre with the fourth side steps down into the auditorium. The edgy soundscape is the final touch in creating a sinister atmosphere. The racism is heightened by this, together with the fact Othello is the only black character on stage, but the misogyny is heightened too, particularly with the abuse of Emilia by Iago clearly visible.

Iago, black-suited with a Hitler moustache, is a very malevolent presence throughout, signalled by every gesture and expression, though his motivation isn’t entirely clear; is it really just racism? Othello’s origin in slavery is suggested by a back covered with scars from whipping. Much of the time he seems so alone, our sympathies are intensified, though we still can’t stomach his treatment of Desdemona. In the final scenes the soundscape is silenced but the tension increased.

Paul Hilton’s Iago has a touch cartoon villain about him, but this didn’t detract from the personification of evil. Tanya Franks was excellent as Emilia, clearly afraid of her husband, eventually struggling to come to terms with his villainy. Desdemona is a bit of an underwritten role, but Rosy McEwen somehow brought her to the fore more than I’ve seen before. I thought Giles Terera had great presence as Othello, and brought passion and physicality to the role. His Othello is one man against the world.

It’s only nine years since the NT last staged it, with Adrian Lester & Rory Kinnear in the Olivier next door, but this proves to be a very welcome and very impressive new look at what I think is one of Shakespeare’s best plays.