August in England

There’ve been many things that have made me feel ashamed to be British in the last decade or so, one of which was the treatment of the Windrush generation. Many had been here for more than fifty years but were forced to prove their right to citizenship and threatened with deportation. Lenny Henry’s first play tells us the story of the life of a (fictional) man who came here with his mother in 1962.

For a good two-thirds of its a very funny biographical piece, taking us through the events in August’s life that he shares with many others – school, work, marriage, children. He shares his pride, his shame, his frustrations at events in his life, but he’s been a happy man, latterly a partner in a business, happily married with three adult children. The only inkling we have of his fate is the occasional snatch of video showing him in some sort of interview room. Then the letters start arriving from Capita on behalf of the Home Office. The play goes on to show us the impact of this persecution by the authorities, and ends with the video testimony of three real victims.

In many ways, the bonhomie lulls you into a false sense of security. Lenny Henry engages the audience from the outset, distributing some shots of rum, inventing characters, breaking the fourth wall continually. The sad moments, such as a touch of infidelity and estrangement from his son, soon pass and we are left with this charming, lovable man telling us his life story with great humour. The storytelling has a stand-up feel to it, perhaps not surprisingly given Henry’s background, which connects brilliantly with the audience, whose reactions are often audible. When the legal challenges rear their ugly heads it bites hard as a result.

I’ve admired Henry’s transition to actor since he was brave enough to begin it with the challenge that is Othello, and I’ve been lucky enough to see him on stage four more times in the subsequent fourteen years. He’s totally at home in this role; well, he did write it, and the writing os good, oozing authenticity, funny and moving in equal measure.

The run is sold out, but I’d be very surprised if doesn’t transfer; it deserves to.

I loved this show when it premiered at Southwark Playhouse’s ‘Little’ space almost exactly four years ago so I couldn’t resist seeing it’s scale-up in their new ‘Elephant’ space. The cast of five has swollen to twelve hugely talented actor-musicians, led by Jamie Parker as Benjamin and Molly Osbourne as the barmaid who becomes his wife, both excellent. Two of the original cast – Matthew Burns and Philippa Hogg – have returned to the show

It’s great to report that it’s even better – more rousing, even more enthralling. It’s amazing how such an implausible story (a man living his life backwards) can draw you in, captivate you and even move you. Everything else I want to say about the show I said four years ago, here:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

All I can add now is that you’d be mad to miss this brilliant ‘folk musical’ by Darren Clark and Jethro Compton (who also directs and designs). There seem to be West End producers behind this new production – lets hope it joins the growing number of fringe transfers like Operation Mincemeat ‘up West’, but catch it here while you can.

This Stephen Flaherty & Lynn Ahrens musical, their second, was a surprise hit in the West End in 1994 at the then Royalty, now Peacock, Theatre, winning the Olivier Award for Best Musical. It’s only London revival was a brief visit to Hackney Empire at the end of a short tour in 2009. This new production follows a hugely successful revival on Broadway six years ago. It wasn’t tropical on Saturday, but it was a beautiful evening in this unique venue. The first of my summer traditions this year.

The show is based on a Caribbean set novel which is itself based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The Little Mermaid, though I’m afraid that I struggled to make the connection. It works on a number of levels, starting in present day Haiti where we, the audience, are the tourists and there’s a hint of military oppression. A couple tell their daughters the story of Ti Moune and we enter that story.

Ti Moune is an orphan saved from the floods by the gods and taken in by Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian. When she is older she in turn saves Daniel, one of the French upper class colonists, from a car crash and falls in love with him. Tonton Julian fetches Daniel’s people and we learn he is the result of an affair between Armand, a ‘grands homme’ and a local girl. Though Ti Moune’s love is requited, it is never going to lead anywhere, which we realise when we move to the other side of the island, and another world, with the grands homme. Daniel has been promised to Andrea since he was a child.

I struggled with the first part of the show, before it got dark, because the rather incongruous set of a wooden pit and twenty wooden towers by Georgia Lowe didn’t transport you to the Caribbean as much as the theatre’s natural setting would have done; the gentle breeze in the trees and the birdsong did more. As it darkened and we moved to the hotel on the other side of the island it worked better. The excellent costumes by Melissa Simon-Hartman did something to compensate for the set, but I still felt Ola Ince’s production was a missed opportunity of using what nature had give this theatre, as they did so spectacularly with Into The Woods. It often felt like a concert more than a show, like Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita here before it.

As well as being a ‘fairytale’, the show covers issues such as colonialism, race and class. It’s strength is Flaherty’s excellent score, particularly given it was his second show, better than I remembered, with orchestrations here that seemed to emphasise percussion, particularly steel drums and give it a real Caribbean feel. The musical standards under MD Chris Poon were high and the quality of the vocals were exceptional, with Danielle Brooks shining brightly in the role of Ti Moune and a uniformly excellent supporting cast.

Flaherty & Ahrens have produced more satisfying shows – Ragtime and Dessa Rose – but this is better than I remembered, despite a disappointing use of this lovely space.

Annie Proulx’s short story has had an interesting trajectory over the 26 years since it was first published. There was Ang Lee’s award-winning film 8 years later, an opera another 9 years on, and now after another 9 years a play with music. You’d think the story of two men’s love for one another hardly radical 26 years later but its set in Wyoming, where things don’t appear to have moved on as much as in the rest of the world.

It’s set between 1963 and 1983. At the beginning, Jack and Ennis are in their early 20’s working as ranchers looking after sheep grazing in the mountain. When he’s not ranching, Jack has another life in the rodeo in Texas. Ennis has sweetheart Alma at home he’s planning to wed. Their relationship starts on a cold night when Ennis takes shelter in Jack’s tent. For a while they return annually and it continues and becomes stronger. Even when both are married with children, they meet up elsewhere under the auspices of fishing trips and the like.

It’s like any other clandestine love story. The love overpowers everything else and there’s just about nothing they can do about it. Their married lives continue, Ennis moving from job to job, just about making enough to feed his family, Jack funded largely by his father-in-law’s wealth. Communication between them is intermittent and the distance between them vast, but the relationship survives and continues until its tragic conclusion.

The in-the-round staging provides an intimate space in keeping with the story. There’s a live Americana soundtrack by Dan Gillespie Sells, whose score for Everybody’s Talking About Jamie was so good, with the wonderful Eddi Reader as a balladeer and a superb band of keyboard, double bass, pedal steel and harmonica led by MD Sean Green, who are key to the authentic representation of period, location and culture.

The chemistry between Mike Faist as Jack and Lucas Hedges as Ennis makes the relationship totally believable. Paul Hickey as an older Ennis is an onstage presence throughout, like a ghost, a silent narrator. Emily Fairn makes an auspicious professional stage debut as Alma. Jonathan Butterell’s staging and Tom Pye’s design both serve the story well.

I thought it was a bit slow at first, but once it takes off it draws you in. Though I’d seen the film, I was still gripped by the story, as if I was being told it for the first time, and I found the final part deeply moving. It’s impossible not to reflect on the homophobic murder of Matthew Shepard in that same state just a year after the story was first published.

Definitely one to catch.

A show from the composer & lyricist of the iconic Guys & Dolls that came some ten years later, and his only other show that appears to have survived, though it’s rarely revived. It’s 18 years since I saw it in Chichester and six since a London fringe outing at Wilton’s Music Hall.

It doesn’t live up to the earlier show (what does), but it has some great tunes, it’s huge fun and the premise – how nepotism, sycophancy and back-stabbing can propel your career – proves rather timeless! The show’s title is a self-help book (it probably exists and is still in print!) which window-cleaner J Pierrepont Finch uses as his guide to enter the business world, starting his meteoric rise in the mailroom of the World Wide Wicket Company. In quick succession he becomes Mailroom Manager, then Junior Executive in Plans & Systems before being promoted to that department’s head. Finally he gets what has hitherto been the corporation’s poison chalice of Advertising Manager. His nemesis is company president J B Biggley’s nephew Bert Frump, but he even turns this to his advantage. Along the way he falls in love with secretary Rosemary Pilkington.

There’s a comic book quality to the show and the production has a charming tongue-in-cheek style which is well matched to this. The Southwark Playhouse space seemed particularly small on this occasion, so Georgie Rankcom’s staging and Alexzandra Sarmiento’s choreography face their challenges, even with just ten performers, but win. It may be the most diverse cast you’ll see in any London theatre, in every sense of the word. The roles of Biggley and Finch, usually played by men are here played by women, with Gabrielle Friedman bringing a cheeky but determined quality to Finch. In a cast that’s strong in both dance and vocal departments, Allie Daniel and Danny Lane stand out as Rosemary and mailroom boss Twimble / company chairman Womper respectively. MD Natalie Pound’s small band do a grand job, with particularly good orchestrations bringing strings to the fore.

It’s a touch long at 2 hours 45 minutes (particularly as the theatre website suggests 30 minutes less) but it is an infectious ball of fun which carries you away, and with his masterpiece a mile down the road at The Bridge, a great opportunity to see what Loesser did next. Catch it while you can.

When I saw Noel Coward’s Private Lives at the Donmar last month, I was taken aback at how radical that century old play was. Though I’ve seen this one before, I’d forgotten that it was even more shocking, and without the laughs! Yet it was his first big hit. Unlike plays like Hay Fever, Blithe Spirit and Private Lives, it’s rarely revived now, and I’m not sure it was to the taste of the somewhat conservative Chichester audience.

Within minutes I’d decided I didn’t really like any of these self-obsessed, entitled characters, yet I was drawn in to what is a fascinating piece. It revolves around socialite Florence, obsessed by age. Though she lives with her husband David, her relationship with Tom, a man half her age, is common knowledge; she flaunts it. She shares her time between London and The Country, surrounded by writers, singers and other hangers on. Her musician son is living in Paris, but is shortly to come home. When he does, he has a fiancee Bunty in tow, and a drug habit. His relationship with his mother may be as unhealthy as her obsession with youth. It turns out that Bunty and Tom have history, and more, and this is the catalyst for the next stage of the unfolding drama.

The production is fast moving and very animated, starting in Florence & David’s London home, moving to their country property, both superb period settings designed by Joanna Scotcher. There’s a brooding soundtrack in the background, with the move from one to the other brilliantly but not incongruously accompanied by David Bowie’s Oh You Pretty Things. When Florence discovers Nicky’s addiction, the confrontation that is the play’s conclusion finds just the two of them on an empty stage. Director Daniel Raggett’s production is hugely impressive. He’s a relative newcomer and is really one to watch.

Florence and Nicky are superbly played by mother and son Lia Williams and Joshua James. There’s an excellent supporting cast, with Priyanga Burford standing out as Florence’s best friend Helen, an oasis of sanity in all the madness. Isabella Laughland as Bunty continues to impress.

Paired with 4000 Miles at The Minerva, it made for a very worthwhile trip from London, and a good start to the Chichester 2023 season.

This Amy Herzog play was scheduled to run at the Old Vic in London in the spring of 2020 with Dame Eileen Atkins and Hollywood rising star Timothee Chalamet directed by Matthew Warchus. Postponed due to Covid, they hoped to reschedule it, but that was eventually abandoned last year. The Old Vic’s loss proves to be Chichester’s gain, with Richard Eyre taking over as director, young British actor Sebastian Croft replacing Chalamet and the Minerva Theatre providing a more intimate space.

It’s set in the Greenwich Village apartment of Vera, early 90’s, a widow with a Bohemian past and communist sympathies. Her grandson Leo has cycled from Seattle, though perhaps more to see his girlfriend Bec than his grandma, for just a few days in NYC, though it becomes a few weeks. Vera is eccentric and cantankerous, her grandson a new age hippie, but they develop a mutually dependent relationship for the duration of Leo’s stay. We meet Bec briefly on a couple of occasions, and also Amanda, who Leo meets in New York. Vera’s offstage neighbour is the fifth character.

It doesn’t really go anywhere, but I enjoyed the ride, a meeting of two generations many years apart. There’s an authenticity to the characters (Vera is very much based on Herzog’s own grandmother) and the dialogue is sharp and witty. It’s a joy watching Atkins give a masterclass in characterisation and timing, surrounded by three young actors who I suspect will look back on this as important in developing their craft. Croft (who has come a long way since I saw him eight years ago as Adrian Mole in Leicester!) is outstanding as Leo. Peter McKintosh’s detailed design is terrific, and the play really does benefit from the intimacy of a space one-third the size of the Old Vic.

A good start to Chichester 2023, which I paired with Noel Coward’s The Vortex, written a century before. More of that later…..


Ryan Calais Cameron’s last play (garethjames.uk/2022/04/27/For-Black-Boys-Who-Have-Considered-Suicide-When-the-Hue-Gets-Too-Heavy) was a very contemporary piece which moved from the New Diorama to the Royal Court to the West End. This new play could not be more different, moving back in time to 1950’s America at a pivotal point in both the Civil Rights movement and Senator McCarthy’s UnAmerican Activities committee, but like its predecessor it packs an extraordinary punch, in this case in just ninety minutes.

It’s set in the office of the NBC studio lawyer in Hollywood. Sidney Poitier is coming to sign his contract to appear in his white friend Bobby’s movie. It’s been a lean time since his breakthrough film Blackboard Jungle and his card has been marked by declining a role which he found unpalatable. Bobby is there at the beginning of the meeting, but after he leaves things take a dramatic turn. Parks, the lawyer, makes it clear he must sign an oath of allegiance and agree to make a statement on radio denouncing a fellow actor as a communist as a condition of getting the part. The actor is his idol Paul Robeson. He needs the work, but the price is high. We learn who’s really behind this blackmail and why his signature is so important; he will become a poster boy for them. Bobby returns and is horrified by what has gone on. He has his own dilemma – without Poitier he either has to recast or abandon his film.

It’s brilliantly written, creating an extraordinary tension in the theatre. The audience is so engaged that action and lines elicit applause and gasps. This is helped by three stunning performances. it’s a credit to Daniel Lapaine that you quickly turn against Parks and continue to find him and his attitudes and actions repulsive throughout the play. Our empathy with Ian Bonar’s Bobby grows as his friendship and commitment to Poitier grows. Ivanno Jeremiah has impressed me before on stage, notably in Constellations with Shiela Atim, and he reaches a new high here with a cool yet deeply passionate portrayal of Poitier. Frankie Bradshaw’s uber-realistic design anchors the play in it’s time and location and Amit Sharma’s staging is masterly.

World class theatre in Kilburn which also deserves to head ‘up west’ and indeed across the Atlantic. It confirms Ryan Calais Cameron as a rare talent and I for one can’t wait for his next play. Until then, if you love theatre you’ll head to the Kiln before the month is out.

Of all the plays I was expecting next from Jack Thorne, this wasn’t it. He’s a brilliant playwright, with an impressive back catalogue culminating in the global success of the Harry Potter plays, but this is very much new territory for him. It’s the true story of John Gielgud directing Richard Burton as Hamlet on Broadway in 1964. I found it a captivating and illuminating insight into the rehearsal process and the relationship between the director and his leading man, two very different personalities, from very different backgrounds.

It covers the whole 25-day rehearsal period, mostly in the rehearsal room itself, with occasional diversions to the Burton-Taylor apartment, a hotel room and a restaurant. Burton and Taylor have just got married (for the first time!). Gielgud is 60 and his career is flagging. Burton is 39 and hugely successful on the big screen, but wants to prove himself back on the boards where he started with what most actors see as the mountain of early career. His new wife is there to support him. Gielgud’s big idea is to present Hamlet as a final run through, more ordinary clothes than modern dress.

Though he is restrained, at least initially, Gielgud has clear views on how the prince should be played, but Burton has his too, keen to make it his own take on Hamlet. Though respectful of one another, there is tension between these two men from very different worlds, which eventually comes to the surface. There is a pivotal scene where Burton comes to rehearsal inebriated, and the whole cast turn against him. From here the tension is more open and healthier for it. They both open up, Burton showing more of his true self and Gielgud revealing an acerbic wit, both of which fuel the relationship.

There is a substantial amount of Shakespeare’s play interspersed with the rehearsal discussions, in short scenes that count down the days. For a theatre obsessive like me it’s fascinating, though I wonder if others might find it too immersed in its own world. At first the presence of Elizabeth seemed unnecessary, but you soon realise she is in many ways saying things her husband can’t or won’t say. He does eventually talk to Gielgud about his upbringing and this unlocks the role, enabling him to find his Hamlet and satisfy the director at the same time.

When I first saw the casting of the two leads, it was easy to see Mark Gatiss as Gielgud, but I was a bit puzzled by the casting of Johnny Flynn as Burton. Perhaps it was my prejudice as a Welsh miner’s son, wanting the role to be played by one of our own (Michael Sheen?). In the end though they both deliver towering performances of great subtlety, way beyond impersonation, getting a rare, richly deserved spontaneous standing ovation from the NT crowd. There’s luxury casting in support, with Tuppence Middleton’s Liz proving so much more that the supportive wife, Luke Norris as William Redfield (Guildenstern) and Allan Corduner as Hume Cronyn (Polonius).

Though it isn’t referred to in the play, Burton & Peter O’Toole challenged each other to play Hamlet under the direction of the two great Shakespearean interpreters of the day, Olivier and Gielgud. It seems Burton chose well, lauded for his interpretation, part of the longest ever run of a Shakespeare play on Broadway. It also proved key for Gielgud, revitalising his career.

This is a theatrical feast. Great writing by Thorne (who now moves on to Churchill!), impeccable staging from Sam Mendes’ and fine performances, all of which combine to bring this slice of theatrical history alive almost sixty years on.

I think it’s fifteen years since we’ve seen a major production of this Brecht play in London, at the Young Vic with Jane Horrocks as the ‘good soul’. This Headlong tour, a new version by Nina Segal (credited as ‘translater’ but much more of an ‘adapter’) has called in at the Lyric Hammersmith for a month. Though Richard Jones’ 2008 production was radical, this ‘new version’ of Brecht’s parable is more problematic.

Three gods arrive in Szechwan looking for shelter, but like everywhere else all they find is greed, dishonesty and selfishness, until they come across young prostitute Shen Teh who has an inherent charity. She is rewarded with a gift which allows her to buy a small tobacco shop, which also enables the gods to test her goodness. Sadly, the shop becomes a magnet for lowlife. She eventually invents a cousin Shui Ta and disguises herself as him when she needs to deal with the undesirables, though this becomes more and more frequent. The double life leads to accusations that she has killed her cousin and she ends up being tried by the gods, who created this situation in the first place.

The problem is that Anthony Lau’s production has so much stage business that Brecht’s parable gets buried and it becomes a cartoonish story with little substance. Though it has a sense of fun, frankly, I was often bored. It veered so far from Brecht that for me it lost its way altogether. Georgia Lowe’s design is playful, everyone arriving down slides, through shining poles at the sides or from below through pools of plastic balls. The performers have to work hard to cut through and tell a story with all that is going on. Even at less than two hours playing time, it outstayed its welcome, trying way too hard to be accessible and relevant to a young, contemporary audience. To be fair, though, they looked like they were having a lot more fun than me!