Shakespeare's Margaret Thatcher (Drayton Arms Theatre)

If Shakespeare was alive today, who would he be writing plays about? That is the fascinating question which Wayside Theatre Company's Shakespeare's Margaret Thatcher sets out to answer.

In a sparsely furnished room in the middle of what seems to be purgatory, William Shakespeare is hosting a dinner party. Well into his four hundred and second year of death, Shakespeare surrounds himself with famous historical figures including a droll Gertrude Stein, strong willed Aphra Behn and even Socrates, who always seems to have some wisdom to share. The renowned dead are gathered together to take part in the first reading of Shakespeare's newest play, which charts the downfall of ex British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. 

In typical Shakespearean fashion, Shakespeare's Margaret Thatcher operates as a play within the play, with the mismatched dinner party cohort assuming roles as major figures in Thatcher's premiership. It must be said that playwright Ciaran Barata-Hynes' emulation of typical Shakespearean tropes is brilliant, with cross gender casting, limited use of sets and props, and plenty of jokes for good measure, courtesy of Thatcher's very own fool, of course. Barata-Hynes even ensures that Shakespeare's newest opus adapts the Early Modern English of his other literary offerings. This is an interesting touch, previously used to great effect in Mike Bartlett's controversial King Charles III, which adds a sense of authenticity to the proceedings. That being said, at points more care could be taken to ensure that the imitation of Shakespeare's language is as accurate as possible, as word order is mangled unnaturally at points, making some of the dialogue hard to follow. Additionally, without the epic battles and sweeping romances of Shakespeare's other tragedies, Margaret Thatcher's political ventures are understandably static and occasionally become a little bit turgid. Even Thatcher's speechwriter Ronald Millar, taking on the Fool mantle, is relatively restrained. Given the colourful array of outrageous characters dining with Shakespeare, his play's prolonged focus on slimy Thatcher eta politicians seems comparatively heavy.

Writer and director Ciaran Barata-Hynes plays the skittish William Shakespeare well, exuding an air of fragility seeped in several decades' worth of self-doubt. Fretting over what his peers will think of his new play, he cautiously cajoles everyone into their parts, casting liberal twentieth century poet Dorothy Parker as the Iron Lady. In her dual roles Elizabeth Pilcher is impressive; as entertaining as the witty wordsmith as she is prickly as the PM of old. Similarly, taking on the roles of Michael Heseltine and John Major, as well as restoration era writer Aphra Behn, Zara Walwyn is an intriguing presence on stage, whilst Christopher Grace makes American founding father Benjamin Franklin seem like an ideal dinner party guest. 

All in all Shakespeare's Margaret Thatcher has a fascinating and ambitious premise, but it could do with a bit of fine tuning. Margaret Thatcher, is such an interesting character, and it takes no stretch of imagination to believe that Shakespeare would want to write about her if the two were contemporaries. Surrounded by cronies who abandon her to her execrating subjects and scheming political adversaries, Thatcher could be compared to Richard II, or Julius Caesar, and her demise certainly makes her an interesting, if not hugely sympathetic, character. But Shakespeare's Margaret Thatcher also introduces a ton of brilliantly fun historical figures, all mixing together in the afterlife, and the contrast between the play's high energy dinner party antics, and the bristling political drama of Thatcher and co. feels jarring and disjointed. Barata-Hynes' idea is a riveting one, and the cast are versatile and gamesome, and given that the play was devised within one month, it's a strong piece without a doubt, but with a bit more refining, Shakespeare's Margaret Thatcher could become remarkable.  

The Band (UK Tour)

25 years after the death of a close friend tears pals Rachel, Claire, Heather and Zoe apart, the reunion tour of their favourite childhood band sees the girls reunited. As they rediscover the friendship that bound them together when they were 16, they start to realise that even though their lives didn't turn out exactly as they planned, nothing can stop them from turning their childhood dreams into reality if they really try. 

The cast of The Band
Photo credit - Matt Crockett
Despite being called The Band, it is protagonist Rachel who is undoubtedly at the heart of the show. After her school friend Debbie's tragic death, Rachel struggles to move on, and although she finds a loving husband and settles down, she is still haunted by the traumas of her past, until she rediscovers the music which got her through a difficult childhood, and finds herself reaching out to her friends on a whim, hoping to rekindle their bygone bond. As Rachel and young Rachel respectively, actors Rachel Lumberg and Faye Christall are a wonderful pair. Christall's energy and comic timing make her a fantastic narrator for the scenes set in 1993, meanwhile Lumberg is a hugely likable presence who lights up the stage, impressively conveying Rachel's inner turmoil as well as her more bubbly exterior. 

The titular band, also known as Five To Five, are a group of 5 singers who were plucked from relative obscurity when they were grouped together and subsequently won the BBC talent show Let It Shine. They bring a sense of cheeky fun to the musical, as they pop up in dream sequences inside Rachel's head, in a variety of bizarre scenarios. With their slick boy band moves and strong vocals, they make a convincing quintet, and it's easy to see why the girls idolise them so much. It's a shame that they don't play a more active part in the story, as it would be nice to get to know more about their individual characters, but they work well as an omnipresent force in Rachel's life.

It's unfortunate that in a musical which focuses so heavily on music, and tries its best to channel the cultural sensation of Take That, the musical numbers are where the musical occasionally falls short of expectations. The lighting and sound design feels underpowered when trying to emulate the concert atmosphere which is integral to much of the show, leaving many of the standout numbers looking and sounding a little lost on stage.  

The cast of The Band
Photo credit - Matt Crockett
At the end of the day, The Band set out primarily to be a jukebox musical for Take That fans, and it more than adequately fulfils that intention. It's full of hits such as Back For Good, Rule The World and, of course, Shine, which have the audience swaying in their seats, and perfectly portrays the sensational nature of the 90s boy band phenomenon. Surprisingly though, despite the never ending barrage of dazzling tunes, it's the musical's poignant themes of regret and unfulfilled potential which permeate the plot and make for a more intricate story than one might expect. Despite a few distasteful jokes, Tim Firth's book is sweet, with a few tear jerking moments, and perfectly captures the dynamic between the 4 friends who the audience can definitely relate to. 

Ideal for Take That fans of any age, The Band is an enjoyable new jukebox musical which, like all the best jukebox musicals, identifies its target audience and gives them what they want. There are songs and laughs, and the story carries a powerful message too. It's probably not going to go down in musical theatre history, but The Band is an entertaining show which will have audiences reflecting back on theirs lives, and looking to the future too. 

Review - Not All Plane Sailing (The Courtyard Theatre)

If anyone is still of the misguided opinion that women aren't funny, then GASP! Theatre Company is here to prove them wrong. Having taken their brilliant debut production She Wears The Trousers to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016, the all-female theatre company is now bringing their new comedy Not All Plane Sailing to Hoxton's The Courtyard Theatre. 

Alexandra Saunders-Yates's Norma leads a pack of air hostesses on board the fictional Concorde 9945 as they navigate their way through a flight filled with irritable passengers, rowdy kids, and a pair of laddish pilots. With a cavalier demeanour and a list of anecdotes that keeps on giving, Saunders-Yates makes an instant impression as she introduces new recruit Joyce to the ways of Pork Air, the madcap airline at the heart of the Not All Plane Sailing.

The Company, which both write and perform in their productions, are sharp witted and hilarious, and perform every scene with twinkles in their eyes. There are a mixture of jokes; some outlandish, some understated, which shows off the versatility of their talents. There’s also a fair bit of toilet humour as well, for balance.

Not All Plane Sailing also shows GASP!’s mastery of prop comedy, which is choreographed to perfection. Countless wigs, hats and jackets are donned as the actors multirole a multitude of different characters, from a serene Australian vegan to an oikish schoolboy, with the expressive Sophie Kronenberg giving a genius performance as the latter. Meanwhile Georgina Stafford and Philippa Holmes pop up intermittently as the plane’s brash and crude pilots, complete with aviator sunnies and giant fake ‘taches. 

Not All Plane Sailing may seem like all fun and games, but GASP!’s smart writing also allows for plenty of sly jabs at today’s socio-political issues, especially those pertaining to the treatment of women in the workplace. From the air hostesses’ over the top blusher and eyeshadow, to their regulation pink nail polish, they clearly parody the groomed perfection which many airlines demand (‘there’s Veet in the back’ snaps Alexandra Saunders-Yates’ head honcho air hostess Norma as she runs her hands down her colleague’s leg). And there's plenty of similarly savvy quips throughout too.

Seamlessly combining satirical commentary and smart gags, the face-achingly funny Not All Plane Sailing is a laugh out loud romp which never slows down!

Review - Hot Lips and Cold War (London Theatre Workshop)

Hot Lips and Cold War bills itself as a sophisticated musical play set in the White House during the 1960s. It tells the story of a young Irish woman named Maria who steals money from a church collection box to pay for passage to America so she can be with her apathetic beau Davey, who works in the White House. Once she arrives, she is recruited by Jackie Kennedy to spy on her husband during his secret rendezvous with Marilyn Monroe. Maria quickly befriends Marvin, a black man who works as a groundskeeper but dreams of being a preacher, but things go sour when an influential prejudice southerner arrives in Washington and accuses Marvin of a crime he didn't commit.

Photo credit - Jamie Scott-Smith
It's clear what writer Lizzie Freeborn is aiming to do with Hot Lips and Cold War, as she draws comparisons to the scandals of the 60s and America's current turbulent political climate. However, for all its apt commentary on abuses of power in relation to race and gender, it never quite packs the punch it feels like it should. Right from the beginning, Hot Lips and Cold War is a jumble of themes and ideas, some interesting, others clich├ęd, and a few downright unbelievable.

Despite the somewhat patchy story, the cast is game and energetic, and attempts at impersonations of real life historical figures are, for the most part, impressive. In particular, Freya Tilly as Marilyn Monroe makes a clear distinction between the public Marilyn, who slinks around flashing a fake smile, and the private Marilyn, whose life was much more complicated than her public persona ever let on. She gives a memorable performance of Marilyn’s infamous Happy Birthday Mister President, and it’s a shame that the story seems uninterested in giving Marilyn much to do aside from pop up now and then to seduce JFK and torment his wife. One unusual moment even sees Marilyn emerging from a secret tunnel in the White House grounds, greeting some staff members and then stalking off to find her lover – an unusual narrative choice which calls into question why Jackie needs photographic evidence of the affair, when literally everyone seems to know about it anyway.

Sylvie Briggs fairs a little better. With her gorgeously crisp singing voice, she sells Maria as a determined yet morally conflicted individual, and even manages to squeeze some romance out of her love interests (her relationships with both Davey and Marvin feel underdeveloped, which is a real shame given that Adam Small has previously proven himself a worthy leading man in the brilliant new musical Paper Hearts, and Jamal Franklin is charismatic and likeable in his scenes). Lewis Rae is also entertaining as Kenny O'Donnell, one of JFK's closest aids and friends. It’s a role which could have melted into the background, but Rae makes the most of every moment he’s on stage.

Ashley Knight gives an equally committed if slightly over the top performance as Jerome Kingsley, the villain of the story. Understandably, at times he seems a little  uncomfortable, as his role straddles the borders between panto villain and racist Yosemite Sam impersonator who isn't afraid to say the 'N' word. Twice. (It may be a historically accurate word for a deplorable racist to have said 50 years ago, but even in context it’s a jarring and uncomfortable thing to hear today in a piece of theatre written and performed by 2 white creatives). On a positive note, he does have a rather jaunty musical number, about how the Southern states will not remain loyal to the president if he continues to support integration.

Hot Lips and Cold War identifies as a musical play, but there are more than enough musical numbers to categorise it as a musical instead. Freeborn’s songs capture the sound of 60s lounge music well, but the score could perhaps do with a few more stand out numbers. A special mention though must go to the production's musicians, under the musical direction of Oli Rew, who keep the show ticking along nicely.

Although in its current iteration Hot Lips and Cold War feels, at times, incoherent and inconsequential, it is far from lost cause. Freeborn’s ambitious storytelling is certainly timely, and astutely identifies the ways in which history repeats itself. The time period is an attractive one, aesthetically, which is reflected in the beautiful costumes by Hal and Ruthie Theatrical Design. It’s also a rough time period politically and socially, and is full of interesting stories which deserve to be told. The production's presentation at London Theatre Workshop will surely allow the creative team to assess what works and what does not, and further workshopping will undoubtedly produce a more slimlined and sophisticated result.

Review - The Ferryman (Gielgud Theatre)

In County Armagh, 1981, in the midst of The Troubles, the Carneys' annual harvest is disrupted by some shocking news which opens old wounds and threatens to tear the family to pieces.

Owen McDonnell as Quinn Carney, and the cast of The Ferryman
Photo credit - Johan Persson
Setting up its IRA mobster antagonist Muldoon in a succinct and sinister opening scene, Jez Butterworth's script quickly shifts focus and hones in on the Carney family farmhouse, the murmuring heart of the play. 

As the first rays of sun start to pierce the horizon, Quinn Carney, the rugged patriarch spars playfully with witty and waiflike Caitlin as the pair swig whiskey and play Connect Four. They seem to exist in a sort of dreamlike twilight. As music soars on the radio, the pair abandon their game and dance together, swaying unsteadily in each other’s arms. They break apart and Quinn watches on lovingly as his companion dances dreamily on her own. And then one of Quinn’s children marches downstairs. Daylight floods into the Carneys' kitchen and Caitlin and Quinn return to earth as one by one the Carney children descend like a gaggle of unkempt Von Trapps. They are followed in time by Quinn's wife Mary, a gaunt and spectral presence. It's harvest day, and three of Quinn's nephews, the Corcorans, are heading down from Derry to lend a hand with the farm work. As visitors descend on the bustling home, a familiar face arrives to tell Quinn that his missing brother, Caitlin's husband Seamus, has been excavated from a peat bog with a bullet in his head, having been 'disappeared' by the IRA 15 years earlier.

The play begins as a kitchen sink drama, tying knots of unrest into the seemingly idyllic Carney family members' lives. Aside from the implied love triangle between Quinn, Caitlin and Mary, act one introduces a whole host of characters. Uncle Pat down drinks and quotes Virgil, and Aunt Maggie Far Away awakens from catatonic trances to sput prophecies and sing ancient haunting melodies. And then there's Aunt Patricia. A staunch republican who spends the majority of her time with her ear glued to her radio, spitting venom as she keeps her family updated on the proceedings of the Irish hunger strikes. She curtly snubs Caitlin and her son Oisin, as well as Englishman Tom Kettle, who has lived in Ireland and been a friend of the Carneys for most of his life. Butterworth sews so many seeds in the first act that at times it feels like the story may never come into bloom, but once everything is in its right place the plot begins to germinate, and putrefying echoes from the past start to poison the pastoral oasis. 

Rosalie Craig and Owen McDonnell as Caitlin and Quinn in The Ferryman
Photo credit - Johan Persson
Jez Butterworth is a master storyteller, there’s no doubt about that. The Ferryman peaks in its third act, when the Carney and Corcoran boys drink from the bottle in the early hours, and share Troubles war stories. There's a crackling undercurrent of tension which sets into motion the events which lead up to The Ferryman's explosive last gasp.

Owen McDonnell gives a masterfully understated performance as the Carney Patriarch, hiding a dark edge under his genial persona. As the steadfast Caitlin Rosalie Craig is equally interesting to watch, as the festering wound caused by the disappearance of her husband is ripped open wider and wider. The younger generation is also well presented. The dynamic between the fresh-faced Armagh boys and their hardened Derry cousins is perfectly pitched, with Sean Delaney's Michael Carney and Terence Keeley's Dermaid Corcoran bouncing off one another, whilst Kevin Creedon's dutiful JJ reacts with disdainful horror. Perhaps the most fascinating figure, though, is Francis Mezza as Shane Corcoran. With his glossy haircut and nifty bell bottoms (very 1981) he cuts a sleek shape, smirking as he recounts assisting with a car bombing plot, and guarding a door whilst some IRA mobsters beat up one of their own on the other side. He even shows off a silver chain, taken from round the neck of the boy he helped to bring down. But as the harvest night wears on and his cousins recoil at his blood lust, his vainglorious mask starts to slip away.

Under the direction of Sam Mendes, The Ferryman is a deliciously crafted piece of theatre, which creeps slowly but surely towards its inescapable denouement. Peter Mumford's lighting design perfectly encapsulates the warm sepia tone of Quinn Carney's metaphorical castle, worlds away from the dull and icy meeting spots of Muldoon and his IRA heavies, and Rob Howell's set design is a marvel of intricacy. Sure, with a running length of over three hours the story occasionally feels self indulgent, and constant talk of Faeries and Banshees can see characters veering towards the stereotypical at times, but at the end of the day The Ferryman is an enthralling story which will play on the mind long after it is over.

I was invited to review The Ferryman thanks to

Review - A Girl In School Uniform Walks Into A Bar (New Diorama Theatre)

In a dystopian future plagued by random blackouts, bright eyed schoolgirl Steph walks into the bar owned by sarcastic bartender Bell, searching for her missing friend Charlie. Steph is adamant that Charlie visited the sticky boozer whilst looking for her mother, whilst Bell maintains that she never saw the schoolgirl once. The longer Charlie is missing for, the more desperate Steph becomes until one day Bell's mask of obliviousness begins to slip.

Bryony Davies and Laura Woodward in A Girl In School Uniform (Walks Into A Bar)
Photo credit - Graham Michael
A Girl In School Uniform (Walks Into A Bar) is a gripping 80 minute two hander written and directed by Lulu Raczka and Ali Pidsley respectively. Raczka weaves a tantalising tale of  intrigue, deceit and regret, drip feeding the audience tidbits of information, and throwing in enough red herrings to keep them guessing right up until the last second.

A large portion of A Girl In School Uniform (Walks Into A Bar) happens in complete darkness during a particularly long and tense blackout. When all of the lights go out, any sense of spatial awareness instantly vanishes and suddenly the audience is thrust into the terrifyingly dark dystopia, which feels claustrophobic yet simultaneously abyss-like. For what seems like several minutes, the only sounds which can be heard are the terrified pants and whines of Bell and Steph, and the frenzied scuffling of their feet through the rubble on the ground, as they search for a tiny camplight to save them from the dangers of the darkness. Each second is deliciously tense, and is bound to get pulses racing. As is the story which Bell and Steph start to make up together to take their minds off the terror of their inky surroundings. The two craft a tale based on half truths, which sees them tracking down Charlie's absent mother's shady acquaintances in order to try and find out the truth about what happened to Steph's school friend. The story takes several twists and turns as the duo test the waters, each trying to tease the real truth out of the other as the yarn they spin gets more and more outrageously unbelievable.

Raczka's writing comes into its own as the duo invent their own fantastical story together, meanwhile leads Laura Woodward and Bryony Davies work immensely well together and totally sell their characters' terse blossoming friendship. They keep the story ticking along brilliantly, even when the script does start to get a little repetitive towards the end, and totally sell the blackout induced panic which forces their nervy mismatched characters to open up to one another.

Peter Small's lighting design must also be commended. For a play set mostly in darkness, the little light that is used is immensely effective. Strip lighting hanging from the ceiling flickers and crackles, hinting at the precarious nature of the commodity of electricity, and tiny boxes of light projected onto the ground to light the characters when they first meet acts as an apt physical manifestation of the disconnect between Steph and Bell, and their hostile suspicion of one another.

A Girl In School Uniform (Walks Into A Bar) is an enthralling ride, which paints a bleak and disturbingly plausible picture of a future when even light itself is a luxury in short supply. Snappily directed and performed by a transfixing pair of actors, this riveting play is one which needs to be experienced.

Review - Eugenius! (The Other Palace)

The 80s are back, baby! Mom jeans are all the rage, Stranger Things is dominating pop culture, and heck, Star Wars is back in cinemas again too. It seems the 30 year nostalgia cycle is nowhere near waning, and riding that fact all the way to The Other Palace is Eugenius!, a new musical by Ben Adams and Chris Wilkins.

Making his UK debut, Liam Forde plays Eugene, a self professed geek from Toledo, Ohio, who has a penchant for the Ninja Turtles and an impressive gift for storytelling. Much to his archetypically hardened yet loving dad's dismay, Eugene is working on a comic about Tough Man, a musclebound He-Man wannabe from a galaxy far away. Despite being constantly bullied by the majority of his classmates, Eugene's talents land him first prize in a national movie pitching competition, and he is whisked away to Hollywood to oversee a big screen adaptation of his story. Things don't get off to the best start in La La Land though, as Eugene's beloved characters are bastardised before his eyes, and a strange otherworldly visitor named Evil Lord Hector arrives on set, straight from the pages of Eugene's comics and hell bent on total annihilation... once his powers have recharged.

The plot of Eugenius! is a wild one, there's no doubt about that. It's totally over the top, full of cliches, and ridiculously cheesy, which is far from a bad thing. Adams and Wilkins' script makes the most of every chance it gets to parody all things 80s. In fact, the whole production is painted with a gloriously retro brush, amplifying its over the top nature. Andrew Ellis' lighting design is a visual treat, full of neon brights, with beams of light flashing everywhere, and Hannah Wolfe's sets and costumes do a similarly good job of bringing the era of acid wash and spandex to life.

The musical excels once the action moves from the Midwest to LA. It's ridiculously good fun to see behind the scenes of Eugene's movie. With gaudy costumes and hammy acting, Eugenius! lovingly parodies  the campy sci-fi which dominated 80s pop culture. It also makes several attempts to offer social commentary on the state of Hollywood today, with varying degrees of success.

Scenes featuring Evil Lord Hector along with his sidekick Kevin The Robot are particularly bright spots, brimming with madcap retro fun. Ian Hughes' maniacal manchild Evil Lord Hector deserves a show all to himself, and it's great to hear the voice of Mark Hamill, acclaimed voice actor and, aptly, the star of Star Wars' original trilogy, as Hector's metal babysitter turned henchman.

However, some aspects of the script are less brilliantly conceived. Naming the female lead in Eugene's comic book creation Super Hot Lady is an obvious wink to the misogynistic treatment of women in sci-fi a few decades ago, but her objectification by both the heroes and villains of the story sends mixed messages about the morality of any of the musical's characters. Meanwhile in one scene Eugene's comedy relief sidekick school friend Ferris, played with boundless energy by Dan Buckley, pretends to be an agent in order to try and seduce an actress - an uncomfortable plot point, especially in the current post-Weinstein climate. Later in the musical he dips and is kissed by a grown woman. The moment is played for laughs but the implications are uncomfortable.

That being said, Eugenius! never feels malicious. It may not always be as clever or savvy as it perceives itself to be, but its overall message is an uplifting one. The score is a fun pastiche of 80s tunes, with Go Eugenius, the catchy fist pumping finale, sounding a bit like if Bon Jovi covered a mashup of Bryan Adams' Summer of 69 and Whitney Houston's How Will I Know. 

If you could bottle the feeling of elation at the end of Eugenius! then you'd make a fortune. It's not without its flaws, but for a bit of fun with a few great tunes and an uplifting finale, Eugenius! is a pretty safe bet.