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.

Review - Julius Caesar (Bridge Theatre)

One of Shakespeare’s most famous Roman tragedies is brought crashing into the 21st century in Nicholas Hytner's production of Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre.

Ben Whishaw as Brutus in Julius Caesar
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan
Hytner‘s production is staged in the round, with some audience members seated and some acting as the mob. Pre-show, throngs of audience members are packed into the vast auditorium where a rock band decked out in Caesar’s merch is playing covers of popular music. The crowd yells along to We’re Not Gonna Take It by Twisted Sister, and egged on by the swelling, baulking and jostling, it’s impossible not to be swept up in the hysteria of the rally. The mob mentality which plays such a large part in the story of Julius Caesar is almost instantaneously established, and from that moment onwards the rabble is primed to go along with anything they are asked to do. 

Designer Bunny Christie has achieved something remarkable in her production design, which raises the modern day pseudo Rome from the ground. Notably, at one point a gigantic red cloth is passed over the heads of the crowd and set down on the floor, its vivid hue juxtaposing the grim grey tones which dominate the early sets and costumes, and foreshadowing the conspirators' bloody deeds. 

As the titular tyrant David Calder is an interesting presence. Despite the obvious parallels between the text and the events of the present day, as well as his entourage of baseball cap wearing lackeys, Calder's Caesar bears very few similarities to his obvious real world equal. It’s interesting to see Caesar take centre stage though, as although Cassius describes him as a Colossus, in many productions Caesar seems like an afterthought in the play which takes his name as its title. Calder’s Caesar is perfectly pitched as the dictator on the rise. Externally, he’s jovial enough to begin with, all smiles and handshakes, but there’s a severity hiding beneath the surface too. One which Cassius urges Brutus to topple. 

Oh, and what a pair Cassius and Brutus are. Even when there’s action going on elsewhere, Michelle Fairley and Ben Whishaw’s duo of reluctantly murderous idealists are impossible to turn away from, even for a second. Ben Whishaw is a cerebral Brutus, more at home in his study than on the battlefield. Nevertheless, he has a certain charm and persuasiveness. He's a thinker, a schemer, the perfect opponent for Calder's exhibitionist Caesar. Meanwhile Michelle Fairley's steely Cassius brings grit and tenacity, which compliments Whishaw's febrile energy wonderfully.

David Calder as Caesar in Julius Caesar
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan
In fact every one of the 8 conspirator feels well defined, their reasons for agreeing to be complicit in their murderous crime are etched into their worried yet defiant faces. Set against a rather ordinary looking backdrop, surrounded by concrete grey and dull metal, the very ordinary conspirators feel extremely human. Hytner's production is less sandals and togas, more Clarks and Marks & Sparks. As fun running Mark Antony David Morrissey is also extremely watchable. He's an enjoyable yet somewhat unassuming presence during his early scenes, but comes into his own during Mark Antony's famous speech wherein he laments the death of Caesar 

As Brutus and Cassius’ plot to seize power very rapidly start to come apart at the seams, their downfall is mirrored in the deconstruction of the once spotless set. Rubble falls from the ceiling and Pro-Caesar propaganda is trampled into the ground. The final act of Hytner’s masterpiece is staged in an all-out war zone. Bodies are left where they fall, and there are a lot of them (this is a Shakespearean tragedy, after all), and impressively in the intimate final scenes where the conspirators reflect on their actions, the pressing mob which surrounds them on all sides, made up of actors, ushers and slightly shell-shocked audience members, settles silently. They’re almost as resigned as the characters are as they’re brought face to face with the destruction they were complicit to. 

As the dust settles and the actors bow and exit, the audience can finally breathe a sigh of relief and consider the ride they’ve just been on. Amid the hysteria of the crowd, Hytner’s brisk two hour cut of Julius Caesar feels monumental. Almost immediately one starts to wonder if he might consider following up his triumphant Julius Caesar with Antony and Cleopatra. It’d certainly be a treat to see David Morrissey take on the legendary General a few more years down the line. 

If there’s anyone out there who still rejects the idea of taking Shakespeare’s plays out of their original historical context then they must get a ticket to this frankly epic production.

Review - The Believers Are But Brothers (Bush Theatre)

The Believers Are But Brothers is an hour long play written and performed by Javaad Alipoor, which explores the disturbing part which the internet and social media has to play in bolstering the popularity of extremist groups in the tech savvy 21st century. He tells a fictional story about how three young men from different walks of life (two British Muslims recruited into ISIS, and one American alt-right extremist) react to a video of a young girl in Syria who is singing on a street when an explosive device is detonated. Throughout the play, Alipoor attempts to deconstruct the mindsets of those that viewed the video, and explores the destructive paths they take as a result. 

Javaad Alipoor in The Believers Are But Brothers
Photo credit - The Other Richard
Part play, part lecture, The Believers Are But Brothers demonstrates the power of end to end encryption, used by terrorists as a recruitment tool and to plot attacks, by having part of the play conveyed through a group WhatsApp message which the entire audience is encouraged to join. Having the audience keep their phones on throughout the play provides many opportunities for the action to be diverted by rogue messages, but Alipoor manages to keep everything rolling along, despite some inevitable distractions. 

Alipoor is a very likable presence; extremely compelling and affable, if a little unpolished. It's clear he's done his research on the subject he's talking about, and frequently references his time exploring the dark depths of sites like 4chan to mine for content for his play. That being said, despite his impressive research, The Believers Are But Brothers doesn't cover as much new ground as it perhaps has the potential to. A few years ago, hearing stories of horribly disturbing videos being shared around on the internet as a tool to fire up vulnerable people who feel let down or left behind by society would've seemed horrific, but in 2018 in a horrible way it seems sort of unsurprising. After all, when the President of the United States of America can retweet fake videos posted by a neo fascist group and sustain very little condemnation from his supporters, the proof of the potency of online radicalism and extremism is plain to see in the mainstream, not just on the reprehensible fringes of the web.

The Believers Are But Brothers may not be the most groundbreaking piece of theatre which covers the subject of extremism, but it is enjoyable and interesting nonetheless.