Review - Trainspotting Live (The Vaults)

In 1993, Irvin Welsh’s novel Trainspotting shook audiences to the core with its graphic and brazen depiction of the lives of several people with heroin addictions living in Leith, Edinburgh. In the wake of Trainspotting’s success came the beloved 1996 film adaption, as well as a stage adaptation by Harry Gibson. In 2013 the play was given an immersive twist by In Your Face Theatre, and has since been performed around the world, including a couple of stints at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and The Vaults at Waterloo, where it has now returned.

Finlay Bain and Frankie O'Connor in Trainspotting Live
Photo credit - Geraint Lewis
The Vaults’ slightly gritty, rough and ready atmosphere makes it the perfect home for Trainspotting Live. Before the play even begins audiences are forced into the world of Trainspotting Live, and bombarded with lights and sound in a preshow rave which overloads the senses. Staged in traverse, the play plunges audiences into the grim drug fuelled underbelly of Leith, inhabited by Mark Renton and the band of coarse delinquents he associates with. Renton speaks directly to the audience, boasting about his drug usage and dragging them along with him on countless repulsive escapades.

Funnily enough though, in spite of all of the immoral, illegal or even just plain disgusting things Renton and co. get up to, it’s impossible not to be taken by his unabashed openness. The genius of Irvine Welsh’s original writing, which carries over into Harry Gibson’s stage adaptation, is in the fact that Trainspotting presents all of its characters as victims of their circumstances, but never excuses their actions. They are, after all, people let down by the society which they live in. Renton and his pal Tommy even share an entire scene about the fact that they are judged negatively because of the school they went to. Admittedly, this scene also takes place whilst they try and cheat the system to keep claiming a job seeker's allowance with no intention of actually doing much job seeking, but nevertheless it helps to paint a picture of the characters’ upbringings.

Frankie O’Connor is a maniacal force of nature as Renton. With a twinkle in his eye, he leads the audience matter-of-factly through all manner of often rather hilarious, yet harrowing follies. It’s incredible how quickly the normality of taking hard drugs washes over the audience.

It’s easy to laugh at Renton’s unfortunately timed expulsion of bodily fluids, and the jabbering of Finlay Bain’s Tommy, who attends a job interview while on speed. But Gibson’s writing, and the performances given by O’Connor, Bain and the rest of the cast, ensure that the more sinister side of their lifestyle is rarely intangible.

Trainspotting Live’s 75 minute run time races by at 500 miles per hour, and its intensity never dissipates. Midway through, the tone switches from humorous to horrific and with a sudden urgency, a series of distressing scenes puncture the atmosphere, sucking all remaining air out of the already claustrophobic auditorium. As the lives of Renton and his friends fall apart before the audiences eyes, the remarkable stamina of the cast is impossible to ignore. One of the most disturbing later segments of the play sees Tommy try heroin for the first time; a decision which sets him on a nightmarish downward spiral.  It’s a brutally honest plot point which seems to take place a millions miles away from the play’s grim rave begins, which retrospectively seem somehow safe and performative.

Not for the feint hearted, Trainspotting Live is a no holds barred theatrical experience which will leave audiences shell-shocked. Perfectly maintaining the essence of the source material, this grimy and visceral immersive play needs to be seen.

Review - A Spoonful of Sherman (UK Tour)

For the last century the Sherman family has been producing toe tapping tunes for the radio, film, and stage, and now Robert J Sherman (the son of one half of the iconic Sherman Brothers) brings his fascinating and awe inspiring family history into the spotlight, in A Spoonful of Sherman

The cast of A Spoonful of Sherman
Photo credit - Matt Martin
Featuring a quintet of enthusiastic and talented singers, A Spoonful of Sherman is a delightful musical stage show which intersperses the history of the Sherman Family with dozens of their most recognisable tunes, as well as plenty of underappreciated gems. 

Highlights include Al Sherman's Over Someone Else's Shoulder and What A Comforting Thing To Know from lesser known Sherman Brothers musical The Slipper and the Rose. Naturally though, the show takes off during the inevitable medleys from Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, two musicals which audiences of all ages are bound to be familiar with. Sophie-Louise Dann's gorgeous rendition of Feed The Birds is heartbreaking and thrilling in equal measures, meanwhile Mark Reid and Jenna Innes' Doll on a Music Box/Truly Scrumptious is a nostalgic offering so sweet Lord Scrumptious himself would probably like to get his hands on it. Additionally, Glen Facey's energetic performance as King Louie, singing and dancing to I Wanna Be Like You from The Jungle Book, brings the house down, and lead pianist Ben Stock is hilarious when embodying a cracker crazed macaw in his solo Crunchy Crackers, a tune from Robert J Sherman's own musical creation Love Birds. 

It's impossible not to be enchanted by A Spoonful of Sherman. Younger audience members may find the first section of act one a little dense, but by the time the songs made famous in Disney films start cropping up the whole audience will be bouncing with joy. Telling one fascinating family's history, the show is packed with unbelievable anecdotes and songs for all ages to enjoy. Don't miss this adorable musical experience. 

Review - Assassins (Pleasance Theatre)

There couldn't be a more perfect time to stage Assassins. With a book by John Weidman, which explores the reasons and motivations behind some of the most iconic presidential assassinations in American history, and masterful music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Assassins combines a cleverly told and socially relevant story with witty and whip smart musical theatre tunes, and the result is a poignant masterpiece which reveals the terrifyingly comprehensible reasons behind the dark deeds of some of America's most infamous historical killers.

The cast of Assassins
Fledgling theatre company Sevans Productions have revived this much-loved yet lesser performed musical, complete with a short and silent prologue which draws the audience's attention to none other than president Donald Trump. As if anyone could forget him. 

Moving on from the obligatory MAGA-ism, the bulk of the musical takes place in some sort of assassin purgatory, where historical nasties harp on their convictions. Rather clever set design by director Louise Bakker sees the stage rotate on a large revolve, allowing for plenty of inventive set changes to take place. One particularly striking bit of design sees the assassins slumped in chairs in a glorified waiting room decked out in stars and stripes. It's fascinating to see how the characters interact with each other, separated by generations but brought together by deeds.

The cast of Assassins
As the bebowtied master of ceremonies, also known as the Proprietor, Peter Watts leads an outstanding ensemble of performers who do a uniformly excellent job of humanising the ominous assassins. Highlights of the cast are Abigail Williams’ ditzy Sarah Jane Moore, Andrew Pepper's ostentatious Charles Guiteau, and Jason Kajdi as the Balladeer. The latter begins the musical in what looks like modern dress, overseeing the events and seemingly acting as a mouthpiece for the audience, but as he observes the motivations behind the assassins' actions he is absorbed into their world both literally and metaphorically. When Kajdi shows up again later in the piece, in a starkly lit room, and is introduced as none other than Lee Harvey Oswald, a man teetering on the edge of suicide before being goaded in to shooting JFK, it’s up to the audience to decide the significance of the multiroling which came beforehand. 

The overarching message of this production is easy to decipher; all it takes for a disgruntled citizen to change the course of history is just a single bullet. And a reason. At a time when gun laws are yet again making headlines in America, and on this side of the pond we are divided vehemently over Brexit, Assassins plays out like a cautionary tale. One particularly harrowing moment sees the assassins offer their guns to audience members, an action which highlights how each assassin started out as just an ordinary citizen, disgruntled by or disillusioned with their country and its leader. The musical may have been written in 1993, but in today’s unstable political climate climate Assassins feels as relevant as ever.

Review - Ruthless! The Musical (Arts Theatre)

26 years after its first performance off-Broadway, Joel Paley’s spoofy musical comedy transfers to London’s Arts Theatre. Telling the story of tiny stage sensation Tina Denmark, an 8 year old girl who’ll do anything to achieve her Broadway dreams, Ruthless! The Musical twists and turns through murders and mysteries, as Tina, her ditzy housewife mother Judy, and her flashy talent agent Sylvia St Croix, pursue the rocky path to fame.


Kim Maresca, Lucy Simmonds, and Jason Gardiner in Ruthless! The Musical 
Photo credit - Alastair Muir
First and foremost is has got to be said that Tina, a precocious adolescent murderess, is an absolute scream and actor Anya Evans (who shares the role with 3 other actors) makes the most of every moment she is on stage. With bags of talent and a death glare to be reckoned with, she sells the musical's premise from the moment she utters her first treacly line right up until her final blood soaked  bow.
 
With a purposefully absurd number of twists and turns, the plot keeps everyone guessing as they giggle along. Ruthless! The Musical is most definitely a musical written for eager musical theatre fans. Despite a strong derogating of the genre by Tina's drunken grandmother, theatre critic Lita Encore, the book features a few stagey gags and parodic moments, referencing musicals such as Gypsy and Sunset Boulevard.

However, all of Ruthless! The Musical's melodramatic reveals could do with more energetic build-ups to really elevate the jokes to belly laugh territory, and the smattering of musical theatre references dropped in don’t occur regularly enough for the ongoing joke to gather much momentum. That being said, Jason Gardiner’s Sylvia St Croix making a spotlight stealing entrance in a long coat and turban, declaring 'I’m still here' is a fun little moment. It has to be said though, that for all its attempts to be outrageous and irreverent, Ruthless! The Musical seems to lack the bite that other similarly cheeky musicals possess.
 
Gaudy 50s inspired sets feature heavily in act 1 and epitomise the sweet and uncomplicated lives of Tina and her mother at the beginning of the story. However, in act 2 once Tina’s despicable deed has been completed and her mother has abandoned her to chase her own showbiz dreams, a sleek and glamorous New York apartment becomes the musical's main location. However, the piece maintains its earlier cartoonish vibe in other ways, for example Lara Denning is hilarious as coked up and maniacal Eve, a wannabe stage star desperate to crawl her way up the food chain. In fact, act 2 is where Ruthless! The Musical’s jokes flourish. It’s just a shame that Tina is incarcerated off stage in the Daisy Clover School for Psychopathic Ingénues for quite a lot of the time, as when she does appear, dressed up in a black and white striped hoop skirt of course, she’s an inimitable bright spot.  

All in all though, what’s prevalent throughout the musical is its relative tameness. Ruthless! The Musical feels like it wants to be outrageous but doesn’t ever really go far enough to truly shock. It may have seen surprising to hear a young child swear on stage back in 1993, but it’s much less impactful today, in a world of Spelling Bees and Spring Awakenings. Sure, it’s a fun romp, but Ruthless! The Musical misses more marks than it hits where the gags are concerned. 

That being said, there's still plenty to enjoy, especially for those who are fans of broad humour, and  even broader characters. There's some face shredding belting, a plot going at 200 miles per hour, and countless surprise turns which will keep audience members on their toes. It may attract a slightly niche audience, but there's definitely an appetite for this kind of digestible musical comedy fare.

Interview - Patrick Knowles (A Streetcar Named Desire)

Tennessee Williams is now considered one of America’s greatest playwrights, and even back in 1947 when he wrote A Streetcar Named Desire he had already achieved great success with his spectacular memory play The Glass Menagerie. However, arguably it was the brash and confrontational Streetcar which propelled Williams’ name into the theatrical history books.

Fresh out of a rehearsal for the English Touring Theatre production of Tennessee Williams' sweltering drama, I'm speaking to Patrick Knowles, who is playing Stanley Kowalski, the embodiment of stereotypical masculinity.


Boasting a career which stretches over stage and screen, the LAMDA trained actor was recently a Company member in the Royal Shakespeare Company's Imperium, a production which he will be returning to when it transfers to London’s Gielgud Theatre in June. He also appeared in Call The Midwife with Kelly Gough, who stars opposite him now as Blanche DuBois. Interestingly too, this isn’t Knowles' first foray into the world of A Streetcar Named Desire, as back in 2015 he appeared as Mitch, Blanche’s downtrodden beau, in a production at the Leicester Curve, directed by Nikolai Foster. It must be interesting, I remark, to return to the play in a different role, especially one as iconic as Stanley - a role made famous on Broadway and in the 1951 film adaptation, by Marlon Brando. Knowles agrees. ‘It's actually quite a privilege to be able to do such a great play twice’ he enthuses. ‘I think it's a phenomenal piece of work. It's a bit of a masterpiece. It’s so well written and the characters are so well rendered, and still really relevant’.

We discuss the relevance of Tennessee Williams’ writing in further detail as I bring up the autobiographical nature of several of his plays, including A Streetcar Named Desire, wherein the characters of Stanley was likely modelled after Williams' father. Many people may be familiar with the ways in which The Glass Menagerie mirrors Williams’ own family. After all, the fragile Laura Wingfield was a fictional version of his sister Rose, and his mother was the inspiration for boisterous matriarch Amanda Wingfield. Williams gave audiences a personal view into his own life by basing Tom Wingfield, the factory worker and aspiring poet who yearned to escape the confines of his suffocating family home, on himself. ‘I remember reading an article about The Glass Menagerie where his mother came to the opening night and Williams was terrified that she'd watch it and know that the mother in that was based on her. She doesn't really get the most favorable representation...' Knowles explains, before revealing that although apparently she loved the play, she hated Amanda! 'It's quite funny. She didn't recognize herself, but could see how overbearing the mother character was.'
Knowles marvels at Williams’ ability to transfer his own life experiences into such universal fictional terms. ‘It's a great example of write-what-you-know; taking elements of your life that you found poetic or heartbreaking or joy-filled and sort of rendering that in a way that is accessible to everyone.'
Joe Manjón (Pablo), Patrick Knowles (Stanley) Will Bliss (Steve) and Dexter Flanders (Mitch) in rehearsal for A Streetcar Named Desire
Photo by The Other Richard
One of the things which makes A Streetcar Named Desire such a universal play is the way it addresses a number of themes such as gender and gender stereotypes, mental health, appearances, and drug and alcohol abuse, to name but a few. To young people studying the play in school, these themes may very well resonate, despite having been written by Tennessee Williams over 70 years ago. For Patrick Knowles, the idea that students will see the play and feel empowered to talk about their own personal issues, through the medium of the text, is one thing that he finds especially stimulating. ‘I think timing of what we're saying about a lot of issues may be relevant to young people coming to see it as part of a school syllabus. I think it is relevant and that people will see it and not feel alone. let's face it, that's the worst thing, I think for me, that's my opinion, feeling alone and not being able to talk about something.’

For many young people the play is a mainstay of their GCSE English Literature studies. As many have argued over the years, reading a play is often not the best way to communicate its potency to a captive audience. With that in mind, perhaps, Chelsea Walker’s production of the 1940s classic has been brought into the modern day, complete with a fresh contemporary soundtrack and modern dress. With so much new writing covering similar themes to those which Streetcar is known for, I’m curious about why now is the right time to tour this particular play. 'I think the timing is bang on really,' Knowles asserts, 'the effect of the "Me too" movement is on a global scale. I think that ideas about sexual politics and power dynamics, and what it is to be complicit… that's still very fresh, very important and very relevant. Even more so now because it is up for debate in the public sphere. It is a conversation that needs to be had and continue to happen.’ 

Furthering the idea of A Streetcar Named Desire being an accurate mirror to life in 2018, Knowles is keen to highlight the accessibility of the English Touring Theatre production. 'Some of my friends are like "I've never read it and I feel like I should, but I've never got around to it, or never had a chance". This would really be a great production to come and see because it's unabridged, but it's going to be very accessible to all levels.' It also should be noted that as the tour will stop off at multiple points up and down the country, it may make the play more accessible to those unable to travel into London to see theatre. 'You've got a big window of opportunity' Knowles agrees, adding 'if you like the play anyway, you'll like this version, and if you've always wanted to see it, you've got ample time to come check it out. You don't have to sit there and read the book, we can just tell you the story,' he jokes. 
Amber James (Stella) Patrick Knowles (Stanley) and Dexter Flanders (Mitch) in rehearsals for A Streetcar Named Desire
Photo by The Other Richard
‘If you think of a more traditional Streetcar, it could be potentially be quite stuffy and placed. "Oh my God, my days are wilting”' he adds, feigning a heightened Southern twang. ‘This is a very modern, very fresh version... it's quick, it's punchy, which is actually probably exactly how it was when it was first done.’ He elaborates, but is also keen to assure fans of the original play that its essence remains the same. ‘All plays are new writing at some stage, and when Streetcar was a piece of new writing it just happened to be 1947. The power, the potency, the virility of it hasn't changed, it's just sometimes when you look back on stuff retrospectively it’s easy to miss the contemporary relevance of the piece because obviously it's however many years old.’ In short, this production of A Streetcar Named Desire is the perfect production for both new audiences and long terms fans of Tennessee Williams’ iconic work. ‘We’re keeping the heart of it, just freshening it to make it relevant.’
‘When they did the play on Broadway they were still doing revisions and rewrites the day before the play opened. They could because Tennessee Williams was in the room; he was in his late twenties, it was young, fresh, exciting.’ Knowles tells me. And in his opinion, it still is. It’d certainly be a shame if such an intense and urgent play became a museum piece, but in director Chelsea Walker’s production, the play’s modern relevance takes centre stage.

The conversation turns to the actual rehearsal process, and Knowles acknowledges that a part with such a renowned history and iconic status is slightly daunting in a way. 'Any good part in any brilliant play will have been done many times before by many great people.' He admits, 'but I think the key thing is trust in the text, trust what the writer has written, and trust your other actors and what they give to you, because at the end of the day it has to be organic and believable in the version you are doing.'

Review - Tom and Bunny Save the World (UK Tour)

After running into each other in the midst of an ensuing zombie apocalypse, Tom and Bunny Save the World's titular duo band together and embark on a riotous road trip from London all the way up to Yorkshire, an apparent safe zone. Tom's a nerdy Tom Trumps enthusiast, whilst Bunny's a boisterous teacher trying to deal with the guilt of sleeping with her girlfriend's dad. Tom's packed a survival kit, Bunny's packed a baseball bat in a sling. As an apocalypse facing team, they're a bit of an odd match, but that's what makes them such perfect heroes in this very 2018 zombie epic from Fat Rascal Theatre.


Zombie pop culture aficionados, will notice plenty of lovingly borrowed plot points from some of the the most well known properties of the 2000s slipped seamlessly into this kooky hour long supernatural extravaganza. It borrows its zombie epidemic origin story from 28 Days Later, there's a hunt for a cure a la the first season of The Walking DeadZombieland's survival tips are reworded (panic stricken public are advised "never assume your zed is dead", a tip which anyone in an end-of-the-world situation would do well to remember), and of course, the humour and bizarreness of the definitive zom-com, Shaun of the Dead, is at the heart of the piece.

As the musical comedy's eponymous survivor, Robyn Grant is hilarious and totally believable, with her carpe diem attitude and no nonsense survival plan. Grant, who is also responsible for Tom and Bunny Save the World's laugh a minute book and lyrics, is undoubtedly one to watch, with a killer voice and whip smart comedic timing perfectly suited for musical comedy. Jamie Mawson is equally entertaining as Bunny's fumbling foil. With his priceless expressions and equally skillful vocals, the audience will be rooting for Tom despite his obvious ineptitude. 

But they're not alone on their quest. Tom and Bunny are joined by farmhand Gareth, a vet and fellow northerner who Bunny takes an immediate shine too, as well as Pearl, a pregnant science professor, and Kai, a gruff military figure with a mysterious past. And watching from a secret facility somewhere in Scotland is Mike, a man charged with nuking the country if things get too out of hand. Dramatic stuff!
The cast of six work tirelessly from beginning to end, propelling the rollicking story forward at breakneck pace, multi roling a bunch of brilliant characters which affectionately mock the UK's regional stereotypes, and singing along as they go. It must be said that while the songs are cleverly written and masterfully performed, there's no real earworm for the audience to hum on their way out, but they're all serviceable numbers and encapsulate the frantic pace of the story very well

Based on their previous productions, if there's one thing Fat Rascal Theatre excels at especially well it's injecting truly hilarious comedic situations with apt social commentary, and Tom and Bunny Save the World is no exception. The musical comments on the very real class divide which is always making headlines, and is at the forefront of many minds at this particularly politically rocky time, but still manages to deliver plenty of oddball humour to keep the tone light throughout.

There's never a dull scene in Tom and Bunny Save the World. Even one of the musical's most gasp inducing moments, when Luke Dunford's Gareth reveals that he has been bitten by a zombie and doomed to a fate worse than death, also doubles as one of its funniest. The image of Gareth's limbs twitching as he bemoans Bunny's rejection of his romantic advances whilst transforming into a brain eater is one of the musical's most uproarious moments.

The musical's ending arrives quite abruptly, teasing its audience with an intriguing cliffhanger which cries out for a sequel. Tom and Bunny Save the World provides unrelenting mayhem and brilliant fun, delivered by an enthusiastic cast of comedians who never miss a beat. For sharp musical comedy, you can't do much better than this!

Interview - Sir Richard Stilgoe (The Orpheus Centre)

‘There's nothing more uniting than stage fright.’ 

Songwriter and musician Sir Richard Stilgoe, perhaps best known for his collaborations with Andrew Lloyd Webber on Starlight Express, Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, is talking to me about The Orpheus Centre, an independent specialist college for young disabled adults with a passion for the performing arts. The Orpheus Centre was founded by Stilgoe in 1997. Having started with just 5 full time students all those 20 years ago, the school is now attended by up to 28 full time students, as well as around 20 day students, each of whom attend the school for 3 year and learn life skills such as cooking and budget management, in addition to developing their pre-existing enthusiasm for the arts. 

Sir Richard Stilgoe and students at The Orpheus Centre
This year, to celebrate the centre's 20th anniversary, students from The Orpheus Centre will be joined by Arts Ed students on stage at London's The Other Palace, in a new production of Sir Richard Stilgoe’s Orpheus - The Mythical, a musical comedy about a Greek tragedy. 

'It's about a musician who, whenever he sings, the world stops and listens. And, I guess whenever our guys get up and sing the world stops and listens, so it's kind of relevant. Also, nobody knows those Greek stories anymore. And, they're really good. There's a three headed dog in it for heaven's sake. And a dragon. So, it makes for a good tale.’ Additionally, alongside The Orpheus Centre and Arts Ed students, every night the Greek Chorus within the musical will be played by one of many famous faces. When I ask how he managed to get performers such as Rob Brydon, Bertie Carvel and Imelda Staunton (to name just a few) to guest star in the show, Sir Richard's answer is extremely heart-warming... he just rang them up. 'It shows that our guys are good enough to perform with those guys.’ He proudly explains.
 
I wonder what sort of an impact The Orpheus Centre has had on its young students and Sir Richard is happy to enthuse about past students and their success stories. ‘Every year, one-third of our students leave, and they go off and they live independently in their own flats. They don't go into care homes. They don't go back home to live with mom and dad. They run their own lives because they've done so much performing that they are really, really confident.’ No doubt the skills they pick up and hone make a huge difference to confidence levels, a testament to both the power and importance of the arts and the talent of the individuals. Sir Richard goes on to assert that every school in Britain should be running similar activities for students, ‘because then you produce a really confident generation of young people. Sometimes if you write a song about what you're feeling you can express yourself more easily than if you just try to say what you're feeling. It's like an actor wearing a mask.’

Another thing which Sir Richard is proud of is The Orpheus Centre's OFSTED report, which ranked the centre as "Good" in every category. ‘Oh excellent!’ I exclaim, impressed. ‘We're not "Excellent", we're "Good"' he jokes. I stand corrected!

It seems that recently conversations about the visibility of disabled performers and creatives within theatre has become an urgent talking point. I wonder if Sir Richard thinks that enough is being done to provide opportunities for talented performers with disabilities to find work in the entertainment industry. 'You wouldn't put on a production of Othello, without a black actor playing Othello.' And similarly, 'I think now, you would try very hard not to have a disabled character who wasn't played by a disabled actor.’ He points out that whilst progress is relatively slow, compared to the way it was 10 years ago the number of actors with disabilities being cast in lead roles is rising, and with opportunities such as those being presented by The Orpheus Centre, which enable young performers to perform alongside seasoned professionals on a large London stage, no doubt the future will be even brighter. 
 

Review - Hamlet (Hackney Empire)

In 2016 the RSC's acclaimed production of Hamlet, starring (then) relative newcomer Paapa Essiedu as the eponymous prince, was first seen staged in Stratford-upon-Avon, as part of a celebration, to mark Shakespeare's 400th birthday. The production is now touring the UK before heading over to the states for a brief stint at the Washington Theater. 

Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan  © RSC
With its seamless melded of Shakespeare's timeless language with a modern West African backdrop, director Simon Godwin’s Hamlet is a benchmark for modernised productions, which highlights the play's undying relevance from start to end.

The story of Hamlet, the young prince who discovers that his deceased father was murdered by his uncle in a bid to seize the throne is a tale which has been told and retold in hundreds of different ways, and yet few recent productions have managed to capture Hamlet's youthful brazenness and tireless loyalty so successfully. Compared to his many (often rather more senior) predecessors at the RSC, Paapa Essiedu is a somewhat precocious Hamlet for the modern day, who perfectly captures the balance between grieving son and smart alecky student. He and James Cooney's Horatio make a brilliant duo, with the realistic bond between them strengthening the already entirely believable world in which this Hamlet takes place.

Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet and Buom Tihngang as Laertes
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan  © RSC
Contrasting Essiedu’s youthful swagger and zeal, in the role of Hamlet's backstabbing uncle Claudius Clarence Smith is understated and yet totally engrossing. Every pang of doubt and guilt, or look of defiance, is hidden under several layers of regal charm, and so just as Hamlet endlessly debates his uncle's crimes, so too does the audience. Especially as Hamlet becomes more and more unhinged from reality, and finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into his own vengeful mind.

Designer Paul Wills' vibrant sets and costumes undoubtedly make a large impact in this vivid production. As Hamlet pulls away from quiet submission to his uncle, his rather ordinary clothes are abandoned in favour of a white suit jacket and trousers, spattered with a multitude of different coloured paints.

He defiantly graffitis a portrait of his mother and uncle with a crown atop a bold letter H. The brilliant fuschia spray-paint contrasts the rich and regal portrait’s tones, markedly establishing Hamlet’s volatile and disruptive intentions. This production overthrows all expectations. A fast paced and thrilling ride.

Review - Trap Street (New Diorama Theatre)

Beginning its tale in the 1960s, theatre company Kandinsky's Trap Street tells the story of one of the first families to move into a new flat on a fictional London estate named after Jane Austen. Frazzled matriarch Valerie, who dotes on her eldest son and constantly chastised her younger daughter, takes it upon herself to start building a community, and as the play jumps between past and present the lives of Valerie and her children are imprinted onto the building. Cut to the present day and Valerie's daughter Andrea returns to England after a long stay in Spain, keen to settle back into the flat where she grew up. The only problem is that the once bustling community of the Austen Estate is now gone, and has been replaced by an eerie emptiness, as property guardians dutifully inhabit the block until it is developed into luxury apartments. 

The cast of Trap Street
Photo credit - Richard Davenport
With a running time of just 80 minutes, Trap Street should feel sprightly, especially as it is comprised of a bunch of short scenes which continuously switch from the 1960s to present day and back again. It should cast sympathy on main character Andrea, the put upon youngest child of a pushy mother who's desperation to escape her family home is, over time, replaced with a need to preserve it. However, despite an interesting host of characters, unquestionably strong performances and a continually apt subject matter, Trap Street lacks focus and fails to make any fresh points or suggest any possible solutions to the societal issues it highlights. 

It also feels unnecessarily long, and spends a lot of time showing the audience how unlikable both Andrea and her mother are in their individual timelines. In one scene Amanda visits a swanky modern real estate agent, and is duped into trying out a virtual tour of one of the £700,000 flats which will replace her old home. She stumbles around the office wearing a VR headset whilst hipster estate agents look on bemusedly. Zac Gvirtzman's slow and nostalgic live score twinkles sadly, telling the audience to feel sorry for the woman. But it's very hard to do so. Ballooning London living costs are a fact of life nowadays, and it's hard to feel anything other than apathy towards that fact. 

Of course, the overarching message of the piece is clear from the beginning; pricing working class families out of the homes they grew up in is frankly terrible, and gentrification certainly fosters a very different neighbourhood, very unlike the tight knit communities which are so fondly reminisced about. But Trap Street says very little else about the current housing crisis, and so whilst Kandinsky's stimulus is compelling, the finished play feels underpowered, with many avenues left unexplored.

Review - Julius Caesar (The Courtyard Theatre)

If there's one play which mirrors the world's political landscape over the last couple of years, it's Julius Caesar. It's testament to the genius of Shakespeare's longevous writing that the political tragedy has been popping up in theatres at breakneck speed as of late, with notable recent production including Angus Jackson's spears and sandals production at the RSC and Nicholas Hytner's current production at the Bridge Theatre, which brings the drama into a gritty 21st century setting. But Spada Productions' gutsy new take goes a step further than both of those iterations, and drops Brutus and co. into a grim post apocalyptic wasteland, where a need for survival drives the actions of the play's notorious conspirators. 

Matt Daniels and Mitch Howell as Brutus and Cassius in Julius Caesar
Photo credit - Gary Cooper (SquareFreedomPhotography.com)
Director William Vercelli's bold vision is something to marvel at. In Vercelli's baron future, a violent form of masculinity rumbles steadily on, riling up the fiendish Cassius and urging the initially rather reticent Brutus into becoming the leader of a band of assassins tasked with murdering their country's beloved leader. 

Overcome with admiration and lust, Mitch Howell's serpentine Cassius controls Matt Daniels' Brutus like a puppet on a string. Combining flattery and seduction, he manipulates the object of his desire into plotting Caesar's downfall. The duo crackle dangerously, an undercurrent of mutual bloodlust binding them together, and the scenes they share are undoubtedly the most fascinating and complex in this production. Aïsha Kent's Calpurnia is another interesting character well portrayed. Reimagined as a mystical woman, seemingly capable of channelling spirits and prophesying the future, it is she who cries out 'beware the ides of march' in the production's striking opening scene. If only her husband Caesar could match her strength of spirit. As the titular general director William Vercelli is less convincing. He portrays a Caesar who seems unsure of himself, more peevish than all-powerful. Subsequently it is difficult to see he and the forbearing Brutus as the equals the text implies they are. Nevertheless, his downfall is suitably horrific, and creates a striking image which cements Vercelli's merciless Rome as an engagingly volatile and bloody one.

The cast of Julius Caesar
Photo credit - Gary Cooper (SquareFreedomPhotography.com)
However, on several occasions the cruel atmosphere which dominates the production oversteps into something much more sinister. The usually loving and devoted relationship between Brutus and his stately wife Portia is contorted into a murky marriage marred by savage and intense sexual violence, which culminates in a distraught Portia initiating a graphic coat hanger self-abortion and dying as a result. Even the most affable audience members will almost certainly find Portia's ghastly treatment uncomfortable to watch. Additionally, another unendurable scene sees Brutus coaxing his young servant to touch himself while he watches on voyeuristically. Far from 'the noblest Roman of them all', the Brutus moulded by Vercelli's Julius Caesar is a reprehensible wretch. In a world dominated by barbarity, the exploration of sadistic carnality and destructive masculinity is certainly interesting, but at times it seems gratuitous; more eager to shock its unsuspecting audience than provide particularly enlightening commentary for them. 

That being said, this Julius Caesar is certainly fresh, and successfully reinvents the well trodden play as something much darker and more distressing than the title suggests. Is the mistreatment of certain female characters undue? Almost certainly. Are the attempts to shock and distress audiences miscalculated at times? Without a doubt. But this stifling production builds a convincing world, where civilisation is a thing of the past, and individuals demonstrate power in any way they can think of, be that sexual domination, mental manipulation, or basely inhumane savagery. And for that reason, some of the production's most hyper-violent moments seem just about justifiable as artistic choices. The impressive world building is bolstered by Jenn Sambridge's simple yet completely immersive production design, and Gregory Jordan's lighting design, which casts a sickly light on each brutal scene.

Slimlining the conspirators, who are usually portrayed as a fearful and calculating bunch, into a handful of ragtag incendiaries, completely alters the dynamic of the play, and so when Christopher G. Jones's brattish Octavius saunters in at the end of the play and positions himself as the first emperor of Rome, it comes as a breath of fresh air. Will the broken country be any less fragmented under his rule? Probably not, but at least he'll shake things up a bit.