Review - Summer and Smoke (Duke of York's Theatre)

In Glorious Hill, Mississippi, childhood friends Alma Winemiller and Doctor John Buchanan Jr. reunite after several years apart. Although Alma is an unassuming and upstanding member of the community and John has a rather scandalous reputation for gambling and romancing, the pair rekindle a smouldered flame and are drawn to each other almost instinctually.

Matthew Needham and Patsy Ferran in Summer and Smoke
Photo credit - Marc Brenner
Although Summer and Smoke is a delicate and powerful drama, it'd be hard to argue that this is Tennessee Williams' best play. But that's hardly surprising considering the other dramatic juggernauts he penned. Summer and Smoke feels looser and more meandering that its siblings, but nevertheless there's still an awful lot to enjoy, especially with Rebecca Frecknall's witty and surgically precise direction to shape the piece into something more sparky and volatile than the text alone suggests. William's dialogue masterfully captures moods and moments, and Frecknall's direction shines a spotlight on those moments, flaying them before the audience's eyes. 
The theme of conformity and rejection of societal expectations are common to many Tennessee Williams plays, but it seldom as heavily signalled than in Summer and Smoke. John is a doctor and the son of a respected medical professional, but far from portraying his professionalism outwardly, he is louche and scruffy, with a hungry look in his eye. Matthew Needham plays his sulking rage and simmering passion to perfection, as he stalks the stage, slowly but surely peeling away Alma's ultra-refined and poised exterior. Meanwhile a revelatory performance sees Patsy Ferran disappear into Alma Winemiller entirely.
Patsy Ferran in Summer and Smoke
Photo credit - Marc Brenner
From her first appearance, gasping and suffocating into a microphone centre stage, surrounded by a septet of pianos, all eyes are on her. Every severe glance, anxious inhalation and soulless smile is etched out precisely on Ferran's face as Alma tries her best to reject her urges and conform to expectations. She's constantly on edge; a product of her mother's unfortunate mental breakdown several years prior to the events of the play. Forced to grow up too soon, she's evidently afraid that her carefree youth has passed her by. She's an elastic band, squeaking and stretching as she resists her wants and desires in order to maintain control and conform to the expectations put upon her. But of course, it's only a matter of time before she snaps.
As the direction of the play becomes clearer and the ending becomes more obvious, the inevitable trajectory of Alma and John becomes almost unbearable to watch, as their ideals slowly twist inside out. It's evident from the start that they are too different to ever work as a couple, and yet it's difficult not to root for Alma's liberation and John's redemption.

Matthew Needham in Summer and Smoke
Photo credit - Marc Brenner
Tom Scutt's purposefully threadbare design has the characters confined to centre stage, for the most part, surrounded by the tinkling ivories of seven pianos. Undoubtedly a metaphor for the tattling, self-involved inhabitant of Glorious Hill, the pianos underscore much of the play with a pretty, cloying tune which fills the air like a saccharine summer haze. It's easy to see why John and Alma are forced to both extremes in terms of societal convention, when they are constantly being put on a pedestal and inspected by their neighbours and peers. 
The suffocating atmosphere of small-town Mississippi is conjured perfectly in this stifling, completely engrossing production. Gorgeous design, attentive direction and a pair of incredible lead performances transform this lesser performed Williams play into a glimmering gem!  
I was invited to review Summer and Smoke thanks to

Review - Fanatical (Playground Theatre)

There’s a new Marvel movie out every week, Star Wars has returned with a vengeance, and even Star Trek is having another moment in the sun right now thanks to Netflix. There’s no doubt about it. What was once a geeky subculture has now infiltrated pop culture in a massive way. Sci-fi is officially cool.

Suanne Braun in Fanatical
Photo credit - Scott Rylander
Fanatical, a new musical, takes place at the inaugural fan convention for a fictional comic book turned sci-fi show called Angel 8. Although the show seemingly only had one (unfinished) season, its fan base is a rabidly passionate throng who descend upon a convention centre cosplayed up to the nines, ready to meet the Angel 8 creator Scott Furnish. However, there’s a spy within the ranks; a reporter from the sleazily named Pump Magazine, who is tasked with reporting back on the nerdy atmosphere, and Lycra clad cosplaying women.

Reina Hardy and Matt Board’s Fanatical is clearly a musical made by sci-fi fans for sci-fi fans. It perfectly encapsulates what it’s like to be part of a niche fan group, and doesn’t hold back on Tumblrific dialogue and geek-culture references. Suanne Braun is entertaining as frazzled con organiser and Angel 8 superfan Trix, whose love for the show is plain to see.

Sophie Powles in Fanatical
Photo credit - Scott Rylander
The book is a fun if extremely predictable one. There are no big surprises or shocking moments, and the first act in particular is a little slow and directionless, whilst the pace picks up significantly in the more dramatically engaging act two.

The cast is clearly having great fun with the show, and the script allows for every possible type of fan to be represented within the ensemble. Amy Lovatt is endearing as a fanfiction artist, alongside Amber Sylvia Edwards as a cosplayer, and Theo Crosby as a podcaster in the earworm Look What I Made. However, the score does seem to play it a bit safe and peaks early with the bubblegum unrequited love song Me Slash You, hilariously performed by Eddy Payne’s Baxter, leaving the audience longing for similarly catchy pop inspired numbers. The finale features another musical highlight; a feel-good song which encourages audiences to embrace their passions, whatever they may be. But the middle of the musical lacks a number punchy enough to rival those that sandwich it.

Despite its faults, Fanatical is a lovingly crafted musical creation, and with a few tweaks, like several other sci-fi musicals seen in recent years, it could be on its way to cult status.

Review - Beauty and the Beast: A Musical Parody (King's Head Theatre)

Fat Rascal Theatre have done it again.

After a stonking run in 2017, Beauty and the Beast: A Musical Parody returns.

Robyn Grant and Jamie Mawson in Beauty and the Beast: A Musical Parody
Photo credit - Nick Rutter
Beau wants adventure in the great wide somewhere, and that's exactly what he gets when his mother is captured by a mysterious beast, who lives in an enchanted castle on the outskirts of Beau's hometown. 

Forget what you know about the Disney classic, Robyn Grant and Daniel Elliot's hysterically funny parody is the only version of the Beauty and the Beast tale that matters anymore. Weaving razor sharp wit in with bawdier sight gags and quips, the script is an expertly crafted patchwork of comedy. Jokes come thick and fast, leaving very little breathing space, and resulting in one hundred minutes of howling fun.

Jamie Mawson in Beauty and the Beast: A Musical Parody
Photo credit - Nick Rutter
Music by James Ringer-Beck and Nicola Chang brilliantly pastiches the pomp and grandeur of Alan Menken's Beauty and the Beast tunes. One standout moment sees the cast parody the famous showstopper Be Our Guest to hilarious effect, as the enchanted household objects invite Beau to Have A Brunch. Sadly whilst the anthropomorphic teapot, clock and candlestick Beauty and the Beast fans know and love are all in attendance, Beast's talking toilet is occupied elsewhere. The musical it outrageous fun in its own right, but those especially familiar with the 1991 Disney film will enjoy the lovingly executed lampooning in the script. 

Fans of the Disney film may also recognise Madame Ouef, a townsperson who appears intermittently throughout the musical, desperately hunting for eggs. An excellent homage to the egg enthusiast seen in the film's opening number. 

Allie Monro and the cast of Beauty and the Beast: A Musical Parody
Photo credit - Nick Rutter
The cast of 5, who multirole as an assortment of familiar characters, know just how to wring every drop of comedy out of Grant and Elliot's writing. Grant herself takes on the role of Beast, who learns to overcome her self-confidence issues and let love and friendship into her life. Jamie Mawson is brilliantly funny as doe-eyed Jane Austen novel enthusiast Beau, and Allie Monro is a glorious scene stealer as Beau's bohemian, beturbaned mother 'crazy old' Maureen. Monroe is equally brilliant as La Fou Fou, the under appreciated stooge of Katie Wells' brash and preppy fox hunting enthusiast Siobhan. Meanwhile, amongst other roles, Aaron Dart is a scream as a trio of angry villagers.

Put simply, Beauty and the Beast: A Musical Parody is almost impossibly good. So funny, you'll have tears of laughter streaming down your face by the end, this production is a rip-roaring success. 

Review - Honour (Park Theatre)

Joanna Murray-Smith's Honour is a tough watch in 2018. The play, which was first performed in 1995, offers a bleak look at the deterioration of a 32 year long marriage between acclaimed journalist George and his writer wife Honour, when George meets and falls in love with ambitious up-and-coming journalist Claudia. 

Katie Brayben and Henry Goodman in Honour
Photo credit - Alex Brenner
Curiously, the play opens on a scene between Henry and Claudia, with the latter interviewing the former about about his career. The scene verves with energy, Henry's life experience feeding Claudia's hunger for success. The audience is instantly endeared the pair, as intellectual equals if not lovers, as they bounce and buffer off each other. So when George returns home and is met by the mundane predictability of his married life, for a split second the audience longs for the sparky dialogue of the previous scene. And in that moment, George's spontaneous rejection of marriage to Honour is signalled and contextualised. It's a nasty trick on Murray-Smith's part, and brilliantly directed by Paul Robinson, it works to drive a partition between the trio at the centre of the play. 

Imogen Stubbs puts on an impressive display of emotional gymnastics as Honour. One of the downfalls of Honour is that it is realistic to a fault, and Murray-Smith has characters mull over the same points, the same arguments, the same heartbreaks, again and again. Yet Stubbs brings so much truth to the titular character, and watching her navigate George's bombshell announcement and reboot her life as a response is extremely empowering.

Imogen Stubbs and Henry Goodman in Honour
Photo credit - Alex Brenner
But Honour isn't just the name of the character at the heart of Murray-Smith's play. It's also the thing which is meditated on heavily throughout. Should George honour his decades long marriage to a wife he has fallen out of love with? Looking at the play in black and white terms, the answer should be a simple yes, but the characters have more nuance than that, and so it's hard to take any character's side. 

Henry Goodman is so annoyingly charming as adulterous George that it's hard to hate him for what he does. At times it seems that even the script is keen to give him the benefit of the doubt and villainise Claudia instead. 

In fact, Honour paints a rather nasty picture of ambition in its female characters. George's wife is put down by others for losing her ambition and settling, and yet Claudia's ambition is so laser focused that she becomes rather two dimensional in her ruthlessness. Whilst Honour's love for George is based on their shared experiences and their history, Claudia seems so conniving and false in her feelings for George that her ruthlessness quickly morphs into her defining feature.

Natalie Simpson and Henry Goodman in Honour
Photo credit - Alex Brenner
You get the sense that if the play was written today Claudia might be at the centre of it, allowing for a more three dimensional study of female ambition in a male dominated profession. Katie Brayben certainly ingeniously moulds the script around the picture of a woman hardened by a sphere which refuses to embrace her ambition, and she radiates a bold addictive energy in every one of her scenes, but there's only so much she can do to humanise Claudia. 

The strength of the cast is what elevates Honour, an otherwise slightly regressive drama. It's a fascinating conversation starter of a play, and the subject matter is still very relevant today, but attitudes have changed in the 23 years since it was first performed, and a fairer exploration of what drives Claudia and George to their affair would elevate the piece enormously. 

Review - A Very Very Very Dark Matter (Bridge Theatre)

In Martin McDonagh's latest dark comedy, beloved storyteller Hans Christian Andersen is outed as a fraud. The writer of fantastical children's stories is framed a bumbling, fame hungry buffoon, whose creations are penned instead by a 'one-footed, Congolese pygmy woman' named Ogechi, or as Andersen renames her, Marjory. Much nonsense ensues, as time travelling Belgians stalk Andersen and his enslaved ghost writer, and Charles Dickens is even brought along for the ride too.

Jim Broadbent in A Very Very Very Dark Matter
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan
The elements of a parodic romp are all present, but unfortunately the story is weighed down by too much padding which aims for daring and provocative, but lands somewhere a bit closer to mind bogglingly scattergun and, at times, downright insensitive.  

From the very beginning, A Very Very Very Dark Matter feels unfocused. Tom Waits cameos as a prerecorded narrator, rumbling out some slow, teasing narration, as a small box is revealed on stage, surrounded by a cluttered mess of puppets, toys and other random artifacts. Inside the box sits Ogechi, the author of every one of Andersen's greatest works, according to McDonough. Hell-bent on travelling through time to prevent the colonisation of the Congo, she sits and waits for her fate to kick into motion, writing fairy tales partially to pass the time and partially as the insistence of Andersen, her captor. 

The cast of A Very Very Very Dark Matter
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan

What is most frustrating about A Very Very Very Dark Matter is that it feels like a missed opportunity. Tonally, it balances its over-the-top dark fun very well. Jokes about Hans Christian Andersen leaving Marjory 14 sausages to eat whilst he jaunts off to London for a fortnight feel particularly apt, as they mock the performative benevolence of Andersen, and by extension, seem to hint towards the unapologetic advancement of the West running parallel to the late 19th century colonisation in the Congo.

Andersen's extended visit to the home of Charles Darwin and his foul mouthed family is also rather entertaining, thanks in no small part to the excellent combination of Phil Daniels as an exasperated Dickens and Jim Broadbent as the oblivious Andersen, who seems completely unaware of the nuisance he causes within the fractured Dickens household. Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles is also a complete delight as Ogechi, a rough and tough foil for the rather more childish, oblivious Andersen.

Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles in A Very Very Very Dark Matter 
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan
The story is just too bizarre to be meaningful though. During the nineteenth century, Europe was embroiled in all manner of atrocities around the globe, therefore it feels rather belittling to fabricate such an absurd fiction around Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Dickens, as opposed to the real life historical figures who had a real tangible hand in the colonisation of the Congo. 

A Very Very Very Dark Matter tries far too hard to come across as clever and knowing, and just ends up thoroughly confusing its audience. 

Review - Girlfriends in Concert (Bishopsgate Institute)

Every November, since the end of World War I, Remembrance Day has been observed, as a tribute to those who served in the armed forces, and way of remembering those who lost their lives. What better time, therefore, for London Musical Theatre Orchestra to revive Howard Goodall's musical Girlfriends, which follows a group of young women plucked from normality and dropped onto the front line as part of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force during World War II. 

The cast of Girlfriends in Concert 
Photo credit - Nick Rutter
The musical in concert, which played three performances at Bishopsgate Institute where LMTO is orchestra in residence, featured a large, mostly female, ensemble cast. Heading up the gang of women was Lou and Amy, a couple of pals from home who join the WAAF together. Whilst Lou takes a rather more hopeful view of the experience to begin with, Amy is much less impressed with the rather unglamourous, unforgiving military lifestyle, until Lou introduces her to pilot and self-appointed Errol Flynn lookalike Guy. Lou and Amy were played sweetly by Lucie Jones and Lauren Samuels. Both sang the score beautifully, and perfectly portrayed the youth, inexperience and hopefulness of the young WAAF women they were embodying. Meanwhile, as the love interested who tore Lou and Amy apart, Rob Houchen was vocally spectacular, inflecting his vocals with 40s inspired stylings which helped emphasise the wartime setting. Houchen and Jones' act two duet Remember You Wanted Me was a thrillingly sung high point in the concert.

Outside of the central trio, interesting characters came in all shapes and sizes; young war widow Jane, played by Bronté Barbé, was given a bleak and subtly emotional solo in the form of The Chances Are. Meanwhile Jasmin, a young women from Scotland, soured towards the WAAF and war in general after the death of her brother in action and the denial of her request for leave by her tough leader Woods (a small yet pinnacle role, played with ferocity by Lizzie Wofford). Meanwhile Natasha Barnes and Chris McGuigan played Sally and Gareth, a couple who were drawn to each other out of a need for love against a violent and unforgiving background, where every night could be their last.

The cast of Girlfriends in Concert 
Photo credit - Nick Rutter
The score, which was reworked for the concert by Goodall and Simon Nathan, was extremely evocative of the time period in which the musical was set, and conductor Freddie Tapner brought out the best in a slick orchestra packed with passionate players. A couple of jaunty band numbers such as In the Messes and Clubs offered swinging toe tapping fun. They made a drastic change from the majority of the songs with more swoony swooping melodies, shot through with streaks of wartime panic and paranoia, signalled by repetitive counterpoints and terse, clashy harmonies. The music was spine tingling at times, but did begin to feel rather repetitive. 

Outside of the excellent performances of both the cast and orchestra, Girlfriends was disappointing though. For a musical which touted itself as a celebration of women's contribution to the war effort, the plot very much centred around the men of the story, despite them being outnumbered drastically on stage by a whole host of potentially fascinating female characters. It was rather dispiriting to hear so many songs in which the girls did not much other than moon over the men. The relationships formed between the WAAFs would've been more than sufficiently interesting and enlightening, and so putting a conventional love triangle at the musicals heart felt misjudged. Perhaps this was partially due to the complete lack of book in the concert setting, which may have fleshed out the characters between musical numbers, but whatever the case, it felt like a waste of a brilliant premise. 

Review - Soldier On (The Other Palace)

Inspired by the real life stories of service men and women, Soldier On is a brutally honest look at the effect a life in the military has on a person, their friends, and their family.

The cast of Soldier On
Photo credit - Tom Grace
Soldier On takes the form of a play within a play, which sees a variety of members of the military community coming together to share their stories. Coaxed on by passionate director Harry, they share the ups and downs of their relationship with the military, and chip away at each other's stories in order to reveal the unspoken truths at the heart of each tale.

It feels right that such an intimate story, which carries a remarkable resonance and truth, is performed by a cast is made up of ex-service personnel alongside professional actors from the Soldiers' Arts Academy. The characters, a rather ragtag mix, feel extremely real and lived-in, and bolster the play's starkness excellently.

With such a large ensemble, each with their own very different history to tell, and their own problems to face, the story becomes a little formulaic at times. At the beginning of the acting company's first rehearsal they sit in a circle and each person takes it in turns to recount why they wanted to be a part of the play in the first place. The stories are all touching and knowing that they are based on real testimonial makes them really quite interesting, but as the rest of Soldier On focuses on the translation of their stories from real life to the stage, at times the plot feels a little repetitive and formulaic.

The cast are uniformly excellent, with particularly devastating performances from Ellie Nunn as Sophie, the wife of a soldier with PTSD, who is struggling to keep her family together. Her bubbly, overly smiley exterior, showcased at the very beginning when she auditions to be a part of the play singing Taylor Swift's Shake It Off, is chipped at as she opens up to her fellow castmates, as the results are extremely cutting. Nicholas Clarke is equally impressive in the dual roles of Jacko, a fellow cast mate and ex serviceman, who takes on the role of Sophie's husband Donny throughout the piece too.

Writer and director Jonathan Lewis has tapped a story which is as hopeful as it is harrowing. There's certainly no sugarcoating, but the play is full of humour and light, and whilst it tells some frankly unbelievably distressing stories, it's an ultimately very uplifting piece.