Review: Lately at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre

Proforça Theatre’s Lately finally opened this week at the Lion and Unicorn over a year later than planned (because Covid), and now with two casts instead of one (because, well, Covid). It’s the story of best friends Callum and Alison – better known as Cal and Alf – and movingly explores their opposing mindsets as they approach adulthood: Alf can’t bear the thought of staying in their uninspiring home town, while Cal literally can’t imagine being anywhere else. Having been inseparable for years, how will they reconcile such different visions for their future, and can their friendship survive it?

Photo credit: Proforça Theatre Company

While avoiding plot spoilers, it seems reasonable – necessary, even – to mention that the play deals very sensitively with issues around mental health, but to say that Lately is only a story about depression would be to do it a massive disservice. Ultimately it’s about the relationship between the two characters; a relationship that’s difficult to define and often far from perfect, but always real and meaningful. This comes across in the performances of Fred Wardale and Gabrielle Nellis-Pain (the cast at the performance I saw), who interact in exactly the relaxed, effortless way you’d expect from two best friends who are completely comfortable in each other’s company. Both Cal and Alf have their own private demons to fight, but when they’re together they feel like an unbeatable team. And although the audience knows – or at least suspects – how their story will end, those moments where it’s just the two of them against the world are incredibly powerful to watch, just as the feeling of isolation when they’re apart is almost overwhelming.

Director David Brady keeps the set minimal, opting to add scale and depth to the production through the use of video projections, sound and lighting. This, together with James Lewis’ evocative script, allows the audience to feel totally immersed and to clearly visualise the nondescript “Shithole-on-Sea” described by the characters, while at the same time leaving enough unsaid that each of us can imagine the same events unfolding in our own home towns, to people we know, or even recognise experiences we’ve been through ourselves. The characters and their situation are infinitely relatable, and though the decision to have two casts may originally have been a logistical one, it would be fascinating to see how the other two actors – Matt Wake and Lauren Ferdinand, who perform on alternate days – approach bringing these characters and their story to life.

Photo credit: Proforça Theatre Company

At just an hour long, Lately is short but sweet, with writing, direction and performances of the highest quality. Written as it was before Covid hit, the play doesn’t directly address the pandemic, but the emotions it portrays – loneliness, loss and a longing for escape – are feelings audiences will relate to perhaps even more powerfully given the extraordinary events of the past eighteen months.

Lately is at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 18th September.

Review: Don’t Send Flowers at White Bear Theatre

It’s not easy to talk about death… but unfortunately for the three characters in Emily Garside’s Don’t Send Flowers, they don’t get a choice. A series of encounters between Grace (Karen Barredo), Joanne (Kathryn Haywood) and Louis (Kyle Matson) begins in their therapist’s waiting room, but the conversations they have elsewhere prove to be just as beneficial – especially the ones that involve cake.

We know early on that Don’t Send Flowers is not going to have a happy ending. Eight years after first being diagnosed with a brain tumour, Joanne’s getting her affairs in order after receiving the news that nobody wants to hear. Grace is struggling to deal with the imminent loss of her dad, and Louis is realising that all his years of medical training haven’t come close to preparing him for the harsh reality of watching someone he loves slowly dying from cancer. Subject matter like this could easily have made for a thoroughly depressing couple of hours, but in fact Don’t Send Flowers is quite the opposite; of course it’s a sad story, but at the same time it’s also surprisingly funny and heartwarming, and above all, it feels genuine. Writer Emily Garside has described the play as deeply personal, and it really shows. There’s nothing formulaic about the characters or how they respond to what they’re going through – often the story doesn’t go in the direction you expect, but those twists and turns don’t feel forced, and references to the likes of Friends and Andrew Lloyd Webber make it all that bit more relatable (well, to me, at least).

That credibility also comes across in the production, directed by Jess Frieze, with three excellent performances from Karen Barredo, Kyle Matson and Kathryn Haywood. The dynamic between the characters is compelling, but so too are the moments where they turn away and speak directly to the audience, giving us brief glimpses into the therapy sessions where they reveal the truths they can’t say to each other. Again, these moments flow seamlessly as part of the action, never taking us out of the story but rather adding an extra layer of depth and meaning to it. This is enhanced by the set, which consists of a chaotic jumble of pictures, notes, articles, flyers – each of which has its own unique significance within the story.

As the title suggests, the play’s central theme is how we deal with death – both before and after it actually happens – and the understanding that everyone reacts differently because, just as with the art that Joanne loves so much, there is no right or wrong way to look at it. Laughing, crying, raging, eating cake, getting drunk, having sex, putting your dead loved one’s ashes in a bag for life… they’re all acceptable responses, especially if they help. And maybe that’s why, far from leaving the theatre feeling depressed or anxious, it’s more likely that you’ll walk away feeling uplifted (though I can’t promise there won’t also be tears). Don’t Send Flowers is a really thoughtful and enjoyable piece of new writing, sensitively presented by a talented team, and definitely one to check out this week if you can get along to the White Bear.

Don’t Send Flowers is at the White Bear Theatre until 5th September.

Review: Dorian A Rock Musical (online)

It’s been a long road for Dorian A Rock Musical. Following a gala performance at London’s Café Royal, it was due to open at The Other Palace back in March 2020, was twice postponed due to lockdown and finally cancelled altogether when the theatre was put on the market. Undeterred, however, Ruby in the Dust turned their attentions to producing a filmed version to be streamed online, which has allowed the show to finally reach audiences this weekend.

Photo credit: Stream.Theatre

Taking Oscar Wilde’s classic story and giving it a modern twist, the production introduces us immediately to Dorian (Bart Lambert), a young man trying to shake off the scandalous circumstances of his birth and find love and acceptance in an unfamiliar world. Painter Basil Hallward (Lewis Rae), infatuated with the young man, offers to paint his portrait – a proposal that ultimately throws Dorian into the path of the dangerous, charismatic record producer Lord Henry (John Addison). Excited by the hedonistic world of rock stardom that Henry shows him, and troubled by the thought that the portrait’s beauty will mock him as he ages, Dorian offers his soul in exchange for eternal youth. As the years pass, the painting will reflect his true nature, while Dorian himself will remain young and beautiful forever – but the deal fails to bring him the fulfilment he so desperately craves.

Among a number of strong performances, Bart Lambert proves a great choice to play Dorian, capturing both the innocence and the ignorance of youth, and really taking us on a journey with the character. His cruel disdain for both Basil and Sybil Vane (Fia Houston-Hamilton) is painfully believable, but so too is his desperate cry following Sybil’s death that he wants to “be good”. John Addison, Lewis Rae and Fia Houston-Hamilton stand out as three very different representations of love in Dorian’s search for perfection, and there’s great work too from Johanna Stanton as the unhappy Lady Henry.

Photo credit: Stream.Theatre

As a filmed production, the show works well enough, although I hope it does eventually make it to a live stage so that audiences can experience first hand the atmosphere that the team have evidently worked hard to create. Dorian was filmed as an immersive production, and as an audience member it’s hard to immerse yourself fully when there’s a screen in the way. That said, there are moments that capture us even at a distance – the opening number, in which Dorian mourns for his long-lost mother, is a good example – and reveal the show’s potential should a live performance be possible one day. The themes and language of the source material are well incorporated in Joe Evans’ music, and Linnie Reedman’s script makes Wilde’s story accessible to a 21st century audience without over-simplifying it – there are certainly a number of unanswered questions as the final credits roll, though whether this is deliberate or not is unclear.

On the whole, Dorian is a creative take on a well-known story, and while this format doesn’t entirely do it justice, given everything that’s happened up to this point, just getting it to audiences at all is an achievement that’s worthy of recognition. With strong input on all sides from cast and creatives, hopefully this isn’t the end of the road for this promising production.

Dorian A Rock Musical is available to watch online at Stream.Theatre until 12th August.

Review: From Here at Chiswick Playhouse

“Where do you see yourself in five years?” is the ultimate impossible interview question. Do you go for the ambitious answer, or the humble one? Tell the truth, or make something up? And what if you just don’t really know where you want your life to go? Five years is a long time, after all – and there’s always the possibility that however set your plans are, something like a global pandemic could come along to derail them completely. (To hammer home this point, at the performance of From Here I attended, two cast members and the lighting operator had just been pinged to isolate, leaving the writers and the producer to step in and take their respective places.)

Photo credit: Lucy Gray

The impossible “five years” question is posed to each of the characters in Ben Barrow and Lucy Ireland’s excellent new musical From Here – and each has a different answer. The song-cycle tells a number of different stories about people at pivotal moments in their lives: making a new friend, falling in love, losing a parent, coping with mental health struggles… and asks whether it’s better to focus our efforts on getting the happy ending we’ve always wanted, or to be constantly on the lookout for something new – or perhaps something in between.

While the show doesn’t have a traditional plot – focusing on telling many short stories about many different people as opposed to one long one about a few – it does follow a relatively linear timeline, taking its characters from childhood, to leaving home, finding a career, getting married, having kids, and grappling with the ups and downs of adulthood as the years pass. This means that it has something for everyone, whichever stage of life we’re currently at. Sometimes the stories are funny – like when Person 3 (Andrew Patrick-Walker) declares his love for his co-worker, Person 1 (Grace Mouat) on a busy tube. Sometimes they’re heartwarming – like when Person 4 (Ben Barrow, covering for Aidan Harkins) takes Person 2 (Lucy Ireland, covering for Nicola Espallardo) back to where they had their first date, to ask a very important question. And sometimes they’re heartbreaking – Person 2 is a betrayed wife, Person 1 a bereaved daughter, Person 3 a man paralysed by fear of showing his true self to the person he loves. This patchwork of stories covers a broad spectrum of human emotion and experience, making it not just great entertainment but also incredibly relatable.

Photo credit: Lucy Gray

The score reflects the same variety of tone, with upbeat comedy numbers sitting comfortably alongside emotional ballads, and short passages of spoken word poetry interspersed among them. Like any musical, some of the songs are catchier than others, but there are certainly one or two you’ll find yourself humming the next day, and while the three-person band for this production (led by musical director Ian Oakley) do an amazing job, it’s easy to imagine the show and its score performed on a much larger scale.

With so many productions simply unable to continue due to company members being forced into isolation, it’s fortunate that From Here was in a position to draft in substitutes at the last minute, and the performance was able to go on. Life may not be how we imagined it just now, but it’s comforting to know that when we do finally get out of this mess, British musical theatre will be well represented.

From Here is at Chiswick Playhouse until 7th August.

Review: Wolves Are Coming For You at Jack Studio Theatre

The first in-house production at the Jack Studio since The Invisible Man back in late 2019, Wolves Are Coming From You by Joel Horwood is a story about a small community forced to pull together against an invisible but potentially deadly threat – making it a particularly timely choice after the year we’ve all just lived through.

Photo credit: Davor @ The Ocular Creative

Two players (Brigid Lohrey and Grace Cookey-Gam) introduce us to a cast of small-town characters who are living their everyday small-town lives – until someone sees a wolf. Or did they? As the story spreads through the town over the following 24 hours, each of the characters is forced to confront their own demons and decide whether to fight or flee. And as the sun rises the following day, each of them is different in some way from the person they were the day before. Whether the wolves actually existed, we’ll never know – but they’ve served their purpose nonetheless.

Despite the large number of characters – from an elderly farmer terrified of succumbing to dementia, to a bumbling local policeman who nobody ever takes seriously, to a teenager afraid to tell her overprotective mother she wants to be a dancer – director Kate Bannister simply but clearly differentiates each from the next. Brigid Lohrey and Grace Cookey-Gam excel at portraying these different personalities, often with split-second changes from one to another, with a slight change of posture, accent or the addition of a single piece of clothing telling us instantly who we’re looking at.

Photo credit: Davor @ The Ocular Creative

As ever, the Jack Studio team have put together a high-quality production, with light and sound design from Robbie Butler and Philip Matejtschuk respectively creating real atmosphere and tension as the night draws in on this rural community. Karl Swinyard’s attractive woodland set completes the illusion, with projections setting the scene in different locations as the action moves across town.

Wolves Are Coming For You can’t in fairness be described as an action-packed play; though there certainly is an element of suspense and danger, and there are moments of drama, the focus is never really on the wolves that may or may not be stalking the town, but on those living within it. But that lack of action in itself is what makes the play interesting, because it reminds that it doesn’t take a wolf to plunge someone into crisis – they may already be there, and they may not even realise it themselves yet. With Covid dominating all our lives for so long now, this feels like an important lesson to remember. A welcome return for the Jack’s in-house team; let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 18 months for the next one.

Wolves Are Coming For You is at Jack Studio Theatre until 17th July.