Review: Murder, She Didn’t Write at Leicester Square Theatre

It’s not often you get to start a review of a murder mystery by revealing whodunnit, but here goes: it was Scarlett, in the cattery, with a seatless unicycle (I’ll leave the gory details to your imagination). And I can tell you all this with a clear conscience because Murder, She Didn’t Write from Bristol-based improv company Degrees of Error is, by its very nature, different every time. It’s also extremely silly, slightly nonsensical and very, very funny.

Going in, the cast know as much as we do – that someone’s about to die, and that someone else dunnit. The details of where and how are provided by the audience at the start of the show, while the identities of killer and victim are surreptitiously selected by “Jerkins”, a.k.a. an unsuspecting member of the audience drafted in to play Detective Genevieve Foxcroft’s incompetent assistant. (Nothing to be alarmed about if you’re averse to a bit of audience participation – it’s a crucial but not particularly demanding role.)

Photo credit: Jamie Corbin

Equipped with the bare bones, the cast of six (on this occasion Peter Baker, Lizzy Skrzypiec, Tessa Gaukroger, Tom Bridges, Caitlin Campbell and Rachael Procter-Lane – accompanied by musical director Sara Garrard on piano) spend the next couple of hours working their magic live on stage, rapidly pulling out of the hat a convoluted tale about some clowns and a taxidermist who are, naturally, invited to celebrate a cat’s birthday. It doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, but it’s not like anybody’s there looking for a coherent plot. What we want – and what we get – is to see a talented cast of comedy actors adapting to every bizarre new twist, whilst doing their best to put each other off their stride at every possible opportunity.

Unsurprisingly, there’s no shortage of running jokes, particularly inspired at this show by the helpful audience suggestion of a cat’s birthday, which proved to be the source of exactly as much innuendo as you might imagine. We also got recurring gags about the dubious merits of being French, an extremely flimsy broom cupboard, the correct way to pronounce Bicester, and the ever-increasing age of two of the characters (who certainly didn’t look like they were in their eighties…) Some lines work better than others, but that’s to be expected and forgiven in a show of this kind; besides, the pace of the show is such that any awkward moments are quickly forgotten, and/or plunged into darkness with expert comic timing by lighting designer Alex Hoyle.

Like any ingenious magic trick, you can’t help but wonder from time to time just how they do it. But there are no smoke and mirrors here; although we have to assume some kind of framework exists before the show begins, the crowd-pleasing success of Murder, She Didn’t Write lies with the quick thinking of a clever and extraordinarily versatile cast.

And Jerkins, obviously.

Murder, She Didn’t Write returns to Leicester Square Theatre on Sunday 18th November. For other dates and venues, visit degreesoferror.com.

Preview: Come From Away touches down in Europe

2019 looks set to be more than a little exciting in the West End, with Broadway hits Dear Evan Hansen and Waitress among the shows heading to London over the coming months. This week saw the European launch at Canada House of another American import: multi-award winning Come From Away, the story of a small town in Newfoundland that took in thousands of passengers stranded by the 9/11 terror attacks.

Written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, Come From Away will have its European premiere at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin from 6th December to 19th January, before taking up residence at London’s Phoenix Theatre from 30th January.

On September 11th, 2001, as news broke of the terror attacks in the States, U.S. airspace was closed, leaving 7,000 people on planes with nowhere to go. Landing in Newfoundland, they were taken in by the residents of Gander, who had dropped everything to get the town ready, and worked tirelessly for five days to make their unexpected guests feel at home.

It’s hard to imagine how a musical inspired by 9/11 could be uplifting, but this heartwarming and universal story, which celebrates friendship, support and resilience in the darkest of times – not to mention the unique and infectious Newfoundland spirit – has been warmly received across North America since it was first performed in Ontario in 2013. “People around the world are hungry for stories about kindness,” said writer David Hein in a video message sent to the London launch, as he and Irene Sankoff prepared for the opening of the North American tour in Seattle. “We can’t wait to share it with the world.”

Directed by Christopher Ashley, winner of the 2017 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical, the European cast includes former Wicked star Rachel Tucker as Beverley Bass, the first female captain for American Airlines, who was among those stranded in Gander. Starring alongside her will be Jenna Boyd, Nathanael Campbell, Clive Carter, Mary Doherty, Robert Hands, Helen Hobson, Jonathan Andrew Hume, Harry Morrison, Emma Salvo, David Shannon and Cat Simmons.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

The London launch concluded with cast performances of three musical numbers from the show, and even after only two days of rehearsal guests were left in no doubt that we’re in for a treat when Come From Away touches down in Europe. Get booking now for this joyous celebration of the very best of humanity – in a world that often feels a very dark place, this is exactly the kind of story we need to be sharing, and I for one cannot wait.

Book now for Come From Away at Abbey Theatre, Dublin (6th December to 19th January), and Phoenix Theatre, London (from 30th January).

Review: The Wider Earth at the Natural History Museum

Natural history comes alive in spectacular fashion in The Wider Earth – and appropriately enough, it does so in a custom-built theatre at London’s Natural History Museum. The show tells the story of 22-year-old Charles Darwin, who joins a voyage to the Americas on the HMS Beagle and returns five years later with a new theory that will change the way we see the world forever.

The production, written and directed by Dead Puppet Society’s David Morton, is jaw-droppingly beautiful in almost every way imaginable. A huge video screen projects vibrant animations depicting Darwin’s travels, while the majority of the action takes place on a huge revolve stage that doubles as both the ship’s deck and the rugged landscapes explored by the young naturalist. A gorgeous score from co-composers Lior and Tony Buchen transports us to new lands as a host of stunning puppets bring creatures great and small to life before our eyes.

Photo credit: Mark Douet

As a spectacle, the show is undeniably a hit, but this is certainly not a case of style over substance; the play itself, performed by a talented cast of seven, is a fascinating insight into the life of a man most of us imagine only as middle-aged and beardy. Charles Darwin, played by Bradley Foster, is young, idealistic and full of curiosity about the natural world. Told by his father (Ian Houghton) that he can’t go on the voyage, he sulks and complains until his friend – and future wife – Emma Wedgwood (Melissa Vaughan) takes pity on him and asks her father to intervene on his behalf. These early scenes are clearly important to establish Darwin’s character, but do mean that the story takes a little while to really get going; fortunately, our patience is more than rewarded by what follows.

An enthusiastic Darwin initially views the Beagle’s voyage as little more than an adventure, and wants only to get to Tenerife, an island he’s heard about from his friend and professor Reverend Henslow (Andrew Bridgmont). But as his horizons expand so too does his mind (and his journal) – leading him to conclusions that go against everything he’s been taught to believe: that God created all living things exactly as they are, and always will be.

Not surprisingly, Darwin’s discoveries lead him into dangerous territory with the ship’s captain, Robert FitzRoy, who believes robustly in a preordained, God-given hierarchy of living things, with (some) humans at the top. Jack Parry-Jones captures to perfection FitzRoy’s volatile temper – particularly when challenged by Darwin on his views regarding slavery – and the vulnerability of a man whose faith and sanity are being shaken to their core, not only by his friend’s theories, but also by his own failure to civilise the “savages” of Tierra del Fuego.

Photo credit: Mark Douet

For all its brilliance, the show is not without a couple of issues. There are moments, particularly when the stage is revolving, when it becomes difficult to hear the actors over the music. In addition, audience members at ground level frequently have our view of the video projections obscured by the towering set, and occasionally have to jostle to see the land-based puppets over the heads of those in front. These frustrations, however, are surprisingly easy to dismiss in the face of such overwhelming visual wonders.

As a world-renowned centre of scientific research, the Natural History Museum could not be a better place for this remarkable story to be told. Combining entertainment with education, The Wider Earth takes us on a magical journey of discovery and adventure – who knew learning about science could be so much fun?

The Wider Earth is at the Natural History Museum until 30th December.


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Dracula at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Following the smash hit success of The White Rose earlier this year, Arrows & Traps return to more familiar territory with a brand new reimagining of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Adaptations of literary classics is where the company began, and for long-time fans of their work, this deliciously entertaining production feels a little like coming home.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ the Ocular Creative

Adaptations of classic horror stories have a tendency to go one of two ways – either full-on terror, or spoof humour. Writer and director Ross McGregor charts his own unique course between these two options, bringing us a story which is both very funny and pretty scary in almost equal measure. The novel sets the scene through letters exchanged between solicitor Jonathan Harker (Conor Moss) and his fiancée Mina (Beatrice Vincent), and between Mina and her friend Lucy (Lucy Ioannou), and the play adopts the same style in its opening scenes, quickly introducing all the key characters and locations before immersing us in Stoker’s chilling tale. Slightly overlapping scenes ensure that the action keeps moving along at a brisk pace, building up to a fiendishly clever twist that diverts from the novel by allowing Mina to choose for herself how her story ends.

This, of course, is no accident; there’s a refreshingly modern flavour to the language and the attitudes throughout the play, and nowhere is this more evident than in its portrayal of the female characters. There’s no such thing as a damsel in distress in this story, and even in their moments of greatest peril, Mina and Lucy – both targeted by Dracula on his arrival in England – aren’t about to sit quietly around waiting for the menfolk to save them, any more than they’ll let anyone tell them earlier in the story who they should or shouldn’t marry. Meanwhile, the maniac Renfield (Cornelia Baumann) – in this adaptation also a woman – may be in thrall to Dracula, but despite the persistent efforts of Dr Seward (Alex Stevens), it’s Mina with whom she finally makes enough of a connection to withstand her master’s power.

Part of the fun of being an Arrows regular is seeing familiar actors taking on completely different roles, and always getting it right. Christopher Tester – last seen as the quietly conflicted Gestapo officer Mohr in The White Rose – wields power of a very different kind as Dracula, oozing charisma and menace as he seduces men and women alike; it’s not difficult to see why everyone ends up doing his bidding. Conor Moss and Alex Stevens (joined by returning Arrows Oliver Brassell and Andrew Wickes) go from fighting Nazis to taking down vampires – albeit with a touch less dignity – while Beatrice Vincent and Lucy Ioannou are drawn to the charms of the dark side, in stark contrast to the resolute strength of German resistance fighters Traute Lafrenz and Sophie Scholl. Finally, Cornelia Baumann’s performance as Renfield is a work of genius; a hunched figure with a vacant grin, she’s simultaneously vulnerable and dangerous, and undeniably mad but with moments of lucidity (and some cracking one-liners) that make her seem like easily the sanest person in the room.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ the Ocular Creative

As with any Arrows show, everything about the production is visually stunning: Odin Corie’s costumes are beautiful, the spooky castle set designed by Francine Huin-Wah not only looks the part but proves unexpectedly versatile, and the brilliantly atmospheric lighting design from Ben Jacobs sets us up more than once for a bit of a scare. Even the final violent moments of Act 1 end up looking amazing, thanks to the expert contribution of movement director Will Pinchin (and a lot of fake blood).

As someone who’s avoided horror-based theatre ever since being good and traumatised by The Woman in Black when I was fourteen (not to mention an earlier visit to The Dracula Experience on a family holiday to Whitby), I had my doubts about going to see a show billed as “a spine-chilling masterpiece of fear”. But while the show is certainly not for the faint-hearted, it’s also unexpectedly funny and a brilliant piece of storytelling. Devilishly good entertainment from Arrows & Traps – don’t miss it.

Dracula is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 27th October, then on to the Mill Studio at Yvonne Arnaud from 1st-3rd November.

Review: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City at Finborough Theatre

Cancer is no laughing matter… or is it? In the European premiere of Halley Feiffer’s play, which for the sake of brevity let’s call A Funny Thing Happened, we’re respectfully invited to see the humorous side of an incredibly serious situation.

Karla’s mum has cancer. So does Don’s. She’s a stand-up comedian with abandonment issues. He’s a divorced millionaire with a “sea foam green” apartment he can’t bring himself to live in. The first time they meet, she’s working aloud on a comedy routine about her vibrator, and he – not entirely without justification – is appalled. They have nothing at all in common besides the two women sleeping quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) in the beds beside them, but that single shared experience is enough to spark a surprising connection.

Photo credit: James O Jenkins

The vibrator jokes, as it turns out, are just the tip of the iceberg – but despite the ever-present gallows humour, there’s something very uplifting about this story of two unlikely companions working their way together through a devastating situation. It’s an unconventional, sometimes undignified and often wildly inappropriate journey – but does that mean they’re doing it wrong?

As Karla and Don, Cariad Lloyd and Rob Crouch have great on-stage chemistry, showing us multiple sides of each character as the dynamic of their relationship shifts. Just as in real life, there are moments when they each know exactly what to say or do to make the other feel better – but equally there are occasions where Feiffer acknowledges that there simply aren’t adequate words to make sense of what they’re going through.

On paper, Kristin Milward and Cara Chase have a lot less to do as the mums, Marcie and Geena, who spend most of their time sleeping – but their presence (and occasional contributions) become a vital backdrop to both the story and the characters within it. When Marcie wakes up, about halfway through the play, it’s quite a curveball; very quickly we have a much clearer understanding of why Karla is the way she is, but we also have to face up to the inconvenient truth that nobody wants to say aloud – not all cancer patients are nice people.

Photo credit: James O Jenkins

Isabella van Braeckel’s set recreates the hospital environment down to the last detail; I could swear I caught a whiff of disinfectant in the air on the way in. The long curtain that spans the stage, shielding the patients from view, cleverly doubles up to do the same for the actors during a couple of fairly lengthy scene changes.

Terminal cancer is of course, in itself, not at all funny – and even less so in the States, where the cost of healthcare in a time of crisis only makes an unbearable situation even worse. A Funny Thing Happened respects that, and knows when to stop joking around and take itself seriously; the final scenes, in particular, are sensitively written and poignantly portrayed. In fact, the subject is so well handled that audiences are more likely to be offended by the foul-mouthed content of the jokes than the fact that jokes are being made in the first place. Cancer might be a formidable opponent, and it may well get the better of us eventually – but, as this play proves, that doesn’t mean we can’t have a big old laugh in its face first.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City is at Finborough Theatre until 27th October.


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉