Review: Anything Is Possible If You Think About It Hard Enough at Southwark Playhouse

Beautifully written and emotionally devastating, Cordelia O’Neill’s two-hander Anything Is Possible If You Think About It Hard Enough sensitively explores the impact of losing a child to stillbirth for a young couple, Rupert (Huw Parmenter) and Alex (Gemma Lawrence). And while the loss of a baby is an incredibly difficult thing to really understand if you haven’t been through it, the play does an exquisite job of verbalising the experience in a way that at least allows us to empathise.

Photo credit: Taz Martin

Despite the subject matter, the first half of the production is frequently laugh out loud funny as it charts the blossoming relationship between two very different personalities: Rupert is a former asthmatic who works in finance, loves his mum, and swears by a life of routine and careful planning, while Alex is a free spirit and a smoker, with complicated family relationships, who always says exactly what she thinks – even when she probably shouldn’t. On paper they make no sense at all… but a romance blossoms, a life begins, and suddenly they’re deciding what colour to paint the nursery.

Then, around halfway through the play’s 90-minute run time, their baby dies. And even though we know it’s coming, it lands like a hammer blow, such is the skill of writer Cordelia O’Neill, who’s given us just long enough to get to know Rupert and Alex and share in their excitement, and director Kate Budgen, who punctuates the horrifying pivotal scene with a long moment of silence and stillness, allowing us time to process the enormity of what’s just happened.

From here, everything that was amusing about Alex and Rupert’s quirky relationship comes back around, but in a very different way. His habit of avoiding difficult conversations, her tendency to slip into fantasy; his need to be the responsible adult, her messed up relationship with her parents. While before these were minor obstacles to be laughed off, suddenly they seem like mountains as Alex and Rupert struggle, alone and in their own way, to recover from their shared tragedy. Where before their conversations flowed easily and rapidly, now the silences between them carry far more weight, and when they do try to communicate there’s an awkwardness that we never felt before.

Photo credit: Taz Martin

From the start, the performances from Gemma Lawrence and Huw Parmenter are absolutely on the money, and despite the oddness of the pairing, there’s never a single moment where we don’t believe or feel invested in either the characters or their relationship. And when everything falls apart, both actors make the transition from comedy to tragedy seamlessly, effortlessly breaking our hearts where five minutes before they had us crying with laughter.

So fair warning, this is a very sad play that deals with an incredibly difficult subject. But it’s also an excellent production, with direction and performances that thoughtfully bring a perfectly written script to life. Highly recommended.

Anything Is Possible If You Think About It Hard Enough is at Southwark Playhouse until 9th October.

Review: Closer Than Ever (online)

First performed in 1989, Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire’s Closer Than Ever brings together more than 20 musical numbers linked not by a traditional narrative, but by the themes of life and love as seen through the eyes of a range of characters at different stages in their adult lives. This “musical revue” format comes with both benefits and drawbacks: while the variety of styles and subjects means the show has something for everyone, the absence of anything resembling a plot can make it difficult to stay focused throughout (and indeed to write a review).

Photo credit: Bonnie Britain

Fortunately, this revival from Ginger Quiff Media and BroadwayHD is available to watch online, which means not only can viewers pause whenever they feel their attention wandering or need a bathroom break, but they can also go back and re-watch any numbers that they particularly enjoy. And with a powerhouse cast comprising West End performers Lee Mead, Kerry Ellis and Grace Mouat, along with X Factor winner Dalton Harris, chances are there’ll be quite a few of those.

Over the course of 90 minutes, we hear about relationships in crisis, the perils of modern dating, unrequited love, the stress of juggling work and family, guilty secrets, and the “joy” of exercising, among others. The playlist successfully balances humour with deeper emotions of tenderness, grief and the wistful longing to know what could have happened along a path not taken. Throughout, a recurring motif of doors is reflected in both score and set, representing the choices we make every day and – for better or worse – the consequences those choices can have for the rest of our lives.

The cast, too, is well balanced, with each performer equally comfortable throwing themselves into the comedic songs as baring their soul in a quieter moment, and with voices that complement each other perfectly in group numbers. X Factor winner Dalton Harris in particular proves himself more than equal in a musical theatre setting to his more experienced co-stars, turning out some truly captivating performances – his solo numbers What Am I Doin’?, One Of The Good Guys and If I Sing are standout moments, even in a show where every cast member brings their A-game.

Photo credit: Bonnie Britain

Aside from the aforementioned ability to take a break or return to favourite songs, the digital format of Closer Than Ever has a further advantage, in that it allows every audience member to get up close to the actors and musicians, and to catch all the nuances of their performances. This feels more important in a show where each number is a story on its own, and we don’t have much time to get to know each character before moving on to the next song.

While it might not be your traditional musical, Closer Than Ever has more than enough going for it – an excellent cast, enjoyable songs and themes to which everyone can relate to some degree – to make this an extremely welcome and entertaining revival of a much-loved classic.

Closer Than Ever is available to watch online now at BroadwayHD.com.

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.