Review: The Play With Speeches at Jack Studio Theatre

“Complicated, isn’t it?” says one of the characters early on in James Woolf’s The Play With Speeches – and they’re not wrong. As writer Anthony (Matthew Parker) sits down with director Penny (Katherine Reilly) to audition actors for his new play, they discover to their surprise that someone’s been selling tickets, and now they have an audience (us). To make things more complex, the play itself is made up of audition speeches from a selection of fictional works which, when read in the right order, tell an original story. And so we find ourselves an unexpected audience to actors who are auditioning by reading audition speeches which are also part of the play they’re auditioning for. Complicated, isn’t it?

Photo credit: Bec Newman

Fortunately, this play within a play within a play (I think?) is also very entertaining, made even more so by the fact that Anthony and Penny used to be a couple, and are now very much not one. As the evening goes on, and Anthony warms to our presence in his audition room, more and more details are “ventilated” about their relationship and its messy conclusion, and it becomes obvious just how much his work has been influenced by his bitterness towards his ex. Meanwhile a series of hapless actors try out for a part; all of them are very good, so any decision on whether they will or will not be selected is based purely on the whim of the panel – and as we quickly discover, neither is shy about voicing their opinions or making snap judgments.

The surprisingly extensive cast of nine are all excellent, with stand-out performances in particular from “auditionees” Anna Blackburn as the flirtatious Bambina and Camilia O’Grady as a panic-stricken Alice. Jumaane Brown is also brilliant as Anthony and Penny’s harried assistant Nick (also known, it transpires, as Jez) and Katherine Reilly – who, as if the production wasn’t meta enough already, also co-directs with Ursula Campbell, who herself plays auditionee Michaela – exudes the perfect amount of weary resignation as Penny, in direct contrast to her flamboyant collaborator. But the stage belongs, just as his character would wish, to Matthew Parker, who is clearly having the time of his life as the pompous, conceited Anthony. His every overblown gesture and exaggerated facial expression lifts the comedy to a new level, and by the end of the show he’s even managed to make the awful Anthony into a sympathetic figure who has the audience (almost) completely on his side.

Photo credit: Bec Newman

The play is essentially made up of one long scene, and its brisk pace rarely falters – with the exception of one awkward moment where a volunteer from the audience is called for, and everyone automatically looks away. Apart from that, the laughs come thick and fast, with several jokes directly poking affectionate fun at the theatrical process and the people who take part in it. The Play With Speeches is a clever, multi-layered comedy that provides instant humour but also plenty to try and wrap your brain around on the journey home. All in all, it’s good, silly fun with a fantastic central performance. What’s not to love?

The Play With Speeches is at the Jack Studio Theatre until 4th March.

Review: A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Theatre… at Chickenshed

Returning to the Chickenshed studio for 2023, the North London theatre’s annual showcase of new writing focuses this year on the theme of storytelling. Unlike previous years, there’s no single opportunity to see all nine plays in one go, so each performance consists of four or five short pieces, each very different but all equally promising, which take the audience on a rollercoaster of emotions. Last night I saw four: Feedback by Sebastian Ross, All Too Seeing by Idil Aydinli, My Mother Once Asked Me by Sara Chernaik and Dark Immortal by Cathy Jansen-Ridings.

First up was Feedback, in which the successful but wildly insecure writer and director (Daryl Bullock) of a five-star, smash hit play happens to get stuck in a lift with the one person who was underwhelmed by her “experience” (Ellie Morton). As a reviewer, the play presents a slightly nerve-wracking scenario – although in this case, the dissenting voice isn’t a critic but just a regular member of the public who found herself at the theatre by chance. She can’t understand why her opinion matters so much in the face of such critical acclaim, and he’s convinced she must have an ulterior motive for slandering his creation – well, that or she’s just too stupid to understand it. Under Beth Fox’s direction, the broken down lift predicament heightens the tension nicely, and although the piece in general is very funny, it also asks some really interesting questions about the nature of criticism and who deserves to have a voice when discussing art.

All Too Seeing by Idil Aydinli. Photo credit: Elia Criscuoli

All Too Seeing, which is written, directed and performed by Idil Aydinli, is an extraordinarily powerful piece about a young woman who’s spent years cultivating a public persona as the life and soul of the party, the epitome of confidence and competence. But behind the scenes things are very different, and as she struggles to come to terms with a recent loss, she realises that perhaps her secrets are no longer hidden from the one person whose opinion always mattered the most. As the play goes on, the lines between her two world begin to blur, and it becomes harder to distinguish what’s really happening from what she wants us to see. It’s incredibly well written and performed, and the direction is extremely clever; this definitely feels like a piece that could go on to bigger things.

My Mother Once Asked Me is in some ways similar, in that it also looks at how we deal with loss, but presented very differently. Directed by Paul Harris, the protagonist (Julie Wood) greets us from her armchair, where she sits reflecting on a conversation she once had with her mother. This memory sparks another, and another – building up into a patchwork of nostalgia that ricochets from one story to the next. The play doesn’t flow in the usual narrative sense, and can at times get a bit confusing as we try to remember if we’ve heard of this person before, or what the connection was with that name. But ultimately, it all comes together in quite a lovely way, with a reminder that though we may lose loved ones, they’re never really gone, and that how we choose to remember them is a deeply personal choice.

Our evening concluded with the delightfully silly Dark Immortal. Directed by Sebastian Ross, it’s easily the most ambitious of the four pieces I saw in terms of effects and costumes, and sees a depressed Dracula (Paul Harris) realising that immortality may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Luckily his loyal and long-suffering servant Ana-Marjena (Sarah Driver) has a plan, and calls on her friend Gabriel D’Angelo (Benedict Lawson) to try and cheer her boss up. Unsurprisingly, things don’t turn out quite as she intended – but even in the presence of pure evil, there are plenty of laughs to be had as Gabriel gamely soldiers on in his attempts at therapy. I can imagine this piece being developed into a longer show; I’d definitely watch it, as there’s bags of potential in the dysfunctional relationships between the characters, and it felt like we were only just getting to know them when the play ended.

Dark Immortal by Cathy Jansen-Ridings. Photo credit: Elia Criscuoli

I can’t speak for the remaining five pieces*, but if their quality is as good as those I saw last night, anyone seeing them is set for a great evening. As ever it’s fascinating to see how different writers interpret the same theme, through laughter or tears, fantasy or deeply personal reality. And it’s good too to see the annual performance of new writing at Chickenshed continuing to grow and develop from year to year. More please!

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Theatre… continues at Chickshed until 18th February.

* The other five pieces are Bullet in My Heart by Rebecca Hardy, Spectrum by Hussain Raza, Rallying Cry by Julie Dogliani, Storytelling by Carmel Gayle, and Good To Be Alive by Paul Harris.

Review: David Copperfield at Riverside Studios

As adaptations go, they don’t come a lot more ambitious than Simon Reade’s reimagining of David Copperfield. The semi-autobiographical novel by Charles Dickens is known for its expansive cast of characters, and this production sees all of them played by just three actors. Set against the backdrop of a Victorian music hall, this creative and enjoyable ride through the life of Dickens’ favourite character showcases the performers’ versatility and stamina, while providing plenty of laughs along the way.

Photo credit: Christian Davies

David Copperfield (a thoroughly engaging Christopher Buckley) narrates his own tale from birth to adulthood, introducing us to a host of colourful characters from his stern aunt Betsey Trotwood to the kind-hearted Clara Peggotty and her family, the financially incompetent Mr Micawber to beautiful Dora Spenlow. All of these and more are portrayed by Katy Owen and James Peake, who are clearly having a lot of fun as they swap gender, class and personality to bring these friends and acquaintances to life. For the most part these characterisations are easily distinguishable from each other thanks to the quick donning of a hat or a scarf, or the adoption of a particular posture or accent, and the audience quickly becomes familiar with the recurring characters as they pop up again throughout the story. This makes the production in general very accessible to all, although a couple of the characters are so extreme that it does feel like you need to know the source material to fully understand what the actors are going for.

At just two hours running time, there’s a lot of story to get through, and the pace of Emily Raymond’s production is fairly breakneck, with David seemingly going from school to home to factory to his aunt’s house all in the space of about ten minutes. The Micawbers have barely been introduced before they’re leaving again (their protracted departures becoming a running joke that ultimately begins to wear a bit thin), David’s second marriage happens literally in the blink of an eye, and even the villainous Uriah Heep only gets one scene – though that one scene is certainly memorable. That said, at certain key moments this pace does ease and the story is allowed time to breathe; the plight of the Peggotty family in Norfolk is one such example, as is Mr Dick’s “trouble” with King Charles I and his attempt to ease it by flying kites. The show is also punctuated by musical numbers, written by Chris Larner and performed by the cast with piano from musical director Tom Knowles, which add little to the plot but are catchy and enjoyable enough.

Photo credit: Christian Davies

For those not familiar with the’ novel, David Copperfield is an entertaining introduction which will make you want to go away and read it. For those who already know the story, it’s a warm welcome back to much-loved characters, and a whistlestop but faithful adaptation of the original. The production has humour and heart (not to mention a few surprises) and honours both Dickens’ creation and his love for the theatre in a charming piece of storytelling.

David Copperfield continues at Riverside Studios until 25th February.

Review: Scratches at Vault Festival

The subject of Aoife Kennan’s Scratches is a tough one for many reasons – one of which is that, for very good reasons, she can’t actually talk openly about it. And so a sort of code develops between performers and audience over the course of this courageous, devastating and yet simultaneously very funny one-hour show, in which any reference to its core topic is described only as “the Thing”.

Photo credit: Steve Gregson

If that sounds confusing or frustrating, it’s actually neither. Girl (Kennan) has been self-harming for years, ever since she was 20 when, in her own words, she “got sad”. It would be irresponsible to describe that behaviour in detail to an audience, at the risk of – even inadvertently – glorifying or encouraging it in others. Hence, the Thing. Fortunately, Aoife Kennan is an extremely good writer, capable of taking her personal experience and expressing Girl’s confused feelings and motivations without needing to get into the gory details. While not everyone in the audience will understand self-harm, most of us can relate to the emotions behind it: depression, anxiety, loneliness, loss, all of which are described by Kennan with eloquence and unflinching honesty.

Does that all sound a bit heavy-going? Well never fear, because Girl’s exceedingly fabulous Best Friend (Zak Ghazi-Torbati) is here – eventually – to provide light relief and much-needed moral support, whether that takes the form of a hug or a glitter-infused song and dance routine. Together, the pair take us through a series of events in Girl’s life, not necessarily in chronological order, and not all directly related to the play’s central topic. Through the ever versatile Best Friend, we meet Girl’s mum, dad, ex-boyfriend and others, and each event helps us piece together a little more of the story that brought her here.

Photo credit: Steve Gregson

I have no idea if they’re best friends in real life or not, but Aoife Kennan and Zak Ghazi-Torbati are a brilliant double act, to the point where it’s difficult to tell how much of their interaction is scripted and how much just sort of… happens. Best Friend’s character is written to be larger than life and scene-stealing, and Ghazi-Torbati absolutely smashes the brief – but in the end, his attention and ours always comes back to Kennan’s Girl, making sure she’s at centre stage to be heard and seen by everyone in the room. There’s genuine warmth and respect between the two, and as a result, though the show deals with some hard topics, it’s also a joyous celebration of the power of friendship; of having a shoulder to cry on, or a dance partner, or someone to join you on stage as you bare your soul to strangers. Ultimately you can’t help but leave Scratches feeling uplifted, and in awe of the courage it took to make it. Don’t be put off by the subject matter; this is a must-see.

Scratches continues at the Vault Festival until 5th February.

Review: Thirst at Vault Festival

You wouldn’t necessarily know until quite a long way into Callum Hughes’ one-man show Thirst that it’s a story about the time his frequent heavy drinking almost killed him. And that’s because it isn’t, really – far from dwelling on the negative impact of alcohol on his life, Callum chooses instead to celebrate everything he could have lost, but didn’t: his family, friends, career, music, and most of all, pubs. The result is a funny, uplifting hour of storytelling, interspersed with live songs – and while it’s certainly a bit of a cautionary tale, there’s no attempt to lecture anyone into sobriety. This is Callum’s story, and what we choose to do with it is up to us.

In fact alcohol doesn’t even get explicitly mentioned for half the show, though its involvement in many of the stories we hear is implied. Instead we learn about Callum’s parents, his sister, his best friends and his old boss, all of whom become familiar recurring characters throughout the show. We hear about the first time he performed for a live audience at his local pub in Oxfordshire, relive New Year’s Eve celebrations with friends, family and famous people, and join him in toasting the memory of award-winning director Bob Carlton. There’s a bit of audience participation too, but the atmosphere is so warm and welcoming and Callum such an engaging host that this never feels in any way threatening.

The same openness carries through when Callum begins to discuss his relationship with alcohol. Unlike many portrayals of addiction, his story isn’t a dramatic one, because alcohol never stopped him functioning. Instead he explains how it quietly became a habit, something to drown out the noise in his head, but never something he tried to hide or considered to be a problem until it was almost too late. He’s honest too about how several people tried to reach out to him about his drinking to no avail, and even when he reached crisis point, he acknowledges it was actually his sister who saved his life.

A likeable and talented performer, whose career credits go far beyond what he discusses in this show, Callum Hughes has created something special in Thirst. His story is both entertaining and highly relatable, tackling a serious topic with self-deprecating humour and concluding with an uplifting message about the joy of simply being alive. There’s no hint of self-pity or bitterness, no sense of having lost anything through giving up drinking, but rather a new appreciation for other aspects of his life alongside, despite everything, a continued fondness for the experiences that alcohol gave him. A fun but thought-provoking piece that’s definitely worth a watch – with or without a drink in your hand.

Thirst has its final performance at Vault Festival tonight (29th January) before continuing on tour.