Review: The Tempest at Brockley Jack Theatre

Controlled Chaos Theatre Company aims to promote diversity in the theatre, “including giving women a chance to take centre stage in the male dominated classics”. And they don’t come much more male dominated than The Tempest, a play in which the sole female character does exactly what she’s told by her father, then falls instantly in love with the third man she’s ever seen. Controlled Chaos aren’t the first company to turn that gender imbalance on its head with an all-female production; the Donmar did it last year, setting the action in a women’s prison, and a gender-reversed production at the Brockley Jack in 2005 saw all the male roles not only played by women but actually converted to female characters.

Photo credit: Kevin Kamara

This production keeps things much simpler: the characters are still male, and there’s no framing device; the only difference is all the parts are played by women. As in any gender-blind production, it’s a welcome sight to see female actors getting a chance to take on the meatier roles that Shakespeare never thought to grant them. That said, without any context it’s not always exactly clear what purpose the all-female concept is serving, and somewhat tentative performances from some of the cast dilute the powerful statement that could have been made by placing women in these positions of authority.

However, there’s still plenty to smile about in this version of Shakespeare’s tale of revenge, romance and magic on a deserted island. After a fierce storm shipwrecks the King of Naples and his entourage, they discover the island where they’ve landed is home not only to mischievous spirits, but also to the ousted and vengeful Duke of Milan, Prospero, his daughter Miranda and his slave Caliban. As Caliban conspires with drunken newcomers Trinculo and Stephano to kill his master, Miranda meets and falls for the king’s son Ferdinand, who’s become separated from his father and the rest of their party. And while all this is going on, elsewhere on the island Prospero’s brother Antonio plots to murder the king and put his dim-witted brother Sebastian on the throne.

Photo credit: Kevin Kamara

Dylan Lincoln’s production includes live music played and sung by the cast, to produce an atmosphere of magic and mystery, and also engages particularly well with the humour in the story. Carmella Brown’s Ariel is a delight throughout, skipping around the stage doing Prospero’s bidding with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. Michelle Pittoni also stands out as Miranda, her comical wide-eyed wonder at meeting a handsome young man replaced later by horrified embarrassment as her father lectures Ferdinand about his intentions. Shereener Browne and Afsana Sayyed are good fun as Antonio and Sebastian, whispering childishly together behind the king’s back before making a hilariously clumsy attempt on his life, and Ceri Ashe and Kimberley Capero make quite the raucous double act as Stephano and Trinculo.

At just over two hours, this is an accessible and entertaining adaptation of The Tempest, a perfect introduction for those unfamiliar with the story. As to whether the show delivers on its promise of a “bold re-imagining”, I’m not sure – but there’s plenty to enjoy either way, and any production that promotes diversity on the stage deserves to be celebrated.

The Tempest is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 3rd March.


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Review: The Almighty Sometimes at The Royal Exchange

Guest review by Aleks Anders

The Royal Exchange over recent years has certainly changed its ethos in how they produce their main house productions; moving away from the comfortable, ‘bums-on-seats’ plays and musicals which were so much a part of this theatre company’s repertoire to a much more eclectic, boundary-pushing, rule-breaking, and therefore esoteric choice of productions. Even those that would traditionally be crowd-pullers, the Royal Exchange have chosen to go against the norm and challenge by cross-gender or colour-blind casting etc. So it was no surprise at all when they announced that the next play in their season was to be a Bruntwood Prize winner which tackles adolescent mental health.

The Almighty Sometimes by Kendall Feaver is a beautifully written and superbly observed piece of writing. It is honest, no punches are pulled, and yet there is great humour in there too, which serves to heighten and highlight the tensions and problems that mental health raises, especially when it concerns minors. Director Katy Rudd is right; it is one of those scripts which once you have read it you simply know you have to direct it!

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

In the world premiere production of this powerful and challenging four-hander, we see not only the inner struggles of a now 18 year old girl coming out of adolescence into adulthood, continually questioning her own mental state, caught between the perhaps unanswerable question of “what is me and what is my medication” syndrome, but we also see how her relationship and trust in both her mother, her boyfriend and her psychiatrist changes and develops over time. Her now rather fragile relationship with her mother begs questions like “Could she have done differently for me?”, “Why did she have to tell the doctors everything?”, “Was my mum or doctor always acting in my best interest?”; “What will happen if I don’t take my medication?”, “What will happen if I don’t take the doctor’s advice?”, “Did I even have a mental illness in the first place?” Indeed these same questions are being asked by her mother too, and the see-saw of their relationship is played with great passion and skill. She has been seeing the same psychiatrist since the age of 7, and they have built up a bond that could perhaps under other circumstances be called friendship; the compassion and understanding versus professionalism and correctness is played again with great understanding.

Norah Lopez Holden, no stranger to The Royal Exchange, is utterly superb as Anna, the teenager with hundreds of questions and no answers, her mood swings and her demeanour superbly measured. Another familiar face on the local circuit is Julie Hesmondhalgh playing Renee, Anna’s mother, whilst Mike Noble plays Oliver, Anna’s only real boyfriend / friend, and psychiatrist Vivienne is Sharon Duncan-Brewster.

To be honest, and without trying to sound sycophantic and gushing, the acting from all four is excellent; the chemistry between them is real, and their emotions and responses, electric.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

I do have something less positive to say though. Obviously this is only a personal reaction, but I did find that the lighting and sound detracted and misled, rather than adding and complementing. I felt very much as if I were watching a suspense thriller or similar where the background music in the film draws you in and conditions your emotional response. It was the same here, both the sound and lighting used throughout the play conditioned our emotions and told us exactly how we should be feeling and emoting at any particular point, rather than letting the wonderful words and acting affect us, each in our own way and in our own time.

The play doesn’t try to give answers or solutions to this ever-growing and contemporary issue; nor does it try to understand the problems, but with much humour and honesty simply lays the facts bare and leaves it up to the performers, director and audience to grapple with the issues in their own way. I am certain every audience member will have left the auditorium this evening with a different understanding and response to what they had just witnessed; however, what was abundantly clear was that we were all in agreement of the fact that it was exceptionally well presented by four consummate performers, and the subject was intelligently, sensitively and sensibly treated .

Certainly one of the best plays I have seen at The Royal Exchange for a long time, and a real gem of a play with a story that absolutely needs to be told.

The Almighty Sometimes is at The Royal Exchange until 24th February.

Review: The Moor at the Old Red Lion Theatre

You couldn’t get much further from the Yorkshire countryside than the bustling streets of Islington. Yet in the Old Red Lion pub theatre, a little piece of the moor is brought to life with eery authenticity in Catherine Lucie’s haunting psychological thriller. A murder mystery with a hint of the supernatural, this unpredictable tale, directed by Blythe Stewart, keeps us guessing until the very end, and beyond.

Young mother Bronagh (Jill McAusland) is threatened by her drunk, abusive partner after he sees her talking to another man at a party. The next day, she learns the other man has disappeared; not surprisingly, she soon draws her own conclusions about what kept her boyfriend Graeme (Oliver Britten) out so late. So far, so conventional. But then Bronagh’s suspicions start to develop into memories of what she saw that night, memories she relays with growing conviction to local police detective and old family friend, Pat (Jonny Magnanti). Naturally, both he and we regard her reports with equal parts suspicion and sympathy; after all, if she does have an agenda, it’s an understandable one. But does she?

Photo credit: The Other Richard

And this is where things get interesting, because Bronagh’s motivations are the biggest mystery of all. Lucie provides us with just enough detail to piece together a backstory for her central character, but stops short of supplying enough to reach any firm conclusions. We know Bronagh’s lonely, frightened, and possibly depressed following the death of her mother and birth of her baby – events that seem to have happened almost simultaneously three months earlier. But even though she frequently confides in the audience directly, it’s still impossible for us to tell if she’s making things up, having hallucinations, the victim of supernatural forces, actually telling the truth… or a combination of all four. Even when the mystery of Jordan Becker’s disappearance is solved, we’re really none the wiser as to what’s gone on; just as Bronagh reflects on alternative universes created by each choice we make, there are a multitude of possible interpretations of the play’s events, and Lucie leaves us to decide which one we think fits.

This complexity is captured beautifully in Jill McAusland’s performance as Bronagh. A small, vulnerable figure constantly on the verge of tears, at the same time there’s something deliberate and knowing in her exchanges with both Graeme and Pat that keeps us on shifting and uncertain ground. And as it turns out, the two male characters are no less complicated: Oliver Britten’s Graeme, for all his bluster and violent temper, emerges as an unexpectedly sympathetic character, while Jonny Magnanti’s kindly Pat is torn between his duties as a police officer and what is clearly a more complicated history with Bronagh and her family than either is letting on.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

Holly Pigott’s set, with a backdrop made up of rotating panels, portrays the moor as a labyrinthine world in which it’s easy to lose yourself. An ever present mist covers the stage, evoking both the wild rural landscape and the self-imposed darkness in which Bronagh and her baby daughter live.

Tense and intriguing throughout, The Moor is a skilfully constructed thriller that twists, turns and keeps us constantly questioning our own judgments. But it’s also a sensitive character study of a young woman trying to find where she belongs in a scary, isolating world – and to some extent, that’s a feeling we can all relate to.

The Moor is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 3rd March.

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: Mad as Hell at Jermyn Street Theatre

In 1977, Peter Finch won a posthumous Oscar for his career-defining appearance in Network. His award was accepted, at the insistence of the film’s writer Paddy Chayefsky, by his third wife, Eletha Finch. Despite the couple’s twelve-year relationship, a Google search reveals hardly any information about Eletha or their life together.

Adrian Hope and Cassie McFarlane aim to put that right in Mad as Hell, which charts the story of Peter and Eletha from their first encounter in a bar in Jamaica. By this time, Finch was already no stranger to scandal, and was in the throes of a messy divorce from his second wife following a well-publicised affair with Shirley Bassey. But despite its personal success, his final marriage to Eletha – who was black, illegitimate and from a working class family – proved even harder for Hollywood to swallow, a fact that enraged Finch until the day he died, and directly influenced his Oscar-winning turn as “mad as hell” newsreader Howard Beale.

Photo credit: Eddie Otchere

Stephen Hogan gives a charismatic performance as Finch, full of impotent fury and incomprehension at the refusal of society to see beyond the colour of his wife’s skin. His exchanges with Alexandra Mardell, who plays his former lover Debbie, are particularly interesting and reveal that racism isn’t simply a case of black and white; as a Liverpool-born black woman, Debbie looks down her nose at Eletha, just as Eletha later expresses disdain for Bob Marley.

But it’s Vanessa Donovan who steals the show as Eletha; proud, determined and fiercely loyal, she’s not afraid to go after what she wants, and she stands by her man through thick and thin. This doesn’t necessarily mean she’s always likeable, or that we agree with everything she says or does – but her devotion to her husband, and her unwavering dignity in the face of a community that believes her unworthy to be at his side, are inspiring to watch.

Photo credit: Eddie Otchere

The play covers twelve years in a number of relatively short scenes that us from the sunshine of Jamaica to the grey drizzle of London (with a short stop in Switzerland for good measure). With the set itself unchanged, each new location is identified by a quick rearrangement of the furniture, with light and sound design from Tim Mascall and David Beckham to help pinpoint where in the world we are. Despite the number of scene changes and an interval, the pace of the production is brisk and doesn’t lose momentum, holding our attention throughout and ending with the Oscars speech that Eletha might well have wished she could make.

Mad as Hell may be our only chance to discover the story of Eletha Finch; she certainly doesn’t get much credit anywhere else for her important role in her husband’s life and career. No doubt Hollywood would have been proud of “allowing” her on to the stage that night in 1977, when really it should have been asking, as Paddy Chayefsky did, why she wasn’t the first choice. Equally, we could look back at Eletha’s story and feel smug at the progress we’ve made since then – or we could use it as inspiration to address all the work still to do.

Mad as Hell is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 24th February.

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Review: Monolog at Chickenshed

The first time I went to Chickenshed was just over a month ago, to see a cast of hundreds in their Christmas show, Rapunzel. My second visit, in dramatic contrast, was an altogether quieter affair: Monolog, as the name suggests, is an evening of solo performances in the intimate Chickenshed studio. Artistic Director Lou Stein has put together a programme that simultaneously celebrates two of the nation’s favourite writers – Alan Bennett and Diane Samuels – and showcases original work from new voices within the Chickenshed community.

In a twist to the format, every audience will see a slightly different show; there are six new plays altogether, but only two will be performed on any given evening. In addition, the second monologue of the night, Diane Samuels’ This Is Me, will be performed on alternate days by 15-year-old Lucy-Mae Beacock and the “somewhat older” Belinda McGuirk (I’m not being rude, that’s what it says in the programme) – who also performs the first piece, Alan Bennett’s Her Big Chance. Got all that?

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

Our particular programme began with Belinda McGuirk as Lesley in Alan Bennett’s Her Big Chance. She’s a likeable but naive actress who thinks she’s got her big break in a movie, but can’t see how she’s being manipulated into doing everything she always swore she’d never do. This is a well-timed revival of Bennett’s brilliantly written monologue – originally performed by Julie Walters for TV’s Talking Heads – which shines a light on the treatment of women in the showbiz industry, while also addressing the question (one we’re all getting far too used to hearing these days) of why any self-respecting woman would possibly choose to go along with such behaviour.

The evening continued with Lucy-Mae Beacock in Diane Samuels’ This Is Me. Less a play, more a series of snapshots, the piece is made up of snippets from Samuels’ unpublished autobiography. But – once again – there’s a twist; each memory is written on a piece of cloth and handed out to the audience, thus giving us the power to decide which stories we hear and in what order. Far from appearing daunted by the prospect of a constantly changing script, however, teenager Lucy-Mae Beacock gives an impressively assured and engaging performance. She never once hesitates or stumbles, and brings a youthful innocence to the words and memories of a woman more than three times her age.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

Of the six pieces of new writing commissioned, we were treated first to Last Piece of the Sun, created by Alesha Bhakoo, Dave Carey and Milly Rolle. A deceptively light-hearted opening leads us quickly into rather more serious territory, as a young woman in her 20s reflects on the life-changing consequences of a one night stand. The short piece is beautifully performed by Alesha Bhakoo, and packs quite the emotional punch just when we least expect it.

The final piece of this particular evening was the intriguing I Find Love in a Bin, written by Peter Dowse and directed by Tiia Mäkinen. The short piece features Sarah Connolly as a woman who has, quite literally, just found love in a bin at Waterloo Station. The discovery both delights and troubles her, and sparks a flurry of questions and emotions; she has no idea whose love it is, and knows only that it doesn’t belong to her – however much she might want it to.

Both of these new pieces will be performed again – though not necessarily together – as the run continues. The only downside of the mix and match format is that we don’t get to see all six, although hopefully there’ll be further opportunities in the future to see the ones we missed: Dinner With My Dead Dad, Sands of Time, The Creature in the Dark and Walls Like Paper.

Where Rapunzel was big, loud and colourful, Monolog proves that a good story well told by a single voice can have just as big an impact as a stage full of people. More than that, though, the show is an exciting opportunity to see the talent being nurtured within the Chickenshed community. A thoroughly entertaining – and unique – evening.

Monolog is at Chickenshed until 3rd March.


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… 😉