Review: The Importance of Being Earnest at Rose Theatre

Denzel Westley-Sanderson’s new production of Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy is a lot of things – fresh, modern, fast-paced. But above all else, it’s really good fun; the two hours fly by in a blink and leave you wanting to go and watch it again almost immediately. There are plenty more things to say (otherwise this would be a very short review), but that’s the main takeaway – everyone on stage and off is having a great time from start to finish.

Photo credit: Mark Senior

Wilde’s plot is complex and chaotic, full of mistaken identities, unlikely coincidences and outrageous snobbery. Jack (Justice Ritchie) is in love with Gwendolen (Adele James), the cousin of his friend Algernon (Abiola Owokonira) and daughter of the indomitable Lady Bracknell (Daniel Jacob). Algernon, meanwhile, falls for Jack’s ward Cecily (Phoebe Campbell). But despite both women returning their admirers’ affections, an “insuperable barrier” stands in the way of their unions – and it’s probably not what you might expect.

There must now be countless adaptations of The Importance of Being Earnest, a testament to the play’s enduring appeal – and even those who’ve never seen it will be familiar with such immortal phrases as “A HANDBAG?!” It’s hard to imagine how another new production could possibly bring something new, but Westley-Sanderson, while remaining true to the original text (with a couple of small tweaks for comic effect), brings a fresh perspective not only to this story but to the audience’s understanding of Black history. The casting is no gimmick; Black people lived and thrived in Britain long before Windrush, and the assumption that Wilde’s characters must automatically be white is one that can and should be challenged. The production also introduces an element of gender fluidity, most notably in the now same-sex relationship between Dr Chasuble (Anita Reynolds) and Miss Prism (Joanne Henry), a small but refreshing edit that subtly modernises the play.

Photo credit: Mark Senior

Under Westley-Sanderson’s direction, the vivacious cast – which includes two actors making their professional debut – don’t put a foot wrong. Abiola Owokonira and Justice Ritchie are a joyous comedy double act as Algernon and Jack, Phoebe Campbell’s Cecily is delightfully forward, and Daniel Jacob (aka Drag Race UK‘s Vinegar Strokes) is quite the force to be reckoned with as Lady Bracknell. Special mention also to Valentine Hanson, who plays the two butlers, Merriman and Lane – he doesn’t get a lot of lines, but proves to be an expert in physical comedy and steals more than one scene without saying a word.

Designer Lily Arnold brings us a visually sumptuous production – a versatile set hides more than one secret, and the costumes are all exquisite (Jack’s absurd mourning outfit is a particular highlight). The action moves at a rapid pace, but never leaves the audience behind; we’re all right there with the characters every step of the way – and occasionally enjoy the delicious privilege of being one step ahead of them. All in all, this is simply a hugely entertaining and joyfully silly production that it’s difficult not to fall in love with, but it’s also a thoughtful and considered adaptation of a well-known classic.

The Importance of Being Earnest is at Rose Theatre until 12th November.

Review: Daddy Issues at Seven Dials Playhouse

Written by Lewis Cornay and performed by Bebe Cave, Daddy Issues is a deceptively tough watch. It begins with a funeral for a dead dog, but before too long it becomes apparent that what this story is really about is a dead dad – and the confused, grieving daughter he left behind.

Photo credit: Helen Murray

It’s Halloween, and Imi (not Imogen) is live streaming to an initially indifferent public in memory of her late dog, Roger. As she reminisces about his tragically short life, she’s constantly interrupted by a disembodied male voice that it’s obvious only she can hear. This, we soon learn, is her father, who after years of battling depression, killed himself one year ago today. Over the course of the next hour, all Imi’s feelings of guilt, loss and anger will come spilling out for all the world to see – and it turns out the world wants to see, because as Imi falls apart, her viewer numbers finally begin to climb. Little comment is made about this, but by letting us see the numbers creeping upwards on a screen at the back of the stage, we’re allowed to draw our own conclusions about the dangers of social media, especially for the most vulnerable.

Having read the synopsis above, it may come as a surprise to learn that the play is billed as a comedy (albeit a dark one). But it’s important to note that Cornay never makes light of the play’s subject matter; all the humour – and there is plenty of it – comes from Imi herself, who makes jokes as a defence against her own darkness. This means that we like and can relate to her, and as a result what happens later in the play has a far greater emotional impact. Bebe Cave is excellent throughout, at first capturing to perfection the bright, brittle tones of someone playing to the camera, and later visibly unravelling in front of our eyes as she realises she can’t hide from reality, no matter how hard she tries.

Photo credit: Helen Murray

All the action takes place in the “granny annex” where Imi now lives, both literally and metaphorically distancing herself from the people who might be able to help her. Designer Andrew Exeter makes strong use of lighting to distinguish between Imi’s outer and inner monologues, and director Jane Moriarty has Cave very naturally cover every inch of the space, like a caged animal desperately seeking escape. With a storm brewing and the sea that played a key role in Imi’s bereavement lapping the shore just outside, the tension is palpable throughout.

Daddy Issues is a well written and brutally honest depiction of grief and depression, fuelled by a totally compelling performance which showcases all the emotions that come with bereavement, but which we may often not feel it’s appropriate to voice. Imi is falling apart while the internet watches on, but she’s also being open, perhaps for the first time, about how her dad’s suicide has affected her – and it’s in these moments that the play is at its most powerful. Not an easy watch, but well worth a visit.

Daddy Issues is at Seven Dials Playhouse until 19th November.

Review: A Single Man at Park Theatre

Based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood and adapted by Simon Reade, A Single Man follows a day in the life of George (Theo Fraser Steele), a middle-aged British professor living in Los Angeles, as he wakes, goes to work, visits a friend, has dinner with another, encounters one of his students in a bar, and finally falls into bed back at home. It’s a regular day in many ways, and yet each of these everyday activities is coloured by George’s grief following the recent sudden death of his partner Jim – even more so because, as a gay man in the 1960s, he feels unable to mourn publicly for the man he loved – and his need to try and rediscover meaning in a life that now feels empty.

Photo credit: Mitzi de Margary

A Single Man is very deliberately not an action-packed story, but the pace of Philip Wilson’s production in Act 1 is nonetheless quite brisk, taking us through the routine business of the day before settling into a slower rhythm after the interval. This makes sense, as the evening is when George has his two most meaningful encounters of the day: first, a dinner with his friend Charley (Olivia Darnley), a fellow Brit mourning a different kind of loss, and second, a seemingly chance encounter with Kenny (Miles Molan), a student with whom George feels an unexpected connection. However it also makes the earlier events feel rather throwaway – particularly his visit to see Doris (Phoebe Pryce), a young female friend who’s dying in hospital; we never see her again after her one brief appearance, and her relationship with George is never fully explained.

All five members of the cast give strong performances, with Theo Fraser Steele expertly conveying both George’s isolation and his capacity for warmth – though, intentionally or otherwise, his close similarities to Colin Firth (who played the role in Tom Ford’s 2009 movie adaptation) are so prominent that they can at times become distracting and invite unnecessary comparisons. Olivia Darnley is excellent as Charley, masking her own fragility behind a lighthearted facade, Miles Molan makes an impressive professional debut as both Kenny and Jim, and Phoebe Pryce and Freddie Gaminara provide versatile support as various other characters George comes into contact with throughout his day.

Photo credit: Mitzi de Margary

Caitlin Abbott’s powerfully versatile set provides just enough to give us an idea of our surroundings, but is ultimately dominated by a large concrete block which ensures no matter where George goes, death is never far from his, or the audience’s, thoughts. There’s little of California in the set design, and yet through George’s eloquent descriptions, the city of LA almost becomes another character – one to which he clings because to leave it would be to leave behind the life he shared with Jim.

Those who are familiar with Isherwood’s novel (or Ford’s movie) will be better placed to discuss the quality of this particular adaptation – but for those who are new to George’s story, this is a high quality production that sensitively explores the insidiousness and loneliness of grief. Aspects of the plot may sit uncomfortably for a 21st century audience, but the play’s central themes remain as relevant as ever.

A Single Man is at Park Theatre until 26th November.

Review: Apples in Winter at the Playground Theatre

Miriam’s making an apple pie for her son. She’s made it countless times before – when he was a child, a teenager and a man… but this time is different. This time she’s in a prison kitchen, preparing the pie that her son’s requested as a final meal before his execution. As a clock ruthlessly ticks down the minutes on the wall behind her, Miriam pours all her hurt and grief into the last thing she’ll ever do for the child she loved, lost and found again only when it was too late to save him.

The premise of Jennifer Fawcett’s play is hard-hitting enough, but in the right hands it becomes absolutely devastating – and it’s hard to imagine hands more right than those of actor Edie Campbell. What’s important about Miriam is that she’s a nice lady, one you’d never expect to find in these circumstances, and Campbell radiates warmth and kindness from the moment she appears on stage. We like her, and so when her mask slips and we glimpse the pain beneath the smile, we feel it too. And as her reflections build gradually to a crescendo of rage and despair – against the system, against her son, and most of all against herself – we feel every single moment of it with her. It’s upsetting for all sorts of reasons, but largely because Miriam could be anyone’s mother; if such a horrific thing can happen to her, why not to any of us?

Whatever your views about the death penalty going in, it’s hard to watch Apples in Winter and not come away from it feeling sickened by a system that claims to offer justice but in fact does the exact opposite. 22 years after his crime, it’s difficult to think what Robert’s death can possibly achieve besides causing more suffering to more people, perpetuating a cycle of violence and revenge that should have ended long ago. And it’s hard to imagine what kind of life his mother will be going back to after today, knowing everything that she’s lost, and is about to lose, as a result of her son’s crime and punishment. The pie – prepared and baked on stage during the performance – might be perfect but everything else is shattered beyond repair, and the play’s last line, spoken with a heartbreaking finality, leaves the audience sitting in stunned silence for several moments after the lights go down.

I could probably write an essay on the quality of Fawcett’s writing, which is both sensitive and brutal in its exploration of a difficult topic. It raises so many points about not only the death penalty, but about family, and loss, and the failings of a society that drives people to crime and then denies them any opportunity for redemption. Director Claire Parker lets these words breathe, punctuating the production with moments of silence that give Miriam time alone with her thoughts, and the audience a chance to digest and process what we’ve heard. The play is also followed every evening by a post-show discussion, which provides further opportunity to explore the themes and impact of the play.

All I can really say about Apples in Winter is that it’s really, really good, with an immensely powerful one-woman performance from Edie Campbell that will leave you feeling shaken and devastated and furious. An absolute must-see.

Apples in Winter is at the Playground Theatre until 15th October.

Review: Guinea Pigs at The Space

Between 1952 and 1965, over 22,000 British servicemen, many of them on National Service, were shipped to remote locations in the Pacific Ocean to participate in, and clear up after, nuclear tests. Dressed only in shirt sleeves, with no protective equipment, these “guinea pigs” were made to witness nuclear detonations in the Pacific, and went on to experience disproportionate levels of mental and physical illness as a result. 70 years later, these veterans and their families have still received no acknowledgment or apology from the UK government for their trauma or the irreparable damage caused.

Photo credit: Damian McFadden

The 70th anniversary of the tests is marked with a new play by Elin Doyle, whose father Mike became a test veteran when he was only 19, and campaigned for justice until his death at the age of 67. It’s a semi-autobiographical piece that takes the writer’s memories of growing up with her dad and transfers them to a fictional family. Coral (played by Doyle) is a teenager in the 1980s, who’s just beginning to have a voice and opinions of her own. She’s torn between love and concern for her vulnerable dad Gerry (Jonny Emmett) and horrified shame over his participation in the development of such a powerful weapon. A typical teenager, Coral thinks she knows best about everything, including things she doesn’t really understand yet, and much of the play sees father and daughter going head to head as they try to work through their differences of opinion and ultimately learn to meet somewhere in the middle.

There’s a lot to appreciate in Guinea Pigs. The central inspiration is a topic that’s been deliberately covered up and will therefore be news to many audience members, and Doyle’s script both asks challenging questions about the rights and wrongs of nuclear armament, and draws neat parallels between the UK’s political situation in the 1980s and in 2022 (in summary, not much has changed). The performances in general are strong; Elin Doyle makes a very convincing stroppy teenager, and Jonny Emmett is instantly sympathetic as her long-suffering dad, while Caron Kehoe slips seamlessly between multiple roles – most notably as Auntie Maureen, Gerry’s sister who just wants to keep the peace. Director Laura Kirman keeps a good pace throughout, with smooth scene changes accompanied by an infectious 80s soundtrack, and there’s some nice work from lighting designer Catherine van der Hoven at two key dramatic moments.

Photo credit: Damian McFadden

Where the play could be improved is in its dialogue, which is often exposition-heavy and begins to get repetitive; though it’s arguably realistic to show a dad and his teenage daughter having the same argument again and again, it ultimately does little to further the narrative after the first time. This also means that other plot points with greater dramatic potential – Gerry’s suspicion that their phone are being tapped, or the sudden death of a scientist sympathetic to their cause, for instance – are left underdeveloped. That said, Gerry’s description of the nuclear blast is very powerfully written and delivered, with some haunting imagery that I won’t forget any time soon, and a speech given by Coral at a school event near the end of the play makes an eloquent point about the importance of speaking up and using our voices for good.

In short, there’s a huge amount of potential in this very personal story, and with some tightening and perhaps a slight refocusing of the script, Elin Doyle has the makings of a very important and eye-opening piece of theatre.

Guinea Pigs continues at The Space until 8th October.