Review: From Here at Chiswick Playhouse

“Where do you see yourself in five years?” is the ultimate impossible interview question. Do you go for the ambitious answer, or the humble one? Tell the truth, or make something up? And what if you just don’t really know where you want your life to go? Five years is a long time, after all – and there’s always the possibility that however set your plans are, something like a global pandemic could come along to derail them completely. (To hammer home this point, at the performance of From Here I attended, two cast members and the lighting operator had just been pinged to isolate, leaving the writers and the producer to step in and take their respective places.)

Photo credit: Lucy Gray

The impossible “five years” question is posed to each of the characters in Ben Barrow and Lucy Ireland’s excellent new musical From Here – and each has a different answer. The song-cycle tells a number of different stories about people at pivotal moments in their lives: making a new friend, falling in love, losing a parent, coping with mental health struggles… and asks whether it’s better to focus our efforts on getting the happy ending we’ve always wanted, or to be constantly on the lookout for something new – or perhaps something in between.

While the show doesn’t have a traditional plot – focusing on telling many short stories about many different people as opposed to one long one about a few – it does follow a relatively linear timeline, taking its characters from childhood, to leaving home, finding a career, getting married, having kids, and grappling with the ups and downs of adulthood as the years pass. This means that it has something for everyone, whichever stage of life we’re currently at. Sometimes the stories are funny – like when Person 3 (Andrew Patrick-Walker) declares his love for his co-worker, Person 1 (Grace Mouat) on a busy tube. Sometimes they’re heartwarming – like when Person 4 (Ben Barrow, covering for Aidan Harkins) takes Person 2 (Lucy Ireland, covering for Nicola Espallardo) back to where they had their first date, to ask a very important question. And sometimes they’re heartbreaking – Person 2 is a betrayed wife, Person 1 a bereaved daughter, Person 3 a man paralysed by fear of showing his true self to the person he loves. This patchwork of stories covers a broad spectrum of human emotion and experience, making it not just great entertainment but also incredibly relatable.

Photo credit: Lucy Gray

The score reflects the same variety of tone, with upbeat comedy numbers sitting comfortably alongside emotional ballads, and short passages of spoken word poetry interspersed among them. Like any musical, some of the songs are catchier than others, but there are certainly one or two you’ll find yourself humming the next day, and while the three-person band for this production (led by musical director Ian Oakley) do an amazing job, it’s easy to imagine the show and its score performed on a much larger scale.

With so many productions simply unable to continue due to company members being forced into isolation, it’s fortunate that From Here was in a position to draft in substitutes at the last minute, and the performance was able to go on. Life may not be how we imagined it just now, but it’s comforting to know that when we do finally get out of this mess, British musical theatre will be well represented.

From Here is at Chiswick Playhouse until 7th August.

Review: Wolves Are Coming For You at Jack Studio Theatre

The first in-house production at the Jack Studio since The Invisible Man back in late 2019, Wolves Are Coming From You by Joel Horwood is a story about a small community forced to pull together against an invisible but potentially deadly threat – making it a particularly timely choice after the year we’ve all just lived through.

Photo credit: Davor @ The Ocular Creative

Two players (Brigid Lohrey and Grace Cookey-Gam) introduce us to a cast of small-town characters who are living their everyday small-town lives – until someone sees a wolf. Or did they? As the story spreads through the town over the following 24 hours, each of the characters is forced to confront their own demons and decide whether to fight or flee. And as the sun rises the following day, each of them is different in some way from the person they were the day before. Whether the wolves actually existed, we’ll never know – but they’ve served their purpose nonetheless.

Despite the large number of characters – from an elderly farmer terrified of succumbing to dementia, to a bumbling local policeman who nobody ever takes seriously, to a teenager afraid to tell her overprotective mother she wants to be a dancer – director Kate Bannister simply but clearly differentiates each from the next. Brigid Lohrey and Grace Cookey-Gam excel at portraying these different personalities, often with split-second changes from one to another, with a slight change of posture, accent or the addition of a single piece of clothing telling us instantly who we’re looking at.

Photo credit: Davor @ The Ocular Creative

As ever, the Jack Studio team have put together a high-quality production, with light and sound design from Robbie Butler and Philip Matejtschuk respectively creating real atmosphere and tension as the night draws in on this rural community. Karl Swinyard’s attractive woodland set completes the illusion, with projections setting the scene in different locations as the action moves across town.

Wolves Are Coming For You can’t in fairness be described as an action-packed play; though there certainly is an element of suspense and danger, and there are moments of drama, the focus is never really on the wolves that may or may not be stalking the town, but on those living within it. But that lack of action in itself is what makes the play interesting, because it reminds that it doesn’t take a wolf to plunge someone into crisis – they may already be there, and they may not even realise it themselves yet. With Covid dominating all our lives for so long now, this feels like an important lesson to remember. A welcome return for the Jack’s in-house team; let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 18 months for the next one.

Wolves Are Coming For You is at Jack Studio Theatre until 17th July.

Review: Trestle at Jack Studio Theatre

For those who are dying to get back to the theatre but not yet quite ready for high drama, Stewart Pringle’s Trestle might be just the gentle reintroduction you’re looking for. A quietly charming piece about two retirees in the Yorkshire village of Billingham, it follows weekly encounters at the community Temperance Hall between Harry (Timothy Harker), who chairs the local improvement committee, and Denise (Jilly Bond), leader of the Zumba class that takes place immediately afterwards.

Photo credit: Laura Harling

It begins with a misunderstanding, which quickly establishes the personalities of the two characters. Harry’s a slightly stuffy pillar of the community, a widower who’s settled quite contentedly into his weekly routine of volunteering and visiting the local garden centre, while Denise has a mischievous, fun-loving streak, and certainly doesn’t believe in going quietly into her twilight years. They’re very different people, but somehow over the weeks they start to become friends – and as more time passes, Harry begins to relax and open up to new experiences, while Denise reveals she might not be quite as happy-go-lucky as she pretends to be.

The trestle of the title is the hall’s trestle table, which must be safely stowed before each Zumba class and put out again for the committee meetings. This means we get to see a lot of it in the frequent scene changes – but against all logic, the furniture rearrangement actually gets less monotonous as the play goes on and we become more invested in the story and the characters’ journey. Director Matthew Parker also ensures we’re never just watching a table and chairs being moved around; the actors are acting throughout, and we learn just as much from the scene changes about what mood they’re in or what might have been going on since last week as we do from listening to their conversations. Meanwhile, in a gorgeous little detail, the choice of music at each pause in the action helps to establish which of the two characters currently has the upper hand in their relationship.

A lot of the charm of Trestle is in the performances of Timothy Harker and Jilly Bond, whose instant chemistry draws us into the story and the increasingly complex relationship between the two characters. Stewart Pringle has created two refreshingly three-dimensional older people, who still have just as much to live for as someone half their age, and the actors are clearly enjoying embodying those characters – not least in the closing scene of Act 1, which I’m not ashamed to say had me grinning from ear to ear like a fool.

Photo credit: Laura Harling

Another key character in the play is the community itself – although we never see beyond the hall (recreated in meticulous detail by set designer Simon Nicholas), or meet anyone besides Harry and Denise, Pringle’s evocative writing conjures up a company of other characters waiting just off-stage, each with their own eccentricities and stories to tell. Billingham might be a quiet village, but it’s certainly not a boring one. And maybe as a fan of the Jack I’m biased, but this feels like the right theatre to stage a play that’s just as much about the community as it is about individuals.

As a piece of theatre, Trestle possibly isn’t going to change the world. But after a year of being pigeonholed by age group, and told repeatedly how vulnerable the older generation are, it’s a joy to watch a play in which two older people are having just as much fun, and learning just as much about themselves, as anyone else. Combined with strong writing, direction and performances, this makes for a thoroughly enjoyable (and slightly emotional) evening of entertainment.

Trestle is at the Jack Studio Theatre until 26th June.

Review: Queen Mab at the Actors’ Church

Since last March, going to the theatre – like, actually going to the theatre – has become a rare and magical experience. But even by that standard, there’s something truly enchanting about Queen Mab, the first show in Iris Theatre’s 2021 Summer Festival. Set in the beautiful gardens of the Actors’ Church in the heart of central London, this sweet story of friendship and self-discovery looks at the ups and downs of the last year through the eyes of two unlikely companions: fifteen-year-old schoolgirl Freya (Jo Patmore), and 500-year-old (give or take) fairy, Mab (Erica Flint).

If you think you recognise that name, it’s because a certain Mr Shakespeare mentioned her in one of his better-known plays. The fairies’ midwife has been bringing humans their dreams – both good and bad – for centuries, and she’s bored to tears. But then she meets Freya, who shows her new friend that we humans aren’t quite as predictable or uninteresting as she always thought. If only because we invented the wonder that is Swiss roll.

Danielle Pearson’s play never mentions the word Covid, but even so, lockdown looms large as Freya attempts to navigate her way into adulthood. Stuck at home with only her arguing parents and annoying little brother for company, she worries about what to study for her A-Levels and spends hours composing delightfully banal texts to her crush. In other words, she’s a normal teenager; she just happens to be living in distinctly abnormal times. Oh, and also her best friend’s a fairy.

As for Mab, she’s seen a few plagues in her time – but none quite like this one. Suddenly being able to hear the thoughts of mortals is more of a curse than a gift, especially when she accidentally learns something that threatens her new friend’s happiness. Caught in a complex web of human pain, fear and loneliness, she finds herself actually caring about what happens to us for the first time in hundreds of years, but just as powerless as anyone else to make it stop.

Most of the action in Georgie Staight’s production takes place in Freya’s home, and Isobel Nicolson’s bedroom set captures a snapshot of a teenage girl’s life, with books, clothes and musical instruments scattered around. But the circular outdoor space also has the feel of a fairy grotto, with a tree stump at dead centre which Mab uses to great dramatic effect.

The two actors are wonderful, sparking off each other in interactions that feel completely natural from their first encounter. As Freya, Jo Patmore is instantly likeable, with that blend of confidence and vulnerability that perfectly encapsulates a girl on the cusp of becoming a young woman. She also has a stunning singing voice, which is showcased as she serenades Ollie, in a performance so convincing I found myself frequently glancing up at his non-existent window, expecting to see him there watching.

Erica Flint is a delight to watch as Mab, her sharp tongue and dismissive tone soon slipping away to reveal a funny, caring soul who’s long been hiding her own secret pain. At one point, she asks Freya if clapping for the NHS will make a difference – a not unreasonable question from a fairy – and even the most cynical among us can’t help but be moved by her fragile optimism. If only it were that simple.

It’s hard to imagine a feel-good pandemic story, but somehow Queen Mab manages to be just that. Although it’s not always a happy tale, both characters find their way through, and emerge on the other side stronger and with a greater awareness of what’s important to them. And after the year we’ve all just lived through, that feels like more than enough of a happy ending.

Queen Mab is at the Actors’ Church in Covent Garden until 26th June.

Review: Devil’s Food Cake at Brighton Fringe (online)

Written, rehearsed and filmed in lockdown, Marcia Kelson’s Devil’s Food Cake sensitively shines a light on the impact of an eating disorder on one ordinary family. Seventeen-year-old Sophie (Eden Vansittart) is desperate to lose weight, even though to her mum Jenny (Lesley Ann Jones), dad Frank (David Jones) and sister Katie (Eliza Jones), she’s looking more dangerously thin every day. With the support of therapist Jasmine (Caroline Salter), each member of the family adopts a different strategy to try and convince her to eat – but with Sophie well and truly under the spell of the persuasive Ana (Catherine Allison), are they too late to pull her back from the edge?

The play throws us straight into the heart of the story, with Sophie already fully committed to her extreme dieting regime, and her family very much aware that something’s not right. The focus is never really on how they got to this point, but rather on where they go from here, and Kelson paints a moving picture of a loving family unit at risk of being pulled apart by a dangerous force they can’t see and don’t know how to defeat. Zoom productions come with some inevitable limitations, but in this case the format is used well, placing Sophie alone on one screen, while her mum, dad and sister sit together around the kitchen table on another, highlighting her isolation and the growing distance between them.

It’s unclear at what stage in the timeline of events the family reached out to a therapist, but the presence of Jasmine allows us to gain an insight into the psychology of eating disorders, not only for those directly affected, but also for their loved ones. In fact it often feels Jasmine is there more for the audience’s benefit than for the family’s; she spends much of her time directly addressing the camera, and her tenuous animal analogies, while helpful to explain the theory to an impartial observer, repeatedly fall flat with her clients. It’s only when she begins to engage on a more personal level that the family start to make some progress.

This isn’t the only point where the play purposefully sets out to educate. While the part social media plays in promoting unhealthy body image may be obvious to most, there’s also an interesting scene in which Katie explains to her dad the less obvious role of cookies (the computer kind), and the danger that in seeking help online, those affected by eating disorders may find themselves drawn into “support” groups of the wrong kind. This conversation feels a bit deliberate and does little to develop the story, but it does add value to the play in demonstrating how modern technology can simultaneously both help and harm in ways we might not have thought about.

Eden Vansittart gives a compelling performance as Sophie, a teenager caught between her affection for her family and her desperate fear of not living up to the ideal standards Ana demands from her daily. Ultimately this is her journey, and despite everyone’s efforts to help, she alone can decide which path she wants to follow. But that’s not as straightforward as it sounds, and Vansittart captures well the turmoil her character is experiencing, especially in a powerful final scene that takes the audience on an unexpected rollercoaster of emotion.

For those already familiar with the impact of eating disorders, Devil’s Food Cake may hit a bit close to home – it comes with a clear trigger warning for good reason. But for those of us who know less, but want to understand more, it’s a powerful and poignant portrait of the untold damage such conditions can cause to both health and relationships, and a fascinating (and depressing) insight into how the modern world we live in, even with all its medical and technological advances, may still only be making things worse.

Devil’s Food Cake is available to watch online as part of Brighton Fringe until 27th June.