Review: For the Sake of Argument at Bridewell Theatre

As 31st January looms and the Brexit debate continues to rage on, Harry Darell’s timely new play considers the ways in which language can be used for both better and worse, and asks what happens when those who wield their pen so passionately are forced to face the real-world consequences of their own arguments.

Photo credit: Charles Flint

The play is set in the mid 2000s, as journalist Eleanor Hickock (Ashleigh Cole) is approached by Maria (Paula Cassina), the grieving mother of a young soldier killed in Iraq. Having discovered that Eleanor’s writings in favour of the invasion strongly influenced her son’s decision to enlist, Maria reaches out to her for reconciliation – but not everyone in her family is so forgiving.

The idea behind the play (which was inspired by a real incident involving the late writer Christopher Hitchens) is an interesting one, and certainly relevant as a divided nation gears up to face the as yet largely unknown consequences of the Brexit vote. However, what could have been a powerful and thought-provoking drama gets bogged down in trying to tackle too many issues, with a daunting number of characters and – ironically, given the subject matter – just a bit too much talking.

This is particularly true in Act 1, where Eleanor’s friends spend a considerable amount of time enthusiastically debating the merits – or otherwise – of Winston Churchill, Ken Livingstone and Vladimir Putin. They’re clearly enjoying themselves, and it’s not uninteresting to listen to, but this entire section serves little purpose in terms of plot development, other than letting us know they all enjoy arguing for the sake of it, and setting up Eleanor to discuss her own favourite topic: Iraq. It’s only in Act 2 that there’s any real action, and even this comes only after another spirited debate about the pros and cons of the 2003 conflict. (It’s also heavily foreshadowed by a strange and rather clumsily inserted anecdote early in Act 1.)

All that said, it’s not a bad play; it just needs to focus in more on Eleanor’s journey and spend less time on side plots and themes. Ashleigh Cole gives a strong central performance as Eleanor, a woman who’s become so addicted to debate that she no longer sees the human beings behind the arguments. Even when she learns what happened to Mark, even while sitting in his family home looking at photos of his early years, she shows little sign of remorse or even empathy – and when challenged by his angry, grieving brother Billy, she instinctively goes on the attack instead of trying to engage with him on a personal or emotional level. As such, when her moment of “redemption” finally arrives, it rings decidedly hollow, and not only because it comes at such a terrible cost.

There are strong performances also from Lucia France, Arthur Velarde and Henry Eaton-Mercer as Eleanor’s pretentious friends and fellow debaters, and Paula Cassina as Mark’s bereaved mother Maria. Meanwhile the one voice that really matters – Mark’s – belongs to Georgie Farmer, who delivers three short monologues with charisma and clarity. Here lies the other side of the argument: far from coming across as a brainwashed young boy, taken in by some well-crafted articles written by a stranger, he’s clearly intelligent and capable of independent thought. Is it therefore reasonable for his family, or indeed the audience, to hold Eleanor responsible for his death?

Photo credit: Charles Flint

As one might expect from the title, For the Sake of Argument poses some great questions about the limits of free speech and responsible use of the media. These are issues that are perhaps even more relevant in the age of social media, where everyone can have a platform to share their views, with little chance of ever being held accountable. The play does struggle to take flight under the weight of too many plot threads, characters and themes, but with a bit of pruning there’s definite potential here to spark a lively post-show debate or two.

Review: Much Ado About Nothing at the Bridewell Theatre

The Tower Theatre Company begins each performance with an announcement of their next production – which is usually only a week or two (if that) in the future; in addition to this week’s Much Ado About Nothing, they’ve got four more plays lined up between now and mid-July. Yet even with such a hectic schedule, the quality of each production remains consistently high.

Perhaps it helps in this case that the Tower Theatre are no strangers to Much Ado About Nothing; in fact this is their eighth production (the first was way back in 1933). On this occasion, the play is directed by Jean Carr and John Morton with an Austen-esque vibe. This feels rather fitting since all the romantic misunderstandings in the story wouldn’t be out of place in one of Austen’s novels – though I suspect she might have had something to say about Shakespeare’s depiction of Hero; I can’t imagine Elizabeth Bennet forgiving her fiancé quite so easily for publicly shaming and dumping her at the altar.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko

The story revolves around two main plots – that of Beatrice (Sarah Evans) and Benedick (Shane Sweeney), whose constant bickering hides from nobody but themselves the fact that they’re madly in love, and that of Hero (Asma Mani) and Claudio (Paul Isaacs), who fall in love at first sight but whose engagement comes to a swift and unhappy end on the wedding day after Claudio’s tricked into believing she’s been unfaithful. Somehow, in true Shakespeare comedy style, everything still ends happily – thanks largely to the intervention of local constable Dogberry (John Chapman) and his nice but dim band of minions.

In a strong cast, Sarah Evans and Shane Sweeney stand out with excellent comic performances as Beatrice and Benedick; taking obvious delight in their characters’ “merry war” when on stage together, they also have fun individually in the physical scenes as they dive behind screens and pillars to eavesdrop on their friends. Paul Isaacs and Asma Mani are equally well matched as the far too trusting lovers Claudio and Hero, and natural comedian John Chapman is a joy as Dogberry, whose good intentions are matched only by his hilariously terrible vocabulary.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko

Much Ado is probably one of Shakespeare’s easiest plays to follow, and this straightforward production is extremely accessible and thoroughly entertaining throughout. And if it all gets a bit ridiculous towards the end – well, we can blame Shakespeare for that. The show also looks great and has an infectious energy, the sun-kissed Mediterranean courtyard of Leonato’s home filled with ladies in colourful gowns and gentlemen in military uniform with nothing more pressing to do than sing, dance, fall in love and play matchmaker for their friends. As problematic as some of the gender roles undoubtedly are, and whether or not we subscribe to the view that the solution to all life’s unhappiness is to “get thee a wife”, this is at its heart a feel-good play, and another excellent and highly recommended production from the Tower Theatre.

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Review: The Importance of Being Earnest at the Bridewell Theatre

After a long and stressful day, the Tower Theatre Company’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest was just what the doctor ordered. This absurd little story never fails to tickle me, and makes me curiously proud to be British – especially when done as well as it is here.

The story is probably familiar to most: Jack loves Gwendolen, who seems to return his affection – but only because she thinks his name is Ernest. Meanwhile Gwendolen’s cousin Algernon is setting out to seduce Jack’s ward Cecily – by pretending to be his younger brother, Ernest. Inevitably, the four lovers end up in the same place, pursued by Gwendolen’s mother Lady Bracknell… and chaos, confusion and a good deal of coincidence ensue.

Photo credit: Ruth Anthony
Photo credit: Ruth Anthony

It’s a play that demands to be hammed up, and everything about director Martin Mulgrew’s production is wildly over the top, while remaining perfectly polished. It also boasts a cast who know exactly how to extract maximum laughs from Oscar Wilde’s witty script: Bernard Brennan’s Jack is endearingly awkward, particularly when faced with Helen McGill’s Gwendolen, who’s definitely not backward in coming forward. (The same, incidentally, could be said for Karen Walker’s Miss Prism, who doesn’t try to hide her admiration for local vicar Dr Chasuble, played by Ian Recordon.) Imogen de Ste Croix’s Cecily is pure sweetness with just a hint of steely-eyed bunny boiler; her matter-of-fact account of how she engaged herself to the fictional Ernest three months before meeting him is a highlight. And Murray Deans almost steals the show with his thoroughly eccentric Algernon, whose sudden bursts of silent manic laughter are not so much charming as ever so slightly alarming.

I say he almost steals the show, because – as in pretty much any production of The Importance of Being Earnest – the stage really belongs to the formidable Lady Bracknell, played to perfection here by Helen McCormack. Lady Bracknell gets all the best lines, and McCormack delivers them with relish and expert timing, not to mention a suitably scandalised expression at the prospect of marrying off her daughter to a man who began life in a handbag.

Photo credit: Ruth Anthony
Photo credit: Ruth Anthony

The play has three distinct acts, and Jude Chalk and Bernard Brennan’s set is simple yet effective, adapting with minimal fuss behind a curtain at each of the two short intervals. Costume designer Haidee Elise has also pulled out all the stops to produce some stunning outfits, and not just for the ladies – Algy’s pinstripe blazer is quite a sight to behold.

After their week’s run in London, the Tower Theatre are taking the production to the USA. One can only imagine what Americans make of Wilde’s play, which paints an interesting picture of British high society – although having said that, I quite like the idea that they picture us Brits sitting around eating muffins in moments of crisis. If our friends overseas enjoy the evening half as much as I did, though, they’re in for a good time. Another high quality production from the Tower Theatre, The Importance of Being Earnest is hugely entertaining and quite, quite mad – just as I’m sure its writer intended.

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Interview: Hatstand Productions, Never The Same

“We began as four year olds playing with a dressing up box, bringing stories to life… and not much has changed since then,” says Lily Lowe-Myers of Hatstand Productions, the company she founded with her best friend Robyn Cooper. “As children we made many funny films that we hope no one ever digs up, and as teenagers some better ones that won national competitions – and eventually we formed Hatstand Productions four years ago in response to the professional work we were making. This is our fourth play since then and we are currently finishing our third film.”

That play is Never The Same, which opens in the Bridewell’s Lunchbox Theatre on 27th September: “It’s a dark but joyful female two-hander, exploring the beauty and sorrows of friendship and the lengths and limitations of what we can do for another person.”


Hatstand Productions have built a reputation for creating fun and innovative two-hander female musicals, and Never The Same is their first non-musical. “I didn’t set out to write a non-musical this year, but the deeper I fell into writing the play, the clearer it became that this would be a straight drama,” explains Lily. “I wasn’t sure how to break it to the fantastic composer we’d collaborated with the last few years, but then he contacted me to say he was in the midst of his PhD and couldn’t do a show this summer. Life is sometimes mystic like that!

“Working on a non-musical felt a lot like I was writing a play for the first time all over again. I realised how much collaboration had been involved working with a composer, and how nice it was to have someone to bounce ideas off. I felt a lot more vulnerable about sharing it, in fact; when I had to get the first draft done to submit it to the Ms Shakespeare new writing festival, I sent it with an apologetic cover letter saying, ‘This is my deformed baby, but I think it will grow into something strong and beautiful.’ Luckily they thought so too and it was chosen to be performed.

“Since then, it’s been a great pleasure to work with the phenomenally talented and generally fantastic Matt Costain as our director. His excitement about the play makes me fall in love with it all over again, and means that I can leave my writer’s hat at the door and concentrate on being an actress.”

Never The Same is Hatstand’s fourth show at the Bridewell Theatre. “When we first created a one-act show, we quickly learnt that the Bridewell was the top place for lunchtime theatre, and we loved that they reached an audience that might otherwise not get the chance to see a show. Knowing this, we stalked them and won them over. We’re so happy that we did, as we now have a great relationship with them and this is our fourth show in their beautiful venue. Did you know that under the floor of the theatre is still an old Victorian swimming pool (minus the water!)?

“We were worried this year, with a drama play, whether they’d still be as keen because we had such success with our ‘perfectly sized mini musicals’,  but their response was ‘whatever you make will be great’. It’s lovely to work with people with such belief in us.”

Photo credit: Hatstand Productions
Photo credit: Hatstand Productions

Never The Same is the story of two best friends reunited after seven years. “It’s the most thought-provoking, heart warming, funny, honest, entertaining lunchtime ever!” promises Lily. “Every action we take comes from somewhere. Over 45 minutes, we invite you to piece together the mystery of why two friends find themselves on the run, and whether they can ever find their way back, or if they would even want to.”

In their work, Hatstand explore many types of story telling mediums including film, theatre, puppetry, dance, magic and song – and their choice of name is hugely significant: “Our aim is to create entertaining work that sheds light on the beauty and complexity of the human spirit and to create work with strong, entertaining and complex female roles.

“We called our company ‘Hatstand’ as we liked the idea of our audience shedding their hats of worry or coats of doubt on our metaphorical hatstand as they took their seats. And hopefully, having experienced another reality, as they go back out into the world their coat seems lighter, or they try someone else’s for size, or leave theirs behind for good. 

“Oh, and we try to get our lovely hatstand – that we named Ted – into our shows!”

Never The Same is at the Bridewell Theatre from 27th September-7th October.

Review: The Return of the Marionettes at Bridewell Theatre

Welcome to the 1960s, where girl group The Marionettes are taking to the stage at the height of their fame. But as they come to the end of their final number, one of the girls runs from the stage in tears. And that, we learn from their manager George Ellis, is the end of the Marionettes.

Until now (well – 1984, anyway): 20 years later, the girls are back together for a one-off reunion show that could see their career picking up where they left off. But with so much history to work through – personal and professional – can they put the past behind them and deliver the show their adoring fans have been waiting for?


Writers Peter and Phillip Ley of Tower Theatre Company take us back to the start of the story, introducing us to four giggling schoolgirls who call themselves the Moonbeams, and charting their progress to the top. Along the way, we’re treated to 18 original songs that capture the spirit of the 60s and – like all the best songs from that period – are easy to pick up and totally infectious. (Two days later, I’m still singing the Marionettes’ first big hit, Dynamite.) Polished performances from the cast, along with Ruth Sullivan’s choreography and costumes from Lynda Twidale, mean the musical numbers do a great job of transporting us back in time.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko
Photo credit: Robert Piwko

A dual cast of actresses play the Marionettes then and now, which enables the two groups to share the stage, with the older women often observing their younger selves and providing commentary on events as they unfold. Angharad Ormond and Stella Henney earn their place as lead vocalist Cathy with some impressive performances, but both also reveal a touching vulnerability hidden beneath a veneer of false confidence. Meanwhile Fiorella Osborne and Annette Ross show the fiery passion and determination that have always made Mary the true leader of the Marionettes.

What works really well is the way the dynamic of the group picks up where it left off 20 years ago – the professional tension between Mary and Cathy continues, there’s tension of a whole other kind between Mary and George, and the Meltzer sisters (Olivia Barton-Fisher and Jessica O’Toole as the younger, Deborah Ley and Annemarie Fearnley as the older) are enjoying the moment and providing light relief with their banter. The transition is aided by the constant, reassuring presence of Brad Johnson as both the older and younger George, along with Julian Farrance as heartless record boss Allan Tyrell.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko
Photo credit: Robert Piwko

Despite a few small stumbles in the spoken scenes, and some sound issues – the live band, led by musical director Colin Guthrie, are fabulous but occasionally drown out the actors – there are a lot of great things about this show, and opening with the break-up of the band creates an enjoyable suspense as we wait to see not only what eventually proved to be the last straw, but whether the women can now overcome their differences. It would have been nice to see more of the simmering romance between Mary and George; considering their feelings for each other are still present and obvious to everyone 20 years later, there are very few references to it in the flashbacks. And while it’s a challenge to recreate the sensation of a huge sell-out gig in an intimate fringe setting, there’s a lovely moment with some crazy fans, which helps demonstrate just how big the group were at the height of their fame.

The Return of the Marionettes is a thoroughly enjoyable take on the familiar ‘rags to riches to ruin to redemption’ story we’ve come to know and love from shows like Jersey Boys and Dreamgirls. With a soundtrack of irresistible songs, some strong vocal performances and a rousing finale, this is a show with great potential, which is pretty much guaranteed to send audiences out with a smile on their face and a skip in their step.

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… 😉