Review: The Ladykillers at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Based on William Rose’s 1955 movie, The Ladykillers was adapted for the stage by Graham Linehan in 2011. A hilariously over the top and extremely British slapstick comedy, the play’s staged with great exuberance at the Gatehouse by the always entertaining Tower Theatre Company.

The story behind The Ladykillers is almost as much fun as the plot itself, which apparently came to screenwriter William Rose in a dream; he woke up in the middle of the night and told his wife, then went back to sleep – while she got up and wrote it all down so that she could remind him in the morning.

Photo credit: David Sprecher

Mrs Wilberforce is a little old lady who lives alone with her ailing parrot, General Gordon. When she rents her upstairs room to what she thinks is a group of classical musicians, little does she know they’re actually robbers planning a heist at Kings Cross. This is quite surprising – partly because Mrs Wilberforce usually sees conspiracy theories everywhere, but also because the eccentric Professor Marcus and his gang are particularly inept criminals. The stage is set for chaos, and this production certainly delivers – even the set seemed to be in on the joke, with Mrs Wilberforce’s front door frequently swinging open of its own accord.

That little issue aside, the set is impressive; stretching the full length of the substantial stage area at the Gatehouse, it allows us to see simultaneously into Mrs Wilberforce’s front room, the upstairs room and even, briefly, on to the roof. Everything in the house is a bit lop-sided (Mrs W unfortunately suffers from subsidence), and its proximity to the nearby railway line presents various comic opportunities in both set design and storyline.

The cast have a lot of fun with their characters, all of whom are entirely ridiculous in their own way. Alison Liney leads the way as the clueless yet indomitable Mrs Wilberforce, while Ed Malcomson channels Basil Fawlty as the artist and criminal “mastermind” Professor Marcus, desperately trying to hold his plan together despite the best efforts of his incompetent colleagues. Dan Usztan’s nice but dim One Round is a delight, and there’s some enjoyable physical comedy from pill-popping Harry, played by Samuel Currie-Smith. Completing the gang of misfits are Alex T Hornby as Louis, a brooding Romanian hitman, and Michael Bettell as nervous wreck (and closet cross-dresser), the Major.

Photo credit: David Sprecher

Like most farces, many of the jokes – and the play’s ending – can be anticipated, but that doesn’t make them any less fun to watch. There are also a few enjoyable digs at artistic pretension and the British obsession with class and social appearances (which landed particularly well with the North London audience). The Ladykillers is perfect light-hearted evening entertainment, with a reminder that there’s a little good in the worst of men – though it may just turn out to be their downfall.


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Review: Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain at Jermyn Street Theatre

There’s nothing we Brits love more than laughing at ourselves… except possibly laughing at Americans. Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain from Fol Espoir and The Real MacGuffins has both of these things. It also has cricket, Brussels sprouts and a perfectly brewed pot of tea. It’s very funny if you’re British, possibly a little less so if you’re American, and I imagine fairly baffling to everyone else.

The premise is simple: a unit of American airmen, recently arrived in England during World War II, has had rather too much fun in the nearby village of Nether Middleton – resulting in a cat up a tree, the local policeman locked in his own cell, and a prize marrow stuck on the church spire. As compensation, they must apologise and help clean up, but also take a course in British culture, to foster friendship and cooperation with their new neighbours – all whilst preparing for a visit from “the President of London”, Winston Churchill himself.

You can probably imagine what comes next. Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is a high-energy, tongue-in-cheek and frequently quite bonkers celebration of the many ways in which Brits and Americans are different – and the many, many ways that each nation’s way of life baffles the other. Think Dad’s Army with Americans, and you get the general idea.

It’s all inspired by a genuine pamphlet issued to American GIs in 1942 introducing them to the quirks and customs of British life, but that’s where the historical accuracy comes to an end – or at least I assume it does, otherwise I’m really not sure how we ever won the war. A few of the jokes are funny precisely because of the historical nature of the show and the benefit of hindsight; an oblique reference to the current resident of the White House goes down particularly well, as does the British lieutenant’s disdain for decimalisation as he launches into a hilariously convoluted explanation of pounds, shillings and pence.

Established comedy trio The Real MacGuffins – aka Dan March, Jim Millard and Matt Sheahan, who wrote the show with director John Walton – turn up with a variety of costumes and accents as, among others, a bullying American colonel, some German spies-in-training, a cricket-loving English lord and a randy Scottish pensioner. They’re clearly having a blast, and it’s impossible not to get caught up in their enthusiasm, or to admire their improvisation skills when the occasional curveball is tossed their way from the audience (cricket fans, please pardon the baseball pun).

Speaking of the audience, it’s worth mentioning – without giving anything away – that this is a show requiring everyone’s participation. The front row is a particular danger zone, but even those hiding at the back will have an opportunity to join in the fun, even if there isn’t really sufficient space to get involved properly (I’ll just leave that there for your imagination to mull over). But it’s all very good-natured and there’s no pressure on anybody to perform, so if you’re not a fan of participatory theatre, don’t let it put you off.

Like all the best comedy, Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is funny because it’s largely true, a joyous celebration of all those little oddities of which we Brits are secretly rather proud. Definitely one to check out in between drinking tea and talking about the weather…


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Review: Paper Hearts at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

You know in The BFG (stay with me) how he makes dreams for people by taking all the different elements and blending them together? Well, this is essentially what Liam O’Rafferty, Daniel Jarvis and Tania Azevedo have done in Paper Hearts. Musical? Check. Books? Check. Love story? Check. Folksy score performed live on stage by actor-musicians with gorgeous¬†harmonies and catchy choruses? Check, check, check, check, check. Long story short – this is my dream show, and I’m a little bit in love.

Photo credit: Tim Hall Photography

After proving¬†a hit at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, the show’s been developed into a full-length musical set in The Final Chapter bookshop, where aspiring¬†writer¬†Atticus (Adam Small) is trying to finish¬†his¬†epic novel of romance and betrayal in Stalin’s Russia. When the shop’s threatened with closure at the hands of a large online retailer, Atticus finds himself with only one option – finish the novel in time for the upcoming young writers competition, win top prize, save the bookshop. Simple, right? Well no, actually, because his girlfriend (Sin√©ad Wall) could hardly be less supportive, he’s got history to work out with his dad (Alasdair Baker) and he’s just met a girl (Gabriella Margulies), who may just be his soulmate – but for one fairly major¬†complication…

Fact and fiction are effortlessly interwoven as we slip into the snowy Russia¬†of Atticus’ main characters Yanna and Isaak, and follow their story – which seems to bear some striking parallels to their creator’s own life. And as the characters develop, it becomes clear they’re shaping his destiny just as much as he is theirs.

Liam O’Rafferty was inspired to write Paper Hearts by his passion for bookshops, and the show overflows from the start with that love for the written word. From Anna Driftmier’s¬†set – built largely from books, and full of delightful details like the floating book light¬†(which is something¬†I never knew I wanted until I saw it, and now it’s all I can think about) – to the brilliant “book-off” where Atticus and new shop manager¬†Lilly challenge each other’s literary knowledge, it’s a thrill for anyone who loves to read.

The cast of actor-musicians are sensational and work seamlessly as an ensemble to bring the score to life. And what a score it is, taking in a range of genres but always feeling very natural, like it’s just a bunch of friends getting together to play – and did I mention the gorgeous harmonies? There are some really beautiful songs here, with two of many highlights the heart-wrenching duet Stand Up and the title number Paper Hearts, which closes the show on a soaring high.

Photo credit: Tim Hall Photography

Perhaps one of my favourite things about the show is, despite its frequent forays into Stalin’s Russia, how very British it is; you can totally imagine it on screen as a Richard Curtis rom-com in the vein of Notting Hill. The dusty old bookshop is quintessentially British, the script has a wry, self-deprecating humour – particularly from Matthew Atkins’ gloriously camp shop owner Norman – and when things go wrong, everyone’s immediate response is to put the kettle on. This gives the production a very cosy, homely feel, and makes the characters and everything that happens to them incredibly¬†relatable.

The show does get a bit dark and tense at times (gun alert) and there’s no shortage of emotion either. But overall Paper Hearts is uplifting, heartwarming and basically just a joy from start to finish. It’s got everything you could want from a West End show at a fraction of the ticket price – so see it now before it gets snapped up for a transfer. And then go again, because it’s worth it.


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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 Рas in pretty much any production of The Importance of Being Earnest Рthe 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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Review: Mrs Henderson Presents

The Windmill Theatre in Soho is a little piece of London’s history, for two main reasons: its proud slogan, ‘We Never Closed’, and – probably even more famously – its naked ladies. Mrs Henderson Presents, originally a movie starring Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins, tells the story of the Windmill, its girls and its eccentric owner in a feel-good, high-energy spectacular that makes you feel proud to be British.

It’s hard to top Dame Judi in pretty much anything, obviously, but Tracie Bennett’s Mrs Henderson is a delight: her prim exterior hides a dry wit and occasional coarseness that’s all the more brilliant for its¬†unexpected appearances. And she can belt out a tune as well, but then we knew that already. The relationship between Mrs Henderson and her manager, Vivian Van Damm (Ian Bartholomew), is lovely¬†to watch – though they drive each other crazy, they also develop a strong and loyal friendship, and it’s not surprising to learn that she¬†left the theatre to him when she died in 1944.

Mrs Henderson Presents
Photo credit: Paul Coltas

Now, let’s talk naked ladies. The Windmill Girls were¬†known¬†for their¬†nude tableaux vivants, which had to be motionless to get around¬†the Lord Chamberlain and his aversion to wobbly bits (I suspect it may have been a little more complex than that in reality, but let’s move on).¬†Even so,¬†the brave ladies in Terry Johnson’s production¬†are on full display – albeit very¬†tastefully¬†presented – and you have to admire their nerve, particularly since in the one scene where¬†the men get their kit off, they all have music stands or pianos to¬†hide behind. Laura Williams gives a particularly¬†classy performance¬†as Maureen, whose rapid transition from¬†shy, clumsy tea girl to glamorous star of the show¬†is a forgivable stretch of the imagination. Despite the title of the show, this is really Maureen’s story (after the opening scenes, Mrs Henderson’s appearances are few and far between), and Williams steps into the role of leading lady with great dignity.

Though the show certainly leaves you smiling, with infectious tunes by¬†George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain and dazzling choreography from¬†Andrew Wright, it’s not all ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. Though we see little of the war itself (and a few of the characters have a worryingly relaxed attitude about sitting on the roof at the height of the Blitz), there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s a horrible thing, and fortunately the show doesn’t try to. There’s a¬†particularly moving moment when¬†Dutchman Vivian Van Damm, after hearing that his country’s been invaded, sings Living in a Dream World, a song that could just as easily be¬†about¬†our attitude to events¬†happening in the world right now. But through it all, our spirits are bolstered by comedian Jamie Foreman’s terrible (and terribly un-PC) jokes and the¬†general air of defiance; it’s only when this dips briefly¬†in act 2 that the energy of the show does likewise.

Mrs Henderson Presents
Photo credit: Paul Coltas

Mrs Henderson Presents¬†has a lot more to recommend it than just naked ladies, as attractive¬†as those ladies undoubtedly are. It sums up the Blitz spirit in one glorious¬†image – Maureen, completely naked, giving Hitler the finger and telling him to go back where he came from. It’s a touching love story (featuring possibly the world’s greatest chat-up line) – but not quite the one we might expect. And, most importantly, it’s a lot of fun, and leaves¬†you feeling uplifted and patriotic.¬†You can’t ask for more than that.

Big thanks to LondonTheatre1.com for the opportunity to review the show!