Review: Hobson’s Choice at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Many years ago, I studied Hobson’s Choice for GCSE English, and my lasting memory is of our teacher trying to convince us to read it out in a Salford accent (a suggestion met with all the derision you’d expect from a class of 15-year-old girls). What I didn’t remember was it being set in the 1950s – mostly because it wasn’t; the action of Harold Brighouse’s play, first performed in 1916, originally took place in 1880. Newly reimagined for a different generation by Matthew Townshend, the play proves just as entertaining and relevant as ever – although it is depressing to reflect that in many ways not a lot has changed, both between 1916 and 1958, and between 1958 and now.

Photo credit: Peter Clark

Henry Hobson (John D Collins) is the father of three daughters. He’s also the owner of a successful shoe shop – although the success has little to do with him, as he’s usually in the pub. Instead, his oldest daughter Maggie (Rhiannon Sommers) runs the business, much to the amusement of her two younger sisters Alice (Greta Harwood) and Vickey (Kelly Aaron), who are too busy enjoying themselves to be a lot of help. Hobson complacently assumes Maggie’s too old to marry – right up until she decides her future lies with the shop’s shy but brilliant bootmaker William Mossop (Michael Brown). Having convinced her intended that it’s a good idea (those two little words every woman wants to hear on her wedding day: “I’m resigned”) she sets about turning Will into the man she knows he can be, and in doing so puts her bullying father firmly in his place.

Rhiannon Sommers gives a commanding and very funny central performance as the supremely confident Maggie; cool, calm and entirely in control throughout, she nonetheless shows us glimpses of vulnerability, which prevent her from coming across as manipulative or cruel. And there are aspects of her story that resonate even now; the idea that women have a sell-by date remains widespread, as does the belief that women must be “feisty” if they want to succeed in what is still very much a man’s world.

That man’s world, in this case, is run by pompous patriarch Hobson, played wonderfully by John D Collins. He bullies all three of his daughters, expecting them to work unpaid in his shop and repeatedly accusing them of “uppishness”, and consequently it’s hard to feel much sympathy for the pathetic figure he ultimately becomes – even though two of his daughters are particularly unpleasant. Greta Harwood and Kelly Aaron are exquisitely irritating as Alice and Vickey, Maggie’s whiney, self-involved younger sisters. They’re interested only in capturing rich husbands Albert and Fred, who are so bland and interchangeable that both are played by Connor McCreedy with only a change of glasses to differentiate between them.

With the action taking place in two separate locations, Martin Robinson’s set is a work of genius, transforming very quickly and neatly. There’s a clear symbolic difference between the two settings; while Hobson’s shop could easily be back in 1880, the cellar where Maggie and Will live and work is very clearly from the 1950s – as are the play’s costumes, soundtrack and dance moves. There’s a strong sense that change is coming, and to bring the point even more firmly home, the doctor called out to treat Hobson in act 2 – originally a man – is replaced by no-nonsense District Nurse McFarlane, in a brief but hilariously memorable appearance by Natasha Cox.

Photo credit: Peter Clark

To watch Hobson’s Choice as a woman in her 30s, particularly – gasp! – an unmarried one, is a very different experience to reading it (with or without the Salford accent) as a teenager. Back then, I probably did think Maggie was getting on a bit, and nor did I fully appreciate the barriers women faced – and continue to face over a century after the play was written. This excellent production offers a welcome opportunity to revisit a classic with fresh eyes, and to be well and truly entertained in the process.

Hobson’s Choice is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 15th September.

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Review: The British Theatre Challenge at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

The British Theatre Challenge was founded in 2012 by Sky Blue Theatre Company to support playwrights by giving them the opportunity to see their work professionally produced, directed and performed. This year’s five finalists have been whittled down from over 200 entries, and presented to audiences at the Brockley Jack over five evenings this week. Each night, the audience is asked to rank the plays in order of preference, with the overall winner – announced tonight – taking home the Anne Bartram Playwright Award. We were asked to cast our vote based not on the acting or directing, but on the quality of the writing alone. In keeping with this instruction, my review will do the same.

Three of the plays followed a similar theme, taking a look at how technology could shape the future – and funnily enough, the future doesn’t look great in any of them… In 2045 by Scott Lummer, a family prepare for The Transformation, a global programme that aims to combine all human bodies with machines. But what seems like a great idea to reduce consumption of limited resources can’t resolve the fact that people are people, and that even with mechanical bodies they still bring with them the potential for conflict and inequality. Like all the plays, 2045 is short – less than half an hour – but even in that limited time shows strong character development and gives us plenty to think about – though not all of it is particularly encouraging.

Photo credit: Rah Petherbridge

Tagged by Jim Moss takes an equally dark view of our relationship with technology as we meet Allie, who’s been kidnapped and locked in a room where she’s forced to meet clients and ensure they have “exquisite encounters”. If she objects, the cuff on her ankle injects her with a drug to make her comply. Moss skilfully builds the tension and keeps us guessing until the final twist; when Allie’s latest client turns out to be a police officer, we learn the truth about how she got there – and it’s all the more shocking because it’s a situation any one of us could easily get ourselves into, even today.

Far less dark but still with a bit of a sinister edge, Elspeth Tilley’s Bunnies and Wolves takes an extreme view of what a public-private healthcare system could look like. Riley and Casey’s daughter has been admitted to hospital, but it turns out everything, from the ability to purchase a cup of coffee to the quality of their daughter’s treatment, depends entirely on how many points they can earn on the in-house marketing programme. Though the play rapidly spirals from vaguely feasible to utterly surreal, it nonetheless makes some shrewd points about the consumer-driven society in which we live – and brings home more powerfully than ever how lucky we are in the UK to have the NHS.

Sheila Cowley’s Teatime is set in the ruins of a library during an unnamed conflict, and focuses poignantly on the ways in which human beings adapt to traumatic circumstances. When Kim stumbles into the library looking for an exit, she meets Archie and Annabelle, who live in an entirely imaginary world where everything’s fine – although we learn, in snatched asides, that both have suffered terrible losses as a result of the war. In its current form, it’s hard to really get to know the characters and appreciate what they’re going through before the play comes to an end; I’d love to see a longer version that tells us more.

Photo credit: Rah Petherbridge

Finally, easily the most emotional play of the five is Accident of Birth by Trevor Suthers.It follows the first meeting between Margaret and Anthony since she gave him up for adoption as a baby – a meeting that takes place at Broadmoor, where he’s detained at her Majesty’s pleasure for undefined crimes. What begins as an awkward but – in the circumstances – reasonably affable reunion becomes more and more uncomfortable as Anthony tries to make sense of who he’s become by finding out more about his biological parents from an unwilling Margaret. This gripping contribution to the nature versus nurture debate doesn’t give us the answers to all his questions, but it does tell us just enough to ensure we’re completely caught up in and moved by their encounter.

Taking all the plays together, this year’s British Theatre Challenge – hosted by Sky Blue Theatre’s John Mitton – made for a really enjoyable evening of new writing. Like everyone else I cast my vote at the end of the evening, but regardless of tonight’s outcome, all five pieces absolutely deserved their place on stage and will, I hope, be seen by audiences again in the future.

For more details about the British Theatre Challenge, visit the Sky Blue Theatre website.

Review: The Government Inspector at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Paula Chitty’s new adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector is an entertaining comedy of errors, which relocates the action from 19th century Russia to northern England in 1979. With public workers on strike in response to cuts and corruption within the council, the town of Worsborough Dale has fallen into unsanitary disrepair – so it’s with some horror that the local officials learn there’s a government inspector on the way.

When they hear there’s a well-dressed young man staying at the local B&B, they jump to the obvious conclusion, and deal with the problem the only way they know how: by throwing money at it. There’s just one problem – said well-dressed young man isn’t the inspector at all, but Norman, a minor civil servant who’s gambled away all his funds, and is consequently only too happy to accept every penny of the council’s generosity.

Nobody comes out of this story very well: as loathsome as Norman (Jack Blue) and his travelling companion Osip (John Stivey) are, we can’t help but enjoy seeing them take advantage of the equally vile council officials, who’ve been cheerfully lying, cheating and lining their own pockets at the expense of the local residents. Property dealers Black and Jack (Elizabeth George and Richard Houghton-Evans) are dreadful gossips, Tommy the postman (Robert Mclachlan) routinely opens everyone’s mail, the Deputy Leader (Richard Willmott) is a creep who’s already having at least one affair, and the Chairman (Bernard O’Sullivan) is a tyrant who’s only interested in his own career advancement. The one character for whom we have any sympathy is Anna (Fiona Vivian), the Chairman’s daughter, who ends up an innocent pawn in the schemes of her father and Norman.

The real victims, however, are the people of Worsborough Dale, who’ve seen their wages cut, jobs lost and public services slashed; the town’s overrun with rats and the lights keep going out, so it’s hardly surprising that they’ve taken to the streets in protest. Though the play’s set in the 70s, it’s not hard to draw parallels with the current political situation, and the lack of public faith in those elected to lead our country.

The production is at times a little unpolished, but the enthusiasm of the cast can’t be faulted as they throw themselves gleefully into their various unsavoury roles. There’s also some excellent physical humour, particularly in Act 2 when events really begin to spiral out of control. Jack Blue and John Stivey make an enjoyably unscrupulous comedy double act as Norman and his long-suffering companion Osip, and Bernard O’Sullivan also stands out as the increasingly frustrated Chairman; when he finally explodes, it’s quite a sight to behold.

At a time when it feels harder than ever to trust those in power, it feels both appropriate and depressing to see Gogol’s play revived, almost 200 years after it was written. Perhaps one day we’ll no longer need cautionary tales like these – but based on humanity’s track record to date, it seems sadly unlikely.

The Government Inspector ran at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre from 21st-25th August.

Review: The White Rose at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Best known for their adaptations of literary classics, Arrows & Traps have taken a different approach in their latest production, The White Rose. An original piece written and directed by Ross McGregor, based on Richard Hanser’s A Noble Treason, the play tells the powerful true story of Sophie Scholl who, along with her brother Hans, was the leader of a resistance group – known as the White Rose – and was arrested and executed in 1943 for distributing leaflets denouncing Hitler’s regime. The structure of the play interposes scenes of Sophie’s interrogation with the story of the White Rose, telling an extraordinary tale of courage in the face of tyranny, and posing some important questions that resonate now more than ever with a modern day audience.

First of all, to anyone who fears that the company moving away from its roots was a bad idea, let me put your mind at rest: I think it’s very possible that The White Rose is the Arrows’ best show yet. It’s certainly the one that’s had the biggest impact on me personally – although leaving the theatre I couldn’t quite decide if I was sad, inspired, furious or terrified at the state of the world (both past and present).

The White Rose at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre
Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

The outstanding ensemble cast don’t put a foot wrong – both metaphorically and literally; like all Arrows productions, this is a play where every movement has meaning – and make us feel every emotion: there’s desperation and anger in abundance, but in lighter moments we’re also given the chance to appreciate the optimism and camaraderie of young people who want to make the world a better place. And through it all runs fear: the fear of being caught, of speaking out, of losing friends – but on the other side of the scales sits the fear of keeping quiet and what that could potentially lead to.

From Christopher Tester’s conflicted Gestapo officer Robert Mohr to Pearce Sampson’s quietly courageous Christoph Probst; Conor Moss’ witty Alexander Schmorell to Will Pinchin’s intense, furious Hans Scholl, every character has their own voice, and their own reason for behaving as they do. But above all, this is Sophie’s story, and just as she’s welcomed into her brother’s group of friends, Lucy Ioannou proves to be a fantastic new recruit to the Arrows family, balancing perfectly Sophie’s youth, wit and innocence with the courage and moral strength that will lead her to risk everything for what’s right.

With resident Movement Director Will Pinchin taking to the stage as Hans, Roman Berry seamlessly takes up the mantle, producing thrilling, immaculately choreographed dreamlike sequences reminiscent of the company’s earlier work. The cinematic quality of the play is further enhanced by the inclusion of video footage at the beginning of each act, which shows chilling scenes of Hitler addressing adoring crowds, and drives home more powerfully than any words the impossibility of what the White Rose is trying to do.

The White Rose at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre
Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

The script teases out parallels between 1943 and 2018, without beating us around the head with them, and also makes a point of reminding us that Nazism wasn’t always death camps and terror in the streets; Hitler came to power on the promise of rebuilding Germany, and everyone – including Sophie and Hans – believed him. The play celebrates and acknowledges the White Rose’s sacrifice, but at the same time attempts to understand why everyone else stayed silent even when things went bad. Some, like Sophie’s fiance Fritz (Freddie Cambanakis), feared the repercussions of resistance; some, like her cellmate Else (Cornelia Baumann) optimistically believed it would all soon be over; others, like Gestapo officer Mohr, genuinely thought Hitler had made things better. In allowing these characters to have their say, the play becomes something far more complex than simply good versus evil, and is all the richer for it.

Despite being very well known in Germany, very few of us here in Britain know the story of Sophie Scholl. The White Rose aims to set that right with this powerful, emotional tribute, but also seizes the opportunity to explore the many unnerving similarities between then and now. It’s uncomfortable, and devastating, and you should definitely go and see it.

The White Rose is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 4th August.

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Interview: Ross McGregor, The White Rose

Arrows & Traps have established themselves as a force to be reckoned with over the last few years with their unique and exciting adaptations of classic works of literature, from Shakespeare to Dostoevsky. But next week marks a new chapter for the company, as they present The White Rose, the first original play written by Arrows founder and artistic director Ross McGregor.

The White Rose tells the true account of the life of Sophie Scholl, a young student in Hitler’s Germany, who, with her brother Hans, forms a group of intellectual freedom fighters – calling themselves The White Rose,” explains Ross. “Together they lead the only major act of civil disobedience to the Third Reich. They have serious objections to what their government is doing during the war, particularly in Russia and Poland, and decide to voice their opinions in a series of leaflets that they write and distribute covertly all across Germany. Their resistance to the regime, although pacifist and passive in nature, causes major shockwaves all across the country, just at the point in 1943 when the war is turning in the Allies’ favour. It’s the story of a small group of young people standing up to the greatest act of brutality that modern history has ever seen.”

Photo credit: Arrows & Traps

Ross first heard Sophie’s story earlier this year on a podcast called ‘The women who changed history but were ultimately forgotten by it’, and realised that here in Britain, we know very little about her. “I don’t think the story is that well-known, at least not in England, and this production seeks, in a very small way, to rectify that. In Germany, Hans and Sophie Scholl are national heroes, with over 190 schools named in their honour, streets, town squares, foundations, museums – one of the group was even made a saint. In a recent poll on German television, German citizens were asked to vote for their Greatest German. Sophie and Hans came fourth. They beat Einstein, Bach and Beethoven. I felt this was a female-led story that needed to be told – and with the world as it is currently, and how those in power are treating the weak and vulnerable, it seemed incredibly topical.”

In light of recent news headlines (and the arrival of a certain U.S. president in London), the story of The White Rose feels even more frighteningly relevant. “You would hope that the horrors of the Third Reich were behind us, but you only have to turn on the news to see the latest updates on the concentration camps in America – land of the free,” says Ross. “Concentration camps are defined as a location where individuals are detained against their will indefinitely without trial, and that is exactly what the Trump administration is currently doing. Children are being separated from their parents, and specific minorities are being targeted as enemies of the state, being compared to criminals without a crime actually being committed. Our future lies in the voices of the next generation, and the principles that Sophie and the other members of the White Rose stood for are as valid and vital today as they were in 1943.”

The White Rose marks the next step in the Arrows journey, which began back in 2014 with Much Ado About Nothing at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre. “Since 2016, our last Shakespeare show, we’ve been moving towards more modern work – mainly because we’ve done so many Shakespeare plays, and he’s not writing any more so we’re running out of material,” says Ross, who’s directed all twelve Arrows productions to date. “I have a deep love of Russian literature, and so that was our focus to begin with, with Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment. As we moved forward, I began writing the shows, beginning with a Frankenstein that served also as a biopic of Mary Shelley herself, and an entirely new version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, adapted from the original Russian and a literal translation. After some success in the format, I felt it was time to do an original piece, without the comfort blanket of it being an adaptation, and Sophie’s story completely gripped me.

“When I was writing The White Rose there was an increased level of freedom, as the play has never been performed before, and you don’t have any ghosts of previous performances to exorcise or measure up to, but the writing of the script took a huge amount of research, which was a fascinating and thoroughly engrossing process. What quickly became clear was that all of the characters in the play could have had a play written about them, the source material was that rich, so it became more about working out what the focus was, and pairing the original story down into a theatrical form. Decide the story you want to tell, and try to tell it as cleanly and clearly as possible. It’s been an incredible honour to work on such a rich and detailed piece of history.”

Photo credit: Arrows & Traps

While adapting works of literature carries with it an obligation to honour both the source text and those who know and love it, Ross argues that telling a story based on real historical figures is an even greater responsibility: “With our previous work in adaptations, we tried to serve the fanbase of the original novels, whilst still infusing each piece with something original and modern, but with The White Rose we’re dealing with a true story, involving real people, real crimes, real deaths, and several members of the story are still alive today. There was an immense responsibility to stay true to the actual events that took place 75 years ago, to the extent that the script uses verbatim pieces of text from diaries, court transcripts, first person accounts and interrogation documents. The story was unbelievably brave, heartbreaking and inspiring just as it was, without any embellishment, and I wanted to honour the sacrifice this incredible group of young people made.”

Regular Arrows fans will recognise many familiar faces in the cast of The White Rose, which opens next week at the Brockley Jack Studio. “With this being such a special show, filled with such rich and nuanced characters, I wanted a cast that represented the best of what Arrows & Traps had to offer. Eight of the nine members of the cast are returning members to the company, and it filled me with such joy to cast them before the script was written, as it allowed me to write for the actors, and cultivate roles that I knew would challenge them, as well as play to their strengths.  I think a large part of the enjoyment of coming to see an Arrows show, as we’re a rep company, is to watch familiar faces in contrasting roles, and appreciate how that ensemble dynamic changes and shifts across the different texts we tackle. 

“We have our resident Movement Director Will Pinchin, who was an Off West End Award finalist for his portrayal of the Creature in our recent Frankenstein, returning as Hans Scholl. We have Off West End Award Best Actor nominee Christopher Tester (Crime and Punishment, Frankenstein) as Gestapo Interrogator Robert Mohr, Pearce Sampson (Macbeth, Gospel According to Philip, Othello, Twelfth Night, Three Sisters) returning as the heartbreakingly tragic Christoph Probst,  Conor Moss (Three Sisters) as the blisteringly funny Alexander Schmorell, Freddie Cambanakis (Three Sisters) as the dashing heartthrob Fritz Hartnagel, Beatrice Vincent (Frankenstein) as the powerhouse Traute Lafrenz, Alex Stevens (Titus Andronicus, Macbeth, Gospel According To Philip, Othello, Twelfth Night) returning as moral compass Willi Graf, and of course Cornelia Baumann (Taming Of The Shrew, Titus Andronicus, Anna Karenina, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Othello, Frankenstein, Three Sisters) playing Sophie’s cellmate Else Gebel. It’s gotten to the point where I’m not sure it would be an Arrows show if Cornelia wasn’t in it, she’s the heart of the company, and the best actress I’ve ever worked with. 

Photo credit: Arrows & Traps

“And lastly, but of course by no means least, we have the wonderful talent of Lucy Ioannou in the title role of Sophie Scholl. Although Lucy is new to the company, she has blown me away in rehearsal with her dedication to the role – she’s incredibly talented and an absolute joy to direct. For me, three weeks into rehearsal, she is Sophie Scholl.”

The Arrows’ next production after The White Rose sees a return to classic literature, as they turn their attention to a chilling new adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. “Dracula is again a new piece written in-house, which is going to be at the Brockley Jack just in time for Halloween,” says Ross. “Whilst having the focus of being an utterly terrifying experience, we’re also going to simultaneously tell the story of Bram Stoker, and his tumultuous relationship with infamous actor, arguably the most famous of his generation, Henry Irving. As the writer and director of the show, I’m currently in the research stages for the piece, and I cannot wait for it – we’re certainly ending the year with a bang, and have something truly spectacular planned for the new year, which I can’t talk about just yet. 

“I’d also like to take this opportunity to mention Artistic Director Kate Bannister, and Producer Karl Swinyard, at the Brockley Jack, who have supported our work for the last three years, and given us a home in which to cultivate our creative direction and find the work we wanted to make. You cannot hope to meet a more generous and caring theatre management team than Kate and Karl – they’re the best of the best, always on your side, and always open to taking new work. Kate fell in love with Sophie’s story from Day One, as she passionately cares about telling female-led stories, and supporting new writing, and it’s been such an honour to work with them on a great season so far.”

The White Rose runs from 17th July to 4th August at the Brockley Jack Studio.