Review: Jekyll and Hyde at Chickenshed

Like the gothic novella on which it’s based, Chickenshed’s new musical adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde is short and to the point. Storming through Robert Louis Stevenson’s story in around 70 minutes (plus interval), Jonny Morton’s highly physical piece takes the original plot and adds a modern twist to the performance, along with a strong theme of social responsibility that feels particularly resonant today.

The studio space at Chickenshed has been transformed by set designer Constance Villemot into a smoky, dimly lit Victorian London street, where the poor huddle in corners while the more well-to-do go about their business, blind to the suffering around them. The story’s opening incident, which sees Hyde trampling a young girl in the street, has been upgraded in this version from a moment of carelessness to a deliberate and prolonged attack, which is observed but not interrupted by passing lawyer Utterson (Demar Lambert) and his companion Dr Lanyon (Finn Kebbe). Their chief concern in that moment is not for the nameless girl who’s beaten and left for dead in the street, but for their friend Dr Jekyll (Nathaniel Leigertwood), who they fear is being blackmailed by the perpetrator of the attack, Hyde.

Utterson’s anxiety grows when he’s informed by Jekyll’s household staff, led by butler Poole (Will Laurence), that their master seems changed – but it’s only much later that he learns the truth: Hyde is Jekyll, transformed by a potion of the doctor’s own invention into a villain. Over time, this side of Jekyll has seized control and gone on the rampage, climaxing at the end of Act 1 with the brutal, unprovoked murder of philanthropist Sir Danvers Carew (Ecevit Kulucan) as he tends to the poor.

Both Jekyll and Hyde are played by Nathaniel Leigertwood, and while he gives a good performance as both, it’s as the more interesting of the two – Hyde – that he really comes into his own. His transformation from the elegant and mild-mannered Jekyll into Hyde (further enhanced by Andrew Caddies’ particularly atmospheric lighting) is frighteningly convincing: appearance, voice and personality all change beyond recognition as he’s wracked by spasms and emerges a hunched, animalistic figure with an evil cackle and an absolute lack of remorse.

Strong individual support comes in the form of Demar Lambert and Finn Kebbe as Utterson and Lanyon – the former a commanding presence, the latter ultimately a broken man destroyed by the knowledge of his complicity in Hyde’s crimes. In reality, however (and in keeping with Chickenshed’s inclusive philosophy), this is an ensemble piece; a diverse, hard-working and vocally impressive chorus perform the majority of the physically demanding musical numbers and provide commentary on events as they unfold.

Like the rest of the production, Dave Carey and Hanna Bohlin’s up-tempo rock musical score has a distinctly modern flavour. With no spoken dialogue, the show moves swiftly from one number to the next, managing to pack an impressive 21 songs (albeit with several reprises) into its 70-minute duration. There are occasions when the vocals struggle to compete with the volume of the pre-recorded soundtrack, and combined with the pace of some of the songs, this can make it difficult to catch every word. Perhaps in recognition of this, the “penny dreadfuls” that are distributed as we arrive contain a handy synopsis of the plot, while the title of each new chapter is projected on the wall to help us orientate ourselves and fill in any plot gaps.

With this production, Chickenshed proves once again that it knows how to entertain audiences with a good story. But the show also asks us to consider some pertinent and rather topical questions about the importance of the choices we make – for ourselves, for others and for society as a whole.

Jekyll and Hyde is at Chickenshed until 20th October.


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Review: Mr Stink at Chickenshed

Chickenshed is an inclusive theatre company that celebrates diversity in all its forms. Mr Stink is a story about a homeless man who’s befriended by a 12-year-old girl – the only person who ever bothers to stop and talk to him. Put the two together, and it’s pretty much a perfect fit.

The second novel from best-selling children’s author David Walliams is a heartwarming tale of friendship, loneliness and the social responsibility we all have to look out for our fellow human beings… even if they really, really stink. Adapted as a musical by director Lou Stein, it’s a colourful, funny and thought-provoking show for all ages, with songs that are so catchy you may well find yourself still singing them the next day, whether you want to or not (trust me on this, I speak from experience). And really, how can you not fall in love with a show that opens Act 2 with a musical number about sausages?

Mr Stink at Chickenshed
Photo credit: Caz Dyer for Chickenshed

Mr Stink (Bradley Davis) is an old “vagabond”, to use his word, who arrives in town one day and takes up residence on a bench. He and his dog are ostracised by the local community because they smell so bad, until one day Chloe Crumb (Lydia Stables) stops to say hello. Chloe has a nice house and a family; she goes to a posh school and always has enough to eat. But she’s also lonely and feels unloved by her exhaustingly perfect sister Annabelle (Maddie Kavanagh) and above all by her mother (Belinda McGuirk), a determined social climber running for election as a local MP. One of her campaign promises is to get “soap-dodgers” off the streets, and so to protect her new friend, Chloe moves him into the garden shed – but he doesn’t stay hidden for long…

Chickenshed never fail to impress with the quality of their productions, and Mr Stink is no exception, showcasing some excellent performances from the whole cast, and in particular Bradley Davis and Lydia Stables (sharing the role with Lucy-Mae Beacock) as Mr Stink and Chloe. Their blossoming friendship is a joy to watch, with each of them helping the other in ways they could never have predicted. Alongside them, Belinda McGuirk and Maddie Kavanagh (sharing her role with Courtney Dayes) are enjoyably loathsome as Mrs Crumb and Annabelle, while Ashley Driver plays the hapless Mr Crumb – who spends most of his time hiding from his wife – to great comic effect.

There’s also a delightful appearance by Goutham Rohan as Raj, the local shopkeeper, who’s always on hand with some helpful advice or a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stationery set. Oh, and did I mention Mr Stink marks the professional acting debut of a certain Jeremy Vine, who appears in a pre-recorded video segment as Sir Dave, the host of TV show Politics Today.

Mr Stink at Chickenshed
Photo credit: Caz Dyer for Chickenshed

The show looks amazing, too, with colourful and exceptionally detailed set and costumes designed by Keith Dunne, all of which are beautifully lit by Andrew Caddies. The musical numbers, written by Lou Stein and Dave Carey, may not add much to the story but they do provide a visual treat, and allow for the inclusion in the show of a small chorus ensemble, who execute Dina Williams’ choreography in the group numbers with flair and the boundless enthusiasm that’s such an irresistible feature of Chickenshed performances.

Like all good family shows, there’s something for everyone in Mr Stink; it’s a lot of fun and occasionally very silly, with humour that will tickle kids and adults alike. But it also makes a powerful point; while I don’t for a minute believe David Walliams wants us all to go out and find a homeless man to hide in the garden shed, what his story does show us is the importance of reaching out to help others, without making judgments about who they are or what they do. And that, I think, is a lesson we can all benefit from – whether we’re 8 or 80.

Mr Stink is at Chickenshed until 5th August.


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Review: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest at Chickenshed

Here’s an interesting piece of pub quiz trivia: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was both a novel and a play over a decade before it became an Oscar-winning movie. In fact Dale Wasserman wrote the play just a year after the publication of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel – long before Jack Nicholson and co got involved – and in doing so kept largely faithful to Kesey’s original plot. In taking on such a culturally significant story, Chickenshed and director Lou Stein have set themselves a daunting challenge. Having said that, this poignant and still relevant story about the way society treats those who don’t fit the mould feels like an appropriate choice for a theatre company that prides itself on making everyone welcome.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

In a psychiatric hospital in Oregon, the ward’s well-established and quietly humdrum routine is thrown into chaos by the arrival of Randall McMurphy, who’s managed to get himself committed in order to avoid a hard labour sentence for statutory rape. Almost immediately McMurphy clashes with the formidable Nurse Ratched, encouraging the other patients to have some fun and join him in rebelling against her reign of tyranny. At once harrowing and uplifting, you don’t need to have seen the movie (or indeed read the book) to appreciate why this story is hailed as a classic.

As ever at Chickenshed, a diverse cast brings Kesey’s characters to life, with an outstanding performance from leading man Olivier LeClair in particular. He’s got Jack Nicholson’s beanie hat and sly grin, but otherwise succeeds in making this iconic role completely his own, in a charismatic and energetic turn that has us on his side from the beginning. Belinda McGuirk’s Nurse Ratched is introduced more subtly, her seemingly compassionate manner gradually revealed to be a facade as she manipulates and belittles her patients – not to mention the ward doctor – into submission. There are moving performances also from Bradley Davis as Chief Bromden, a Native American patient who’s feigned being deaf and mute for years, and Finn Walters as shy, stuttering Billy Bibbit, who’s spent his whole life feeling like a disappointment, and just wants someone to love him.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

The production makes use of every little bit of space in the intimate studio theatre; characters often speak (or sing) from off stage, and the action even expands into the corridor outside at one point. Nor does everything happen at floor level – Robin Don’s set features a slanting roof window that opens skywards, offering the characters a way in… and potentially a way out, if they only have the nerve to take it. The fact that most of the patients are revealed to be on the ward voluntarily speaks volumes about a world where being different is so hard that they’d rather not even try. And while the clinical practices portrayed in the play may no longer be used today, society’s understanding of mental illness is still dangerously insufficient, making One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest as relevant now as it was when Ken Kesey first put pen to paper.

In a rather unhappy coincidence, Chickenshed’s production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest opened just a few days after the death of Miloš Forman, who directed the acclaimed 1975 movie adaptation. In the show programme, Lou Stein dedicates the production to Forman – and this unique, courageous and entertaining play makes a fitting tribute.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is at Chickenshed until 12th May.


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Review: Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow at Chickenshed

As the narrator of Chickenshed’s Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow – a fictional climate change artist called Oscar Buhari – points out, here in the UK we’ve become largely desensitised to the topic of saving the planet. Living as we do in our privileged first world environment, it’s difficult for us to really appreciate the damage that’s already being done, and which will only get worse, as a result of our own irresponsible actions.

The show aims to tackle this by discussing climate change not in terms of the theoretical science (though there is a little of that), but through showing us the real world implications for both our fellow citizens of the world, and ultimately for ourselves. The result is a show that is big, bold and visually stunning, but also terrifying and humbling – not least because it’s performed by a young cast who understand that they’ll be left to deal with the chaos previous generations have created.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

Lou Stein’s production is made up of several short pieces blending dance, song and spoken word, each introduced by a short monologue from the affable Oscar Buhari, played by Ashley Driver. These performances take us from the depths of the sea, where marine life is destroyed by an army of discarded plastic, to the lively streets of New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina approaches, to an imagined future world whose limited water supply is rationed by a little more each day. The theme of refugees also recurs several times, with stark reminders that it’s not only war that can drive people from their homes.

It’s not all bad news, though, and the show does conclude on a positive note, first by introducing us to two resourceful communities who brought their villages back from the brink of disaster, and finally with a word of gentle advice from Oscar: he’s shown us the picture as he sees it, and now it’s up to us to decide what to do about it.

Musical director Dave Carey’s score features original music, as well as excellent live renditions of popular tracks including Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, Johnny Cash’s Hurt and Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, all imbued with new significance by the context of the show. There’s also a reworded version of The Star-Spangled Banner, reflecting the inadequate political response to Katrina, which packs quite a punch – especially when accompanied by a photo of George W. Bush looking down on the devastation from the safety of Air Force One.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

Although each piece was devised by a different team and therefore has its own unique style, they’re all united by a creative incorporation of recycled everyday materials, and a use of colour and light that really brings each performance to life. And as always, it’s a pleasure to see the inclusivity that is Chickenshed’s driving force reflected on stage, both in the show’s large and diverse cast and in the collaborative, mutually supportive spirit of the performance. The young ensemble shows a real understanding of the show’s important message, and their energy and commitment is infectious.

Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow is a powerful call to arms that looks and sounds great, and also makes you stop and think about the careless way we treat our planet, and what the impact of that might be. A fascinating watch, this show is well worth the long trip to the end of the Piccadilly Line.

Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow is at Chickenshed until 31st March.


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Interview: Lou Stein, Chickenshed

When Lou Stein became Artistic Director of Chickenshed in 2016, it was the latest move in an already long and distinguished career. As founder of Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre and former Artistic Director of Watford Palace Theatre, he brings to the role a wealth of professional experience – but also a unique personal appreciation for the value of Chickenshed’s work.

My son Ethan, who is now eleven, has been a member of Chickenshed’s Children’s Theatre since he was seven, and it was he who brought me to Chickenshed,” explains Lou. “He has Down Syndrome and I began to see the organisation through his eyes – the eyes of a young person with ambition who doesn’t want to be labelled as having a disability, and who loves theatre. When I saw the job advertised, I saw it as an opportunity to re-focus the direction of the company to re-energise its purpose.”

That purpose is to pioneer inclusive theatre practice, something Chickenshed has been doing for over 40 years, since the company was established in 1974 by its founder – and Lou’s predecessor – Mary Ward. In addition to its professional theatre programme, Chickenshed also has a Children’s Theatre membership programme, a Youth Theatre, an Outreach Programme, a Performances for Children division, and runs an expansive Education programme ranging from BTEC to BA courses.

The uniqueness of Chickenshed is that all our various parts work together to embed notions of inclusion and diversion across everything we do,” says Lou. “In short, inclusive theatre is the language which propels all of our activities. The most exciting thing about Chickenshed for me is that when you walk through our doors, all labels are dropped. When I talk about it, I always love the fact that we have the most diverse performers and audiences in the UK. My biggest challenge as Artistic Director has been to harness the amazing core ethos of the company, which has been in development now for 44 years, and work with the company to make our current work relevant to the future and to our societal goals.”

Originally from New York, Lou arrived in London in 1978 with a life-long interest in European theatre and politics. That passion found an outlet the following year in a room above Notting Hill’s Prince Albert pub, which would become the Gate Theatre. The Gate reflected the then bohemian community in Notting Hill and the work there was devoted to international drama, particularly work that hadn’t received an outing in the UK,” says Lou. “At that time, the chance to see innovative international work was limited and the Gate filled a very important gap. When I left to become the Artistic Director of Watford Palace, I ensured that the core of the Gate’s future work was always to centre on daring, political, and innovative premieres of international drama. And that has been the bedrock of the Gate’s success throughout the years. I am so proud that it has spawned so many brilliant directors, actors, designers and playwrights.”

After ten years as Artistic Director at Watford Palace, where he worked with some of the best talent in the UK – including Helen Mirren, who turned down a stint at the RSC to appear in a new version of Madame Bovary – Lou formed his own production company to begin creating new work which explored collaboration between art forms, particularly contemporary music and theatre.

I have always been proudest of work that I’ve done which has somehow broken ground or pointed to new directions in how things can be done,” he says. Highlights come in many shapes and forms, and the projects that stand out have somehow either changed me or people around me. Certainly the raw creativity and freedom of those early years at the Gate was a huge highlight. The Gate story is a bit of a Cinderella story. With no funding in what was a very down at the heel pub, a group of outsiders came together to create work which was highly recognised very quickly.”

Another highlight for Lou is his adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which was the first production at what was then called the Gate at the Latchmere (now Theatre 503), before transferring to the Fortune Theatre in the West End. “I’ll never forget Hunter Thompson – a notoriously reclusive writer – saying that he was flying in from his home in Aspen, Colorado to see the show, and if he didn’t like it, he was going to tear the theatre apart,” he recalls. “Luckily, he loved it.”

Before coming to Chickenshed, Lou wrote, produced and directed regularly for BBC Radio 3 and 4.After my son Ethan was born, I was commissioned to write and curate a five part programme for The Essay about how children affect the creations of their artist-fathers – The Father Instinct,” he explains. “In the first episode I wrote about how Ethan positively changed my work as a director and writer, and how I approach my work. His birth was the biggest highlight of my career in that what I choose to do, and how I do it, changed dramatically. Without Ethan, I wouldn’t be at Chickenshed.”

Chickenshed’s spring season recently opened with monolog, featuring a timely revival of Alan Bennett’s Her Big Chance, the world premiere of Diane Samuels’ This Is Me, and six new monologues commissioned by Chickenshed from within the creative community. This will be followed in March by a new musical piece about climate change, called Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, which features nearly 150 performers drawn from young members and professional creatives who are part of Chickenshed.

Finally, in April the company presents One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest, using a physical theatre approach and working with actors drawn from its professional staff, and a number of Chickenshed actors who will bring a special understanding of the play by drawing on their cognitive disability. “I don’t know of any theatre in the country who have the courage to do a play like this with a cast as diverse, in all ways, as ours will be,” says Lou.

The professional theatre programme is the spearhead for all our activities, and by producing high quality inclusive work, all of our various strands are pulled together. My vision for Chickenshed is that it will be a confident and highly skilled professional inclusive theatre company, which clearly places itself at the centre of London theatre’s consciousness, producing unmissable work – regularly partnering with similarly minded companies and institutions. It would be good if the Arts Council recognises this new direction and helps us to sustain this goal in the future.”

To find out more about Chickenshed, visit chickenshed.org.uk