Review: The Importance of Being Earnest – played by immigrants at Tower Theatre

There’s a good reason The Importance of Being Earnest remains one of the most popular comedies in British theatre. It’s a very silly story about ridiculous people doing utterly implausible things, and yet for all its joyous irreverence, the play still has plenty to say about society, class and the judgments we make about each other based on little more than a name or birthplace.

It’s this last that most informs Pan Productions’ unique and memorable adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s classic. The company’s first production in English, its cast is made up entirely of immigrants whose first languages include French, Turkish and Greek. These actors may never have had to confess to being found in a handbag at Victoria Station, but they’ve all certainly had to explain and perhaps even justify where they come from, probably on more than one occasion. So it’s through their eyes that we see this very English comedy unfold, cucumber sandwiches and all, as friends Jack (Louis Pottier Arniaud) and Algernon (Duncan Rowe) pursue two women who know exactly what they want – and, more importantly, what they don’t – in a suitable husband.

There’s no denying that the vision of director Aylin Bozok is an unusual one, though that’s by no means a bad thing – after so many “traditional” versions of the play, a fresh take is more than welcome. The modern dress production retains Wilde’s script, albeit peppered with moments where the cast slip back into their native languages, but beyond that this interpretation bears little resemblance to the genteel Victorian drama we know. It’s still a comedy, yet visually and tonally the play is much darker than we’re used to; there’s a decidedly gothic feel to the production that’s unexpected, to say the least. The pace is also considerably slower, though there’s never any danger of the audience’s attention wandering – the deliberation that goes into each and every movement is fascinating, and ultimately proves to be a source of comedy in itself. (Who knew watching someone painstakingly lower themselves on to a sofa could raise so many laughs?)

Another intriguing, if slightly confusing, aspect is the suggestion that the characters, for all their wealth and social standing, have no control over their own story. Instead, that power lies with the omnipresent and slightly sinister character of the maid (Nea Cornér), who encompasses both manservants, Lane and Merriman, while also filling the role of a Greek chorus and a puppeteer who manoeuvres the characters on, off and around the stage. While this is an interesting take, at times it feels like a bit of a distraction – due in no small part to Nea Cornér, whose performance is completely compelling throughout. The problem is that the production is already so rich in detail that we have more than enough to look at and absorb, and by adding another element to it, we find ourselves at times not knowing quite where to look.

The cast are uniformly excellent, taking recognisable characters and breathing fresh life into them; particular highlights among many include Glykeria Dimou’s feisty teenager Cecily and Pinar Öğün’s perfectly poised Gwendolen. The actors are all clearly enjoying themselves with Wilde’s use of language, and this in turn allows the audience to hear the familiar text afresh. Some of the more famous lines are played down – Lady Bracknell’s appalled exclamation of “a handbag?!” is delivered by Ece Özdemiroğlu as little more than an incredulous and even mildly amused murmur – while others are elevated to new significance through deliberate mispronunciation and subsequent gentle correction by the rest of the cast.

Though it at times veers towards trying to do too much, this unique new take on The Importance of Being Earnest certainly hits the mark in terms of both entertainment and intrigue. It’s also a very polished and precise production, where every aspect has clearly been given careful consideration – which in turn leaves the audience with plenty to think about on the ride home and beyond.

The Importance of Being Earnest – played by immigrants is at Tower Theatre until 18th January.

Review: Flesh and Bone at Soho Theatre

Written by Unpolished Theatre’s Elliot Warren, who also performs and directs alongside co-founder Olivia Brady, Flesh and Bone is a funny, gritty and sharply topical portrayal of everyday life on a working-class estate in East London.

Tel (Warren) lives with his brother Reiss (Michael Jinks), his girlfriend Kel (Brady) and her grandad (Nick T Frost) in a rat-infested apartment block that’s just been scheduled for demolition. With money scarce, wannabe singer Kelly puts her vocal talents to profitable use by getting a job on a sex chatline, and Reiss works behind the bar in a Soho club, where he makes a startling – and not entirely welcome – discovery about his sexuality. Meanwhile Grandad’s mourning the loss of the good old days, and Tel, whose rage issues mean he can’t hold down a job, ends up robbing the local corner shop with downstairs neighbour and local drug dealer Jamal (Alessandro Babalola) in an attempt to raise some extra cash.

Flesh and Bone at Soho Theatre
Photo credit: Owen Baker

They’re a motley crew, as evidenced in an opening scene that sees them all caught up in a violent brawl over a plate of scampi at the local pub. But while the play is, on the surface, a comedy that revels in its characters’ larger than life personalities, its message is more complex than we might first assume. As each of the five steps into the spotlight to tell their story, we get a glimpse beyond the stereotype and begin to appreciate their daily struggle to be seen, heard and understood, not just by the rest of society but within their own community. Each of the five characters hides a secret from their peers, held back from revealing the truth by a fear of judgment – and yet despite these internal fractures, in moments of crisis they’re able to put their differences aside and come together to defend their way of life against outside threats.

The company’s name is very quickly revealed to be a misnomer, as the play’s first rate cast are anything but unpolished. Everything about the performance is so slick and assured that even the script’s infusion of Shakespearean verse with a 21st century Cockney flavour feels completely natural, and combined with the intricately choreographed physicality of the ensemble scenes, holds our unwavering attention for the play’s full 80 minutes. The audience is an acknowledged and important part of the production, which draws us into the world of the characters with its humour and honesty, but never quite lets us forget that we’re only there as observers – so while Tel, Kel and friends may pour out their hearts to us, they’re also not afraid to issue a challenge if they feel they’re not being taken seriously. We’re on their turf, and they make sure we know it.

Flesh and Bone at Soho Theatre
Photo credit: Owen Baker

Inspired by Elliot Warren’s own East End heritage, Flesh and Bone is an affectionate, entertaining and unapologetically irreverent tribute to a community that’s much more than a caricature, and has plenty to say for itself if only anybody would listen. But it also tackles universal themes – homosexuality, bereavement, misogyny and more – that will strike a chord with audiences from any background. If this is the debut production from Unpolished Theatre, then I can’t wait to see what they do next.

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… 😉

Interview: Jemma McDonnell, Mobile

The Paper Birds are a devising theatre company with a political agenda, currently touring the country with Mobile, the second show in a trilogy about social class. Staged in a caravan for audiences of up to eight people at a time, the show is an intimate piece of verbatim theatre based on personal testimonies, and will be popping up at the seaside, on high streets, at schools, and in arts centres and theatres all over the UK until October.

“We want people to think about social class and social mobility,” says The Paper Birds’ Artistic Director, Jemma McDonnell. “Who are you and how do you experience the world? Did the start in life that your parents gave you determine who you would be? Is the society we live in one that gives everyone an equal opportunity? And if not, is this important?

“We were keen to make a trilogy about class because it is so complex in the way it shadows who we are and what we do in the world. We began by collaborating with a sociologist, Dr Sam Friedman from London School of Economics, who shared a range of verbatim interviews with us that he had undertaken as part of his research. This led us to talking to more communities and beginning to shape a show that really explored ideas around social mobility.”

Photo Credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard

While it’s undoubtedly a unique and fascinating choice of setting, staging a show in a caravan is not without its equally unique challenges: “The caravan is very intimate and this allowed us to use theatrical images and trickery that would not be impactful in a larger traditional theatre space,” explains Jemma. “But the caravan’s size was also its downfall, as limited space meant we had to be creative with the ways we created our characters. Luckily, we managed to come up with a few tricks!

“The show is made to be highly accessible. It can travel, it is only 40 minutes long and there is a cap on ticket prices. We want people to take a risk on the show, to be brave and step inside the caravan with us!”

And people, it seems, are happy to take that risk; having already been on tour since May, the company have found audiences very receptive to the unusual format of the show. “Overwhelmingly so,” confirms Jemma. “Audience feedback and responses have been fantastic. People love to try something different and whilst the caravan looks ordinary from the outside, it has many unexpected surprises inside that the audiences have loved.”

Photo Credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard

The Paper Birds are an established company aiming to inspire, educate, and make big socio-political subjects accessible. “We met whilst at Bretton Hall, Leeds University studying,” explains Jemma. “We graduated in 2003 and have been making work together since. As a company, we make political work that gives people a voice. Sometimes it is our voice, more often the shows are based on people we meet around the UK. We want to make work that has an impact socially.”

Intrigued? Catch Mobile on tour – visit for all dates and venues.

Interview: Paul Bradley, Caste

Best known to many for his long-running roles in Eastenders and Holby City, next month Paul Bradley will be taking to the stage at the Finborough Theatre in a long-awaited revival of T.W. Robertson’s Caste. This new production from Project One marks the 150th anniversary of the ground-breaking comedy, which hasn’t been performed in the UK for over 20 years.

So what’s it all about? “Well of course the clue’s in the title,” says Paul. “It’s a play about social divisions in Victorian London. Eccles, a drunken father with no money, has two daughters: Esther, who’s being courted by George, an aristocrat and miles above her in social station; and Polly, who’s being courted by Sam, a man of her own social class. George’s mother is a snobbish Marquise who disapproves completely of the match and is appalled by the Eccles family. George and Esther marry but he’s called to fight in India. He disappears and Esther’s father drinks and gambles away all the money that had been left for her and she’s now, as well as having given birth to a son, impoverished again. I won’t spoil the denouement but it’s a comedy so all ends well!”

Photo credit: Greg Veit Photography

Paul joins the cast – which also features another TV favourite, Susan Penhaligon – as Esther’s father Eccles, and he’s enjoying exploring his character’s hidden depths: “Eccles is a drunken father – so a bit of a stretch for me there! He’s a complicated man. On the surface he seems just a drunken beggar, but he’s intelligent and sees himself as being as good as anyone in a higher station. He is also cruel and has an addict’s selfishness. He claims to be a champion of the working man but hasn’t worked a stroke in twenty years. Although he doesn’t live by them, the sentiments he spouts are commendable; he’s a victim of both his circumstances and his own ‘life choices’.”

Caste was described by George Bernard Shaw as “epoch making” – but what made Robertson’s play so revolutionary for its time? “It’s the first ‘cup and saucer’ play – the equivalent of the 60’s ‘kitchen sink’ dramas,” explains Paul. “And it’s as radical as they also were. The people and situations are realistic – a mirror to nature of Two Nation Britain. It’s also that rare thing; a funny play which looks at English social mores.”

And Paul believes the play is just as forward-thinking today as it was 150 years ago. “Absolutely. It’s so modern, so – depressingly – relevant. A real political play. It expresses, in a comical way, real, deep concerns about class, aristocracy, poverty and social mobility.

“It’s very funny and moving and a sort of social document. I think it will amuse, move but also leave an audience thinking. It spotlights the challenge of social mobility. Without satire it introduces real characters whose social gulf seems insuperable but who, in finding love, see that gulf as irrelevant.”

Photo credit: Greg Veit Photography

Caste‘s production team is headed up by director Charlotte Peters, currently Resident Director on An Inspector Calls in the West End. “I’m rather daunted by how brilliant the cast and director and designer are,” says Paul. “They’re a brilliant team who are all committed to making this show a landmark production.”

It’s been more than two decades since Caste was seen in the UK, and Paul’s delighted to be bringing the play to a new audience. “When I first read the play I loved it and felt I had to be part of it. I can’t believe that this hugely influential work hasn’t been performed for so long. It’s the sort of groundbreaking play that the National or RSC should be championing.

“Because it is such a gem I feel a responsibility to live up to the author’s vision, and I think this is a view shared by us all. With a play of such quality it is a gift to be a part of the production. I hope that we start a re-appreciation of Robertson’s work and find a new audience for him.”

Caste is at the Finborough Theatre on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays from 2nd-18th April.

Review: All Male H.M.S. Pinafore at Hackney Empire

As a newcomer not just to H.M.S. Pinafore but to Gilbert and Sullivan in general (hangs head in shame), I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from an all male version of the popular comic opera – but it’s safe to say I’m officially sold. Inspired by memories of childhood productions at her girls only school, director Sasha Regan has assembled a talented and enthusiastic cast who know how to have fun with the concept, but never compromise on the quality of their performance.

This version of H.M.S. Pinafore sees some bored sailors on a World War II battleship entertaining themselves by recreating the story of humble sailor Ralph Rackstraw, who’s in love with his captain’s daughter, Josephine. It seems like Josephine might just feel the same way, but she’s held back by Ralph’s social inferiority and her father’s wish that she should marry the ridiculous (but rich) Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B., the First Lord of the Admiralty. One melodramatic suicide attempt later, the lovers decide to elope but are caught by her father, and all seems lost until the revelation of a bizarre secret sets everything right and brings the story to a neat and happy -if a teeny bit weird – conclusion.

Photo credit: Francis Loney
Photo credit: Francis Loney
The show was written as light entertainment, poking affectionate fun at the English obsession with class, and the allocation of positions of power based on social standing rather than any kind of ability. The main target of the satire is the diminutive and rosy-cheeked Sir Joseph, whose pomposity is softened only by his unfailingly good manners. Michael Burgen plays his character’s absurdities to the max, sharing some particularly enjoyable comic scenes with Neil Moors’ Captain Corcoran. 

But there’s additional enjoyment to be had here in watching the male actors camp it up in the female roles, a task to which they devote themselves with great enthusiasm. It’s an idea that could have gone horribly wrong – but any fears that the all male casting might lead the show to feel gimmicky, or that the quality of the musical numbers could suffer from the absence of female voices, are quickly dispelled by some fabulous performances from male and female characters alike, backed by musical director Richard Bates on piano. Ben Irish, in particular, is exquisite as Josephine, his clear, beautiful falsetto hitting the high notes with enviable ease.

Photo credit: Francis Loney
Photo credit: Francis Loney
Lizzi Gee’s choreography is slick and polished, and the show is full of energy and movement, so there’s literally never a dull moment, whether the actors are somersaulting or skipping across the set. The simple staging, which sees a rope, a few boxes and some bunk beds used to great creative effect, is a charming reminder that sometimes you don’t need big budgets, an enormous orchestra or complex special effects to make fantastic theatre, as long as you’ve got enthusiasm, energy and a desire to entertain – oh, and a few catchy tunes. These are things this production and its fantastic cast have in buckets, and the result is as enjoyable to watch as any lavish West End show. Highly recommended.

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… 😉