Review: Murder, She Didn’t Write at Leicester Square Theatre

It’s not often you get to start a review of a murder mystery by revealing whodunnit, but here goes: it was Scarlett, in the cattery, with a seatless unicycle (I’ll leave the gory details to your imagination). And I can tell you all this with a clear conscience because Murder, She Didn’t Write from Bristol-based improv company Degrees of Error is, by its very nature, different every time. It’s also extremely silly, slightly nonsensical and very, very funny.

Going in, the cast know as much as we do – that someone’s about to die, and that someone else dunnit. The details of where and how are provided by the audience at the start of the show, while the identities of killer and victim are surreptitiously selected by “Jerkins”, a.k.a. an unsuspecting member of the audience drafted in to play Detective Genevieve Foxcroft’s incompetent assistant. (Nothing to be alarmed about if you’re averse to a bit of audience participation – it’s a crucial but not particularly demanding role.)

Photo credit: Jamie Corbin

Equipped with the bare bones, the cast of six (on this occasion Peter Baker, Lizzy Skrzypiec, Tessa Gaukroger, Tom Bridges, Caitlin Campbell and Rachael Procter-Lane – accompanied by musical director Sara Garrard on piano) spend the next couple of hours working their magic live on stage, rapidly pulling out of the hat a convoluted tale about some clowns and a taxidermist who are, naturally, invited to celebrate a cat’s birthday. It doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, but it’s not like anybody’s there looking for a coherent plot. What we want – and what we get – is to see a talented cast of comedy actors adapting to every bizarre new twist, whilst doing their best to put each other off their stride at every possible opportunity.

Unsurprisingly, there’s no shortage of running jokes, particularly inspired at this show by the helpful audience suggestion of a cat’s birthday, which proved to be the source of exactly as much innuendo as you might imagine. We also got recurring gags about the dubious merits of being French, an extremely flimsy broom cupboard, the correct way to pronounce Bicester, and the ever-increasing age of two of the characters (who certainly didn’t look like they were in their eighties…) Some lines work better than others, but that’s to be expected and forgiven in a show of this kind; besides, the pace of the show is such that any awkward moments are quickly forgotten, and/or plunged into darkness with expert comic timing by lighting designer Alex Hoyle.

Like any ingenious magic trick, you can’t help but wonder from time to time just how they do it. But there are no smoke and mirrors here; although we have to assume some kind of framework exists before the show begins, the crowd-pleasing success of Murder, She Didn’t Write lies with the quick thinking of a clever and extraordinarily versatile cast.

And Jerkins, obviously.

Murder, She Didn’t Write returns to Leicester Square Theatre on Sunday 18th November. For other dates and venues, visit degreesoferror.com.

Review: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City at Finborough Theatre

Cancer is no laughing matter… or is it? In the European premiere of Halley Feiffer’s play, which for the sake of brevity let’s call A Funny Thing Happened, we’re respectfully invited to see the humorous side of an incredibly serious situation.

Karla’s mum has cancer. So does Don’s. She’s a stand-up comedian with abandonment issues. He’s a divorced millionaire with a “sea foam green” apartment he can’t bring himself to live in. The first time they meet, she’s working aloud on a comedy routine about her vibrator, and he – not entirely without justification – is appalled. They have nothing at all in common besides the two women sleeping quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) in the beds beside them, but that single shared experience is enough to spark a surprising connection.

Photo credit: James O Jenkins

The vibrator jokes, as it turns out, are just the tip of the iceberg – but despite the ever-present gallows humour, there’s something very uplifting about this story of two unlikely companions working their way together through a devastating situation. It’s an unconventional, sometimes undignified and often wildly inappropriate journey – but does that mean they’re doing it wrong?

As Karla and Don, Cariad Lloyd and Rob Crouch have great on-stage chemistry, showing us multiple sides of each character as the dynamic of their relationship shifts. Just as in real life, there are moments when they each know exactly what to say or do to make the other feel better – but equally there are occasions where Feiffer acknowledges that there simply aren’t adequate words to make sense of what they’re going through.

On paper, Kristin Milward and Cara Chase have a lot less to do as the mums, Marcie and Geena, who spend most of their time sleeping – but their presence (and occasional contributions) become a vital backdrop to both the story and the characters within it. When Marcie wakes up, about halfway through the play, it’s quite a curveball; very quickly we have a much clearer understanding of why Karla is the way she is, but we also have to face up to the inconvenient truth that nobody wants to say aloud – not all cancer patients are nice people.

Photo credit: James O Jenkins

Isabella van Braeckel’s set recreates the hospital environment down to the last detail; I could swear I caught a whiff of disinfectant in the air on the way in. The long curtain that spans the stage, shielding the patients from view, cleverly doubles up to do the same for the actors during a couple of fairly lengthy scene changes.

Terminal cancer is of course, in itself, not at all funny – and even less so in the States, where the cost of healthcare in a time of crisis only makes an unbearable situation even worse. A Funny Thing Happened respects that, and knows when to stop joking around and take itself seriously; the final scenes, in particular, are sensitively written and poignantly portrayed. In fact, the subject is so well handled that audiences are more likely to be offended by the foul-mouthed content of the jokes than the fact that jokes are being made in the first place. Cancer might be a formidable opponent, and it may well get the better of us eventually – but, as this play proves, that doesn’t mean we can’t have a big old laugh in its face first.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City is at Finborough Theatre until 27th October.


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Review: Hamilton (Lewis) at the King’s Head Theatre

As you may have heard, a little show called Hamilton opened last year in the West End. It’s been fairly successful, and it’s no big surprise that it’s already been the inspiration for more than one comedic parody. One of these is Hamilton (Lewis) by Fiona English and David Eaton, freshly returned from Edinburgh to the King’s Head, which tells the somewhat less epic story of – you guessed it, British Formula 1 star Lewis Hamilton.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

Born and raised in Stevenage, young Lewis (Letitia Hector) wants only one thing: to become world champion. Until 2007, when he’s taken on by Big Ron Dennis (Jamie Barwood) to join the team at McLaren, and meets his villainous teammate/rival Fernando Alonso (Louis Mackrodt), who advises him to “drive less… smile more” and focus instead on building his brand. Cue a seven-year celebrity romance with the only Pussycat Doll anyone ever remembers, Nicole Scherzinger (Liberty Buckland), which gets them on the cover of Hello! magazine but otherwise proves wholly unsatisfying on both sides. Driven by an increasingly obsessive ambition to regain his world champion title at all costs, Hamilton loses sight of what’s important and – well, that’s it really; it’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that this story doesn’t end in a deadly duel.

A pre-show disclaimer from the cast makes it clear we shouldn’t get our hopes up too much; after all, it took Lin-Manuel Miranda over four years to write Hamilton, and who has that kind of time on their hands? Instead, Benji Sperring’s production openly plays to its disadvantages, turning its lack of budget, actors and stage space into a running joke. Similarly, there’s no hesitation about admitting that compared with the charismatic Hamilton (Alexander), Hamilton (Lewis) is considerably less interesting, and much of the humour takes aim directly at the characters; nobody comes out of this story in a particularly positive light.

The main joke, though, is obviously the references to Hamilton. Some of these are blatant, others more subtle – but while the story can and does stand alone, the nods occur frequently enough in both script and musical numbers that to fully appreciate what’s going on, you probably need to have at least listened to the Hamilton soundtrack once or twice. Taking such a universally adored show as its inspiration pretty much guarantees a warm reception from an audience who are quickly able to spot the successful jokes, and willing to forgive when a few of them fail to land.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

The production’s biggest success is its excellent cast, who deliver strong vocal performances even as they embrace the madness, hamming it up to outrageous levels in the name of comedy. There’s nothing more enjoyable for an audience than seeing the actors having a good time on stage, and this cast are clearly enjoying themselves immensely.

If you turn up at the King’s Head expecting Hamilton, you’ll be disappointed on several different fronts. But then again, Hamilton (Lewis) never claims to be Hamilton – in fact the cast take great pains to point out to any lawyers in attendance that it definitely isn’t. Chaotic, silly and 100% unendorsed, it nonetheless makes an enjoyable pit stop while you wait for your next chance to buy tickets to the original.

Hamilton (Lewis) is at the King’s Head Theatre until 22nd September.

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… 😉

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: Much Ado About Nothing at Gray’s Inn Hall

Well, it’s official. I was already a fan of Antic Disposition’s work after enjoying their productions of Henry V and Richard III – but their latest offering, a joyous and hilarious take on Much Ado About Nothing, has well and truly sealed the deal. The play itself I have all kinds of issues with, but I’m not going to get into those, because I had such a great time watching this production that I’m seriously considering a return visit before the run ends on 1st September.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Transplanted from Italy to a small French village at the end of World War II, Much Ado sees Don Pedro (Theo Landey) and his triumphant soldiers call in to visit the town’s Governor, Leonato (Chris Hespel) on their way home. One of the officers, Claudio (Alexander Varey), falls in love with Leonato’s daughter Hero (Floriane Andersen), and Don Pedro steps in to arrange their marriage. He then turns his attention to convincing Hero’s cousin Béatrice (Chiraz Aïch) and another of his men, Benedick (Nicholas Osmond), that their constant bickering actually masks much deeper feelings. It’s all going swimmingly, until Pedro’s bastard brother Don John (Alfie Webster) teams up with soldier Borachio (Tommy Burgess) and Hero’s unwitting maid Margaret (Molly Miles) to convince Claudio that Hero’s been unfaithful to him, leading him to publicly shame her and leave her for dead on her wedding day. But this is a Shakespearean comedy, so we can all guess what happens next: Don John’s plot is uncovered, all is forgiven, and everyone has a song and dance to end the evening.

The Anglo-French cast are superb. Chiraz Aïch and Nicholas Osmond give brilliant verbal and physical comedy performances as Béatrice and Benedick, while Alexander Varey is a perfectly petulant Claudio to Floriane Andersen’s tender-hearted (and, in my opinion, far too forgiving) Hero. But the stars of the show, for me, are the two relatively minor characters of Dogberry and Verges, played by the wonderful Louis Bernard and Scott Brooks. Presumably there’s not a lot of policing to be done in this small rural village, because Constable Dogberry and his long-suffering deputy also appear to run – somewhat ineptly – a cafe on the side. This not only means we get to see much more of their characters in Act 1 than we usually would; it also allows directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero to explore the predominantly silent comedic style of French film director Jacques Tati. Bernard is particularly delightful to watch; we may not understand everything he says but such is his charisma it really doesn’t matter – and because English isn’t Dogberry’s native language, we’re much more sympathetically inclined than usual towards him and his bizarre vocabulary. (Also, “I am an ass!” sounds much funnier in a French accent.)

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

In addition to the bilingual cast, there are other elements of the production that will be familiar to fans of Antic Disposition’s previous shows. Music plays an important part in the play; Nick Barstow’s compositions, performed by the cast, contribute to the evening’s celebratory mood. The venue too is unique: having visited some of the nation’s most stunning cathedrals during July, followed by performances in France earlier this month, the tour concludes at London’s historic Gray’s Inn Hall, which is transformed for the occasion into Dogberry’s very traditional French cafe.

In summary, this production is so much fun that you’re pretty much guaranteed to leave with a smile on your face (and possibly with a hankering to run away to the French countryside). Don’t miss the final few opportunities to be charmed by this riotously entertaining clash of cultures.

Much Ado About Nothing is at Gray’s Inn Hall until 1st September.

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…