Review: Never Trust a Man Bun at Stockwell Playhouse

Double dates don’t get much more awkward than this one. Lucy (Katherine Thomas) just wants to stay home and watch Gogglebox – but her best friend Gus (Calum Robshaw) and his recently back-on-again girlfriend Rachael (Natasha Grace Hutt) have other ideas. They’ve just announced they’ve set her up with the man bun-sporting Caps (Jack Forsyth Noble), for some unfathomable reason; the two of them are clearly a match made in hell from the moment they set eyes on each other. It doesn’t help that Caps has got his eye on Rachael, and soon he’s trying to drag Lucy into his dastardly plan to steal her from Gus. Worse: she’s actually thinking about it, for reasons that both confuse and annoy her.

Never Trust a Man Bun at Stockwell Playhouse

Katherine Thomas makes her professional writing debut with Never Trust a Man Bun, which transfers to Stockwell Playhouse following a short run at Theatre N16. Under Scott Le Crass’ direction, the jokes fly thick and fast through the course of one disastrous evening – most of them at the expense of one or other of the characters. As in any good sitcom, each has their “thing”: Rachael is irritating and almost unbelievably stupid (“the plural of ‘mice’ is ‘mice’!” she declares proudly at one point), Gus is a total pushover, Caps is obnoxious, manipulative and not ashamed to use his autistic sister to get sympathy, and Lucy’s default setting against everyone – even people she likes – appears to be defensive sarcasm and general nastiness. It’s no surprise the evening doesn’t end well; what’s significantly more surprising is that we don’t end up hating everyone on stage.

The jokes are well-placed and delivered with excellent comic timing by the cast of four, though a couple of the gags go on for a bit longer than feels strictly necessary. At times, too, realism takes a hit at the expense of humour (it’s hard to believe anyone could seriously be that proud of putting pretzels and crisps together) but what does ring true is the complicated tangle of emotions being experienced by these confused 20-somethings. It’s not all about their romantic disasters, as entertaining as they may be; there’s also career anxiety, money worries, and the not altogether welcome realisation that they’re no longer the same people they were ten years ago. It’s a play about growing up and finding your place in the world – and perhaps coming to terms with the fact that it isn’t where you thought it would be. That’s a panic I think most of us can relate to, at least to some extent, and it’s in the brief moments where the play stops looking for laughs and gets serious that it’s at its strongest.

Never Trust a Man Bun is a promising and well performed debut, peppered with some great one-liners and laugh out loud moments. It doesn’t quite feel like the finished article yet, but with a bit of polishing and strategic pruning, there’s potential for a play that offers up real insight as well as laughs.

Never Trust a Man Bun is at Stockwell Playhouse until 24th March.

Review: Strike Up The Band at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

If you didn’t know there was a Gershwin musical about cheese, don’t feel bad – you’re not the only one. When Strike Up The Band was first performed in 1927, Philadelphia audiences didn’t respond well to its political satire, and it took three years and significant rewrites (including swapping cheese for chocolate) for the show to make it to Broadway. But it’s the original version that opened last night at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, finally making its London premiere after 90 years courtesy of Alces Productions. Written by George S. Kaufman with music by George and Ira Gershwin, the show is a complex web of sub-plots that takes some time to unravel. It’s also completely bonkers – but quite enjoyably so.

Photo credit: Andreas Lambis

The central storyline involves American tycoon Horace J. Fletcher (Richard Emerson), who convinces the U.S. president’s advisor (Robert Finlayson) that the country should go to war with Switzerland after they protest against high tariffs on imported cheese. While this is going on, a number of romances are underway: Fletcher’s daughter Joan (Beth Burrows) has fallen for journalist Jim Townsend (Paul Biggin), but faces a dilemma when she discovers he objects to her father’s war, widow Mrs Draper (Pippa Winslow) has her heart set on Fletcher himself, and her daughter Anne (Charlotte Christensen) is desperate to marry her man, Timothy Harper (Adam Scott Pringle) despite her mother’s objections (and only being seventeen years old). And that’s not even all of it; with so much to get through, it’s a wonder the show isn’t longer than its already impressive run time of three hours.

It may not have resonated with Americans in 1927, when war was over and the economy was booming, but the story certainly strikes a chord in 2019. In a show about America’s lust for war and obsession with putting its own interests first, with a protagonist who’s a success in business but not much good at anything else, parallels with Donald Trump are there for the taking and director Mark Giesser doesn’t hesitate. It may not always be particularly subtly done (at one point four characters in this 1920s musical all don bright yellow “Make America Grate” baseball caps) but that doesn’t stop it being funny – at least to a British audience; who knows if Americans would be as amused.

Whether or not it tickles your funny bone, though, there’s no arguing the production is very well done. The excellent cast deliver skilful comedy performances, with a delivery at times so deadpan it takes a moment for the audience to catch on to the joke. And amidst the madness there are moments of real emotion too; Beth Burrows and Paul Biggin’s romantic duet – and one of the show’s best-known numbers – The Man I Love is a highlight, as is the moving Homeward Bound, performed by Sammy Graham, Adam Scott Pringle and Paul Biggin in Act 2. Bobby Goulder’s band (on stage but largely hidden from view by the set) are equally impressive, though the intimacy of the space at times means the vocals get overpowered by the music.

Photo credit: Andreas Lambis

Occasionally bewildering and frequently ridiculous, Strike Up The Band is nevertheless always great fun. It does have darker undertones and, baseball caps or no baseball caps, it’s impossible to ignore how relevant the story still is. But it’s first and foremost a comedy, and makes an excellent (if long) evening’s entertainment – well worth waiting 90 years for.

Strike Up The Band is at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 31st March.


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Review: Notflix – The Improvised Musical at The Vaults

Ever wanted to see Independence Day: Resurgence performed live on stage as a comedy musical? Well, unfortunately you’ve missed your chance, because that was last night and to quote one of the performers, “it will never happen again”. Who knows what the next Notflix show will be? Answer: nobody – not even the cast.

Notflix is an improvised comedy musical that recreates a movie suggested and chosen on the night by the audience. Completely made up on the spot based on a three-line synopsis and not a lot else, it’s fair to assume that the show bears little resemblance to the original film. It is, however, probably a lot more fun, and for a considerably smaller budget. And naturally it’s a musical – because as we all know, everything is better as a musical.

On the other hand, if you’re an improv performer, I imagine everything is also much more difficult as a musical. The dexterity with which the six performers – Holly Mallet, Ailis Duff, Clare Buckingham, Aisling Groves McKeown, Emma Read and Katie Pritchard (collectively known as Waiting For The Call Improv) – magic up not just characters and plot but also several song and dance numbers is nothing short of amazing. On this occasion, those musical delights included an anthem to the planet Zorbatron, and a Hamilton homage featuring the immortal line, “I am an alien…” Impressively, not only do these songs work, some of them are so catchy I caught myself still humming bits of them a day later – much of the credit for which must go to on-stage band members Patrick Stockbridge and Caroline Scott, on keys and drums respectively.

The plot of Independence Day: Resurgence: The Musical brings together a band of plucky astronauts battling to save Earth with the help of a time whip (I think…?), feuding alien brothers who must put their differences aside and work together to invade Earth, and a couple of gun-toting Americans who must decide what they love more – each other, or killing aliens. Given that nobody will ever see this show again, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that in the end Earth wins, the aliens fatally whip each other (again, I think…? I’m really not sure) then make up, and the Americans realise they do love each other, even though she just tried to destroy the planet. And in case you’re wondering – yes, it’s all exactly as insane and brilliantly bizarre as it sounds.

One tiny niggle: if, like me, you’re sitting directly in front of the speakers, you may find that some of the spoken dialogue gets drowned out by the music. But since that won’t make the slightest difference to your understanding of what’s going on, it hardly seems to matter. So if you’re in the mood for something silly, fun and boasting some serious improv talent, get yourself down to The Vaults this week for a hilarious hour of entertainment that’s also totally unique every time. You don’t get that staying home with Netflix.

Notflix: The Improvised Musical is at VAULT Festival until 10th March.

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Review: The Orchestra at Omnibus Theatre

The show must go on… but at what cost? In Jean Anouilh’s The Orchestra, set just after World War II, petty in-fighting and lingering suspicions between the members of an orchestra in a small French spa town contrast sharply with their jaunty repertoire. Under the watchful eye of the manager, they must play on despite mounting tensions, uncomfortable revelations, and an unexpected climax to the evening’s entertainment.

Photo credit: Jacob Malinski

Set in real time, the 50-minute play alternates between musical interludes and the snatches of conversation in between, and sometimes during, the performances. From these we learn that leader Mme. Hortense (Amanda Osborne) and cellist Suzanne (Stefania Licari) are love rivals, fighting inexplicably over the orchestra’s meek pianist – and sole male – M. Leon (Pedro Casarin); violinists Patricia (Luna Dai) and Pamela (Sarah Waddell) clash over their very different views on sex and relationships; and flautist Leona (Jessica Hulme) is forced to sit and gasp appreciatively as Ermeline (Charlotte Laporte) talks at length about her marital problems. And all the while, the manager (Toph Enany) prowls in and out of the theatre – having also made his presence felt in the bar before the show – as a constant reminder of the pressure to paste on a smile and perform.

There’s an undercurrent of dark humour in Anouilh’s text, translated by Jeremy Sams, though it’s more of the satirical than the laugh out loud variety. Bickering and breakdowns are delivered with conviction by the internationally diverse cast, with Amanda Osborne particularly enjoyable as she tries to keep the group upbeat and focused on the task at hand. While the other characters’ conversations establish a backdrop of ongoing frustration with their own lives, the love triangle that connects Mme. Hortense with Stefania Licari’s melodramatic Suzanne and Pedro Casarin’s perpetually flustered M. Leon is more immediate and explosive, providing some drama and preventing the play from becoming too static.

Photo credit: Jacob Malinski

Unfortunately the musical scenes in Kristine Landon-Smith’s production – with the exception of the final one – don’t hold our attention in the same way, and this frequent loss of engagement means the play never quite takes off. The cast do a convincing job of miming along with the recorded soundtrack, but besides a few sideways glances and the odd bit of dialogue, there’s often not that much going on. Perhaps this is deliberate, to emphasise the divide between the players’ professional and personal demeanours; that certainly comes across very effectively. But it does mean that after a while – each piece is a good couple of minutes – the audience is left with not much to look at, the cheerful tunes we’re listening to (composed by Felix Cross) already having been dismissed by members of the orchestra themselves as little more than background music for a polite but indifferent audience.

Most of us have, at some point, had to put aside workplace squabbles and present a united front in the name of professionalism. Anouilh’s play presents a heightened version of that scenario, taking it to absurd lengths and setting it in a very particular time and place, but it remains enjoyably relatable – and this production, while not perfect, is a welcome revival.

The Orchestra is at the Omnibus Theatre until 17th February.


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Review: Parenthood – The (Brand New!) Musical Revue at Mid Kent College Theatre

The latest show from Kent-based Fluffy Top Productions’ is Parenthood – The (Brand New!) Musical Revue about the highs and lows of… well, parenthood. With an original score and book by Emily Moody (who also directs) and Pete Moody, the production takes the form of a series of over 20 individual vignettes, exploring everything from pregnancy to becoming a grandparent. It’s predominantly a comedy, and paints a hilariously accurate – and often less than rosy – picture of life as a parent. But for all the mess and mayhem we encounter along the way, ultimately it’s a celebration of the journey and everything that comes with it.

 

That journey includes the sleep deprivation of the new mum, deciphering fridge doodles, competitive parenting, navigating the treacherous teenage years, waving the kids off to start their adult life… and lots, lots more. Each scene is enjoyable in its own right – many of them very much so, drawing howls of laughter from an audience who could clearly identify with the characters. The score, too, is catchy and fun (though very much adults only, due to quite a bit of bad language and a few dance moves that are best not witnessed by younger eyes). However, the “sketch show” format of the performance, which sees each scene end with a fade-out followed by a pause while the next one is set up, gives the evening a rather stop-start feel. This, along with the lack of any particular narrative flow or returning characters for us to invest in, means the show does begin in Act 2 to feel a little bit longer than it needs to be.

As a picture of parenthood, however, it’s spot on – or so I was reliably informed at the end by the ladies sitting next to me (their review of the evening: “that’s exactly what it’s like!”). Even for a non-parent, it’s clear that the comedy is very well-observed and brutally honest; much of the humour lies in the fact that the writers – who are parents themselves – aren’t afraid to say what they really think, instead of wrapping the experience of having children in excessive sentimentality. While that’s undeniably a good thing, the more reflective moments that do exist feel very few and far between, and the show could perhaps benefit from a little more emotion to balance things up a bit.

The cast of nine give strong comedy and vocal performances, despite being let down quite badly at the performance I attended by problems with the sound system. The show is very much an ensemble piece, and the variety of scenes provides each member of the cast with an opportunity to showcase their versatility, as they perform not only as a multitude of different characters, but also in a range of musical styles and some delightfully eccentric costumes (highlights include Astra Beadle’s show-stopping Superman/Princess outfit and Jordan Brown’s memorable appearance as a star in the school nativity).

As a brand new piece of musical theatre, Parenthood has much to recommend it, and with a bit of tightening up it has great potential for future development. There’s a lot to enjoy for parents and non-parents alike; the former will be able to recognise elements of their own stressful but rewarding experience, while the latter – like Auntie Jen in one of the musical numbers – can sit back, relax and revel in a childfree life of contraception and wine.

Parenthood – The (Brand New!) Musical Revue was performed at Mid Kent College Theatre from 15th-17th November. For details of future performances, visit fluffytopfriends.com.