Review: Worth a Flutter at The Hope Theatre

Inspired by his memories of growing up in South East London, Michael Head’s Worth a Flutter is an enjoyable comedy with hidden depths – a love story whose protagonists are simultaneously too flawed to be heroes and too likeable to be villains.

The plot follows two men, Matt (Michael Head) and Sam (Jack Harding), as they compete for the affections of a waitress at their local greasy spoon cafe. The twist: both are already in committed but unhappy relationships, and are basically just using the unfortunate Helen (Clare McNamara) as an escape from their current misery. But then things get complicated when they both fall for her, and she’s forced to choose between them. Or is she?

As the story unfolds, Head challenges both the questionable attitudes of his male characters and the traditional damsel in distress paradigm, with Helen emerging as more than capable of looking after herself. What makes the play interesting is that both Matt and Sam seem like decent enough blokes, who both recognise and challenge the outrageous sexism displayed by their cartoonishly obnoxious friends – but both fail to see the same, less explicit, attitudes in themselves.

Michael Head, Jack Harding and Clare McNamara are all strong in the central roles, delivering some enjoyable comedy performances but also revealing their characters’ vulnerabilities as each relives a past trauma which has played a part in bringing them to this point. They’re joined by Paul Danan and Lucy Pinder in a variety of supporting roles. Pinder makes her stage debut playing both Matt’s fiancée Paige and Sam’s wife Emma, but is perhaps most memorable for her exuberant portrayal of a penis with a Scottish accent (yes, really). Danan, meanwhile, is clearly enjoying himself immensely as ageing Lothario Paul and pervy pensioner Mr Edwards.

Directed by Jonathon Carr, the play has a choppy structure that sees the action interrupted frequently by scenes of direct narration from Matt or Sam, with both Head and Harding quickly establishing a connection with the audience. There are also some surreal sketch scenes – including the aforementioned Scottish penis – which are largely superfluous to the story, but are good fun and give the actors a chance to demonstrate their comedy talents (Clare McNamara’s outspoken grandpa and Michael Head’s parade of exes – each of them conveniently from a different bit of the UK – particularly stand out).

Like most romantic comedies, the story relies heavily on coincidence and characters impulsively falling in love and making life-changing decisions. But if the plot is at times simplistic and the comedy a bit silly, the play does shine a light on the prevalence of everyday sexism, even from “nice guys”, and the three central characters have interesting backstories which add new layers of meaning to the plot. Recommended for light-hearted entertainment; if not quite a dead cert, then certainly a strong contender.

Worth a Flutter is at The Hope Theatre until 19th May.

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Review: Mirrors at Leicester Square Theatre

In a world of fashion magazines, social media, online dating and reality TV, who needs a magic mirror to remind you every day that you’re not the fairest – or funniest, or coolest, or most talented – of them all? In darkly humorous modern fairytale Mirrors, Siobhan McMillan draws on her own experiences to examine our obsession with measuring our own self-worth based on the perception of others, and the desperate places that obsession can take us to.

Photo credit: Thomas Aston

Vlogger ShyGirl is excited – not only does she now have eight YouTube subscribers, she also has a new boyfriend, Mikey, who’ll be here any minute. Mikey, however, doesn’t sound to us like much of a catch, and when he inevitably doesn’t show up, ShyGirl’s fragile self-esteem is crushed. In a fit of rage, she conjures up a gorgeous, confident alter ego, Shivvers, who’s a distant relative of Snow White’s evil stepmother. Shivvers has her own magic mirror, which dutifully tells her every day that she’s the most beautiful in the land… until one day it doesn’t. Horrified and furious, she sets out to find and destroy her competition, but ultimately discovers only other women who are secretly as messed up and neurotic as she is.

Directed by Gabi Maddocks, Mirrors is a short, punchy and action-packed solo show, which takes us on an epic journey through a brand new fairytale land. Writer and performer Siobhan McMillan is a gifted storyteller, bringing her characters and surroundings to life with the aid of a few props, some impressive physical characterisation, and a lot of imagination. She’s also very funny, frequently diverting from the traditional fairytale script and in doing so making her character much more relatable than your standard Disney villain; Shivvers might be a terrifying ice queen on a murderous quest, but she also drinks, swears, and gets bored, hungry and grumpy just like the rest of us.

Photo credit: Thomas Aston

As laugh out loud funny as the show frequently is, however, anyone hoping for a fairytale ending for Shivvers (or ShyGirl) will be disappointed. This surreal adventure ends as it began: having failed to find her rival, she returns home alone, still begging her broken mirror/laptop for reassurance. It’s a gloomy note to end on, but feels appropriate given that the universal quest for perfection – whether you’re a Shivvers or a ShyGirl – is one that seems unlikely ever to be over.

Frequently bizarre, and occasionally downright baffling, Mirrors is a unique experience. The show tackles some serious questions in an entertaining and humorous way, and while it doesn’t offer any constructive solutions, in reflecting back to us our own anxieties and fears, it does make us feel a little bit less alone.

Mirrors is at Leicester Square Theatre until 14th April.

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Review: The Dog Beneath The Skin at Jermyn Street Theatre

On the face of it, W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s eccentric fairy tale The Dog Beneath The Skin bears little resemblance to the world we live in today – but scratch beneath the surface and there’s a strong note of political satire that can be read as a cautionary tale for the 21st century.

The play’s central character, unassuming English gent Alan Norman (Pete Ashmore), is picked at random for a quest: if he can track down his village’s missing heir Francis Crewe, he gets a share in the Crewe fortune and the hand of Francis’ beautiful sister in marriage. Which is all well and good, except Francis has been gone ten years, and Alan is far from the first to undertake this perilous search.

Photo credit: Sam Taylor (S R Taylor Photography)

Undeterred, our hero sets boldly off across pre-war Europe, accompanied by a dog from the village (Cressida Bonas) whose oddly human behaviour doesn’t seem to surprise or concern anyone. As they journey through fictional European nations that feel a million miles from the charm of rural England, they meet monarchs and prostitutes, lunatics and lovers, but find no trace of the missing Francis. Despondent, the pair return home to the village of Pressan Ambo – except it’s not quite how they remember it. (Side note: I was interested to discover, while researching the play, that Auden and Isherwood each wrote a different ending. This particular production uses Isherwood’s marginally more upbeat conclusion.)

To say that the play has a bit of everything feels like an understatement; I couldn’t pin it down to one particular style or genre if I tried. At times it’s laugh out loud funny, at others darkly ominous, and occasionally entirely baffling. In other hands it could have been a bit of a mess, but under Jimmy Walters’ direction, a competent and incredibly hard-working cast – some of whom play no fewer than ten characters each – ensure we remain entertained and interested throughout, even when we have little or no idea what’s actually going on.

As the only two actors to play just one role each, Pete Ashmore and Cressida Bonas give enjoyable performances as Alan and The Dog, but it’s the ensemble who really bring the play to life. I particularly enjoyed Edmund Digby Jones’ smarmy vicar turned dictator and Eva Feiler’s obsequious master of ceremonies, while Suzann McLean is compelling in brief appearances as a grieving mother, whose words of warning are dismissed by the villagers.

Photo credit: Sam Taylor (S R Taylor Photography)

The production makes maximum use of the limited space available, with one end of Rebecca Brower’s set devoted to a stage area that suggests a lot of what we’re seeing is merely a performance (it’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it, etc). Scene changes are incorporated seamlessly into the action, while a recorded voiceover provides poetic narration to keep things moving along.

The Dog Beneath The Skin was first performed in 1936, as Europe faced head on the rise of fascism and the threat of World War 2. That dark period may now be the stuff of history books, but the disquieting reminder as the play begins and ends that “this might happen any day” forces us to consider if where we’re headed right now is really that different. It is without doubt a bizarre play and consequently might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the cast’s enthusiasm and the script’s underlying relevance make this a very worthy and welcome revival.

The Dog Beneath The Skin is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 31st March.

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Review: Abducting Diana at the Hen and Chickens Theatre

The media has long had the power to influence (some might say manipulate) our hearts and minds – but 2018 seems a particularly relevant moment for a revival of Dario Fo’s Abducting Diana, if only to prove that we’ve learnt nothing since the play was first written in 1986.

Media tycoon Diana Forbes McKaye is in the middle of a romantic liaison with a guy called Kevin when she’s kidnapped by three masked figures. However, she quickly turns the tables on her incompetent abductors and concocts a plan to cut out the middleman, make them all rich, and save her own skin. Quite straightforward, you might think. Except that Diana isn’t really Diana, Kevin isn’t really Kevin, there’s a man in the fridge with electrodes attached to his halluxes (that’s his big toes to you and me)… and where did that priest with the big nose come from?

As you might imagine, everything gets rather chaotic, rather quickly, with existing characters switching allegiances, and new ones popping up just when you thought the story couldn’t get any more complicated. Such is the air of general mayhem that the play almost forgets to make its point, and the characters have to return to the stage in the final moments to remind us why we’re all there – namely, corruption in high places and the exploitation of the working classes (in this scenario the hapless kidnappers, who seem to come out of every allegiance a bit worse off).

The company are enthusiastic and deliver some strong comedy performances, although in all but two cases, Fo’s characters don’t give them a huge amount of material to work with. As the only one of the three kidnappers we really get to know, Marius Clements has the thankless task of delivering most of his lines from inside a fridge, but rises to the occasion with spot-on comic timing. And Elena Clements plays Diana with cool sophistication and withering sarcasm, keeping her head when all around her are losing theirs – which has the unfortunate side effect of leaving us a bit confused over whether we’re supposed to cheer or boo her resourcefulness.

There are a few issues with Michael Ward’s production; not all the chaos feels entirely deliberate, and there are times – particularly when everyone’s on stage at once – when pace and volume could both come down a notch to ensure the audience is able to keep up with the plot’s more complex twists and turns. It’s also not very clear when the play is set; some of the biggest laughs are inspired by the kidnappers donning masks that feature the faces of Trump, Farage, Boris and the like – but while these topical references to the ruling elite make perfect sense in light of the play’s message, they feel confusingly out of place in a room where people still use typewriters, tape recorders and cheque books.

If you’re after sharp political commentary, Abducting Diana is possibly not the play you’re looking for. What it does offer, however, is high-energy, absurdist fun, performed by a committed cast who are obviously enjoying themselves immensely. Though at times a little unpolished, the play promises an hour of farcical mayhem, and on that score it certainly delivers.

Abducting Diana is at the Hen and Chickens Theatre until 17th March.

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Review: Foul Pages at The Hope Theatre

To quote the timeless classic Shakespeare in Love (not sarcasm, I love that movie): “Love, and a bit with a dog – that’s what they want.” Robin Hooper clearly subscribes to the same belief; his play Foul Pages has both – and Shakespeare too, though in this case it’s not him who’s in love but pretty much everyone else. Will, meanwhile, is more interested in refining his latest work, As You Like It, whilst fending off interference from the Countess of Pembroke, a fellow writer full of helpful suggestions, and from King James I, who’s become infatuated with one of the actors and insists that he be given the lead role. The purpose of the production is to charm the monarch into pardoning Sir Walter Raleigh, who’s days from execution for treason – but pleasing the king comes at a cost for more than one member of the company.

Oh, and there’s also a talking dog.

Photo credit: LHPhotoshots

Ian Hallard appears as Shakespeare, but such are the scandalous goings on that for once the legendary playwright isn’t the centre of attention. As his all-male company is torn apart by jealousy, ambition and more than a little sexual tension, all Will can do is watch in bemusement and do his best to hold everything together, along with straight-talking maid Peg (Olivia Onyehara) and the king’s devoted Scottish bodyguard Mears (Jack Harding).

Meanwhile it’s the more flamboyant characters – Lewis Chandler’s shunned actor Alex, Clare Bloomer’s eccentric Mary, Countess of Pembroke, and Tom Vanson’s lovelorn King James – who take centre stage, each driven by their own desires to take potentially catastrophic actions. There’s poignant work from Thomas Bird and Greg Baxter as actors Rob and Ed (also Shakespeare’s brother), whose fledgling relationship is threatened by the king’s interference. And then there’s Chop the dog, played to scene-stealing perfection by James King, who’s not only got all the animal behaviours down but also gets the most laughs, with wry observations on the bizarre human behaviour going on around him.

Photo credit: LHPhotoshots

Though the action is set in 1603, director Matthew Parker gives the production a modern twist; the costumes are an intriguing mix of 17th and 21st century, and rapid scene changes are punctuated by loud music and flashing lights, creating a sense of urgency as the stakes become ever higher and events take an unexpectedly tragic turn. Rachael Ryan’s economical set allows us a glimpse of goings on both upstairs and downstairs at Wilton, while still somehow allowing enough room on the tiny Hope stage for nine people to come out and treat us to an energetic jig at the end of the show.

There’s a political detour in the plot that doesn’t quite fit – it arrives out of nowhere and is just as quickly dealt with and forgotten – but that aside, Foul Pages is a compelling and irresistibly entertaining tale of love, lust and theatrical ambition that may just make you see As You Like It, and Shakespeare himself, in a whole new light.

Foul Pages is at The Hope Theatre until 17th March.

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