Review: One Last Waltz at Greenwich Theatre

Inspired by and performed in memory of writer and director Luke Adamson’s grandad Ernest, One Last Waltz from Black Coffee Theatre is a poignant and deeply personal portrayal of Alzheimer’s and the impact it can have on people’s lives and relationships.

The play was written with the aim of raising awareness of the disease, particularly in the early stages when symptoms can be easily dismissed as signs of old age or just “getting a bit forgetful”. This is the point at which we meet recently widowed Alice, who’s come into the room looking for something – if only she could remember what. What she does find are her old dancing shoes, which spark long ago memories of waltzing in Blackpool with her husband George.

Alice’s daughter Mandy, who’s becoming more and more concerned about her mum’s memory lapses, suggests the two of them take a trip to the Blackpool hotel her parents stayed in, and go for one last waltz at the Tower. The only problem is that the hotel’s in decline, the Tower’s closed down, and nothing about the town is quite as Alice remembers it. As she becomes increasingly confused and distressed, Mandy – with a bit of help from hotel manager Georgette – begins to understand the difficult road that lies ahead.

Unsurprisingly, the writing shows a real understanding of the nature of Alzheimer’s: that it doesn’t happen all at once but begins with small, barely noticeable lapses that slowly build up to form a bigger picture. As the play opens, Alice – played with touching vulnerability by Amanda Reed – seems quite lucid; the only clue that something might be wrong is that she’s wearing her top inside out and keeps getting distracted from her search for photo albums. Her memories of 1958 are clear as day (including a nice reference to Ken Dodd, the inclusion of which may or may not be a coincidence), and yet she doesn’t remember having breakfast that morning, and as the play goes on she finds herself forgetting more and more – including, most tragically, that her husband passed away two months ago.

At the same time, the play also examines the strain that looking after someone with Alzheimer’s can place on family and friends. As single mum Mandy, Julie Binysh strikes a perfect balance between exasperation, anxiety and tenderness – but the biggest surprise is Julia Faulkner’s deceptively humorous Georgette, who unexpectedly reveals that she understands all too well what Mandy’s going through, and that she sees in Alice an opportunity to atone for a decision that’s haunted her for years.

There’s never any attempt to deny the fact that Alzheimer’s is a desperately cruel way to lose someone, and the play certainly succeeds in its aim to inform audiences about what to look out for, and the difficulties of living with the condition. But although we’re all too aware that this ultimately won’t be a story with a happy ending, the play contains lots of moments of humour, and concludes on a heartwarming note as Alice finally gets to waltz again in Blackpool. And as Luke Adamson writes of his grandad in the show programme (originally written for his funeral, after he passed away in December 2017), “although he faded away somewhat over the last few years, that cannot take away a lifetime of memories that can’t help but bring a smile to your face”. The image of Mandy and Alice embracing on the dance floor, ready to face up to the uncertain future that lies ahead, is exactly the right note on which to end this moving and heartfelt tribute.

One Last Waltz has now concluded its run at Greenwich Theatre, but for news about future productions from Black Coffee Theatre, visit blackcoffeetheatre.co.uk or follow @BlackCoffeeUK.


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Review: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at Greenwich Theatre

Nick Lane’s new adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde takes the gothic novella by Robert Louis Stevenson and fills in some of the gaps. While this might not please everyone, I must admit I haven’t read the book, so personally I had no problem with the plot’s bare bones being substantially fleshed out. Inspired by Lane’s own experience following an accident that permanently damaged his neck and back, this production humanises the troubled Dr Jekyll and offers some justification for his actions… and even manages to raise a bit of sympathy for the villainous Mr Hyde.

The basic plot of the novella is reasonably well known; mild-mannered, respected scientist Dr Jekyll invents a serum that transforms him into a violent, remorseless alter ego: Mr Hyde. In this version, however, he also has a love interest – his friend Hastie’s wife Eleanor, whose fascination with his work and dissatisfaction with her own uninspiring life make her an unwitting catalyst to the devastating events that follow.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown

The cast is small – just four actors play all the characters between them – but perfectly formed, working comfortably together as an ensemble but also impressing individually. Jack Bannell in particular gives an excellent physical performance, his demeanour, voice, and personality completely changing before our eyes as he transforms from the stooped figure of Jekyll into the cold, predatory Hyde. At first brusque and dismissive, Jekyll is softened by his love for Eleanor and his own weakening body, his desperation over both causing him to experiment on himself. Knowing this, it’s easier to understand – even if still impossible to condone – what led him to this point, and to sympathise with the temptation that keeps drawing him back to the physically stronger and more passionate Hyde.

Paige Round is similarly impressive as Eleanor. Far from a token love interest, she finds herself on her own dark path as she breaks away from good guy husband Hastie and is drawn inexorably to Hyde. It’s a bit of a clich√©, maybe – women like a bad boy, etc – but the actors make it believable, with a sizzling chemistry that’s noticeably absent between Eleanor and Ashley Sean-Cook’s nice but boring Hastie. The inclusion of Eleanor also allows for a bit of discussion on gender issues; both Hastie and Jekyll initially dismiss her interest in and understanding of their work, and it’s largely Hastie’s expectation that she stay at home and play the little wife that pushes her towards Hyde in the first place.

The cast is completed by Zach Lee as Jekyll’s concerned friend and lawyer Gabriel Utterson; though his primary role is to narrate the uncovering of Jekyll’s secret, he also appears in arguably the most visually striking scene in the play: an intense, dramatic slow motion sequence that’s so perfectly choreographed we can feel every blow.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown

The play’s performances are supported by Claire Childs’ lighting design, which makes great use of bold colours and projected shadows to establish a threatening atmosphere from the beginning, and haunting melodies composed by Tristan Parkes beautifully performed by Paige Round and the rest of the cast.

While perhaps not the story Robert Louis Stevenson intended, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde does remain faithful to the central plot, and offers an interesting – if rather more forgiving – interpretation of the story and its central character. Touching on a variety of themes, including gender issues, mental health and the ethical responsibilities of science, this chilling new adaptation certainly gives us plenty to think about.


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Review: Frankenstein at Greenwich Theatre

200 years after Mary Shelley wrote¬†her¬†classic gothic novel, Frankenstein returns to the stage in the skilled¬†hands of Blackeyed Theatre. Adapted by John Ginman, this concise, two-hour retelling is suitably chilling and atmospheric¬†while remaining¬†family friendly, and is executed to perfection by a multi-talented cast of five… or should that be six?

Keeping¬†true to the “story within a story within a story” format of Shelley’s novel, Eliot Giuralarocca’s¬†production is set¬†on the ship of Robert Walton, an explorer to the North Pole, who rescues the¬†exhausted Victor Frankenstein¬†from the ice. Walton becomes fascinated by the mysterious stranger’s story of how, driven by crazed ambition, he built and gave life to a Creature, only to reject it and in doing so, drive it into a destructive cycle of loneliness and despair¬†that ended up costing¬†him everything.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown
Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown

The story, spanning several years, moves quickly¬†– from Geneva¬†to Ingolstadt to London to Scotland, and far beyond – and the cast do likewise. While Ben Warwick is on stage throughout as the wild-eyed, fast-talking, increasingly dishevelled Frankenstein, his fellow cast members are scarcely less busy. Each takes on multiple roles within the story, while still finding time to pop round the back of the stage and bring Ron McAllister’s dramatic soundtrack to life on¬†timpani, cymbals and a variety of¬†other ingenious, home-made instruments.

Act 1 is largely there to set up the story, and is quite science-heavy¬†as Frankenstein describes his studies and his urgent desire¬†to create life.¬†But it’s in Act 2 that the production becomes truly electrifying, with the first real¬†appearance of Yvonne Stone’s life-size Bunraku style puppet. Built from rope and cloth, with blank, staring eyes, the Creature is manipulated so skilfully by the cast, and voiced so perfectly by Louis Labovitch,¬†that it’s genuinely possible¬†to forget the actors are there¬†at all, and to think of¬†Frankenstein’s creation as entirely separate from the other characters they play: kind, beautiful Elizabeth (Lara Cowin), Victor’s supportive friend Henry (Max Gallagher), Walton, the explorer hanging on his every word, but not necessarily¬†for the right¬†reasons (Ashley Sean-Cook), and a multitude of cameo appearances as¬†other minor characters. This is a production that’s about so much more than the impressive individual performances; it’s a seamless ensemble effort that requires¬†everyone to be¬†in exactly the right place at the right time.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown
Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown

Victoria Spearing’s set takes inspiration from the ship on which the story begins and ends, and as Frankenstein narrates his tale, it springs to life from the materials around him. So the sail becomes a river; the Creature is formed from bundles and sacks of old rope and rags; more ropes are transformed into the electric wires that finally give it life. It’s testament both to the actors’ performance and the simple, descriptive style¬†of John Ginman’s script, that without ever leaving the ship’s deck, we find ourselves transported to workshops, stormy mountaintops, courtrooms and even looking out over¬†the quiet beauty of Lake Geneva.

I remember being¬†a bit surprised the first time I read Frankenstein, because it felt a bit tame, not¬†the out-and-out horror I’d been expecting. Similarly, Blackeyed Theatre’s excellent production doesn’t set out to shock us, but instead to send¬†us home with a creeping unease as we contemplate the dangerous implications¬†of arrogant human ambition.¬†Though there’s certainly an element of suspense, the Creature’s crimes (most of which we don’t even see committed) provoke more sadness than fear, while¬†he himself is so human that it’s¬†harder¬†to shrug his deeds¬†off as merely the work of the supernatural –¬†and so ironically it’s¬†humanity, rather than¬†monstrosity, that’s¬†most likely to keep us awake at night.


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