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: Netherbard at the Hen and Chickens Theatre

Why go and see one Shakespeare play when you can see several all at once? In Netherbard, the debut show from Budding Rose Productions, Kate (Rosemary Berkon), Amy (Tayla Kenyon) and Lena (Katrina Allen) have been cast as the three witches in Macbeth. In between rehearsals they take time out to moan about Abby (Lucinda Turner), who’s snatched the role of Lady Macbeth from under Kate’s nose – along with Lena’s boyfriend and Amy’s dream role in Eastenders.

Their light-hearted banter takes an unexpectedly dark turn when Abby herself arrives, and the trio realise they’re no longer rehearsing Macbeth, but King Lear. By the time they realise what’s happened and why, there’s no going back, and so begins a mad chase through a selection of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, uncovering a tale of envy and ambition the Bard himself would be proud of. The only difference is that here the women are taking their destiny into their own hands, instead of slinking off to die quietly backstage while the men do the fighting.

Even the most diehard fan would have to admit women don’t always get a great deal in Shakespeare’s world, so it’s refreshing to see the girls stepping into the spotlight and taking on some meatier roles. Despite some sombre themes and nefarious deeds, Netherbard is very much a comedy, and under Rosie Snell’s direction the energy never wavers. The cast are clearly enjoying themselves and keep pace well with the rapid-fire dialogue – though it’s not always so easy for the audience to keep up, particularly later in the play when things start to get a bit chaotic and the actors are talking over each other. At just a couple of minutes under an hour, it’s all over very quickly, but manages to pack a lot of action into that brief time, and I would have happily stayed for more.

Janice Hallett’s lively comedy is great fun for Shakespeare fans, and a perfect opportunity for those who want to show off by identifying all the famous speeches that come up in the script (although it is possible to cheat a bit thanks to Greg Spong’s set, which is full of clues – some obvious, some less so). But the play’s equally enjoyable for lovers of Eastenders or reality TV where, let’s be honest, you’re just as likely to find people stabbing each other in the back as in any Shakespearean tragedy. 

Netherbard is an impressive debut from an exciting new female-led company. It’s a shame the initial run was just two days, but hopefully it’s not the last we’ve seen of this offbeat tribute to Shakespeare and the cut-throat world of showbiz.


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Review: The Very Perry Show at the Hen and Chickens

People are odd. Which is a good thing; if we were all completely normal, life would be very dull. You only have to tune into a neighbour’s conversation on the train, or look at the other customers in a cafe to appreciate how wonderfully weird human beings are.

Kate Perry knows this more than most. She likes to collect people – and then share them in all their delightful eccentricity. So it is that we come to meet the likes of Carmel, a pensioner with a Ken Barlow obsession; Jimmy, a pigeon fancier from Bolton; and Bridget, a little girl making friends – whether they like it or not – with her fellow passengers on a flight to the States. These are just three of the characters brought to life in the comedy monologues of The Very Perry Show, a fun-filled one-woman performance that stops off in London this week on its way to New York.

Directed by Jeremy Stockwell, the show takes a no frills approach; each character has one or two accessories to differentiate them visually from the rest, but they’re really just a bonus thanks to Kate Perry’s talent for embodying completely each distinct personality. The affection she feels for each of her creations is obvious – even Suzie, a bored twelve-year-old from Surrey who’s just been expelled (again), and to pass the time plies her mother with tranquillisers, then calmly films the ensuing carnage for a web series she likes to call Mummy on the Brink.

That slightly dark episode aside, all the characters are interesting and lovable in their own ways (though in Bridget’s case, there’s a big difference between ten minutes in a theatre and several hours on a plane). And of course there are a lot of laughs, even in the stories we might not expect to be that amusing – like Marie, who’s reminiscing about the day she heard her father had died; not a cheerful topic, yet Marie ultimately ends up getting one of the biggest laughs of the night.

The final character in the collection is Mary Peachy-Bender, an Amish wife and mother of “six childrens” (and she does not want any more). The extreme circumstances in which Mary lives offer plenty of opportunities for comedy, but there’s also a sadness to this character as she imagines a different life, and that makes her somehow the most believable of them all.

Kate Perry is a great performer – quite apart from her talent for creating characters we can both relate to and laugh at, as a host she’s warm and inviting, addressing the audience directly but not in a way that will make anyone uncomfortable. The show is an hour of good, clean fun that moves along at a gentle pace without ever losing our interest, and proves that there really are interesting characters everywhere if you take a look around.


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Review: Helen at the Hen and Chickens

If today we’re all too familiar with the concept of fake news, Euripides was a few centuries ahead of his time when he wrote Helen in 412 BC. An alternative view on the Trojan War, the play argues that Helen – whose seduction by Paris was the cause of the decade-long conflict – was actually in hiding in Egypt the whole time, while the Helen taken to Troy was no more than a copy created by the goddess Hera to punish Paris. Unfortunately, nobody knows about this, so they all blame Helen for the devastation waged in her name, leaving her desperate to expose the lie and save her reputation.

The story’s picked up in Egypt following the fall of Troy, when who should arrive shipwrecked and scantily clad on their shores but Helen’s husband Menelaus. His phantom wife conveniently vanishes into thin air just as he re-encounters the real one, and together they trick the Egyptian king Theoclymenus – who wants to marry Helen himself – into letting them go.

This new version of Euripides’ play comes from Theatre of Heaven and Hell, a company dedicated to producing absurdist plays and reviving forgotten gems. Helen is a bit of both; a little more comedy than tragedy, it moves through the story at a brisk pace, and doesn’t shy away from exposing its more farcical aspects. There are moments in Michael Ward’s production that feel a bit like Monty Python does Ancient Greece, contrasting sharply with the play’s slightly sinister opening and closing sequences, in which the masked and robed Chorus set the scene to a dramatic soundtrack.

As difficult as it is to categorise, Helen nonetheless makes for an entertaining hour of theatre. The women come out on top – Helen herself and the prophetess Theonoe, played by Elena Clements and Sarah Day-Smith respectively – emerge not only with the most dignity but also all the moral fibre, while the men are made to look like fools. Nicholas Bright and Darren Ruston play the famous leaders Menelaus and Theoclymenus as comically simple souls who are nothing without women to tell them what to do, and Brian Eastty and Marius Clements have two of the funniest scenes as messengers who patiently expose their rulers’ mistakes.

A surprising twist on an old story, Helen touches on some very modern themes, from feminism and victim blaming to fake news and the pointlessness of war. The scene in which one of Menelaus’ men questions their reasons for going to war in the first place is funny but painfully topical, and the responsibility placed on Helen’s shoulders for the actions of men invites us to ponder gloomily how much attitudes have really changed several centuries later.

It’s an odd little play, which is nothing like you might expect (let’s be honest: you hear Euripides, you don’t expect lines like, “We went to war for a cloud?”) but Helen is undeniably good – if slightly surreal – fun.


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Interview: Henry Moss, Quadruple Threat

Following a sell-out run at the Sydney Fringe Festival, Australian musical theatre performer Henry Moss returns to Islington’s Hen and Chickens next weekend with his one-man show Quadruple Threat. Londoners have two opportunities left to see the show described in a rave five-star review from LondonTheatre1 as a “delightful and delectable exploration of the cut-throat and ever-unforgiving entertainment industry”.

In the show, Henry – who also writes and directs – plays Sir Harry Ledgerman, a musical theatre star and national treasure, who after a public mental breakdown is desperate to revamp his career. 

Photo credit: Seann Miley Moore

Quadruple Threat may be the campest 45 minutes of your life,” says Henry, whose influences include Graham Norton and Australian comedian Chris Lilley, of the TV series Summer Heights High. “I don’t stop to take a breath. I play egomaniac Harry Ledgerman – the struggling artist we all know, who aims to promote his tell-all celebrity memoir Quadruple Threat by hosting a series of motivational workshops – as well as his obnoxious guest speakers, LA bombshell Brandi Straussberg and quintessential Aussie bloke Bruce McDingy, who each claim they have the secret to success. I also morph into Oprah Winfrey, Hugh Jackman, Graham Norton and Dame Judi Dench.”

The show features dozens of musical theatre hits, all performed by Henry, accompanied by renowned cabaret pianist Sarah Bodalbhai. “I saw Sarah play at a hip hop gig last October,” says Henry. “I contacted her straight away and we met to discuss the show. Sarah is an incredible and versatile pianist who effortlessly improvises and segues from song to song. I am so lucky to have her accompany me. We get on like a house on fire, and the audience loves the battered and long-lasting relationship between Harry and Sarah.”

So is Quadruple Threat just a show for musical theatre fans? “Of course not,” says Henry. “It’s for any one who loves satire, has had their own series of knock backs and is intrigued by the madness that is showbiz.

“Musical theatre fans will recognise hits packed into the cabaret, but there are many pop hits from Stevie Wonder, Britney Spears, Ray Charles and Edith Piaf to name a few – that the audience recognise, roll their eyes and get the irony as I burst into these show stoppers.

“My favourite is probably my 1996 Judi Dench rendition of Send In the Clowns – it comes to Harry in the show as he feels he has ‘mis-timed his life’. There’s a hilarious tension between the tragedy of the music contrasted to Harry being so ridiculous and neurotic.”

As for Henry’s top tip for making it in showbiz? “I’ll let you know when I get there… In the mean time – a great fake tan and a whole lot of hairspray.”

Catch Quadruple Threat at the Hen and Chickens on 5th and 6th August at 3pm.