Review: Brexit at the King’s Head Theatre

Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky could have come up with a more creative title for their acclaimed political comedy Brexit – but they didn’t really need to, given that actual Brexit has been a massive satire in and of itself for some time now. Nor did the writers have to stray very far from the facts; the play that was topical during its previous run at the King’s Head a few months ago is now, in the week that the horror show known as the Tory leadership contest officially gets underway, basically just mirroring reality.

Photo credit: Steve Ullathorne

It’s 2020, and Britain has a new prime minister – who’s somehow managed to get elected by Conservative party members despite having no policies, no backbone and, naturally, no clue how he’s supposed to deliver the impossible dream that is Brexit. Fully aware that whatever he does he’ll be crucified by one side or the other, Adam Masters (David Benson) opts for what he deems a foolproof strategy: do nothing, and hope it all goes away – much to the dismay of his campaign manager turned unofficial policy advisor Paul Connell (Adam Astill). It never occurs to the new PM, as he plays rival ministers Diana Purdy (Jessica Fostekew) and Simon Cavendish (Thom Tuck) off against each other, that they might just have plans of their own…

Much like its central character, the play doesn’t attempt to rehash the referendum, focusing instead on the thing we can all agree on: that British attempts to implement the Will of the People have, so far, been less than successful. Khan and Salinsky – who also directs – expose Leavers and Remainers alike as power-hungry and manipulative, and more than willing to cheerfully prioritise their own ambitions above the needs of the country they claim to serve. Meanwhile the EU’s Chief Negotiator Helena Brandt (Margaret Cabourn-Smith) is sitting back with a glass of wine and a (metaphorical) bucket of popcorn, waiting for the Brits to stop in-fighting and realise it’s all been a terrible mistake. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so depressingly on the money.

And this is where Brexit hits a bit of a snag; when truth is even more ridiculous than fiction, it takes a bit of the joy out of laughing at it. The priggish new Trade Secretary Simon Cavendish is a brilliant piece of comedy acting from Thom Tuck – but somehow, stunningly, this character still ends up feeling like a watered down version of real-life caricature Jacob Rees Mogg. And while it’s fun to watch David Benson’s Adam scurry back and forth trying to keep all his plates spinning, we’ve been watching Theresa May do the same with increasing desperation for two years now, so it’s no particular surprise when it doesn’t end well.

Photo credit: Steve Ullathorne

But maybe I’m being a misery (thinking about Brexit does tend to have that effect, after all). For all that it can’t live up to the absurdity of real life, the play is very funny, with a polished cast expertly delivering such zingers as “You can’t continue to govern over Schrodinger’s Britain”, and the particularly well received “that bearded Labour Gandalf driving his motor-home up Downing Street”. For fans of political satire, Brexit (the event – if you can call something that never actually happens an event) has already provided countless hours of entertainment, and Brexit (the play) continues to prove that sometimes, there really is nothing left to do but laugh.

Review: Outlying Islands at the King’s Head Theatre

Following their triumphant revival last year of East by Steven Berkoff, Atticist return to the King’s Head – where they’re now an Associate Company – with a new production of David Greig’s 2002 play Outlying Islands. And just as in East, which captured so well the spirit of the East End, here again the setting is not just important to the story but sits right at the heart of the play.

Photo credit: Clive Barda

That setting is a remote Scottish island in 1939. As Britain prepares for war, ornithologists Robert (Tom Machell) and John (Jack McMillan) are sent from London by “the Ministry” to spend a month studying and documenting the local birds. The island – “a pagan place” uninhabited for a century – is owned by Kirk (Ken Drury), who accompanies the two men for their stay, along with his niece Ellen (Rose Wardlaw). Not very surprisingly, it doesn’t take long for a romantic entanglement to develop between the three young people, particularly after an unfortunate incident leaves them alone with no Kirk to get in the way. But will they follow their instincts and give in to nature, or will they be held back by the faint but persistent call of civilisation? And why exactly have the two men been sent to the island in the first place…?

I won’t lie; I wasn’t expecting a play about bird-watching to be so tense or so funny – yet Outlying Islands somehow manages to be both at different points, largely because it’s as much a study of people as it is of birds. Robert and John are clearly good friends, but they’re also as different as two men could possibly be. The former, played by Tom Machell, is charming, impulsive and shows very little care for anyone else’s feelings; the casual ease with which he separates a mother from her chick just to see what happens is soon revealed to be only the tip of the iceberg. Jack McMillan’s John is instantly more likeable – but he’s also a worrier, bound by politeness and a strict moral code that often prevents him doing anything at all. The only thing this odd couple seem to share is their love of birds and their admiration for Ellen’s quiet charms.

Photo credit: Clive Barda

Rose Wardlaw gives a standout performance as Ellen, whose repressed existence with her bullying uncle hasn’t stopped her seeing Way Out West 37 times and secretly lusting after Stan Laurel. When she unexpectedly gains her freedom – and control of the island – she wastes no time in spreading her wings, but does so without losing any of the innocence and wonder that make her so appealing to both men.

To really engage with the characters and their situation, the audience must feel the isolation of the setting – and we do, thanks to the exceptional design by Anna Lewis. In almost every sense, we’re transported to the old pagan chapel where the characters will set up home, with Christopher Preece’s sound design providing a frequent reminder of the wildness that lies in wait just beyond the rickety wooden door.

It’s quite a long play – Act 1 alone is 90 minutes – and in less competent hands there are some scenes that could feel unnecessarily drawn out. But such is the quality of every aspect of Jessica Lazar’s atmospheric and compelling production that the time flies by, and as the story concludes we’re almost sad to leave the bare little room (particularly now that we know what will become of it once we’re gone). A haunting exploration of human nature with a side helping of political intrigue, this is highly recommended for bird-watchers and people-watchers alike.

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.

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Review: Tumble Tuck at the King’s Head Theatre

The King’s Head Theatre’s Who Runs The World? season is both a celebration and showcase of female playwrights, produced in response to a suggestion last year by the Artistic Director of the Hampstead Theatre, Edward Hall, that there a) aren’t many of them around, and b) nobody will pay to hear what they have to say anyway.

Headlining the season is Tumble Tuck by Sarah Milton, which proves both arguments wrong in one fell swoop. It also turns out that not only will people pay good money to see a play written and performed by a woman, they might even – gasp – have a great time doing it. Appropriately, in light of the comments that inspired the season, the play examines the true meaning of success, as seen through the eyes of Daisy, a young swimmer about to take part in her first race.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

As her big moment approaches, all Daisy – played by Milton – can think about is her wobbly bits, her imperfect swimming style, and how flawless the other girls on the team are in comparison. Worn down by her mum’s off-hand comments about her “big daughter”, and tormented by the thought that if she’d only let her boyfriend have sex with her he might not have ended up in prison, she ultimately finds solace in the water and her love of swimming – not for medals, but for the simple pleasure of doing something she’s good at.

Milton’s solo performance is a fast-moving tour de force, which sees her bring to life and engage in conversation with the various unique characters in Daisy’s life: her mum, ex-boyfriend, best friend, swimming coach, teammate… each entirely distinct and with their own personality and mannerisms. It’s as Daisy herself, however, that Milton really shines; her chatty, confessional and very funny style – not to mention her unapologetic love of cheese and KitKats – means that we quickly consider her a friend, and when the story later takes a darker path, we have no hesitation in following to see where it leads.

Directed by Tom Wright, the show fully immerses us in Daisy’s world, moving Milton around the intimate stage area and converting the simple space into her local swimming pool so effectively through the use of light and sound that you can practically smell the chlorine. It’s in the pool also that we’re treated to some lovely slow-motion movement sequences, as Daisy embraces the freedom to be completely herself that she only finds underwater.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

Tumble Tuck is an uplifting and often hilarious study of a young woman as she comes to the realisation that true empowerment comes from within, not from the validation of others. It’s a message that will resonate with everyone, not only women, and as such is a great choice to headline a season that specifically sets out to prove female writers can – and do – have universal appeal.

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Review: Ballistic at the King’s Head Theatre

Following the recent tragic events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, global attention has been focused very much on the issue of gun control. As well it should; it’s very obvious to anyone willing to see it that when it comes to guns, America has a serious problem and needs to take action.

There is a downside, though, to the intense focus on guns in the wake of Nikolas Cruz’s deadly rampage, because it means nobody’s looking at the tragedy’s other contributing factors. And if anybody does, they’re likely to be accused (often with good reason) of trying to deflect our attention from the main issue. “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” are words we’ve heard a lot over the past few weeks (and months, and years), and while we may not agree with how they’re used, that unfortunately doesn’t make them any less true.

Photo credit: Tom Packer

All of which is a very longwinded way to introduce Alex Packer’s Ballistic, a play that is decidedly not about guns. In fact, guns have been taken out of the equation almost entirely by setting the story in the UK, where our common sense laws – enacted after the Dunblane massacre in 1996 – mean if you want to shoot someone you have to put a bit more work into getting your hands on the means to do it. As a result, the play allows us, for once, to focus undistracted on some of the other issues in play when someone plots or commits this kind of crime.

Ballistic is the story – fictional, but based on true events – of a nameless teenager, who’s driven by various factors to commit an act of terrible violence. Using the rather perfect image of a game of Tetris (reflected brilliantly in Frances Roughton’s simple but effective set), where all it takes is a couple of pieces out of place to destroy everything, Mark Conway tells us his character’s story of betrayal, bullying and rejection, all set in a world where the internet and social media have the power to destroy our lives or make us famous with just the click of a button.

The point isn’t to make excuses for him; the experiences he describes happen every single day to countless other teens, 99.99% of whom don’t go on to claim them as a motive for murder. What the play wants us to examine is our own reactions to what we hear, and to consider where the story could have gone a different way if just one person had responded differently at any point. Conway and director Anna Marsland prove themselves masters of misdirection; we’re so busy laughing at the funny stories he’s telling that we don’t notice the subtle, bitter shift in Conway’s tone, or that he stopped seeing the funny side long ago, until he suddenly explodes. Another way of looking at the Tetris metaphor: if you take your eye off the game for even a second, things can go bad really quickly.

Photo credit: Tom Packer

Mark Conway gives an exceptional performance as the troubled teenager, starting out with an air of naive innocence and enthusiasm that gradually slips away, until finally we’re left with the dead-eyed killer we know all too well from the news. He addresses the audience directly throughout – but eye contact that initially comes across as cheeky and flirtatious is, just an hour later, thoroughly chilling.

We tend to think of mass killings like the one in Florida as something far away, a drama that we can watch unfold from the comfort of our own safe shores. Ballistic brings the topic right on to our doorstep and urgently asks us to confront a few harsh realities. Here in the UK, such attacks are mercifully a rarity thanks to the aforementioned common sense gun laws, but that doesn’t mean they can’t happen, or that we don’t have a role to play in preventing them – if not directly, then by addressing the culture that keeps allowing them to happen. That might not seem like much, but it could turn out to be the Tetris piece that stops everything from crashing down around us.

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