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.

Hamilton (Lewis) is at the King’s Head Theatre until 22nd September.

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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.

Tumble Tuck is at the King’s Head Theatre until 12th May.

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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.

Ballistic is at the King’s Head Theatre until 17th March.

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Review: What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors at the King’s Head Theatre

Ask pretty much anyone, and if we’re really honest we’ll probably admit to some preconceived ideas about the causes of homelessness. We might mention drugs, alcohol, mental illness, criminal records, domestic abuse… All problems we don’t – and assume never will – face ourselves.

It’s not entirely our fault; the media plays a significant role in shaping society’s view of homelessness, and the more horrors someone has been through on the way to losing their home, the more sympathetic – and therefore interesting – their story. But it also places the homeless at even more of a distance from those of us lucky enough to have a roof over our heads and a nice warm bed to go home to. We may shake our heads at the sadness of the story; we may even buy someone a coffee or make a donation to a homelessness charity – but then we go on our way, safe in the knowledge theirs isn’t a problem we’ll ever face ourselves.

Photo credit: Caz Dyer

The truth is, though, homelessness isn’t necessarily the result of a dramatic crisis; sometimes it’s simply the product of a wrong move here or there. Molly, the central character in What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors, doesn’t quite know how she ended up homeless; she didn’t even fully register that she was for a good two weeks after being evicted. Maybe it’s because she was bullied at school. Or because she didn’t go out with that guy from her class. Maybe because her dad left, or her mum died, or she decided not to go to uni. Maybe it’s because of a combination of these, or something else entirely.

Molly’s played by Emma Bentley, who wrote the show along with Calum Finlay, and whose engaging performance quickly wins us over as she attempts to make sense of where she went wrong. Articulate, funny and resilient, Molly’s completely honest about her own lapses of judgment and the slow disintegration of her life – even before she ends up on the street in a thunderstorm, messaging a random guy on Tinder just to have somewhere to stay the night. While not solely a victim of circumstance, she also doesn’t do anything obviously wrong; she’s not a drug addict, or a criminal – she’s just like anyone else, and this relatability is both enjoyable and rather unsettling.

The Tinder scene is just one reference to technology in a show that makes frequent use of it. Images from Molly’s phone are projected on to a sheet at the back of Rasa Selemonavičiūtė’s set, and there’s inventive use made of a webcam to take us on a tour of the home that exists now only as a memory. Katharina Reinthaller’s production also introduces several other characters to the story through the use of audio clips, with which Molly interacts throughout the play. It’s an ambitious project, and not without an element of risk, but it pays off; the inclusion of these extra characters helps to build up a more complete picture of Molly’s life and relationships, and also emphasises her loneliness once all those voices fall silent.

Photo credit: Caz Dyer

Developed with the benefit of Emma Bentley’s volunteering experience at St Mungo’s, the play also has a feeling of authenticity, particularly when Molly starts sharing details about her current state of “purgatory”, as she waits to find out if she’ll get permanent housing or end up back on the street. In a series of short scenes, we also learn about the lengthy, repetitive bureaucratic process she had to go through just to get temporary accommodation. With her fate out of her hands, all she can do is wait and hope for the best.

What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors clearly aims to make us think, but resists the temptation to preach or tell us what to do. Instead, by sharing one person’s story, the show invites us to process for ourselves the uncomfortable home truth at its heart: but for a different decision somewhere along the road, Molly could have been – and could still be – any one of us.

Catch What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors at Playbox Theatre, Warwick, on 16th March and at Burton Taylor Studio, Oxford Playhouse, on 19th and 20th April.

Review: East at King’s Head Theatre

East begins with a cacophonous rendition of East End classic, My Old Man Said Follow The Van, with each of the five actors singing at different speeds and in different keys. It’s an unconventional opening to a play that we quickly realise doesn’t believe in compromise; much like its characters, and the famously distinctive area of London in which it’s set, Steven Berkoff’s 1975 play – which returns for the first time to its original London home at the King’s Head, directed by Jessica Lazar – has its own unique personality and makes no apology for the brutal, foul-mouthed honesty with which it depicts East End life.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

The story – such as it is – centres predominantly around two friends, Les (Jack Condon) and Mike (James Craze), whose first encounter sees them beat each other to a bloody pulp after Les looks the wrong way at Mike’s girlfriend Sylv (Boadicea Ricketts). We then meet Mike’s parents (Debra Penny and Russell Barnett), a faded, loveless couple whose only pleasure seems to come from watching TV, reminiscing on times past and – in Dad’s case – lecturing the family on his right-wing views.

From there, the play abandons any pretence at a linear narrative, instead painting a series of pictures of the characters’ lives through a mix of heartfelt soliloquies, physical set pieces and comedic silent movie sequences – all performed by an outstanding cast to a live piano soundtrack played by musical director Carol Arnopp. The action jumps backwards and forwards in time, spanning several years, and keeps us constantly off balance as we try to keep up with the relentless pace of it all.

Berkoff’s language is a fascinating blend of Shakespearean and contemporary, laced with rhyming slang, references to East London locations, and enough expletives to turn the air well and truly blue. His characters are all frequently reprehensible, but also display a deep dissatisfaction with their lives that goes some way to winning our sympathy. Boadicea Ricketts’ Sylv leads the way in the hope for change, reflecting wistfully on a woman’s role in a male-dominated world, in a speech that could (to society’s discredit) have been written yesterday instead of 30 years ago. Jack Condon cuts a pathetic figure as Les – constantly left out, making jokes that don’t quite hit the mark, and ultimately betrayed by his own loneliness – with Debra Penny’s Mum similarly unfulfilled as she observes her sleeping husband and remembers with apparent satisfaction an incident at the local cinema that should have left her horrified.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

East is a difficult play to pin down – at times funny, at others shocking, it has an underlying current of frustration that explodes in a variety of ways, from sex to violence to dodgy dancing (and, on one occasion, flying baked beans). The cast excel in physically and emotionally demanding roles, and the production maintains a constant drive and energy from the first moment to the last – all the more impressive given the lack of flow in the narrative. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea; if you’re easily offended then you may want to steer clear. But for anyone who’s excited by bold, striking theatre that’s not afraid to go its own way, this is a must-see.

East is at the King’s Head Theatre until 3rd February.

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