Review: People Like Us at the Union Theatre

When it comes to Brexit, the one thing we can all agree on is that we don’t agree. The vote to leave the EU in June 2016 has been more divisive than any other political issue that I can recall in my lifetime, and while I personally voted Remain, I’m open-minded enough to acknowledge that Brexit could turn out to be not quite the disaster it appears to be, and to want to understand the other side of the debate.

Apparently, this makes me worthy of ridicule – at least according to Julie Burchill and Jane Robins, whose play People Like Us promises to “uniquely provide an argument for both sides of the debate”, and in doing so address the tendency within the arts to focus on the Remainer viewpoint. This is not a bad thing; we live in a culture of free speech, after all, and there’s certainly a need for theatre that makes us think outside our usual mindset.

Photo credit: Paul Nicholas Dyke

Unfortunately, People Like Us is not the play to do it. The cast of five do a decent enough job with the material, but there’s no hiding the fact that this is essentially one big, self-congratulatory dig at the Remain camp and everyone in it. Focusing on the members of a north London book club just before and after the vote, there’s absolutely no attempt at reasoned political debate, and any suggestion that the play presents a balanced view is, frankly, laughable. Remainer Ralph (Kamaal Hussain) is presented as a cartoonishly privileged cry-baby, a cad who abandoned his wife and daughters for sexy French environmentalist Clémence (Marine Andre). Worse, he then allows her to manipulate him into labelling Frances (Sarah Toogood) and Stacey (Gemma-Germaine) – the decent, hard-working patriots who voted for Brexit – as ignorant racists, and kicking them out of the book club.

Now, I’m more than aware there are Remainers who think that way, and it’s certainly reasonable – necessary, even – to point it out. Similarly, I understand there are many, many people who voted for Brexit who had good reasons for doing so, and who are not, in fact, ignorant racists. It does, however, seem a rather counterproductive approach to make the case against stereotyping people by, er, massively stereotyping people. (This stereotyping, incidentally, includes the portrayal of the Brexiters, who can offer no particular reason for their decision other than “democracy” – rather playing into the hands of those inclined to question their understanding of the situation.)

And just in case we need convincing that the writers have little interest in reasoned political debate, the book club’s fifth member Will (Paul Giddings) – the one character who’s willing to be a grown-up, accept the result of the vote and attempt to look for some common ground – is bullied mercilessly by both sides, because he’s not kicking and screaming in either victory or defeat.

Photo credit: Paul Nicholas Dyke

In fact, it’s a wonder the book club lasted until the Brexit vote, since none of the characters seem to like each other very much even before politics gets involved. Frances and Stacey make fun of Clémence for being a do-gooder; she in turn judges them for drinking too much. Ralph is tiring of his new young wife, and clearly has some unfinished business with Stacey, who’s all too aware of the fact. And of course, everyone looks down on Will, because – well, he’s an easy target. Consequently, the play isn’t even particularly fun to watch, since almost all the characters are such horrible people and it’s impossible to empathise with them, regardless of our own political stance. A few of the one-liners – mostly those from Will, the one likeable character – raise a chuckle, but everything else about the play feels so needlessly unpleasant that the humour often falls flat.

With the Brexit vote now two years behind us, and an uncertain future ahead, it’s sad to see so much bitterness lingering on between the two sides of the debate – and a play that seems to deliberately set out to perpetuate that bad feeling is at best unhelpful, at worst dangerous. The idea to examine how Brexit has come between friends, lovers and family members is certainly an interesting one, and it’s a topic worthy of further debate. But for me, People Like Us takes too much delight in the division to make any meaningful contribution to that discussion.

People Like Us is at the Union Theatre until 20th October.


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Citizen at The Space

Just a few days after another British-Iranian citizen – Abbas Edalat, a professor of computer science and mathematics at Imperial College in London – was arrested on spying charges in Tehran, Suitcase Civilians’ show Citizen strikes very close to home. Simultaneously a celebration of the country’s proud culture and a condemnation of its political repression, the show brings together a collection of news and personal stories that explore what citizenship really means, and invites us to ponder why the simple question “Where are you from?” is increasingly fraught with complications and potential dangers.

Alongside well-known news stories like that of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian project manager detained in 2016 while on a family visit with her 22-month-old daughter, writer and director Sepy Baghaei also includes deeply personal anecdotes like that of a family forced to flee their country at a moment’s notice, and a young man who avoided death by seconds when his office building was hit by a bomb – but whose friends weren’t so lucky.

Nor is the focus only on Iran’s controversial treatment of its citizens; one of the first stories we hear is that of Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian refugee detained on Manus Island since 2013, because he attempted to reach Australia by sea. And let’s not forget Donald Trump’s travel ban, preventing citizens of seven nations – including Iran – to enter the USA, the byproduct of which has been countless people living in the States who are too afraid to travel home to see their families, in case they can’t get back.

There are lighter moments too, however. In one scene a filmmaker narrates a social interaction between two women, describing in hushed tones the unique customs on display, and in another two of the actors talk us cheerfully through “how to make an Iranian”, before handing out tea and dates to the audience.

Such a varied show – which also features music and poetry – presents a demanding task for its cast, but the actors rise to the occasion admirably, moving seamlessly from one persona and accent to another. David Djemal is particularly moving in an emotional portrayal of Behrouz Boochani as he describes the trauma of his detention on Manus Island, and Nalân Burgess stands out as a young woman who reminisces about growing up in Britain whilst trying to remain connected to her Iranian heritage.

Ending on a quietly reflective note that looks ahead to an uncertain future, Citizen is a thought-provoking piece of theatre that doesn’t hold back with regard to the ongoing political issues in Iran. That said, the picture it paints is far from simplistic; unlike those politicians quoted in the show, Beghaei and Suitcase Civilians recognise that the country you come from – while it may have a profound impact on how you live your life – doesn’t necessarily define who you are. The show focuses on Iran as an example, and is a fascinating insight into a culture that many Londoners will know little about, but its message is far broader, and feels uncomfortably relevant in a society that continues to make sweeping judgments about other human beings based on race and nationality.

Citizen is at The Space until 5th May.


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Devil With The Blue Dress at The Bunker Theatre

In Kevin Armento’s Devil With The Blue Dress, Hillary Clinton refers to her husband’s affair with Monica Lewinsky as the second worst thing ever to happen to her. It’s a great line, which unsurprisingly earns a big laugh, but it’s also a very telling comment. Hillary Rodham Clinton – lawyer, author, politician, mother, grandmother, the first woman to be nominated for president by a major political party in U.S. history – is still known above all by people across the world, and within her own nation, for two main events: that time her husband cheated on her with a 22-year-old intern, and that time she was beaten in the presidential election by a man with zero political experience, qualifications or intelligence.

Photo credit: Helen Murray

Devil With The Blue Dress examines the circumstances of the former, while reflecting on the impact it may or may not have had on the latter. Most of us above a certain age will remember, however vaguely, what’s become known as “the Monica Lewinsky scandal”; Armento’s script fills in the political and personal details, from the perspective of both Hillary (Flora Montgomery) and Monica (Daniella Isaacs), as well as the Clintons’ daughter Chelsea (Kristy Philipps), Bill’s devoted secretary Betty (Dawn Hope) and Monica’s friend and confidante, Linda (Emma Handy).

Joshua McTaggart’s production begins in an orderly fashion, with Flora Montgomery’s meticulously controlled Hillary presenting each of the characters in “her play” as they emerge from behind a curtain at the back of the stage. Then Monica, played by Daniella Isaacs, crashes the party, at which point the narrative takes a very different direction. She wants to tell her side of the story, and does so with colour and emotion; in fact she’s the total opposite of Hillary, and if we met her out of context, we’d probably quite like her. It’s a sympathetic view of a woman who’s rarely seen in such a positive light: young and in love, she’s manipulated by those around her and pays for it by becoming the face and name of a global scandal.

By Act 2, the curtain’s down, the truth is out and the gloves – or rather heels – are well and truly off, as little by little the five women turn on each other. And if there’s one key player noticeably missing from the all-female line-up, Bill Clinton still makes his voice heard, both through the sterling work of saxophonist Tashomi Balfour and through the women themselves, with the “supporting cast” of Chelsea, Linda and Betty each taking turns to speak his words. Meanwhile Hillary and Monica face off in a battle over who’s been most wronged by the other, neither apparently giving a moment’s thought to the idea that the President might bear some responsibility for their misery. And it’s that very point that makes this play about a 20-year-old scandal so relevant right now in 2018, with the #metoo movement continuing to gain momentum, even as Donald Trump – a man who literally believes he can do anything he wants to women because he’s famous – sits smugly in the White House.

Photo credit: Helen Murray

Though a little knowledge of U.S. political history might help, particularly at the start of the play, Armento’s writing is clear enough that anyone with the sketchiest knowledge of what happened in 1998 – and 2016 – can easily keep up with the chain of events. The conflict between the women makes for compelling viewing, but what really sets the stage for an interesting debate is the underlying question of why that conflict is even happening, and what damage it’s inflicting on both the individuals involved and the perceptions of those watching. I’ve never questioned why it’s known as the Monica Lewinsky scandal and not the Bill Clinton scandal – but I am now, and I don’t think I’m the only one.

Devil With The Blue Dress is at The Bunker Theatre until 28th April.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre

I intended to start writing my review of The Bridge Theatre’s thrilling, immersive production of Julius Caesar on the train home last night. Instead, I ended up texting pretty much everyone I know to tell them they should go and see it immediately. Having slept on that opinion, I stand by it 100%.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Nicholas Hytner’s production brings ancient Rome screaming into the 21st century with a politically relevant and heart-poundingly gripping take on Shakespeare’s play. While the adaptation steers clear of overt references to any specific regime, there are shades of a certain red baseball cap wearing president in David Calder’s portrayal of Caesar (with one particular gesture that simultaneously clarifies who he’s modelled on and seals our dislike towards him, just moments before his assassination). Perhaps in light of this it’s not surprising that two of the main conspirators against him are strong female figures – Michelle Fairley as Cassius and Adjoa Andoh as Casca – who convince Ben Whishaw’s nervous, endearingly geeky Brutus to join them, only for him to take over the entire plan, overrule all their ideas and mess everything up.

Julius Caesar is a story that works particularly well in an immersive format, because so much of the play focuses on the power of political rhetoric to sway the masses. Standing in the midst of the crowd, clutching a Caesar poster someone had just thrust into my hand while Brutus flyers rained down all around, it was easy to get caught up in the tidal wave of popular opinion as first Brutus and then Mark Antony – played with conviction and down to earth charisma by David Morrissey – took to the stage at Caesar’s funeral.

That said, it only works if the immersive aspects of the show are convincing, and on that front this production delivers to such an extent I actually felt a bit traumatised by the end. From the celebratory gig that’s already underway as we arrive, to the screams of discreetly positioned cast members at Caesar’s assassination, to the debris that falls from above as the theatre’s rocked by explosions and gunfire – the attention to detail is mind-blowing. True, it’s not the most comfortable two hours you’ll ever spend; prepare to be herded fairly roughly from one position to another, to be stepped on by fellow audience members, and possibly even to have an actor scream “Move!” in your face. But I’d still recommend getting a standing ticket if you can physically manage it (the play is two hours with no interval) if an authentic experience is what you’re after.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

On the other hand, if you want a good view of Bunny Christie’s incredible set (and prefer to keep your toes untrampled), a seated ticket is probably the way to go; inevitably anyone watching from the ground won’t be able to see everything, whereas from above you’ll be better able to appreciate the versatility of both the space and the set. Consisting of multiple platforms that rise and fall to create a new stage area for each new scene, it’s like spending the evening in several different theatres all at once.

In a city that was already full of theatres, The Bridge – which only opened in October – has already more than proved its worth. This gripping production will thrill those who already know and love Shakespeare, but more importantly, it may just change the minds of those who don’t.

Julius Caesar is at The Bridge Theatre until 15th April.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Fear and Misery of the Third Reich at Jack Studio Theatre

Bertolt Brecht’s Fear and Misery of the Third Reich does pretty much what it says on the tin, but in Aequitas’ new revival, there’s a twist. Selecting from Brecht’s collection of short scenes set in Nazi Germany, the production sticks to the source material, but also takes the opportunity to draw parallels with the depressing post-2016 world in which Trump and Brexit continue to loom ever larger.

The link is obvious to anyone who’s willing to see it – both Trump and Brexit were the result of a democratic process, as was Hitler, and there are clear similarities to be found in the powerful rhetoric of fear used in all three cases. Though the characters remain Germans living under the Nazi regime, the actors are all in modern dress, and sporting accessories including a MAGA cap and a save our NHS badge (“I should put on my Iron Cross,” says one of the men at one point, as he hastily dons his “Brexit means Brexit” badge). To make sure we get the point, we’re also treated to scene change soundbites from and about Trump and co.

Director Rachael Bellis doesn’t try to claim we’ve reached the levels of (justified) paranoia experienced by Brecht’s characters, but she does suspect it’s where we’re headed if action isn’t taken: a world where parents fear being turned in by their children, where a throwaway comment can cost lives, and where a Jewish wife is forced to leave her husband and flee the country in order to save them both. It’s easy to shake our heads and claim such things could never happen here – but then two years ago, how many of us honestly thought Trump would be in the White House, or that anyone in the UK who speaks out against Brexit would be dubbed a traitor in the press?

The cast of six interact well with each other (and, on occasion, the audience) as a variety of characters of different ages and backgrounds. In the first of two scenes that feel closest to our current reality, Clark Alexander and Hugo Trebels face off in an intense debate between an SA thug and his cook’s brother; while the latter clearly has the upper hand in terms of logic and reason, it’s worth nothing when all his adversary need do is draw a chalk cross on his back to ensure he’ll be arrested. In the other, Rhiannon Sommers stands out with a heartbreaking performance as a Jewish woman trying to explain to her husband why she must leave the country, and by extension their marriage.

It’s not all doom and gloom; the play ends abruptly with a shout of “NO!” from a group of protesters getting organised to fight back. Even so, the play’s title is an apt description; we may not be in the Third Reich, but the fear and misery are all too real.

Fear and Misery of the Third Reich is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 3rd February.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉