Review: Katheryn Howard at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

When it comes to Henry VIII’s wives, the key fact that most people learn at school is how he disposed of them. In the case of Katheryn Howard, his fifth wife, this was at the executioner’s block, after she was accused of adultery with one of the king’s favourite courtiers.

Written by Catherine Hiscock, the debut production from Goose Bite Theatre picks up the story of Queen Katheryn close to the end, as an all-female cast portray a court filling with rumours – not just regarding her reported liaisons with Thomas Culpepper whilst married, but also previous sexual relationships with her music teacher Henry Mannox and secretary to the Dowager Duchess, Francis Dereham. Once these well-documented facts have been established, the play takes us back to the start to give us Katheryn’s account of these events, and a very different picture emerges.

Photo credit: Georgia Harris

The first piece of information I don’t remember learning in primary school is that Katheryn Howard was only a teenager at the time of both her marriage and her death, and each of the men with whom she was reported to have been involved – including her husband – were more than twice her age. The second little-known fact is that she could have saved herself by confessing that her relationship with Dereham was consensual, and yet despite the possibility of salvation, she continued to insist that he had raped her. The Katheryn we meet in this production (Catherine Hiscock) is not the adulteress we know from the history books, but a naive, terrified teenager who’s repeatedly found herself flattered and seduced into unwanted sexual relationships with predatory men. Seen through fresh eyes, and particularly from a 21st century perspective, her story is not just tragic but horrifying.

Surrounding Katheryn are her friends and ladies-in-waiting: Joan Bulmer (Francesca Anderson), Katheryn Tilney (Emmanuela Lia), Isabelle Baynton (Srabani Sen) and Jane Boleyn (Natalie Harper) – Anne Boleyn’s former sister-in-law, who allegedly aided and abetted Katheryn’s adultery and was executed immediately after her. The interactions between these characters paints a picture of life both at Lambeth, where Katheryn spent her childhood and early teenage years, and at court, where everyone’s number one concern is to protect their own position. Though it covers a relatively brief time period, the production captures very well the stark contrast between the giggling girls of Lambeth, for whom it’s common practice and seemingly harmless fun to welcome young men into their sleeping quarters, and the anxious ladies of court, who quickly realise that the queen’s downfall could also spell their own doom. This atmosphere of paranoia, suspicion and political manoeuvring is portrayed by the cast in the form of a chorus, who pace the stage with hands to their mouths as if whispering secrets.

Photo credit: Georgia Harris

You perhaps need to know a little bit more of Katheryn’s back-story than simply “beheaded” to follow everything in the text, but on the whole the play does a good job of untangling a complicated story in which many of the characters have the same name (to the point where it becomes something of a running joke) and/or are related to each other. And Catherine Hiscock gives a great performance as the young queen; her pleas for mercy and forgiveness as the play comes to an end are heartfelt and deeply poignant. It’s no surprise that women were second-rate citizens in Henry’s court, but it’s frustrating that even now we still only really know Katheryn by the manner of her death. This play sets out to right that wrong, and the result is a strong debut production that’s both historically interesting and emotionally impactful.

Katheryn Howard was performed at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre from 30th July to 3rd August. For more details about Goose Bite Theatre, follow them @GooseBiteTC.

Review: 10 Things I Hate About Taming of the Shrew at Greenwich Theatre

It is a truth universally acknowledged (if you’ll pardon the mixing of literary references) that Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is, at best, problematic. It’s the story of a man torturing his wife into submission, after all, and to be honest there’s not really any easy way to sidestep that fairly significant plot point without completely rewriting the play.

While most of us would probably be willing to admit that Taming of the Shrew is far from Shakespeare’s best, Canadian actor, writer and comedian Gillian English has gone a step further and made a list of everything that’s wrong with it. And I give you fair warning: that list will take down not only Taming of the Shrew but also beloved teen romcom 10 Things I Hate About You (in spite of the manifold and much-missed charms of Heath Ledger, which are acknowledged more than once). Also A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare in general. Friends. Big boobs. Justin Trudeau. In fact there are very few people, places or things that make it out of this very funny but also very angry show unscathed.

And that’s because while Taming of the Shrew may be the starting point, it actually opens the door to a much wider conversation – about our obsession with reviving Shakespeare plays, even the bad ones, just because of who wrote them. About the damaging impact of romanticising misogyny and turning it into a Hollywood teen movie or a banging rock anthem. About the dangers of pitting women against each other, or telling little girls that boys are only mean to them because they like them. In a show peppered with hilarious personal anecdotes, self-defence classes and a demonstration of the opening number from Get Over It – which I’ve never seen but now desperately want to – it turns out there’s also a lot of serious stuff for both women and men in the audience to unpack and peruse at our leisure.

As a performer, Gillian English quite literally roars on to the stage, making no secret of her anger not just that Taming of the Shrew exists, but that everything bad within this 500-year-old play still needs to be discussed in 2019. She’s loud, in your face, and not afraid to be a bit confrontational, and yet there’s something about her enthusiasm and frank acknowledgment of her own failings that makes her irresistibly likeable (at least I thought so – I can’t speak for how the men in the audience felt about being taught the best way to rip off a penis). Add to that the fact that what she’s saying – even, or perhaps especially, the shoutiest bits – makes a huge amount of sense, and you’ve got the recipe for a show that’s a lot of fun to watch in the moment, but that also stimulates an ongoing discussion and a desire for change going forward.

Not everyone will love it; die-hard Shakespeare fans will no doubt take offence at the way their idol’s work is dismissed, and ironically the kind of men – and women – who most need to hear the show’s messages will probably steer well clear. But for those willing to open their minds, and who are okay with witnessing one of their favourite teen movies being ripped brutally to shreds, this is definitely one to see if it passes through a town near you.

10 Things I Hate about Taming of the Shrew is touring the UK, including heading to Edinburgh – for full dates, and details of Gillian English’s other shows, visit

Review: Lunatic 19’s at Finborough Theatre

With immigrants across the USA bracing for planned Ice raids this weekend, Lunatic 19’s, a topical new play by Iowa-based writer Tegan McLeod, shines a spotlight on the soullessness and absurdity of American immigration laws and procedures. A tense two-hander, it’s the kind of story you want to dismiss out of hand as an exaggerated, politicised version of the truth – but only because accepting that this sort of thing can and does really happen is an idea too horrific to contemplate.

Photo credit: Marian Medic

Gracie Reyes (Gabriela García) is an undocumented migrant worker, who’s originally from Mexico but has called Kentucky home since she was a child. After narrowly surviving a horrific car accident, she’s taken from her hospital bed, neck brace and all, handcuffed and bundled into a windowless van for the long drive back “from whence she came”. Her driver and captor is Alec (Devon Anderson), whose career depends on getting Gracie back to Mexico promptly – but as the days pass, it becomes more and more difficult for him to view her as just another number. And so what we end up with is a dark take on the traditional road trip buddy movie, in which it seems increasingly unlikely that there can ever be a happy ending for either of them.

Framed as a nightmarish, almost dystopian, memory playing out on a minimalist set (Carla Goodman), the play is outstandingly performed – both as individuals and as a partnership – by Gabriela García and Devon Anderson. García is enthralling to watch as Gracie, a survivor who’s lived through more trauma than most of us can even imagine. Though she approaches most conversations with either stoic resignation or bitter sarcasm (which only warms the audience to her even further), underneath it all she’s clearly terrified and confused by the indignity of her situation and the prospect of being dumped without warning back in a country she barely remembers.

Similarly complex is Devon Anderson’s Alec Herrero, who may not be facing deportation but is, in some ways, just as desperate. Also of Latino heritage, he sees all too clearly in the “cargo” he transports how his own life could have been very different – but with a wife, three daughters and a troubled sister to support, he needs this job. Little by little Anderson’s facade of emotionless authority slips to reveal a decent, caring human being who’s trapped by his own circumstances into becoming part of a system he knows is wrong. And although his developing relationship with Gracie has a certain inevitability to it – this is a road trip story after all – their chemistry never feels forced.

Photo credit: Marian Medic

A particularly effective aspect of Jonathan Martin’s production is the sparing but frequent use of blood as both a physical prop and a metaphor. Gracie’s body – and her blood in particular – has betrayed her many times; she’s a haemophiliac with a history of multiple miscarriages, who had the misfortune to be born in the wrong country. So while many parts of her story are portrayed figuratively rather than literally (there’s no van, no pharmacy, no detention centre, not even an actual road), it feels appropriate that the blood at the heart of the story is all too real.

Despite some very funny lines of dialogue, there’s nothing particularly humorous about Lunatic 19’s – especially when you only have to turn on the news to understand that stories like this one are not just true, but also completely legal. The utter absurdity and inhumanity of a system that values the worth of a human being purely by where they were born makes for difficult viewing, but the story is so well told that the time we spend with Gracie and Alec – though frequently harrowing – feels considerably shorter than its run time of 90 minutes. An excellent production, and essential viewing.

Lunatic 19’s is at the Finborough Theatre until 3rd August.

Review: The Canterbury Tales at Tower Theatre

For someone who spends a lot of time sitting on stationary trains (and almost missed the start of this show because of a public transport delay), the premise of Tower Theatre’s new production of The Canterbury Tales is all too familiar. A group of passengers stranded on a train to Canterbury West – among them a soldier (Toñi Madja), a musician (Paul Willcocks), a librarian (Sarah Bower), a handywoman (Emily Carmichael) and a lawyer (Alistair Maydon) – are encouraged by the train guard (Alexa Wall) to turn to storytelling to pass the time, with each of them competing for the audience’s winning vote at the end of the evening.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko

Directed by Angharad Ormond, the resulting collection of tales is a slightly disjointed but wholly entertaining evening, alternating between comedy and tragedy, and with no shortage of topical commentary; though the tales are all based on stories written centuries ago, it doesn’t take too much of a twist to bring some of them bang up to date. Like Constance, the central character in the lawyer’s story, who’s forced to flee her home and later becomes the sole survivor of a slaughter at the hands of religious extremists; Griselda (Arabella Hornby), of the librarian’s tale, who’s trapped in an emotionally abusive marriage; or Alice (Deborah Ley), better known as the Wife of Bath, who’s been married five times but has never managed to achieve the one thing she really wants – gender equality. The production makes no secret of its political orientation in these moments, with cast members reciting key facts and headlines relating to the refugee crisis, and Alice referencing recent news from Alabama in her plea for women’s rights.

Unsurprisingly, this means that there are points in the production where things get very dark indeed, but luckily there’s also plenty of humour – much of it quite cheeky – to lighten the mood. Both the bookie (Ryan Williams) and the soldier entertain their audience with stories about two men chasing the same woman, set centuries apart but both with predictably disastrous results. The priest (Paul Graves), meanwhile, brings the evening to a cheery musical conclusion with his cautionary tale about the proud rooster Chauntecleer, who learns the dangers of falling for flattery.

Although each story only has one narrator, the production is a great example of ensemble performance, incorporating physical theatre, sign language and clowning at various points. Music also plays an important part in the show, whether it’s a cappella 60s hits, haunting folk melodies or tongue-in-cheek opera, and this adds an extra dimension to an already lively production, with strong vocals and harmonies from the whole cast and musical accompaniment provided by the multi-talented Paul Willcocks.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko

Parts of the show have a slightly improvised feel, and with more characters than stories I did leave wondering if a different combination of tales might be told each night – if so, this would be another clever twist (and would also keep the cast on their toes). Whether or not that’s true, though, this new take on The Canterbury Tales brings Chaucer well and truly into the 21st century, and is certainly a lot more accessible than the dry text most of us will remember studying at school. It’s great fun, slightly bonkers and well worth a visit.

The Canterbury Tales is at Tower Theatre until 20th July.

Review: One Giant Leap at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Anna Karenina, Macbeth, Othello, Three Sisters, Frankenstein, The White Rose, Taro… Over the last five years, Arrows & Traps have proved time and again that they know how to do serious drama (and also that there are an awful lot of different ways to die). That label cannot be applied in any conceivable way to their new play One Giant Leap, which is a very silly story with no other mission in mind but providing two hours of pure entertainment.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

It’s 1969, and Apollo 11 is all set to launch for the Moon. But it’s too hot up there to film Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s one small step for man, so CIA Agent Harris (Alex Stevens) has come to cash-strapped TV producer Edward Price (Christopher Tester) with a request: he needs him to fake the Moon Landing. There’s just one problem – Price’s cast and crew of misfits are too wrapped up in their own issues to focus on the job at hand, and time is ticking away…

Writer and director Ross McGregor has thrown literally everything at this historical sci-fi romantic comedy (there’s no kitchen sink but there is an alluring stepladder) and the result is an often chaotic but always enjoyable romp that culminates in a musical number I don’t think any of us will be forgetting any time soon. The characters are stereotypes – the arrogant leading man, the scantily clad actress, the frustrated producer – and the plot relatively predictable, but there’s enough detail to ensure none of them are ever lacking in substance. At times, this detail actually works against the production; with every character getting their own story, there’s a lot to try and keep track of at any given moment. This also means that the play’s conclusion, particularly following the unbridled hilarity of the Moon Landing sequence, feels a bit like a box ticking exercise to ensure we’re not left with any unfinished plot threads.

That said, one of the best things about One Giant Leap is that the cast are clearly having an absolute blast. It’s hard to tell who’s having more fun up there: Will Pinchin as Howard, the world’s clumsiest cameraman; Lucy Ioannou as sweet but insecure Alchamy; Steven Jeram as casanova Daniel; Vivian Belosky as sharp-tongued and quite possibly permanently green Linda. Alex Stevens’ CIA Agent Harris showcases some impressive accent switching (and interesting wardrobe choices), and Christopher Tester and Charlie Ryall engage in excellent verbal sparring as increasingly desperate ex-spouses Edward and Carol. And Daniel Ghezzi, appropriately enough, steals every scene he’s in as frustrated actor and lover of all things jazz hands, Perry.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

As Arrows & Traps arrives at a crossroads before embarking on a new chapter with The Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde later this year, One Giant Leap feels like the company is taking a welcome opportunity to pause and let off some steam. It’s not Shakespeare, and it doesn’t have the beauty and eloquence of, say, The White Rose or Taro – though it is still visually quite a feast, with an incredible set designed by Justin Williams and some unforgettable costumes from Delyth Evans. I didn’t always know exactly what was going on but I had fun trying to figure it out, and sometimes that’s all you need. So why not boldly go and get a ticket for two hours of silliness and escapism, and – for once! – a happy ending.

One Giant Leap is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 27th July.