Review: Knights of the Rose at the Arts Theatre

On paper, Knights of the Rose is everything I ever wanted in a show. A Shakespearean rock musical, with a soundtrack featuring the likes of Bon Jovi, REM and Muse, and a cast of impressive West End talent, many of them sporting guyliner and leather trousers whilst rocking out with an electric guitar and a big sword. What’s not to love?

In practice… well, it’s now been 24 hours, and I still don’t quite know what I watched – literally, it’s impossible to tell if we’re meant to take Knights of the Rose seriously or treat it as the big silly spoof that it is. And if we have to ask the question, I have a worried feeling that means it’s the former.

Photo credit: Mark Dawson

Created by Jennifer Marsden and directed by Racky Plews, Knights of the Rose is the story of Prince Gawain (Andy Moss) and his trusty band of knights, who’ve been away for years fighting a war against various enemies of the realm. When they come home victorious, everyone rejoices – not least the beautiful Princess Hannah (Katie Birtill) and Lady Isabel (Rebekah Lowings), who are immediately proposed to by Sir Hugo (Oliver Savile) and Prince Gawain respectively, much to the distress of the ladies’ other suitors, Sir Palamon (Chris Cowley) and Sir Horatio (Matt Thorpe). As it turns out, the lovers’ happiness is short-lived, because the men are immediately called away to fight again – for reasons that are unclear – and this time they may not all return…

It all gets off to a promising start, with a suitably macho rendition of Bon Jovi’s Blaze of Glory from the returning knights. Musically, this is a sign of things to come, and Act 1 is basically hit after hit – the women are Holding Out For a Hero while the knights are Addicted to Love (more on that in a minute); there’s a brilliantly surreal moment when Sir Hugo woos Princess Hannah with a bit of Enrique Iglesias’ Hero, and it all comes to a dramatic, heartfelt conclusion with Meat Loaf’s Is Nothing Sacred, as the characters mourn the end of love affairs that have lasted approximately three minutes. In between musical numbers, the script is a patchwork of quotes from Shakespeare, Chaucer, Marlowe, Keats, Tennyson, Byron, Kipling and more; the literary references are so numerous that they take up three whole pages in the programme. It’s all extremely cheesy – but quite enjoyably so, as long as you’re in the mood for a bit of silliness.

Unfortunately, the show uses up most of its best material before the interval, and by the time we return it seems to have rather run out of steam. A couple of protracted death scenes are paired with such bizarre music choices that they become more funny than tragic, while a lacklustre finale leaves us feeling distinctly unsatisfied – and only partly because some of us spent the entire night waiting in vain for Livin’ on a Prayer.

Photo credit: Mark Dawson

And therein lies the most frustrating thing about Knights of the Rose: the wasted potential of a show that sounded so promising. Some of the best tracks are thrown away – Everybody Hurts and Don’t Speak are prime examples – while others, like The Calling’s Wherever You Will Go, bear such tenuous links to what’s happening on stage that it becomes very hard to take even the best performances seriously. The plot is thin; even an attempt to make things interesting by introducing a villain ends with a bit of a whimper, and – possibly most irritating of all, particularly given the female-led creative team behind the show – the women serve absolutely no purpose except as beautiful love interests for the men to fight over. (This being Shakespeare of sorts, I kept half hoping at least one of them would disguise herself as a boy and head off to war, but sadly not.)

But let’s try and end on a positive note, because despite everything the show does still manage to be quite fun. It’s surreal, utterly mental fun – but if you’re willing to embrace the madness (and you’re not a diehard scholar of Shakespeare) there’s an entertaining enough evening to be had.

Knights of the Rose is at the Arts Theatre until 26th August.


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Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Wilton’s Music Hall

You know it’s officially summer when A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes to town. Like A Christmas Carol in December, it seems like every year brings us at least one new production of Shakespeare’s comedy, and it’s easy to give in to Dream fatigue and assume the play can’t possibly have anything original left to say.

The Faction have taken this on board with their stripped back production, and director Mark Leipacher keeps things simple so that the focus returns to the original text without the distraction of elaborate new interpretations. By having so little in the way of set or costumes – all the characters wear modern everyday clothes, and the only nod to the Athenian setting is the orb of the moon which hangs above the stage – we’re able to see the story through fresh eyes and draw new conclusions as to what it’s all about. Personally, I picked up on several themes and textual elements that I’d never considered before in 20 years of seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed; it’s both refreshing and exciting to see such a well-worn classic through fresh eyes.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

Having said all that, ironically you do need to know the play reasonably well to keep up with the complex and fast-moving plot – particularly as the multi-roling cast can change character in the blink of an eye, without any change of costume and often without even leaving the stage. For the most part the versatility of the actors means this works well, but there are some moments where scenes blur together and it takes a while to unpick who’s now playing who. (On the plus side, doubling up the roles does mean that the Mechanicals get to conclude the show and perform their gloriously terrible Pyramus and Thisbe uninterrupted by the mocking taunts of the newly-weds.)

Given the treatment of women in the play (and – let’s be honest – most of Shakespeare’s plays), it’s good to quickly see some strong female leads emerge. Tamarin McGinley doubles as Hippolyta, who might be marrying Theseus (Herb Cuanalo) against her will but has no intention of entering the union meekly, and Titania, who refuses to give up her page to Oberon despite all his threats. Meanwhile Lowri Izzard’s Hermia risks everything to avoid her own arranged marriage, and fiercely defends her virtue even against the man she’s just eloped with, insisting that Lysander (Jeremy Ang Jones) sleep further away from her despite his best efforts to convince her otherwise.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

In many ways this is a play of two halves; while Act 1 sets the scene and explores some of the story’s darker themes, Act 2 is pretty much wall-to-wall laughs, with Laura Evelyn’s bewildered Helena, Christopher Hughes’ hilariously over-the-top Bottom and Christopher York’s self-conscious Snout (a.k.a. The Wall) stealing the show. The whole cast display great physicality throughout – the lovers’ fight is a particular highlight, as is the moment Linda Marlowe’s Puck enters on Bottom’s back, her hands raised to create his donkey ears.

If ever we needed proof that Shakespeare can still be relevant to a 21st century audience, we have it in this production. It’s got royal weddings, climate change and honour killings, gender roles, body image and the question of consent, all wrapped up in a joyously entertaining evening with great physical comedy and strong performances from a talented ensemble. It takes some doing to breathe new life into such a well-known text, but The Faction have pulled it off. Dream fatigue – what’s that?

A Midsummer Night’s Dream concludes its run at Wilton’s Music Hall on 30th June. Visit The Faction’s website for details of future productions.

Review: The Tempest at St Paul’s Church

Amidst the chaos and bustle of London’s Covent Garden, St Paul’s Church feels like a little oasis of calm and tranquility. Affectionately known as The Actors’ Church, St Paul’s has been home to Iris Theatre since 2007, and the company’s tenth summer season gets off to a strong start with their promenade production of The Tempest.

Believed to be Shakespeare’s last solo play, The Tempest is a story about love, magic and redemption on a deserted island, where exiled duke Prospero and his faithful spirit Ariel plot revenge on his enemies after they’re washed ashore in a shipwreck. Meanwhile, Prospero’s slave Caliban has run off with some drunkards, and his daughter Miranda’s fallen in love with the third man she’s ever seen in her life – who conveniently happens to be the king’s lost son Ferdinand.

Photo credit: Nick Rutter

The first thing to say about Daniel Winder’s production is that it’s visually gorgeous. Mike Leopold’s nature-inspired set looks perfectly at home within the beautiful garden setting, Anna Sances’ costumes are full of rich, vibrant colour, and as the daylight fades, Benjamin Polya’s lighting design brings the play to an atmospheric conclusion. Throw in a clever sleight of hand magic scene, a singing spirit and a handsome prince, and you’ve pretty much got a fairy tale come to life.

Jamie Newall leads the cast of seven as a quietly authoritative Prospero; it’s a sympathetic interpretation of the character, whose actions seem motivated more by a sad weariness than by rage or tyranny. Linford Johnson and Joanne Thomson make a sweet and charmingly awkward couple as Ferdinand and Miranda, and Paul Brendan and Reginald Edwards offer great entertainment as the drunkards Trinculo and Stephano, who tempt Prince Plockey’s Caliban with booze and inadvertently find themselves talked into an ill-fated attempt to murder Prospero. The star of the show, however, is Charlotte Christensen as Ariel – a quirky, omnipresent figure, watching both characters and audience with a bird-like curiosity that’s both endearing and ever so slightly sinister.

Photo credit: Nick Rutter

The promenade aspect of the production, which takes us to three different locations within the gardens and briefly inside the church, works as well as can be expected. Waiting for the entire audience to move from one location to another (particularly when the paths are narrow and require us to travel single file) inevitably breaks up the action, but the actors work hard to keep the atmosphere alive in between scenes, and we’re always encouraged to feel like we’re part of the action. While I wouldn’t quite describe it as an immersive production, this also isn’t a show you just sit back and watch – so be prepared to potentially get a little bit involved…

I’d recommend The Tempest to anyone looking for a traditional Shakespearean production with a bit of a twist. While it may not bring us any radical new interpretations of the text, it does make for a thoroughly enjoyable evening, taking full advantage of a lovely setting to offer a welcome retreat from the madness of the city.

The Tempest is at St Paul’s Church until 28th July.

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Review: Foul Pages at The Hope Theatre

To quote the timeless classic Shakespeare in Love (not sarcasm, I love that movie): “Love, and a bit with a dog – that’s what they want.” Robin Hooper clearly subscribes to the same belief; his play Foul Pages has both – and Shakespeare too, though in this case it’s not him who’s in love but pretty much everyone else. Will, meanwhile, is more interested in refining his latest work, As You Like It, whilst fending off interference from the Countess of Pembroke, a fellow writer full of helpful suggestions, and from King James I, who’s become infatuated with one of the actors and insists that he be given the lead role. The purpose of the production is to charm the monarch into pardoning Sir Walter Raleigh, who’s days from execution for treason – but pleasing the king comes at a cost for more than one member of the company.

Oh, and there’s also a talking dog.

Photo credit: LHPhotoshots

Ian Hallard appears as Shakespeare, but such are the scandalous goings on that for once the legendary playwright isn’t the centre of attention. As his all-male company is torn apart by jealousy, ambition and more than a little sexual tension, all Will can do is watch in bemusement and do his best to hold everything together, along with straight-talking maid Peg (Olivia Onyehara) and the king’s devoted Scottish bodyguard Mears (Jack Harding).

Meanwhile it’s the more flamboyant characters – Lewis Chandler’s shunned actor Alex, Clare Bloomer’s eccentric Mary, Countess of Pembroke, and Tom Vanson’s lovelorn King James – who take centre stage, each driven by their own desires to take potentially catastrophic actions. There’s poignant work from Thomas Bird and Greg Baxter as actors Rob and Ed (also Shakespeare’s brother), whose fledgling relationship is threatened by the king’s interference. And then there’s Chop the dog, played to scene-stealing perfection by James King, who’s not only got all the animal behaviours down but also gets the most laughs, with wry observations on the bizarre human behaviour going on around him.

Photo credit: LHPhotoshots

Though the action is set in 1603, director Matthew Parker gives the production a modern twist; the costumes are an intriguing mix of 17th and 21st century, and rapid scene changes are punctuated by loud music and flashing lights, creating a sense of urgency as the stakes become ever higher and events take an unexpectedly tragic turn. Rachael Ryan’s economical set allows us a glimpse of goings on both upstairs and downstairs at Wilton, while still somehow allowing enough room on the tiny Hope stage for nine people to come out and treat us to an energetic jig at the end of the show.

There’s a political detour in the plot that doesn’t quite fit – it arrives out of nowhere and is just as quickly dealt with and forgotten – but that aside, Foul Pages is a compelling and irresistibly entertaining tale of love, lust and theatrical ambition that may just make you see As You Like It, and Shakespeare himself, in a whole new light.

Foul Pages is at The Hope Theatre until 17th March.

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Review: The Tempest at Brockley Jack Theatre

Controlled Chaos Theatre Company aims to promote diversity in the theatre, “including giving women a chance to take centre stage in the male dominated classics”. And they don’t come much more male dominated than The Tempest, a play in which the sole female character does exactly what she’s told by her father, then falls instantly in love with the third man she’s ever seen. Controlled Chaos aren’t the first company to turn that gender imbalance on its head with an all-female production; the Donmar did it last year, setting the action in a women’s prison, and a gender-reversed production at the Brockley Jack in 2005 saw all the male roles not only played by women but actually converted to female characters.

Photo credit: Kevin Kamara

This production keeps things much simpler: the characters are still male, and there’s no framing device; the only difference is all the parts are played by women. As in any gender-blind production, it’s a welcome sight to see female actors getting a chance to take on the meatier roles that Shakespeare never thought to grant them. That said, without any context it’s not always exactly clear what purpose the all-female concept is serving, and somewhat tentative performances from some of the cast dilute the powerful statement that could have been made by placing women in these positions of authority.

However, there’s still plenty to smile about in this version of Shakespeare’s tale of revenge, romance and magic on a deserted island. After a fierce storm shipwrecks the King of Naples and his entourage, they discover the island where they’ve landed is home not only to mischievous spirits, but also to the ousted and vengeful Duke of Milan, Prospero, his daughter Miranda and his slave Caliban. As Caliban conspires with drunken newcomers Trinculo and Stephano to kill his master, Miranda meets and falls for the king’s son Ferdinand, who’s become separated from his father and the rest of their party. And while all this is going on, elsewhere on the island Prospero’s brother Antonio plots to murder the king and put his dim-witted brother Sebastian on the throne.

Photo credit: Kevin Kamara

Dylan Lincoln’s production includes live music played and sung by the cast, to produce an atmosphere of magic and mystery, and also engages particularly well with the humour in the story. Carmella Brown’s Ariel is a delight throughout, skipping around the stage doing Prospero’s bidding with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. Michelle Pittoni also stands out as Miranda, her comical wide-eyed wonder at meeting a handsome young man replaced later by horrified embarrassment as her father lectures Ferdinand about his intentions. Shereener Browne and Afsana Sayyed are good fun as Antonio and Sebastian, whispering childishly together behind the king’s back before making a hilariously clumsy attempt on his life, and Ceri Ashe and Kimberley Capero make quite the raucous double act as Stephano and Trinculo.

At just over two hours, this is an accessible and entertaining adaptation of The Tempest, a perfect introduction for those unfamiliar with the story. As to whether the show delivers on its promise of a “bold re-imagining”, I’m not sure – but there’s plenty to enjoy either way, and any production that promotes diversity on the stage deserves to be celebrated.

The Tempest is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 3rd March.


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