Review: Worth a Flutter at The Hope Theatre

Inspired by his memories of growing up in South East London, Michael Head’s Worth a Flutter is an enjoyable comedy with hidden depths – a love story whose protagonists are simultaneously too flawed to be heroes and too likeable to be villains.

The plot follows two men, Matt (Michael Head) and Sam (Jack Harding), as they compete for the affections of a waitress at their local greasy spoon cafe. The twist: both are already in committed but unhappy relationships, and are basically just using the unfortunate Helen (Clare McNamara) as an escape from their current misery. But then things get complicated when they both fall for her, and she’s forced to choose between them. Or is she?

As the story unfolds, Head challenges both the questionable attitudes of his male characters and the traditional damsel in distress paradigm, with Helen emerging as more than capable of looking after herself. What makes the play interesting is that both Matt and Sam seem like decent enough blokes, who both recognise and challenge the outrageous sexism displayed by their cartoonishly obnoxious friends – but both fail to see the same, less explicit, attitudes in themselves.

Michael Head, Jack Harding and Clare McNamara are all strong in the central roles, delivering some enjoyable comedy performances but also revealing their characters’ vulnerabilities as each relives a past trauma which has played a part in bringing them to this point. They’re joined by Paul Danan and Lucy Pinder in a variety of supporting roles. Pinder makes her stage debut playing both Matt’s fiancée Paige and Sam’s wife Emma, but is perhaps most memorable for her exuberant portrayal of a penis with a Scottish accent (yes, really). Danan, meanwhile, is clearly enjoying himself immensely as ageing Lothario Paul and pervy pensioner Mr Edwards.

Directed by Jonathon Carr, the play has a choppy structure that sees the action interrupted frequently by scenes of direct narration from Matt or Sam, with both Head and Harding quickly establishing a connection with the audience. There are also some surreal sketch scenes – including the aforementioned Scottish penis – which are largely superfluous to the story, but are good fun and give the actors a chance to demonstrate their comedy talents (Clare McNamara’s outspoken grandpa and Michael Head’s parade of exes – each of them conveniently from a different bit of the UK – particularly stand out).

Like most romantic comedies, the story relies heavily on coincidence and characters impulsively falling in love and making life-changing decisions. But if the plot is at times simplistic and the comedy a bit silly, the play does shine a light on the prevalence of everyday sexism, even from “nice guys”, and the three central characters have interesting backstories which add new layers of meaning to the plot. Recommended for light-hearted entertainment; if not quite a dead cert, then certainly a strong contender.

Worth a Flutter is at The Hope Theatre until 19th May.

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Review: Our Big Love Story at The Hope Theatre

In June 2017, Theresa May concluded her response to the UK’s third terrorist attack in as many months with these defiant words: “We must come together, we must pull together, and united we will take on and defeat our enemies.”

The call for unity and defiance is a common refrain at times like these, and rightly so; faced with such mindless horror and violence, it’s important that we look out for each other, and of course we should present a united front against those who want to harm us. But what happens when that determination to protect our way of life at all costs goes a step too far?

In Our Big Love Story, Stephanie Silver explores the idea of radicalisation of teenagers – only not, as one might expect, that of young Muslims. Instead it’s a young white girl, Destiny (Holly Ashman), who’s drawn in by the racist rhetoric of her dad’s EDL group following the July 7 bombings in 2005. Her anger at the devastation and loss of life is both understandable and relatable, but it’s also wildly misplaced – having finally convinced herself that her classmate and secret crush Anjum (Naina Kohli) isn’t a terrorist because she’s not a Muslim, she moves on to a new and equally innocent target, with horrifying consequences.

Though the story takes place on and immediately after the 2005 attack, it could just as easily be happening today, at a time when the threat of terror attacks remains high, and far right groups in the UK and overseas gain ever more ground, both socially and politically. That said, July 7 feels like a particularly significant landmark to choose: the first example of radical Islamist terror most of us – and certainly the four teenage characters in the play – can remember on home soil, and the moment at which attitudes towards Muslims began to shift rapidly in an uncomfortable direction.

The play begins as two separate love stories, neither of which has any obvious connection to terrorism; it’s not until it’s almost over that all the threads finally link together. While Destiny and Anjum discuss their mutual attraction and Destiny worries what her dad will think, Katie (Emelia Marshall Lovsey) and Jack (Alex Britt) are more coy about their own budding romance, recalling with some embarrassment their parents’ attempts to educate them on the birds and bees. It’s instantly clear that although they’re on the brink of adulthood, these young people are still of an age where their parents have an influence on them – a fact that will take on darker significance as the play goes on.

Into the midst of all this youthful exuberance steps The Teacher (Osman Baig), a religious Muslim man injured in the attack, with an account that’s harrowing in its graphic detail. He’s traumatised by what he saw that day, but even more so by not knowing the fate of a fellow passenger and his little girl, and over the course of the play describes how this trauma affected his life in the days and weeks afterwards. At the same time, he gives us an insight into the judgment and suspicion faced by Muslims in the wake of this and other attacks – a judgment he eventually begins to turn on himself as his precious faith slips away.

The Teacher’s appearances slow the tempo of Calum Robshaw’s otherwise fast-paced production, with Osman Baig’s direct and personal delivery ensuring that we hang on his every word. The play’s conclusion brings all five characters together and is performed with genuine and heartfelt emotion by the young cast, but it’s reassuring to see that while in some ways their lives have been irrevocably changed, we can still catch glimpses of those giddy teenagers we met earlier, still falling in love and convinced they can conquer the world.

I saw an extract from the opening of Our Big Love Story at an Actor Awareness scratch night last year, and was intrigued by the multiple different themes that the play seemed to be dealing with: love, sex, religion, racism, porn… It’s satisfying therefore to see how the full-length play successfully weaves these themes together, forming a coherent narrative that’s thought-provoking, moving and, at times, quite unsettling. There’s still a lot going on, and the play could be longer to allow it to delve into each issue in more depth – but as it stands, the story already provides more than enough food for thought to keep us going for quite some time.

Our Big Love Story is at The Hope Theatre until 7th April.

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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: Flycatcher at The Hope Theatre

Gregg Masuak’s Flycatcher is unsettling from the start, kicking off with an eery, monotonous chorus of “nobody likes me, everybody hates me…” led by Emily Arden’s unblinking Madelaine, while the rest of the cast emerge from the corners, where they’ve been frozen like waxworks since we entered.

From there, things get increasingly disturbing and bewildering as awkward waitress Madelaine becomes obsessed with Bing, an idealistic young life insurance salesman. Unfortunately, he in turn is obsessed – though in a (slightly) less creepy way – with Olive, a gallery owner who reminds him of his idol Grace Kelly and is herself trapped in an unfulfilling relationship with a married man. When Madelaine befriends Olive, you just know it isn’t going to end well… Meanwhile a seemingly unrelated subplot involving Madelaine’s grandmother Mae, growing old disgracefully in a desperate bid for attention, circles back in the play’s shocking final moments to complete the intricate web connecting all the characters to each other.

It’s a bizarre play, part thriller, part comedy and made up of a lot of very short scenes – some literally a few seconds – that keep the cast of eight moving constantly on and off stage. Though the action predominantly revolves around the four main characters, the other actors (Nathan Plant, Susanna Wolff, Bruce Kitchener and Melissa Dalton) work just as hard, in a variety of eccentric and distinct supporting roles that intersect with the central characters at different points. This structure could have resulted in a very stop-start production, but under the direction of writer Gregg Masuak everything flows smoothly, and the actors – who frequently retire to the corners of the space to prepare for their next scene – never miss a beat. There’s still a lot to take in from one minute to the next, but it’s difficult to fault the way the snapshot scenes are presented.

Emily Arden is genuinely quite scary as Madelaine as she weaves her web of deceit around Bing and Olive, glowering all the while at a world that’s never accepted her (though her rare attempts at a smile are even more frightening), and visibly growing in stature and confidence as she puts her plan into action. She makes an unlikely pairing with Alex Shenton’s Bing, a charming salesman who wins over his customers by selling them a dream of a better world; one of the biggest tragedies of the play is seeing him lose the puppy dog eagerness with which he pursues Olive, played by Amy Newton. Their relationship progresses very naturally through the awkward flirting stage into something resembling stability, but is equally convincing as both it and they begin to fall apart. Completing the core cast as Mae, Fiz Marcus offers some light relief, although her vulnerability and desperate need for someone – anyone – to listen to her is heartbreaking; she spends most of the play talking into a void as all the other characters avoid or scorn her.

There are elements of the story that are strange and confusing, and I’d be surprised if anybody left feeling they understood everything they’d just seen. However, the performances, design (I really loved the simple effectiveness of Anna Kezia Williams’ spiderweb set) and direction combine to create an atmosphere of foreboding and drama that keeps us engaged even when we don’t really know what’s happening. A distinctly odd evening, and the style may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but this is undeniably an excellent production.


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Review: Turkey at The Hope Theatre

I’m a bit late to the party on this one, but it’s been difficult to avoid the five-star hype surrounding Frankie Meredith’s debut play Turkey – so to say I went in with high expectations is a bit of an understatement. Fortunately, those expectations were more than met by this heartbreaking story of a young woman so desperate for a child she’s willing to risk everything – and everyone – to get it. Instantly gripping, a brilliant script, talented cast and skilful direction by Niall Phillips draw us into the lives of all three characters, and the play feels much shorter than its one-hour running time.

Madeline wants to have a baby with her girlfriend Toni – but first, they need to locate the necessary, ahem, ingredients. After an attempt to ask Toni’s brothers ends in disaster, Maddie has another candidate in mind: her dead ex-boyfriend’s dad, Michael. Shrugging off Toni’s concerns about her motives, she pays him a visit – and in doing so sets in motion a chain of events that might give her the one thing she always wanted… but at what cost?

Although the play, which was inspired by real events, is about a gay couple and sheds light on the challenges they face in their mission to become parents – challenges most heterosexual couples will never have to even think about – ultimately Turkey is so successful because there’s a lot more to all the characters than just their sexuality. Everyday dilemmas like which veg to buy, what to wear for a job interview and the struggle to get over the loss of a loved one mean all three are easy to relate to, and while we may not be able to like or support the things they do, we can at least understand where they’re coming from.

This is particularly true in the case of Madeline, largely thanks to Pevyand Sadeghian’s devastating performance. By rights, we should hate her, and while she undoubtedly causes much of her own – and others’ – suffering, she’s also totally convincing in both her love for Toni and her confusion over who she really is; it’s obvious that none of the damage she causes is intentional, but merely a byproduct of her personal turmoil.

At the other end of the scale, Harriet Green is instantly likeable as Toni. Bright, funny and devoted to both her job as a teacher and her domestic life with Madeline, she’s not particularly fussed about having a baby, but is willing to go along with it because she knows how much it means to her partner – a compromise that ultimately leaves her wide open to getting hurt. And finally, there’s Michael, played by Cameron Robertson, a “not quite yet ‘old’ older man”, who’s still broken by the loss of his son twelve years earlier. His obvious joy at having Madeline back in his life, however unexpectedly, is heartbreakingly poignant, even though we can see the warning signs of what’s about to happen a mile away.

Director Niall Phillips keeps the action moving along at a rapid pace, with short, sharp bursts of rock music separating each scene from the next. The cast all remain on stage throughout, their constant presence mere inches from the audience helping to compound the sense of impending doom, as events spiral out of Madeline’s control and her two lives come ever closer to collision.

Turkey may be Frankie Meredith’s first full length play, but let’s hope it’s not the last. A beautifully drawn study of human desperation, it’s a triumph on just about every level; I only wish it hadn’t ended so soon.


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