Review: Boom at Theatre503

What would you do if you knew the world was about to end? Call your loved ones, spend all your money, ditch the diet…? All good answers – unless you’re marine biologist Jules, who has a different approach. He’s predicted the imminent apocalypse by observing the behaviour of his fish, but having failed to convince anyone to take him seriously about the threat, he’s made his own arrangements: luring unsuspecting student Jo to his lab/bunker for what she thinks is a fun night of no strings sex. It’s only when she discovers a drawer full of diapers that it dawns on her Jules’ promise of “intensely significant coupling” might have been more than just good marketing…

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli
Boom by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb is a play of two halves. It begins as an enjoyably off the wall romantic comedy about two people thrown together in the most extreme circumstances. Will Merrick and Nicole Sawyerr are great as the unlikely couple – he’s an earnest nerd who genuinely can’t understand her reluctance to be Eve to his Adam; she’s a wannabe journalist with a sharp tongue, dismayed by her latest disastrous life choice. They’re so terrible together that it actually works… at least to begin with.

Then the world ends, and things take a bizarre and mildly baffling turn with the sudden intervention of Barbara. Up to this point, Barbara’s been sitting in the corner, pulling levers and providing enthusiastic percussive sound effects for what we now learn is a museum exhibit several millennia from today, educating future generations about “the Boom”. Barbara’s not supposed to talk, she informs us, before going on to do exactly that – frequently, and at great length.

It’s here that the play seems to lose its way a bit, as Barbara, played with joyous abandon by Mandi Symonds, goes pretty quickly from amusing and lovable to verbose and more than a little irritating as she constantly interrupts proceedings to talk about her own issues. Some of her monologues are utterly surreal (in particular the bit where – a propos of absolutely nothing – she decides she must tell us how she was conceived; and no, it’s not in the way you might think) and her behaviour increasingly erratic, which is entertaining but gets in the way of the play actually making a point. As a fan of dystopian fiction who’s fascinated by the psychology of survival, I was looking forward to a juicy exploration of Jules and Jo’s evolving relationship, but we spend less and less time with them as Boom slowly but surely becomes Barbara’s story instead. Having enjoyed the randomness because I assumed it would all make sense in the end, I left 90 minutes later with very little idea what I was meant to be taking away other than a feeling of slight bewilderment, and a new respect for fish.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli
All this doesn’t mean the play isn’t funny; it is, and all three members of the cast give great performances. But the humour lies mainly in the awkward relationship between Jules and Jo, and in Barbara’s lively personality, rather than in the end of the world story itself. There are fewer laughs in the second half of the play – partly because, well, the world’s ended and our characters find themselves in dire straits; and partly because by this point things have got so bizarre it’s difficult to know how to respond to anything that happens.

For this reason, it’s difficult to give a conclusive opinion on Boom. It may be that in a few days’ time, something clicks into place and I suddenly get it. Right now, though, I’m still trying to figure out what hit me.


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: Homecomings: The Monkey at Theatre503

John Stanley’s gritty debut play The Monkey, one of the winners of Synergy Theatre Project’s national prison scriptwriting competition, is a fast-moving, plain-talking black comedy that somehow manages to be very funny and incredibly grim all at once. Directed by Russell Bolam, it’s an honest portrayal of a world that’s often violent and unforgiving, but drawn with the sympathetic pen of a writer who knows his subject matter well, and tackles head-on the stereotype that says just because people find themselves in a bad situation, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad people.

The action begins in the stairwell of a run-down block of flats in Bermondsey. This is the home of petty criminals Dal (Daniel Kendrick) and Becks (Danielle Flett), and their nice but dim local drug dealer Thick-Al (George Whitehead). Life’s not exactly easy for the trio, but it’s also fairly uneventful… until Dal’s childhood friend Tel (Morgan Watkins) comes back into town to retrieve ÂŁ500 he lent Thick-Al in an unlikely moment of generosity. Realising he’s been taken for a mug, the unpredictable Tel, who’s never been quite the same since falling on his head during a robbery a few years ago, sets out to take his bloody revenge – and woe betide anyone who gets in his way.

Photo credit: Simon Annand

What’s so appealing about The Monkey is that despite everything that goes on (and between the language and the violence, it does get pretty graphic at times), all the characters – even the psychotic Tel – have redeeming features and are even quite likeable. There’s genuine friendship on display here, for instance, even if it is expressed through liberal use of the c-word, and in many ways the characters’ idiosyncrasies make them easier to get along with: Tel and Thick-Al’s shared love of Jaffa Cakes is oddly endearing, as is Tel’s unexpected obsession with cleanliness.

This flawed humanity is captured in four brilliant performances from the cast. Morgan Watkins is particularly enjoyable as Tel, a ticking time bomb of twitchy, pent-up energy that occasionally explodes in bursts of violent rage towards anyone who happens to be nearby. Impeccably dressed in suit and tie, Tel stands out from the Bermondsey crowd, and his air of superiority shows that he’s well aware of the fact, while his admiration for Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs exposes him as a frustrated gangster wannabe.

Photo credit: Simon Annand

At the opposite end of the scale, George Whitehead’s affable and appropriately named Thick-Al has no such pretensions, and is so laid-back he’s practically horizontal; content to lounge about on the sofa all day, all he cares about is his next fix, and he’s blissfully unaware of the trouble he’s in until it’s too late. Daniel Kendrick and Danielle Flett fall somewhere in between the two as Dal and Becks – while they’re quite content to get on with life in the only way they know, they are at least alert to the danger posed by Tel’s return and its potential ramifications, not just for Al but for themselves as well.

Not for the fainthearted, The Monkey is nonetheless a thoroughly enjoyable 90 minutes (and educational: not only did I learn some new rhyming slang, I now know that Tim Roth’s from Dulwich, not Deptford – yes, I did go away and look it up) with larger than life, complex characters who feel like real people, not clichĂ©s. It’s an impressive debut from John Stanley and well worth checking out during its short run at Theatre503.


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… 😉

Interview: John Stanley, The Monkey

Next month, Battersea’s Theatre503 plays host to Homecomings, a festival of new plays by prisoners and ex-prisoners about getting out and going home. Produced in partnership with the Synergy Theatre Project, the festival runs from 21st February to 18th March and will feature two of the winners of Synergy’s third national prison scriptwriting competition – Glory Whispers by Sonya Hale and The Monkey by John Stanley.

John, a lifelong Londoner, describes The Monkey as “a dark, comic contemporary drama of criminality, addiction and money owed”. The four characters he’s created, he explains, offer “a brief glimpse of the many diverse and varied people I met during my life’s erratic and unusual journey”.

the-monkey-by-jon-stanley

Until he joined the Synergy project, John never imagined a future as a playwright: “The short answer is no, although I’ve always dabbled in poetry. Recently I completed a book about my life, but the truth is that until I completed the Synergy playwriting course I never had an interest in theatre.”

The Synergy Project, founded in 2000, seeks to build a bridge from prison to social reintegration, prevent young people from entering the criminal justice system, and inspire change by capturing the imagination of participants and public. After learning about the project from a friend who worked at the Young Vic, John joined the Synergy playwriting course and went on to write The Monkey. He’s thrilled to have his first ever play selected as a winner, out of a record 134 entries.

“I was over the moon when I found out, truly elated. Synergy has had such an enormously positive impact on my life that it’s impossible to quantify in a few sentences.” His advice to others thinking about getting involved in Synergy is simple: “Don’t hesitate and don’t delay, take the opportunity and go for it immediately.”

John’s now looking forward to seeing his work come to life on stage: “It’s exciting and nerve-wracking to see it come to life. I wrote The Monkey in 2012 and when I finally got to hear it in its entirety at the rehearsed reading recently, it was somewhat unreal but it was really gratifying. I am a touch nervous as to whether people will like it or not, though my feeling is you either do or you don’t and that’s how it is. Some people will find it hilarious and some won’t, but I hope they at least find it funny. If they do that would be wonderful.

“I’m sure I portray a world that most people are unaware of, so I hope they go away educated in some degree to an underbelly that exists in their midst – but most of all I hope they find it funny and have a good laugh.”

Catch The Monkey and Glory Whispers at Theatre503 from 21st February to 18th March.

Interview: Sleeping Trees, Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves

Sleeping Trees are “comthreedians” Joshua George Smith, John Woodburn and James Dunnell-Smith. Known for their surreal, physical and fast-paced comedy, the guys’ 2016 pantomime, Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves, is currently going down a storm with audiences of all ages at Battersea’s Theatre503 (check out my rave review to find out more).

Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge

“This show does to Scrooge what Pop Stars: The Rivals did to Nadine Coyle,” is the Sleeping Trees’ concise and typically unpredictable summary of their panto. After the Wicked Witch steals all the Christmas spirit, Santa’s forced to turn to an unlikely hero, Ebenezer Scrooge, to save the day. Needless to say, he doesn’t exactly co-operate willingly… can an unexpected journey to Fairytale Land change his mind?

The show is a unique and hilarious mashup of several classic stories – so where did the idea come from? The guys explain: “We’ve always enjoyed playing with well-known pieces of literature. We’d wanted to adapt Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for ages, and when the opportunity came along to write another Christmas show we thought there’s no time like the [insert joke about ghost of Christmas Past] present [insert joke about Christmas future].

“It began with just a title that we thought sounded funny, and then we ran with it. Once we had a rough script – which was about 150 pages too long – we started the editing process. We have an absolutely brilliant team that helped us get it to the show it is today. Ben Hales came in first with the music and composition of all the songs and lyrics etc. Then the excellent director, Simon Evans, came on board as we continuously read from start to finish, cutting, changing and shaping as we went. All the while our costume and set designer Zahra Mansouri would be a fly on the wall and each day come in with ideas and examples that were simply mind blowing. Finally our stage, lighting and production management team brought it all to life.”

All the characters in the story are played by Josh, John and James, which unsurprisingly makes for a fast-paced and fairly chaotic two hours. “We have 18 ‘main characters’ that we visit throughout the show, plus an array – or rather an onslaught – of about 30 other pantomime and fairytale characters that make an appearance for one-off jokes or theatrical devices. It’s a lot of fun playing all of them. Tiny Tim probably wins the Sleeping Trees’ favourite – either him or a prehistoric cameo… no spoilers!”

Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge

Let’s not forget that this is a pantomime, so audiences should be prepared to get involved in all the usual – and some not so usual – ways, much to Sleeping Trees’ glee. “Oh yes, we are thrilled with the participation we’ve created for this show. It will certainly be a unique experience for every audience member coming to see it. Nothing too stressful – just a lot, a lot of fun. After all, pantomimes remind everyone it’s Christmas, and who doesn’t like Christmas? Apart from Ebenezer, but trust us, we’re working on it!”

Sleeping Trees have now been together for seven years, and are looking forward to a bright (and busy) future. “We’ve been together since 2009, making theatrical comedy shows whilst collaborating with artists, comedians and musicians, and now have nine full length productions that we tour. It started once we got a taste of the Edinburgh fringe and have been a growing brand ever since. 

“The company aims to continue making comedy for stage and hopes to adapt our comedy for radio and television. We’re looking to begin touring internationally from 2017 onwards, with our latest trilogy of live action movies, Mafia? Western? and Sci-Fi? as well as writing a brand new Edinburgh Fringe show. We’re going to go back to our roots and write a stripped back show with just the three of us on stage. So the future is exciting for the entire team, and it will be our biggest tour to date, so we hope you can all come along and experience the journey with us. Merry Christmas folks.”

Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves is at Theatre503 until 7th January.

Review: Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves at Theatre503

I’ll be honest; I wasn’t really feeling the Christmas love when I arrived at Theatre503 last night; even being handed a glass of mulled wine and a mince pie didn’t quite do the job. Lucky then that the Sleeping Trees were more than up to the challenge of unearthing my festive spirit.

In this year’s pantomime, Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves, the comedy trio made up of Joshua George Smith, John Woodburn and James Dunnell-Smith, are determined to make good on last year’s fiasco, when they forgot to book their 30-strong cast of actors. Surely something that disastrous couldn’t possibly happen again…?

You see where this is going.

Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
Over the course of the next two hours, this hilarious tale brings to life a mash-up of Dickens and Disney, with Santa thrown in for good measure. Unlikely hero Ebenezer Scrooge is transported to Fairytale Land by Santa’s mother, charged with saving the day after the Wicked Witch steals all the Christmas spirit. I could tell you more – but I don’t want to ruin it, because it’s the twists and turns that make this story so fabulous; you literally never know (and it often feels entirely possible that the actors don’t either) what’s going to happen or who’s going to appear next.

I also fear I wouldn’t be able to do justice to the unique genius of Sleeping Trees’ creations, which include a depressed Mary Poppins, a gurning Wicked Witch and an overenthusiastic Broomstick, accompanied from a corner by composer and musician Ben Hales, who besides being a brilliant and versatile performer, also carries off a series of ridiculous hats (and an even more ridiculous Act 2 costume) with effortless style.

Scrooge is a family show, and although the audience last night was largely composed of grown-ups (in age, at least), I can imagine children adoring it – not least because they get to throw stuff, sing songs and join in with all the usual pantomime madness. In the intimate space at Theatre503, the banter flows easily and naturally between audience and actors, with the front row being particularly hot seats in that department…

Though the attention to detail and comic timing are second to none, like all the funniest comedy it’s not always clear what’s planned and what just sort of happens in the moment. The actors, who are clearly having a blast, seem frequently as amused as the audience, but also have the quick instincts of true comedians, enabling them to respond to whatever mayhem goes on (last night’s show, for instance, featured an incident which, if it was in fact unplanned, was the best example of falling with style I’ve ever seen).

Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
This is my first pantomime of the season, and while the others may enjoy bigger budgets and household names, they already have a huge standard to live up to. Face-achingly funny, with an imaginative and endearing story and songs that are far too catchy (24 hours later, I’m still singing the closing number), this is an absolute must-see that I shall be recommending repeatedly to anyone who’ll listen for the rest of the holiday season. Merry Christmas…


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… 😉