Review: Equus at Trafalgar Studios

Peter Shaffer’s Equus begins with a disturbing image: a seventeen-year-old boy, Alan Strang, has been referred to the care of renowned child psychiatrist Martin Dysart after blinding six horses at the local stables. And things don’t get much easier from there in this intense drama; Dr Dysart slowly pieces together what led the young man to commit such an act, but questions as he does so if treating Alan will actually help him, or only condemn him to a life as empty and meaningless as the doctor’s own. Touching on themes of religion, sexuality and more than one form of mental illness, the play asks some difficult questions and frequently makes for unsettling viewing, and yet Ned Bennett’s production remains utterly compelling from start to dramatic finish.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

The cast of eight are left completely exposed on Georgia Lowe’s barren, starkly lit stage (though don’t let its simplicity fool you – it still produces a few surprises later on). Fortunately, the performances of all involved are engrossing enough that the audience’s attention never wanders, despite more than one lengthy monologue. Ethan Kai and Zubin Varla take centre stage as patient and doctor – the former a picture of wild and confused defiance, the latter of quiet, building desperation – locked in a battle that both know neither can win. Though the play’s core plot is to solve the mystery of Alan’s crime, there’s just as much to unpick in Dysart’s surprising response to the latest in a seemingly endless line of troubled adolescents.

Alongside the two excellent leads, there are strong performances across the board, with Ira Mandela Siobhan particularly mesmerising as Alan’s favourite horse, Nugget. The detail, power and physicality in his portrayal, combined with Shelley Maxwell’s exquisite choreography, is such that there’s no need for any masks or costumes to convince us we’re looking at a magnificent stallion – and by dispensing with these, Bennett further blurs the lines surrounding Alan’s confused sexual desires.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

Though the play at times leans towards becoming text-heavy, with Dysart in particular reflecting at increasing length on his own misery, in fact the production strikes a good balance that prevents it ever becoming dry or losing its energy. More than once a character’s monologue is punctuated by light and sound effects that have obviously been designed (by Jessica Hung Han Yun and Giles Thomas respectively) to unsettle our minds and, occasionally, our nerves. The tension creeps up as we draw closer to the play’s climax, and although the actual blinding of the horses is enacted without a trace of gore, the moment of impact still hits powerfully home, both on and off stage.

And besides – it’s not such a trauma to listen to Shaffer’s words, especially when they include such hauntingly evocative gems as, “A child is born into a world of phenomena all equal in their power to enslave… Moments snap together like magnets, forging a chain of shackles.” Lines like this one, a potent reminder of how easily and arbitrarily mental illness can strike, ensure that despite being close to 50 years old, Equus continues to have plenty to say.

Equus is at Trafalgar Studios until 7th September.

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… ­čśë

Review: Dark Sublime at Trafalgar Studios

Marianne (Marina Sirtis) is an actress, best known for her role in cult 70s sci-fi TV show The Dark Sublime. She’s done plenty of other acting work in the intervening four decades but the role of Ragana is the one she can’t shake off, even though to her, it’s the one that means the least. When Dark Sublime superfan Oli (Kwaku Mills) – who wasn’t even born when the series first aired on TV – tracks her down, an unlikely friendship develops. But what begins as an opportunity for Marianne to bask in the glory of her past ultimately forces her to confront the complications of her present, and in particular the unrequited love she feels for her best friend Kate (Jacqueline King).

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

One of the production’s biggest draws (the other being Mark Gatiss as the voice of a robot) is star Marina Sirtis, who is herself well known for playing the role of Deanna Troi in seven series of Star Trek: The Next Generation. While writer Michael Dennis didn’t create the role of Marianne specifically for Sirtis, he could very well have done, and this gives the character a sense of genuine depth; each time she expresses bewilderment at the unquestioning adoration of her fans, the audience understands that the emotion comes from a real place.

Real world parallels aside, Sirtis generally impresses with her portrayal of Marianne. Though she’s always quick with a witty comeback, it’s clear quite early on that the character is also really struggling to figure out where she fits in a world that no longer seems to have a place for her. Kate has a new partner – the younger, attractive, intelligent Suzanne (Sophie Ward) – and Marianne’s acting career seems to have stalled to the point where earning even ┬ú40 feels like a windfall. It’s little wonder she jumps at the chance to meet Oli, who idolises her Dark Sublime character and reminds her of who she used to be.

Speaking of Oli, Kwaku Mills is a delight, his charm and enthusiasm lighting up the room every time he’s on stage. Oli has issues of his own that mirror Marianne’s – he’s also in love with his best friend, but unlike Marianne, he’s prepared to do something about it. Much is made of his youth and his obsession with The Dark Sublime, as if those are reasons to dismiss him, and yet he repeatedly shows more maturity and a deeper understanding of the world than Marianne, who prefers to drown her problems in alcohol.

During one of their early conversations, Marianne reveals to an excited Oli that another episode of the show was written but never shown on TV, scenes from which are revealed intermittently throughout the show. These are, for the most part, played for laughs by Simon Thorp, who’s clearly enjoying himself immensely as the heroic Commander Vykar (and just as much in a brief appearance in the real world as obnoxious actor Bob). So it comes as something of a surprise when the final scene, which brings in the whole cast, gets pretty deep and is ultimately revealed to be symbolic of Marianne’s own personal journey.

Tim McQuillen-Wright’s attractive and intimate set design places us right in Marianne’s living room, although not all the action takes place there. There’s a console cunningly concealed in the coffee table, suitably 70s sci-fi lighting when called for, and a TV screen that doubles as a backdrop when scenes occur elsewhere. This sort of works, although the size of the screen isn’t really sufficient to properly distract us from the stylish decor of the flat and convince us we’re really in the park or a cheap hotel.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

The other issue with the play is that at 2 hours 40 minutes it just feels a bit longer than it needs to be. Even before bringing in the deleted scenes from the TV show, there are several plot threads going on – Marianne’s career and her relationships with both Kate and Oli, Oli’s friendship with Joel (who never actually appears), Kate’s romance with Suzanne – and in tying them all up the script begins at times to feel slightly sluggish and repetitive. That said, the closing scene, which references the poem by W.H. Auden that gives the play its title, is rather lovely and feels like a fitting end to the story.

For fans of British TV from the 70s and 80s, Dark Sublime is probably a bit of a must-see, if only so you can sit and cheerily sing along to the Cadbury Fudge jingle before the play begins (yes, I did that). But there’s lots more to recommend it besides nostalgia. This is a rare personal drama about an older gay woman trying to find her place and identity in a changing world, with plenty of laughs – particularly aimed at the world of showbiz – and some interesting questions about the nature of fandom. A bit long perhaps, but still well worth a watch.

Dark Sublime is at Trafalgar Studios 2 until 3rd August.

Theatre round-up: 12 July 2015

Four very different theatre experiences this week, beginning with…

Dead Simple

A thriller based on the novel by crime writer Peter James, at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury. It’s the story of a man buried alive on his stag night, only for all his friends to die in a horrible accident and leave him there. (Not good if you suffer from claustrophobia.) A very complex plot condensed into two hours means there are obviously going to be a few plot gaps, but it’s suitably chilling and good entertainment.

Dead Simple review


Acclaimed choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella is a different take on a well-known story. There’s no fairy godmother, no pumpkins – not even a glass slipper. But even though it’s based on the Brothers Grimm version of the story, this ballet is still just as magical, romantic and funny as the fairy tale we all know and love. It was also my first go at reviewing ballet, which was a fun challenge ­čśë

Cinderella review for


Having heard some great things about Constellations, which began life at the Royal Court Theatre in 2012, I was excited by the opportunity to see it at Trafalgar Studios this week. A romantic drama with added physics, it makes you laugh and cry, while considering the multiple possible paths life can take. With stunning performances from Louise Brealey and Joe Armstrong, this is a must-see.

Constellations review for London Theatre Direct – link to follow

The Diver

A one-woman show from Helen Foster of Craft Theatre,┬áthis is not a ‘sit in the dark and say nothing’ theatre experience. Everyone in the audience is expected to play their part in the story – but luckily it’s so much fun that you really don’t mind getting involved. It’s a show about knowing what you want from life and having the courage to pursue it. And it’s completely bonkers, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

The Diver review for Carn’s Theatre Passion

This week's theatre

Next week’s theatre

Shakespeare’s R and J (Chapel Lane Theatre Company) at Tabard Theatre

The Gathered Leaves (Dead Letter Perfect) at Park Theatre