Review: Doctor Faustus at Theatro Technis

London’s most active amateur theatre company, The Tower Theatre, has been in business for more than 80 years – but shows no sign of getting tired. Their new production of Doctor Faustus at Theatro Technis is dramatic, intense and gripping, and while it may not have Kit Harington in his pants, at least in this version we can all keep track of what’s going on.

Doctor Faustus, or to give Christopher Marlowe’s play its full title, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, is the story of a bored German intellectual, who sells his soul to Lucifer in exchange for 24 years on Earth, the ability to use magic, and the devoted service of the demon Mephistopheles. The years pass, and Faustus becomes famous all over the world – but it’s only when his time begins to run out that he realises what a huge mistake he’s made.

Photo credit: David Sprecher
Photo credit: David Sprecher
Tower Theatre’s production, directed by Lucy Bloxham, is a relatively traditional interpretation of Marlowe’s text, featuring two central performances that wouldn’t look out of place on a professional stage. Jonathon Cooper is charmingly eccentric as Faustus, skilfully embodying every side of the character: the frustrated genius, the cocky celebrity and the terrified dead man walking. It’s hard to feel sympathy for a man who’s entirely responsible for his own downfall, but Cooper’s Faustus is just likeable enough that we can’t help hoping he’ll find a loophole as his final minutes tick away.

He’s joined by Tower Theatre veteran Robert Reeve as Mephistopheles, the demon charged with sweet-talking Faustus into giving up his soul, and then being his constant companion for 24 years until it’s time to collect on the debt. Dressed all in black, Reeve radiates a quiet authority, and it’s clear from his sly grin whenever Faustus isn’t looking who’s really in control of the situation.

The rest of the cast take on multiple roles, most memorably having a bit of fun with the seven deadly sins (in the case of Lust, played by Matt Cranfield, perhaps a bit too much fun). This and a couple of later scenes provide welcome moments of light relief in what is, let’s face it, not exactly the happiest of stories.

Photo credit: David Sprecher
Photo credit: David Sprecher
First-time director Lucy Bloxham makes effective use of the large stage area at Theatro Technis, with multiple entrances (including the one to hell, which is positioned alarmingly close to the audience) and a curtained off area behind which Lucifer himself appears to Faustus. There’s one slightly clunky set change in Act 2, which could benefit from something for the audience to look at while the furniture’s cleared away, but on the whole transitions between scenes are clean and efficient. And the clock that regularly appears to tick down the minutes until Faustus’ downfall is a nice dramatic touch, as is Adam Taylor’s lighting design, which creates a suitably hellish atmosphere throughout.

Once again, The Tower Theatre Company have made it clear that amateur doesn’t have to mean unprofessional or poor quality. Every member of the company volunteers their time and talent for the sheer love of theatre, and that passion shines through in this and every production I’ve seen. Who needs Kit Harington?

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Review: BU21 at Trafalgar Studio Two

Human beings¬†tend to have a strange¬†fascination with¬†tragedy. Everyone has a “where I was on 9/11” story, for instance, even though in 99% of cases¬†it makes absolutely no difference to anyone but us where we were when the Twin Towers were hit. And we¬†often find ourselves morbidly gripped by¬†all the details – whether that means slowing down to peer at the car crash on the other side of the road, or following minute-by-minute updates from the BBC on the latest terrorist attack.

I like to think this is not because we’re all awful people, but because we have no other way¬†to process the unspeakable horror of what’s happening. There can’t be many of us who haven’t imagined at least once over the last few months and years the very real possibility of getting caught up in a major catastrophe – whether terrorist or accidental – but nobody ever really thinks it’ll happen to them, or knows how they’d react if it did.

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

This is the inspiration for Stuart Slade’s excellent and thought-provoking¬†BU21, which brings¬†together six young Londoners¬†affected in different ways when a fictional terrorist attack brings a plane crashing to the ground¬†in Fulham, a few months from now. Each has their own story to tell: Ana (Roxana Lupu), horribly burnt and wheelchair-bound¬†after the plane smashed¬†into the park where she was sunbathing; Izzy (Isabella Laughland), who found out her mum was dead through a photo on Twitter; Alex (Alexander Forsyth), whose girlfriend and best friend were killed while in bed together; Graham (Graham O‚ÄôMara), an eyewitness who¬†finds himself an accidental celebrity; Floss (Florence Roberts), traumatised by the sight of a man in a plane seat dying¬†in her back garden; and Clive (Clive Keene), a young Muslim looking for answers in the wake of the crash.¬†The fact that each of the actors is, in a way, playing an alternate version of themselves¬†lends the play an unsettling authenticity, strengthened¬†by the fact that the attack hasn’t yet taken place – but still could.

Dan Pick’s production is set¬†in the soulless room where the six meet for their PTSD support group, illuminated¬†by flickering strip lights, and furnished with a few¬†plastic chairs and a metal trolley bearing the obligatory plate of biscuits that nobody ever eats. Yet despite a¬†set-up that should suggest human connection, the majority of the play consists¬†of monologues, with each character speaking¬†into a void while the others deliberately look away.

Each account¬†is horrifically detailed and brutally honest; there’s no glamour here, no tragic heroes, no political correctness or bold display of unity in the face of adversity – there’s just a bloody mess, and a bunch of people trying to pick up the pieces of their broken lives. The characters are¬†not all nice people, they don’t all get a happy ending, and it’s difficult to tell how much support any of them are actually¬†giving or getting as a result of¬†talking things through. In the end, each of them copes in their own way, whether that means milking it or avoiding it, getting on with life or unable to move, seeking¬†comfort or shutting people out.

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

Slade doesn’t offer judgment or try and tell us who’s right or wrong¬†– if anything, the spotlight is turned instead on¬†our own attitudes. There’s the obvious one, of course, although I¬†can’t imagine many people honestly believed¬†Clive the Muslim would turn out to be a¬†terrorist. But there are also¬†moments that catch us off guard, like when Alex the charming but obnoxious¬†banker suddenly breaks the fourth wall and challenges our decision to exploit¬†his misery for¬†our entertainment. Or¬†every time we laugh – which happens a lot more than you’d expect¬†– always with the uncomfortable sensation¬†that we’re being disrespectful.

BU21 may deal with a terrorist attack, but it’s not a political play; we never really find out who the perpetrators were, and nor does it matter. Stuart Slade’s focus is on the psychology of human beings in a moment of crisis, and while we may not leave the theatre knowing how to survive a plane crash, we might just find we’ve learnt a little something about ourselves.

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Theatre Things: 2016 highlights

Someone told me yesterday that they find New Year a bit of a confusing time, because they never know whether they should be celebrating the last 12 months or looking forward to the next.

Well. This year more than ever,¬†I’m all about looking forward and making the best of the opportunities 2017 has to offer. But while there’s a lot about 2016 that we might like to forget, it did¬†bring¬†us a lot of great theatre. So I’d like to¬†pause for a moment and take a look back at a few of my highlights from the last 12 months. (As always, these are in no particular order – ranking them from 1 to 10 requires a level of decisiveness that’s far beyond me.)

Anna Karenina (Arrows and Traps) at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

It was inevitable that the Arrows would find their way into my top 10, but I’ve chosen Anna Karenina for this list, because¬†it marked the moment¬†I really fell in love with their work. Condensing Tolstoy’s epic novel into a drama as accessible as it was gripping, Anna Karenina¬†bore all the hallmarks we’ve come to expect from an Arrows show: creatively staged, exquisitely¬†performed and visually stunning.

Anna Karenina
Photo credit: The Ocular Creative

Transports (Pipeline Theatre) at the Pleasance

A heartbreaking and incredibly¬†timely play, Transports never explicitly mentioned current events, but nonetheless offered a powerful statement about the emotional trauma faced by refugees every day. Based on the life of designer Alan Munden’s mother, Liesl, the interlocking stories of two girls were¬†simply and lovingly staged in a powerful and thought-provoking production.

Cargo (Metal Rabbit Productions) at Arcola Theatre

It’s not really surprising that the experience of being a refugee has been a common theme in the theatre of 2016, but Tess Berry-Hart’s Cargo stands out as particularly powerful, because it¬†turned the tables and forced us to not only imagine but actually experience what it might be like if we were the ones forced to flee our homes and seek refuge overseas. The result was a production that was disturbing, tense and unsettlingly authentic.

Blind Man’s Song (Theatre Re) at the Pleasance

This one was a surprise to me, because¬†going in I had no idea what to expect and really wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy this combination of mime, dance, sound, illusion and original music. But Theatre Re’s¬†Blind Man’s Song was a revelation; I was soon swept away by the beauty of the love story unfolding on stage, and by the reminder of how much emotion can¬†be expressed without saying a single word.

We Live By The Sea (Patch of Blue) at Arts Theatre

Patch of Blue struck gold again this year with We Live By The Sea, a beautiful and sensitive portrayal of a young girl with autism. While the carefully researched production made no attempt to conceal the difficulties experienced by Katy and her family, it also challenged us to look beyond her autism Рand our own assumptions Рto celebrate the person behind it and everything she had to offer.

Photo credit: Scarab Pictures
Photo credit: Scarab Pictures

Dare Devil Rides to Jarama (Townsend Productions) at the Bussey Building (on tour)

Commissioned by the International Brigades Memorial Trust, Dare Devil Rides to Jarama¬†– which continues touring into 2017 – tells¬†the little-known but fascinating story of Clem Beckett, a young speedway rider from Manchester who gave his life fighting against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Despite its sad ending, the story’s¬†told with charm and humour by writer Neil Gore in a¬†script that¬†combines poetry, prose, music,¬†and¬†an enjoyable bit of¬†audience participation.

Pride and Prejudice (Two Bit Classics) at Greenwich Theatre (on tour)

As a fan of Jane Austen’s classic novel, I was either going to love or hate Two Bit Classics’¬†adaptation¬†of Pride and Prejudice for two actors; it didn’t take long to decide it was the former. In an astonishing display of stamina, Joannah Tincey and Nick Underwood took¬†on 21 characters between them, switching genders, costumes and accents at the drop of a hat in this funny and¬†enjoyable show.

The We Plays at the Hope Theatre

Cyprus Sunsets, the first in this double bill of monologues from up and coming talent Andrew Maddock, just missed out on my top 10 last year… but it’s time to put that right.¬†The We Plays combined Cyprus Sunsets with Irn Pru – two very different stories that nonetheless shared an ability to wrongfoot and shock us.¬†Powerful writing and captivating¬†performances ensured¬†the double bill definitely made the list this year.

Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves (Sleeping Trees) at Theatre503

Who would have thought a panto would make it into my top 10? Not me – but Sleeping Trees’ mash-up of Dickens and Disney¬†is such a brilliant, hilarious and above all original take on the classic format that I’m currently trying to decide if I can squeeze in a repeat visit before it closes next week. And I shall also be demanding that every panto I see from now on features a giant lobster…

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

Her Aching Heart at the Hope Theatre

The Hope Theatre has had a great year, and it came to a triumphant, five-star end with Her Aching Heart, a lesbian gothic romance musical two-hander written by Bryony Lavery. A laugh out loud comedy, this unexpected delight of a show affectionately mocked the Mills and Boon genre on which it was based, while a modern day love story unfolding simultaneously introduced a more contemplative note.

And let’s not forget:

The Memory Show, All Male H.M.S. Pinafore, This is Living, How to Win Against History, Titanic,¬†Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, An Inspector Calls, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sunny Afternoon¬†– and a couple that I didn’t review but still want to shout about: Jesus Christ Superstar and Imogen.

Now, let’s see what 2017 has in store…

Happy New Year!

Review: Hamlet Part II at the Hen and Chickens

If you’ve ever wondered what happened next after¬†the tragic conclusion of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (and let’s face it, who hasn’t?) an answer can be found in the snappily titled Hamlet Part II from the Theatre of Heaven & Hell, returning to the Hen and Chickens after an acclaimed run at this year’s Camden Fringe. Whether it’s the answer Shakespeare had in mind I’m not totally sure, but one thing is certain: it’s a lot¬†of fun.

Fun? I hear you ask, and not without good reason. After all, most of us know how Hamlet (Part I) ends – bodies all over the stage and Denmark’s entire royal family wiped out in one bloody encounter. Making a comedy out of that scenario would take some doing, you could suggest. And yet when you¬†stop and think about it, there actually is something slightly comical about a play in which every character gets wiped out; it’s so extreme that it almost crosses the line from tragedy to comedy.


Writer Perry Pontac seizes¬†upon this blurring of genres and runs with it, picking up not only on the excessive quantity of corpses but also the many other slightly ridiculous elements of Shakespeare that we all put up with because – well, it’s Shakespeare. The flowery language; the drawn-out death bed speeches; the Fool who talks complete nonsense; the soliloquies that none of the other characters ever hear, even though they’re standing two feet¬†away… all make an appearance. The story’s also packed with¬†references to Shakespeare’s other plays – some subtle, some not so much; you don’t have to be a major literature buff to find the humour in this very accessible show.

Part of Pontac’s¬†‘Codpieces’ trilogy, the story sees Seltazar (Darren Ruston) return home to Denmark,¬†met by court librarian Fornia¬†(Elena Clements) who reluctantly unfolds the recent tragic events; her¬†list of the dead is so extensive¬†she has to check them all off on a clipboard. Together, with a bit of ‘help’ from a passing Fool (Nicholas Bright), the two attempt to figure out who’s left to take over the throne – but just as they hit upon¬†a solution,¬†the rightful king (Brian Eastty)¬†appears… and¬†it’s not who you might expect.

All four cast members give it their all, though¬†it’s Darren Ruston and Elena Clements who take centre stage as Seltazar and Fornia; their evolving love-hate relationship really is a hilarious joy to watch¬†from beginning to end. And director Michael Ward finds opportunities for humour even when nobody’s saying a word; the opening moments are particularly enjoyable, and¬†so totally¬†unexpected it’s almost impossible¬†not to laugh.

A common complaint about Hamlet is that it’s too long; there’s a lot of talking and not a lot of doing, and – let’s be honest – it’s not exactly the cheeriest of tales. No such problems with the sequel; at just 45 minutes, any hanging around is very much part of the joke, and unlike its predecessor,¬†Pontac’s parody is genuinely a laugh a minute, whether you’re a Shakespeare fan or not. Though I can’t promise¬†nobody dies in this one – it is still Hamlet, after all.

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Review: Othello at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Othello forms part of the Arrows and Traps repertory season, alongside Twelfth Night (read more about that show, and the double bill as a whole, in my¬†review). The two shows are both directed by Ross McGregor and performed by the same cast on the same set, but there the similarities end. While Twelfth Night is a riotous comedy full of romantic mischief, Othello is a dark, dramatic and gripping thriller, with a stunning climactic scene that I’d willingly watch over and over again.

In a modern day setting, army general Othello (Spencer Lee Osborne), known by most as the Moor, has married Desdemona (Pippa Caddick) against her father’s wishes. The couple’s¬†happiness is set to be shortlived, however, thanks to¬†the machinations of Othello’s ensign Iago (Pearce Sampson), who was recently passed over for promotion in favour of Cassio (Adam Elliott). In revenge, and with the unwitting help of his wife Emilia (Cornelia Baumann), Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona¬†has been unfaithful with Cassio, setting in motion a dramatic¬†and ultimately tragic chain of events.

Photo credit: The Ocular Creative
Photo credit: The Ocular Creative

While Arrows and Traps have proved they can turn their hand to pretty much anything, it seems tragedy is where they really excel. Othello, like their recent blood-soaked Macbeth, is intense, powerful and utterly compelling from start to breathless finish. And as in¬†Macbeth, the production draws on the talents of movement director Will Pinchin, particularly in¬†the murder¬†scene, a dream-like montage of music and movement¬†that’s quite spine-tinglingly beautiful to watch.

Unlike Twelfth Night, which draws on the cast’s talents as an ensemble, this play primarily focuses on three central characters: Othello, Iago and Desdemona. As the duped Othello, Spencer Lee Osborne shows us¬†the insecurity of a man who’s always been an outsider, and can’t quite believe his luck that the woman he loves should return his feelings. My problem with Shakespeare’s play has always been in believing¬†that a loving husband could be so quickly persuaded¬†of his wife’s betrayal – but this Othello, though powerful in stature, has an emotional fragility that makes him easy to manipulate, and his willingness to believe Iago’s lies becomes therefore much more convincing for the audience.

Pearce Sampson, fresh from playing Jesus in the Arrows’ last production, here skilfully turns his hand to¬†an altogether different role as the¬†villainous Iago, his¬†twinkly northern charm disguising his evil intentions. This is a bad guy who gets – and deserves – no sympathy from us. On the other hand, we feel nothing but sympathy for Pippa Caddick’s Desdemona, a devoted wife and kind-hearted, loyal friend, with an independence of mind and playful, ever so slightly flirtatious nature that unknowingly hasten her downfall at Iago’s hands.

Photo credit: The Ocular Creative
Photo credit: The Ocular Creative

The Gatehouse has a much larger stage area than many fringe theatres, and the production takes full advantage of the space, with actors appearing from all directions and even on the balcony above the stage. The set’s divided into three parts, which removes¬†the need to¬†break up the action with scene changes, but more importantly allows scenes to unfold simultaneously,¬†heightening the drama and creating¬†the¬†familiar cinematic effect seen¬†in previous Arrows productions.

Othello¬†is a deliciously dark flip side to the madcap comedy of Twelfth Night, but it also stands alone as an intense and thrilling drama about human weakness. In addition, it¬†makes a powerful statement about the way we treat those we see as different to ourselves, a topic that could hardly be more relevant at this moment in history. And it’s confirmed my view that Arrows and Traps are one of the best companies producing Shakespeare in London right now. Check them out if you can; you won’t regret it.

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