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Thursday, June 30, 2016

'Ugly Lovely' at the Old Red Lion, 29th June 2016

Thursday, June 30, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Nostalgia's a funny old thing. During teenage years I desperately looked forward to escaping the black hole of South Wales. The streets were piss-sodden and destitute: studded with boarded up shops, post-apocalyptic chic abandoned shopping precincts and sticky nightclubs where, upon entering, you're as likely to receive a fist in the face as an ink stamp on the hand. 

But watching a play like Ffion Jones' Ugly Lovely, I felt an unexpected twinge of homesickness. Set in Swansea, we spend 90 minutes in the company of Shell (Ffion Jones). She's just turning 26 and is beginning to suspect her life is at a dead end. Compounding this sudden sense of mortality is the constant presence of her Nan's cremated ashes. 

Despite having a child (offstage in the care of her overbearing mother) she's stuck in perpetual teenagerdom, perhaps best represented by her still wearing the same dress she got fingered in as a 16 year old. Something must change - so she makes tentative plans to ditch Swansea for the (slightly?) nicer climes of Liverpool. It's not paradise, but then what is?

A constant presence is Shell's long-time best friend Tasha (Sophie Hughes). She's also trapped in arrested development, but doesn't give a shit. Her crowning achievement in life appears to be vomiting on a sausage dog and, faced with a crap life that's all but guaranteed to end in misery, throws herself into teenage kicks with giddy abandon.

Ugly Lovely manages to be both simultaneously hilarious and brain-grindingly depressing. Shell and Tasha are great fun to be around, giving me vivid flashbacks of some of the girls I went to school with. Jones and Hughes do an outstanding job of playing drunk, ricocheting around the set like pinballs and cackling like banshees as they reminisce about their worst escapades. Not only are they an outstanding pair of physical performers, but the embody some essence of South Wales femininity; a 'don't-give-a-fuck' standoffishness that uneasily dovetails with an off-kilter vulnerability (perhaps best demonstrated by the way they teeter-totter-collapse on their heels).



On top of that, all the performers (but especially Ffion Jones) display millimeter precise comedy timing, cracking every atom of funniness out of everything they do. It's the mark of a great comedy when the actors not only have to pause to let the audience finish laughing, but are able to do without breaking the conceit of the scene. This happens over and over again, every tiny bit of observational humour hits; every big comedy set piece fires all cylinders.

But below the laughter is a palpable desperation. Shell in particular has the tragedy of knowing she's wasted her potential and squandered her opportunities; feebly grasping at straws to try and escape Swansea. Part of her tragedy is her connection to Tasha, who we soon deduce is in an exceptionally vulnerable situation. Throughout, Shell is trying to decide the point in which self-preservation trumps loyalty, and if she can live with abandoning her family, her friends and her past. The boundaries between life and death become a teeny bit blurred - eventually Liverpool as much like an afterlife as much as it is a destination.

All this culminates in an extraordinary pissed-up monologue by Shell in which she staggers around in a fit of egotism, giving voice to all the frustrations inside her. It's half On the Waterfront's "I coulda been a contender" and half fellow Swansea resident Dylan Thomas 'raging against the dying of the light'. This is one of the powerful moments in theatre where everyone seamlessly clicks into place. Socks were knocked off. Jaws were dropped. Heads spun. It was ace.

Ugly Lovely is excellent from tip to toe: giving London audiences a visceral and hilarious peek into a world little seen on stage. It's political without being preachy, subtly feminist and has a heart as big as a whale without indulging in sentimentality. I only hope it gets a production in South Wales so I can tell my friends there to see it as well.

★★★

Ugly Lovely is at the Old Red Lion until 16 July 2016. Tickets here.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

'Glastonbury Festival 2016'

Wednesday, June 29, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


"If you're worried about the weather / then you picked the wrong place to stay." so sang James Murphy in the closing moments of what was officially the muddiest Glastonbury ever. His audience, who'd collectively endured five days of trudging through drizzle, rain, fog and thick mud, cheered so hard he had to skip the next line.

2016 was not a vintage Glastonbury. Leaving aside the godawful weather for a moment, the line-up was pants, the headliners were a bit dull and the festival was in a collective state of mourning over Brexit. At 4am on Friday morning I was sat in a huddle near the stone circle waiting for the sun to come up when the news started to filter through the crowd. A cry of "Brexit for breakfast!" went up. The crowd's stomachs collectively turned, for once not as a result of consuming industrial amounts of ket.

Staggering back to my tent in an anoxic daze a fine drizzle started up, the pitter-patter of rain on tents punctuated only by freaked out mutters from within that "we are so fucked" and the occasional teary whimper. I hid in my tent reading whatever snatched news article I could get over the patchy 3G, devouring an procession of apocalyptic stories about the pound transforming into monopoly money overnight, a gloating Farage triumphant and general disbelief that the morons actually won.

I was awoken by irrelevant indie has-beens James, whose piss-weak mogadon rock was leaking over our campsite from the Other Stage. I began to wonder just what the hell I was doing here. The country is falling to pieces and I'm trapped in a filthy Somerset field with a damp sleeping bag and a growing puddle in my tent. In desperation I decided to go and see Billy Bragg on the Left Field stage. Surely Billy Bragg would know what to do! Did he fuck.

Compounding the political misery was the sheer physical effort of getting anywhere. Glastonbury is enormous and navigating it is difficult at the best of times, but particularly when every footstep lands you in glue-like, wellie devouring mud. Considering festival goers are running on a couple of hours of sleep and subsisting on expensive fast food served from plastic plates (the portions seemed pretty stingy this year), just getting between places wears you down. Even I, a seasoned Glastonbury-goer, had to retreat to my tent on Sunday afternoon. I was beaten down by the thick drizzle, the omnipresent mud and the fact that I'd just spilt a full bottle of vodka and coke down the back of my jeans. For a brief hour, I just buried my head in the sweaty t-shirt I was using as a pillow and wished I was back home.

Taking these on and off was not fun.
But when life hands you lemons, even lemons caked with mud, you make lemonade. Even if the rest of Britain has decided to inflict upon itself lobotomy via handgun, even if I and all my possessions are covered in mud, at least I'm surrounded by the generous, progressive, open-minded and supportive people. 

What the non-Glastonbury going public can never quite understand is that the heart of Glastonbury isn't on the big stages - and it's certainly not in Chris Martin's bland wail - it's in the thousands of ways strangers pull together for a greater good. 

Throughout the festival you see people dragging each other out of mud, human chains being formed to pull people up from sodden banks, people distributing free food and dry clothes to the soaked. Upon hearing that we were low on phone battery, a stranger casually handed us a free portable charging pack. My friend and I spotted a lone woman pukily staggering out of a late-night dance tent, gave her some water, chatted to her and we three proceeded to spend the night happily exploring the weirder corners of the festival.

It's sentimental, but there's something genuinely special about this place. Glastonbury is the briefest of glimpses into a world that could exist if this country didn't default to suspicion, hatred and xenophobia. It's an unsustainable bubble (and lets face it, it'd go Lord of the Flies if things went on too much longer), but even a peek into a society that functions compassion like this was enough to warm my Brexit-broken heart.

After crawling out of my tent and sliding on my 'cleanest' (i.e. least filthy) pair of jeans I went to LCD Soundsystem's mind-blowing awesome closing set on the other stage and danced my guts out as best I could (while rooted in mud). Then I drank cider underneath a discoball in a treehouse. Then I went to see Kate Tempest. Then I swilled my brain out in the weirdest corners of Shangri La. Then, finally, as Monday morning crawled into view, I scaled the slippery, mud mountain atop the park stage, reaching the big Glastonbury sign and gazed down happily over a festival that represents just about every value I hold dear in this screwed up world.


You get back home and everything is shit. Sour-faced commuters glare into their doom n' gloom newspapers. The country is peppered with xenophobic violence. Our supposed leaders can't even wipe their arses without smearing shit over their faces. We face a grey, uncertain future. The only certainty is death. 

But there'll always be a very special, albeit muddy, patch of Somerset that shows us what we could be. And I'd wade through a thousand miles of mud to do it all again.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

'Gertrude - The Cry' at Theatre N16, 14th June 2016

Thursday, June 16, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Extremely rotten. Gertrude is a nymphomaniac; Hamlet is a grinning idiot that'sbarely able to hold himself together; and Claudius can't help flashing his dick all over the place. And who the hell are the Duke of Meklenberg, Isola, Raguso and Cascan 

Howard Barker's Gertrude - The Cry is pretty damn far from your RSC tights and jerkins. We open with the King of Denmark's murder: Gertrude screams "fuck me!" as she strips down, straddles the his dying body and gets vigorously banged. As the last spasms of life drain from her husband, Gertrude lets out an orgasmic cry that probably gave the swing class in the room below pause for thought.

The rest of the play sees (among other things) Gertrude trying to recreate this 'cry': her and Claudius' subsequent sexual adventures not quite living up to the potent combo of sex, death and immorality that blew her away in the opening. Essentially she's lost her mojo, and goes to some pretty desperate ends to recapture it. 

Though the sex is cranked up to high levels, Barker's sinewy dialogue prevents things sliding into camp. Though tinged with Shakespearian-ish language, it's got a modern sheen and a sharp sense of the absurd. How can you not smile in delight at the sheer straightforwardness of Hamlet declaring, upon hearing his mother has birthed a smiling little sister, "who would not have smiled to have escaped the foetid dungeon of my mother's womb?". Stuff like this is less tinged with Freudian psychology than ripped straight from the good doctor's more lurid patient interviews.

Frankly, it's nice to see a play that really goes for it. Any notions of civility, tact and friendliness are quickly jettisoned in favour of a series of emotional crescendos that increase in volume until there's a pile of desecrated bodies in centre stage and the boundaries between each character have blurred so much they bleed into one another. Treating the classic work of British theatre with utter irreverence Barker is primarily concerned with forcing Shakespeare's characters into a blender and picking through the resulting bloody muck than straightforward storytelling.

I've got to admit, I lost the narrative thread a couple of times. As each character worked themselves up into histrionics, culminating in deeply bizarre behaviour I had to shrug and go with it. Still, while the characters transplanted straight from Hamlet are easy enough to follow, the new ones are somewhat more opaque. For example, I never could quite work out what Claudius and the King's Mum, Isola was after, apparently switching gears between cheerleading Gertrude's overt sexuality and worrying that her remaining son is about to fall victim to her vagina dentata.


Papering over these cracks is a fine set committed performances. Stephen Oswald is a eye-catching physical presence - the kind of gigantic beardy dude you can imagine on a medieval battlefield swinging an axe into somebody's face. His intimidating frame is cleverly underplayed in order to convey a character that's introverted and verbose, edgily waiting on the fringes of the action and never quite able to throatily participate in all the fucking.

But the crown jewel is undoubtedly Izabella Urbanowicz' Gertrude. She was the best thing in February's similarly bard-screwing Hamlet Peckham and never fails to impress her. She plays Gertrude like a caged animal, lashing out from under a shock of tangled hair with a scorched earth approach to sexuality. There's something irresistibly sickly about the way her Gertrude sluts it up - her eyes flashing with a serpentine seductiveness. Whenever she's on stage you can't take your eyes off her and while it's difficult to become emotionally involved in her story, Urbanowicz provides a sexual razzledazzle that it's impossible to deny.

There's been a refreshing dialling up of intensity in the theatre of late. Edward Bond's Dea served up a symphony of sexual violence, Christie in Love charted the sewers of men's minds and now Gertrude - The Cry takes us to the outer limits of female sexuality. 

Granted, the play is written and directed by men, but whoever's behind it, and despite some narrative confusingness, and despite it being a bum-numbing 2 hours without an interval, it's mega-refreshing to see anything with such fuck-you verve, determined to demolish the walls of politeness and decorum.

★★★

Gertrude - The Cry is at Theatre N16 until 30 June. Tickets here.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

'Buried Alive' at St Giles Church, 13th June 2016

Tuesday, June 14, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


"Among all the torments that Mankind is capable of, the most dreadful of them is to be buried alive." So says The Most Lamentable And Deplorable Accident, a 1661 pamphlet describing the deeply unpleasant fate of Lawrence Cawthorn. Prior to modern medical science, comas and deep unconsciousness were often mistaken for death and with little way of delaying decomposition corpses were buried pretty damn fast.

So imagine poor Mr Cawthorn, gradually coming to and finding himself in pitch blackness. He tries to sit up, hitting his head as he feels the cold, hard wood surrounding him. Panic sets in. He begins to scream and scream and scream.

Churchgoers, alarmed by "great groanings and shriekings" from underground hastily disinterred him and opened the coffin to reveal a terrible sight: "the shroud was torn to pieces; the eyes were swollen; the brains beaten out of the head; clots of blood were to be seen at the mouth; and his breast was bruised black and blue."

So yeah, being buried alive sucks: confirmed. But how does it feel to be in the freshly buried's shoes? Oskar McCarthy's Buried Alive gives us an idea of the sadness, claustrophobia and misery via a performance of Swiss composer Othmar Schoech's Lebendig Begraben, a song cycle adapted from a poem by Gottfried Keller, sung from the perspective of the newly buried. Our protagonist awakes in panic, praying that a mourning girlfriend will hear his cries, or that an opportunistic grave robber will come to his rescue. No-one comes, and as the air thins he eventually sinks into hypoxic delusion.

For starters, McCarthy knows how to set a scene. Having initially performed this in the marvellously opulent Brompton Oratory last October, he shifts to the similarly impressive St Giles Church in Camberwell. From the moment you enter, the place practically shivers with atmosphere. Candles dot the aisle at the centre of the nave, creating a gloominess that's underlined by the gradually waning summer sun shining through the stained glass. At the crossing, a simple black coffin stands surrounded by a ring of candles.

Jammed inside with nary an inch of free space, McCarthy looks believably corpse-like, the underlighting giving his features a tinge of Hammer Horror. It's a powerful theatrical image, one able to withstand the enforced stillness of the performance. On top of that, McCarthy, though constricted to the coffin, puts in a great physical performance. As he sings out his claustrophobic despair he wriggles uncomfortably in his box, clenching and unclenching his fists. By the end he's mixing in an effective bit of mime, pressing against the unmoving lid in horror.

It's quiet, dreamlike and slightly hypnotic, McCarthy's baritone as convincing communicating hope as it is plumbing the depths of despair. I've seen this performer in a number of things: Pop-Up Opera's Cosi fan tutte and L'Italia in Algeri, and recently Midsummer Opera's Don Giovanni. Each time he's stood out in an ensemble cast and here, with the spotlight firmly on him, he similarly excels. There's a fine balance to his performance style, believably and naturalistically inhabiting a character whilst delivering a fantastic vocal performance. 

A church-set German language song cycle might not sound like the most thrilling time, but wherever this plays next it's well worth a look-see. Tinged with cool gothic morbidity and with a deft, light and effective theatrical touch, Buried Alive is going to stick in the memory for a while yet.

★★★★

For information on future performances please see buried-alive.org

Saturday, June 11, 2016

'Rapture' at the Etcetera Theatre, 10th June 2016

Saturday, June 11, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


My favourite science fiction takes contemporary issues to extreme yet logical conclusions. The Terminator looks at endpoint of increased automation; 1984 explores a truly totalitarian society; District 9 is about fear of immigrants; and The Matrix distils millennial consumer angst by arguing that the world as we know it is an illusion. 

These things might feature whizzy special effect gunfights and exciting whiteknuckle car chases (well, less so 1984) but they also shine a light on the society, warn, anticipate and inform us about what may be just around the corner.

Lisa McMullin's Rapture sets out to do the same. Set in Britain sometime after the 2060s, four people arrive in a government facility for a mysterious 'Citizen Review'. They are: bingo-caller Oscar (Darryl Oakley), independent Member of Parliament Kameron (Rik Grayson), Big Brother celebrity Whitney (Olivia Quinn) and drama teacher Cleo (Jennifer Tyler).

The four are audited by a government official (Ryan Kennedy), who eventually reveals that, due to over-population and scarcity of resources, three of them will be summarily executed and only one will go free. The characters must argue for their own existence while being subjected to a prolonged and sadistic interrogation designed to induce some kind of psychological breakdown.

I wanted to like Rapture. I really did. McMullin's nightmare future is perspicacious and prescient, imagining the endpoint of the currently government's disability means tests. This is a play very obviously borne of the Conservative language of 'scroungers and strivers', in which a person's worth is judged by their contribution to the economy. Still, when you realise that this future government is 'deleting' vast segments of the population deemed to be dragging Britain down (council house tenants, the elderly and so on) your reaction is disbelief that things could get this far.

Yet, we live right now in a country where the Department for Work & Pensions has issued written guidance on suicide for staff hired to inform people that they're having their benefits withdrawn. This instructs jobcentre staff to find out what specific method of suicide the person plans, when they're going to do it and whether "they have the means to hand". Mortality statistics (released only when the government's hand was forced) reveal that more than 80 people a month are dying after declared "fit for work".

This is precisely the kind of thing speculative sci-fi (and for that matter, theatre) should be addressing. So it's unfortunate that despite this promising political bedrock, Rapture is a bit crap.


Plagued throughout by lumpen dialogue, none of the characters come close to rising above a broad sketch. These deficiencies are reflected in all-over-the-place performances, the cast pinballing wildly between emotional extremes. Weirdly, the more we learn about these people the less plausible they become; for example the recognisably sadsack underachiever eventually morphs into a genius chemical researcher paedophile.

Worse, there's a cruel streak to the writing that makes for an increasingly unpleasant watch. Each character is effectively bullied into submission; either by dredging up unpleasantness from their past, exposing their secret shame or simply informing them that their family members have been killed. I don't particularly mind plays being cruel to their characters, but here it feels as if nastiness has been mistaken for profundity. 

All this is filtered through the character of the auditor, perhaps the biggest misstep of the production. He's so evil he may as well be twirling a moustache and threatening to throttle kittens; completely at odds with the play's general treatment of its government as banally rather than explicitly evil. The character undermines the satire and social relevance of the play, inching away from reality and towards comic-book villainy.

All this is a damn shame, Rapture's heart is so clearly in the right place that you desperately want it to be good, but instead its like a rejected episode of Black Mirror. By the time the curtain fell I was equal parts annoyed and bored; the play having left an unpleasant taste in the mouth. 


★★

Rapture is at the Etcetera Theatre until 26th June. Tickets here.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

'Titanic' at the Charing Cross Theatre, 6th June 2016

Tuesday, June 7, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Titanic... the musical? It sounds disastrous. What better way to remember the tragic deaths of 1,517 souls than with a crowd-pleasing, toe-tapping musical? Even more ominously, it's an off-West End production staged in the not especially large (though by no means pokey) Charing Cross Theatre. How on earth can you do justice to the sinking of an 53,000 tonne ocean liner in a small theatre on a relatively limited budget while singing and dancing?

There's a quote from writer Maury Yeston on the back of the programme: "I think if you don't have that kind of daring damn-the-torpedoes, you shouldn't be in this business. It's the safe sounding shows that often don't do well". Fair enough. But as I took my seat I couldn't help but feel uneasy: the iceberg took two hours and forty minutes to sink Titanic. I had a feeling a musical adaptation could do the job far more efficiently.

In the end it's not half as awful as you'd expect, though there's a constant nagging sense that the basic idea of a Titanic musical is ridiculous. It's primarily a show about social class: the narrative dividing its characters between third, second and first classes (and prominent crew members) and treating the ship as a microcosm of Edwardian society. On top of that the musical places Titanic in the context of mankind's technological instinct: "In every age mankind attempts / To fabricate great works / At once magnificent / And impossible...

And so we board the mighty vessel, represented on stage by a some railings, a raised balcony, a set of wheeled stairs and a riveted steel proscenium arch. It's almost minimalist, smartly realising that the audience's imaginations, no doubt bolstered by the iconic movie, will fill in the blanks (though it later makes an unfortunate and underwhelming attempt to simulate the ship sinking by tilting part of the stage a couple of degrees). Helping our imaginations on is an evocative collection of period costumes, from the dowdily cosy coats of the third class to the top hats and tails of the first.

The twenty-strong cast are no slouches either. Each character is based on a real person aboard and each seems determined to do their memory justice. Highlights are Sion Lloyd's Thomas Andrews; a character as sturdy and steadfast as the ocean liners he designs. Though he spends too much time waving around a blueprint (we get it, he designed the ship...), his mathematical realisation that Titanic and the majority of its passengers are doomed is played with precision and subtlety. Other stand-outs are Philip Rham's Captain Smith, whose haunted gaze ably communicates guilt as the ship begins to list, and Jessica Paul's Kate Murphy, full of hope as she transitions from the bondage of the old world to the freedom of the new.

Lyrically, the songs increasingly reminded me of the famous Onion headline (and excellent front page) "WORLD'S LARGEST METAPHOR HITS ICEBERG". Yeston misses no opportunity to bludgeon the audience with the imagery of Titanic as symbol of technological prowess over nature and the ultimate manifestation of the 20th century craving for speed and convenience. As such, most characters end up not feeling so much like human beings as prisms through which we can deconstruct a very, very big boat.



Unfortunately, the rare moments when the characters are allowed to be people and not metaphor facilitators quickly collapse into hackneyed cheesiness, the show hamstrung by a a crippling addiction to incredibly blunt foreshadowing. You can tell things are a bit on the nose when Ismay, Captain Smith and Andrews' repetitive macho posturing about how their prized ship is unsinkable is eventually greeted with scattered chuckles.

The indisputable low point is the puke-inducingly saccharine Still, in which an elderly couple who've resigned themselves to a miserable death serenade one another with the glurgiest lyrics you can imagine. You sense if that the show could get away with having ushers walk the aisles waving freshly sliced onions under the audience's eyes they absolutely would. I'm not an opponent of all sentimentality, but this is just clumsy, particularly when contrasted to the clever finale of simply displaying the names of the 1500 victims of the disaster.

These stabs at emotional manipulation amass like barnacles on Titanic's hull and gradually decelerate the show, and with it the audience's interest. It's overlong at a touch under two and a half hours, to the point where a descent into yet another subplot (I think there are nine concurrent romances going on) gave me a severe case of numb bum syndrome. Even though this production already trims some of the fat from the diffidently received Broadway original you begin to wish that iceberg would hurry the hell up.

I just don't think the story of Titanic can really be done justice to through musical theatre and, though there are moments of delicacy, having characters based on victims of the tragedy singing and dancing through their imminent deaths feels faintly tasteless. Granted, the show hits its emotional, psychological and political targets, but these targets are so big (and also kind of obvious) that hitting them is akin to hitting the side of a barn: not that worthy of praise. 

The idea of a Titanic musical is silly, but if it has to exist then fine, this is probably the best it can be done. Though the show strains against the limitations of the musical medium, struggling to find ways to shoehorn in yet another song as the ship comes crashing down around the characters, it just about squeaks through. But it's a close call.

★★★

Titanic is at the Charing Cross Theatre until 6th August. Tickets here.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

'Off the King's Road' at the Jermyn Street Theatre, 3rd June 2016

Saturday, June 4, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Oh my god, it's 'the Dude'! Jeff Bridges! Okay, well, he's not actually on stage (he appears via Skype). And okay, the Skype calls are pre-recorded video, but still, Jeff BridgesThis clever bit of technological gimmickry proves to be the best thing in Neil Koenigsberg’s Off the King's Road, a mildly diverting dramedy finding its way to London after a 2013 Off Broadway run.

Set in a townhouse hotel called 'Off the King's Road', we follow Californian Matt Browne (Michael Brandon) as recovers from the death of his wife. They were happiest on holiday in London, and so he's here half to focus on their best memories and half to begin the healing process. Aided by his psychologist (Jeff Bridges), he plans a visit to the Tate Modern, pops valium, inflates a blow-up doll, takes long walks in the park and revisits Ingmar Bergman's classic Wild Strawberries.

Surrounding him is; obsequious hotel clerk (Luke Pitman); a cat lady widow in the room down the hall (Cherie Lunghi); and Sheena (Diana Dimitrovici), a Russian sex worker in whose lap Matt finds a prized moment of peace.

The individual components of Off the King's Road are all serviceable enough, but the play as a whole never quite gels. From the get-go there's an obvious rift between the sincere emotional journey of the protagonist and the somewhat Fawlty Towers-ish goings on in the hotel. That rift only widens as things develop, leaving a gaggle of underwritten comedy archetypes on one side and a naturalistic hero on the other.


Most unfortunate is Dimitrovici's entirely unconvincing sex worker, though her problems are no fault of the actor. She's written as an experienced working gal with cards in phone boxes all over town, brusquely demanding cash before the action begins and constantly tapping her watch to remind her client that 'time is money'. Yet she acts with surprised incomprehension when Matt explains that he just wants to talk, or offers her a bracelet as a present. Granted, what I know about sex work comes from TV, film and the theatre, but it just feels wrong that Sheena wouldn't have seen behaviour like this a hundred times before.

On top of that, Sheena's arrival kicks off a distracting subplot that, as far as I can see, doesn't make sense. Soon after gifting her the bracelet, Matt has it returned to him via a brick tossed through his hotel window, apparently by Sheena's angry offstage pimp/jealous boyfriend(?) Rocco. I'm not a fan of nitpicking and plot holes, but while it's later established that Rocco knows which hotel Matt is staying at, how on earth could he know which window was his? On top of that, why would a pimp be upset at a client giving Sheena a present? If Rocco is a jealous boyfriend, then why is he dating a sex worker? As Rocco remains off-stage for the duration, we never know.

Stuff like that doesn't cripple a play, but it does distract from the largely competent central narrative of a man getting over his wife's death. Matt isn't a groundbreakingly complex character but Michael Brandon makes him a generally likeable and pleasant to be around. It's easy to feel a twinge of sympathy when you contrast the private moments in which he wrestles with his personal demons and the generally upbeat persona he presents to the rest of the world, especially when he confronts his own vulnerability towards the end of the play.

But it's Jeff Bridges that really makes things spark. These actors are all competent professionals, but Bridges is a straight-up genius and it shows. The three scenes in which Matt chats to him are easily the funniest, most human and just downright enjoyable moments in the whole play. It's cheating a bit to have an entirely pre-recorded stage performance, but as the illusion that Bridges' character is live on Skype is airtight, the play gets away with it.

Perhaps Off the King's Road is worth it if just to enjoy the novelty of (sort of) seeing Jeff Bridges on the London stage for a relative pittance. Aside from that this is an amiable enough play whose negatives are just about cancelled out by its positives. 

★★★

Off the King's Road is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 25th June. Tickets here.

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