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Saturday, February 22, 2020

Review: 'House of Commons' at the White Bear Theatre, 21st February 2020

Saturday, February 22, 2020 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Titling a play House of Commons gives the audience a pretty hard nudge into reading it as a political allegory. So, with Boris Johnson set to be Prime Minister for a large chunk of the next decade and all the fun of Brexit to look forward to, what's the play about?

Set in a high-security psychiatric treatment facility, we follow a series of deeply damaged individuals who have been convicted of heinous crimes. Over the course of the play the spend a lot of time yelling at one another, detailing the horrors they're accused of and miserably laying out their lot in life. At times the only thing stopping their interactions from spilling over into gruesome violence are the electrodes implanted in their necks, which shock them if they get too far out of line.

So yeah, House of Commons it is.

This gang of patients has spent so much time together that familiarity has curdled into contempt, with everyone able to push each other's buttons whenever they please. But tonight there's something new to focus on. Lana (Sarah Collins Walters) is a new inmate, assigned to the facility for one night as she awaits the verdict of her trial. The inmates circle her like vultures, wondering whether she'll get away or become a permanent addition to their lives.

It's a decent set-up and the inquisitorial style works well in giving each character a moment in the spotlight. Throughout the play, most of the characters reveal the traumatic experiences that placed them here, which usually reveal them to be as much victim as perpetrator. Thing is, it's the ones we don't learn much about that prove to be the most intriguing.


Nomi Bailey's Peta is particularly sphinx-like. Despite not saying much she dominates the room from her wheelchair, regarding the others with predatory gazes from her glittering yet cold blue eyes. Then there's Luke Culloty's Andre, who is blind (wearing just creepy looking white contact lens), and just sits at the rear of the stage regarding the action.

But the enigmatic characters being the most interesting perhaps speaks to the play's occasionally frustrating narrative elements. These are characters who spend a lot of time talking over each other, heading down conversational cul-de-sacs and turning on emotional dimes. Consequentially, it's often tricky to figure out what's actually going on.

That feeds into an overall lack of narrative thrust. The tension in the show feels like it should be Lana's fear over her verdict and facing up to a potential future in this facility. This feels like it falls by the wayside early on in favour of exploring the other characters. 

It leaves the play feeling more like a series of loosely connected sketches than a sustained narrative, which slowly drains away your engagement. In a similar vein, while I could mentally wrestle it into a basic political allegory, the show itself doesn't seem to have any interest in exploring why it's called House of Commons.

It's probably telling that I brought someone along to the play who doesn't often visit the theatre. Their reaction was "Well, it was interesting, but I couldn't work out what the story was." 

House of Commons is at the White Bear Theatre until 22nd February 2020. Tickets here.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Review: 'Thank You and Goodnight' at the Popular Union, 20th February 2020

Friday, February 21, 2020 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Shows where a performer bemoans their crappy love life and dating experiences are a dime a dozen. Honestly, there are some nights out at the theatre where I wish the maxim 'write what you know' had never been invented. However, if the London fringe theatre scene is a soup of overly intimate confessionals, Emilia Stawicki's Thank You and Goodnight floats to the top like a particularly crunchy crouton. 

This one-woman show traces Stawicki's love life back to her school days: mapping out the Catholic guilt that stunted her sexual development, the series of disappointing men who flitted through her life and her own feelings of inadequacy.

Ordinarily, I feel a bit short-changed when a performer hits upon the novel idea of charging people to attend their group therapy session, but Stawicki is more than entertaining enough to make it work. I probably don't need to go into too much more detail than pointing out that she's very funny and charismatic.

Those are two qualities that are rarer than you'd imagine in comedy and theatre, but every inch of her performance feels calculated to draw laughs. It's the way she manages to lock eyes with everyone in the audience during the show and the conspiratorial way she draws us into her mindset. My usual barometer for this kind of thing working is whether the show can actually draw a couple of laughs from me. Well, mission: accomplished. In spades.

In addition, though this is a small, low-budget, hand-made sort of affair, it feels very professional. There's a lot of quick music cues and lighting changes throughout the show, and reliably hitting all them gives the show a confidence and slickness that goes a long way. So credit to whoever's on tech, as it's nice to see a small-scale show that's clearly been well-drilled.

In addition, Stawicki is such a pleasant person to spend an hour with that the interactive portions of the show aren't remotely intimidating. There are often moments where she interacts with us - and I was probably asking for it when I chose to sit in the front row centre in the seat with a banana taped to the bottom.

No matter what, you'll find something to identify with in Thank You and Goodnight. It is neither groundbreaking nor particularly ambitious, but it's funny, warm-hearted, well-performed and concise. I can think of many worse ways to spend an hour.

Thank You and Goodnight is next on at the Camden People's Theatre, March 8th. Tickets here.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Review: 'Crooks 1926' at the King William IV, 13th February 2020

Friday, February 14, 2020 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars


I'd love to be a fly on the wall when COLAB Theatre is planning out a new production. An astonishing amount of work must go into this: writing a central plot, writing secondary plots that a fraction of the audience will see, producing reams of written material to use in the show and mapping out how to best exploit the space. And then there's the wild card: us.

The audience is an element of chaos in a carefully calibrated system, the actors figuring out on the fly how to keep us entertained, provide us with goals, maintain the fiction and contain any troublemakers. I've adored the last two COLAB show I've seen, For King and Country and its sequel For King and Country: 1944. These two shows tasked audiences with battling the Nazis in an alternative history scenario. Last night I saw their latest, Crooks 1926.

I was a little nervous about this as this show is clearly heavily inspired by the TV show Peaky Blinders. I've never watched a single episode and have only the vaguest idea what it's about. Fortunately, I very quickly realised that though this might be designed to attract fans of the show, it isn't actually set within its world (at least, as far as I could tell).


Soon after entering the audience quickly becomes part of an up and coming London street gang. Its patriarch is dead and his sons have taken over and have ambitions for expansion. But there are rivals who would rather strangle this in the crib: with villainous boss Sabini arriving and demanding £10,000 by the end of the day. It's our job to con, steal, cheat and blackmail our way to victory, all the while fending off the old bob and solving various mysteries.

As was the case with the previous productions I've seen, the audience is managed by splitting them off into different teams and then further subdividing those into two or three-person tasks. One smart thing that I appreciate is that the show caters for both introverts and extroverts by providing tasks that appeal to both. So those less willing to interact with the cast can pore over documents and strategise and those who want to show off a bit can improvise scenes with the cast. 

The cast warns the audience not to spoil too many details so I'll stop there, but COLAB more than achieves their goal of immersing the audience in this knockabout world. The final moments of the play are absolutely gripping, with the room so tense you could hear a pin drop.


And yet, compared to the taut and focused For King and Country shows, there were several very unfocused moments. I should preface any criticism by saying that every who attends will have a different experience and maybe I just had bad luck. But throughout the night I kept running into narrative loose ends. Packages I was supposed to collect never arrived, I was given the wrong clues when I asked for codenames at the bar (very confusing), a locked room puzzle included multiple versions of the same key and, worst of all, there were frequent moments where I had nothing at all to do and just kinda milled around.

Maybe this was just a rough night, but I asked the cast members for a couple of pointers and they said they'd get back to me with something to do. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn't. It's a looseness I hadn't experienced at a COLAB show before - maybe it's a function of the show taking place over multiple rooms of a building rather than one large room?

I know that putting together a show like this is an insanely complex process, and I know the generally the more an audience member puts into immersive theatre the more they get out of it, but things felt a little more rough and chaotic than usual here. 

Still, COLAB remains a cut above pretty much every theatre company working in London today. I'm going to chalk this up as just an unfortunate evening rather than any serious problems with the show. Still, as I left I couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed.

Crooks 1926 is booking until March 29th. Tickets here.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Review: 'Tryst' at the Chiswick Playhouse, 10th February 2020

Tuesday, February 11, 2020 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments



Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Maybe I'm just getting cynical, but the standard of fringe theatre feels like it's pretty damn low at the moment. There's a couple of gems out there, but it seems like every time I open my inbox I'm faced with a deluge of invitations to autobiographical productions about playwrights' personal struggle against various types of adversity. And if they're not that, they're some self-consciously random bullshit about unicorns or some other twee bullshit.

So thank god for Karoline Leach's Trysta narratively straightforward two-hander that takes place in two relatively normal locations. The play was first staged in 1997 under the title The Mysterious Mr Love, and now it's the final show in the Chiswick Playhouse's inaugural season.

Set in 1910, we follow conman George Love (Fred Perry) and milliner Adelaide Pinchin (Scarlett Brookes). Love's modus operandi is to seduce rich, desperate and unmarried women and then abscond with their money at the earliest opportunity. He introduces himself to us as a predator, dehumanising his targets by describing them as "it" and claiming that the one night of good sex he'll provide will more than help them through the misery of being conned.

Adelaide Pinchin appears to be his ideal victim. She's a depressed, dowdy woman approaching middle-age eking out a miserable existence behind the scenes of a hat shop. She also has a diamond brooch, a pearl hairpin and a large inheritance that she doesn't know what to do with. After a chance encounter, Love sniffs this out almost immediately, and the stage is set for the big con.


Though based on an easily searchable true story, I would recommend you save your internet search until after you've seen the play. Leach provides a purposeful yet winding narrative in which your assumptions about who these people are are repeatedly challenged. Though one is predator and the other prey, they are both products of the same system and ultimately cannot help but empathise with one another.

Without going into too much spoilerrific detail, the true monster of the piece proves to be the patriarchal society that underpins the era. Love has moulded himself into what he perceives as the ideal man: stylish, charming and devoid of any real emotion. But what's left of the real person under all this, and where is he ultimately going? 

He doesn't realise any of this, so it's a surprise when Adelaide opens up about her home life and he begins to feel increasingly powerful twinges of empathy. And, as every good con man knows, once you start down that road the jig is up.

We cannot help but analyse the characters' predicaments through a contemporary lens. In fact, though the play was first performed in '97, contemporary audiences are probably likely to get more out of the psychology of Adelaide than the original audiences would have.

And man, it's a hell of a story, underpinned by two fantastic performances. Both communicate volumes through their body language alone. Brookes does a great job of draining Adelaide of confidence and then building her back up. She's clearly a beautiful woman in real life, but as Adelaide her drawn features and strained expressions belie decades of being ground under someone else's thumb. 

Meanwhile, Perry manages an onion-like performance in which his character pretends to be someone who is pretending to be someone. That he can do that while clearly delineating each layer is an impressive feat.

On top of all that the attention to period detail in dialogue and set design is basically perfect. Everything from brewing a cup of tea, to running a bath, to outside toilets, to the jobs of ancillary characters have clearly been carefully researched. You know you're in good hands when the characters can casually reference Gibson Girls.

I had a great time, and I honestly wish there were more plays staged like this. Tryst doesn't deal in writing tricks, complex feats of staging or didactic messaging - it's just a straightforward story of two characters in opposition to one another. Those 90 minutes positively flew by for me and judging by the audiences' reaction, they will for you too.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Review: 'For The Sake Of Argument' at the Bridewell Theatre, 30th January 2020

Friday, January 31, 2020 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

When my revolution begins I will order that opinion columnists be first up against the wall. Don't get me wrong, there's a couple of good eggs. But the vast majority are preening, thin-skinned poshos who got their jobs through nepotism and can be relied on to be dead wrong about almost everything. I'm thinking your Polly Toynbees, your Suzanne Moores, your Matthew D'Anconas and your John Rentouls.

These are the kinds of people who have no useful function in society: PPE grads deemed too incompetent for actual power and whose role is to condescend to their readers, strictly enforce the status quo and pine for the 'sensible' centrism that will allow them to continue their ridiculous cossetted existences in fancy London mansions

... and... breathe... 

Harry Darell's For The Sake of Argument invites us to spend an evening with these people. His show serves up a ghoulish gallery of privileged tossers and then slowly dismantles the emotional, intellectual and geographic barriers erected that prevent them from being exposed to the consequences of their words.

The play centres on author and columnist Eleanor Hickock (Ashleigh Cole), who I read as essentially a gender-swapped Christopher Hitchens. Like Hitchens, she's extremely erudite, atheistic and began life on the left only to find herself sympathising with US neocons. The play is set in 2009, during Gordon Brown's Prime Ministership, and we find her still vociferously defending Blair and Bush's disastrous invasion of Iraq.



Listening to the arguments about this gave me mild yet distressing flashbacks to 2003, where all manner of armchair generals opined that invading Iraq was the only sensible thing to do. Most of the war's biggest cheerleaders have since quietly plastered over those years, but Hickock (to the vocal annoyance of her friends) is still desperate to prove she was actually right all along about Saddam Hussein, weapons of mass destruction and the need to invade Iraq.

Unfortunately for Eleanor, her smug little shell is about to get cracked wide upon. The mother of a child who was radicalised by Eleanor's writings arrives at her debate circle and invites her to dinner. Having travelled to Chippenham, Eleanor is presented with letters from the man she encouraged to go off to war and the misery of the family he left behind. How long can dispassionate, logical and robotic regurgitation of facts hold up against an infinite pit of sorrow?

For the Sake of Argument succeeds in its goal of showing what it takes to get someone to understand their impact on society. Throughout the play, Eleanor and her friends' debates are exposed as intellectual masturbation: a mutual preening session to boost their grotesquely over-inflated egos. They are sophists and have wallowed in irony so long they're saturated in it. As you watch, it's difficult not to think that nothing of value would be lost if they just quietly and unobtrusively winked out of existence.

Eleanor in particular is one of the vilest characters I've seen in a play in quite some time. Cole does a fantastic job with the part: capturing that way people like Eleanor radiate a false intellectual superiority. As is revealed at some length, she sees herself as above the hoi polloi, looking down on those who form opinions without full command of the facts (that her 'facts' are essentially US government propaganda seems to escape her). I wished the very worst for her - and it's deeply satisfying to eventually watch her squirm and mewl on the hook.



Darell hits the nail on the head when it comes to deconstructing Eleanor. Unfortunately, the play as a whole is kinda flabby. We open with a lengthy examination of an alcoholic bartender that never goes anywhere, there are unnecessary interludes by the dead soldier (and I gotta say they're not particularly well-acted) and the first act goes on way too long. 

If the purpose of the 'debate scenes' is to establish the shallowness of Eleanor and her social circle, then that's done in about 10 minutes. Instead, we have to listen to them witter on about Ken Livingstone and Winston Churchill. There's a fine line between exposing us unpleasant people and annoying the audience with unpleasant characters, and For the Sake of Argument often crosses it. 

Still, the plot sets its sights on some very worthy targets and by the end, you're left in no doubt that these characters and their ilk are completely full of shit. That the real-life counterparts of Eleanor Hickock get to swan off into the horizon on a sea of canapes and complimentary Malbec leaving a pile of corpses in their wake is disgusting.

It almost makes me wish there was an afterlife so these pricks could suffer the punishment they so richly deserve. But, in the absence of hell, I'll just have to continue trolling them through shell accounts on Twitter. 

For the Sake of Argument is at the Bridewell Theatre until 8th February 2020. Tickets here.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Review: 'Something Awful' at Vault Festival, 29th January 2020

Thursday, January 30, 2020 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

There is no way I was going to pass up seeing a show called Something Awful. The title of the play is derived from a dinosauric comedy website and internet forum. Once upon a time the site was on the cutting edge of online comedy. Now it's slowly dying, having transitioned into a safe space for depressed middle-aged men to swap Simpsons memes, pose as Third World Maoists and hold purposefully contrary views on Star Wars. 

Though the site has bubbled away at the obscure corners of popular culture for two decades, its biggest contribution to date (aside from maybe dril) is Slender Man. Created as part of a contest to create paranormal images, the spooky character transcended the site and went viral, spawning movies and games.

It was all fun and games until two twelve-year-old Wisconsin schoolgirls took Slender Man a touch too seriously and attempted to stab their friend to death with a kitchen knife. Now Tatty Hennessy has taken that story, transplanted it to the UK and given it a psychosexual spin.

Here our characters are Jel (Monica Anne), Soph (Natalya Martin) and Ellie (Melissa Parker). They're into spooky stories online, finding themselves attracted to a creepypasta thread on Something Awful. The site is described as one of the most vicious places online, where the comments are impossibly cruel and the posters depraved gore-hungry lunatics.


At first, the girls won't even register to post, fearful of the reactions their contributions might receive. But slowly they get drawn in, with a mysterious tale of a supernatural homicidal woodsman striking very close to home. They're lost in the story, and their only way out... is murder!

Thing is, much of Something Awful isn't really about the supernatural at all. Instead, it seems to be a coming-of-age story in which young girls explore their sexuality and self-image. The non-horror scenes that get to grips with this are the best things in the play, with the highlight a sleepover where one girl has her first period and the others attempt to assist her in inserting a tampon.  I don't know what the hell teenage girls actually speak about these days, but the dialogue rings true and all three actors are very believable as 13-year olds.

But squeezing all this into an hour means that what should be the core story of the girls developing a deadly obsession with spooky stories online gets squeezed into the margins. What I'd think would be the meat of the play - the bit where two of the girls decide that the third must be sacrificed - is quickly skimmed over. 

And so we're funnelled into a murder scene where the killers' motivations haven't been established. The final bloody moments should be an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence. Here they're just a confusing ellipsis.

I'm usually all about brevity in theatre. Most stories can be told in an hour and its a rare play that wouldn't benefit from a bit of editing. But Something Awful gets very cramped trying to squeeze everything into an hour. It'd benefit from a lot more room to breathe.

Something Awful is at the Vault Festival until 2nd Feb. Tickets here.


Friday, January 24, 2020

Review: 'Macbeth' at Wilton's Music Hall, 23rd January 2020

Friday, January 24, 2020 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Ten minutes into The Watermill Ensemble's Macbeth a member of the cast dislocated both knees and the play was stopped. I don't believe in curses, but... I mean, pretty spooky right?

Director Paul Hart appeared on stage to explain that ordinarily they'd have cancelled tonight's show. However, it just so happened that a former cast member, Emma Barclay, was in the audience. She stepped in at a moment's notice to play Lady MacDuff and though we were warned that tonight's show might be a bit rough around the edges, everything went off smoothly. So well done to her.

After a restart and a delay of about an hour, we get our teeth into the company's unique take on Macbeth. Though the plot sticks closely to the book, the setting is an urban contemporary warzone. The backdrop is a crumbling hotel, the characters dress in combat gear and have vicious knife fights. There are frequent live musical interstitials within scenes, with characters singing songs by The Rolling Stones, The XX and the Nine Inch Nails.


As is usual with these sorts of Shakespearian adaptations, the medieval language of Thanes, Kings and castles don't perfectly tesselate with the setting. However, it's easy on the eye, the costumes make the cast look cool and there's a sexy revolutionary chic to the whole thing. As usual, it's best to just go with it.

Billy Postlethwaite's Macbeth is easily the show's most striking feature, whose beard, straggly hair and beret give him a Che Guevara vibe. Postlethwaite is a hell of an actor, looming over the other cast members and with a combat veteran's build. His Macbeth is both regal and deadly: a man for whom you can believe murder is a viable way to solve a problem.

But a good Macbeth is nothing without his Lady Macbeth, and Emma Mcdonald is more than a match for her co-star. Dressed in form-fitting outfits, she slinks around the stage like a big cat pacing its cage in the zoo. The love and lust between the couple is palpable. They sinuously wrap themselves around one another, their intertwining limbs showing off their physical intimacy.

They're a great double-act and whenever they're on stage the show fizzes. And when they're not?


Well, there's a notable dull patch in the second half of the show when we head away from Cawdor and get into the murder of the Macduff family and the raising of an army against Macbeth. It's not that the performances are lacking, more this action pales into comparison with the psychosexual guilt of the Macbeths. Plus, while I'm familiar with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's dialogue, I don't know this part of the play so well, and the acoustics in the room aren't great for clarity.

I also don't the musical interludes add a great deal to the play. Pausing the narrative to sing a couple of bars of a rock or pop song feels like they don't have confidence in the play to sustain the audience's attention. On top of that, it's a stretch to figure out what relevance the songs' lyrics have to the show. 

As an aside, this take on Macbeth doesn't even properly feature the Three Witches, one of my favourite bits of the play. Here they're played by the ensemble as more of a force of nature, but having this many characters inhabit them dilutes their power.

It leaves an uneven show that pulls in a couple of different directions at once. Billy Postlethwaite and Emma Mcdonald are worth the price of admission alone, but I wish the rest of it was a bit more focused.

Macbeth is at Wilton's Music Hall in a double bill with A Midsummer Night's Dream until 15th February. Tickets here.

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