The Engagement

The Engagement is a love story with a difference. It’s a new play written by James Alexander Allen inspired by a true story from Wayne Liversidge. Allen, an emerging screen writer and playwright, collaborated with Liversidge to tell his story. The play forms part of the Hove Grown Festival.

The play opens with Gerri waiting for a date and hastily tidying her sister away. As the sisters chat, Luanne brings an inexorable quality to the play, from the very first scene where Gerri is waiting for her eighth date. Will it be any different to the previous seven? Will the man even show up?

John does show up and a relationship develops very fast but cracks in Gerri’s seemingly normal life are brushed aside until her sister Luanne (Faith Elizabeth) explains to John what is going on. As with anyone embarking on a new relationship, they both want it to work.

In the first act, I feel there is an artificial quality to Gerri’s character and the emerging relationship in the script that undermines their later struggle. This may or may not be intentional. The plot is realistic, nothing is overstated, but I still find myself asking, why are John and Gerri attracted to each other? How do we know they really love each other and are not simply ‘playing at love?’

Eden Avital Alexander gives us an accomplished performance as Gerri and at the end her training in physical theatre comes to the forefront. Subject to terrible mood swings, we sense the chaos of her world and feel John’s (Owen Bleach) panic. John’s character develops well from a carefree young man, whose only preoccupation is to make it to the next football match, into a lover desperate to help Gerri who may be just beyond his reach. John’s world shrinks as he is absorbed into Gerri’s world for better or for worse.

Pace and plot of the play are good and with great poignancy, John, always at Gerri’s side keeps saying: “This is not the real you” as his lover spirals down, her personality distorted. It falls to Gerri’s sister Luanne to comment on history repeating itself. At the end Gerri tragically takes a different approach when tackling her inner demons to before with devastating consequences.

I recommend the Engagement as a debut play which has great potential and was very popular with the audience. As Allen’s first play for theatre, it certainly provides food for thought and could be developed into a longer piece allowing for more character development at the start.

Allen should be applauded for tackling issues often taboo in polite society. I’ll look out for his future work and must credit Wayne Liversidge with courage for telling his story. Often true stories are the most compelling. Don’t miss this show.

**** Four Stars

An edited version of the Engagement was published on Fringe Guru here.


Quartet is a humorous play about growing old and trying to reconcile present infirmity with former glory. It’s set in an elite retirement home for celebrities and begins the day Jean Horton, our main star, played by Sue Holderness, arrives.

I enjoyed the banter in the play often supplied by Paul Nicholas as Wilfred Bond, an oversexed pensioner. Reginald Paget (Jeff Rawle) who is the rather intense ex-husband of Jean Horton, is angry at the outset that he is not warned of her arrival. However, for me Wendi Peters stole most of the laughs as Cecily Robson making the part her own. It’s the physicality of her performance, as well as the dialogue, that make her so entertaining. Wendi Peters is best known for playing Cilla Battersby-Brown in Coronation Street.

The end of quartet is ingenious and the audience were delighted. While the play’s appeal is slightly limited by its subject matter to an older audience, it achieves its objectives. The show provides an insight into the indignities of old age but there is no opportunity to wallow and the community of friends look out for one another in an understated and characteristically English manner. An interesting aside is their perception of the authorities who run the home and again comedy prevails, although there is a dangerous edge particularly for Cecily.

Writer Ronald Harwood could have added more depth to his script but I think he wanted to celebrate old age without romanticising it and the method he uses skilfully throughout is humour. So don’t hesitate to pop along and see Quartet, it will uplift you and there are pearls of wisdom to enjoy hidden in the banter. For me the motto may be, celebrate life at every stage, after all, it’s not over until it’s over.

*** Three Stars

An edited version of this review was published on Fringe Guru.

Of Mice and Men

Of Mice and Men is a period piece based on a novella written in 1937 by John Steinbeck about forced migration because of drought and poverty in America. Many tenant farmers had to leave their land which had become a Dust Bowl and seek work in California. Like migrants today, they were often resented, not welcomed.

Director Guy Unsworth says: “I think Of Mice and Men is absolutely a play for today. It’s a hauntingly relevant reminder of the importance of home, companionship, and the pursuit of happiness and safety on this lonely planet…” You sense the hardship of the migrants when they drink the ditch water early on.

In the play there are two main characters: George and Lennie. Lennie is always getting into trouble because he is ‘simple’ and his very large stature attracts attention. While George grumbles about Lennie, there is a sense that they both benefit from the friendship which reduces their isolation. Lennie can best be described as a ‘big friendly giant’, expertly acted by Matthew Wynn from EastEnders and Silent Witness.

Richard Keightley, an accomplished theatre actor, plays George Milton. His performance is good, much of it taken up with managing and covering for Lennie. He brings tension to the play because he cares deeply for his friend but also yearns to be free of the responsibility. He has lost innumerable jobs because of Lennie whose limited mental capacity is neither understood nor admitted.

Andrew Boyer is worth a mention as the older labourer, Candy, who is touching to watch and Kevin Mathurin is the segregated coloured man. In a break with convention, Marthurin’s barn becomes the meeting place in the second half. Steinbeck observes the social norms and constraints of his time, calling Marthurin a nigger, but in a nice touch, it’s Marthurin who is found reading a book while the other labourers go drinking in town.

The set too is clever, if economical, and the opening scene with migrants getting off the train draws the audience into Steinbeck’s world.

A lot of the characters have a dream, apart perhaps from Slim (Cameron Robertson) and Curley (Kamran Darabi-Ford) who are secure in their present circumstances. Curley’s wife, Rosemary Boyle, and Lennie’s dreams are the farthest from reality but they hold them fast, not hearing each other as they speak parallel narratives. For many the dream is simply of home, a room of one’s own and a small-holding where the workers can be their own boss.

For me, the first half was slow and heavy with dialogue, lacking in action but I enjoyed the play. It has an inexorable quality and was well acted throughout. As a period piece, it was less popular with a contemporary audience but themes of migration and a search for home surely endure.

Four stars ****

An edited version of this review was published on Fringe Guru.

Ruth Rendell: A Judgement in Stone

A Judgement in Stone is about who killed the Coverdales, based on Ruth Rendell’s 1970s novel. Both play and novel are set in the context of a generation only just beginning to question the class system which was and, to some extent, still is the bedrock of British society.

Simon Brett and Antony Lampard adapted Rendell’s book in a compelling psychological drama brought to life by the Agatha Christie Theatre Company. I think it’s a great new avenue for the company to explore which will broaden both their scope, reach and appeal.

I imagine, Eunice Parchman, a working-class woman has had to be self-sufficient from a very young age and, unlike the household she joins, she has no family. She is alone in the world. Sophie Ward won my heart and mind as Parchman, housekeeper to the upper middle-class Coverdale family. I think she longed to see what middle-class families were like in real life but she was unable to be herself in their company. Miss Parchman is uncomfortable in her own skin and the Coverdale family overlook this because they barely see her at all.

Robert Duncan, most famous for acting in Casualty, is George Coverdale and is joined from Casualty by the over the top Joan Smith, also from Casualty, whose religious zeal is frankly bizarre. Smith clearly has too much to prove and the casting of these two is very clever. All of the Coverdales are individuals, kind, self-absorbed, secure. And the Police just do their job.

But you sense Rendell and the playwrights forensically examining the working-class characters: Eva Baalham who is very direct, Rodger Meadows: a gardener with a murky past, and the unlikely friends who meet at church, Smith and Parchman.

I didn’t give the play five stars because it is a period piece that was not adapted for a contemporary audience and some of the characters were more interesting than others.

But as the Police search for an alibi, events unfold in a startling, deeply disturbing and inexorable manner. The play is disturbing because it could be true. Fate deals every person a hand of cards but not everyone knows how to play them and life is kinder to some people than others.

**** Four Stars

The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner is a book about Afghanistan, a feature film and now a touring play at Brighton’s Theatre Royal written by Khaled Hosseini. It’s a story set in 1974 about children losing their innocence. It’s about a struggle between good and evil, power, wealth, hierarchies, saints, villains and illegitimate children.

I think it’s a heart-breaking, delicate tale of love, loss, betrayal and brutalisation. It’s set in a country where duty means as much as romance and there is one set of rules for the rich and another set for the poor. Matthew Spangler’s script, like Mr Hosseini’s book, explores what happens when you let the children out to play alone and leave them unattended.

It charts the life of three Afghan families in a country ravaged by civil war. The play spans 28 years and the worst thing is that it ends in 2003. Afghanistan remains a repressive regime for men and, particularly, for women.

However, Spangler’s play is a compelling, contemporary, look at male society. He wrote it independently before the film was produced independently. Spangler met Hosseini, the author, in San Francisco where they both live and he directed the first play in March 2007 with a cast of student actors. Spangler is a Professor of Performance Studies at San Jose State University.

But this is not Lord of the Flies. Think the Bronte sisters: cross Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre with Emily’s Wuthering Heights. Cruelty and kindness, war and peace, parenthood, love, loss and new beginnings. It is the opportunity for redemption that makes the book, script and show great.

For me, Jo Ben Ayed was painfully submissive and utterly convincing as Hassan, the best friend, and Sorab, Hassan’s son. He trained at the East 15 acting school and would like to thank his mother and father for supporting him to get where he is today. Amiera Darwish trained at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland but has also acted in the West End. She was Soraya, wife of the main, male protagonist, Amir. His performance, I am sorry to say, I thought, was weak.

In this instance, I thought the script was better than the cast because I have read the book. I felt the actors lacked passion and experience. The Kite Runner is not for the faint-hearted but for everyone who has travelled outside our small island and is thirsting for more. Never-the-less, I gave the show a standing ovation which I have never done before at Brighton’s Theatre Royal. It means that for me it was a five star performance and not one to be missed.

**** Four Stars (Fringe Guru rating)

Gore Vidal’s The Best Man

Set in Philadelphia in July 1960, at one of the national political conventions, this is a play about power, corruption and morality. It’s a race between two men who seek their party’s nomination for the American presidency. Both men are flawed; William Russell is promiscuous and his marriage is in trouble, while Jo Cantwell is ruthlessly pragmatic, believing his ends justify the dirtiest of means. Human nature is such that no one is beyond reproach, but as presidential candidates, their private lives become public property – and the outgoing President needs to decide who to support.

Gore Vidal was a novelist and letter-writer as well as a playwright, but this script was inspired by his own bid for power in 1960, when he stood unsuccessfully as a Democrat in a pro-Republican district of New York. Mr Vidal said the character of Jo Cantwell is loosely inspired by Richard Nixon, but there are surely traces of the Kennedys there too. Secretary William Russell is based on Adlai Stevenson, an intellectual with a conscience and a commitment to peace.

William Russell is played skilfully by Martin Shaw, an accomplished theatre, film and TV actor. As the race becomes bloody, you watch this man search for a moral way to defeat his opponent. Russell dislikes the compromises of politics, but as outgoing President Hockstader says sadly: “To want power is corruption already… it ends in the grave, where it goes to dust.” As Hockstader, Jack Shepherd provides a shrewd commentary about political life, its trials and tribulations; he says strength and decisiveness is everything in a President, but is he right?

Glynis Barber is also strong as Mr Russell’s wife, Alice, offering discreet support her husband may not always deserve. However, Honeysuckle Weeks gets the most laughs as Mabel Cantwell, wife and “mama bear” to Senator Jo Cantwell, particularly when the three women meet. Her husband, played by Jeff Fahey, is also compelling and credible in his ruthless pursuit of power; the contrast between domestic respectability and dirty political games works well, and we discover Mr Cantwell has a dark secret.

Anthony Howell plays a special advisor with alacrity, although his role provides fewer surprises and potentially less scope. Gemma Jones offers some good humoured, feminist satire as Mrs Gamadge. Characterisation is good throughout, and the script is clearly well-researched, with unpredictable twists in the plot to keep the audience engaged and personal battles that the characters cannot always win. Densely packed with dialogue, this political thriller is written by an insider with imagination. It’s gem for those interested in politics, but I think it’s also a play about corruption of the human spirit – which is a universal theme, accessible and relevant to everyone.

***** Five stars

Here are some highlights from Brighton Fringe 2017

Killer Cell

For anyone who has struggled to have a child, Killer Cells is a must see show. It’s a true story of life, loss, resilience and hope. Set in Cardiff, its humour and authenticity is demonstrated in the love that the characters show each other and the isolation of each person’s private pain. I think, Sarah Lewis, director and script-writer tackles the play with great sensitivity, wit and with insight that is only possible because it is her story. Other actors in the play have also suffered miscarriages and the loss of a child which gives the play its power to speak directly to your heart.

Becks says early on: “I learned there is a fine line between joy and fear – trust neither.” Becks is lost in a labyrinth of grief and yet she holds herself together, suffering quietly with dignity like many other women walking the path of pain alone before and after her.

Jamie has a past, family memories that inform and, to some extent, haunt him in his present struggle. Added to his own pain, he is forced to watch his life-partner, Becks, battle consecutive losses and physical pain alone. Becks tries to protect Jamie from her anguish but he suffers as he watches her withdraw. All he really wants is to be allowed to love her and make her happy. Happiness the couple once took for granted. He says about Becks, poignantly: “I think she’ll crumble in my hands if I try and help her.”

However, Grace injects humour and compassion: she is the friend of 20 years at the end of the phone, always available for a cuppa, who resolutely stands by her friend, especially when Becks is silent. And then there is the yoga instructor.

For me, the play stands head and shoulders above other performances at this year’s Brighton Fringe. If you like Gavin and Stacey, you’ll like this play. It’s a true story, wholesome, without self-pity and a breath of fresh air after the dark, sometimes tormented, and often overly sexualised theatre which defines parts of Brighton’s theatre scene. It makes you believe that although life is sometimes unfair, love and friendship help you turn the corner into a new dawn. For some people, life is not easy but the play encourages the audience to find the courage to share their loss and find healing.

I wish I had seen Killer Cells earlier in the run because I would not hesitate to recommend it, not just for would-be young mothers but for anyone who hopes for or cherishes a family and someone to love.

Five Stars *****

Another Brighton

Cascade Creative Recovery has teamed up with Invisible Voices to put on a stellar show about homelessness, addiction and how to beat it. While the Cascade Recovery Choir is hugely popular and clearly enjoy themselves, for me the drama in the second half stole the show.

There were two plays: “Elephant in the Room” performed by the Cascade Drama Group and “Fit for Work Assessment” which was the brainchild of Still Human UK. Like Craig Neesam’s poetry, the dialogue fizzed with wit and humour that I did not expect.

Elephant in the Room is a tasteful exploration of addiction and the stranglehold it has on people, destroying their relationships and their lives. “Who am I?” the characters asked and each one replied, “I’m an addict.” It’s addiction which defines and controls some people’s lives, not their university education or their families. Homeless people suffer humiliation and degradation and they are expected to remain polite and stoic by a society that doesn’t care. But the actors do not wallow in self-pity, far from it, they fight back with resilience and humour.  This is what made the plays authentic and compelling.

Bobby Carver is the star of the second play, this time fighting a system that simply does not see him. Nils Visser is a DWP official conducting a Fit for Work Assessment. When I watched Daniel Blake, I was disappointed because it was a mundane account of Jocentres. Fit for Work Assessment is much better because it is self-deprecating. Bobby Carver is tetraplegic and wheelchair bound but he is still expected to do acrobatics. Nils Visser steals most of the laughs, with a commanding performance of utter indifference. At times more like a pantomime than a play, the audience shouted: “He’s behind you!”

People trying to get off the streets are invited to seek refuge at the Cascade café, 24 Baker Street, which is a clean, safe space to get away from the everyday scorn and indifference. It’s a place to meet others and battle the demons together. Invisible Voices have published their second book in which they document homelessness, mental illness, addiction, disability and rejection by society and Craig Neesam will be publishing street poetry with Jouannah Bar next month.

I would highly recommend any work produced by Cascade Drama Group, Cascade Recovery Choir, Cascade Street Poets, New Note Orchestra and Still Human UK. Buy the book and don’t miss the next show. It really should sell out. Sometimes true stories touch me far more than fiction. I think you should go and meet the survivors.

Four Stars ****

Obama and Me

Obama and Me is one of the most compelling one man, one act shows I have ever seen. Sylvia Arthur, a black Brit, has put together a political play documenting her struggle for freedom of movement and racial equality. She has an agent for her half-written book but in frustration at the slow pace of writing, the scale of her endeavour and her own lack of time, she wrote a play.

Sylvia tells her story of everyday put-downs in the workplace, resentment among immigrants all striving to find a home in an EU country and being defined by the colour of her skin, not her British passport. Originally, her family came from Ghana but Sylvia grew up in London and has a foot in each continent. She will not deny her African roots and being overlooked and gently mocked most days at work, only makes her resolve to fight for freedom to realise her potential as well as freedom from oppression, stronger. As an immigrant, she must be polite, calm and composed in the face of racism and discrimination.

Her heroes are the Obama family: first up, Michelle Obama who embodies the American dream, a black woman with nothing left to prove. I suspect that unlike Tony Blair, the Obama’s rise to fame, President Barak Obama becoming the most powerful man in the world, came as a surprise. He knew he was good but many people ask, are they really that good? How can this be?

Clips from Mr Obama, Mrs Obama and even a child work well to break up the monologue. Sylvia demonstrates how dangerous it is to be black by showing a series of photographs including black people brutally murdered like ten-year old child Damilola Taylor in a stairwell on a council estate in Peckham.

However, the context of Sylvia’s play is her work: she facilitates discussions and brokers freedom of movement across the EU as a private consultant. Based in Brussels, she travels the length and breadth of Europe, turning her cheek as the insults fly. She does not encounter actual violence very often, probably because she is middle-class, just everyday prejudice endemic in European society. However, grudging her promotion, Sylvia is exactly the right person to discuss barriers and discrimination and to embody the European dream.

For me, the problem with the play is that it’s static because it’s a monlogue. It’s packed full of ideas and I have written more notes about Obama and Me than any other play this year but I wonder if cameo acting of the office politics would heighten the drama. I understand that the novel came first and it will be scholarly and full of substance but for theatre to have drama, I think it needs dialogue and more than one character.

Obama and Me is showing for another two nights, don’t miss it. It’s a courageous, authentic story of one woman’s fight for acceptance, multiculturalism and freedom of movement across Europe.


**** Four Stars

Follow the links below for other plays I reviewed for Fringe Guru during Brighton Fringe:

Tennesse Williams Double: Ivan’s Widow and Talk to me like the rain and let me listen

Tennesse Williams’ 27 Waggons full of cotton

Lulu by Frank Wedekind

Thoroughly Modern Millie

Thoroughly Modern Millie is a stellar performance, which left me buzzing and thankful to be alive, as we follow a group of young would-be actresses set out on a life of adventure in New York – propelled into their new lives at high speed, with the optimism and exuberance of youth. Set in the 1920s, it tracks the period just after the 18th Amendment was passed, declaring Prohibition and banning alcohol in the United States.

The story is, of course, best known from Richard Morris’ 1967 screenplay – though the idea came from an earlier British musical called Chrysanthemum.  This new adaptation won awards on its debut in 2002; featuring new lyrics by Dick Scanlan and a fresh score from Jeanine Tesori, it retains Morris’ rewardingly unpredictable plot-line.

From her very first appearance on stage, Millie Dillmount – masterfully acted by Joanne Clifton, best known as a professional dancer on Strictly Come Dancing – captivated my attention with her zest for life and determination to both marry well and marry for love. A small-town girl from Kansas, she wants all that life can offer and is determined to create her own opportunities. Clifton has great stage presence to match the role.

Mrs Meers, meanwhile, is apparently a dotty, insignificant, rather large matron. But she’s not what she seems, and is responsible for much of the dramatic power and intrigue in the show; she delivers a lot of the laughs, as well. Lucas Rush should be applauded for his gender-transcending performance here – it’s very Brighton – and with an acting career ranging from Shit-faced Showtime to Shakespeare, I suspect he is always accomplished and at ease.

Jenny Fitzpatrick, of EastEnders fame, has a sublime voice – and is warm-hearted, cunning and convincing as Muzzy Van Hossmere, the wealthy widow who wants the best for all of the young people she meets. Katherine Glover, playing Mille’s best friend Miss (remember the title!) Dorothy Glover, and Sam Barrett as Jimmy Smith also entertain.

Despite a few echoes in the script of the stereotypes of the age, honours for cameo entertainment go first and foremost to Damian Buhagiar and Andy Yau, who play Ching Ho and Bun Foo: two Chinese brothers who are reluctantly complicit in the underhand dealings at the Premier Hotel. Rivalling them for the top position is the smooth Mr Graydon, played my Graham MacDuff, who provides hilarious slapstick humour in the second half when events do not turn out as he wishes.

Costumes dazzled with the razzmatazz of 1920s New York – reminding me of The Great Gatsby – and the orchestra accompanied the show with verve. Choreography was also excellent, with fast-paced dance routines throughout.

If you have seen the film, you will love this musical… but even if you haven’t, there are twists in the plot, problems to be resolved and a comforting sense that good triumphs over evil in the end. Each character is compelling and unique. This is professionally executed, feel-good fun, with a healthy helping of suspense as well; for theatre as well as musical lovers, I’d rate it a must-see. And it’s another triumph for Brighton’s Theatre Royal, which rarely disappoints in its selection of shows.

**** Five stars

All of my reviews are written for and published by Fringe Guru.



Invincible is about a clash of cultures and class when a middle-class couple from London move up north and try to forge a friendship with their very different working-class neighbours. Tensions  within each couple are evident from the outset as well as between them, providing a lot of light entertainment.

In the first half I think the pace of the show is slow, let down by two-dimensional characters, each acting according to a stereotype. However, Invincible does offer a lot of laughs, particularly from Alan, acted by Graeme Brooks, who is a larger than life postman with a carefree disposition. He could not be more different to highly-strung Emily acted by Emily Bowker. She is left-leaning and if you met her, you would expect her to be a “spiritual but not religious” vegan with a passion for meditation and a set of ideals that do not match the messy lives they live.

I like the contrasting musical interludes between the scenes that provide a break from a dense script One problem is that the script introduces many, many ideas and ills within society without fully exploring or resolving any of them.

At the very end of the first half, the audience receives its first surprise and the drama begins. In the second half Dawn (acted by Elizabeth Boag) and Oliver (played by Alastair Whatley) take centre-stage and the secrets and lies start. If you like cats, prepare to be amused or horrified. The second half of the play does contain drama and twists as the two apparently more “normal” characters interact with their partners with a mixture of tenderness and hypocrisy.

For me, some of the humour throughout is slapstick, predictable and unconvincing. However, in the second half reasons for bizarre behaviour emerge and I am reminded that, DNA aside, environment and the past shapes everything and does indeed hold people captive.

By the end I had a tear in my eye which means that Torben Betts, the playwright, achieved his objective of delivering an “emotional punch.” It is a great shame that his characters lacked depth and complexity. I think the play has a great deal of potential and it was well acted but for me, the script let it down. Ideas overflowed and I enjoyed the mental stimulation but sadly, I never cared enough about the couples to truly suspend belief.

*** Three stars


Nell Gwynn

Nell Gwynn is set in 1660’s London in Dury Lane during the reign of Charles II. Nell acted by Laura Pitt-Pulford is vivacious and bawdy with a love of life and a tendency to get her own way. A lowly orange seller and former prostitute, she interjects during a play and becomes the first woman on the stage. A series of jokes ensue about the physical merits of women on stage, primarily their “tits.” Nell dazzles theatre company and audience alike but eventually catches the eye of the King.

Charles II has great presence and plays Nell skilfully at her own game to win her affection. At first her confidence wavers as she encounters new worlds but in the second half, Nell grows into her royal position citing her many “responsibilities” when Sister Rose complains she never visits. She even sees off a French suitor from the aristocracy who threatens Nell’s proximity to the King. It is poignant that Nell’s association with the King undermines her ability to be judged on her merits as an actress.

Director Christopher Luscombe should be congratulated for casting. Esh Alladi played Edward Kynaston with great humour. Clad in a bra, he was typically the heroine and takes exception when Nell usurps his role. Full of hyperbole and theatrics, he steals the show on several occasions, even when describing an oak door. Actors will be actors. Another cameo part was played by Nell’s Old Ma Gwynn who ran the brothel in Cheapside. She vists Nell, berating her and stealing the silver at the same time. However, I think it is Mossie Smith who brings the house down as dresser Nancy when promoted to an actress towards the end of the play only to admit: “I hate acting!”

This comedy sparkles with wit and colour throughout and the songs add another dimension. All the instruments are contemporary and the musicians accomplished. The theatre company has most of the best lines but Arlington, the courtier, manages to inject a little menace towards the end, although Nell gets her revenge.

Four stars ****


Present Laughter

Present Laughter fizzles with witty dialogue from the outset. It is one of Noel Coward’s most natural plays: full of humour, with characters you care for, and very few villains. The upper-class setting is just that, and the characters are genuine; although a discriminating audience may recognise some well-known traits, no-one is stereotyped or typecast. And therein lies the success of this production, masterfully executed by a convincing cast.

In the world of the play, Gary Essendine is an accomplished and renowned actor – but he’s bossed around by his staff and his ex-wife, and has to navigate an array of young fans (who are mostly, but not all, female). He is generally blamed for most of his misfortune, while his successes are taken for granted rather than applauded. Don’t feel sorry for him, though; for Gary, life is a play and he enjoys being centre stage, drawing the audience in to his domestic bliss. He’s accused of “always acting”, particularly when he’s not doing what his associates want – and yes, he exploits this.

Gary is nicely characterised by actor Samuel West, who is often found in Shakespearean roles but here shows his range. His Gary is self-possessed and able to laugh at himself, but still vulnerable to the storms of life and the isolation of fame. Liz Essendine, acted by Rebecca Johnson, would like to think she pulls the strings, but actually it is Gary who maintains the group’s confidences and has the discretion to keep them to himself. He is arrogant, declaring; “Everyone worships me, how nauseating!” Yet he revels in it – and so does the audience.

The set is impressive, but natural and homely: Gary Essendine’s lounge. Actors make the characters their own and Phyllis Logan, best known as Mrs Hughes in Downton Abbey, steals some of the best lines, as she organises Mr Essendine’s life and has the thankless task of being his gatekeeper. Patrick Walshe McBride also deserves credit for a bold performance as aspiring playwright Roland, who criticises Gary’s choice of plays as frivolous and then retorts: “I love it when you are angry!” As the line illustrates, Gary cannot win, and yet he is totally in command.

It’s a moment of sheer brilliance too when the only villain of the piece to have some standing within the group is branded a “wretched prostitute” by an innocent young suitor, who knows nothing of her intrigue and fails to see the ironic similarities in their situation. Overall, then, this play is a delight, a glittering script brilliantly executed. In the best tradition of Noel Coward, it is light on action but sparkling with dialogue. Expect to be entertained.

**** Four stars



Footloose is about a young person’s desire to celebrate life following a tragedy in small town America.

Footloose is primarily about young people wanting to celebrate life. Based on the original film produced in 1984, the show opens with the actors playing instruments, singing and dancing – an energetic musical extravaganza. Accomplished actors and detailed direction from Racky Plews make the complex choreography look effortless.

A boy from Chicago, Ren McCormack, arrives in the small town of Bomont with his mother Ethel, after his father walks out on them. An excellent, versatile set captures the five different locations around Bomont where the action takes place. At first people distrust Ren, a streetwise stranger, who is direct and forgets to charm the adults. Teachers often blame him unfairly, but Ren treats them with spirited disregard and wins over his classmates.

Characterisation is good throughout. Ariel, the daughter of Reverend Shaw Moore, feels trapped in Bomont under the constant watchful glare of her father. The church casts a large shadow over the town, and the Reverend was instrumental in passing a law against dancing following an earlier tragedy.

Reverend Moore’s difficulty in relating to his teenage daughter is masterfully captured – he has a good heart, but has lost touch with the confusing world of adolescence – while his wife Vi is wise and humane, seeking to understand not judge. (Vi, incidentally, is played by Maureen Nolan, of the legendary Nolan Sisters, one of Europe’s first girl bands.) Ren’s mother is equally supportive of her son; both mothers recognise the need to give teenagers wings as well as roots. The young people are “pumped up with promise and wrestling with rage.”

Above all, Ren, acted by Luke Baker, epitomises the vitality and vibrancy of youth. He challenges Ariel to see that “running away will never make you free.” He may be hyperactive, but he is also a careful operator, who takes time to get to know his peers and never wavers in wanting to live life to the full today instead of dreaming of a better tomorrow. It is Ren, encouraged by his mother, who risks vulnerability with the Reverend and thereby uncovers the solution to the conflict between young and old.

While some of Ariel’s friends lack depth, the interaction between Willard (acted by Gareth Gates) and Rusty provides humour throughout the show. Willard, often tongue-tied, grows in confidence because of his friendship with Ren, and enjoys his moment of glory in his shorts.

My overall impression is that the show makes me glad to be alive. Life is a gift; let’s revel in it.

**** Four Stars


It is Brighton Festival this May 2016 and I am reviewing plays for Fringe Guru.

Festival plays include Torn Apart.

Living between lies

The Communist Threat (four stars)

Noiseless and Patient

Read my review of Blackbird here reproduced in full below.


Blackbird is a controversial play, that exposes a cocktail of emotions – triggered when Una confronts the much older Ray, 15 years after he abandoned her at the age of 12 in a seaside hotel room.  As the story unfolds, we hear about the aftermath of this illicit liaison. Ray was imprisoned for having sex with a minor; Una had to remain in the community where they both lived, facing the everyday disapproval of friends, their families and neighbours. The bad news spread like a forest fire, however much her parents tried to protect her.

Throughout their charged encounter, Una is filled with questions. She is angry, humiliated, lonely, confused and entranced in turn. Ray may have served his sentence, but has he really understood how it feels to be sexually abused as a child, and the legacy most victims carry into adulthood? He has felt the full force of condemnation from society, but was there opportunity for rehabilitation? Did the authorities believe he could reform? Do we believe it?

And Una’s character, for me, is even more complex and interesting, stealing the show and leaving me deeply uncomfortable. Her 12-year-old self was still drawing her back, pushing her to transact with Ray as she had in the past. At one point she asks Ray: “Why did you leave me in the hotel?” and there is a sense that this is the question that has dominated her life. I expected guilt, shame and self-blame, misplaced emotions which survivors commonly battle – I am not sure we witnessed these.

The play lost some pace in the second half, though this does at least offer a little respite before an eruption of even deeper, more highly charged emotion. Dialogue and confrontation move on from that lull inexorably towards a chilling conclusion.

Lucy Laing and Martin Hobbs offer us a confident and compelling performance, with Annabelle Hollingdale in support. There is very little set to speak of, but the sparse backdrop, scant props and small stage only heighten the intensity – and at times the irony – of this drama.

I would recommend Blackbird as a thought-provoking piece of theatre, well-executed and raising many questions. From a feminist perspective, it’s disconcerting, but David Harrower’s play is well worth seeing – because it challenges stereotypes, and explores the difficulty of unravelling complex, heartfelt emotion. There is a reason why people say the opposite of love isn’t hate, but indifference.


And the review of Rosie Wilby here.



Ida unpacked by Rebecca Lenckiewicz


Screenwriter and playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz has written poignantly of clashing cultures between a worldly communist judge and a catholic Jewish nun in the film Ida, set in early 1960s Poland.  She co-wrote the screenplay, which won an Oscar for best foreign film earlier this year, with director Pawel Pawlikowski.

Ms Lenkiewicz, aged 46, is open about being a table dancer fleetingly in her youth and that episode inspired her first play, ‘SOHO: A Tale of Table Dancers.’  She was an actress for the Royal Shakespeare Company when the debut play was performed and she acted for the Royal National Theatre.  This acting experience gave her the necessary insight into writing dialogue, allowing actors the space they need to develop their characters.

SOHO: A Tale of Table Dancers was part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s fringe festival and won a fringe first award at the Edinburgh Festival.

Her Naked Skin about suffrage was the first original play written by a living woman to be performed on the main Olivier stage at the Royal National Theatre in 2008.  The honour was surpassed only by Ida’s success.


Ida charts the journey of novice Anna with her Aunt Wanda, who tells Anna that she is Jewish and her name is Ida Lebenstein.  Together they return to the family farm to discover how her relatives died and where they are buried.  This is a trip that hard-nosed judge Wanda, previously a distinguished state prosecutor, has avoided for most of her adult life.


The farmers who hid the Lebensteins, later killed them, either out of fear or greed before taking the property.  A complex crime that underlines the good and evil of Nazi occupied Poland and the horrific dilemmas constraining people, distorting their motives and actions.

Ida juxtaposes the emptiness of modern, cosmopolitan life, peppered with chance encounters in hotels and the creaking, deafening silence of the convent.  Modern life is seen in the film as a constant running away, alcohol fuelled oblivion and transient sham intimacy.  Cloistered at the convent there is only oneself and God, no escape, limited human interaction and hard work.

The camera is completely still for all but two scenes of this black and white masterpiece.  Wanda and Ida are often still, looking at each other, trying to bridge the gulf between their contrasting worlds.

Only fragments of a soundtrack exist and tinny, jarring music in the car during this very personal odyssey and lighter moments when a hitch-hiking saxophonist, Lis, playing John Coltrane, woos Ida.

Lis helps Ida experience and understand that she is sacrificing sexual intimacy and family life in taking religious orders at the convent.  Ida has never lived anywhere else because Wanda felt unable and unwilling to shoulder the responsibility of bringing up her sister’s child.

Lis epitomises a new Poland, at peace, joyful and more prosperous but the birds beckon Ida back from life as we know it to the safety of her convent, sparse, silent yet familiar, perhaps virtuous.

There are many empty scenes but no clear value judgements about secular society in 1960s Poland or religious life.   The story unfolds with little commentary to direct the viewer and therein lies its power.  The crimes are complex and opaque.

Wanda’s layers of grief and anger are observed but not explained.  Ida’s experience of life is narrow and she remains an enigma.  Neither life is promising, mirroring the sparse, monochrome, empty landscapes of a battered, war torn land, hiding guilty secrets and heinous crimes.

Ida is not without controversy: 40,000 people have signed a petition protesting about the film’s failure to mention Germany’s occupation of Poland.

The trailer is available to view here: Trailer of Ida

Interview with Rebecca Lenkiewicz

I started by asking Ms Lenkiewicz if she realised that Ida was a potential Oscar winner?

She said: “I had no idea that Ida would win an Oscar. We were concerned from the start whether there would be much of an audience for it. I was pleasantly amazed by the successes it had.”

Rebecca Lenckiewicz holding the Oscar for best foreign film: Ida
Rebecca Lenckiewicz holding the Oscar for best foreign film: Ida

How did you come up with the characters?

“Pawel Pawlikowski sent me a script and the characters were already there, Wanda and Ida. But we honed the women and changed and shifted them for a year on and off to get them right. Wanda, the aunt, was an amalgam of women he had known and heard of whilst Ida was a fictitious character as he was very keen to investigate someone who had complete faith.”

How long did it take to write and did the script change a lot during the filming process?  Were you involved in this?

“There was already a script when I started on the process but by the end there was practically nothing left of that original script. The rewriting happened over a year and a half very on and off. Then Pawel started filming and again there were big shifts. A lot of cuts to the script and some changes and additions. I wasn’t involved with the filming at all but answered some emails about story problems.”

How did screenwriting compare with writing a play?

“Screenwriting was a very different process. I was co-writing with Pawel so the writing was a constant dialogue. The sharing of ideas was great and the research into the project together was very joyful. Playwriting is a much more solitary activity. The joy is there in a different way but both processes are fascinating.”

Do you see yourself focusing on playwriting or screenwriting or both in the future?

“I’m rehearsing two new plays at the moment and they have incredible highs and some lows. As does screenwriting. I would imagine I’ll write more films than plays for a while.”

What did you enjoy most about the writing / production process of Ida?

“I enjoyed the initial stages of Ida most just getting under the skin of the characters and meeting with Pawel where we were being forensic about the script and the world of it.”

How did it feel watching the film for the first time and where were you when you first saw Ida?

“I first watched it on the television at Eric Abraham’s (the producer’s) house. It was very strange and wonderful watching it. The script had changed slightly and I was seeing the cast for the first time. I was nervous about that but felt very quickly euphoric at the beauty of the film.”

Ms Lenkiewicz is currently reworking the script of ‘The Invisible’ which will be performed next month at the Bush theatre.  It is based on real interviews with people affected by the recent cuts to legal aid funding. It explores the impact of these on justice for the poorest in society.

She is also casting ‘Jane Wenham: the Witch of Walkern.’  The character Jane Wenham is blamed for a death in Walkern in 1712 and charged with witchcraft, leaving the village divided about her fate.



Watching Amy Winehouse reminds me of Lily Oakes.  She is a rare white singer who can sing soul and I miss it.  She is versatile if troubled.



‘Recreating Memory’ at Hastings Art Forum in St Leonards on Sea

Do not miss the arresting images in the ‘recreating memory’ art exhibition at Hastings Art forum in St Leonards on the Sea.  There are 15 artists exhibiting their works, masterfully curated by Sally Meakins.  The artists reflect on the conflict between hope and loss in life.

The centrepiece is a digital painting called ‘Arrival’ by Hong Dam from Hove which depicts a young child fleeing her homeland through wrought iron gates and embarking on a long journey towards the light at the end of the tunnel.   The colour is akin to kerosene oil.

Hong Dam paints charts the contrasts between the industrialisation of the West and the lush, purity of nature in Vietnam beautifully.  However, Hong knows that since she left as a refugee, initially for China on a junk aged 17, Vietnam has also been developed and the land of her childhood no longer exists.

In stark contrast to the Vietnam of Hong’s childhood, the work of Sally Meakins, depicts the pristine sterility of the West: perfect, empty, soulless towns.

Clare Tyler creates collages to immortalise politics, sport and film.  Clare’s range is demonstrated by another set of miniature paintings about voices and the torment of sleepless nights.  Margaritta Dorrity, aged 96, is the eldest, versatile exhibitor moving with ease from politics in this exhibition to celebrating the natural world.

Jo Welsh charts her own journey of loss with five signs, including a cracked wishbone.  Brian Rybolt depicts decaying grandeur with a forensic eye.  Christine Jordan paints seemingly surreal faces which are skeletal with woven foliage.

Caroline Sax presented Cargo, Jo Welsh crafted a white glove from a bygone age, Alice Maylam’s paintings were darker, ‘in the forest.’  Wendy Philips makes intricate jewellery and Kathleen Dawson produced a unique blue collage.  Nigel Oxley provides light relief with ‘Women on the Beach’ and Nick Weeks composed a sound piece.

The common theme running through the exhibition is loss and the overriding question is: where do I belong?

Kathleen Fox, another refugee, exhibited some fragments from her own story, ‘Good Enough to Eat.’  Kathleen’s family left South Africa for Prague in 1987, her child had all his belongings in a pre-school case.  The family were tragically deported to Terezin Prisoner of War camp: ‘the child’s suitcase is a reference to the forced abandonment of all that’s known and loved, to being in transit, to the poignancy of a child’s vulnerable journey into an unknown, possibly violent space.’

This thought provoking exhibition must not be missed.  It runs at the Hastings Art Forum, 36 Marina in St Leonards on Sea, TN38 0BU until 12th August.


Notes from the Great Escape Music Festival: 8th – 10th May 2014

Amber Run at Concorde 2: Great depth and blend of voices, three singers, the lead had depth and soul.  Mix of rock and folk music.  Their music speaks of experience without introduction.  From Nottingham.  Timeless music crosses genres to give it wide appeal.  They may feel the need to ‘vamp up the rock’ but they should have courage to true be to themselves, sing from the heart and let the full range of their voices be heard.

Rae Morris: Pretty, accomplished, earned respect but did not have the presence of Amber Run (in my opinion.)  I hope she survives the rigours and temptations of a career in music.  There is something vulnerable about her that endears and unsettles.  Do I underestimate her?  Probably… one to watch.

Jenn Grant: played at the Spiegelpub (bad venue, people talking.)  Her voice could have had more power.

Missed Paul Thomas Saunders

Courteney Barnett: abrasive voice, I left after two tracks.

Mighty Oaks: This was my bonus band.  Acoustic folk, all three guitarists sing, their melodies are catching and poignant.  Their voices have a good range.  International group: Somerset lad, drummer is German, Italian on guitar, lead singer from Seattle.  Where did they meet?

Alice Bowman: Did not live up to expectations.  She introduced a haunting echo to her music which detracted from the purity of her voice.  Check out her earlier music: it is much better.


Tracks: stop the world, I want to get off…

Does no one in Brighton ever fancy heading deep into the outback?  I do… far from the madding crowd, silence, time to hear myself think, to breathe, to wonder in the magnificence of nature, to lose myself in its grandeur, to remember my insignificance and revel in it.

The film Tracks is a must see, now showing at Duke’s in Komedia, starring Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson.  It charts the journey of a young woman, Robyn, who set off to walk to the ocean on the west coast in Australia across 2000 miles of desert from Alice Springs.

Robyn was the daughter of a man who wandered through Africa in his youth.  She had her dog and camels for company.  The kindest man she met was an Afghan who honoured his agreement and gave her some camels as a payment in kind for hard labour.  Occasional visits from a photographer friend both eased and marred the isolation.    She camped under the stars, lost in her thoughts and the haunting emptiness of her endeavour.  There was deep peace and nightmares, devastating exhaustion and the unexpected kindness of strangers.  Her desire was to leave ‘civilisation’ behind.

She met kindly Aborigines who warmed to this mad ‘camel woman’ experiencing a bond with the land not often found among white people.  Language was no barrier.  There were echoes both of Life of Pi as she found a way to frighten rather than shoot wild camels and Dances with Wolves with the big skies, harsh landscape and crossing of cultures.  Robyn Davidson walked on and walked alone.

This film is not sentimental or existential, it is simply a journey that we are ironically invited to watch by the camera shy, solitary, spirited Robyn.  If you miss the film, Robyn has written a book charting her voyage.  An invitation to get to know a little more about this restless, beautiful and magnetic spirit.

We may have to make do in Sussex with the Downs or an empty beach but there is a purity in nature that I often strain to grasp.  No one to impress, no need for a mask to maintain a certain image.  There is water, birdsong and pastures to feed the soul as summer approaches… and there is films!



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