Noughts and Crosses – review

Pilot Theatre, in co-production with Belgrade Theatre Coventry, Derby Theatre, Mercury theatre Colchester, and York Theatre Royal presents
Noughts and Crosses
by Malorie Blackman
Adapted by Sabrina Mahfouz
Directed by Esther Richardson
At Derby Theatre, 1 – 16 February 2019


Plans by Pilot Theatre to stage an adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s awardwinning young adult novel, Noughts and Crosses, began at the end of 2016, a year when a young mother and MP, Jo Cox, was murdered by a far-right activist and the EU referendum result a few weeks later led to disturbing rises in racist attacks throughout the country.

Sabrina Mahfouz has done an impressive job adapting Blackman’s young adult novel for this co-production between Derby Theatre, Belgrade Theatre Coventry, Mercury Theatre Colchester and York Theatre Royal. First published in 2001, the novel took the experiences of the black civil rights movement and apartheid in South Africa as its reference points to create an alternate world where African settlers enslaved Europeans. Unfortunately, and in terms of theatre holding a mirror to society, the news on a daily basis continues to make racial injustice a depressingly relevant production.

Noughts have white skin, are the ‘lower class’ and serve the ruling class of the Crosses, of dark skin. Callum (Billy Harris) is a Nought (or, its urban dictionary equivalent, a ‘blanker’), and a childhood friend of Sephy (Heather Agyepong), a Cross who just happens to be the younger daughter of the Home Secretary Kamal Hadley (Chris Jack). Living in a regime of segregation and capital punishment, Sephy and Callum fall in love but in this kind of environment, actions have brutal and tragic consequences.

Angry with their situation, Callum’s brother Jude (Jack Condon) and his father Ryan (Daniel Copeland) get involved with the Liberation Militia.  Meggie (Lisa Howard), Callum’s mother, is torn apart by her family’s actions. Sephy’s mother Jasmine (Doreene Blackstock) has her own issues with her husband and the bottle; Sephy’s sister Minerva (Kimisha Lewis) despairs of her sister’s apparently reckless behaviour.

Mahfouz tackles the episodic, diary style of the novel well and with Esther Richardson’s direction, the pace moves fast, although this does occasionally mean there is little time to understand some of the characters’ motivations for their actions, particularly Callum’s ‘conversion’ to the Liberation Militia. Mahfouz’s poetic style works well with Callum and Sephy’s occasional monologues, and Agyepong carries the emotional weight of the play with skill and conviction.

With Simon Kenny’s stark red and black design, there is a dark, chilling dystopian edge, evocative of the mood of 1984 and look of The Handmaid’s Tale. This is a dysfunctional community where violence and resentment often erupt. Space and constriction are reflected in the design – Noughts are cramped, hemmed in by their lack of opportunity. Crosses sprawl across the stage, displaying the trappings of wealth and power. Kenny’s use of TV screens embedded in the set design allow news reports and CCTV footage to assist the storytelling, along with Joshua Drualus Pharo’s sharp lighting design.

Gripping and compelling, this production should serve as a wake-up call to us all.

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The Unreturning – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Frantic Assembly and Pilot Theatre present
The Unreturning
by Anna Jourdan
Directed by Neil Bettles
Curve Theatre, Leicester 12 – 16 February 2019

What does home mean to you? In times of conflict and war, thoughts often turn back to home, its comfort and solace, and this is the premise for The Unreturning, the co-production between Frantic Assembly and Theatre Royal Plymouth now nearing the end of its UK tour.

The Unreturning pulses with a powerful energy, a perfect storm of stunning design (Andrzej Goulding), sound (Pete Makin) and lighting (Zoe Spurr) combined with absorbing performances from the four-strong cast, all working in, around and on top of an imposing metal container revolving centre-stage.

“We should slip seamlessly between scenes with pace”, say the stage directions and writer Anna Jordan, director Neil Bettles, the cast and company certainly execute this to great effect, literally and figuratively poetry in motion.

Jordan uses free verse and a language of gritty realism to weave together separate stories of three young men who are on their way back home to Scarborough. In 1918, a shell-shocked George (Jared Garfield) returns to his young wife, Rose. In 2013, Frankie (Joe Layton) arrives back from Camp Bastion under a cloud and into a media storm following an attack on an Afghan boy. We look forward to 2026 where Nat (Jonnie Riordan) leaves a Norwegian refugee camp to come back to a Britain broken by civil war to search for his brother.

Kieton Saunders-Browne plays Finn, Nat’s brother, although all the cast double effectively—special mention to Layton who switches in a moment from rough, tough Frankie to a heartfelt portrayal of Rose, George’s shy young wife desperate to help her damaged husband. The physicality of their scenes and of George’s recollections of his life at the Front are brutal in their emotional kick.

These are the experiences and stories of young men; they are tough, physical and highlight their burdens of guilt and expectation in times of conflict. When you are away, home is a place of safety and security and provides the impetus to keep going, but will it be the same when you go back? Jordan captures the sensuality of the characters’ recollections: leaning into the wind, the salt on their tongue from the sea air, the smell of toast and fried eggs cooking.

Frantic Assembly is studied as part of the national curriculum and the audience for this performance certainly reflected the GCSE and A level age group. It is to Frantic Assembly’s credit also that the four skilled actors in this production are alumni of the company’s Ignition scheme, which over the last 10 years has given theatrical experience and opportunities to over 600 young men from a variety of backgrounds. This scheme is now being extended to include young women, and I wonder how many in the audience will have been inspired to consider a career in theatre as a result of this impressive production.

These are pertinent stories covering some familiar themes, but it is how they are performed which lifts this piece above the norm. Production values are high and I am tempted to say performed with military precision, yet that doesn’t do justice to its fluidity, flexibility, almost shapeshifting.

Heartfelt, raw, and with an ending which felt surprisingly hopeful, this is an insightful examination into the physical and emotional casualties of conflict.

Images by Tristram Kenton

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Our Lady of Kibeho – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Royal and Derngate presents
Our Lady of Kibeho
by Katori Hall
directed by James Dacre
Royal and Derngate, Northampton
12 January – 2 February

A visit by writer Katori Hall to Rwanda in 2009 inspired this play, now receiving its UK première and reuniting Hall with director James Dacre after their 2009 collaboration with The Mountaintop at Theatre503.

Whilst at Kibeho College, Hall heard the story of three female students who, in 1981, claimed they had visitations from the Virgin Mary, the “mother of the word” as she was known to them. Over several years, the girls experienced a range of visions and experiences, attracting the attention of surrounding villages, radio stations and a visit from a Vatican emissary.

Their visions came to an end in 1989 with terrible premonitions of apocalyptic violence if the mother of the word’s warnings weren’t heeded. We know, of course, that five years after this, tensions between the Hutu and minority Tutsi escalated, leading to horrific genocide.

The dry, bright heat and dust of Africa is instantly conveyed with Jonathan Fensom’s evocative design; all the action is set in and around the school yet we still get a sense of Africa’s vast, rich landscape. Charles Balfour’s lighting perfectly captures the changing timeframes and mood, underscored by composer Orlando Gough’s joyful a cappella harmonies (sung in Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s language), and eerie accompaniments.

An ominous note is struck at the start; a storm breaks as Alphonsine (Gabrielle Brooks) prepares to take punishment from a rather reluctant Father Tuyishime (Ery Nzaramba), overseen with eager encouragement from Sister Angelique (Michelle Asante), as Alphonsine’s vision is thought to be blasphemous. It is perhaps the very different nature of the three affected girls which makes this whole story somehow more credible: Alphonsine, the first to have visions and picked on as a Tutsi, next the devout Anathalie (Yasmin Mwanza) and finally sceptical, streetwise Marie-Clare (Pepter Lunkuse). As this odd trinity, the actors are compelling and convincing and, together, divine.

The three key adults in the girls’ lives provide a realistic look at human frailties, with Father Tuyishime’s growing concern for the girls, the brusque, dismissive manner of Sister Angelique and Leo Wringer’s opportunistic Bishop Gahamanyi all jostling for control of this emotionally-charged situation. Arriving from Rome, Father Flavia (Michael Mears) is officious and sceptical and Mears charts his subsequent conversion with skill.

Dacre paces the piece well, particularly the final vision, as joy turns to despair and horror. Avoiding stereotype, Hall reveals the influential role of the church in the community, as well as a worrying glimpse of the conflicts which have been simmering over previous decades. No explanations are given for how and why the visitations were with these three girls in a remote village in Southwestern Rwanda and, whilst not a satisfying ending in terms of providing an update or further context, it is no bad thing to leave a performance wanting to find out more about such an intriguing and tragic event.

Images by Manuel Harlon



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Treasure Island – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Leicester Haymarket Theatre, Debbie Hicks and Matthew Forbes present
Treasure Island
Adapted by Sandi Toksvig from the book by Robert Louis Stevenson
Music by David Perkins, lyrics by Jenifer Toksvig
Directed by Matthew Forbes
Haymarket Theatre, Leicester to 6 January 2019

Give thanks, for a new theatre is born (again). Leicester’s Haymarket Theatre was an iconic presence in the city from the early 1970s until its closure in 2007, with many a now-famous actor treading its boards over the years.

Having gone dark and fallen into disrepair, it is very welcome and admirable that, against all the current economic odds, the Haymarket has now re-opened thanks to a consortium of individuals from the city’s arts community. Treasure Island’s writer/adaptor Sandi Toksvig nicely references this, as well as many other Leicester-related phenomena, in this first in-house production at the venue.

053_Treasure Island_Pamela Raith PhotographyToksvig, along with director Matthew Forbes, delivers a rather quirky love-child with this production, between a The Play That Goes Wrong style of “professionals acting as amateurs”, and a meta-theatrical panto. Throw in puppetry, numerous breakings of the fourth wall, audience participation and rousing songs and shanties and you have an enjoyable family production, perfect for Christmas (or indeed any time of year).

Adhering loosely to the plot of Stevenson’s original story, the actors open up the stage, gather props, assign roles and in true panto style, our hero Jim Hawkins is cast across gender (Kat Engall). Given a treasure map, Jim sets sail to find said treasure, aided and abetted (and antagonised) by Captain Smollett, Long John Silver, a wise-cracking parrot et al, as well as some updated characters—Squire De Montfort, for example.

All the cast dance, sing, work puppets or play instruments with great aplomb and infectious enthusiasm and you can’t help getting caught up in the jollity. In a genius move, local hero Gary Lineker also makes an amusing appearance on video.

The songs are great fun and help drive the action forward, with David Perkins’s infectious melodies working a treat with Jenifer Toksvig’s clear and apposite lyrics (and yes, she is Sandi’s songwriting sister).

081_Treasure Island_Pamela Raith PhotographyRebecca Brower’s set design does a lot with a little, and the sequence where the cast construct a ship from wooden frames and scaffolding to a rousing shanty is impressive. Forbes’s long history of working on War Horse is also evident with great puppetry by several members of the cast, particularly the hilarious Ben Gun character.

Some of the humour is a bit too knowing and clever at times and the overtly political gags don’t always work; however these are minor quibbles.

Puns and pirate-high jinks abound (and carry on in the entertaining programme), with much for children and adults alike to enjoy; what a wonderful way to mark the Haymarket’s resurrection, and the return of a Leicester treasure.

Images by Pamela Raith Photography

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White Christmas – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Curve in association with Jamie Wilson presents
White Christmas
Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by David Ives and Paul Blake
Based on the Paramount Pictures film by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank
Directed by Nikolai Foster
Curve Theatre, Leicester to 13 January 2019

The 1954 film White Christmas adorns the TV schedule as regularly as, um, Christmas with Bing Crosby’s crooning of the titular song ringing out across the nation’s retailers from November onwards.

Premièring in 2000, this stage version of the much-loved film should be a sure-fire Christmas show winner for Curve you’d think, and ticket sales certainly reflect this with many performances sold out, or close to, over the run.

A few gripping minutes as the show opens cover America’s entry into the Second World War in 1941. Then to 1944, where army buddies Bob Wallace (Danny Mac) and Phil Davis (Dan Burton) perform a downbeat revue for fellow soldiers and their adored General Henry Waverly (Garry Robson).

Hot-foot it to Christmas, 1954. Bob and Phil are now a successful double act and as they prepare to travel to Florida, they encounter performers (and sisters) Judy and Betty Haynes who are travelling to Vermont. Despite Phil’s appalling chat-up lines, he and Judy hit it off immediately and plans are changed as Phil follows his womanising ways. Bob and Betty? More of a slow burn but we all know where this is going…

It just so happens Judy (Monique Young) and Betty’s (Emma Williams) performing gig is at a venue run by now-retired General Waverly. Things ain’t going so well, despite the best efforts of his super-efficient concierge Martha Watson (a richly-voiced Wendy Mae Brown), and the spirit of giving at Christmas comes to the fore as Phil and Bob gather cast and crew for a special show to save the day. A few tiffs and misunderstandings along the way add a dusting of drama (including the nagging threat of global warming as Vermont experiences an unusual heatwave preventing the dreamed-for white Christmas).

The four main stars gel well; little to work with character-wise, this is more than made up for with consummate vocal and dance performances. Danny Mac turns on his seemingly effortless charm as initially grumpy Bob, displaying a full set of Hollywood matinée idol attributes, as does co-star Dan Burton. Young and Williams charm as the two sisters, and everyone seems to be having a swell time.

Most of the humour, gentle as it is, falls to Wendy Mae Brown who brings much-needed sass and spike to the sugary sentiment, and Siôn Tudor Owen, doubling as Ezekiel Foster and Snoring Man, raises the comedic bar from, it has to be said, a pretty unchallenging level.

Production values are high, and many of director Nikolai Foster’s collaborators on Scrooge the Musical (last year’s festive show) return to wash away the grime of Victorian London for lashings of Hollywood glamour. Great work again from Michael Taylor (set design), and Mark Henderson and Tom Marshall (lighting and sound design respectively). Stephen Mear’s choreography embraces the influences of the period, with thrilling tap routines to “I Love My Piano”, and the Fosse-esque “Blue Skies”. In his first Curve production, Diego Pitarch’s glitzy costumes are gorgeously evocative of the era.

Aside from the majesty of Irving Berlin’s songwriting and a fondness for the traditional Christmases we remember (or at least, think we do), this is a plot-lite, music-rich show which some might find safe and cheesy and as fake as the snow which marks the climax of the show. I say bah humbug to that though. Enjoy it for what it is: classic songs, crisp and intricate choreography wrapped up with style and warmth.

Images by Catherine Ashmore

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The Mountaintop – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Reading Rep Desara and Nuffield Southampton Theatres present
The Mountaintop
by Katori Hall
directed by Roy Alexander Weise
Curve Theatre, Leicester 13 – 17 November 2018

It is 3 April 1968, the night before Dr Martin Luther King Jnr’s assassination. Dr King (Gbolahan Obisesan) arrives back at his regular room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel, Memphis having just delivered his famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech in support of striking sanitation workers. He is tired, lonely, and debilitated by a cold. Room service maid Camae (Rochelle Rose) brings him his holy trinity of coffee, cigarettes and some casual flirtation. As the night develops and their conversations deepen, King is forced to confront his hopes and fears for himself, his family, and the world, always aware of violent threats directed towards him and his community, as well as the weight of his reputation.

Although not quite a warts ’n’ all exposé of the iconic Dr King, Kotari Hall’s play takes his quote of “I am a man, I am just a man” to show that yes, he is rightly revered as a great pioneer of civil rights, but also baggage carrier of the doubts and contradictions of any “normal” human—including smelly feet.

Surprisingly, this play initially struggled to open in America, premièring instead in the UK at Theatre503 in 2009, transferring to the West End in 2010 and receiving the Olivier Award for Best New Play that same year. A success on Broadway in 2011, a revival in 2016 directed by JMK Award winner Roy Alexander Weise, it is now midway through a UK tour, again under Weise’s direction.

Weise evokes a dream-like feel with this neat two-hander, as twists and reveals pepper the piece throughout. At around one hour forty minutes and no interval, this play needs to hold our attention. This is achieved, save for a faltering section as the dust settles on a bizarre comic interlude around two-thirds of the way through (I am trying to avoid several spoilers here!). Thoughtful lighting by Lizzie Powell adds to the bewitching feel, and Rajha Shakiry’s sparse, period design enhances the mood.

Obisesan shows both the stature and infallibility of Dr King with grace and conviction, missing his wife but enjoying the sass and sparkle Camae brings to his room, along with his coffee. Rose commands the stage, loud and unsuffering of fools, but there’s a soothing edge to her spirited behaviour.

Although not normally a fan of a montage, in this case, Rose delivers a dynamic monologue as the play closes. Images of key points in the civil rights movement and US life and politics since King’s assassination are her backdrop, with emotional reminders that “the baton passes on”.

Each stage in The Mountaintop’s performing life seems to punctuate where America is at: a time of new hope, born at the start of Obama’s presidency. In 2016, #BlackLivesMatter is a significant movement, and another election looms. And here we are in 2018, difficulties with a very different President, yet a record number of black women elected to Congress. It feels that for every positive step forward with the baton, there are baton drops and divisive steps back.

Whilst The Mountaintop focuses on one man and one event, now over 50 years ago, this play will and should always serve as a mirror reflecting how America moves on with its troubled relationship with racism and civil rights. A great vehicle for ongoing discussion post-performance, not only about the production itself but the wider political context.

Images by Helen Murray

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Sensory time travel (and a recipe for challah)

It’s funny how a taste, a scent, a snatch of a song chorus can carry you back in time to a specific point in your life, often childhood. Not always a good place of course, however, I like to be positive so I’m going for happy memories here.

I saw Kindertransport at Nottingham Playhouse recently, a production both uplifting and heartbreaking with Diane Samuels’ depiction of German Jewish children sent off alone into a perilous world before the outbreak of World War II as their best chance of survival. The play considers how these momentous events affected the child, Eva, her mother who stayed in Germany, and Eva’s new ‘mother’ in England during and after the war. I found this such a difficult dilemma to contemplate, but those at the time had to take action. Love, identity and faith are also strong themes, leading on to recent discoveries in my own family.

My brother-in-law is researching our genealogy and recently updated us on his findings relating to my maternal grandmother, Nana (Eileen), and her family, the Bates.

Eileen Bates married Max Lewin, my grandfather, and converted to his Jewish faith (love and faith trumping the politics of the time). Max was born in London, his parents having fled Russia in the late 1800s. My memories of holidays in their Sussex home in the 1970s include trips to the kosher shop for exotic items such as curd cheese, borscht and challah, the sweet, brioche-like bread traditionally eaten on the Sabbath.

Nana (seated, centre) and her sisters

Nana’s brothers and sisters (a total of eight children) had a leaning towards show business, enjoying careers as dancers and music hall entertainers, a bare-back elephant rider in a circus, and a Hollywood B movie actress. More investigation is needed here, and sadly, these exciting careers never seemed to be something we discussed at family get-togethers. I have so many questions now.

However, for now, back to food. I’ve been making different types of bread recently, and in honour of my Jewish heritage, have had a go at challah. I tried this recipe by Joan Callaway; my second attempt was better (image from the first loaf). I made half the quantity stated (as this makes two large plaited loaves which, for a rich bread is hard going for just us). At the second making, I made the half quantity into two smaller plaits, one of which is now in the freezer. I found I needed a lot more flour as this is a sticky dough and a food mixer would have been welcome (as mentioned in a previous post, get this woman a Kitchen Aid!).  It also seemed to need a longer prove, about two hours.

Beaten egg painted on the loaf before baking gives a lovely, shiny conker-like shine. And when I tasted it, it’s heavy sweetness, I was back in the seemingly endless hot Sussex summers of the ’70s with my Nana and Grandpa. Lovely.


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