The Comedy About a Bank Robbery – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Kenny Wax and Stage Presence Ltd, in association with Birmingham Repertory Theatre present
The Comedy About a Bank Robbery
by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields
Curve Theatre, Leicester 

Bought to you by the team from The Play That Goes Wrong and Peter Pan Goes Wrong, the next in the franchise, The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, is nearing the end of its first UK tour, having opened to great success in the West End in 2016.

Branching out from the play-within-a-play-that-goes-wrong idea, the Mischief Theatre Production writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields pay homage to the movies of the ‘20s and ‘30s with Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy, along with a dash of Ealing comedy and large doses of 1950s thrillers. I also felt the menacing influence of Feathers McGraw from The Wrong Trousers during the thrilling diamond robbery scene.

Mitch (Liam Jeavons) breaks out from prison, accompanied by an eager-to-please prison guard Neil Cooper (David Coomber). Their mission: to rob Robin Freeboys’s (Damian Lynch) bank in Minneapolis and relieve him of the diamonds secured in the vault. Meanwhile, Freeboys’s daughter Caprice (Julia Frith) is managing multiple boyfriends and now has to add her boyfriend and ex-con Mitch into her scheming. And meanwhile again, she falls for Sam Monaghan (Seán Carey), a bit of a chancer and a pickpocket.

Add to this a further subplot of Sam’s mother Ruth (Ashley Tucker) wooing Officer Randal Shuck (Killian MacArdle) together with a mysterious Hungarian prince and it’s game on as far as ingredients for a heist.

The play is not without its tender moments, though, with the hapless bank clerk Warren Slax (Jon Trenchard) trying his best with Caprice and his cantankerous boss Freeboys.

Every inch of David Farley’s origami-like, multi-layered set is utilised, with much swooshing of doors, hiding in, under and over various objects.

This is cleverly written and brilliantly performed, with the cast’s slick physical comedy perfectly timed and hitting the ‘wow’ buttons. Musical interludes are nicely done, with Ashley Tucker and Jon Trenchard leading the a capella numbers.

The plot is ridiculously and enjoyably preposterous, with callbacks, running gags and every last possible drop of humour in all its forms squeezed out of the long, set pieces which suspend the pace. A case in point is the opening puns involving bank manager Robin Freeboys (Damian Lynch); the gags around his name—being wide open for misinterpretation—are tortuous and smack a little of filling material but we groan along with it.

Stand-out moments for me are George Hannigan (as Everyone Else) having a three-way fist fight with himself (as three characters) and Freeboys demonstrating the relative hitting qualities of a desk, box file and a stick against Slax’s head.

Silly but great fun and, as a comedy bank heist, it’s bang on the money.

Images by Robert Day

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The Girl on the Train – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Simon Friend,  Amblin Partners and Josh Andres present
The Girl on the Train
Based on the novel by Paula Hawkins and Dreamworks film  
adapted by Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel
directed by Anthony Banks
Curve Theatre, Leicester 4 – 9 March

Adapting a best-selling novel for the stage would seem a wise business move (Paula Hawkins’s 2015 novel has sold over 20 million copies worldwide and spawned a Hollywood film in 2016) and it was almost a full house on opening night forThe Girl on the Train, now in the early stages of a UK tour.

Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel’s adaptation premièred at the Leeds Playhouse in 2018, however, there is a new director (Anthony Banks) and cast for the touring production. A look at the writing would also have been advantageous though as the problems with The Girl on the Train rest heavily with the clunky dialogue and exposition dumps throughout. The intriguing opening scenes and a thrilling ending top and tail a frustrating couple of hours of repetitive and sometimes baffling exchanges and, surprisingly for a play billed as a psychological thriller, there is no real tension.

Rachel Watson (Samantha Womack) is a barely functioning alcoholic; she yearns for her past life married to her ex Tom (Adam Jackson-Smith), she yearns for the baby she can’t have and her life is a mess, as detailed in James Cotterill’s ingenious set (think Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” but transferred to the kitchen). To add to Rachel’s feelings of inadequacy, Tom is now married to Anna (Lowenna Melrose) and they have a baby.

Rachel spends her time watching the goings-on in an apartment block she views from a train window, fantasising about the seemingly perfect lives of Megan Hipwell (Kirsty Oswald) and her husband Scott (Oliver Farnworth). We meet Rachel as she swigs from a bottle, she has a mysterious cut to her head and no idea of where she was or what she was doing the night Megan mysteriously disappears from home.

Red herrings and a handful of twists and reveals combine with Rachel’s unreliable narrator status, but it is all just too implausible, particularly the scenes with the therapist Kamal Abdic (Matt Concannon taking on the role for this performance from Naeem Hayat who appears in the production image). DI Gaskill (John Dougall) investigates what has become a murder inquiry and has a nice line in dry humour, however, he becomes superfluous to proceedings as Rachel takes it on herself to continue solving the crime. Other characters occasionally lapse into similar humour, which does get the laughs but adds to the lack of consistency.

The cast do a good job with the material they are given and cope well with several interruptions (the persistent ring of an audience member’s mobile and the failure of a spotlight during a crucial moment as the actors continue in the dark until light is restored).

There’s plenty of snogging, shouting and wine-swigging, but the one-dimensional characters are hard to root for and the whole piece doesn’t say much about today’s commuter society.

You know when you get on a train, find your seat and settle down, you get ten minutes into your journey only for the train to stop inexplicably and you sit for ages with not much happening? That feeling.

Images by Manuel Harlan

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The Remains of the Day – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Royal and Derngate, Northampton and Out of Joint in association with Oxford Playhouse present
The Remains of the Day
by Kazoo Ishiguro
adapted by Barney Norris
directed by Christopher Haydon
Royal and Derngate, Northampton 23 February to 16 March

Barney Norris wisely kept in mind that theatre is a different medium to film and book in his adaptation of The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize-winning novel of 1989 (and Oscar-nominated film of 1993).

There is, however, something of a cinematic feel to Royal and Derngate and Out of Joint’s stylish co-production with Oxford Playhouse. Andrzej Goulding’s projection and Mark Howland’s lighting design framing split-stage tableaux are a clever complement to the storytelling taking place centre-stage.

Designer Lily Arnold uses verdigris and gilt panels which glide across the stage; this movement, combined with the choreography of the actors’ precise placement of tables, chairs and accoutrements of the 1930s and 1950s, gives a real sense of a world changing and turning around the rigid figure of Stevens (Stephen Boxer), butler to Lord Darlington (Miles Richardson). Sixteen gold room service bells line the top of the stage, further signifiers of a time past and a master-servant dynamic. Elena Peña’s sound design incorporates a chorus of bells, demanding attention, perhaps a chime of warning or to ring change.

With a loyal lifetime in service, Stevens is wedded to serving his master, never questioning decisions and putting his Lord’s needs before his own. Even as his father lies dying, Stevens puts vocation first, finding no other way to address him than in the third person. His feelings for housekeeper Miss Kenton (Niamh Cusack) are also buried deep and his realisation and regret as he finds out you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone is painful.

In act one, Norris’s focus is on Lord Darlington’s involvement in the appeasement movement in the build-up to World War Two, anti-Semitism and the effects of Darlington’s decisions on his household. With declarations by the “elite” of the 1930s, such as “public opinion affects nothing but the sale of newspapers”, and a Brexit-esque “the cause is the cause”, parallels can inevitably be drawn with current political events.

Boxer conveys Stevens’s idea of the dignity of his profession and the quoshing of his emotions comes across as cold, sometimes ruthless. Only in act two, as he meets Miss Kenton, now Mrs Benn, and twenty years or so after she left Darlington Hall, does he finally open up a little more. The cracks in his emotional composure are heartbreaking and beautifully portrayed. Cusack shows Kenton’s increasing frustration with Stevens as she tries to bring colour and fun to his life and understand his unquestioning loyalty to Darlington. Cusack and Boxer’s scenes together are powerful in their understatement, every pause and expression suggestive of so much more that they want to say.

The impressive cast also work with the complexities of doubling mid-scene and switch seamlessly between characters and the Britain of the late 1950s and 1930s.  Christopher Haydon’s direction delivers a fluid, well-paced production, although the moments of dramatic tension seem fleeting and unresolved. Miss Kenton’s confrontation to Stevens as he confirms he will dismiss two housemaids because they are Jewish is a powerful and crucial moment but it is over and dismissed too quickly. The slower pace as Stevens and Miss Kenton meet in their later years and finally discover how much they left unsaid is more emotionally satisfying and allows reflection.

That said, this is a compelling adaptation and production with excellent performances from the whole cast. A tragic study in repression and regret, the stunning final scene will stay with me for a long time.

Images by Iona Firouzabadi

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Life is a Dream – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Rambert presents
Life is a Dream
Choreography Kim Brandstrup
Music by Witold Lutoslawski|
Based on the play by Pedro Calderón de la Barca 

Curve Theatre, Leicester, 28 February to 2 March 

Constraint is often the catalyst for creativity, and Life is a Dream, Rambert’s first full-length production in over 30 years, provides many layers reinforcing this concept.

Now at the end of a UK tour, Life is a Dream re-imagines Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 17th century eponymous play, telling the story of Polish Prince Segismundo whose father kept him captive. Freed for a day, and angry at what he had missed, the prince turned to violence and cruelty to gain some redress on his life. On his return to prison, he is put to sleep and, on waking, now believes his freedom to have been a dream. Released again, his approach to the world has changed to that of caution and wonder.

Choreographer Kim Brandstrup’s version, however, isn’t so concerned with this plot, setting his version in a theatre rehearsal room in 1959. The prince is now a director, drifting in and out of sleep, re-casting scenes actors have been rehearsing and replaying them in his dreams. He appears to conduct the (wonderful) live orchestra along with his doppelganger. This is metatheatre within dance, intriguing, and complex.

I mention the original play’s plot even though Brandstrup’s interpretation is a loose re-imagining of de la Barca’s work, as knowledge of these themes of constraint and appreciation for the bleakness of the mood are likely to aid understanding. We humans like to find meaning and follow a narrative and without any contextual knowledge, this is a difficult piece to follow (and it pays to do a little research or read the excellent programme beforehand if you can).

As a creative piece, Brandstrup and his team deliver a masterclass: the Quay Brothers’ stark set serves as a canvas for projection of stunning monochrome imagery of swaying trees, prison bars, a partially open window. Holly Waddington’s smeary, monochrome costumes convey constriction in sculpted bodices but also fluidity and organic movement in flowing skirts and billowing sleeves. Three performers appear with long sleeves covering their hands, suggesting the confines of a straitjacket, but which provide means for escape and discovery. Jean Kalman’s cinematic lighting evokes dark places of the mind searching for escape.

In keeping with de la Barca’s Polish prince, Brandstrup also gained further inspiration from the work of Polish avant-garde theatrical artists Jerzy Grotowski and Tadeusz Kantor. Adding a poignant note, Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski’s jerky, insistent music has an eerie quality, sometimes drifting and dreamy but often jarring. Lutoslawski composed many of his pieces whilst in hiding in an attic during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, using music as an escape from his enforced incarceration.

The precision and controlled strength displayed by the entire company is hugely impressive; with little to work with in terms of mood change or joy, the dancers are riveting as they convey an ethereal, otherworldly crossover space between dreams and reality.

Images by Johan Persson

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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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