THE HIGH TABLE plays at the Bush Theatre until March 21. Information and tickets here

IN BRIEF Expansive family drama confidently argues for acceptance in an ambitious show with drama, heart and humanity

Temi Wilkey’s ambitious, brave and compassionate debut play covers a lot of ground. Tara and her girlfriend Leah are getting married, and the big day is approaching. But Tara’s Nigerian parents didn’t know about the wedding until now- oh, and also the fact that she is a lesbian. All the knee-jerk prejudices come tumbling out – “she doesn’t even look like a man”, “it’s a choice”, etc.

Simultaneously, high above the earth, in an afterlife, a meeting of a council of guidance has been called to decide whether or not to bless this marriage. Three past relatives of Tara gather- but they are missing one. Who is the late arrival, the fourth member of the council, and why does he carry such a disturbing aura with him?

Back on earth, the ensuing upset and pushback from her parents puts a strain on Tara and Leah’s relationship, as they doubt themselves and each other.

Posing intriguing questions along the way, this well-woven play shuttles back and forth between earthly and spiritual locations.

Tara’s need for family at this time is natural and her sadness at its lack is affecting. We see the parents’ opposition gradually unfurl itself as rooted in a protective fear for Tara’s safety, assuming that being gay is the same experience for people in the UK as it is in Nigeria, where intolerance, hatred, blackmail and beatings seem to be the ususal outcomes.

As the descendants’ and contemporary family stories are uncovered, unexpected connections and moving revelations bring about a hopeful ending with a wedding dance that cannot fail to make you smile.

THE HIGH TABLE is sensitively directed by Daniel Bailey (who did another good job with the part-mystical UNKNOWN RIVERS a few months ago at Hampstead), and strongly performed by the entire cast; Cherrelle Skeete brings soul and vulnerability to Tara, Stefan Aegbola makes his journey from victim to spiritual enabler most affecting, and Jumoke Fashola is a powerful and magnetic storyteller. The muscular rhythmic musical interludes, played (and co-composed) by Mohamed Gueye, effectively instil a sense of place and heritage.

Wilkey’s writing is knowing, passionate and human, with canny injections of humour and emotion, lovingly investing her characters with dimension and making a powerful case for “You go want who you go want”.

THE HIGH TABLE plays at the Bush Theatre until March 21. Information and tickets here

THE HIGH TABLE then plays Birmingham Repertory Theatre from March 25 to April 9. Information and tickets here


IN BRIEF Smartly-written and acted prison story with an arresting twist

Humanity is both the key and the trap in SCREWDRIVER, a new play which has won the inaugural Bill Cashmore Award, playing four nights at the Lyric Hammersmith Studio as part of the theatre’s new Evolution Festival.

“Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story” says prison officer Nicole towards the start of this 60-minute (almost) one-woman show. Sharing about her job, relationship and the people she works with, as well as the prisoners themselves, Nicole seems quite sorted and in control. She cares for the prisoners which earns her respect. However, when rules collide with human failings to contribute to the death of an inmate, the tide turns and Nicole finds herself in a corner. Finding consolation where she can, she is drawn into a course of action which will change her life.

The script by Eve Cowley (who stars) and Elin Schofield (who directs) is tightly constructed and quite lean, using the constant tension between humanity and regulations to drive the linear plot. Cowley gives a solid performance as Nicole, working hard to maintain the rhythms of the text, aided by thoughtful direction and moments of dramatic lighting to alter the mood of the piece.

Describing the shifting dynamics of prison life effectively, this still feels a little like a work still in development. The show moves along at quite a leisurely pace and the audience’s realisation of the clever twist in the tail comes a little too late in the running time and rather too quickly to be believable. Perhaps more time examining Nicole’s feelings might have better darkened the atmosphere in preparation. However, it’s a clever piece of storytelling and although only occasionally theatrical, it held the audience I was with. I enjoyed its nicely cyclic ending, too. Perhaps just a little longer time to build to the twist might have helped its undoubted impact.

A season at Edinburgh would be a wise move, I think.

SCREWDRIVER played the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith Studio space from 11-14 February

Critics’ Circle Awards 2019

At a ceremony yesterday (11 February) in London’s Prince of Wales Theatre, the Critics’ Circle award winners were announced.

The Best Actor Award was won by Andrew Scott, for his performance in Noël Coward’s play PRESENT LAUGHTER. The Best Actress Award this year has two winners – Juliet Stevenson for her performance in THE DOCTOR (soon to arrive in the West End), and Sharon D Clarke for her role as Linda, long-suffering wife of Willy Loman in DEATH OF A SALESMAN.

The Jack Tinker Best Newcomer Award was won by Sam Tutty for his title role in DEAR EVAN HANSEN , and the Best Director Award was won by Jamie Lloyd for three shows- Harold Pinter’s BETRAYAL, EVITA and CYRANO DE BERGERAC.

The aptly renamed Michael Billington Award for Best New Play went to Lucy Prebble’s A VERY EXPENSIVE POISON, with the show’s design by Tom Scutt receiving an award too. The Peter Hepple Award for Best Musical was awarded to COME FROM AWAY.

The Trewin Award for Best Shakespearean Performance was won by Hammed Animashaun for his version of Bottom in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM.
Jasmine Lee-Jones won the Most Promising Playwright award, and the Special Award for Services to Theatre Award was given to celebrated lighting designer Paule Constable.

AMELIE and RAGS cast recordings are coming!

Good news for those of us who love a cast album. The recent production of AMELIE which toured the UK through 2019, and the production of RAGS which appeared at the Park Theatre in London this January, have both gone into the recording studio over the last week to produce cast recordings.

Little more detail is known right now but it is understood that the recordings should surface sometime in April.

“To analyse is to enjoy”: Michael Billington in conversation at the Orange Tree Theatre

Michael Billington. Photo courtesy Guardian website.

The many who braved the foul weather to get to Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre on the afternoon of Sunday February 9th were amply rewarded with 90 minutes of amusing and enlightening discussion with the leading theatre critic Michael Billington.

Proving as eloquent in person as he is in print, Billington was skilfully and affectionately questioned across the theatrical gamut by the theatre’s Artistic Director Paul Miller, the event being a fundraiser for the brave and highly successful in-the-round venue which Michael himself has championed on many occasions. He was rightly complimentary about Miller’s part in keeping Bernard Shaw’s work in the public eye.

With subjects ranging from his start in journalism to how the business of being a critic has changed across the decades, there was also time for his view on how the emphasis has grown more on new work to the detriment of the older repertoire of plays. He enjoyed talking about two of his favourites, Harold Pinter and Ken Dodd, and about the evolution of his signature puns which sometimes punctuate his work. Sharing that he was wisely advised to “let the joke come to you”, when they do pop up in his writings, they are a pleasure.

It was interesting to hear about his preparation for seeing a show, and what certainly distinguishes his writing from others is that he always brings his love of theatre to the fore, never in a snide or patronising way, but one which tries to see the positive; even when he illuminates a lack of success or achievement, it comes from a position of experience, knowledge and diligence which gives his work the credibility that has earned such respect by colleagues, theatre-makers and readers alike.

He talked about cultural shifts and their impact upon the theatre we see, designers who have moved away from the pictorial style of his earlier theatrical experience, and of directors who have become known for their own work, stepping out of the shadows of the writers. Opining that today, acting is de-romanticised, he also highlighted the difference across his fifty plus years of experience that acting today is rarely heroic and predominantly ironic. Citing a handful of actors and directors who came to mind, he was able to illustrate his points from a position of authority which hit home with the appreciative audience.

Questions from the audience included the star rating system for reviews (he doesn’t like it but has had to live with it), translations and their faithfulness to their original text, and actors being mic’d. He also discussed musicals, his love of Sondheim, and his lack of patience with the “jukebox musical”. The future of criticism was also raised, and with the good news that he is only semi-retiring, the enthusiastic applause from the audience demonstrated that we are all looking forward to much more Billington writing in the years ahead.