Review: CHEMISTRY

CHEMISTRY plays at The Finborough Theatre until November 23rd. Details and tickets here

IN BRIEF Challenging mental health love story is carefully played and written

Long-time chronic depressive Steph meets newly diagnosed manic Jamie in their psychiatrist’s waiting room and there is “chemistry” between them– they hit it off. A complex relationship gathers momentum and it all seems to go well as they lovingly help each other through their good and bad patches. But when Jamie wants to get back to work he comes off his medication, and Steph’s downs get progressively deeper, leading to a difficult and painful conclusion.

“Easy answers are so tempting” says Steph, pointing out how people try to empathise without having the tools to understand her depression. “I care more”, says Jamie, positively spinning his mania.

Jacob Marx Rice’s script feels authentic and first-hand; it’s restless, unsettled, scratchy; and yet there are tender moments amongst the heartache – Jamie’s vulnerability in revealing his self-inflicted scars to Steph for the first time, a passionate night in after a blissful evening out. But Steph’s spiral is something that Jamie can’t fix. “You’re more than your disease”, he reminds her. “You can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved”, she reminds him.  Interspersing monologues directly to the audience with dialogue scenes, the script moves at a slow but comfortable pace.

Caoimhe Farren captures well the ebb and flow of Steph’s coruscating self- loathing, her wisecracking a useful though inconsistent “front” to disguise her desperate need.

James Mear plays Jamie with commitment, his unease and twitchiness palpable and real, and when his “normalisation” on medication balances out his highs and threaten to reduce him to ordinary, we feel his mounting fear and the incompatibility of all that he wants. His support and encouragement for Steph is touching and convincing, and his final distress is genuinely moving.

Director/designer Alex Howarth fulfils both roles with care and unfussiness, in a simple traverse staging with a minimal set of lights, cables and microphones.

Although it was written in 2013, CHEMISTRY seems still very current: it is a valuable contribution to the current UK discussion around mental health issues.

Love is said to be a chemical reaction, so if you mix those heady feelings with mental issues and potent medication, who’s to say what is real and what isn’t. Jamie and Steph’s journey is one of both happiness and sadness; although a harrowing watch, CHEMISTRY is worth seeing.

CHEMISTRY plays at The Finborough Theatre until November 23rd. Details and tickets here


Review: GERM FREE ADOLESCENT

IN BRIEF Two colliding monologues speak volumes about teenage pressures in an effective production

Ashley is sixteen and the school expert on sexual health. It’s just that…she hasn’t actually…you know…yet. One of the reasons is because she has a big secret that she just can’t share – “No one gets it because it’s mental”. Three months into her relationship with Ollie it’s time to take it to the next level, “the big night”, which is causing a lot of stress for both of them. Not that they’d talk to each other about that.

In what is essentially two parallel monologues delivered directly to the audience, Natalie Mitchell’s refreshing and authentic-sounding play highlights the internal and external pressures teenagers feel to be “normal” during one of the most challenging developmental times of their lives.

Laddish Ollie piles the pressure on; “It needs to be perfect” he tells himself- and us. After the sweet idea of arranging roses for Ashley he checks himself: “I don’t know if she likes them- should I have asked?”. Ashley is feeling similar stress, relying on mindful spelling and familiar rituals to calm her agitation and uncertainty. Unsupported by her parents, Ashley falls back on her counting and spelling rituals to get her through. The fallout from “the big night” propels the play to its conclusion in ways which are sometimes easy to forecast but no less skilful in the telling. The lack of developed communication skills produces binary readings of events, leading to immature, uncomfortably sexist outbursts which complicate the way forward, but the final understanding that is reached is well worth the journey. By the play’s close, when the characters finally start talking to each other, we feel that both characters have “grown up” in a partial but significant way.

Mitchell’s writing is eloquent about describing OCD and how it can affect people, which makes the final breakthrough even more satisfying, even though the breakthrough suggests a start in dealing with a years-long disorder, it’s still optimistic. There is a lovely, sly sense of humour in the writing, and some wincingly acute references (Ollie’s mum and dad are off out to a “ska tribute band in Gillingham”). The fluidity of the performances and direction (by Grace Gummer) keep the piece moving along naturally and believably. Francesca Henry as Ashley gives a completely convincing performance of someone with OCD in all their complexity, conveying that pit-of-the stomach feeling of unease which arouses our empathy, and her later bravery in breaking her silence is full of hope. Jake Richards as Ollie gives an assured yet nuanced performance- laddish, confident on the outside, but inside still boyish, unsure and unsettled by his own perceived “difference”. Both are highly watchable and fully held the audience’s attention for the 60-minute running time.

As an illustration of the bravery of trying to be yourself, and not what you feel you should be to fit in, GERM FREE ADOLESCENT is a useful and significant play that all audiences can relate to. As Ashley says, “We’re all normal – just in different ways.” This show deserves more attention and another, longer, run.

GERM FREE ADOLESCENT ran at the Bunker Theatre until November 9th


Awards, awards……

As more awards events approach, it is time to vote and nominate.


The WhatsOnStage Awards 2020 are currently accepting your nominations to be considered for their awards shortlists.

This is a great opportunity for you to nominate your own choices in a wide range of categories. To get started, go to the WhatsOnStage website here


The Broadway World Awards shortlist has been announced and you can vote until Friday 22nd November, with the results being announced shortly afterwards.

Some notable nominees include three mentions for the marvellous show AMELIE The Musical (on its way into London for Christmas), Audrey Brisson as Lead Actress and Madeleine Girling for Best Set Design as well as a nomination for Best New Regional or Touring Production. You can read my **** review here

Nominated for Best Ensemble in a New Production of a Play or Musical are the excellent SpitLip for OPERATION MINCEMEAT, an hugely inventive and delightfully funny musical, soon to encore at the Southwark Playhouse in January (read my **** review here) ; also nominated is THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (read my ***1/2 review here)

Best Actor in a Musical nominees include Tyrone Huntley for THE VIEW UPSTAIRS (see my **** review here) and the excellent David Hunter for WAITRESS.

Best Supporting Actress in a New Production of a Musical will be a very hotly contested category, with strong nominations including the excellent Rebecca Caine for PRELUDES (ready my **** review here), Madalena Alberto for ON YOUR FEET! (read my ***1/2 star review here), Laura Pitt-Pulford for FALSETTOS (read my **** star review here) and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt for THE VIEW UPSTAIRS (read my ****star review here)

Takis receives a well-deserved nomination for Best Costume Design of a New Production of a Play or Musical for his work on AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ (read my **** star review here)

The Best New Production of a Musical category includes two strong contenders, FIVER (read my ***1/2 star review here) and STANDING AT THE SKY’S EDGE from Sheffield Theatres.

Sheffield has also scored a number of nominations for THE LIFE OF PI, coming to the West End next year. Its nominations include Best Direction for Max Webster, Best Actor for Hiran Abeysekera, Best Video or Projection Design for Andrzej Goulding,

Best New Production of a Play includes the excellent OUT OF WATER (read my **** star review here)

PRELUDES (mentioned earlier) is also nominated for Best Lighting Design, by Christopher Nairne.

A category that I particularly like in the BWW Awards is the Best Performance by an Understudy/Alternate in Any Play or Musical, giving overdue recognition to understudies and alternates.

You can find the full Broadway World shortlist and current front runners here


Theatre FootNotes for October 2019 – a summary of other theatre events in my diary

BOTTICELLI IN THE FIRE at Hampstead Theatre.

Jordan Tannahill’s interesting but muddled play makes some good points amongst layers of inconsistency. But it doesn’t add up – the parallels between the Renaissance Florence and our current times (bridged by using modern technology, amongst others) doesn’t really work. As to the art, it never assumes its place as being almost a life blood, important enough to shock as canvases are wilfully destroyed. I have seen Dickie Beau, who plays Botticelli here, do some terrific work, particularly in a featured role in Somerset Maugham’s SHEPPEY a couple of years ago at the Orange Tree. Here, fronting the whole show, he seems miscast to me. Set design was clever and intriguing and the performance of Hiran Abeysekera as Leonardo was a low-key delight, fragile, tender and vulnerable, well worth sitting through the rest of the play for. But as to the Allan Carr-esque Disco Venus……


Daryl Griffiths’ ZOMBIES – THE MUSICAL at The Other Palace.

Good music, great orchestrations, great cast – shame about the book and lyrics. The concept was fine and more than interesting enough (search for cure to ageing leads to accident in lab which produces new strain of zombies, separated lovers search for each other). Although presented here in this workshop presentation are mainly the musical sections of the final show (supported by fun and lively screen interjections to move the plot along and give indications as to ambitions for the fully-staged production) the book appeared to need much work. Music was superbly orchestrated and sounded great, lifting the compositions which were rather along the lines expected for a musical comedy. Lyrics were unambitious and rather smutty for my taste. It is stated that inspiration came from shows such as Book of Mormon. I wish them luck in achieving similar heights, but before then the whole book and lyrics need to have more “smart” and less “smut” to work for me.


Review: ON BEAR RIDGE

IN BRIEF  A moving lament to loss in all its forms, compassionately written and acted

Set in an uncertain time at an uncertain place, mountainous Bear Ridge is a ghost town. The only remainers are John Daniel (Rhys Ifans) and Noni (Rakie Ayola), the owners of the almost-empty general store. Together they reminisce about happier times, when they had customers, “The Old Language” was spoken and their son (now dead), played with his childhood friend, now their slaughterman, who has become a surrogate son. “This is where we belong” says Noni, as jet planes roar disconcertingly overhead.

ON BEAR RIDGE is not only about stories, but about the actual ability to remember- a terrifying abyss that John Daniel looks over, pulled back and reassured by the ever-present comfort of Noni. To assuage his worry about the burden of keeping “The Old Language” alive, and of maintaining memories, they remember together. Customers and their idiosyncrasies, lists of stock, their beloved son – all now gone, but kept alive through their memories and their re-telling. A visit from a shell-shocked Captain causes tensions, but as gently stoic Noni says, “we’re upset-proof”.

Ifans teeters along the edge of a whole range of emotions as John Daniel; melancholy, outrage, terror and humour in an endearing performance, deep with feeling. He has a long opening monologue about the birth of their son, fashioned with care and sweetness. All the more bitter that later we hear of his murder at the hands of those who abhor The Old Language which he spoke in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Ayola as Noni eloquently captures the caring yet strong nature of her character, bringing quiet but reassuring stability to John Daniel’s fragility.

What shines through is the love between John Daniel and Noni, and the care and respect with which they treat others. A cup of tea is drunk mindfully amidst distressing circumstances but they have learned to carry on regardless, until “the time comes”. Kindness and care has almost been distilled into them. If the shop is all they know, then Kindness is what they do.

Echoing current concerns about the loss of rural communities and a gentler way of life, the show slows us and gives us time to think about how memory is what makes us who we are; and that when we die, the memories, stories and traditions all die with us unless they are taken up by others.

Ed Thomas, author of BBC Wales series Hinterland (shot in Welsh) draws attention to the rural communities’ culture, customs and legacies that are under threat of extinction. This must have felt very potent to him to produce his first play in 15 years; it is semi-autobiographical (his family ran a butcher/grocery shop in a small community), and he co-directs the play with Vicky Featherstone (AD of the Royal Court).

The play has much that is only partly-said, leaving many questions. It felt like this construction consciously echoed the fragility of keeping knowledge and experience alive.

Cai Dyfan’s intriguing, exploded set design of the store with walls that don’t meet and a grid for a roof, diminishes at each scene ending, as one by one the walls disappear, yet another metaphor for loss, finally to leave our characters exposed to the snow, before another flyover by the jet planes.

Asking more questions than it answers, Thomas’s play is like its characters- gentle, nostalgic, melancholy and fragmented. In many ways enjoyable but also elusive. I enjoyed that it made me think a lot about its messages afterwards.