Review: SYDNEY AND THE OLD GIRL

SYDNEY AND THE OLD GIRL plays at Park Theatre until November 30th. Details and tickets here

IN BRIEF Well-played toxic comedy three-hander leaves a bitter aftertaste

A wheelchair-bound mother in her tatty house watches her twitchy, jowly blancmange of a son trying to mend her ancient telly. The atmosphere of mutual loathing is palpable. And yet it is also funny, as played by the inimitable Miriam Margolyes and Mark Hadfield, and written by Eugene O’ Hare.

Here are two desperately lonely people who have fallen through the social fabric, forced together by circumstance, hating yet needing each other. As their bitchy ping-pong continues, we slowly fill in the causes of this dysfunctional relationship. There is much pain in their mutual histories, touched on but not dwelt. Disability, abuse, death, ignorance, fear, guilt and shame have all played their part in sculpting their current grim coexistence

As the novelty of the bitch-fest starts to produce diminishing returns, the plot thankfully kicks in, which concerns Mum Nell’s inheritance and what becomes of it. Conspiring with care nurse Marion, Nell cruelly snubs her son Sydney to leave all her worldly goods to charity. Or so she thinks…

When the dynamics of the trio changes, Nell and Sydney find that they have something in common to hate that surprisingly leads to an outbreak of civility. But unexpected events scupper this, making it a short-lived truce.

Margolyes is always a delight to watch at work; here, as Nell, her beady eyes dark with a thirst for any tiny victory in these microscopic power-games, she’s about as cuddly as a rattlesnake. Her scenes with Marion are sly and gently manipulative, and Margolyes brings all her considerable talents to this mind-gaming old woman.

Mark Hadfield is an ideal foil to Margolyes- highly watchable as damaged son Sydney, from his edginess to his drinking to his overwhelming sadness. His disabling uneasiness with people is hilariously illustrated in a deeply uncomfortable “chat” sequence with Marion where he unsuccessfully attempts to mask his fear, loneliness and ingrained racism.

Vivien Parry as Irish carer Marion is all religion, care and concern, a Mother to the Mother and whose good-hearted nature is ripe for exploitation; who is used so badly and makes us feel for her in a detailed performance.

All three make a terrific ensemble, with long passages of monologue and dialogue expertly navigated by each.

Eugene O’ Hare’s jagged, tricky dialogue is a minefield of timing, with misunderstandings (deliberate or otherwise) and tiny trips in communication peppering the text, well executed under Philip Breen’s direction.

I was reminded several times of the Galton and Simpson classic TV show Steptoe and Son which had a similar dynamic between father and son; however this play is much darker, which in many ways works against its appeal, for O’Hare’s characters are hard to care about in any sense. Nevertheless, for me, the three performances make it worth seeing.

SYDNEY AND THE OLD GIRL plays at Park Theatre until November 30th. Details and tickets here


Evening Standard Theatre Awards 2019 Shortlist announced

The shortlist for the 65th Evening Standard Theatre Awards were published yesterday, and they are very short this year, with three or four nominations in each category. Personally, I feel they are too short as it misses out on giving exposure to more talent who may benefit from this public recognition of their achievements.

The main reason for this item is that I was particularly pleased to see two highly deserving nominees in the listings .

Cecilia Noble is nominated for the Natasha Richardson Award for Best Actress for her work in two productions, Downstate (National Theatre, Dorfman) & Faith, Hope and Charity (National Theatre, Dorfman). I did say in my four-star review of Faith, Hope and Charity (which you can read here) that Noble’s performance was award-worthy and I am glad that the judging panel have her shortlisted. One look at the rest of the list, including Dame Maggie Smith and Juliet Stevenson shows that this will be quite a contest.

The other outstanding nominee is for the Charles Wintour Award for Most Promising Playwright. Zoe Cooper is nominated for her fascinating, compassionate play OUT OF WATER which ran at the Orange Tree in Richmond in May this year (you can read my four-star review of the show here).

The winners will be announced at a ceremony at the London Coliseum on Sunday 24 November.

You can read a full list of the Awards nominees here


Views: THE Critic – Michael Billington

Michael Billington. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

Michael Billington, theatre critic for The Guardian for the last 48 years, has announced that he is stepping down from regular reviewing from the end of this year.

Certainly the most influential and extensively seasoned critic of our time, I have grown up reading his work, which always delivers; his succinct and incisive copy usually hits the critical nail on the head. His writing is the reason I started reading The Guardian, and all these decades later it is his work which has helped to keep me a loyal (paying) customer.

Sometimes I feel that more research has gone into his analysis than has gone into the actual production of some of the works he has sat through. His knowledge and experience is second to none, and I join the hundreds of thousands who have regularly enjoyed his work in saluting his contribution to the celebration of the English Theatre over the last half-century.

It is good to know that he will continue to write for the Guardian, but reviewing will miss his clarity.

Thank you, Mr Billington, from all those – including me- that you inspired to write, to work in theatre or just to go and see the show you wrote about.

Read the Guardian’s own tribute to Michael Billington here


Review: LITTLE BABY JESUS

LITTLE BABY JESUS plays the Orange Tree in Richmond until November 16. Tickets and details here

IN BRIEF Growing up three-hander lifted by ensemble performance

“I’m not crazy just hurt”. A line which we hear several times in Arinzé Kene’s 2011 play LITTLE BABY JESUS which is revived at the Orange Tree in Richmond until November 16.

Kene’s play follows three very different teenagers through the formative times in their lives when they when they “grew up”. Tracing that volatile period of not being a child anymore, but also not being an adult, Kene’s feisty trio are burdened with family issues including the toxic legacy of misogyny, and inherited ideas about what it is to be a man or a woman.

The first act is clotted with lots of playground and classroom banter which went on for rather too long for me, but was worth sitting through to get to the fleshing out of the three main characters. The second act got a lot more interesting as the stories acquired more diverse dimensions. However, in the telling it felt a little confusing, which may have had something to do with the performers having to cover so many subsidiary roles; at times the sheer volume of characters became hard to manage.

The terrific ensemble cast of Rachel Nwokoro, Anyebe Godwin and Khai Shaw worked with assurance under Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu’s direction in highly-detailed dialogues. For me, the standout was Nwokoro who brings a special energy, sass and vitality to her performance which made her the one to watch.

Kene’s writing effectively captures the melodramatic/ self-critical/ attention-seeking/ streetwise/ overabundance of energy/ nuclear hormones of teenagers, and the “what was said versus what was thought” pieces caught a feeling of anxiety really well. As a whole, I found it a very interesting play about that unique time in life, although for me it felt rather too fragmented; nevertheless I was very happy to have seen such a tight and committed ensemble performance.

LITTLE BABY JESUS plays the Orange Tree in Richmond until November 16. Tickets and details here


Review: GHOST QUARTET

IN BRIEF Potent and haunting song cycle, performed with heart and soul

After Dave Malloy’s singular PRELUDES at Southwark Playhouse last month, the collective appetite was well and truly whetted for his GHOST QUARTET.

It doesn’t disappoint. Mellow, playful, inventive, GHOST QUARTET is a delight- a captivating song cycle intercut with story fragments. This is a show more about the act of storytelling than the actual stories themselves.

The circular stage of this new intimate in the round venue is a veritable treasure trove in itself- Simon Kenny’s set is a clutter of musical instruments, furniture, steamer trunks. Not an inch of the stage is unused over the 90 minutes running time. The four performers circle, climb and reconfigure the elements, whilst also revealing items hidden in seats and cases. The show doesn’t let up with little theatrical surprises: a dizzying array of eclectic, unusual instruments – mostly stringed and percussion – and effects equipment appear and are played with skill.

The announced track listings in this song cycle help to giving the show some kind of structure. The story fragments (told through the songs) are intriguing but it gets a little tricksy if you try to follow it too literally. You just need to relax into it, as this is a show more concerned with the concept more than character development or other traditional musical theatre tick-boxes.

From the outset, the ensemble of four actor/musicians create a warm and inclusive ambiance, at times directly taking to and mingling with the audience, and at others actually allowing them to carry the stage. We particularly enjoyed the whiskey number Four Friends- and the audience participation in raising a glass of the hard stuff was most enthusiastic!

But it’s the range and quality of Dave Malloy’s songs which most delights- from the exquisite Hero to the laid- back bonhomie of Four Friends, this is an ever-intriguing set of songs that constantly surprises.

All four perfectly-cast performers play and sing with abundant skill. Each have their standout moments whilst working harmoniously as an ensemble to create a rich musical texture.  Carly Bawden brings all her extraordinary skill to songs including Star Child- wistful and fragile, and Hero – exquisitely sung and haunting. Zubin Varla’s smoky lower register is beautifully worked in the support of some great piano playing – especially the number entitled Monk.

Dave Malloy’s skills as a composer are complemented by the direction of Bill Buckhurst who has produced a show with much care and attention to detail, good to look at and listen to. The ninety minutes simply flew by.

Delightfully potent, intriguing with a mellow aftertaste, GHOST QUARTET is a classic blend that I shall be imbibing again very soon. Cheers!

GHOST QUARTET Plays the Boulevard Theatre until January 4th. Details and tickets here