Review: NO SWEAT

IN BRIEF Bleak, effective youth homelessness drama simmers angrily in moving production

Just occasionally, a show comes from out of the blue to highlight something which for some reason has gone under our collective radar. NO SWEAT was born out of the untold, unseen homelessness crisis in the LGBTQ+ community. Why unseen? Because so many use 24-hour gay saunas as a place of rest and refuge from the harsh realities of the world outside. In a venue where being gay is “the norm”, it may appear to some quite seductive to think of these places as a refuge. However, the sexualised environment leads many to selling sex to survive, which can also lead to drugs. These traps that many vulnerable young gay people fall into are unforgiving and highly damaging.

NO SWEAT tells the stories of three young men who take refuge in FLEX, a London gay sauna. Charlie, the Pakistani asylum seeker who cleans the place for a pittance; and customers Alf, a Welsh body-for-hire and naïve, numb newcomer Tristan. All three having fled from parental rejection and ejection from the family homes, with no means to support themselves.

As their stories and experiences are shared, what is also revealed is the desperation and loneliness of these young men, each at the mercy of others to survive. Forced into “survival sex working”, Alf educates Tristan in how to exist in this new world of 24-hour heat, where they are part of the majority – but still outsiders.

The three men form their own bonds and supportive gestures which bring a genuine humanity to the show and make the central dilemma of these forgotten people all the more moving. Drugs seem to follow sex in a cycle of desperation and numbness.

The performances are all of a high standard. Gentle, romantic and caring Charlie is played with delicate grace by Manish Gandhi, a sweet and generous soul in a country that doesn’t want him.

Cocky, superficially sorted Alf is played with brittle bravado by James Haymer. Denholm Spurr as Tristan gently takes his character from naïve to more knowing, but retaining a genuine helplessness, so that when he says “I don’t really know what I am doing”, its meaning becomes amplified – a strangled cry for help.

The authorities which should be helping are portrayed as doing worse than nothing- an utter failure of care. “Is this a joke?” asks Tristan at the end of his interview for assistance; those unseen forces charged with helping display a lack of respect, willpower and joined-up thinking as well as prejudice of all colours. It is a genuine slap-in-the face moment for characters and audience.

Unfortunately the ending is not a happy one, and the sadness of these lives, damaged through no fault of their own, is mixed with anger at the lack of any kind of effective lines of help for them.

Vicky Moran’s sensitive play, combining a wealth of original research, mixes the dramatic and audio interview clips with real people (which cover the lengthy scene changes) to good effect, but I did feel that the changes rather distracted my attention away from the audio. The piece undoubtedly benefits from Moran’s own direction, and she has fostered telling performances from the cast.

There is some brief nudity in the show, but I felt this rather cleverly underlined the vulnerability rather than providing any genuinely erotic content.

The only decision which didn’t quite work for me was that of asking the actors to be their own inquisitor at their interviews with authority figures, with the actors turning from side to side to represent different voices. I thought that perhaps another unseen voice (on audio) might have better captured the hardness and inhumanity of questioning, and would also have freed up the actors to maintain their carefully-crafted characterisations. However, these are small points.

As a radical call to provide properly for abused and abandoned young people, this is an important and urgent piece of theatre; both producer and writer should be thanked for bringing these issues to a wider attention. One can only hope that this spurs people to action.

Vicky Moran is definitely a writer/director to watch keenly. I also notice that the show’s producer Reece McMahon is a part of the excellent Roundhouse Future Producers scheme. I am excited to see what’s next for both of them.

NO SWEAT played at The Pleasance Theatre Downstairs (London) to February 29th


March’s Top Shows

The stained glass auditorium ceiling of the Palau de la Música, Barcelona

Welcome to March’s show highlights. Here are my picks of the most interesting shows that you can find around London and the UK.

Off-West End

Opening

Hard on the heels of a first-rate Orange Tree revival of Lucy Prebble’s THE SUGAR SYNDROME, another of her plays THE EFFECT runs from 19th March to 30th May at the Boulevard Theatre.

Placing modern medicine under the microscope, it examines the fallout from a collision between love and science.

Connie and Tristan meet; symptoms develop. Racing hearts. Lost appetites. Erratic emotions. Is this the frenzy of falling in love, or simply the side effects of the new anti-depressant drug they’re testing?

Addiction comes hard and fast. But have the clinicians running the trial lost control?


Anyone who has seen the exceptionally good OPERATION MINCEMEAT (soon to return to Southwark Playhouse for a third sell-out season) will have enjoyed the brilliant performance of Jak Malone. Now Malone gets his own show in DIVA: LIVE FROM HELL, a darkly comic one-man musical, loosely based on All About Eve, has its European premiere at Brockley’s Jack Studio Theatre from March 17th to 28th.

As president of the drama club and star of every school show, Desmond Channing spent most of his short life in the spotlight. When a rival student Evan Harris, a hotshot transfer from New York, challenges his throne, Desmond responds as any diva would, with lethal force…

Now stuck in the ‘Seventh Circle’, Hell’s most squalid cabaret venue, Desmond is forced to relive his disturbing tale of woe.  As we join him and his band for their one-millionth consecutive show, Desmond performs with a desperate vigour in the hopes that he can prove he’s repented and can be freed from this eternal, campy torment!

Jak Malone plays Desmond Channing and the entire company of larger than life characters.  I’m confidently predicting a tour de force from this talented actor!


RUN SISTER RUN plays from March 25th to May 2nd at the Soho Theatre

“You can’t pick your family but if you could I’d still pick you”

Sisters Connie and Ursula were once everything to each other. Years on they’re almost strangers. When a family bombshell is dropped, Connie is forced to retrace forty years of sisterhood and confront a web of secrets and conflicting loyalties. Nurture competes with nature as the pair navigate their unbreakable bond, united by the same beginning but headed in different directions.

Award-winning playwright Chloë Moss’ (HOW LOVE IS SPELT) new play is a witty and heartfelt story of family, class and dependence, asking what does it really mean to belong to someone?


At the Yard in East London, NEW NORDICS is an exciting festival of Nordic work from 18th to 21st March with a new bill each day.

Six directors from the UK have travelled abroad to explore what Nordic theatre and culture is – and now they present a play from each of the Nordic countries for the first time in the UK. Shows about climate change, fir trees, garages, loneliness, cows… and IKEA. The festival is full of funny, dark and explosive plays, each giving a glimpse of the countries they come from.

For the first time, Cut the Cord Theatre present New Nordics Festival, showcasing the best new Nordic plays from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. This is great way to see some contemporary Nordic theatre combined with some of the best upcoming talent from the UK.


Katherine Parkinson returns to star at the Royal Court Theatre in E V Crowe’s new play SHOE LADY from March 4th to 21st.

“It’s incredibly hard isn’t it. To stay afloat.
It’s incredibly hard not to sink to the bottom.”

Viv has lost a shoe. They’re her work shoes, her weekend shoes, her only pair of shoes, and she doesn’t know what to do.

The curtains are falling, her foot is bleeding, and she’s starting to feel a little overwhelmed.
But all will be well in the world once she finds that missing shoe.


A bit close to home for some, this one? From 11th to 15th March at Greenwich Theatre, Ferodo Bridges present their immersive production, THE WHITE PLAGUE, experienced in ‘white blindness’ for a strictly limited number of audience members who will experience a city beset by an epidemic with every sense but their sight. 

When a mysterious and fiercely contagious virus starts spreading among a major city’s population, causing all infected victims to lose their sight, the government takes emergency action and isolates those affected in unprepared quarantine facilities. We follow the stories of five infected strangers who have been left to fend for themselves.  As the consequences of the epidemic are revealed, citizens are driven to expose the very brightest and darkest aspects of their human nature. 


At the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham, company Playing On brings to life Philip (This Island’s Mine) Osment’s final play. CAN I HELP YOU? is a magical realist examination of the role race and gender have to play in mental health and suicide.  

An off-duty English policeman is about to throw himself off Beachy Head when he is met by a woman carrying a laundry bag and a cat box. Over the course of one night, two disparate characters learn what it truly means to be touched by the magic of hope.  

The show plays from March 3rd to 21st.


From March 18th to May 16th at the National Theatre’s Dorfman space, writer and comedian Francesca Martinez leads an ensemble cast in her debut play ALL OF US , a new play about what defines us, directed by Ian Rickson.

Jess has a job she loves, great friends and a sharp sense of humour. So, when the life she has worked hard to build is threatened, she decides to take a stand.

This powerful and timely drama explores life, love and the struggle to survive for those who don’t fit in during a time of austerity.


“Sorry I don’t fit into your preconceived notions of me

Tommy is scared of everything. Especially the kids at school who would call him gay if they saw him putting on lipstick. Jordan isn’t scared of anything. He’s not scared that he likes the way Tommy looks in lipstick. Really, he’s not.

Two women play two teenage boys in this timely story of young hearts and the rules that surround us all. LIPSTICK plays the Southwark Playhouse from March 4th to 28th.


DRIP DRIP DRIP is a dark love-letter to the NHS and the people who keep it alive.

Encountered on a ward round are Daniel, a refugee from Eritrea, now a trainee nurse; Rahmiya, a Muslim doctor; and David, an elderly white cancer patient. Just another dysfunctional NHS ‘family’. But drip by drip David’s far-right ideology seeps out, poisoning Daniel and Rahmiya’s sense of belonging…

Pipeline Theatre dissects care and cruelty with dark humour while busting taboos. At the Pleasance Theatre London from March 3rd to 21st.


Theatre 503 presents PAPER CUT from March 18th to April 11th

A young gay American soldier, Kyle, returns from Afghanistan after being injured. Only a paper cut. Or that’s what he wants his friends, family, and a potential new love to believe. PAPER CUT is a raw exploration of the physical and emotional toll of returning soldiers and how they navigate their way through another minefield – of returning home.

This is a love story told through the prism of a soldier. Someone who will die for their country, even when their country tells them every day – in small and large ways – that they are less than. It’s an examination of what it means to be a man. And even more so, what it means to be a gay man.

STICKS AND STONES is an intriguing-sounding new play at the Tristan Bates Theatre from 3rd to 21st March.

Afua, a black senior manager in a secondary school, is asked to investigate online comments by a white colleague, Tina; a woman she viewed as a friend. Do Tina’s comments constitute hate speech, and, if so, should the police get involved? Afua has always fought for women’s rights, and Tina is a wronged woman, but with an axe to grind that even Afua is not prepared for. In an intensely claustrophobic setting, the clash between the two women becomes increasingly explosive; opening up questions around speech, power, race and class, that perhaps modern Britain is not ready to answer.


West End Opening

As you’ll know, I rarely venture into West End territory for my top picks, but the classy musical CITY OF ANGELS is a rare show with a superb, starry cast that demands attention. It’s a musical love letter to the glamorous world of old Hollywood and film noir.

A screenwriter with a movie to finish. A private eye with a case to crack. And a femme fatale. Just to make things interesting.

The Donmar Warehouse’s Olivier Award-winning 2014 production finally returns to London, featuring a swinging score by Cy Coleman and David Zippel and a brilliantly witty book by Larry Gelbart, CITY OF ANGELS plays at the Garrick Theatre from March 5th to September 5th (NB with significant cast changes at the end of May and July).


Off West End – continuing

In THE HIGH TABLE , the dresses are chosen, the venue’s been booked and the RSVPs are flooding in. But Tara’s perfect Nigerian wedding to her girlfriend Leah is suddenly derailed when her parents refuse to attend. 

High above London, suspended between the stars, three of Tara’s ancestors are jolted from their eternal rest. Can these representatives of generations passed keep the family together? And will Tara’s decision ever get their blessing?

An epic family drama played out between the heavens and earth, THE HIGH TABLE is the accomplished debut play from Temi Wilkey, which plays at the Bush Theatre until 21 March.

Read my **** review of THE HIGH TABLE here


Running to 3 May, BE MORE CHILL is the long-awaited UK premiere of this on- and off- Broadway hit musical.

Featuring a Tony Award®-nominated score bursting with memorable songs, BE MORE CHILL is a very modern musical comedy about the competing voices in all of our heads.

It’s about a guy who wants to fit in, a girl who wants to be noticed, and the supercomputer inside the guy’s head that tells him what to do (it wants to take over the world!). According to The New Yorker, “If you fed Dear Evan Hansen to the Little Shop of Horrors plant, you’d get BE MORE CHILL.” In other words, it’s both a relatable tale about how far we’ll go for a little validation… and an otherworldly delight about a loveable geek and his very invasive (im)plant. Sounds fun!


At the Park Theatre until March 21 is LA CAGE AUX FOLLES – THE PLAY

Many people recall with pleasure the Tony Award-winning musical, but not everyone knew that the story was originally a hilarious French play which ran for years, and which then was made into four feature films which broke worldwide box office records and were multi-award nominated . Now the Park Theatre gives you the first opportunity to see the original, riotous and heartfelt farce translated into the English language.

Nightclub owner Georges and his dazzling drag artiste partner Albin create the most spectacular shows in St. Tropez. But when Georges’ son Laurent announces his engagement to the daughter of a notoriously right-wing politician determined to bring the curtain down on the town’s vibrant nightlife, the real performance begins.

As Georges and Albin entertain their soon-to-be in laws and attempt to conceal their true nature for the sake of their son, how long can the façade last?

Directed by Simon Callow, and with a great cast including Michael Matus, Paul Hunter and Peter Straker amongst others, this should be a very entertaining evening.


At the Bush Theatre studio until March 21 is COLLAPSIBLE. Essie’s lost her job. Her girlfriend’s left. But she’s alright. Except lately she feels more like a chair than a person. One of those folding chairs. Solid one minute. And then.

From award-winning Irish writer Margaret Perry (Porcelain, Abbey Theatre), this is the hilarious, multi award-winning play about holding on in this collapsing world, starring the “mesmeric” (Guardian) Breffni Holahan, COLLAPSIBLE is for anyone who has ever felt crumbly. So that’s all of us, then!


NO SHOW at The Yard runs until March 14. Christopher Green is best known for his cabaret alter egos Ida Barr and Tina C.

This is the show that Christopher has spent over two decades making. It’s the culmination of 25 years of entertaining tens of thousands of audience members and learning exactly what makes them tick. What they want. It’s the leadership we’ve been seeking in troubling times. Frankly, I haven’t a clue but with this performer you can bet it won’t be dull!!


VAULT Festival

The VAULT FESTIVAL 2020 runs until 22 March. London’s largest and most interesting festival of upcoming work and rising artists, it’s like having all the fun of going to the Edinburgh Fringe but without the pricey travel and accommodation. Established in 2014 by Tim Wilson, Mat Burtcher and Andy George, it has rapidly grown to be an integral part of London’s winter scene. Last year 80,000 people enjoyed over 420 performances, which is why this is a festival with something for everyone.


Outside London

Here’s an interesting new British musical with music and lyrics by Darren Clark, who wrote the very good THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON seen last year at Southwark Playhouse.

Receiving its world premiere, THE WICKER HUSBAND is a folk-inspired show which tells the timeless tale of the outsider.


In a superficial world, where beauty is only skin-deep, meet the so-called ‘Ugly Girl’.
Ostracised by the shallow townsfolk because she doesn’t fit in, the Ugly Girl becomes the envy of her neighbours when the mysterious Old Basketmaker makes her a strong and loving husband woven from living wicker. As bitter rivalry and jealousy threaten to tear the community apart, the townsfolk embark on a cruel and destructive plan. Will the Ugly Girl’s happiness be ruined forever?

Featuring mesmerising wicker-made puppets from master puppeteers, THE WICKER HUSBAND plays at Newbury’s Watermill Theatre from March 12th to April 4th.


Also…

NT CONNECTIONS, the National Theatre’s nationwide youth theatre festival is back. Connections is open to any company of young people aged 13-19. Each Company chooses one play from a set list of ten, that they will then rehearse and perform at their ‘home’ venue, and later at a participating professional venue.

All across the UK, from Inverness to Plymouth, NT Connections enables young people to perform their chosen play on a local, professional stage, which happens between March and May. In June, the NT Festival will showcase ten of the companies, each performing one of the selected plays in a culmination of the festival. So why not spend an evening supporting your local young talent?

31 Theatres are participating across the country. For participating theatres near you, see the NT Connections page here

In London, artsdepot’s festival runs from March 30th to 5th April. Details here

Touring the UK

Anyone who loves the Latin crossover music of Gloria Estefan will enjoy ON YOUR FEET! It has had mixed but mostly positive reviews, unanimous in the musical content of the show. It looks good and sounds just great, with a brilliant band (worth the price of admission alone) who never let the energy flag.

Featuring 26 hits, this Tony Award nominated show ran on Broadway for two years, for over 750 performances. ON YOUR FEET! is the inspiring true love story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan and charts their journey from Cuba to the streets of Miami and finally to international superstardom. Featuring some of the most iconic pop songs of the era, including “Rhythm is Gonna Get You”, “Conga”, “Get On Your Feet”, “Don’t Want To Lose You Now” and “1-2-3” and many more.

ON YOUR FEET! is directed by two-time Tony Award® winner Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots, Legally Blonde), with choreography by Olivier Award-winner Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys) and book by Academy Award® winner Alexander Dinelaris (Birdman). See it in March at Glasgow, Aberdeen, Wolverhampton, Leeds and Southampton.

Read my ***.5 review of the show here


NT Live Broadcasts

March brings further encore screenings of several NTLive broadcasts to screens around the UK and further afield. You can still enjoy encores of CYRANO DE BERGERAC with James McAvoy, Andrew Scott in Noel Coward’s PRESENT LAUGHTER, the comedy hit ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS with James Corden, and FLEABAG also appear in selected encore screenings.

To find screenings in your area, check out the schedule of NT Live website, details here.


Grace Gummer wins NT’s inaugural women directors award

Grace Gummer (photo by Helen Murray)

Grace Gummer has been announced as the first winner of the National Theatre’s Women of Tomorrow Directors Award.

This new award was created in partnership with the Chanel Fund for Women in the Arts and Culture, and the Yard Theatre in East London. Over 160 names were in consideration for the accolade.

The benefits of the award include Gummer working as resident director in the National Theatre’s new work department for the next six months, before staging her own production at the Yard Theatre this autumn. 

Having seen Gummer’s sensitive and incisive direction of GERM FREE ADOLESCENT at The Bunker last November, I can say from experience that she is a well-deserved winner.

Congratulations Grace!


REVIEW: A NUMBER

A NUMBER plays the Bridge Theatre until March 14. Information and tickets here

IN BRIEF Interesting, slim, multi-viewpointed cloning play strengthened by acting and weakened by presentation

“There was a son”

There has been much written about the ethics and morals of cloning, which is all very headline-grabbing but also very academic.  Caryl Churchill’s play attempts to move away from the headlines towards the human, investigating instead the emotional costs of the process, by looking at real people. The show places the process some time in the past in order to examine the after- effects upon one instigator (a father) and three results of the process – his cloned sons- all of whom express a different reaction to the news of their unnatural birth.

At first there is some rather bewildered humour as we get to grips with just what the situation is and what is going on. However, the humour quickly fades and the interactions darken between “father” and the three son-copies that we see come to the fore.

It’s a hugely interesting play. At each scene’s end we are a little more disorientated. We are left to piece together the fragments of information we overhear.  The unconventional structure is interesting but ultimately not very theatrically satisfying.

The production’s biggest pluses are its cast. Roger Allam is highly watchable as the achingly ordinary, guilt-riddled, failed father; although we feel some sympathy for him at his incompetence there are hidden murky depths here. It’s fascinating to watch his character use the sons’ questions and suppositions as building blocks to create answers that do not appear to be the truth, at each turn hypocritically assuring each one that they were the special one (“You were just what I wanted”). It feels that between the drink-induced memory loss, the procrastination and self-pity, there is more that he is hiding than he is sharing.

Colin Morgan, as each of the three “copy” sons, innocent victims of a process instigated by the “father”, is obliged to do some fast changing, and gives three very different characterisations – representing potential different responses to the facts, and as such these all work well.

A couple of disappointments – the sets are distracting, especially after each reconfiguration- they take away focus from the actors ( and so I wonder if this show really needs sets at all?) ; we spend a long time in blackout between scenes (covered by some rather melodramatic loud music) to allow reconfiguration of the set (as well as for Colin Morgan to change character, I understand that need). What also disappointed me was that the staging was very remote. I was in the fifth row but the actors felt very far away. This distances us from engagement in many respects.

As an exploration of the human side to a medical breakthrough, the show allows some interesting discussion, finally reverting to facts to bring us some kind of “reality-check” after the hand-wringing. The figures about how much of our DNA we share were arresting in that respect. However, it felt like a very unfinished conversation- and with a duration of just 60 minutes, a rather slim piece overall.

A NUMBER plays the Bridge Theatre until March 14. Information and tickets here


After The Final Curtain – America’s Abandoned Theatres

Matt Lambros is an American movie location scout and photographer of abandoned entertainment buildings. On Saturday February 22nd the Cinema Theatre Association hosted Matt in London to talk about his new book “After The Final Curtain – America’s Abandoned Theaters”, featuring his photographs of scores of abandoned theatres across America. In a talk illustrated with generous amounts of his original photography, Matt took us with him on his travels across America to find forgotten delights.

Matt does what we would all love to do- if we had the time and energy. He travels the country photographing these abandoned gems in whatever state he finds them. His stories about gaining access are often tortuous, but Matt’s perseverance is boundless – and he comes up with the goods.

Getting in is one challenge; what he finds inside is quite another. He describes swarms of rats (he has regular tetanus shots), crumbling masonry, asbestos, water and even sheet ice, all in an often pitch-black environment (no electricity!). Matt relies on his LED camera light packs to give him the illumination he needs, both for navigation and for photography. And the results of this limited lighting, as seen in his many photographs, are pretty breathtaking.

Covering America from coast to coast, the theatres that Matt presented in his talk were mostly built between 1915 and 1925, the majority as vaudeville houses. Pretty soon, cinema took the place of vaudeville, and many of the theatres became movie houses before changing hands in the 70s and 80s through a succession of short-term owners whose interest in the buildings declined with their lack of viability as money-makers. Mostly left to rot, these decaying beauties simply sat and succumbed to the ravages of neglect. Many now plainly past saving, Matt’s photos are a vital (in some cases perhaps the only) record of these once important public amenities.

Along the journey, Matt shared with us some oddities, such as the State Theatre in South Bend, Indiana which eschewed the traditional balcony for small stepped boxes along the upper side walls of the auditorium with a shallow gallery high up at the back- making both an odd-looking auditorium and losing several hundred potential prime balcony seats in the process!

Apparently the Americans have not yet compiled a register of theatres at risk, (which the Theatres Trust do within the UK), so it appears that, worryingly, no-one is keeping a watchful eye over these fading gems.

Matt told us that he also tried to photograph each theatre’s usually ornately decorated fire curtain; he often attempted to lower these heavy steel curtains. However, with these decaying, unmaintained buildings he had to bear in mind that they might not go back up.

If all this dereliction sounds rather bleak, Matt recognised this and provided us with a most welcome “happy ending”, highlighting several theatres which have been rescued, restored and returned to live use, saving until last the Fischer Theatre in Darwin, Illinois which took less than a year to renovate from start to finish, which Matt reckons may well be a record.

Many thanks to Matt for his five-star presentation, and here’s to more happy endings for these American forgotten beauties.

Many of Matt’s photos can be found at his Instagram address here

You can buy Matt’s book “After The Final Curtain: America’s Abandoned Theaters” here

You can find out more about the Cinema Theatre Association here