Review: PAPER CUT

Callum Mardy as Kyle in PAPER CUT at Park Theatre. Photo courtesy Park Theatre website.

IN BRIEF: Complex, harrowing war drama highlighting unseen costs of war is strongly acted and compassionately written.

Returning servicemen finding the world – and themselves – changed irrevocably has been a topic for drama for over a century, from fascinating films including The Lost Squadron in 1932, The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946 and Coming Home in 1978 to stage plays, the latest of which is Andrew Rosendorf’s PAPER CUT, which finally has a London run at Park Theatre’s 90 space, after its original run at Theatre503 was cruelly cancelled by Covid’s debut in March 2020.

Paper Cut is an engrossing exploration of what drives American men into the military and the devastating, unforeseen price they often pay in their search for belonging.

The focus of the play is Kyle, an American army sergeant fighting the war in Afghanistan. Kyle is a sergeant who is admired by his men, so when he is devastatingly injured by an IED, one of his subordinates, Chuck, saves him. There are many layers behind Chuck’s actions, not least because of the close personal relationship he has with Kyle. Kyle and Chuck are gay, and the military is not a welcoming place for gay people. Discharged and sent home, Kyle’s biggest war is now the one raging inside him.

Heavily-drugged, memory-impaired Kyle has a bigger fight on his hands as he returns to a country which respects the idea of servicemen but doesn’t understand them and their trauma, or adequately support them, bitterly explored when Kyle attempts dating online and gets a quick rejection when revealing himself to his prospective date. The end of his military career and its “belonging”, his unresolved identity issues, phantom pain in his absent foot, the flashbacks, the unaddressed PTSD ramifications – all these factors conspire to create the new war which rages inside Kyle’s head.

The play centres around three of Kyle’s relationships; with his brother Jack, with his lover/comrade Chuck and with an online hookup, Harry – all of which he attempts to “cut off” to help him manage his feelings, but two out of three survive.

Kyle’s tortured relationship with his gay brother, his only “family”, fractured by Kyle outing him to the family some years earlier is fraught with anger, guilt and blame. As nurse Jack is gradually allowed to become part of Kyle’s support system the two navigate towards a better understanding of what they have in common.

Kyle finally comes to some sort of terms with his gayness and his feelings for Chuck, and the closing of the play offers at least some hope that the two men, both changed by horrific wartime experiences, may help and support each other in each other’s recovery and survival, to find their own way of belonging in a way that celebrates rather than suffocates.

A compassionate, ambitious and complex play, it has a lot to say and prompts many interesting questions, which its limited length does not have time to explore. The actors make the most of their opportunities. Callum Mardy as Kyle gives a volatile, insightful performance of vulnerability and courage as he attempts to come to terms with the physical and emotional damage wreaked upon him. Joe Bolland as Jack effectively embodies the caring nature of brother Jack shot through with the pain of their shared history and unresolved issues. Prince Kundai as Chuck was a little difficult to follow for the first ten minutes of the play, it was hard to get an ear on his accent and it was a struggle to understand him, however, this resolved itself after some time and he had some effective moments later in the play. With fewer opportunities, Tobie Donovan as disconnected and uncomprehending “date” Harry did what he could with the character material he was given.

Set, lighting and sound designs were stark and serviceable. Staging and direction by Scott Hurran were sympathetic and sensitive to the needs of the actors and the script.
For many men whose family history is in the military, their enlistment seems a given – a way to belong to something in ways that their lives may not have offered opportunities otherwise. But PAPER CUT is a valuable window into this insular and unreal world, exposing “the sacrifices you make without realising you’ll be making them” (as Chuck says), the most important being the avoidance of understanding themselves by sacrificing their sense of self for a false sense of belonging, on someone else’s terms, submerging themselves in an unquestioning and inflexible structure.

How can one come to terms with idea that a comrade can also be a threat, a friend (or even lover) also an enemy? This seductive idea of finding belonging in the military which denies your existence or your right to be yourself is the unending war that armies wage upon their own soldiers. PAPER CUT is a helpful and compassionate addition to the many vital conversations around identity, humanity and social responsibility.

PAPER CUT runs at Park Theatre to July 1st. Details and tickets here


Review: A CRITICAL STAGE

A CRITICAL STAGE at the Tabard Theatre, Jeremy Booth and Barbara Wilshere.
Photo by Charles Flint courtesy of Tabard website

IN BRIEF: Lovingly-researched and well-crafted celebration of theatre critic James Agate winningly focuses on depth rather than breadth, aided by dedicated performances

The relationship between theatre practitioners, theatre critics and audiences has always been a spiky one. The critic’s view is often the one deferred to by the public when deciding what to see and what to avoid. Their power in making or breaking productions is undeniable though often over-stated. Rarely as publicly-recognised or as feted as the stars upon the stage, critics themselves tend to be forgotten after their work ceases. James Agate was a glorious exception to this – a larger than life character with a genuine love of life, people- and his work.

Only rarely are critics themselves critiqued, but the Oxford Encyclopaedia of Theatre and Performance put it succinctly when they described James Agate thus: “his criticism consequently is verbose and self-indulgent but hugely entertaining and revealing”

A CRITICAL STAGE is writer/director Gareth Armstrong’s affectionate remembrance of one of the mid-20th century’s most respected theatre critics, James Agate. Now largely forgotten outside (or even inside) theatre circles, this carefully-researched play weaves together choice excepts from his writing to create a portrait of the writer as a public figure, playing the part, always aware that he is writing his own lines, in a delicate balance between praise and paranoia that he might miss “the next big thing”. Armstrong’s sprightly, zesty dialogue sparkles and crackles to successfully paint for us a three-dimensional portrait of Agate, inconsistencies and all, into something which really comes alive under the author’s own direction and studied performances. Thankfully not simply an illustrated timeline, as biographical plays can often be reduced to, A CRITICAL STAGE plays it smart by focusing closely on a short period of time and allows its characters to fully inhabit the space created.

Set in wartime London in 1942, the play covers a perilous time in both the career of Agate, at that time chief theatre critic for The Sunday Times, and his secretary “of sorts” Leo, a gifted piano teacher and soloist – a gay Austrian Jew who fled the Nazis. Leo’s questionable refugee status which threatens his safety, and Agate’s indiscretions which threaten to derail his critic’s job (“I have to work- it defines me”) provide tensions for each man to navigate as the play uncovers the stories behind the men’s current predicaments. Outsiders both, their shared gayness creates a camaraderie against a hostile world.

The appearance of actress Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, railing at Agate’s critical demolition of her performance as Lady Macbeth (“You shit” she explodes (in a delightful entry line). “It’s my job” he retorts), broadens the focus to fully involve Leo and later flares up into a fascinating discussion between Gwen and Agate as to the value of critics, and whether critics are artists or tradesmen – which is pointed, engaging and absorbing.

This smooth four-hander has a strong cast. Jeremy Booth gives a full-bodied incarnation of Agate, showing us hints of the kindly, principled man behind the public façade of a belligerent, laser-confident, driven man of the theatre who prefers his private side to be kept private. David Acton plays put-upon Leo with twitchy finesse, giving as good as he gets, his blood-chilling monologue about his brush with Nazism provoking his “terror” which curtailed his public performances – which authentically cuts across time. Barbara Wilshere plays Gwen with a feisty humanity, seeing through Agate’s façade; although there is an underlying affection, but she is not intimidated by his barbs. Smike, Agate’s compliant yet resourceful “houseboy” (Sam Hill) rounds out the cast.

Everything here is employed with precision – from words (Peter, the caretaker’s sickly son who Agate buys presents for and spends time with, described by Agate as “completely innocent”) to shocks (bondage, exploding bombs),  props (a missing pair of trousers, a silver winner’s cup) and more.

Words, Agate’s critical components, are rightfully respected and used deftly here. Writer of 40 books, Agate bats away criticism of his solitary play credit as having “divided opinion” with all the aplomb of a contemporary Coward or a modern spin doctor. As to his appearance as only the second guest on the fledgling Desert Island Discs radio programme with its scripted interjections between the records, he confides to Gwen: “It’s the BBC- we daren’t risk a real conversation”.

There is little sense of the real world of 1942 intruding into the theatrical world that these characters inhabit, apart from an unexploded bomb and a call for “Gin and It” resulting in a concoction of whatever alcohol happened to be available. This is helpful in allowing us to focus upon the characters themselves.

It is clear that we are in experienced hands, from the smart construction (a very effective “shock” opening and first-act curtain) to the clever revisiting of a background running gag, this is assured writing which knows its own value but never allows itself to lose focus. There’s a lot of fun to be had, a lot to discover and much to appreciate in this play.

Concluding as Peter is laid to rest, Agate fends off competition and Leo overcomes his terror, the critical stage recedes as the characters sit back to listen to Agate’s broadcast as the theme of Desert Island Discs reassuringly wafts across the stage.

Agate’s concern about his legacy – a common theme, especially with gay men – has been assuaged to a considerable degree thanks to this careful and affectionate play which not only educates and celebrates his career as a passionate advocate of theatre, but also of a fascinating, flawed character of deep principle and humanity.

A CRITICAL STAGE ran at the Theatre at the Tabard, Chiswick, London from 31 May to 17 June 2023


Review: AIN’T TOO PROUD

IN BRIEF Glorious singing and energetic performances elevates this manufactured bio-musical

In anyone’s language, the Temptations are a music phenomenon, with an almost unrivalled longevity, and still going.

Created by Otis Williams in mid-fifties “Motor City” Detroit, after falling into bad company as a youngster, Williams found music as his “calling” after being inspired the Cadillac’s celestial rendering of Gloria (which to this day remains a goosebump-inducing song for me, as a doo-wop and close harmony fan, too).

The story of the Temps (who knew that Temp would also come to mean temporary in this group, which to date has had over 70 members over seven decades), of five men, catalysed by music and forged by shared aspiration for a better life away from petty crime and gangs, is celebrated, whilst never allowing them (or us) to forget that the brand is bigger than any of its individual members. The 85-minute first half overwhelms us with classic songs, from future group members blasting out fifties’ classics, to the creation of the “classic five” line-up and their challenging navigation of relationships, managers, fame and increasing popularity, to become one of the rare crossover acts that had big followings, played big crowds and had to manage big egos, even as world events flared up around them.

A big heads-up is that this show comes to you from several of the team who brought us the international smash JERSEY BOYS (director Des McAnuff, choreographer Sergio Trujilio, lighting designer Howell Binkley and sound designer Steve Canyon Kennedy). In many ways, it’s the same structure applied to the Temptations, and it stands very much in the former show’s shadow.

All the tropes of “the price of fame” are here – ego, drugs, sex, booze – and each challenge presents the group with tricky decisions which threaten, but never derail, their progress. Dominique Morriseau’s script is ironically both too heavy and too light, yes it’s fast-moving but unengaged, and even then manages to get caught up too long on the group’s infighting. It must be said the inclusion of some of the songs’ backstories are genuinely interesting and add another layer to our understanding of this turbulent and competitive era. The book’s treatment of historical events of the late sixties feel way too glossed over to really create an impact, never being allowed to slow the show’s progress to the next song. Further, the cobbled attempts to bolt the songs to world events (even when they don’t really match) feels poorly-considered.

The show’s stripped-down, black and white industrial-look stage design (by Robert Brill) works both for it and against it. Cleverly reminiscent of the birthplace of Motown, Detroit, the car manufacturing capital of the world, set pieces (and people) roll on and off stage on low, flat trucks which rather overstate the conveyor-belt feel to the presentation. However the starkness of look does tire after a while. The appearance of a blue satin stage curtain in act two seems a little incongruous but is nevertheless a welcome piece of colour. The minimalism does, however, encourage us to focus on the band members themselves and their performances of the songs are energetic, confident and largely faithful to the originals. It would have been nicer to have heard longer versions of some of the songs (which is why we turned up!), but there is a lot of ground to cover and this is not a concert.

With much time and many characters to bring on and offstage, the show sacrifices depth of character for breadth of numbers, so we get the broadest sketches of characters, which means that we rarely feel invested enough to care about them or want to know more.  Only the character of the founder Otis Williams (played with some gravitas by Sifiso Mazibukowho) who steps in and out of the show to narrate the story, has enough time to come across with any semblance of depth.

The (mostly) fast pace of the show means that we don’t have time to stop to ponder upon the bare-bones construction. But this show, like its other songbook show predecessors, is all about the music, and it is here, thankfully, where the show truly flies.

The band members certainly bring talent by the cartload, incredible power and control in their vocals and energy in their dance moves.

A group will always have variance in characters, and some characters just aren’t as strongly represented as others. The standouts, for me, Tosh Wanogho-Maud’s swag as supremely vocally talented David Ruffin (for me, worth the price of admission alone) wows the crowd with his moves and vocal pyrotechnics, and Mitchell Zhangazha as Eddie Kendricks stands out vocally for all the right reasons. The crowd gave a big reception to bass-voiced Cameron Bernard Jones as Melvin Franklin, perhaps more for the much-appreciated elements of humour he brought to a pretty serious script. Kyle Cox as Paul Williams rounds out the classic five line-up which dominates the show. Their synchronised dance moves, lovingly recreated by Trujilio, are by turns dynamic, smooth and engaging.

It’s a very male-heavy show, with only a few peripheral female characters, which fairly accurately reflects the music industry of its time. Brief appearances by Diana Ross and the Supremes sing truncated versions of some of their hits, and it feels like they have been taken less care of in terms of their styling and presentation as subsidiary characters in this show.

The excellent band in the pit have their moment on stage to close the show and their playing captures the Motown beat and drive. This is music that musicians love to play and this talented band are clearly loving it, and doing the Motown sound justice.

If you go, you’ll go for the music – and you definitely won’t be disappointed.

AIN’T TOO PROUD plays at London’s Prince Edward Theatre until January 2024. Tickets and information here


OPERATION MINCEMEAT invades the West End!

The worst kept secret in years has finally been announced. In March 2023, Spitlip’s singularly hilarious cultish comedy musical OPERATION MINCEMEAT (based on the true story of an incredible WW2 mission) opens for 8 weeks only at the Fortune Theatre. My instinct is that it will have several extensions before it even opens. (Note, added Nov 20th – I see the run has already been extended by a further eight weeks. Undoubtedly it will be further extended).

The hype has helped its announcement. It will be interesting to see how the show, whose previous homes have been the 80-seat New Diorama and the 200-seat Southwark Playhouse (as well as Riverside Studio) will sit in the 432-seat Fortune Theatre. The theatre is renowned for its intimacy (something often lacking in the formality of West End spaces) but nevertheless this run may experience a new physical removal from the audience which they will have to navigate. This could rein back the show’s connection with audiences it has had in its previous black box outings, but I have a feeling that the all-round strength of this zany new musical will overcome all obstacles and win through, as the original plan of the mission did.

“…has the potential to become one of those rare theatrical cult hits.”

Unrestricted Theatre review, July 2019. You saw it here first, friends!

Tickets are blanket priced at a reasonable £35 across the house for March/April, rising in May onwards, creating a buyer momentum while spreading the word about this unique show which those who attend will undoubtedly want to bring their friends to. I hope that the higher ticket prices won’t put people off trying this inventive and sometimes challenging musical which at times makes BOOK OF MORMON feel tame.

Crucial to the speed and smartness of delivery of the crisp music and super-sharp lyrics, one hopes that the sound challenges – in getting each word to the back and top of a 400-seater – will be overcome by using the best sound team they can afford.

It’s important to praise not only the huge amount of work which has gone into refining this chunk of theatre gold, but we must also acknowledge that the show was originally commissioned by New Diorama Theatre, and co-commissioned by The Lowry, Salford. It was supported by the Rhinebeck Writers Retreat. Later, additional support and full commercial exploitation came from Avalon.

You can read my first (2019) review of OPERATION MINCEMEAT here

Find out more and book tickets for the West End run here

“must have a headmust be a man

Find out what it means at OPERATION MINCEMEAT


Review: SOMETHING IN THE AIR

Ian Gelder, left, and Christopher Godwin in SOMETHING IN THE AIR Photo by Steve Gregson

IN BRIEF: Peter Gill’s ode to memory both comforts and unsettles, graced with two fine central performances

“Old age is no place for sissies”, as Bette Davis once said.

Our declining years, as we grudgingly relinquish our (previously taken for granted) independence can be uneasy and disconcerting. Peter Gill’s affectionate yet unsettling play SOMETHING IN THE AIR captures something of the deep trials and small pleasures of old age, while celebrating the lives of others who have intersected with their own.

As often in Gill’s work, it’s like catching glimpses of a narrative but through shards of a mirror, intersecting planes which require the audience to take significant leaps of faith and understanding to fully explore his work. The title aptly suggests the elusive quality of memory, and of this play itself.

This fusion – or perhaps confusion – of stories as they are woven in and out of the lives of our two main characters, social worker Alex and book dealer Colin, reveal secrets, lies, disappointments, hopes and fears. What Gill has done is to allow us to feel something of what it’s like for the memory to fade in terms of detail and linkage, to make us feel that disconnection/dislocation of memory.

Talking to each other, themselves, younger versions of themselves, and to unseen others, the two engage with their revelations, loves and losses. Drawing a vivid picture of London in the 50s and 60s, with Gill’s natural descriptive flair, their reminiscences come alive before us, as they fade in and out of their recollections. And they remember it all together.

Ian Gelder, previously seen as an enigmatic and brooding James Whale in Southwark Playhouse’s GODS AND MONSTERS in 2017, impresses here again as caring, discarded lover yet longtime friend Alex. Christopher Godwin as Colin moves in and out of lucidity with a grace all of its own, owning his inability to settle down as he works through a procession of lovers, both male and female. Both actors impress with their grasp of demandingly long passage of monologue, poetic and sensual in their detail, evoking a lost world of “less enlightened times”, as one of them puts it.

Of the relatives who come to visit them, Colin’s prejudiced and self-centred son is equally detached but on an emotional plane, “It’s my Dad”, he says, in a telling declaration of his detachment, only coming to life when concerned about what other might think. Alex’s niece embodies the more caring, understanding, progressive societal view, quietly challenging the heartless ignorance of her fellow visitor.

The two younger cast members play Alex and Colin in their younger years, although physically unconnected, efficiently describing the idealism of youth, although they get relatively little to do in the play.

What appears at first sight to be a very brief 65-minute running time proves just right, in the sense that the fragile world created by fractured remembrance would never have survived an interval.

Whilst itself proving a challenge, Gill’s wistful play eloquently gives voice to those many lives we each live, celebrates the joys and sadnesses, and salutes those facing the unknown. At the final curtain, the hoped-for soothing closure is disturbingly cut, reminding us of the uncertainty we all face as we near the end.

In considering the play, I did question whether its lack of stage action or physicality made it better suited to a non-visual medium, such as radio. However, upon reflection the physical presence of the two central performers, together with their quiet intimacy and that disturbing final curtain, made the need for this play to be presented on stage undeniable.

SOMETHING IN THE AIR played 13 October – 12 November at Jermyn Street Theatre, London