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

Review: THE GIFT

IN BRIEF Smartly-constructed play about modern Black British experience is provocative and angry as well as very funny, with strong cast and direction

Janice Okoh’s play THE GIFT describes itself as “an outrageous play about imperialism, cross-racial adoption, cultural appropriation…and tea”. And outrageous is certainly the word for this disturbing, searing and intermittently hilarious observation of what it is to be a black British person today. It highlights the rage, shame and guilt at the outrages of Britain’s imperial past which still run as open wounds through our society. As one Sarah says to the other. “They can never understand something they’ve never experienced”

Against an elegant whitewashed set, each of the play’s three acts are set in different times – 1862, the present, and finally a hybrid of the two, as Okoh tantalisingly allows us a “what if?” moment to rewind and rewrite history. It is a smartly constructed, cleverly written and intriguing play which is not only timely but also timeless.

Set in England, far enough away from the horrors of imperialistic force, in 1862 we meet the first “gift”, a young black African woman Sarah, who was given as a gift to Queen Victoria. Suitably schooled in the arrogance of British ways, she is on the verge of returning to Africa to educate “the natives” about how to be British, blindly complicit in the subjugation of her fellow countryfolk.

More perverse, as Sarah’s “experiment”, she has been educating Cockney maid Aggie in the ways of holding a successful tea party. The unexpected tea party she is obliged to hold contains business talk from the men and “civilised” conversation from the ladies. Aggie brings much fun as the nervous maid, the only genuine character amongst this stiff tableau, and the audience warms to her twitchy authenticity.

Act Two is set in modern day and recounts an awkward neighbours’ visit in which Sarah 2020 and James, the black parents of an adopted white child, are forced to endure the ingrained racism of their white neighbours who bring them a “gift” of muffins with an ulterior motive. Although we and the characters laugh at the neighbours’ desperately feigned openness, they still have the ability to revive deep hurt and historic damage, expressed so eloquently by Sarah at the conclusion of this act.

Act Three brings it all together, in a bold shredding of time, where Sarah 2020 and Sarah 1862 are at tea with Queen Victoria. The informing of modern Sarah to Sarah 1862 brings pent up feelings of ferocity which lead to a surprising conclusion and a genuine “what if?” moment.

Bringing the present to bear fully upon the past is an exciting and intriguing idea, and Okoh pulls it off with flair. The cast and direction (from Dawn Walton) are first-rate. Donna Berlin gives not one but two excellent performances (after her accomplished CHASING RAINBOWS last summer), firstly as the jumpy and engagingly down-to-earth maid Aggie, and secondly as 2020 Sarah, a professional who endures and then mocks the twistedly prejudiced neighbours who come to call. Her journey from mockery to dismay is insightful and affecting, as the legacy of the visit causes old feelings to strip her of layers of normality. Movingly it is 2020 Sarah who in the third act encourages 1862 Sarah to fight back, to not be cowed, to stand up for herself. With passionate speeches full of anger and retribution, Berlin’s 2020 Sarah is an effective enabler.

Shannon Hayes as the 1862 Sarah plays with dignity, assurance – and complicity. Only when challenged by the modern Sarah does she start to awaken, to question and achieve realisation that her submission has been imposed and that she has been complicit in her own subjugation. Two sets of feelings- gratitude and awakening horror, all of which Hayes plays with a sureness which is highly watchable.

Although at times a little over-extended, THE GIFT has punch and power, and the joyously multicultural audience I saw this with ooh-ed and aah-ed at every twist, a lovely sign of a real connection with its audience.

THE GIFT plays at the Theare Royal Stratford East until February 15th. Tickets and information here.

THE GIFT then tours to Oxford (21/22 Feb), Bury St Edmunds (27-29 Feb), Southampton (3-7 March) and Scarborough (10-11 March).


THE SUGAR SYNDROME Plays the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond until February 22nd. Tickets and Information here

IN BRIEF Challenging debut from Lucy Prebble hits home in sensitive revival with an outstanding lead performance

It’s 2003 and the internet is an unsophisticated, labyrinthine beast – a thrill-ride. But for teenagers, it’s excitingly dangerous, new and thrillingly sexual – where you can create your own online personality. Online Dani is a sharp, flirty, confident person. Offline Dani is a troubled 17 year-old with an eating disorder and a need to ‘fix’ others. But when her fantasy and reality “worlds collide”, things aren’t as binary as they first appeared…

Dani meets ex-teacher Tim in a park playground. It’s a shock for him- he thought she was an 11-year old boy. With the sexual aspect removed, Dani and Tim create something akin to a friendship. She offers a listening ear. He accepts. Freed from expectation, they can talk openly about their issues. When a row results in Dani leaving home, Tim offers her shelter. When a drunken evening ends badly, he pulls back and she reverts.

It is only when confronted by the disturbing evidence of what Tim gets gratification from that a realisation dawns that this is not something she can fix in him. That realisation causes a reassessment of her other relationships, most notably with her mother, resulting in a reconciliation and a hopeful ending.

A top-notch cast is lead by Jessica Rhodes, who is mesmerising in a highly accomplished performance as Dani, a very difficult role, even more impressive as this is her professional debut. Rarely offstage during the play’s two hour running time, she gives an intricate, nuanced, insightful portrayal of this fragile, smart, emotionally-hungry young woman at a turning point in her life. Tim is effectively played by John Hollingworth with a muted, wounded restraint which generates a kind of sympathy – up to a point. Alexandra Gilbreath worries and paces to effect as the discarded wife and mother – we feel for her as time passes by, cruelly diminishing her. Ali Barouti successfully breathes anxious life into young Lewis, another online encounter, whose connection with Dani lasts longer than the one-minute hand-job she “fixes” him with. We feel for him in his lament at why good women go out with bad men.

Lucy Prebble’s debut play from 2003 is an assured treatment of difficult and controversial subjects, artfully blending surprising moments of humour which arise naturally from the characters, giving a real human edge to the script, and it succeeds with aplomb in this timely revival directed with care and understanding by Oscar Toeman.

Sound and lighting add to the production (particularly the nostalgic sound and flickering LED lights of old-fashioned dial-up internet!), and the minimal set is simple and effective.

THE SUGAR SYNDROME is yet another first-class revival from the adventurous management of the Orange Tree. I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.

THE SUGAR SYNDROME Plays the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond until February 22nd. Tickets and Information here


IN BRIEF Absorbing look at the values of optimism and community in a collapsing world

In the refuge of a run-down office, the motley crew of Brightline telephone helpline volunteers struggle to reassure callers that “it’s going to be alright” – even though the wailing sirens, gasmasks and explosions from the chaotic world outside their office are strongly indicating the reverse.

The team of four try to help callers- and themselves- weather the storms of uncertainty by providing a listening ear. They’re not that great at it, but they’re trying.

Team Leader Frances (Jenni Maitland) clings on to glib textbook motivational phrases, all the time stroking and cradling her ongoing pregnancy bump.

Jon (Andy Rush), a helpline old hand, is at times strident and jagged but his façade too is weakening in the face of a rocky relationship.

Angie (Lydia Larson) is a young woman who gets easily distracted, but connects with callers and cares about what she does.

And 17 year-old Joey (Andrew Finnigan), a work experience lad who has had no training, thrown into the deep end, unexpectedly proves himself a wise head on young shoulders. Finnigan brings a gentle thoughtfulness to this teenager trying to find his way.

Working through their own problems as they try to help others, the increasingly bleak outlook somehow does not impinge upon their determination to try to do…something. It’s perhaps something akin to what people might have called “the Blitz Spirit” in the Second World War.

These unrounded, incomplete characters show us flashes of their other selves but they, like the rest of the play, are never solid or secure, as if to further underline the insecurity under which these people labour.

Callers come and go, often hanging up without completion, and the uncertainty this breeds further fuels the instability of the project. Moments of poignancy, for example at the loss of a caller for reasons unknown, are nicely intercut with gentle, causal humour which give the script texture and depth.

What’s interesting is that you find yourself listening as hard as the volunteers to these incomplete, one-sided conversations in an attempt to make sense of them.

Our thought is “why do they bother?” but as it transpires, the people answering the calls get just as much out of the service as the callers they are listening to.

Sensitively and carefully written by Sam Steiner and acutely directed by James Grieve, despite the tensions and setbacks encountered, unexpected laughter often ripples through the show, bringing a warmth and humanity to an oppressive environment. (And if you’ve never heard angry trombone playing, it’s a hoot.) The cast are uniformly impressive.

The manky set works together with the excellent lighting and sound designs to expertly unsettle the audience along the way.

The show does feel rather overstretched in the latter stages, as it significantly resets our experience to reveal a surprisingly comforting ending, with the knowledge that just by doing something these four are making a difference. And as they say, where there’s life, there’s hope.

OFFIES 2020- a look at the finalists

As the Offies Awards have announced their shortlists, I thought it might be interesting to take a look through the finalists in some of the major categories. (You can find the full list here).

When reading through, you can read my Unrestricted Theatre review of the show by clicking on the title of any show which is highlighted.

In the category Choreography / Movement, Oti Mabuse is a finalist for AIN’T MISBEHAVIN‘ at the Southwark Playhouse. Mabuse worked her cast well and I would hope that she would take away the prize for this category. (However I was very disappointed that Robby Graham was not even longlisted for his work on LEAVE TO REMAIN which ran at Hammersmith in January 2019.)

In the Performance Ensemble category, finalists include THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON at Southwark Playhouse, (Matt Burns, Rosalind Ford, Joey Hickman, Philippa Hogg, James Marlowe)(my review here). Also a finalist is LITTLE BABY JESUS at the Orange Tree Theatre (Anyebe Godwin, Rachel Nwokoro and Khai Shaw). (my review here).

Yet another finalist in this category is GHOST QUARTET at Boulevard Theatre, (Carly Bawden, Niccolò Curradi, Maimuna Memon, Zubin Varla). I would hope that Ghost Quartet wins this category as the interconnection between the four actor-musicians was just incredible, one of the main reasons I saw it twice (a rarity for me!).

In the category Company Ensemble the SpitLip company blow all competition out of the water with their superb OPERATION MINCEMEAT.

The Female Performance in a Play category shortlist includes Lucy Briggs-Owen for OUT OF WATER at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre. Frankly all three performances in this play were award-worthy, but I wish Lucy well in this category.

The Male Performance in a Play category finalists include Irfan Shamji for THE ARRIVAL at the Bush Theatre (you can read my show review here). How you can choose one of the two powerful, inextricable performances in this play and not recognise both is a mystery to me.  I wish Mr Shamji well -while thinking his co-star Scott Karim deserves equal praise.

The Most Promising New Playwright category includes Samuel Bailey for SHOOK at the Southwark Playhouse, this year’s Papatango Prize winner, and I WANNA BE YOURS, by Zia Ahmed at The Bush Theatre . In my opinion Zia Ahmed should win for his eloquent look at a couple trying to hold on to love in an unequal world. Not only that, the production was beautifully acted and directed too.

Best New Play category finalist Rose Lewenstein challenged us all with her raw slab of a play called COUGAR at Richmond’s Orange Tree. In my opinion she deserves to win. You read an interview with the writer Rose Lewenstein here.

In the Best Director category I was disappointed to see that Max Key had not been chosen as a finalist for his stylish, mesmerising production of THE GLASS PIANO at The Coronet Theatre.

In the musicals categories, I was happy to see that Supporting Male Performance finalists include both Oliver Saville for FALSETTOS and Cedric Neal for THE VIEW UPSTAIRS, the show which also features in Best Set Design for finalist Lee Newby.

For the best Male Performance in a musical I was delighted to see that Keith Ramsay is shortlisted for his role as Rachmaninoff in the brilliant PRELUDES at the Southwark Playhouse. This show is also a finalist for Best Lighting Design (by Christopher Nairne).

Best Musical Director is really a shortlist of riches, with the talented Jordan Li-Smith longlisted twice (he also was an accomplished musical associate on PRELUDES) and shortlisted as a finalist, but for me the winner here should be Benjamin Cox for the detailed and mesmerizingly beautiful GHOST QUARTET at the Boulevard Theatre.

Best Director in the musicals section features Bill Buckhurst as a finalist for the aforementioned GHOST QUARTET, who in my opinion should win for his intricate weaving together of music, mood, whiskey and magic.

GHOST QUARTET is also a finalist for Best Musical Production, which nobody who saw it would quibble about.