Celebrating painter Walter Sickert’s theatricality in subject and expression

Detail from Gallery of the Old Bedford Theatre, by Walter Sickert

Here’s a great article from the Liverpool Museums website about the great painter Walter Sickert and the theatricality which suffused his paintings. Early training and experience as an actor gave him access to the Music Halls and theatres of his day, and his appreciation for the qualities of light and drama and their ability to highlight the complex relationship between performers and audience inform his work to a significant extent.

Junxia Wang, the author of the piece, is a History of Art PhD student at University of York. Her article is well worth a read.

You can find it here


Discovering local history through performance – an online talk

On Wednesday 15 September at 4.00pm BST the University of Wolverhampton presents an interesting talk on the importance of drama in communities

In “Applying Heritage Theatre: Discovering local history through performance” Dr Darren Daly will examine the use of theatre to engage with and reveal local history. In the course of the talk, he will identify some of the main principles and theatrical forms for communicating history through performance and illustrate how they can reveal hidden histories and narratives.

The lecture will use examples from the University of Wolverhampton’s partnership work with the Black Country Living Museum and Black Country Studies Centre, and a recent project called Hush Now by Feral Productions which investigated the historic Mother and Baby Homes located in the Black Country and the surrounding areas.

The talk is scheduled to last 60 minutes.

Book your free tickets here


Radio: The drama behind the birth of the National Theatre

Broadcast this week on BBC Radio Four, THE NATIONAL is a fascinating listen. Written by Sarah Wooley, this three-part drama about the creation of the National Theatre on London’s South Bank features all the main players: Sir Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Tynan, Lord Goodman, The Lord Chamberlain, Peter Hall and Harold Pinter as well as many others.

You can listen to THE NATIONAL by clicking here

(Please note – users outside the UK may not be able to access BBC online programming – but give it a try anyway!)

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


Review: NINE FOOT NINE

IN BRIEF Smart sci-fi exploration of gender power shift is unsettling and rivetingly told

Sci-fi on stage can be a real hit and miss affair, which is why it’s great that recent exponents of this genre have been really successful. Ella Road’s THE PHLEBOTOMIST stoked our fears about truth, power and humanity to great effect. Now, Alex Wood’s carefully-crafted NINE FOOT NINE riffs upon the societal and psychological impacts of changes in physical size and power in the gender mix.

Nate and Cara are a loving couple who we first meet at that most stressful and joyful of times, as they discover the results of a pregnancy test. Sometime before their daughter Sophie’s birth, a global epidemic of unusual growth (“sprouting”) begins to affect the female population, eventually making Cara over nine feet tall with an accompanying increase in strength. The tortuous extension process is conveyed alarmingly well by both the female actors through expressing a physical agony perhaps akin to childbirth (or could one say rebirth?).

Apart from an increase in strength, the change in size has a huge number of other ramifications, including a feeling of disconnection from her growing child “I can’t feel them inside me” Cara laments to Nate. Everything Cara does has to be recalibrated, from a hug to a smack to a hit, which presents challenges for both sexes. Later, as men are the less strong of the sexes and so in less demand, women still find themselves exploited, simply in new ways.

Schools introduce segregation, and prejudice is never far from the surface where difference is involved; at school, late sprouting girls are labelled “stunters”, creating psychological issues on top of the physiological ones, putting pressure on all who try to support the young women, including schoolteacher Nate.

Wood has chosen to tell this global story by focussing on one family, in doing so making it human and relateable. He has clearly thought about a raft of impacts and their ramifications carefully and picked a number to explore, and even manages some humour to leaven the tension. This is what gives the text substance and makes it worthy of close audience attention. Direction by Helena Jackson is subtle but firm, moving the show forward at a good clip.

All three actors are well-cast. Paul O’Dea as Nate is the unchanging part of this equation, yet ironically as a teacher and the male (and therefore not a sprouter) he has to try to help others through this seismic change. His calm, warm and loving (yet ultimately overprotective) approach is a solid hub for the characters to move around. It is all the more disturbing, therefore, to see him snap and for the pent-up anguish to come tumbling out after Sophie has used her power to hurt another child. Alexandra James as Cara is very effective, ambitious and unafraid, portraying the acclimatisation to her new status in a way that we can relate to. Misha Pinnington as Sophie portrays the vulnerable innocence of the child well, and then later as she becomes the only link between her separated parents, becoming a force to equal with as she stands up to Cara.

A huge positive in this script’s case is the introduction of sly humour, as used in the clever and layered scene-changing sound montages, where adverts for stretchmark glitter and elevator shoes for men remind us that whatever happens, someone is always ready to make a buck out of our trials. The humour extends to a couple of very uncomfortable 911 emergency calls with sex-related issues (which were nevertheless very funny, albeit painful for us men!). Notable in its own right, the engaging and smart sound design includes a continuous heartbeat backing track which gives a useful underscore to the events on stage.

Alongside all these positives, I must air a couple of reservations that I had about the presentation as a whole. There was a bit too much jumping around in time for me, timings were a little hard to fathom at the start.

Secondly: how to create the height without showing it. The stylistic decision to render the growth in an abstract visual manner is double-edged. The text needs to remind us of the size difference, and just sometimes I wondered if there might have been another way to show this difference.

Finally, the whole show is captioned with the caption screen sitting top centre of the set. The one thing that I found sometimes difficult to juggle was my attention being drawn to the screen and away from the action.

Sleepless Theatre’s production does the script justice and makes us think, which makes for a satisfying 60 minutes at the theatre.


NINE FOOT NINE played the Edinburgh Festival 2018 and returned for the Incoming Festival at the end of June 2019, playing Manchester, Bristol and London.