Review: THE SUGAR SYNDROME

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


Review: MAME

IN BRIEF Tracie Bennett’s star wattage lights up this shimmering revival of Jerry Herman’s feel-good Broadway hit

We all love a survivor.

Unseen in the UK since its 1969 London debut (when it ran at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane for almost 500 performances), Nick Winston’s stripped-down production works well because it understands that Mame is the show and with the casting of Bennett, the show is secure. The show’s intimacy of scale has not limited its ambition- or indeed, its success.

The show is set in New York in 1928. When ten- year old Patrick arrives at the door of his only living relative, it’s is up to high-living auntie Mame to take the boy in and teach him about life -and what a job she does! Together, they weather the depression, Wall Street Crash, stuffed-shirts and bourgeois bores, skilfully side-stepping humdrum reality whenever possible. Mame gaily makes her own authentic way through good times and bad, hard times and good, all with her indomitable spirit untarnished. Mame is a gold-plated survivor.

Bennett concocts her Mame with all the skill of a mixologist. Two parts heart, two parts optimism, one part zany, with a twist of Tallalulah Bankhead in the vocal delivery. It’s deliciously intoxicating. Coupled with a five-star voice with power and sophistication, it’s an unbeatable combination and she justified her standing ovation from the audience I was with.

Lochlan White as younger Patrick authentically expresses his sweet innocence coupled with a playfulness which enhances the chemistry between him and Mame. He more than holds his own with his number “My Best Girl”.

Harriet Thorpe gives a delightfully overblown Vera an appealing mix of Martini- haze and sharp- tongued sass, to the audience’s pleasure.

The cast of 20 all give value, and the big chorus numbers are of a size which still satisfies.

Winston’s acute direction and choreography allows numbers like Open a New Window, to both tell a story and add also atmosphere, value and interest to the extended number. He wisely reins back on numbers like Bosom Buddies, that nicely affectionate bitch- fest where the words do the work, which raises just the right laughs.

The cleverly minimalistic set relies on a few well selected pieces to create an atmosphere and that is all that is needed. Costumes again are good, with the spending wisely done where it is best seen- most particularly in Mame’s sparkling and stylish wardrobe changes, which are a delight.

Any musical with Alex Parker as MD is a winner from the start, and as usual he works wonders with a small band to Jason Carr’s orchestrations. (Just a side note here, I was very disappointed to see that the musicians received no credit in the Royal & Derngate programme- credit where its due, folks, please!).

This two- week extension to the show ‘s original run palpably misses Tim Flavin’s playing of Beauregard; but in truth this is Bennett’s show from start to finish and she gives audiences just what they want.

MAME received the warmest reception from the Northampton audience (on Saturday 11th January), proving that not only do we all love a survivor, but that also we all love a good story with great music done with heart and flair. Producer Katy Lipson has scored another direct hit with a Broadway classic, proving yet again that she is a formidable force for the future of musicals both old and new.

MAME next plays Salisbury Playhouse from 20-25 January. For information and tickets click here


Review: I WANNA BE YOURS

I WANNA BE YOURS plays at the Bush Theatre until 18th January 2020. Details and tickets here

IN BRIEF Articulate and heartfelt play about fighting for love set against a racist environment is strongly played and directed

“Love is the only thing I’m sure of” says Haseeb to Ella during a tense discussion about their relationship. But how do they cope with the pressures of being a young interracial couple? And how can they deal with family prejudices and conflicting loyalties when they are trying to make a life of their own?

Haseeb, a poet meets Ella, an actor at a workshop that Ella is running. We see them grow closer as they go through the delicate, uncharted stages of forming a loving relationship.

Zia Ahmed’s script starts bright and playful, with the excitement and tensions of establishing a relationship carefully and joyfully described, but as the family expectations and outside prejudice slowly weigh in, the characters find themselves under increasing pressure from all sides (as well as from within). In a subtly shifting emotional landscape, darkness slowly creeps in as the forces swirling around and between them threaten their relationship.

A surprise trip presents an opportunity to flee family and focus on each other, giving them room to breathe their own air, and space to deal with the “elephant in the room” between them.

Fleshed out with small, human incidents both funny and sad, this is a well-rounded and relatable play which skilfully captures the youthful enthusiasm of finding love set against the destructiveness of ignorance and prejudice.

The performances are detailed, well-pitched and full of chemistry. One feels for them both, worn down by conflicting pressures of family, prejudice and work. And yes, you really want them to succeed together.

Ragevan Vasan as Haseeb is by turns endearingly bright eyed, fragile and quick; it is genuinely sad to watch his youthful optimism being drained by his environment. The script cleverly integrates (when we least expect it) Haseeb’s poetic talents which are brought to bear upon his despair at being disrespected, which allows him to speak poignantly in a poetic manner about his inner feelings. Emily Stott as Ella subtly captures her character’s initial caution and slow relaxing into the relationship. She makes us believe that Ella is working hard to make it work as she carefully treads each step along the journey. For both characters, the script’s demanding blending of fantasy and reality elements succeeds through the quality of performances and sensitive direction by Anna Himali Howard.

The play also ingeniously integrates Rachael Merry the BSL signer into the onstage action, who as well as signing heroically, provides some humorous moments and is a useful third person for the two leads to play off.

Although the “open” ending risks leaving the audience divided, this is an articulate, heartfelt and hopeful play where we are allowed to hope that- just perhaps – love might conquer all.

The 80 minutes running time flew all too quickly.

I WANNA BE YOURS plays at the Bush Theatre until 18th January 2020. Details and tickets here


Read an interview with Rachael Merry – the play’s BSL signer – on the Bush Theatre’s website here


Review: CANDIDA

Martin Hutson and Claire Lams in CANDIDA. Photo by Johann Persson from the Orange Tree Theatre website. CANDIDA runs at The Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond until January 18th. Details and tickets here

IN BRIEF Superbly-cast and directed production maximises Shaw’s comedy of love with heart, drive and sparkle in an unmissable treat.

Passionate Socialist and practical priest James Morell’s wife Candida returns home with a romantic, unworldly young poet, Eugene in tow who she has taken under her wing. His arrival at their home causes a fundamental disturbance and testing for the priest, confusions about love, and the ultimate setting straight of the record by Candida herself. Bernard Shaw’s play is a witty examination of attitudes to love and marriage in Victorian society, as lovingly revived here by Orange Tree Artistic Director Paul Miller. This is his fourth Bernard Shaw since joining the theatre, and they just seem to get better and better.

Candida is the title and the subject of the play, but, reflecting the gender issues of Victorian society, the male characters’ ideas dominate for the majority of the play. It is only when Candida gives full voice to her feelings that we see that she holds all the power in this triangle.

Shaw lays these three characters open to us at a vulnerable time and examines their feelings, thoughts and assumptions, together with insecurities, misunderstandings and vanities. But each character holds a different vision and it is in Candida’s gift to decide the outcome.

Shaw’s writing makes us smile as he captures acutely the wildness of romantic love, as set here against the practicalities of a less lofty but innately more practical domestic love which Candida and James have collaborated upon. The discussions about love, dreams and expectations are engaging and hearty; But in many of the dialogue passages there is a currency and authenticity which reveals the craftsmanship of the writer and universality of the subject. The wit and humour make the whole sparkle and shine.

Superbly cast by Vicky Richardson and Sarah Murray, the performances are uniformly strong across the six-strong cast. The central trio of Rev. James Morell (Martin Hutson), Candida (Claire Lams) and Eugene (Joseph Potter*) are beautifully tuned.

All three are meticulously detailed performances, but Hutson is the one I couldn’t take my eyes off. His subtle shifts across a landscape of feelings, from laudable “talking machine” to passionate combatant for his own wife’s affections, his is a performance of subtlety and depth. Lams gives Candida a presence and a fully-rounded voice; the quiet, solid protectiveness of a mother and unwavering wife, not above subtly mocking the two men’s interpretation of her feelings and bringing them both sharply -but finally compassionately – to heel. It’s a performance to savour. Potter’s “great baby” Eugene is a timid volcano of emotion, endearingly unsullied by “reality” or moderation, making Candida’s indulgence and mothering of him all the more understandable. The supporting players all get the most out of the smaller roles; Kwaku Mills is enjoyably lively and light-headed as Lexy the curate; Michael Simkins is humorous, shifty and suitably shallow as Candida’s father and Sarah Middleton intermittently flares up – most enjoyably – as “typing woman” Miss Garnett.

A mention also for the spare yet very effective stage design by Simon Daw, utilising a few well-chosen furniture pieces and astutely placed printed matter of the time which gives the auditorium a nicely pulled-together feel in support of the play itself.

CANDIDA sits perfectly in the intimate, in the round space of the Orange Tree. Director Miller has given audiences the gift of an intense yet amusing and accessible classic play which feels authentic, honest and timeless. What better holiday present? Treat yourselves.

CANDIDA runs at The Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond until January 18th. Details and tickets here


*Although Joseph Potter is making his professional debut with CANDIDA, I did see him giving a standout performance in the difficult lead role of Charley in Guildhall School’s graduation show this summer, Sondheim’s challenging MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG. So he can sing brilliantly too – I really look forward to seeing his career trajectory.


Review: THE PERMANENT WAY

IN BRIEF Verbatim expose of botched rail privatisation makes for compelling, chilling viewing.

V.O.L.

It sticks in my throat and in my head.

V.O.L. The most chilling acronym in David Hare’s masterful THE PERMANENT WAY which weaves together first-hand accounts of those involved with the privatisation of British Railways in the early 1990s and its aftermath. V.O.L  means Value of Life. The financial sum that emotionally castrated corporate types nudge up and down to try to determine the financial worth of a person’s having been alive, after they have died.

I am sorry if that makes you feel as sick as it does me, but it is an integral part of David Hare’s vital public revisiting of the many hours of interviews that he and Out of Joint company undertook to weave together the story of incompetence at the heart of the rail privatisation, and of a terrifyingly quick succession of four rail disasters – Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield and Potters Bar- which claimed dozens of lives and hundreds of casualties.

This revival of Hare’s play from 2003 gives us a valuable illustration of the corporate mindset, where a 30% increase in passenger numbers is viewed as a “bit of bad luck”, and where those in charge decide to “push through (with privatisation) and see what happens” even though they don’t have the faintest idea what the outcome will be.

The figures etch themselves upon us – the money men, blinded to everything but a share price; the hapless suits who pass the blame and rely on broken chains of accountability to smokescreen their incompetence: and most moving, the ordinary travelling public who are doomed to always pick up the tab.

Corporates and individuals are juxtaposed to stark effect- bland brand babble against potent human experience, the language exposes the fake from the real, the good from the bad, the competent from the incompetent. Hare’s humanity, finely-tuned ear and clear-eyed editing expertly brings out the fundamentals of the words and their speakers.

Simply staged in the round, the play’s lack of visual elements does not matter. This is a vital play about real people which gives voice to the voiceless and exposes a system hopelessly corrupted at all levels.

The capable nine-strong cast each take a number of roles effectively. Alexander Lass’s direction is simple and humane, as befits the script’s forensic focus.

This is theatre at its most potent and relevant, skilfully building truth and fostering righteous anger at the terrifying injustice of it all. And after sixteen years it still seems just as relevant as it ever was.

With trains rumbling overhead at Waterloo Station, Debbie Hicks’s production couldn’t be more timely; as the UK stares down the barrel of a loaded Brexit, perhaps we should stop to ask- do we trust those who have their finger on the trigger? Or will it be another case of “push through and see what happens”?

THE PERMANENT WAY concluded its run at The Vaults on 17 November