Review: CAN I HELP YOU?

IN BRIEF Compassionate exploration of mental health is challenging but ultimately uplifting

Be Kind. To yourself and others. That’s the core message in Philip Osment’s final play, CAN I HELP YOU? It’s an intriguing puzzle of a play which gradually pulls together a picture of two very different people who have mental health issues. Both have blamed themselves for things not in their power to control, causing them lifelong guilt and self-punishment.

Just as Francis, an off-duty policeman, is about to throw himself off of Beachy Head, he encounters Fifi wandering along with a large shopping bag and a cat box.

Fifi has battled cruelty all her life, from being the only black child at her school, to her own child’s stillbirth, and to her husband’s lack of love and care. Relying on God, voices in her head and her cat (Kat), she has somehow forged her own way through life. Still guilt-ridden, she envisions what her son (Michael)’s life would have been like, and she yearns for him. She thinks she sees him in the people she meets.

Francis is racked with guilt about a time when as a young boy he left his chronically depressed mother alone so that he could get away from her and go on holiday – leaving her to commit suicide undetected.

However, the interspersed flashback scenes demonstrate that rather than being their fault, these events were out of their control, and not as their memories had chosen to recall them.

The guilt of the son and the guilt of the mother are delicately contrasted here and provide an eventual part-catharsis for both Francis and Fifi as they work through their troubled pasts through talking with each other.

Covering mental health from a view of both race and gender, Osment’s script highlights the human costs of the failures of social care systems and their impacts upon innocent people who try to carry on whilst absorbing the overwhelming mental damage this causes.

The script treats the characters with warmth, compassion and understanding, providing a reflective mood for characters and audience alike. As one of them says, “we get so caught up with things that don’t matter you forget the bigger picture”. And here, away from the rest of their lives, it feels that they can get a precious “bigger picture” view of their situation.

A symbolic ending seems gently uplifting in Osment’s signature way; a fitting way to sign off a life’s work.

Technically, the flashback scenes were effectively achieved by changes in lighting and swift physical and vocal character shifts, done with aplomb by the two actors. I did feel that Gabriel Vick’s Francis was rather underplayed at the start of the play, although he gains dramatic “weight” as he gets into the role. Perhaps this might have been a direction issue, although the rest of the play comes across well. Susan Aderin’s Fifi is a magnetic performance, rolling with all the drama and swell of the stormy sea that surrounds her. She gives a powerful performance of pain, loss and hope.

Max Pappenheim’s ebbing and flowing seascape sound design nicely captures the feel of place and the power of nature, the stormy weather echoing the internal mental turbulence the characters feel.

Like other of Osment’s plays, I found that it was rather overstuffed with themes and ideas; the strand about immigration needed more time to enjoy its own space rather than being quickly raised and dropped. But the central themes are well-expressed and the 75-minute running time flew by.

CAN I HELP YOU? Ran at the Omnibus Theatre, Clapham until March 15th after which it was closed early owing to the public health emergency.


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.


Review: THIS ISLAND’S MINE

THIS ISLAND’S MINE at Kings Head Theatre until June 8th, details here

IN BRIEF Ambitious production of epic multi-strand drama whose breadth restricts its depth, but maximised by hard-working cast and direction.

First things first – it’s refreshing to see a play about gay people that includes both men and women. And how interesting that to find this mix we have to thank this play from 1988, now receiving a loving revival (its first ever) from Ardent Theatre and director/designer Philip Wilson.

There is a lot packed into its 105 mins running time (straight through). Teenage Luke runs away from his family to stay with his gay uncle Martin; a lesbian couple have trouble with their young son and jealousy; an actor and chef experience turbulence in their relationship. All face pressure of prejudice upon them involving sexuality/ race/ sex. Meanwhile, Martin’s old landlady reflects on her life and the prejudice she has seen, while caring for her elderly cat.

The play follows them all episodically as their stories intertwine and create a fast-paced narrative that uncovers many unexpected links. There is a lot within its pages- humour, tenderness, longing, sadness, awakenings, which contribute to a well-told story threaded through with humanity.

However, the play’s inclusivity in terms of characters and storylines comes at the cost of depth. This limits the audience’s connections with the characters, which is a pity as when the writing slows down and gives itself room to breathe, it is a delight to listen to Osment’s lyrical language, and as such these moments catch you by surprise and cause a reassessment of the play.

A lot of Osment’s script involves the characters breaking the fourth wall, explaining the narrative, locations, feelings and situations. This moving in and out of character, combined with the fact that the actors double -or mostly triple -up on roles played, mean that the play can feel very fragmented. This can create distance for an audience, however I must say that the audience I was with were concentrating from start to finish, which is a tribute to director Wilson’s carefully thought out approach and the energy of the cast.

What marks out this production is the clarity with which the director has presented the many strands of story in what could otherwise have felt like a very tangled text. The production is also ambitious technically, with an attractive, simple yet flexible set design which works well within the many confines of the Kings Head Theatre.  Rachel E Cleary’s sophisticated lighting design works stylishly, and the evocative soundscape by Dinah Mullen brings a welcome texture to the variety of environments created.

Pleasingly cyclic, the play ends as it starts, with teenage Luke on his home ground, just a little older, a bit wiser and a little more hopeful. THIS ISLAND’S MINE is an endearing tapestry of outsider stories, effectively woven by director Wilson and enacted by a tight ensemble cast that work hard (ditto the props and costume teams) to bring the multitude of characters to distinctive life. And as a reminder of how things have changed- or haven’t- this is a valuable wake-up call that we still have to fight those old battles every day.


THIS ISLAND’S MINE runs at the Kings’s Head Theatre, London, until June 8th. Details and tickets here