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: DISTINGUISHED VILLA

Matthew Ashforde as Natty Hemworth in DISTINGUISHED VILLA (photo by Carla Evans)

IN BRIEF An interesting play in an uneven revival, boosted by a standout performance

He stands there, shaking, hunched, broken, in despair. “Just say one kind word to me” pleads Natty to his wife. It does not come.

DISTINGUISHED VILLA is an interesting, and still valid, exploration of what people give up – and cover up – in order to be seen as “respectable”.

Irish writer Kate O’Brien’s play takes us back to 1926. Mabel and Natty Hemworth, married for 15 years, live in “the most refined home in The Avenue”.  Mabel is ruled by maintaining her respectable social status. Natty is ruled by Mabel.

Prudish, cold Mabel, permanently clad in a chastity belt of an apron throughout, devotes her time to maintaining her house as model of cleanliness and order – unlike her mismatched marriage to sad Natty, who lives a life of quiet desperation and self-loathing, heartily aided and abetted by his wife. “I’ve kept him in his place” boasts Mabel about Natty, with a dizzying pride.

In their home also resides Mabel’s younger sister Gwen, and a sophisticated lodger from a higher social bracket, Miss Llewellyn who is “keen to observe” their lives. However, when she becomes entangled in the family’s affairs, it sets in motion a chain of revelations and tragic events with consequences for all the characters.

Downtrodden, despairing Natty finds interest from the new lodger that his wife lacks. And although her beau is artistically-inclined John Morris, impressionable Gwen gets swept off her feet by posh good-time cad Alec who calls upon Miss Llewellyn but ends up impregnating Gwen.

Although the occasional hints of comedy have faded across the years, the themes of the play, the inequalities of class and the pressure of society’s expectations upon both men and women are, depressingly, still as fresh today as when the play was first written. Although the expression of these themes through the play has changed with time, we can empathise with Natty’s mental health crisis, but perhaps in a different way to 1926 audiences, when men didn’t talk about their feelings. The same can be said about Gwen’s righteous sense of injustice at being used and dumped, in an age where unmarried mothers were automatically judged and damned by society.

The most satisfying performance comes from Matthew Ashforde, who gives a splendidly detailed performance as Natty, with a sad downward gaze, forever looking out of the window of his pristine prison towards “freedom”. He makes a big impact when Natty allows himself to reveal his tortured feelings and dissatisfaction with life, fully holding the (otherwise slow Sunday afternoon) audience in his “confession” to Miss Llewellyn about his sadness and guilt.

All of the cast work hard. Mia Austen has an uphill job as Mabel, whose character type has become something of a cliché over the subsequent years. There are no hints at redeeming features in Mabel, and consequently it is difficult to have any empathy or connection with the character, which felt too grindingly monotone to sustain interest.

Brian Martin as John Morris, the mismatched suitor to Gwen, battles valiantly with some very flowery poetic love dialogue, which can be best described as a draw, although it must be said that his earlier work at the Finborough, in the same producer’s JANE CLEGG some three years ago, was very strong.

It’s definitely a case of “less is more” in a space as intimate as the 50-seat Finborough and at times, for me, the playing felt too big for the space, and for this reason, the production feels uneven. (Interesting to note that the play found its success playing in the 400-seat Little Theatre in London’s West End).

The Finborough has a high reputation in unearthing rediscoveries, and it is always fascinating to see how a play from another era “travels”. In this case, although time has changed the landscape of the play in terms of how it plays, the underlying emotions still resonate across time, and I was very glad to have had the chance to see and support a celebrated Irish female writer’s work from almost a century ago. Thanks again to the Finborough and producer Andrew Maunder for this rare opportunity.

DISTINGUISHED VILLA runs at the Finborough until October 1st.

Find more information and book tickets here


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.


Review: NO SWEAT

IN BRIEF Bleak, effective youth homelessness drama simmers angrily in moving production

Just occasionally, a show comes from out of the blue to highlight something which for some reason has gone under our collective radar. NO SWEAT was born out of the untold, unseen homelessness crisis in the LGBTQ+ community. Why unseen? Because so many use 24-hour gay saunas as a place of rest and refuge from the harsh realities of the world outside. In a venue where being gay is “the norm”, it may appear to some quite seductive to think of these places as a refuge. However, the sexualised environment leads many to selling sex to survive, which can also lead to drugs. These traps that many vulnerable young gay people fall into are unforgiving and highly damaging.

NO SWEAT tells the stories of three young men who take refuge in FLEX, a London gay sauna. Charlie, the Pakistani asylum seeker who cleans the place for a pittance; and customers Alf, a Welsh body-for-hire and naïve, numb newcomer Tristan. All three having fled from parental rejection and ejection from the family homes, with no means to support themselves.

As their stories and experiences are shared, what is also revealed is the desperation and loneliness of these young men, each at the mercy of others to survive. Forced into “survival sex working”, Alf educates Tristan in how to exist in this new world of 24-hour heat, where they are part of the majority – but still outsiders.

The three men form their own bonds and supportive gestures which bring a genuine humanity to the show and make the central dilemma of these forgotten people all the more moving. Drugs seem to follow sex in a cycle of desperation and numbness.

The performances are all of a high standard. Gentle, romantic and caring Charlie is played with delicate grace by Manish Gandhi, a sweet and generous soul in a country that doesn’t want him.

Cocky, superficially sorted Alf is played with brittle bravado by James Haymer. Denholm Spurr as Tristan gently takes his character from naïve to more knowing, but retaining a genuine helplessness, so that when he says “I don’t really know what I am doing”, its meaning becomes amplified – a strangled cry for help.

The authorities which should be helping are portrayed as doing worse than nothing- an utter failure of care. “Is this a joke?” asks Tristan at the end of his interview for assistance; those unseen forces charged with helping display a lack of respect, willpower and joined-up thinking as well as prejudice of all colours. It is a genuine slap-in-the face moment for characters and audience.

Unfortunately the ending is not a happy one, and the sadness of these lives, damaged through no fault of their own, is mixed with anger at the lack of any kind of effective lines of help for them.

Vicky Moran’s sensitive play, combining a wealth of original research, mixes the dramatic and audio interview clips with real people (which cover the lengthy scene changes) to good effect, but I did feel that the changes rather distracted my attention away from the audio. The piece undoubtedly benefits from Moran’s own direction, and she has fostered telling performances from the cast.

There is some brief nudity in the show, but I felt this rather cleverly underlined the vulnerability rather than providing any genuinely erotic content.

The only decision which didn’t quite work for me was that of asking the actors to be their own inquisitor at their interviews with authority figures, with the actors turning from side to side to represent different voices. I thought that perhaps another unseen voice (on audio) might have better captured the hardness and inhumanity of questioning, and would also have freed up the actors to maintain their carefully-crafted characterisations. However, these are small points.

As a radical call to provide properly for abused and abandoned young people, this is an important and urgent piece of theatre; both producer and writer should be thanked for bringing these issues to a wider attention. One can only hope that this spurs people to action.

Vicky Moran is definitely a writer/director to watch keenly. I also notice that the show’s producer Reece McMahon is a part of the excellent Roundhouse Future Producers scheme. I am excited to see what’s next for both of them.

NO SWEAT played at The Pleasance Theatre Downstairs (London) to February 29th