The Mother of all wars

Mother Courage and Her Children, Royal Exchange Theatre

War on whatever scale, of whatever magnitude, is distilled in all its brutal inhumanity onto the stage in this harrowing new Headlong Theatre adaptation of the Bertolt Brecht classic.

Writer Anna Jordan has placed the story in a distopian future – 2080 – when wars, no, one long continual war, is fought on territory marked out by grid squares in what used to be European countries. Serbia, Romania, Greece, all reduced to grid references.

And this war is fought without ideology, religion or politics at its core, but over resources, food, water; just as we will do if nothing is done (and nothing is being done) about climate change.

There’s no fuel so Mother Courage, in a truly riveting performance by Julie Hesmondhalgh, sells her wares across the battlefields from an old ice-cream wagon, pulled along by her diminishing family. Her fiercely protective loyalty to them doesn’t quite match her capitalist instincts and they die one by one, horribly. Sons Swiss Cheese (Simeon Blake-Hall) and Eilif (Conor Glean), and finally the tragic and mute daughter Kattrin; an outstanding performance here by Rose Ayling-Ellis.

Mother Courage Production Photos
©The Other Richard/Richard Davenport

The entire stage team shines under Amy Hodge’s direction: Hedydd Dylan, Colm Gormley, Kevin McMonagle, Tachia Newall, Guy Rhys; and musician Nick Pynn, who helps add a punk rock feel with Jim Fortune’s eclectic compositions. Hesmondhalgh herself calls it “Mad Max meets The Road in design”.

This is not comfortable viewing, though it’s not without considerable humour. But it’s the truths about war that come across most dynamically: survival tips into greed, capitalism feeds war. When near the end there’s a declaration of peace (albeit temporary) Mother Courage is distraught; she’s filled the shelves of her wagon with munitions and no one will want those now.

Once again the Royal Exchange has been prepared to go into dangerously exciting territory. Mother Courage and her Children runs until March 2. / 0161 833 9833


Welcome to the world, Tess

Tess, the musical: The Other Place, Stratford

Tess feels like my adopted daughter, my god-daughter perhaps. I’ve been watching her progress since the inception, the conception, of this new musical by Michael Blore and lyricist Michael Davies when they first asked if I’d review the first songs.

Then came the baptism of the concept album, an ambitious production featuring stars such as Tam Mutu, Simon Bailey and Siobhan Dillon. This is how Lloyd Webber went about it, so why not?

And now, still in her infancy, we see Tess on the stage for the first time, in a workshop production at the RSC’s studio theatre, The Other Place in Stratford. She’s still a mere slip of a lass, a work in development, but this has been such a labour of love for Blore and Davies, and they deserve every success.



Presented here by Night Project Theatre, it’s Thomas Hardy’s doomed Tess of the D’Urbervilles, she the daughter of a poor ..and usually drunk… Wessex villager who fatefully discovers she might be related to an aristocratic family.

Tess goes to seek respectability with her new-found relatives, and embarks on an emotional and dramatic journey through love, loss of reputation and tragedy. Along the way she marries a man called Angel and murders the one who seduced her.

Hardy’s story is matched with a score of both substance and style, and an evocative libretto, with the divinely-voiced Jessie Mae Thomas in the lead role. She’s supported – loved, seduced, betrayed – by Phil John as Alec D’Urberville, and Hugo Montgomery as Angel Clare, and an ensemble among whose voices Sally Jolliffe is outstanding.

It’s firmly in the traditional school of musical theatre with distant echoes of the best of British creation since the 1970s, though distinctly holding its own identity.

Night Project Theatre was founded in 2014 to bring together performers, directors and industry creatives to present musical theatre in intimate venues, from new portfolios or undiscovered gems deserving a wider audience. They’ve produced some acclaimed pieces of theatre including The Hired Man, Dracula, Sweeney Todd, and Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years and Songs for a New World.

So for just two nights at the RSC the infant Tess knows what it’s like to be growing up in the real world of musical theatre. Let’s hope we see her on the big stage before too long.

 Tess is on again tonight, Feb 9, at The Other Place, Stratford upon Avon.


Exposing the millennial myth

Superhoe, Royal Court

Superhoe is Nicole Lecky’s superb breakout one woman play that debuts at The Royal Court for the next two weeks. We meet our protagonist, 24 year old Sasha on stage, singing – she is in her element. It is clear from the outset that Sasha has talent and should be going places.

It also becomes clear after a few moments that Sasha is in fact, in her bedroom, in east London. She is recording her EP – an EP she is too scared to release online. Her mum, sister and step-dad are not impressed – they want her to get a proper job and sort her life out. That, coupled with the fact her boyfriend Anton isn’t taking her calls, leads Sasha to spend her days and nights in her room, smoking weed and drinking.


Photo: Helen Murray

When Sasha’s family suddenly decide to move to Kent without her, Sasha is forced to make some tough decisions to keep a roof over her head. While staying with her unpredictable ‘friend’ Saleem, Sasha meets an Insta-model Carly, who offers her a safe place to live, and crucially, a way to earn money. And so begins Sasha’s slippery
slope into sex work. Starting with cam work, then escorting, this soon leads to fully fledged high end prostitution.
To the rest of the world though, through her growing Instagram profile, Sasha is living the high life. Lecky excellently deals with the paradox of the ‘influencer’ lifestyle which many of us buy into, with the harsh realities of what often lies beneath the surface. The rough, humiliating sex; the trip to Dubai – which looked great on Instagram – but where five grand was exchanged for gang bangs with no condoms; the threats of exposure by men who fully engaged in the sexual acts themselves but face no repercussions.
Lecky is a brilliant actor, and multi-roles well under the great direction of Jade Lewis – never falling into stereotypes. But it is the nuanced performance of Sasha that stands out. In one scene, when Sasha goes to Kent to see the family, to her surprise, they all express how proud they are that she is finally making something of her life. The sadness, we read beneath Sasha’s tough exterior in this moment in heart-breaking.
With bluntness and wit, Lecky’s writing never looks down on sex work, or on social media influencers or those with pipe dreams. What she does do, is expose the Millennial Myth – the idea fed to this generation that we can all make it in this digital age no matter where we’re from. Lecky shows that class, race and gender all play a part in our life chances – and that someone like Sasha deserves a fair chance to achieve, as much as anyone.

Exploring issues of the housing crisis, the impact of social media and sexual exploitation- never has a play felt so current, so important and so necessary. A must see.

Superhoe is at The Royal Court until Feb 16 

      Sophia Leonie

I am an islander

Come From Away, Phoenix Theatre

Just once before have I fallen in love during a musical, with the musical itself. That was Once, and it seems fitting that Come from Away should see me falling head over heels in the same theatre, the Phoenix.

At one level, Come from Away might be seen as Once on speed. There are trace elements; that storming, vibrant, exuberant instrumental encore did bring to mind The North Strand. And there’s the Irishness, which this London cast seems to have grasped and embraced in a way that’s missing from the Broadway clips we’ve seen.

But there’s nothing derivative here, nothing like this before. And for those who wondered where on earth musical theatre could possibly go after Hamilton, here’s an answer.

To start at the very end – for which we’ll be forgiven by the Irish heart in the Newfoundland islanders, for whom love seems much more important than logic – there was never a standing ovation quite like this. There was no gradual, row-by-row, timid, British rising from seats almost apologetically. At the final note, there was an explosion in the auditorium as the entire audience erupted, very noisily, not just to stand but to leap and stamp and holler in a most un-English fashion. The young man next to me – all six foot three of him – was sobbing openly, and he wasn’t alone.

It’s just a very simple story about the kindness of strangers, the unreserved hospitality which greeted the grounded passengers forced to land at the remote Newfoundland airstrip when American airspace was closed in the aftermath of 9/11.

The erosion of suspicion, doubt and concern is at the heart of the narrative; and the narrative, the music and lyrics, are so full of heart without ever descending into sentimentality. It is, simply, a work of genius, from the wife and husband team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein. They have followed individual stories and communal experiences from those few days in Gander and woven them into something full of energy, dynamism, truth and beauty.

It’s a true ensemble piece, and while Rachel Tucker is the “star” name (and she’s brilliant), her colleagues are all equally stars here. It’s no stage for egos or divas, so take a very big bow Jenna Boyd, Nathaneal Campbell, Clive Carter, Mary Doherty, Robert Hands, Helen Hobson, Jonathan Andrew Hume, Harry Morrison, Emma Salvo, David Shannon and Cat Simmons. And anyone I’ve missed, sorry….

Oh, and those musicians! There, on stage with fiddles and guitar and pipes and drums, creating sounds that go straight into the heart, the veins, the muscles that cannot help respond to the beats. The production has an almost breathless pace. There’s no time to muse or reflect, only to respond viscerally, to leave the theatre singing I am an islander, and to go home and book to see it again. And again.

Our suggestion. Suspend parliament for a day, march the entire House of Commons up to the Phoenix and make them watch what happens with the application of tolerance, humanity and humility.


The Boys are back in town

Jersey Boys, Manchester Palace Theatre

It must be tough for touring productions of musicals to maintain enthusiasm and energy night after night, town after town.

But even after a year on the road, there’s a remarkable freshness and sense of excitement about the Jersey Boys.

As Pete Nash – who played Tommy de Vito on press night in Manchester – said recently, the music is so good, the songs are just so good, that it’s not difficult to sing them and love them time and time again.

Pic copyright Phil Tragen 2019

While a stunning and eternally popular musical in its own right, Jersey Boys is also the eternal reminder of the genius of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, their own hits, and the many songs that became hits for other artists.

The four boys from New Jersey became one of the most successful bands in pop history, were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and sold 175 million records worldwide, all before they turned 30.

The show is packed with their hits, including Beggin’SherryWalk Like A ManDecember, 1963 (Oh What a Night)Big Girls Don’t CryMy Eyes Adored YouLet’s Hang On (To What We’ve Got)Bye Bye BabyCan’t Take My Eyes Off YouWorking My Way Back to YouFallen AngelRag Doll and Who Loves You.

And it’s not just a litany of fabulous hit songs. Far outclassing other jukebox musicals, Jersey Boys has a great narrative and tells the tale so well. It’s the true story of the boys who came from the wrong side of the tracks, who wrote their own songs, invented their own unique sound and how they rose to stardom.

Winner of Broadway’s Tony, London’s Olivier and Australia’s Helpmann Awards for Best New Musical, Jersey Boys has won 57 major awards worldwide and has been seen by over 25 million people worldwide. It was written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, with music by Bob Gaudio and lyrics by Bob Crewe.

The UK & Ireland Tour production is staged by the entire original Broadway creative team, led by director Des McAnuff and choreographer Sergio Trujillo, with scenic design by Klara Zieglerova, costume design by Jess Goldstein, lighting by Howell Binkley, sound by Steve Canyon Kennedy and projection design by Michael Clark.

The regular cast is Michael Watson, Simon Bailey, Declan Egan, and Lewis Griffiths.

 Jersey Boys plays at Manchester’s Palace Theatre till 16 February

0844 871 3019 /           

Future tour dates:



Red Dust Road leads to Home

Tickets are now on sale for the Manchester run of the National Theatre of Scotland and HOME co-production of the world premiere production of Red Dust Road.

This is Jackie Kay’s touching and affecting memoir of her life growing up as a mixed race adopted Scot.

Adapted for the stage by Tanika Gupta and directed by Dawn Walton, founder and Artistic Director of Eclipse Theatre, Red Dust Road opens at the Edinburgh International Festival before playing at HOME in September.

Says Jackie: “The book explores belonging and adoption and the many roads that lead us to where we are, and what makes us who we are, genes or porridge, and it seems so fitting to me that it should be on at HOME, a place, as a proud patron, I feel I belong to.”

First published in 2010, Red Dust Road has been hailed for its warmth and candour, winning the Scottish Book of the Year Award in 2011. Navigating the challenges of growing up as a mixed-race adopted Scot, Jackie discovers that inheritance is about much more than genes: that we are shaped by songs as much as by cells, and that what triumphs, ultimately, is love.

Jackie Kay is a poet and writer who has picked up numerous awards for her novels and story collections, as well as writing extensively for television and the stage. She was awarded an MBE in 2006, and made a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2002. She was named Scots Makar – the National Poet for Scotland – in March 2016.



On a Sunday, in the Lakes

It’s a terrific coup for a little theatre in the Lake District, a top Broadway musical heading for Cumbria.

Tell Me on a Sunday is the iconic one-woman show with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Don Black, which has been performed in the West End and on Broadway by some of our top female singers/actors. Most notably Marti Webb, the part has also been played by Sarah Brightman, Bernadette Peters, and Clare Sweeney.

It’s coming to the Old Laundry Theatre at Bowness in the autumn for a three week run. A one-act  song cycle it tells the story of an ordinary girl from Muswell Hill who journeys to the United States in search of love. Her romantic misadventures begin in  New York, lead her to Hollywood, and eventually take her back to Manhattan.

The songs include the achingly beautiful title number, and the chart-topping Take That Look of Your Face.

Dates: October 4 – 26