The spy on the stage

Single Spies, Theatre by the Lake

The world of the spy: glamour, fast cars, vodka martinis, right? But Alan Bennett gave us the reality, a lonely room in Moscow with hardly ever the excitement of a meeting with a whispering stranger on a park bench.

Keswick is staging Bennett’s two short plays, An Englishman Abroad, and A Question of Attribution, under the double bill umbrella of Single Spies. The former is Bennett at his most deliciously humorous as we meet Guy Burgess (Theo Fraser Steele), exiled in dishonour, entertaining to lunch an actress, Coral (Karen Ascoe).

It really happened this way, Coral Browne once reported, down to the complaints about Russian false teeth and poor food (they dined on a tomato and raw garlic), while she measured him for a Savile Row suit, and endured repeated playing of his one gramophone record, ironically a song by one of her former lovers.

Burgess, more dangerous as a spy than his bumbling, camp, upper-class persona would suggest, loathed Moscow: “I can’t think what the Three Sisters were on about”. And he was lonely: “Moscow is like Cambridge in the long vac; one makes do with who’s around.” In his case, a young balalaika player called Tolya.

A Question of Attribution is more difficult to assimilate. Anthony Blunt (James Duke) was one of the same spy ring who wasn’t exposed publicly until almost two decades later, almost certainly protected because of his role as surveyor of the Queen’s pictures.

There’s considerable erudite discourse on the nature of painting, art history and art appreciation during Blunt’s (gentle) interrogation by a policeman (Theo Fraser Steele) but sandwiched between these sessions is the meat of the play, one of Blunt’s meetings with Her Majesty,  played with precision, sharp humour and impeccably-reproduced body-language by Karen Ascoe. (Keswick is ever so good with Queens, as those who saw Handbagged last summer will attest.)

There’s a suspicion at times that Bennett is using the script as a lecture on art history and there’s so much to absorb that, at times, the humour is overlooked. But director Tom Littler has taken full control of this strange and fascinating episode in our recent history.

Above all, this is an opportunity for a cast to shine, and they do that with class and polish, each and every one: Ascoe and Duke and Steel, Toby Vaughan, Oliver Mott,  and Thomas Richardson. With still more to be revealed on the summer programme here in by the lake, the theatre world will be flocking to Keswick.

Single Spies runs in the Main House until the end of October. For dates and bookings:




Not for the faint-hearted

An Octoroon. National Theatre

Black face.  Red face.  White face. The use of the n – word. Multi-role and Melodrama: this bold adaptation by Brandon Jacob Jenkins (BJJ), of Dion Boucicaults’s provocative play written in 1859, about slaves on a cotton plantation in Louisiana, made its explosive entrance at The National Theatre last week  – and it is not for the faint hearted.

In his underpants, addressing the audience in the round, the play starts with BJJ, (played by the amazing Ken Nwosu) talking of the struggles that he, as a black writer faces – “Black playwright? I can’t even wipe my ass without someone trying to accuse me of deconstructing the race problem in America,” he says, before revealing how he found adapting this controversial play, an antidote for his “low grade” depression.  In full view of the audience,  he the paints his face white, dons a blonde wig, and proceeds to prepare us  for the spectacle that is to come.

At a basic level, the narrative centres around Zoe (Iola Evans), the Octoroon of the title, and the illegitimate daughter of the recently deceased plantation owner – who, although has passed for white her whole life, now finds herself to be sold as a slave, as the plantation has fallen into financial trouble.

Throughout the play, BJJ comes out of role to comment on the action – forcing us to reflect on the events before us. He acknowledges holes in the plot, and even states why messages may not transcend to a modern audience – at one point displaying a huge image of a public lynching – immediately silencing the room.

An Octoroon is undoubtedly clever; but it is an uncomfortable experience – and that is clearly the point. The jokes are dark and plentiful; characters are daring and entertaining. And the anti-slavery message carries through.

However, we are still confronted with crass racial stereotypes that remain embedded in today’s psyche. And at least for press night, a largely white, largely middle class audience at The National Theatre, are roaring with laughter at an account of slaves’ experiences and at the n-word  –   and I’m not entirely sure how subversive this can ever be.

The entire run is sold out but you can still grab tickets via Friday Rush

Sophia Leonie

The suspension of disbelief

War Horse, The Lowry, Salford

Good theatre is all about the suspension of disbelief, and War Horse is the prime example of our time; those really are horses on the stage, surely?

It’s the combination of astonishing puppetry and a universally-loved narrative that keeps the audiences returning, 11 years after War Horse made its world premiere in 2007 at the National Theatre. It played there for two seasons before transferring to the New London Theatre, and since then, the show has been seen in 97 cities in 10 countries, including productions on Broadway.

warhorse pic

Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, it’s a powerfully moving and imaginative drama, filled with stirring music and songs. It tells how, at the outbreak of World War One, Joey, young Albert’s beloved horse, is sold to the Cavalry and shipped to France.

He’s soon caught up in enemy fire, and fate takes him on an extraordinary journey, serving on both sides before finding himself alone in no man’s land. Albert, who remained on his parents’ Devon farm, cannot forget Joey. Though still not old enough to enlist he embarks on a treacherous mission to find him and bring him home.

Thomas Dennis plays the central role of Albert Narracott with Jo Castleton taking on the part of his mother Rose.  They, and a cast who help create the stunning stage illusions, are joined by the life-sized horses of South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, who bring breathing, galloping, charging creatures to life.

During the three week run The Lowry will host the first ever ‘relaxed’ performance of the show in the North West, on Thursday June 28 at 2pm. The relaxed performance is for anyone who would benefit from a more relaxed environment in the theatre, including people with an Autistic Spectrum Condition, people with sensory and communication disorders, and those with learning disabilities.

War Horse runs at The Lowry’s Lyric Theatre till June 30. Details

Stung and captivated by the Wasp

The Wasp, Hope Mill, Manchester

RARELY have I ever been so captivated by a play as while watching the Northern premiere of production The Wasp.

The Morgan Lloyd Malcolm thriller, which is being staged at Manchester’s Hope Mill, is an 80 minute examination into the deepest and darkest recesses of our psyche, which reveals we are all not so different from one another when the chips are truly down.

There is no interval to this outstanding production but, trust me, the time flies as the tension builds.

Heather (Charlie Young) and Carla(Debbie Brannan) haven’t seen each other since school. Their lives have taken two very different paths.

Carla lives a hand-to-mouth existence and is heavily pregnant with her fifth child, while childless Heather has a high-flying career, a husband and a beautiful home.

Heather presents Carla with a bag full of cash which goes along with a proposition, which takes us on a much more sinister path that left the audience gasping at each painful revelation of a past lives, which catch up with the present.

If it’s intrigue and excitement that you want, about who did what to whom, this has all of that and more. However, a word of advice, take absolutely nothing for granted.

Reference is made to spiders who eat their waspish ‘prey’ only for arachnids to become the real prey as they are eaten from the inside out. The parallels become equally apparent.

If you want a play, which symbolises all that theatre of the highest quality can offer, this one should not be missed

This production is the debut of The Theatre Collective, a new initiative aiming to create new opportunities and collaborations within Manchester’s thriving independent network.

Peter Devine

 The Wasp runs until June 16

Box Office: 0333 012 4963

Leave taking: raw and relevant

Leave Taking, Bush Theatre

The year is 1988 and Enid Matthew, a first generation Windrush migrant, is proud to call herself British.  Despite working two jobs, seven days a week and bringing up two children alone, she counts herself lucky to be living in London. Her two teenage daughters disagree. Viv and Del, with their South London accents, British lifestyle, and anger towards the prejudice they experience on a daily basis, clash profusely with their mother.

Uncle Brod used to feel like Enid – but he no longer feels British. Not since the government wrote to him telling him he needed to pay £50 to get his citizenship or he’d be kicked out of the country. He’s keeping his Jamaican passport ‘just in case dem change dem minds again’. Uncle Brod loves to talk of Nanny Maroon, slave rebellions and the beauty of Jamaica; Enid reprimands him for filling the girls’ heads with fancy ideas –  but it’s too late.

Viv, Enid’s youngest, and smartest daughter –  is expected to go off to University soon, but instead confesses plans to go travelling and visit her ‘homeland’, Jamaica – much to her mother’s horror. Del, Enid’s eldest, has been fired from her dead end job, and spends her nights staying out dancing until the early hours. Enid is convinced she’s hiding a secret, and at her whits end, brings her daughters to see an Obeah woman (Jamaican spiritual healer),  Mai  – played brilliantly by Adjoa Andoh –  in a vain attempt to help ‘heal’ the family.

But it will take more than this to restore the divides of a family torn apart by complex cultural and generational differences. Madani Younis’s production  is a beautiful, exploration of one family’s struggle, and their individual journeys to find a sense belonging in a country that seems not to want them.

The cast are all stellar; with Wil Johnson’s character Uncle Brod, bringing much needed comic relief. Viv and Del (played by Nicholle Cherrie and Seraphina Beh) bring to life the conflicts that many second generation black Briton’s will recognise and relate to. But it is Sarah Niles’ portrayal of Enid that is stand out; a nuanced, and heartbreakingly convincing portrayal of a woman trying to keep it all together, whilst secretly battling her own survivors guilt.

Leave Taking is a must see. It allows us a unique glimpse into this one family’s life  – and you can’t help but fall in love with them. Yet as the play draws to a close, and we are left with suggestions of hope for the future, our happiness is mixed with pangs of sadness; the recent Windrush scandal never far from our thoughts. Not even Winsome Pinnock predicted that the struggles she wrote for a stage in 1988, would remain as real, raw and relevant as they do 30 years on.

Sophia Leonie

Leave Taking: at The Bush Theatre until  June 30

7 Uxbridge Rd, Shepherd’s Bush, London W12 8LJ


Box office: 020-8743 5050

What we want in Manchester

Things we want, Hope Mill Theatre

MANCHESTER’s Hope Mill Theatre is showing great promise as being the class act for other theatres in the city to follow.

After its brief run of Be More Martyn about a victim of last year’s Manchester Arena bombing, it has, within days, come along with the Jonathan Sherman production of the black comedy  Things We Want.

It’s an inspired choice of play and actors who fire off on all cyclinders right from the off.

Charlie, played by Paddy Young, is a college dropout who returns home to a tiny apartment in an American city to live with his two other grown up brothers Sty (William Holstead) who is more interested in drinking himself silly and hanging on to his talismanic bonsai tree, which he later reveals is more to be trusted than humankind.

Then there’s Charlie’s second sibling and eldest brother Teddy, played by Alex Phelps, who follows his own self help guru, who he busily aspires to eventually becoming.

Twenty three year old Charlie claims the reason he dropped out of cookery school was because he was missing the love of his life Zelda. At least that was until he is introduced to Stella (Hannah Ryan) by one of the brothers and within minutes she too steals his heart away.

The play, which was first staged in the US in 2007, has all of life in the one room as the three brothers who lost first their father and then their mother, to them jumping from the same window of their apartment to their deaths

The same thoughts swirl around all three of them as Stella, a former pianist who has a non functioning hand, works her vixen like attraction on them to at least create hope even if ultimately it will also lead to division.

The second half opens with the tables somewhat turned in this morass of American dreams lost and found and which was once described as Sherman’s “personal exorcism” (he lost his mother aged 6 to suicide)as he trawls through the urges to self destruct and/or to self improve.

Each brother has their own answer for dealing with the pain of loss and for Charlie it is the need to find love rather than fester in the world of, to a large extent, self pity, among his siblings

The overriding theme in this look at the post modern world is that nothing is forever.

Booking details:

Peter Devine

Dreaming of the stars while going off the rails

Rails, Theatre by the Lake

How can it be so compelling to share the bleak, brutal and often bloody lives of those with no hope and only fantastical dreams of escape? With a brilliant script and magnificent performances of raw emotion, that’s how.

In the intimate space of Keswick’s Studio, here’s the world premiere of Simon Longman’s Rails, a microscopic study of what it’s like to grow up in a dead-end town. Ben (Oliver Mott) is 27 and still working in a petrol station, loving only his sleek car in which he longs to drive away on “motorways so long they end up in space”.

Vulnerability and vivid imagination go hand in hand here. Younger brother Mike (Toby Vaughn), obsessed with his scooter, and with aliens, and the stars, fantasises about drinking from coconuts in the jungle with the girl from across the road. She’s tough, her, that Sarah (Lydea Perkins), but of course she’s as fragile as the others, struck by a panic so severe she can’t walk into the classroom at school.

Toby Vaughan (Mike) and Oliver Mott (Ben). Photo by Robert Day.

Boredom, a heatwave, and the sense that they’re invisible to the outside world, cars and people passing by without noticing their existence, lead to tragic consequences. And yet, with this script and under Clive Judd’s direction, there’s poetry in their hearts and voices  and a bleak sense of humour.

Perhaps the most compelling character on the stage is the mother, Deb (Christine Entwisle) who says nothing until the final denouement, and who spends the first act sitting silently, occasionally writhing in pain, but mostly slumped in a deep depression but ever present in the young people’s lives.

There is redemption of a sort, after a tragic and dramatic accident (and this scene in itself, with Sarah and Ben racing across wasteland, over fences and walls to try and beat an approaching freight train, exemplifies the very best of realism achieved in a tiny space).

Such sharp observations on the human condition, such insights, from Longman, who’s the winner of this year’s George Devine award for most promising playwright. And once again, evidence of the outstanding quality of the new summer season team at Keswick.

Rails runs until October 27. Details and booking: