The simplicity of true theatre

The Picture of Dorian Gray, Old Laundry Theatre

Theatre in its many and wonderful manifestations depends always, ultimately, on the performances of the actors.

Strip away the stage, the lavish sets, the intricate costumes, the curtains, and what you have left is theatre in its purest form.

So what a delight to experience – rather than merely watch – the remarkable Box Tale Soup theatre in action at Bowness’ Old Laundry Theatre. They came here as part of a tour for just one night to perform Ocar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray in this intimate and unusual setting whose reputation has been built simultaneously on Alan Ayckbourn and Peter Rabbit (whose fantasy-world visitor attraction shares the building.)

It is Box Tale Soup’s own adaptation of the Gothic novel which has Wilde at his most playful, decadent and outlandish, and played entirely by just three actors – along with their own hand-made puppets.

The core of the company comprises Noel Byrne (Henry) and Antonia Christophers (Dorian), who created Box Tale Soup and now work for the company full time. They bring in regular collaborators, such as Mark Collier who plays Basil, and has also been involved with the company since it was formed.

It’s a gripping and compelling performance, subtly switching from evil to humour, using a staccato choreography to create mood and time.

actors puppets

Box Tale Soup has won awards for its  blend of puppetry, physical theatre and traditional performance, taking their work to as wide an audience as possible. In addition to their normal touring schedule, they take performances and workshops
into schools and institutions, particularly those with limited or no access to the arts.

Recent examples include Gone – a new show created in collaboration with Music Action International and refugee music collective Stone Flowers; a performance of Alice for children at Great Ormond Street Hospital; performances at Treloar’s School for disabled young people; and The Wind in the Willows at The Butterfly Garden in Cheltenham, a project for people dealing with disablement of any kind.

The final two shows in this tour are The Wind in the Willows,  Fri 16 Nov, 7pm at Shilbottle in Northumberland, and Sat Nov 17 at Staindrop, Co Durham.



Peterloo: no barricades for English protest

We’re theatre reviewers here at Stagey Lady, not film buffs, so it was hard to sit through Peterloo without wishing that they might occasionally break into song to ameliorate a little of their misery.

Les Mis has a lot to answer for. It reinforces the stereotype  that the French are more romantic than the British, even in times of war and strife. That they will rise to their barricades with a musket in hand and a rousing song in heart, whereas our lot set off for a family picnic.

Their downtrodden poor were, nevertheless, young and glamorous and well-read; ours are not a pretty sight, and they wouldn’t even have bread, let alone cake, were it not for the generosity of Maxine Peake. Henry Hunt might have been a great orator, but where’s the fire of Enjolras?

We’ve been enraptured for more than 30 years by the sheer majesty of Les Miserables which, for all its unrelenting gloom, does offer a hint of salvation and redemption by the finale, a sense of hope. That it might almost be possible to imagine a slightly jollier sequel, Less Miserable. The music is rousing, the songs, each and every one, masterpieces. Even Empty Chairs is bleakly poetic; only Turning through the years (sung by the women left behind, the pragmatists) confronts the bleak reality: “Nothing changes, nothing ever will, every year another brat, another mouth to fill.”

But if the history of revolution in Paris according to Messrs Hugo, Boublil and Schonberg  is not THE French revolution of the 1790s, it matters not to readers and audiences. It’s the story of one man’s journey and redemption, not a hsitory lesson, a story of extraordinary complexity (and coincidence). Peterloo, in the hands of Mike Leigh, seems to be aiming entirely for historical veracity, maybe even at the expense of dramatic interpretation.

It says, there is nothing remotely romantic about poverty. It says, that the harshness of lives in emerging-industrial northern England was almost unimaginable. It shows what tenacity of spirit was needed to rise above this and recognise that the solution lay in the reform of parliamentary representation. And it  shows the futility of those encouraging a peaceful pro-democracy rally in the malign hope that their voices would be heard if they were not armed.

What happened subsequently in St Peter’s Field in Manchester was a national disgrace of the most paramount nature, and yet few beyond Manchester have any idea what “Peterloo” means. That period of history, when police and army savagely attacked the crowds – families having an unscheduled day out, with their humble picnics and best bonnets – seems to have been buried in the narrative of democratic progress. If future generations see the Arena bombing as the gravest day in Manchester’s history, then historians will have failed in their duty. More than 600 were wounded; 15 were slaughtered. Dwell on that for a moment.

It can only be hoped that Leigh’s film will be seen widely enough to make a difference to our perceptions. As a piece of visual art, it won’t last, not for a fraction of the longevity of Les Mis. But if it helps to get the history books re-written, then some kind of retribution might be accorded to the memory of those who died.

Kinky Boots and the musical convert

Kinky Boots, Manchester Opera House
Confession time: Stagey Lady decides to send a man who doesn’t generally like musicals to review one.
Outcome: a convert.

My aversion dated back to my days of watching funny man Danny Kaye in Sunday afternoon re-runs of his films on TV, including The Ugly Duckling, when all I wanted for him to do was to be funny and thought his singing got in the way of all that.

But I will make an exception after watching the fabulous Kinky Boots at Manchester’s Opera House.

The cast of the Harvey Fierstein inspired show were working with the material, with which they are presented, largely generic songs that could easily grace any X Factor show, but with the saving grace that there is a more than half decent storyline to boot.

Charlie Price (Joel Harper Jackson), has reluctantly taken over his late father’s failing shoe factory and has no idea what he is doing. With plans to close the factory down and make his loyal workers redundant the writing is on the wall. It is only with the wise countenance of shop floor worker Lauren (Paula Lane) that his eyes are slowly opened to the possibilities.

After Lauren’s advice, Charlie finds inspiration in the form of Lola (Callum Francis) who is an entertainer in need of some sturdy stilettos.

Lola turns out to be the one person who can help Charlie become the man he’s meant to be; as they work to turn the factory around this unlikely pair find that they have more in common than they ever dreamed possible.

The success of this production of Kinky Boots is undoubtedly down to the magic dust that the entire cast manage to sprinkle on it by breathing new life into every scene. Endless amounts of energy and exuberance, and no small measure of outstanding theatrical talent, bring these sparkly boots  to life.

What we were left with by the end was a standing ovation, which was testament to a musical evening thoroughly enjoyed by one and all.

Kinky Boots plays at the Opera House until Saturday, December 1 and for tickets telephone 0844 871 3018 – website ATGTICKETS.COM/Manchester

Peter Devine

War and peace

Henry V: Antic Disposition Theatre tour

As the country gathered to name and remember those killed in battle over the last 100 years, in Oxford’s Christ Church Cathedral the king, Henry V, read the roll call of the English and French dead at Agincourt.

What a perfect setting and what perfect timing to catch at last this remarkable production from Ben Horslen and John Riseboro’s Antic Disposition company.

First performed in 2015 to mark the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, this production has been touring British cathedrals to mark the centenary of the Armistice.

It’s a play within a play: the actors are wounded soldiers recovering at  one of the private evacuation hospitals set up by philanthropists some way from the front line in France in World War One.

The opening is laden with poignancy; a young English soldier asks a nurse to pass on a gift to a Frenchman who had saved his life. The gift was his only possession, a book of one of Shakespeare’s plays; unfortunately, the very play that recounts the massacre of French troops by King Henry’s army.

After some deft translated apologies and explanations, the action gets under way in a production that none who sees it will ever forget.

This is a company brimming with characterful talent, each one bringing personality to their respective parts in performances where there is no hiding place. We, the audience, are there, face to face with them in the nave of this magnificent historic cathedral. We see every stiffening of the sinews, smell the summoning of the blood;  every twinkling of mischief, every gasp of fear, every loving moment of brotherhood is there at very close quarters.


As Henry, Nathan Hamilton delivers a magisterial performance of power and passion, leading his men once more unto the breach with royal authority but also demonstrating the self doubt that lurks in many of Shakespeare’s protagonists. Read the international cast list for all the other outstanding performances, for every single one contributes magnificently to this masterpiece.

Unlike the cenotaph memorials, here we are allowed some light relief, this company bringing out better than any the underlying humour of the script, notably in the English-lesson scene with Aude le Pape and Christabel Muir ; the playful practical joke with the famous exchange of gloves; and Henry’s hapless and faltering “lost in translation” wooing of Princess Katherine.

Note too the use of the hospital ward orderlies’ mops and broom handles; and how these are ominously subsequently replaced with real rifles.

There are songs incorporated into the action, poems by AE Housman set to music, including that of George Butterworth who himself fought and died at the Battle of the Somme.

No stage version will ever be the same again. If you can manage “once more unto the breach” the play is heading now for an apt finale in Stratford, in Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried.

Antic Disposition was founded in 2005 by director Ben Horslen and director / designer John Risebero. The award-winning company presents innovative and entertaining interpretations of classic plays and stories, with a particular emphasis on the works of Shakespeare. Based in London, the company has earned a strong reputation and much critical acclaim for its high quality, visually striking productions presented in historic buildings and unusual non-theatre spaces. Recent productions include The Comedy of Errors in Gray’s Inn Hall, location of the play’s first recorded performance in 1594; Richard III and Romeo and Juliet in the 12th- century Temple Church; and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest in the spectacular Elizabethan setting of Middle Temple Hall.

Henry V moves to its final performances in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon

12 – 16 November


Brutal and beautiful

ear for eye, Royal Court

debbie tucker green’s new play – like her name, in lowercase   – refuses to follow convention. In three magnificent parts, linked together my the theme of racial injustice – this play hits hard. It’s two hours of uncomfortable and unrelenting theatre: but that’s the point.

Green unapologetically highlights the profound racism that black people still face, today here and in the US, at the hands of the police and via institutional and structural racism, to a mixed, largely middle class audience, at the Royal Court.

In part one, the 15-strong cast serves up powerful monologues, duologues and scenes  that pack more than a punch.  From the pair of friends who go on a protest march and disagree about the significance of posting on social media; to accounts of the humiliation of being arrested and strip searched by the police; to the ‘talk’ –  where despairing black parents try to teach their son what to do if they are pulled over my the police  – and we quickly realise the sad truth that there is absolutely nothing they can teach their child to be safe.

The is language poignant, powerful and poetic. Sections are repeated and redelivered,  portraying a powerful message about the re-occurrence and realities of such scenarios.

Part two focusses on the interaction between a young black female student (Lashana Lynch) and her white male professor, (played by the only white cast member Demetri Goritsas) who insists that the mass murder of black American school children, by two white men was simply  ‘lone wolf syndrome’.  The black student disagrees. The exchange between the two is gruelling, as the professor’s white privilege sees him continually patronise and dismiss her opinions. She, however rises to the challenge, remaining a worthy opponent in a fight that she simply cannot win.

The third and final part is a series of video clips from the UK and US where non actors talk plainly to the camera, stating horrific Jim Crow Laws and UK slave codes.

Its brutal. It’s beautiful. It’s a must see.

Details and booking:

Sophia Leonie

The tangled wires of memory loss

The Other Place, Theatre by the Lake, Keswick

If you could climb inside the mind of someone suffering from dementia, how would you deal with the confusion of tangled wires? How can anyone not a sufferer portray such an intimate account of how it must be?

But that’s what writer Sharr White has done in a script that’s as taut and minimalist as Claire van Kampen’s production and the set here in Keswick. It’s a curious dual UK premiere in tandem with the Park Theatre in London where the same cast performed a month ago, a cast led by Karen Archer (Juliana). She was pivotal to the project happening in the first place, in a juxtaposition of serendipity and sheer determination.

What she brings to the performance is a brilliant and mesmerising portrayal of a condition that we all fear so much, within a play which is so much more than just a study of dementia. Juliana is a bright woman, a scientist working for a drugs company delivering lectures to doctors. But early on we see that something’s not right, an unhealthy obsession being clearly more than just fantasy.

Those who have been close to the disease will recognise the characteristics, the alternative universe (in which her husband is having an affair with a young doctor, in which her daughter is married to an older man and has twins) and the devastating and tortuous impact it has on her relationships.

Neil McCaul, as her husband Ian, takes us through the anguish of frustration, despair and loss, with Eliza Collings and Rupinder Nagra contributing to our own confusion, and ultimate clarity, about what’s real and what’s illusion.

Memory is the key; and if there is something approaching redemption, it’s in Juliana’s return to her old home, the “other place” – much to the bewilderment of the current resident. And perhaps in choosing to remember what she does about her own daughter, whose fate is never clearly determined, but whose loss – the loss of any child – Juliana describes in a speech of the most painfully acid visual metaphor.

Archer holds and then grips our attention unwaveringly for 80 minutes of incomparable acting. That this calibre of dramatic production is available to a provincial audience through the insight and creative drive of the Theatre by the Lake team, is one of the wonders of the stage world. More, please.

The Other Place runs until November 10. Booking and details:




Decadence and dance in Paris

Manon, English National Ballet, Manchester Opera House

Based on Prevost’s 18th century novel Manon Lescaut, the story opens with the heroine en route to a convent, arriving in a sordid, dangerous and decadent part of Paris, beautifully designed in pastels, muted greys and lavender by Mia Strensgaard and filled with beggars, pick pockets and whores.

It’s here that Manon meets the two men who will shape her destiny. The handsome but impoverished young student Des Grieux and the wealthy but repugnant and Monsieur GM.  Deeply infatuated, Manon resides briefly with Des Grieux in his humble lodgings before being lured away by Monsieur GM with the promise of wealth and decadent luxury and thus she is caught between a choice of passionate romance and a life of opulence.

Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s dramatic and expressive ballet is set to a sweeping, evocative score by Jules Massent and performed  by the English National Ballet’s Philharmonic orchestra.

The role of Manon, characterised by complex mixed emotions, is a challenge for any dancer but Alina Cojocaru plays all of this with subtlety and absolute clarity, perfectly capturing her awakening sexuality and erotic power. She is paradoxically as light and flimsy as gossamer but also feisty and tough and we see her evolution from coquettish ingenue to self- assured vamp.

manon 2

This is a very sexy piece, dirty even, in places, such as the bedroom scene, with MacMillan’s deliciously salacious choreography that borders on pornographic. Manon is passed back and forth between her brother Lescaut and the sleazy Monsieur GM, danced with brilliant characterisation by James Streeter in a series of fluid lifts and holds.

There is a good deal of comedy too. In Madame’s gambling den, we witness an hilariously choreographed cat fight, a comic ‘drunken’ solo by Lescaut danced by the nimble and athletic Jeffrey Cirio with a series of drunk and debauched tableaux which resemble a Degas painting. This exciting scene which teams with detail and colour, shows Manon savouring the male attention, oozing  sexual power with some very clever lifts in which she appears to fly, and concludes dramatically with a thrilling sword fight.

Joseph Carey as Les Grieux dances with perfect precision and elegance but also strong masculinity and this, blended with Manon’s vulnerable fragility in the final act, combines to create an inevitable and heart breaking denouement.

Vincent Pemberly