Stagey Lady

Reviews and previews beyond the West End



Front Foot take on Shakespeare’s villain

The critically-acclaimed Front Foot Theatre is bringing Shakespeare’s villainous Richard III to the stage next month.

Directed by Lawrence Carmichael, this timeless and universal story of the rise and fall of a dictator  is set here in a dystopian future. A twisted antagonist, Richard enlists the audience as his co-conspirators and encourages them to witness his devious plots in becoming King. Fuelled by jealousy, manipulation and deceit, he aims at the crown and vows to destroy all who stand in his way including those closest to him.

Carmichael has an international reputation for stage combat and physical theatre which he uses here to create a fierce, bold and highly relevant production about fear and power.

Front Foot is a theatre company of experienced actors using the Meisner Technique that
allows for a different performance every night. Founded by husband and wife team Kim Hardy (Ian Charleston Award Nominee) and Julia Papp (Winner of Accolade Award of Merit) in 2013; previous projects include The Seagull (White Bear Theatre) and Proof (Tabard Theatre)

Richard III is at The Cockpit,  Gateforth Street, London, NW8 8EH, from October 12 till November 4. Tickets: £17/£15 concs. Box Office: 020 7258 2925




The “stuff” that family dreams are made on

Remarkable Invisible: Theatre by the Lake

Family dynamics change entirely when families disperse and re-unite. The process of moving away and creating space in which to see more objectively the unit in which we’ve been brought up invariably becomes a critical one. Not necessarily negative criticism, but often exposing previously hidden areas of conflict.

So there will be almost universal appreciation of the scenario which forms the basis of this intense and perceptive new drama by Brooklyn-based playwright, screenwriter and producer Laura Eason. As a world premiere it’s a terrific coup for Keswick; as a dramatic narrative it reaches all of us.

It’s a simple basic plot. Ageing parents (Ian Barritt and Eliza Hunt) are downsizing and moving from the family home, and their son and daughter (Matt Addis and Alice Selwyn) head in (from New York and San Francisco) to help them pack. Which means dealing with the “stuff” of their lives, the diaries of a grandfather, the Blossom Dearie and Pete Seeger LPs, the china dinner service.

But also the “stuff” of their father’s long and utterly undistinguished career as a paranormal researcher for which his wife has been utterly loyal and uncritical…and his son has been everlastingly embarrassed. He removed himself (an in doing so, abandoned the love of his life.. but that’s another sub-plot) and created a successful career as an architect, dealing with concrete realities.

The daughter, desperate to reach beyond the mask of her mother’s cheery self-sacrificing (“I just want you to be happy..”) is a Unitarian minister married to a woman with whom she is now having a baby. So maybe not all families are so “interesting”, but the underlying dynamics are uncomfortably recognisable.

There are terrific performances all round, and some wonderful generational cameos, as the younger pair complain of the temperature in the house (“the coldest winter I ever spent was summer at mom and dad’s”). There’s a very genuine homage to folk singer Seeger (“a man who spoke the truth”) and also a genuine sense of affection between the parents. (Discuss: does the degree of affection between a couple have any correlation  with their need to keep the treasures/detritus  of their lives?)

Director Zoe Waterman leads a female-dominant backstage team (designer is Bronia Housman, lighting designer Johanna Town) as once again the Theatre by the Lake demonstrates its stature. This has been a remarkable season so far; time now to do some re-visiting.

Remarkable Invisible: Studio, Theatre by the Lake till November 4. Booking and details: here

A respect for the past

Seven Letters, London

We are all guilty of ignoring people as they get older, almost as if we believe they have always been old, and never had a past, or a life with much to offer.

So how refreshing, and humbling, to see Rian Flatley recognise that each old person was once young and vibrant, with hopes and dreams. Her play Seven Letters reflects on the past lives of three women whose circumstances have brought them together in a touching and funny portrayal.

Their interaction with the young people of today and the difficulties in accepting changes over which they have no control, is matched with the chemistry between them, while touching on difficult subjects such as dementia and loneliness. The reflections of the past are told through flashbacks, graphic monologues and songs (composed by Lindsay Bridgwater).

You can see Seven Letters this week at the Camden Fringe – The London Irish Centre, NW1 9XB 25-27th August 7.15pm; and then at Clapham Common’s Omnibus Theatre, SW4 0QW 7-9th September 7.30pm.

























Capital contrasts 3: an old favourite in London

Les Miserables may be a cliche, tourist fodder, a pillar of establishment, but still a work of genius. After all these years it never fails to impress that Hugo’s masterpiece was so brilliantly and succinctly distilled for the musical stage.

Succintly, at nearly three hours? Yes, how many months did it take YOU to read the original?

There’s a new and young cast who bring a very robust dynamic to the show this season. I’ve long been critical of the casting of Marius as a slightly wet behind the ears teenager (Nick Jonas, Gareth Gates) but at last Paul Wilkins plays him as a man of substance; intellectual, romantic, but no lightweight.

And the same must certainly be said for Killian Donnelly, one of the youngest Valjeans who has risen to this particular challenge like a colossus. And no one has bettered his vocal range into old age; he didn’t just look like an old man, he sounded like one.

Robust is also the word for our two new leading ladies, joining the delightful Charlotte Kennedy as Cosette. Karis Jack (Eponine)  and Carley Stenson (Fantine) have glorious voices and are strong character actors , almost too strong to die young and poorly, Fantine.

It was especially good to see a young family friend Jonny Purchase, a familiar Marius cover, standing in tonight as Enjolras and doing so with power and passion. We rather like the new Thenardier, too, Steven Meo bringing the necessary undertone of menace to the comic facade.

They were, as always, playing to a packed house, many of them clearly tourists. But discerning ones; they will not be disappointed.

Apologies for Apologia

There are worse things you could do than spend a sunny August afternoon at Studio One at The Trafalgar Studios, former home of Whitehall farce forever associated with the late Lord Brian Rix. But this was not an occasion when trousers were dropped or embarrassed spouses exited via the French windows.

Apologia holds a magnifying glass to the relationship between a mother and her sons, their lovers, and one of her oldest friends. The action takes place at Kristin’s birthday dinner party somewhere in the English countryside in 2009, a significant year in terms of geo-politics and economics. The setting provides a couple of “benefit of hindsight” moments from then to now, with some well-sourced props such as a copy of The Guardian and the Dualit kettle/toaster combo which was popular at that time.

The programme helpfully defines an apologia, which is rooted in rhetoric. Here, it refers to Kristin’s recently-published memoir, a renowned art historian and lifelong social activist and campaigner, played by Stockard Channing, a veteran of stage, screen and film. For some of us, she will always be the rebellious Rizzo in Grease or the indomitable First Lady Abbey Bartlet in The West Wing.

Channing’s performance brings to mind her role as the ambitious corporate climber Julie in the award-winning film The Business of Strangers, in which an older woman is forced to confront her past and justify her personal sacrifices for professional success. Her stagecraft is undeniable, and she delivers her monologues with force and pathos. However, Kristin lacks empathy, which is compounded by her inability to pass up the opportunity to put down those she regards as her intellectual or ethical inferior. Furthermore, Ms Channing is not really convincing as a child of the 60s.

It is probably no accident that copies of the script are available for sale, maybe to help the audience to understand the multiple cultural references. There are some excellent moments reminiscent of a comedy of manners and great one-line zingers peppered throughout the play. We’ll never get the phrases “lucky girl” or “Enjoy Thursday!” again without grinning.

An area of difficulty are the at-times clunky tropes and metaphors employed. The gift of an African tribal mask to Kristin acts as a proxy for the mask she has worn (chosen to wear?) throughout her adult life. She is a confirmed atheist, yet her sons are called Simon and Peter. Reference is made to her life’s work as a “vocation” and she deploys religious imagery, most notably her interpretation of Giotto’s Pietà yet she eschews all notion of the existence of a God or higher being and belittles those who have religious beliefs.

Particular mention should go to Freema Agyeman and Laura Carmichael, who play the partners of Kristin’s sons. Agyeman as the sassy, ambitious soap opera actress Claire who goes straight to the heart of Kristin’s problematic relationship with her son Simon. Carmichael plays Trudi, the sweet and guileless Minnesotan girlfriend of Kristin’s son Peter. As the newcomer to this nest of vipers, Trudi acts as a cipher for the audience, who recoil at the same time as her at Kristin’s sarcasm, disdain and downright rudeness. A pity that both these roles are caricatures.

As her loyal camp follower Hugh, Desmond Barrit adds humour, colour and insight into Kristin’s lifelong devotion to the cause. Joseph Millson rises to the challenge of playing brothers, thanks to a quick costume change and staging. Shame the brothers are just cardboard cutouts, lacking sympathy.

The set by Soutra Gilmour deserves particular mention. The stage is framed by what could be construed as either a picture frame or a window, so the audience is invited to view or spy on the proceedings which take place in Kristin’s spacious open-plan kitchen. Excellent lighting and sound effects emphasised the stormy night and the dawn of the day.

Ok, here’s the rub. Would we recommend this? After all, it’s already selling well. Honestly, we don’t know. To quote Julie Walters in Mamma Mia! “It’s very Greek, isn’t it…”

There are worse things you can do. But we wonder if there are better shows to view.

L.&R. Davies

Apologia is at The Trafalgar Studios, London, until 18 November 2017.

About to beat Usain Bolt?


Andrew Maddox’s new play cleverly explores the complex relationship between mental health and family loyalty. Set against a backdrop of the London 2012 Olympics, Darren (played by Nebiu Samuel) is convinced that he’s about to beat Usain Bolt in the 100 metre finals.

He’s not. We soon work out that Darren is a vulnerable young man with mental health difficulties.   After the death of their father, who encouraged Darren to run, Darren’s older brother Simeon (played by the Rhys Yates) has become his main carer. Simeon struggles to hold down a decent job, keep his relationship on track, and look after his sick sibling, whose obsession with running is getting out of hand.

Their sister Abigail (Michelle Barwood) has long given up caring for Darren and moved away to start a new life,  but returns – only to plead for Simeon to do the same.  Simeon loves his brother and would never consider it, but with the 2012 Olympics fast approaching, Darren is delving further into his make-believe world, becoming more obsessive, more demanding – pushing Simeon to breaking point.

Rhys Yates (Simeon) & Michelle Barwood (Abigail)

The set is beautifully designed, with light bulbs hanging from the ceiling and coloured cushions surrounding the stage – creating a cozy feeling of home-life. However, this is abruptly interrupted by a long stage, which runs through the middle of the set, emulating a running track.  As the audience arrives, Darren is frantically running back and forth along it, and continues this as the play progresses. The other characters move seamlessly out of his way, highlighting the jaded chaos of their world and symbolising the growing family fragmentation.

All are impressive, but Rhys Yates gives a stand out performance as Simeon. He presents a likeable and relatable young man, torn between family loyalty and living his own life, and we genuinely feel for him. The ending of Olympilads in particular is beautiful and touching  – and definitely leaves you wanting more.

Sophia Leonie


Olympilads is at Theatre N16 from Tuesday 8th to 26th of August


Tickets £15/£12

Capital contrasts 2: how the Rhinestone Cowboy hijacked the Fringe

Glen and Campbell are two particularly Scottish-sounding words. So it wasn’t inappropriate that the death of the Rhinestone Cowboy should hijack our day at the Edinburgh Fringe.
His most famous and most lyrical song, of course, Wichita Lineman, was the anthem of the day, played around the city, from rock guitarist David Duffy in the square at the Cocktail Festival, to the Nottingham Youth Jazz Orchestra near Waverley Station. So far, we’ve heard no bagpipe versions but the evening’s not over yet.
Duffy was a joy, a big unkempt and self deprecating fella with a ranging rock repertoire and massive guitar confidence. Solo versions of Pinball Wizard and Satisfaction alongside the inevitable Stairway to Heaven in a sunny corner off the lower Royal Mile: the best of the unexpected at the Fringe.
We’d gone for more traditional entertainment in Venue 43, a lecture theatre behind the Surgical Museum where a group called American Performing Arts International treated us to an unpredictable medley of West End show numbers. You know they’ll start with Mormon’s Hello and finish with One Day More, but a few songs from Spamalot, and a very theatrical Reviewing the Situation added some spice. Please, tone down the backing music; I’m sure this “Marius” had a lovely voice but we could scarcely hear him.
The same team do a daily Broadway selection as well as a catalogue of All Time Greatest Hits so there’s a fair chance they’ll be covering Glen Campbell too.
Edinburgh’s tourist streets are surreal enough the rest of the year, before the Fringe lands. So now you have endless shop windows full of kilts fronted by men in graffiti’d underpants, and women in shopping trolleys rolling past the street pipers. How many audiences are picked up by the good natured drama students handing out thousands of leaflets is anyone’s guess. There’s far too much happening to do anything other than random samples. I reckon you could take the first word from every third leaflet and create a whole new range of shows, and nobody will notice what’s real and what’s an illusion. Bummer and Pam; Ford Wall Pride; Buried Denver School. You get the drift?
A woman lies inside a chalk outline on a pavement; men wearing feather wings are taking a ciggie break on church steps; and somewhere soon a kilted piper is bound to blow out his cheeks and launch into “ I am a lineman for the county.”
The Fringe began in 1947 when eight groups arrived in Edinburgh hoping to perform at the newly formed Edinburgh International Festival but were refused entry. Rather than being discouraged from performing, they went ahead and performed on the fringe of the Festival anyway and so the Edinburgh Festival Fringe was born.
2017 marks the 70th anniversary of these eight groups’ defiance and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is now the largest arts festival in the world.
Get the whole programme at or take walk down the Royal Mile and collect a rainforest-full of leaflets. Either way, you’ll be in for a big surprise .
leaflets. Either way, you’ll be in for a big surprise .

Capital contrasts: first stop, Dublin

Dublin is good for the soul. It’s a rare city that actually lowers stress levels and fosters generosity of spirit towards mankind.

The people, of course. Gregarious and garrulous and generous with their time and their hospitality. They are the experts in how to make visitors feel welcome and want to come back.

It’s a shame that the city fathers (or mothers – let’s not blame all men) seem less than proud of their treasure just now. Dublin is looking shabby. Like most cities it’s uncomfortable with the growing population of homeless but perhaps too lenient on the hen and stag parties. No one’s been around on Sunday morning to pick up their detritus, and that of the football fans (Liverpool were in town, playing Bilbao in a friendly).

Much friendlier by far were the hurling fans gathered to see the crunch match between Galway and Tipperary in the All Ireland semi final. But out at the once gracious St Stephen’s Green, the warring pigeons and seagulls have been allowed to prosper; come on Dublin, deal with this before it gets any worse.

We were there on a sporting mission ourselves, a parkrun at the seaside castle estate of Malahide, an exquisite and well-tended park with an exquisite and well-patronised Avoca cafe. This, we thought, is how to do breakfast.

breakfast at Malahide

That is, till the following morning when we discovered Brother Hubbard, a tiny middle-East influenced cafe just off the Liffey; this is also how to do breakfast. The city has many fine cafes and bakeries, and the older pubs are a joy to drink in. Like the Palace Bar, haunt of editors and poets over the years, and still full of character and characters.

Dinner was just as grand as breakfast: top marks for the Kathmandu Kitchen and Salamanca tapas bar, both in the theatre district south of the river. And that’s really why we were in Dublin, for the theatre, for two shows which have become iconic features of the Irish stage scene.

Riverdance, at the Gaiety till September, is 23 years old and still mesmerising. The generation brought up on ersatz TV talent shows need to see what genuine virtuosity looks like. The dancing is still transfixing, and there have been attempts to bring the spectacle into the 21st century, notably with a street dance sequence. But there are still awkward remnants of a faux-legend  spirituality that need updating.

The young upstart, Once, is also back for the summer at the Olympia (but only till August 26, so hurry). This, too, is gaining venerable status and remains hauntingly beautiful, uplifting, energetic and funny. If there’s a more poignant and harmonic love song anywhere in the world than Gold, I’ve yet to hear it. Though Falling Slowly comes a close second.

There wasn’t time for The Great Gatsby at the Gate Theatre, a great pity as this sounds like a wonderful experience. For this summer only, the seats are removed from the auditorium, and the chandeliers lowered, transforming the theatre space into the Gatsby Mansion with all its decadent opulence and atmosphere. The audiences are dressing up – and going in dance shoes.

The Stagey Lady team is heading next, briefly, to the Edinburgh Fringe, before a return to an old favourite or two in London. Capital contrasts indeed.

on the Once set
For Once, allowed on stage….

Features of the Festival

A roundup of the best of the Manchester International Festival

The biennial Manchester International Festival has become one of the most important events in the arts calendar with original works as its raison d’etre.  And with a budget of over £12m and almost a quarter of a million visitors, plus a new £110m permanent new home in the making, the event has a bright and certain future.

One of the endearing features of the Festival has always been the unique performance venues, from old mills, to churches, car parks and derelict warehouses.  There have been some 70 events in all this year, under the direction John McGrath, and with enough free happenings to keep anyone busy.

However, at Manchester’s more traditional theatre, the Royal Exchange, Fatherland explored the relationship between fathers and sons. Created by Scott Graham and Karl Hyde the production begins with three producers auditioning actors to star in their own production. ‘What are your first memories of your father?’ they ask the actors.

It’s a collage of thoughts, memories, dance and music. At times it’s unnecessarily aggressive and loud with not enough tender moments, suggesting distant and sometimes confused relationships, which left you wondering if it’s a theme that has already been well versed before.

And it’s a theme also explored in Returning To Reims. Based on Didier Eribon’s best-seller, a sociology academic returns home to Reims following his father’s death where he confronts his childhood, working class roots and homosexuality. It’s not an easy return but rather is tinged with painful memories. The production by the Berlin Schaubuhne and directed by Thomas Ostermeier, uses video and music to progress Eribon’s personal memoir. Set in a recording studio, an actress (Nina Hoss), is recording the voice-over for a video of the academic’s memoir. Hoss, herself however is also a young, political activist who finishes up reflecting on her own family and provides a memoir of her father, a communist party trained activist who eventually turned to green politics after being expelled from the party. We are left wondering if perhaps more is achieved through personal application and pressure groups than through any formal joint political activism.

This being Manchester there is an inevitable political content to much of the festival’s agenda. What If Women Ruled The World, was staged in a derelict railway warehouse alongside Piccadilly Station. A rogue US general has pressed the button and a nuclear attack is underway; the doomsday scenario has arrived. The American president and his collective (all played by women) sit around a table discussing what they can do. Calls are made to Moscow but all to no avail. Instead Russia responds by nuking America. Millions may have been killed but a new gender balance has emerged from the rubble with ten women to every male. It’s a predicament that offers an opportunity for women to revaluate their role and readjust economic and social order to suit themselves.

Cotton Panic was also as political as it gets, telling the story of Lancashire’s response to the American civil war and the consequences of the abolition of slavery. For Manchester and other Lancashire mill towns it meant an increase in prices that had a devastating effect on the industry leading to thousands being made redundant and appalling poverty. And yet it was those very workers who nonetheless gave their support to the abolition of slavery without fear or thought for the consequences.

Staged in the Camperfield market to a standing audience, it was almost a rave history lesson featuring a fusion of lights, sound, electronic music, video and a superb, energetic performance from Jane Horrocks.

The cultural wasteland that was Manchester in the 1980s – a collective of dreary gothic buildings and chilling high-rise estates, coupled with a level of unemployment that always threatened to spill over into civil unrest – gave rise to the most innovative music of that decade. Joy Division, New Order and The Smiths, with the help of Factory records, all contributed to a distinctive urban sound that resonated with the city’s young and is celebrated in True Faith, a spectacular exhibition that has drawn record crowds to the City Gallery. Curated by Matthew Higgs and Jon Savage, the exhibition explores Manchester music in the period and features a series of innovative album cover designs and video techniques.

The Festival culminated in an event billed as ‘the return of a local hero.’ Not David Beckham or Liam Gallagher but  Frederich Engels, who spent twenty years in the city managing his father’s mill and entertaining his friend Karl Marx. It was here that Engels documented the plight of Manchester’s working classes in The Condition of the Working Class in England. To commemorate his impact on Manchester and international history an old Soviet style statute of Engels was transported from the Ukraine, and officially unveiled and now stands permanently in Tony Wilson Place outside the Home Arts Complex. The former Granada TV presenter would have been much amused.

Stephen F. Kelly

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