Thursday 31 May 2018


Theatre Royal, Haymarket

29th May, 2018

Love without scandal. Pleasure without fear”.

What a bizarre venture Gérald Garutti’s production of Molière’s Tartuffe this is. Half French, half English, a half-baked Trump satire set in present-day LA with a commandeering glass box which is theatre-ese for modern and European, it hasn’t convinced me that it’s the finest play in the French canon. Yet, for its sexy design, its novelty, and its ambition, it is oddly enjoyable.

Garutti’s decision to set the play in Los Angeles works: he has lampooned the heart of a materialistic, self-indulgent and debauched society. Orgon has become a French billionaire whose whole family has apparently migrated with him for a taste of Hollywood. Into that comes the charismatic, evangelical Tartuffe who has blinded Orgon to welcome him into his home. Soon enough, he is dressing like Tartuffe, besotted with his welfare and allowing him to walk over his family in the search for enlightenment. For Orgon and his mother, Tartuffe offers a way forward from the inanities of the modern world.

The problem is Christopher Hampton’s bilingual translation. He has given it, in his words, ‘the minimum of tweaks’. The play starts with a party; champagne bottles and drunken house guests roll around the stage. This is pretty much the only glimpse we get of this apparently selfish world until the fifth act, when the play bends over backwards to become topical, with a US President character launching into a string of Trump references from Twitter to ‘pussy-grabbing’. In aiming to emphasise the play’s endurance as well as put a contemporary spin on it, Hampton has achieved neither with any real verve and so doesn’t quite align with Garutti’s vision. What’s more is the difficulty surrounding the production being played in French and English. Thematically, I suppose it just about makes sense in that characters feel forced to speak in English in the presence of Tartuffe, such is his power (or ignorance). But other than that, it is at best literary showboating and at worst a distraction.

Of the performances, some of which are at odds with others, Paul Anderson’s Tartuffe is the most memorable. Roaming the stage barefoot and in linen clothes, he is a southern ersatz preacher, in a similar light to Michael Keaton in the ‘Wheels of Fortune’ episode of Frasier but even more shameful. His eccentricity turns Sebastian Roché’s seemingly rational Orgon to an obsequious smarm, flitting from one excess to the other. Hampton’s translation is at its best in a scene where Anderson is pronouncing his true self (‘C’est vrai, mon frère, je suis merchant. Un coupable) only for Roché to bounce his self-condemnations back with compliments. Is the line between appearance and reality or truth and deception always so clear cut? Is Anderson’s Tartuffe purely a very talented fraud, or partly lost in his own invention? Audrey Fleurot is superb as Elmire. Walking the stage in Oscar ceremony dresses and striking red hair, she plays no fool to either Tartuffe or Orgon. Andrew D Edwards’ chic design – marble floors, swimming pools, glass, and wall to floor curtains – is aesthetically pleasing. Its coolness blends well with Paul Anderson’s lighting: a mix of purple and orange, aqua blue and flashes of red. Towards the climax, the box pushes forward with Tartuffe’s hands gently resting on the glass and the weight of the rest of the cast pushing it back. But if this is meant to represent the persecution of organised religion, as Garutti suggests, I’m not that convinced.

Tartuffe is a play all about seeming. Well this seems a missed opportunity. But nonetheless a watchable one.

Tartuffe is playing at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket until 28th July.
Paul Anderson and Audrey Fleurot in Tartuffe. Credit: Helen Maybanks

Friday 18 May 2018


Curve, Leicester
16th May, 2018

We are bad feminists

When the sitcom of the same name premiered on BBC Three in 2016, it seemed like Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Fleabag were an overnight sensation. But it started out as a one woman show in 2013, written and performed by Waller-Bridge and directed by Vicky Jones (writer of The One). Since then, the show has quite rightly become a bit of a Fringe – and then mainstream – phenomenon. Now, Soho Theatre and DryWrite (the latter of which is ran by Waller-Bridge and Jones) are taking Fleabag on the road again, handing down the performing reins to Maddie Rice. For 60 minutes, Rice brings Fleabag – a sex-driven, angry, grieving mid-twenties woman in the fast lane of London – storming to life. Whilst simply sat on a stool, Rice takes us to an uber-chic but struggling guinea pig café, tube carriages and feminist lectures, contorting herself into her family and friends and openly letting us in on her secrets – everything apart from what happened to her best friend.

Rice is as perfect as Waller-Bridge in the TV series, utterly owning this fucked-up character. We become privy to a lot of Fleabag’s anecdotes (from the proud to the embarrassing) about sex stories and the tribulations of modern dating. They take the humour of similar stories perhaps heard in stand-up routines and testosterone-fuelled comedies to another level. But rather than being crude for the sake of it, they allow us to see the depths of Fleabag’s life and for us to ultimately empathise with how she lives, thrives, and crashes and burns.

Different from the sitcom, Waller-Bridge’s play shows us even more of Fleabag’s destructive side. Her instinct to destroy is wincingly evoked through Isobel Waller-Bridge’s sound design. And in the end, Waller-Bridge and Rice turn the question to us: is Fleabag alone in being one messed up person living in the thrill of the big city, or are we all just as messed up and simply struggling to articulate it? This is why Fleabag has become a sensation. That, and the fact that Rice does a brilliant impression of a guinea pig reacting to music!

Fleabag plays at Curve, Leicester until 19th May and is on a UK tour.

Maddie Rice in Fleabag. Credit: Richard Davenport .

Thursday 10 May 2018

Love from a Stranger

Curve, Leicester
8th May, 2018

Heavens, No!

“You don’t think we’re silly for not having a telephone, do you?” These famous last words, some might say, along with “Well don’t complain when you have to walk three miles for a pack of cigarettes” establish that the second act’s setting for Love from a Stranger is (in)conveniently isolated. We’re somewhere in the countryside in the love nest of Cecily Harrington (Helen Bradbury) and Bruce Lovell (Sam Frenchum), having run away to the country after a whirlwind romance. But who exactly is Bruce? Indeed, who is Cecily? How do we know who we’ve fallen in love with? Agatha Christie is in vogue at the moment. OK, she’s never really gone out of fashion. She’s the most produced female playwright in the UK and The Mousetrap is London’s longest running play. However, starry and fresh TV adaptations of And Then There Were None, Witness of the Prosecution and Ordeal by Innocence have introduced her works to a new generation and have shown that they can be more than simply chocolate box cosiness. Here, Christie’s and Frank Vosper’s 1936 play is in the assured hands of Lucy Bailey in a production for the Royal & Derngate. Where the play flounders, the production remains enjoyable, stylish, and – surprisingly – manages to avoid the absurd.

If this was one of the recent BBC adaptations, they’d probably get rid of this turgid two act structure. The first act is a loaded jack-in-a-box of exposition. We meet Cecily, bored and longing for some excitement in her life. Having recently won some money, she decides to do something about her settled life on the day (the very same day!) that her fiancé comes home from serving in Sudan. She meets American nomad (although originally from England) Bruce when he comes to rent the flat she’s letting, and is swept over by not so much his charm but his less refined nature. And who can blame her when we finally meet her wet fop of a fiancé as he’s presented in Christie and Vosper’s script. To top it off, they’ve added a Matalan Lady Bracknell (Nicola Sanderson, doing her best with a burdensome first ten minutes) who seems to only be there to make the whole thing into some sort of quintessentially English comedy of manners.

The second act is generally much better. A locked cellar, mysterious empty peroxide bottles, discrepancies between the apparent rent on the house, it has more of the tropes of a delicious thriller. Lucy Bailey keeps the tension high, offering us glimpses of people listening in at the top of the stairs, well-choreographed fight scenes (from Renny Krupinski) and using Richard Hammarton’s music to great effect. Mike Britton’s sliding design is handsome and its gauze walls show off Olivier Fenwick’s lighting design, creating an atmosphere that’s perfect for the genre. The whole set shifts to reveal the front hall (or the kitchen in the next act). This is visually appealing but it also serves a purpose. The set slides across when Cecily first meets Bruce, and later when she perhaps sees him anew. When it returns to its original position, we don’t see it the same way, knowing there’s another part that we cannot see, just as Bruce changes the way Cecily sees the world. Bradbury and Frenchum do a sterling job, investing their characters with passion and danger, vulnerability and nous. Plot holes and crowbarred portraits of femme fatale hysteria aside, this thriller could easily have been murdered if it was in weaker hands.

Love from a Stranger plays at Curve, Leicester until 12th May 2018 and is touring the UK.

Helen Bradbury and Sam Frenchum in Love from a Stranger. Credit: Sheila Burnett.

Monday 7 May 2018

We have been invited to review the website Founded in 2011, SeatPlan claims to provide detailed, interactive seating plans to give users a guide to views from seats in major theatres around the UK. In its own words, ‘SeatPlan was born to collate audience members' seat reviews in a clear, easy-to-use format’. I have used SeatPlan a few times, along with, but I thought I’d take another look at it for a couple of theatres I’ve visited recently, namely the Piccadilly and the National Theatre’s Lyttelton.

So, what’s good about it and what do we feel needs work?

The Good:

SeatPlan is quite aesthetically pleasing: it has a clear layout, is uncluttered and is kept updated, listing a theatre’s current, past and upcoming shows. It also allows you to search by show which is handy if you aren’t that familiar with specific theatres. I haven’t tried booking a show through the website so I don’t know what sort of deals they offer and if these are truly best for value, but they seem to have a detailed amount of information on each show, including synopsis, running times and booking dates.

The seat review system itself works on a five point colour coding system. For the Piccadilly, when recently reviewing Strictly Ballroom, reviews for where we were sat in the stalls were accurate and fair. Although only one of our seats was reviewed, there was a good range of seat reviews from throughout the theatre’s three tiers. There is the option to add photos of the view from your seat and there is also the option to quickly flick through photos of seat views rather than having to blindly pick a seat from the seating plan.

Synonyms for seat, anyone?

For users who post their opinions there is the option to list your height, allowing people to judge differences in leg room opinion. This gives the impression that the website wants its patrons to give as accurate review of their comfort and view of the stage as possible. Looking at the plan for the Piccadilly, the colour coding goes from a sea of dark greens to red as you go from the front stalls to the back of the upper circle, suggesting that these reviews do reflect what you’d expect for their value. The ability to read multiple reviews for the same seat is also useful. Generally, there’s good access information including listing the number of steps from foyer to seat, and listing any wheelchair spaces. Overall, I found SeatPlan to be very user friendly.

Needs work:

More information about the theatre and total experience would be good, in particular about regular theatregoers’ bugbears: How many toilets are there? What’s the cost of a glass of wine? What are the interval queues like? Is the theatre facilitated with ‘Ordertorium’ and how good is that service? There is some information on good value seats but there could be more, especially if a venue (or show) offers day seats and what the policy is on these.

One difference between SeatPlan and TheatreMonkey is the tone. The latter has more of a personal tone. It mixes public reviews with a confident voice of experience and recommendation which I quite like. Sometimes reading many different reviews of the same seat on SeatPlan can be tiring. But then again, this is where the colour coding system comes in handy. Something to think over perhaps?

An option to sign up via Twitter could be good. If there is one already, I couldn’t see it.

What could become an issue on SeatPlan is the discrepancy between seat view photos. For the Piccadilly, one audience photo shows a massive amount of overhang from the above circle, whereas a seat nearby doesn’t show any. Elsewhere, in the Lyttelton’s front stalls, there is a red review between two green reviews, which seems odd and potentially undermines the reliability of SeatPlan. Then again, users of the website are probably savvy enough to realise that one bad review of one seat in an otherwise well-reviewed part of the auditorium shouldn’t be given much credibility. Or should it? I suppose it’s down to the user to weigh up the value of the seat. Having sat in that part of the Lyttelton many times, especially for Angels in America, I’m surprised there are so few comments about the poor leg room and lack of arm rests.

On another note, how does SeatPlan cope with theatres like the Almeida where the layout often changes?

Where SeatPlan really lacks is its content on regional theatres. For example, I randomly chose the Aylesbury Waterside Theatre and saw that it has zero seat reviews. But at least that’s listed! Neither the Royal nor the Derngate in Northampton are listed. Leicester’s Curve isn’t listed. Surprisingly, one of the biggest theatres outside of London, the Birmingham Hippodrome, isn’t listed. In fact, looking at the page on Birmingham, The Rep isn’t listed either. The New Alexandra is listed, but it only has 23 reviews from throughout the theatre. It seems a bit depressing, and confirms London-centric biases, that theatres outside the capital look like ghost towns on I suggest that they concentrate on trying to boost its regional output. However, I was impressed that some of the reviews of the New Alexandra were of the current tour of Sting’s The Last Ship. This confirms that it is kept up to date, which inspires me to keep on using SeatPlan in the future.

Friday 4 May 2018

The Crucible

Curve, Leicester
3rd May, 2018

There is a prodigious fear of this court in the country

Curve’s commitment to providing communal theatre projects is second to none, with the annual community productions (this year’s Fiddler On The Roof looks set to be the biggest yet, with a cast of over 100!) and their long-standing working relationship with De Montfort University students. It gives the Drama and Performing Arts students the opportunity to make use of the facilities and in-house creatives at one of the UK’s leading regional theatres. It also gives Curve the opportunity to reach out to a new generation of people eager to bring a fresh and eager approach to old texts. This year’s collaboration is arguably the most ambitious yet as the DMU drama students, led by director Siobhan Cannon-Brownlie, take on Arthur Miller’s seminal classic, The Crucible.

A small-town community gradually turns against each other amidst vengefulness, tarnished honour, and fear. Much has been made of the play’s unnerving timelessness – from the McCarthyism that inspired Miller, to harassment accusations and celebrity sex scandals (the recent court case between Cliff Richard and the BBC being a prime example), and even the hype and furore over ‘fake news’. So naturally there’s a great amount of scope for style, satire and hard-hitting home truths – whether that manifests through becoming a period piece, focussing on contemporaneity, or perhaps highlighting aspects of society that have perhaps flown under the radar. Unfortunately, Cannon-Brownlie lacks a clear ‘vision’ with her production. The characters seem to be from the 21st Century, yet a certain ramshackle assortment of costumes – from ultra-modern cropped hoodies, to 60’s housewife pertness and pearls, to clergyman smocks which wouldn’t look out of place in an Edwardian vicarage – elicit a sense of uncertainty. A stronger sense of intent would be welcome and, I feel, having a definitive and identifiable setting would have held this production together better. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they had to crowbar an agenda onto their production, but giving it more specificity would’ve given the actors a little more in which to invest. David Hately’s lighting is simple yet striking. Al Parkinson’s imposing set involves a crucifix formation made from spaces in concrete blocks which is a neat idea to suggest the weight of the repressing forces at play. However, the design constricts the action and pushes the actors too far forward and gives them little room to traverse the stage. This causes what are dynamic scenes to feel a little picture-book tableau in style.

Where the production shines is the performances. The wild coven of vengeful girls demonstrates the terror of pack mentality, while Rebecca Woodford handled her last-minute appointment to the role of Judge Hathorne with great tact and dignity. Eleanor Page gives a mature, subtle, yet emotive performance as the stoic Elizabeth Proctor and Calum Harris conveys the conflict between obligation and morality that I’ve rarely acknowledged before in Danforth. Page and Harris’ court confrontation was the dramatic highlight of the evening. In fact, the court scenes stand out in general and, aided by Tash Taylor Johnson’s pulsating bass score, the tension builds nicely throughout the final act to the sobering conclusion.

While this production may be a little overwhelmed by Miller’s play, it remains a joy to see up and coming young talent at work, and I look forward to future Curve and DMU co-productions.

The Crucible plays at Curve, Leicester, until 5th May 2018.

The cast of The Crucible. Credit: Mark Barnett.