Monday 16 March 2020


Crucible Theatre
14th March, 2020 matinee

“Would you have me
False to my nature? Rather say I play
The man I am”

Do actions speak louder than words? In order for people to have faith in them, do leaders need the skill of language, and the ability to connect? These questions are the crux of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. Its title character is a skilled and successful fighter, but when attempting to become Consul, he doesn’t convince the people of Rome and is banished, which in turn leads him to turn to his old enemy Aufidius, for the two of them to then turn on Rome together. This is my first encounter with Coriolanus. I imagine some productions could take a more intimate approach, focusing on the psychology of the characters and the inner machinations of power grabs. Here, Robert Hastie’s production, confidently led by Tom Bateman, uses the Crucible’s large forum stage to great effect, placing the city and its people, including the audience, at its centre.

Ben Stones’ set borrows much from his design for Julius Caesar in 2017. Sunken desks with microphones and leather chairs, rows of strip lights, and wooden panels complete with a Roman insignia stretch out into the auditorium so we too are part of the senate. The citizens play many of their scenes amongst us, and Hastie peoples his production with dedicated members from the Sheffield People’s Theatre. From this plush setting comes barbed wire fences to show us the world in which Coriolanus is more at home: the battlefield. Bateman has a strong physical prowess as demonstrated in Renny Krupinksy’s inventive and long fight scenes, including a rather gory death. So when Coriolanus attempts to make Consul, his wounds are not enough to prove him. Standing on a soapbox in the marketplace in rags (‘the gown of humility’), he proves he cannot appeal to the common man: ‘Must I with base tongue give my noble heart’. What’s fascinating is that so many of Shakespeare’s plays are about the act of seeming, something which often brings about characters’ downfalls. Yet here is a man whose downfall comes from his inability to play the part.

In this production, Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia (Hermon Berhane) is hearing impaired, leading to the clever incorporation of British Sign Language and captioning. The creative integration of BSL and audio-visual technologies in British theatre has mainly been pioneered by Graeae, so kudos to the Crucible for championing this on their main stage. It also has added effects. For a play so much about the art of rhetoric, these scenes see the characters communicate differently, making us think about how we interact with language as a tool. It also adds intimacy to the few scenes between Coriolanus and Virgilia, particularly in the scene where she and Volumnia persuade him to not give up on Rome. When we see these exchanges, I think it allows us to sympathise more with him as we see that he can communicate, thoughtfully and skilfully, something which he lacks the power to do with the plebeians in the marketplace.

There’s fine support, particularly from Stella Gonet as his mother, Volumnia. She worships her son as a hero, proudly counting his scars and boasting that ‘[blood] more becomes a man/ Than gilt his trophy’. But she’s also a gifted and charismatic orator and has the ability to show empathy. Elsewhere, Malcom Sinclair has the weariness of the professional politician, and Kate Rutter leads the citizens very convincingly. When the people of Rome discover that Coriolanus has turned against them, she walks across the stage saying ‘When I said, banish him, I said 'twas pity’, a reminder that the people don’t always know best even if they do have the collective voice of power. Like Hastie’s first production as AD, this is sharp storytelling, confidently acted, which uses the space to embrace the people in a way that theatre does best.

Coriolanus plays at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield until 28th March, 2020
Tom Bateman and Stella Gonet in Coriolanus.
Credit: Johan Persson

Wednesday 11 March 2020

The Mousetrap

Leicester Haymarket
10th March, 2020

See how they run

The last (and first) time I saw Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap was performance number 25,114 at St Martin’s Theatre. I was looking for a Tuesday matinee before seeing a preview of Peter Morgan’s The Audience starring Helen Mirren in the evening. Now in its 68th year in the West End, the play is also touring and shows no signs of slowing down. And whilst the play is more than a bit of a warhorse, it has become a staple of British theatre. In the excellent programme which charts the play’s history, including a list of every London cast, there’s an accompaniment of major news headlines from each year. Through royal scandals, political crises and indeed pandemics, this who-dunnit is still standing. But whether you view it as a museum piece or bona fide murder mystery with a capacity to thrill, Christie’s good old-fashioned stage craft ensures that The Mousetrap is still satiating audiences in 2020.

The curtain rises on a radio bulletin announcing that a woman has been murdered in Paddington. Miles away, in the Berkshire countryside, is the play’s setting of Monkswell Manor, a guesthouse ran by a young married couple. We see a string of guests arrive, many of whom fit the description of the murderer, shortly before Sergeant Trotter who claims that the London murder could well be connected to the guests, all of whom are in danger. There are several twists and interesting backstories, characters not being as they first appear, and even a second murder before the curtain closes on the first act. The second act cuts to the chase a lot quicker, and there’s a clever Hamlet link when characters start to re-enact the murder. Anthony Holland’s design plays the part of charming, rural guesthouse very well: wood-panelling, cosy armchairs, and plenty of exits which hide a rabbit warren of corridors to link up the rest of the house – a nice quirk which also provides a modus operandi. Snow can be seen falling from outside the window, and several nursery rhyme motifs contribute to the production’s playful tone. The cast all do splendid work – I can only imagine how the actors feel having to wear the shoes of dozens of actors before them; mere cogs in a bigger machine. In particular, Susan Penhaligon stands out as the brassy Mrs Boyle, Steven Elliott has a lot of fun chewing the scenery as Mr Paravicini, and Martin Allanson gives a confidently assured performance as Sergeant Trotter.

Christie’s works have had a bit of a renaissance in recent years: from the “sexed-up”, first-rate BBC adaptations to the chocolate box Kenneth Branagh films, even on stage with Lucy Bailey’s production of Witness for the Prosecution at London County Hall. But amongst them all, The Mousetrap is still her calling card. Its enduring popularity remains a bit of a mystery to me, but an enjoyable one at that. There are other curiosities to the play: why the drawn-out exposition? What is in Paravicini’s little bag? And for fans of Mischief Theatre, there’s plenty of fun to be had out of spotting echoes of Murder at Haversham Manor.

The Mousetrap plays at the Leicester Haymarket Theatre until 14th March and continues to tour the UK. For full tour dates, please see
The cast of The Mousetrap. Credit:

Thursday 5 March 2020

The Phantom of the Opera

Curve, Leicester
Wednesday 4th March, 2020

‘Hide your face so the world will never find you’

And now for something completely different… Following the intimate storytelling of Rob Ward’s one man play, The MP, Aunty Mandy and Me the previous night, we returned to Curve for a show that is much grander in scale; the new touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. The stark contrast between these two equally enjoyable shows reminds me just why I love the theatre so much – the infinite variety, the imaginative scope, the escapism, the immersiveness, the grandeur, the visual and thematic audacity. And it all happens live, right before your eyes. Magic is real, ladies and gentlemen, and it occurs on stages up and down the country every night. There is nothing on Earth quite like it.  

It seems very apt then that, as I exult in the glories of the theatre, the piece that has sparked this adulation is itself a love-letter to the arts. Say what you want about Lloyd Webber’s hokeyness, his habit of recycling old melodies, or his financial dominance in musical-land – he knows how to put on a damn fine show! And with Phantom being perhaps the most personal of his oeuvre, his passion for music and the arts comes across in the sheer ambition of the piece, and the hard work and talent of everyone involved.

The story of a social outcast murderously infatuated with a young, talented ingénue is well documented, so I needn’t go into the specifics of the plot. As a fan of Gothic literature I’m willing to brush aside the problematic aspects of the story - aka ‘Stockholm Syndrome: The Musical’ - as it’s a pretty perfect example of the genre and all of its underlying social, sexual and psychologically meaty themes. And because of this generic complexity, combined with Lloyd Webber’s sensuous music (‘Music of the Night’ and ‘The Point of No Return’ are sexy songs!) and magnetic performances from the leads, the audience readily accepts the Phantom, a cold blooded serial killer, as a romantic/Romantic figure. Lloyd Webber and lyricists Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe struck gold with their ability to call upon our innate desires and repulsions, and our fascination with the grotesque, the beautiful and the wielding of power in all shapes and forms. Upon this foundation a musical sensation was built, sustained and continues to tower over its peers.

Of course, much of the success lies in the hands of the cast. Christine must be more than a simpering waif, the Phantom must compel our sympathy, and the two must have a convincing chemistry to get us fully on board with the melodramatics of the plot. Gladly, the show is in safe hands with Holly-Anne Hull and Killian Donnelly at the helm. In a demanding role, Hull confidently holds the piece together, making Lloyd Webber’s notoriously difficult soprano solos seem effortless and rich. Donnelly continues to cement his reputation as the leading man in musical theatre with a performance that traverses the full spectrum of human emotion, while also bringing a physicality and tactile edge to the role that I haven’t noticed previously. Adam Linstead, Matt Harrop and Saori Oda provide comic relief as the flustered Opera House owners, Andre and Firman, and the stroppy prima donna, Carlotta. Importantly, the exceptional company bring to life all the hectic bustle of 19th Century backstage society. As a theatre nerd I love peeking beyond the wings into the not-so-glamourous side of showbusiness.

I saw the London production as a teen around a decade ago, and while the music and mood have always stayed with me, I’d quite forgotten how visually impressive Phantom is. Cameron Mackintosh and The Really Useful Group have pulled out all the stops for this tour, from the multitudes of lavish scenery – exquisitely reproduced by Matt Kinley from Maria Bjornson’s original designs - the lustrous costumes and all the whizz-bang tricks we expect of a supernatural thriller-cum-Mega Musical. No one can complain that you don’t get your money’s worth!

From the moment the orchestra struck up those famous chords in the overture (on a personal note, can I say how much I love all those 80’s power chords, haha!)  I was spellbound and I’m so pleased that the show still lives up to its spine-tingling renown. The production is brimming with enchanting set-pieces, such as the iconic chandelier crash, the eerily beautiful candle-lit boat ride to the Phantom’s cavernous lair, and the epic carnival of ‘Masquerade’. My fiancé (and co-blogger) hadn’t seen Phantom before (nope, not even the flaccid 2004 film adaptation), and as a self-confessed sceptic, it’s safe to say he was completely won over by the show in every aspect. 

The production is spectacular in the truest sense, and even the most curmudgeonly of spectators will find something to enthuse over. If I could, I would buy a ticket and see the show again this evening (and the next, and the one after that, and… you get the picture!), and that is the surest sign of a great production. While in some spheres it may be unfashionable to like Lloyd Webber, and many will agree that his recent work has produced more misses than hits, it’s fair to say that the ALW classics still hold the power to beguile audiences worldwide, and his reputation as one of the great composers is fully deserved. Bravo!

The Phantom of the Opera plays at Curve, Leicester until 21st March and continues on tour.
For details of further venues please visit:

Wednesday 4 March 2020

The MP, Aunty Mandy and Me

Curve, Leicester
3rd March, 2020

We don’t get anything in Brinton

Following the success of his play Gypsy Queen, Emmerson & Ward Productions and Curve present Rob Ward’s new one-man play as part of the DMU Pride Festival. In what was its first public performance, The MP, Aunty Mandy and Me is a tightly written, confidently performed play about power, identity and communities. Ward skilfully takes us through 70 minutes of a multitude of well-drawn characters, tangible places, with provocative humour and some potent dramatic moments.

Ward’s central character is Dominic: a young gay man from a working-class background in the small town of Brinton. His dad ‘fucked off years ago’, and so now it’s just him and his mum, who has a fondness for Mick Hucknall and MDMA (the ‘Aunt Mandy’ of the title). But his desire to escape the provincial yonderland for something bigger is quashed by frequent panic attacks and limited career prospects, leaving him to turn to the virtual world of social media influencing, specifically, the competitive circle of the “InstaGays”. This contrast of worlds is effectively achieved in the opening scene where we see Dom’s love of steam trains, and the local railway station. It helps to establish a literal sense of place – small, quite rural, forgotten – set against the physically stylised realm of a photoshoot backdrop and camera lights, a nod to the controlled glamour of social media. This conflicting sense of identity, a young man still discovering himself, is a strong, relatable foundation on which the rest of the play is built.

Whilst working in catering, Dom meets local Labour MP (a ‘Blair-ite bastard’), Peter. He describes himself as a ‘perfect gay MP’: a Guardian reading, married, middle-class, ‘jam making knight of the theatre’, a public persona well-wrought and rehearsed to meet the pressures of the job and the scrutiny of the public. Peter hires Dom as his PR intern, taking the naïve youngster under his wing, introducing him to the exciting LGBT+ scene in the ‘big city’. However, the arrival of a new intern, Joey, unearths some uncomfortable truths and causes Dom to have doubts about his relationship with Peter.

The play, and perhaps more pointedly Clive Judd’s glib direction, excels in portraying the lurid, queasy, mind-bending highs (and lows) of Dom’s MDMA trips. On his knees in a club with a leather BDSM dog mask on, Dom feels liberated to be the confident man he wants to be. His new-found bravado even spurs him into approaching ‘InstaGay’ idol, Ryan, and a pro-tip that will surely spell success for his career as an influencer. Yet as the night moves on and Peter takes him back to his hot tub, the effects of the drugs warp the scene as the MP moves in on a powerless Dom; the leather mask loses its comedy/shock/sexy factor as we see the confusion and fear in his eyes, Ward’s voice gains a hollow tone, and a sense of disquiet permeates the room. The binary themes of power/powerlessness and immobility/mobility is played with again later in the play, when Dom and his mother have a brilliantly uncanny ‘Aunty Mandy’ face-off. Painfully pregnant pauses, bright lights, and the distorted tones of Mick Hucknall bleeding into the scene from some ether mingle to create an overwhelmingly surreal and mesmerising effect. Judd and Ward have produced one of the more sensationally primitive and evocative depictions of substance abuse; wildly different in technique, but equal in its lasting impression to Jeremy Herrin's production of MacMillan's People, Places and Things.

It’s remarkable how many themes Ward and Judd open up in such a short space of time: an unflinching exploration of multiple and interweaved cultures and societies, the quest for identity in a world where image is everything, political corruption, sexual exploitation, and the abuse of power…

Ward has a clear distinctive voice, with echoes of Jonathan Harvey in his blend of the banal and the fantastic, and in his sympathetic and honest portrayal of gay men. He gets under the skin of each of his distinct characters – from a bluff Tory politician, to a posh and reserved GP, to Dom’s cackling, grotesque mother – his performance always on point, empathetic and inviting. This is a very watchable play, with succinct themes that genuinely inspire unease. There has been much focus on #MeToo of late, and while it’s about time that such sexist and abusive behaviour towards women is exposed, The MP, Aunty Mandy and Me does a stellar job of highlighting the similar, but perhaps less well-publicised, sufferings within the LGBT+ community.

The MP, Aunty Mandy and Me plays at Curve, Leicester until 4th March.