Thursday 28 April 2022


Apollo, London

23rd April, 2022, matinee

Mother, what is this dark place?’

And she replies ‘‘Tis England, my boy, England’

I was 19 when I first saw Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem (2009) at the Apollo in 2011. For me, it was the play that sparked a love for going to see plays and in particular a fondness of Butterworth’s work. I was lucky to get a £10 ticket fairly easily that day but it didn’t surprise me to hear that people were queuing around the block and camping overnight to get tickets. Jerusalem captured a sense of urgency I hadn’t seen reflected elsewhere and hadn’t been able to articulate myself until that point. It struck a chord for me and a generation of other young audience members hungry to see it. Ian Rickson’s production now returns to the Apollo Theatre with all the vitality and urgency it had first time round.

It’s St George’s Day and Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron is facing imminent eviction from his caravan on the edge of a Wiltshire forest. What has been a hangout spot for local teenagers, a sort of coming-of-age ritual through the generations, is now under threat following complaints from the nearby housing estate. It’s also the day of the Flintock county fair and the reigning May Queen has gone missing. It’s a magnificent play, one which touches on insecurities about Englishness, brings together the ancient and the contemporary, and contrasts the mythical with the tangible.

I’d forgotten how much of the action is taken up by characters telling and listening to stories about Rooster: tales of him being a daredevil motorcyclist, his miraculous conception, being born with his own teeth and a cloak, meeting a giant who built Stonehenge. Stories give Rooster his legendary status and you can often see through the bullshit to see Rooster for nothing more than a wastrel who lives in a caravan and is laughed at behind his back. As Davey puts it, ‘you’re sat in your brand-new house you’ve sweat your bollocks off to buy, and find out four hundred yards away there’s some ogre living in a wood’. But there are other times when audience and hangers-on alike can’t resist the allure of his storytelling. And they’re not all completely unbelievable. The story where Rooster recounts a recent kidnapping by four Nigerian traffic wardens from Swindon mixes the bizarre with such peculiar detail that you wonder why he would make something like that up. And even the utterly fantastical ones are backed up with tangible proof: the Mars Bar from his sexual encounter with the Spice Girls; the drum that the giant wore as an ear-ring. By the end Butterworth has the audience believing in giants too.

Questionable storytelling has been especially pertinent in the past ten years. After the coalition government of 2010, I seem to recall commentators saying that politics was no longer a two-horse race. I can’t help but lament we’ve gone backwards since then. Everything is so divisive now: you’re either left or right, leave or remain. In politics and in culture it seems there’s barely any room for nuance. And storytelling has been crucial to politics in that time. Brexit and political discourse have been dominated by stories relating to national identity, often imagined, romanticised and polarising. The stories told in Jerusalem feel more like a warning now about the stories we tell ourselves as a nation. Even earlier this year, Tory party chair Oliver Dowden told a conference:

As I walk with my children through the calm suburbia of Hertfordshire… I actually reflect on the great fortune we have to live in a nation defined by stability, security… and, yes, Conservatism.

Dowden’s implied vision of England – suburban, white, middle-class – is nightmarish. It implies a rigidity which is probably not too far off the seventy-eight new houses on the new estate in Jerusalem and which also feature in its sister play Parlour Song (also 2009). It’s this uniformity that Rooster protests: ‘Them houses is lovely, clean and spanking now. But come two, three summers, couple hard winters, those windows’ll peel’.

The play has gained a new-found relevance since its last London run. It also remains just as funny, exciting and heart-breaking as ever. The opening, arguably the best opening ten minutes of any play, is brilliantly theatrical. A midnight rave with the blasting of The Prodigy crashing against the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ is soon followed by Rylance sauntering out of the caravan, doing a handstand in a trough of water and downing a cocktail of milk, vodka and raw egg. Ultz’s set is wondrous: an American airstream caravan, real chickens in a pen beneath it, surrounded by real trees towering up into the rafters and a clearing made up of Coca-Cola chairs and other detritus. One slight difference I noticed since the last time was that there’s much more green algae on top of the caravan. Is the intention that it’s aged with the play? It’s as if Rooster never got evicted ten years ago and the caravan has sat in the clearing ever since. A new set of kids are hanging around Rooster, Ginger’s still there clinging on, and history’s repeating itself. Fascinating and all the more poignant if so.

Rylance and Crook are on top form reprising their roles, along with Alan David who is also back as The Professor. The new members of the cast, particularly the kids, all provide excellent support making the roles their own. Rylance’s performance is so physical but there are also moments of stillness which are just as memorable. One of them is where he’s recounting the story of meeting the 90-foot giant. Rooster comes quite far downstage and looks out into the audience and ends the story so softly: ‘I watched him walk clean across the land, north towards the motorway, until he was off in the distance like a pylon’. It’s a line which has gained new resonance since the production’s last outing. There’s a moment in Steven Spielberg’s The BFG (2016), starring Rylance in the title role, where the giant runs across the countryside alongside a line of pylons, itself probably echoing this line in the play. It’s testament to the greatness of the play, so full of cultural and literary allusions that it has brought about other reference points and gained new meanings since it was first produced.

We saw a preview performance on St George’s Day no less, and were delighted to get an extra Morris dance from Gerard Horan (Wesley) at the curtain call.

Jerusalem plays at the Apollo Theatre until 7th August.

Kemi Awoderu (Pea), Mark Rylance (Johnny "Rooster" Byron), Charlotte O'Leary (Tanya), Ed Kear (Davey) and Mackenzie Crook (Ginger)
© Simon Annand

The Homecoming


Curve, Leicester

27th April 2022

I decided she was

I could be wrong but I think this is the first time Pinter’s Tony award winning The Homecoming (1965) has been professionally performed in Leicester since a production at the Haymarket in 1996. It seems odd to me that, outside of London, Pinter revivals are few and far between. It’s pleasing to see, then, that Theatre Royal Bath has revived the play for a UK tour. Jamie Glover’s production, starring Keith Allen and Mathew Horne, nicely balances the surface realism with an underlying sense of threat.

We get a sense that the usual trappings of a domestic drama are being skewed from the off. Liz Ashcroft’s design is a 1960s house in the East End: period wallpaper, a staircase, a living room, a window. On its own, it could be the setting for the sort of family drama that Pinter started his career acting in. But Ashcroft subtly subverts this. The walls loom into the rafters as if dwarfing the characters below and even the large staircase creates a sense of unease with the landing light casting shadows behind it. We meet Max, the cantankerous, misogynistic patriarch of the family, pitched perfectly in Keith Allen’s performance, the third time he’s been in this play. His language is coarse, he boasts about his son Joey’s sexual scruples, and he antagonises his chauffeur brother (who I saw Allen play in Jamie Lloyd’s production in 2015). What’s interesting is that some plays have pseudo families made of strangers taking on familial roles. Here, we have a real family where the roles and relationships are distorted. When Max’s other son Teddy returns from a long break working in America with his wife Ruth, the turf war escalates.

Mathew Horne excels as Lenny. Underneath the banal language, he’s poised with an ambiguous danger which makes him unpredictable. This is most explicit in the scene where he first meets Ruth. But somehow, despite Lenny’s intimidating language and running rings around his prey, his new-found sister-in-law holds her own. Played with careful stillness by Shanaya Rafaat, the power play culminates in a battle over a glass of water which she wins. In the second act, Teddy watches on powerless as Ruth is kissed by his brothers. By the end, Teddy returns to America while Ruth stays with his family and has agreed for them to pimp her out. But, ultimately, who is in control here?

Glover’s production is certainly less stylised than Lloyd’s 60th anniversary revival. However, I questioned whether that stripped back production swamped some of the play’s subtleties. Here, the menace is subtler and I think Glover (himself an actor) gives the cast space to let the text come first. I felt we were really given a chance to enjoy Pinter’s language, its comedic contradictions and dark subtext. I personally prefer some of Pinter’s later plays, but this is a fine example of an early work which draws on the naturalistic tradition but to unleash what Michael Billington called a ‘startling territorial takeover’

The Homecoming plays at Curve, Leicester until 30th April and then tours until 21st May.

Sam Alexander, Keith Allen and Mathew Horne in The Homecoming
Credit: Manuel Harlan

Friday 22 April 2022

Secret Blog: “The world turns. And it turns. And it moves and you don't. You're still here.”

15th October 2011. The day after my 19th birthday, I queued up on Shaftesbury Avenue for a day seat to see Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem at the Apollo Theatre. The play was still in previews for its second West End run and had just returned from a Tony-winning engagement in New York.

I wasn’t too familiar with what the play was about but was aware of the hype that surrounded Mark Rylance’s performance as Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron and the play itself. For me, it was the play that sparked a love for drama and new writing, and an interest in Butterworth’s plays which later became the subject of my Masters dissertation. When I heard that people had been queuing around the block and camping out overnight to get tickets, it didn’t surprise me. Jerusalem captured a sense of urgency I hadn’t seen reflected elsewhere and hadn’t been able to articulate myself until that point. As a coming of age play, as a political play (which was particularly heightened following the English riots that summer), and as a play about Englishness, it struck a chord for me and a generation of other young audience members hungry to see it.

Tomorrow, 23rd April 2022 – St. George’s Day no less – I’m seeing the play again back at the Apollo where Mark Rylance and Mackenzie Crook have returned to their original roles. I’d just started my first year of university back in 2011. I’m now graduated, married and a home owner. I wonder how the play has also changed since then.

“Come, you giants!”


Wednesday 20 April 2022

The Cher Show

 Curve, Leicester

19th April 2022

              Like a Cher doll

Our latest visit to Curve could seem like a case of deja vu – a show based on the life story and back catalogue of a normal girl growing up in the 1960s who becomes a musical powerhouse – the set up bears a striking resemblance to that of Beautiful, which we reviewed last month. But The Cher Show takes a much more bombastic approach to the biomusical, as befitting the vampy glamour of the queen of camp. Arlene Phillips’ new production (the European premiere) is a frothy concoction of corny jokes and power ballads, drenched in enough glitter to put the Strictly ballroom to shame.

The premise sees Cher (Debbie Kurup) about to go onstage for her farewell tour. Facing a crisis of confidence the singer addresses her younger selves (Danielle Steers and Millie O’Connell), delving into her past (or, ahem, wanting to ‘Turn Back Time’) in search of the lyrical meaning behind her comeback single ‘Believe’. It’s an interesting concept, which could draw comparisons with Albee’s Three Tall Women, but beyond this initial intrigue Rick Elice’s by-the-numbers book lacks the wit of similar biomusicals (eg. Douglas McGrath’s droll yet charming book for Beautiful) or the guts to go all out with the theatrical concept of the three Chers. The casting gimmick goes some way to mask the fact that Cher’s life story isn’t exactly a thrill a minute: we see her as a shy young girl meeting Sonny Bono (Lucas Rush) for the first time; together they scale the fame ladder with a few tiffs along the way; Cher eventually branches out on her own and takes her career into her own hands. The most dramatic moment comes when Cher’s young boyfriend, Rob Camiletti, punches a paparazzo – it’s not exactly high-stakes stuff and I didn’t feel like Elice provided any real insight into Cher’s character beyond the surface.

Despite the slightly clunky book, Phillips’ production uses the playful premise to maximum effect during the musical numbers, with the classic Cher vocals amplified threefold. Belters such as ‘Strong Enough’, ‘I Found Someone’ and ‘We All Sleep Alone’ are pumped out at full volume, showcasing the excellent vocals of the three leads as they strut around the stage in Gabriella Slade’s dazzling costumes. Tom Rogers’ set design also impressively propels the action: from New York subways to TV studio dressing rooms and the bright lights of Las Vegas, Rogers humorously incorporates dates into the minimal set pieces to ground the action in space and time. The music and book do occasionally come together to work some storytelling magic, and I especially enjoyed the section charting Cher’s acting career, set to the rhythm of ‘The Beat Goes On’. Kurup shines during these scenes, and Act 2 rightly belongs to her as she holds the audience in the palm of her hand.

While I wouldn’t class myself as a Cher fan, it’s easy to see why she is adored by so many – bold yet enigmatic, she remains a woman at the top of her game, and it’s refreshing to see the message of the musical reflected in the female-lead creative process of this production. The Cher Show doesn’t break any boundaries, but it’s a fun night out, filled with rocking songs performed to a high standard, and is an entertaining addition to the juke box musical genre.

The Cher Show plays at Curve, Leicester until 23rd April.

For further dates and tour details please visit:

Debbie Kurup as Star (centre) in The Cher Show, credit Pamela Raith