Thursday 23 June 2022

Rock / Paper / Scissors

 Crucible/Lyceum/Studio, Sheffield

22nd June, 2022

There is no new thing under the sun

All three plays in Chris Bush’s Rock/Paper/Scissors triptych run in Sheffield Theatres’ three spaces simultaneously with one cast. The overall piece is a logistical coup-de-théâtre. It’s also a perfect coming together of space and place in three funny, achingly profound and heartful plays about a city and its people on the cusp of change.

Eddie, the owner of Spenser & Son’s scissor manufacturers, has died after 50 years of running the factory. Business has been struggling for some time and there’s now a question mark over its future. Set in present-day Sheffield across three locations in the factory, the plays explore the various stakeholders who all have a claim on what they’d like the space to be. From a nightclub or industrial chic making hub, to flats, to carrying on as a working factory, Rock/ Paper/ Scissors delves into the spaces and lives that make up the past, present and future of the city.

I create

In Rock, we see the main factory space. It now lays bare as it’s too expensive to heat and they don’t have enough orders coming in. But in Ben Stones’ design, it is still a magnificent space. Steel girders hold up a glass saw-tooth roof covered in moss, and several cast-iron radiators and small piles of sawdust are the only things on the vast floorspace. Coming all guns blazing into this is Eddie’s sister (his only blood relative) Susie, a punk legend of the 1970s who discovered some of the city’s finest bands. In a fierce performance from Denise Black, Susie – a sort-of anti-Madame Renevsky – wants to turn the place into a nightclub. Rebellious, uncompromising and an innovator, we see in her the effect of generations of patriarchy: ‘we were a waste product… The unwanted daughters of men who only wanted sons’. She also has an unshakeable belief in the power of creating something new.

‘This is a place of making’, ‘It was once’ sums up the notion of change at the centre of the three plays. For factory manager Omar, there is pleasure and integrity in the work itself. His passion for making something which will outlast him, in hammers which have moulded to workers’ hands over the decades is something which he believes should be conserved. On the other hand, is the steel industry dead? I particularly liked how the plays explore how we easily romanticise the past. Early on in Rock, Leo jokes that some art director in New York is trying to replicate the grime on the factory’s glass roof to achieve its quality of light: ‘that right there is history’. There’s a similar line early on in Paper where Faye is nostalgic over the smell of her dad’s old office: ‘I like it. It’s the stink of history’. The natural light in the factory also becomes a running joke. Everyone waxes lyrically over it to the extent it becomes futile. What’s the good of the natural light if the building’s not doing anything? Like in Alan Bennett’s People, it’s implied that there’s a danger in clinging onto the past just for the sake of preservation. Bush also explores the impact of Covid on such spaces. As a corporate design consultant (excellently played by Leo Wan) says, we don’t really know the purpose of city centres now. Factories and physical shops might be on the decline but there could be space for a destination ‘cathedral of making’ that will draw people in. In volatile times, perhaps there’s a new way to forge a future which is connected to the cultural heritage of a place. Bush firmly has her finger on the pulse of some of the city’s (and country’s) biggest issues.

They’d feel like they were a part of something

In Paper, we see Eddie’s step-daughter Faye and her partner Mel go through Eddie’s office ready to have the factory developed into flats. Janet Bird’s design fills the space with mountains of folders, a PC from the 90s and a giant pair of scissors that perhaps once adorned the front of the factory. Mel doesn’t romanticise the past, pragmatically saying, ‘it is history. It is past. People don’t need scissors’. On the other hand, Faye starts to see the value in the place. Led by two brilliant performances from Samantha Power and Natalie Casey, as the couple are considering how the factory could shape their future together, uneasy truths in the couple’s relationship unfold. Bush beautifully interweaves the play’s larger themes with character detail, finely balanced in Robert Hastie’s production.

the bigger thing is wanting to have something that can’t get taken away

In Scissors, we see a glimpse of the past itself as we’re invited to see inside the last vestiges of the scissor-making process. Scissors is a work play and there’s a fascination in watching people at work. The start of the play sees the four apprentices, each on a mere £4 per hour, making scissors: sharpening, polishing and checking blades. It’s meticulous and laborious but you can also see the level of care they put into it – director Elin Schofield also finds a playful musicality in this manual labour too. The play also explores the problems of four young people today. Shit wages and low prospects, but all committed to their work making something none of them can afford to buy and you can get cheaper on Amazon. It’s a reminder of young people’s resilience in times of crises. It also features a brilliant performance from Jabez Sykes as a brusque apprentice with a uniquely comical take on life which makes him wise beyond his years.

To write just one of these plays would’ve been an achievement. I can’t begin to fathom the scale of work involved in mounting all three. They’re big plays with breadth, depth and heart in which everyone is working at the top of their game. I’d be surprised if I see a more impressive piece of theatre this year.

Rock/Paper/Scissors play in Sheffield’s Crucible, Lyceum and Studio until 2nd July. For further information please visit:

Samantha Power and Natalie Casey in Paper (Photo by Johan Persson).

Wednesday 8 June 2022

Maggie May

 Curve, Leicester

7th June, 2022

Pretending everything’s normal

Two years after its scheduled run at Curve was cancelled due to Covid-19, Frances Poet’s play, co-produced by Curve, Queen's Theatre Hornchurch and Leeds Playhouse, opened last night. A finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, Maggie May is a quietly devastating, often very funny, and surprisingly uplifting play about a woman living with dementia. Led by an exceptional central performance from Eithne Browne, Poet’s play doesn’t shy away from exploring the upsetting parts of the illness, whilst confidently showing that moments of joy, love and independence still exist after diagnosis.

Maggie May follows the story of a feisty woman from Leeds who tries to keep her Alzheimer’s diagnosis a secret from the world. She withdraws from friends and leaves notes for everything around the house. When her son and his new girlfriend visit, it’s clear she can no longer hide it from them. What I really liked about the play is that Poet makes the topic of dementia accessible. We see Maggie’s thought processes when she’s in a new situation: ‘I send signal to brain. Recognition’. We also hear her liken it to fog or a head full of treacle. Whereas Florian Zeller’s The Father has a clear trajectory of showing the title character’s illness decline, I really admire Poet’s more mature approach to portraying dementia on stage. Along with moments of confusion, there are also moments of lucidity. Late in the play, Maggie is still someone who is autonomous, pragmatic and even pro-active with her illness, having taken on a job as a dementia ambassador. And the darker moments are explained in an accessible way which make them less daunting. For example, when Maggie experiences delirium caused by a water infection, she likens it to her body trying to juggle two balls in one hand and it can’t cope when another one is thrown in. Eithne Browne in the title role gives a really touching performance as Maggie. We fully believe this is a strong Leeds woman who’s led a full life (running a kitchen, doing her son’s accounts, caring for her husband following a stroke), and Browne captures Maggie’s fears, determination and humour beautifully. Maggie is a character with dementia, not defined by it.

In 2021, it’s estimated that over 1 million people in the UK were living with a form of dementia. The arts have a vital part to play, from delaying its onset and diminishing its severity, to improving the quality of life for those with the condition and their carers. Gemima Levick’s excellent production is therefore doing crucial work in ensuring that the play has been conceived to be accessible for people living with dementia. Characters wear the same colour scheme throughout (Gordon in brown, Claire in purple, Maggie in grey); and captions highlighting Maggie’s thought processes accompany each scene to help audiences follow the narrative. It is a remarkable achievement that all areas of the production (writing, direction, design, front of house) are involved in making the play as accessible as possible. Nicky Taylor’s team at Leeds Playhouse (formerly West Yorkshire Playhouse) have done ground-breaking work to make theatre inclusive for people living with dementia. Their 2014 production of White Christmas (directed by Nikolai Foster) held the UK’s first dementia friendly performance, and they have since produced a practical guide to adapting productions to create a safe space for those living with the illness. Foster has continued to champion this work as Artistic Director of Curve and dementia friendly performances are now a frequent fixture of its calendar. They increase opportunities for people with dementia to access life-enhancing shows, reconnect them to their local theatres and reaffirm theatre’s role in society through connecting communities. A shout out must also go to the front of house team at Curve. They’re always friendly and helpful, but they’ve gone the extra mile to ensure a safe space has been created. A booth in the foyer highlights the many local resources available and acts as a quiet space for visitors to reflect on the play. Leaflets from the Alzheimer's Society have also been placed in the bar to provide further information. This is a brilliant example of how theatres are a central hub in a community, forging partnerships with purpose in the local area and ensuring everyone’s included.

Francis O’Connor’s design creates Maggie’s world with furniture coming on stage on tracks. The way the dining table and bed move are particularly clever in showing how the illness can fragment parts of the home life. The supporting cast all do a fine job, especially Shireen Farkhoy’s ever-optimistic Claire and Tony Timberlake as Maggie’s husband Gordon, singing songs and seeing the bright side to help her through. I also really liked the play’s use of Harry Potter and how Maggie’s relationship with the books changes throughout the play. We all know Harry Potter and I think its inclusion helps to further root the play in a recognisable world. Really inspiring work!

Maggie May plays at Curve, Leicester until 11th June. All performances are dementia friendly. For further information, please visit

The Dementia Friendly performance of Billy Elliot at Curve is scheduled for 11th August, 2.15pm and of The Wizard of Oz is on 4th January 2023, 2.15pm.

Tony Timberlake and Eithne Browne in Maggie May. Credit: Zoe Martin

Tuesday 7 June 2022


 Curve, Leicester

6th June, 2022

Let the game begin

Mark Bell’s production of Cluedo, adapted from Sandy Rustin’s US play which itself is based on Jonathan Lynn’s screenplay of the 1985 film Clue, has been transposed to 1940s England. Based on the classic British boardgame, the play is a mashup of an Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery crossed with a farce in the style of Mischief Theatre. Whilst there are plenty of twists and turns in this whodunnit, loosely set upon a backdrop of scandal and corruption, the main thing I was left scratching my head at was where did the whole thing go wrong? Rustin’s play is apparently one of the most performed in the US at the moment (there are productions in 13 different states in June alone!). Whereas her play is set in McCarthy era Washington DC, she does have form writing plays in the style of English farces with her play The Cottage (2014). Likewise, Bell comes with a string of successful comedies under his name having previously directed The Play that Goes Wrong (seen here last month) and The Comedy About a BankRobbery. It’s a shame, then, that Cluedo, in trying to be both a murder mystery and a farce, doesn’t live up to the expectations of either.

As Tory MPs lined up to vote in a confidence vote in Westminster last night, corruption at the heart of government and British society is also at the centre of Cluedo’s plot. Six strangers are invited to a country manor one stormy evening, all of whom are being blackmailed by their host for various ‘indiscretions’. Inspired by the events of the Lynskey Tribunal which found criminal activities happening in the upper echelons of British society, the play exposes the hypocrisies of those upholding a charade of decency. One character’s proclamation of ‘I’m not involved in any corruption. I’m a Conservative’ certainly strikes a chord. But the play’s pertinence ends there. The host is murdered during a blackout and the body count quickly rises. What follows is a murder mystery romp in which the only form of tension is from a loud thunderclap sound effect.

The characters, as you’d expect from those in the boardgame, are mostly stereotypes. Colonel Mustard, for instance, is reduced to spoonerisms and cheap puns: ‘You’ve all been given pseudonyms tonight’, ‘It’s OK, I took something for my hay fever before I got here’; ‘Do you like Kipling?’, ‘Oh, I’ll eat anything’. But it is typical of the play’s inconsistencies and missed opportunities that at one point, having spent all of act one punning, that he asks ‘how can you joke at a time like this?’ without a hint of irony or humour. But because of their two-dimensional nature, it’s difficult to really care about any of them. Daniel Casey is having a good time as the plummy stiff upper-lipped Professor Plum, and Meg Travers (on for Michelle Collins) nicely portrays the cunning side of the femme fatale Miss Scarlett. Overall, I appreciate the characters are supposed to be stereotypes but I think more could have been done to play up the cartoonish caricatures which push the boundaries of the play’s faithfulness to the boardgame. Mostly, the cast don’t have much to play with resulting in weak characterisations.

If there are any saving graces, the production runs along at a nice pace and there’s an amusing moment in the second act involving a slow-motion falling chandelier. But apart from that it feels like the play gives up in the second half. A random singing telegram arrives, there’s an excruciating moment of fake corpsing, and the jokes start to feel repetitive. Successful farces are often best played naturistically and work because you feel none of the characters want to be there, but I never really felt that the stakes were particularly high here. They also tend to find their own groove from which the momentum builds. If a singing telegram turned up in a Mischief Theatre production, which tend to reach the delirious heights of hilarity, it would probably work. But in Cluedo, it just felt flat.

David Farley’s design is enjoyably playful. Seven doors line the edge of the set in a nod to Marc Camoletti’s Boeing Boeing. These fold out to reveal inner rooms you’d expect to find in the boardgame and complement Anna Healey’s movement rather well to give the effect that the cast are roaming around a country mansion. But, overall, I can’t help but think this is best kept on the shelf.

Cluedo plays at Curve, Leicester until 11th June as part of a UK tour. For further information, please visit

Daniel Casey and Michelle Collins in Cluedo. Credit: Craig Sugden.