Saturday 2 December 2023


 Curve, Leicester

1st December, 2023

High flying, adored

So young, the instant queen

Following on from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar (the latter playing at Curve in February), Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice collaborated on their next hit, Evita. Hal Prince’s 1978 production provided breakout roles for Elaine Paige and Patti LuPone as Argentina’s first lady and tabloid diva Eva Perón. 45 years on, Nikolai Foster’s revival (which is this year’s Christmas show at Curve) nods to the chic and glamour of that original production, whilst giving the musical a modern aesthetic, stripping back the political context to focus on the nature of power and how it changes Eva.

As the house lights lower, the safety curtain rises on our protagonist’s coffin on a high platform on an otherwise empty stage. The company, dressed all in black, surround her coffin singing “Requiem aeternum dona Evita”. The austere image instantly pitches Eva Perón, however much the audience might know of her, as an iconic figure to the people of Argentina. Appearing from the audience, we’re introduced to Tyrone Huntley’s narrator Che. There are a few moments in the production where you’re not quite sure who you’re supposed to be watching, but once you’ve spotted Huntley, he is instantly likeable. Che is an everyman whose commentary on the action takes us through twenty years of history. Huntley’s Che is youthful, perhaps existing outside the timeframe of the narrative, and whose omniscience makes him the show’s conscience.


One of the criticisms often levelled at Evita has been that it shies away from Eva Perón’s fascist leanings, controlling the press and squashing any dissenters of her husband, who modelled his politics on Mussolini – briefly mentioned in ‘Rainbow Tour’, but not delved into any deeper. The distancing effect of the musical, as written by Lloyd Webber and Rice, often poses a challenge for productions that wish to get their teeth into the subject matter with a little more bite. Should we empathise with Evita? Is she really a saint? Despite some strikingly austere military-inspired choreography from Adam Murray, the political context is not the focus of this production, more so Eva’s rise to power and ability to connect to the people.

A notable directorial decision is Foster’s use of cameras, live-streaming Martha Kirby onto a huge screen at the back of the stage. This recontextualises the story within the age of gluttonous media – now, more than ever, celebrities’ lives are under the scrutiny of adoring fans (and vitriolic trolls) 24/7. Those astute enough use this to their advantage. Eva (excellently played by Kirby) milks the camera, playing every coy smile and arched eyebrow for maximum effect. The extreme close ups cleverly humanise her while also alluding at her manipulative side.

There will be comparisons made to the works of Ivo Van Hove or Jamie Lloyd, but this production is undeniably in Curve’s house style. In Curve’s first five years, there was an uneasiness about the productions on its main stage. But under Foster’s helm, they’ve gained a confidence and style which does justice to each show’s source material as well as maintaining a clear identity which makes for an unmissable night out. Honed in earlier productions like Sunset Boulevard, West Side Story and Billy Elliot, Foster takes a similar approach to Evita. Michael Taylor’s design strips the stage to its bones and embraces its vastness. Rigs and wings are fully visible, showcasing the technical and architectural prowess of the theatre – and the theatre of politics. Adam Fisher’s sound design is crystal clear – all the more important for sung-through musicals – every lyric is audible and balanced beautifully with the orchestrations. I was also impressed with Edd Lindley’s costumes for Eva; from stylish power suits to a sumptuous velvet ball gown, it’s easy to see why Eva would appeal to the masses.

Having not seen Evita before, I was impressed with Lloyd Webber and Rice’s music and lyrics, even if they may only skim the surface of a politically and socially divisive figure. Hearing classics such as ‘Another Suitcase in Another Hall’, ‘High Flying, Adored’ and ‘Buenos Aires’ sung live is an indisputable treat. I would like to see a more traditional production with which to compare Foster’s vision. However, this is a thoroughly enjoyable piece. Curve’s aesthetic ought to make a striking and memorable addition to the musical’s history.

Evita plays at Curve, Leicester until 13th January, 2024. For more information, please visit

Also, do check out the Christmas tree in Curve’s foyer made of props from previous productions. We spotted suitcases from Finding Home, lights from Beautiful, boxing gloves from Billy Elliot, hats from A Chorus Line and washing up powder from My Beautiful Laundrette. How many can you spot?

Martha Kirby (Eva Perón) - Credit: Marc Brenner

Wednesday 1 November 2023

The Drifters Girl

 Curve, Leicester

31st October, 2023

The Drifters are like the Yankees…

The players may change but there'll only ever be one New York Yankees”

There has been a surge in bio-musicals in recent years such as Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Tina, The Cher Show, Ain’t Too Proud and Broadway hits MJ and A Beautiful Noise. While shows such as these have been critically hit-and-miss, there’s no denying there’s a booming market for real-life stories uplifted by classic songs. They satiate audiences’ desire for nostalgia and are a safe bet for both producers and punters alike – there’s little chance of a dodgy score with a jukebox musical, and the ubiquitous megamix finales are nigh on guaranteed to get people on their feet. An additional benefit of the bio-musical over original story jukebox shows is that they are often rooted in the creative process (Beautiful is an excellent example of this). They reveal the background behind some of our most loved tunes and glimpses into the backstage life of glamorous idols, and provide a history lesson wrapped up in glitter and jazz hands. Writer Ed Curtis and Tina Treadwell’s The Drifters Girl takes this biographical approach. Led by Jonathan Church’s solid direction, it’s a playful and slick retrospective of the early R&B group, The Drifters, and their determined manager Faye Treadwell.

Curtis frames the narrative with Treadwell’s court case over ownership of The Drifters trademark. Treadwell tells her story to the Judge and her daughter, explaining how she was a key figure in forming and preserving the group throughout the 1950s and 60s, despite the frequent changes in the band’s line up. As a young teacher from Arkansas, Faye meets George Treadwell at a Nat King Cole gig and soon joins his New York music managing business, later marrying him. The couple promote The Drifters focusing on the brand rather than the individual members, insisting that it’s the songs audiences love, not the singer. We follow Faye through the ups and downs of her career: wrestling with pop star egos and the casual sexism and racism faced by a woman of colour in the music industry at the time; to The Drifters’ successful ascent of the music charts both in the USA and the UK, and her husband’s untimely death.

Curtis packs a lot into the two and a half hour running time – I learned a lot about a group I knew very little about previously – yet the very nature of the band’s history means that we are denied any deep dive into the intricacies and intimacies of their lives. The ‘revolving door’ make up of the group (think The Sugababes times ten) means that just as one member joins another leaves, and we rarely get to see them as individuals. An exception to this anonymity is the musical’s treatment of Rudy Lewis, the one-time lead Drifter, a talented but troubled soul struggling with addiction and his sexuality. While this episode is still brief, Lewis is an empathetic and complex character. Even so, this is very much Faye’s story and she is the driving force and emotional heart of the musical.


Church, Curtis and co. excel in propelling the narrative via musical set pieces. ‘Rat Race’ becomes a playful journey through the tumultuous chopping and changing of Drifters.  Some fast and furious staging sees Names flash upon the backdrop, the cast cut and change in a whirlwind of commotion. Similarly, the ‘Come On Over To My Place’ sequence effectively portrays the commonplace racism in 1960s/70s Britain as Faye and the group schlep from hotel to hotel in search of hospitality. Church’s masterstroke is his use of doubling. The tiny cast of six is utilised to it’s utmost and Miles Anthony Daley, Ashford Campbell, Tarik Frimpong and Ethan Davis work their socks off playing a myriad of roles peppered between slick musical numbers. Understudy Loren Anderson does a creditable job of stepping into Faye Treadwell’s shoes, but occasionally feels a little underpowered in comparison to her co-stars. However, as we’re relatively early in the run, I expect Anderson to become more confident in the role as the tour progresses.

In addition to Church’s expert handling of the small cast, some well-choreographed transitions and Anthony Ward’s sleek music studio inspired design contribute to a very slick production. While The Drifters Girl is at times slight and rushed, the musical performances of classics such as ‘Saturday Night At The Movies’, ‘Under The Boardwalk’ and ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’ and polished set pieces are highly entertaining, adding up to an enjoyable, non-taxing night at the theatre.


The Drifters Girl plays at Curve, Leicester until 4th November 2023.

For full tour details please visit:


The company of The Drifters Girl. Credit: The Other Richard

Friday 27 October 2023

Secret Blog: The pandemic plays

In early March 2020, my organisation advised employees to start working from home due to the rise in Covid-19 cases. Along with many other office workers, I stuffed a bag with my laptop, docking station, notebooks, a headset and any smart shoes I kept in the office, none of us knowing how long to expect this measure to last. On my way home, I popped into the library (I work at a university) to take out some play texts. Clearly, my priorities were having some good reading material to keep me occupied during lockdown!

As a student, I often enjoyed using the library to read a wide range of plays even if they weren't the focus of my studies. I had a voracious appetite for reading and was a part of a reading group for a local amateur theatre for a while. Even after graduating, working as a zero-hour agency staff member at a different university, I'd often sit in the library between shifts reading plays I knew about but never had the opportunity to see. That particular university didn't have a Drama course so the plays tended to be classics along with a smaller section of modern plays. The contemporary play texts could probably be held in one hand. I spent many hours not being paid (and in some cases being paid) reading the plays of Tony Kushner, Caryll Churchill, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Arnold Wesker, David Hare and so on. Many of them hadn't been taken out for years, some were dusty - literally or otherwise!

Since then, I've not had much chance to read plays as often as I'd like but I felt the coming weeks would hold the opportunity to remedy this. On this occasion, the plays were 'Sweet Bird of Youth' and Other Plays by Tennessee Williams, David Mamet: Plays One, and Rock 'n' Roll by Tom Stoppard.

September 2023. Three and a half years and 99 automatic renewals later I received an auto-generated email saying I'd reached the maximum number of renewals and needed to return the books. I hadn't even opened them during that time! Lockdown instead had been taken up with WFH, clearing our garden, re-organising a wedding, and immersing ourselves into a Netflix subscription. And reading other things. So without having read the plays I took home in a pre-lockdown world, I was now dusting them off my own bookshelf and returning them to the library. Until the next pandemic, David Mamet: Plays One!

Before I returned them, I read the Stoppard. As I opened it, the spine not yet quite cracked, a slip of paper fell out. On first glance, you'd have thought it was blank the ink was so faded. On closer inspection, I could see it was the receipt from the last time the book had been taken out of the library in 2014. I find these sort of things fascinating. We were recently in a secondhand bookshop in Aberystwyth where my wife bought a copy of Daphne Du Maurier's Jamaica Inn. Inside it was a makeshift bookmark, a family photograph taken outside a Jamaica Inn in Cornwall, the year 1974 pencilled on the back. Who did this belong to? Did they intend to donate the photograph with the book? Would they like it returned?

I looked at the library receipt from almost a decade ago, pondering how much the world had changed since. I looked closer. It had my name on it. I vaguely recall taking out some Stoppard plays when I was completing my undergraduate degree in the summer of 2014. I recall reading Arcadia but must have returned the others unread. Nine years later, it was back in my possession, still unread and about to be returned to the library once more. What a fittingly Stoppardian trick of time.

Friday 6 October 2023

The Book Thief

 Curve, Leicester

4th October, 2023

It was the wrong song, in the wrong key, but it was music nonetheless

I was sixteen when I first read Markus Zusak’s 2006 novel The Book Thief. It was love at first sight. I was completely enamoured with Zusak’s words and the characters they conjured, as were many fellow readers the world over. As a novel that is so potently about words – their meanings, evocations, the power they can wield – it poses adaptors with a tricky conundrum in how to visualise and animate the written language. The 2013 film adaptation failed to seize the popular consciousness in the manner the book had, so how does the musical (adapted by novelist Jodi Picoult, Timothy Allen McDonald, and composers Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson) fare? First seen at the Octagon Theatre Bolton last year, this production works as a faithful adaptation that harnesses stage craft to create some wonderfully theatrical set pieces.

Famously narrated by Death (an omnipresent and omniscient Obioma Ugoala) we are guided through the suburbs of Nazi Germany, trailing young orphan, Liesel Meminger (played at this performance by Eirini Louskou) as she experiences the horrors of war and the wonderous escapism and heroism of the written word. Fostered by the kindly Hans Hubermann (Jack Lord) and his bristly wife Rosa (Mina Anwar), Liesel quickly grows in confidence and begins to commit small acts of rebellion – first by stealing pages from the charred embers of a Nazi book burning, and then by befriending the young Jewish man hidden in the basement. Fans of the novel will delight in spotting many memorable elements popping up in Picoult and McDonald’s book – from the frequent peppering of dialogue with the German swearwords ‘saumensch’ and ‘arschloch’, to the rich associations drawn between colour, emotion and memory. And, not least, to Death’s concluding thought: ‘I’m haunted by humans’.

Samsel and Anderson’s music is pleasant, and there's a variety of different styles at play, from the Oom-pah-pah-esqe “Late to the Party”, jazzier numbers like “Look at Jesse Owens”, to the more stirring numbers such as “In This Book”. Tom Jackson Greaves’ imaginative choreography translates Zusak’s powerful use of language into movement, capturing the spirit of the piece really elegantly (as did his work in Amélie). There are occasions where the piece feels a little overly choreographed but, overall, the creative team produce some lovely lyrical motifs that draw in the audience. They also provide emotional beacons throughout the piece, most notably in Liesel’s simple lullaby “Hello Stars” and, perhaps my favourite lyric of the night, ‘It was the wrong song, in the wrong key, but it was music nonetheless’. I initially had misgivings around the musicalisation of the story but these gems justify the form alone.

Picoult and McDonald have placed more emphasis on the contemporary links to Zusak’s narrative, which while heavy-handed are sobering nonetheless: ‘Mein Kampf – a best seller in 1930… and again in 2016’. Dramatically, the musical is at its best during Liesel and Max’s fantastical daydreams. The imaginary boxing match between Max and Hitler is neatly choreographed and excellently incorporates Sam Wilde’s puppets into the action. Similarly, “The Word Shaker” sequence is dramatically exciting in director Lotte Wakeham’s hands and the abstract story makes a fine platform for Wilde’s puppets. The rough, ragdoll-like beings are made of screwed up and discarded pages of books, with only basic identifiable features being picked out (Hitler’s moustache; Liesel’s plaits). This creative figurativism is a great theatrical way of demonstrating that language is at once a great leveller and a great weapon.

I also enjoyed the use of Dick Straker’s projections throughout the set. The somewhat crude line drawings are both evocative of Liesel’s inner world, while also creating a sense of reminiscence and unity with the source material (which features some stark yet beautiful illustrations). While the production doesn’t quite pack the emotional punch of the novel – I feel the ending is a little rushed in what is otherwise an extremely well-paced show – Wakeham and co. produce some lovely moments which combine music, movement and narrative.

 The Book Thief plays at Curve, Leicester until 14th October. For further information please visit

Daniel Krikler (centre) as Max & the cast of The Book Thief. Credit Pamela Raith

Sunday 24 September 2023

The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man

 Nottingham Playhouse

23rd September 2023, matinee

Ladies and gentlemen, examine your soul

The story of Joseph Merrick, the disfigured man from 19th century Leicester now thought to have had Proteus Syndrome, is well known by now. Or, at least, so people think. On stage alone, the 1977 play by Bernard Pomerance has starred the likes of David Bowie and Bradley Cooper, making it as much a spectacle that audiences flock to as the Victorian freakshows of which Merrick was the centre. In Pomerance’s play we’re told Merrick ‘exposes himself to crowds who gape and yawp’. The crowds may gape and yawp but to say Merrick exposed himself implies he played an active and willing part. Tom Wright’s play, which is receiving its European premiere at the Nottingham Playhouse (the play has previously been staged in Australia in 2017), challenges those assumptions, presenting a fuller picture of Merrick’s life from Leicester workhouses to a London hospital. Led by a cast comprising of disabled, deaf and neurodivergent actors, the story has been triumphantly reclaimed allowing us to see it through a modern, more inclusive lens.

The first act takes us on a tour of Merrick’s early years in the Midlands. Simon Kenny’s design introduces us to industrial England. Metal structures crunch above the stage, Jai Morjaria’s lighting shines through the fog, and a large crate highlights imagery of entrapment. We see scenes from Merrick’s childhood in Leicester. As he grows up his dad chastises him, telling him people hate difference. In ‘a world of sameness’ where machines don’t allow for any irregularities, Merrick doesn’t fit society’s mould. There’s a pleasing descriptive poetry to Wight’s text. In one early scene Merrick’s mother, who dies whilst he’s still young, remembers a circus that came to town. Reminiscing over the fear and sorrow she felt seeing an elephant for the first time, its liquid eye on its mountain of a body, there’s a pathos in how she foreshadows what becomes of her son.

After being kicked out of the workhouses, Merrick winds up in travelling circuses before being robbed by his manager. As Merrick, Zak Ford-Williams gives a physical and delicate performance. It’s a revelatory piece of casting (by casting director Christopher Worrall), helping to illuminate the play’s themes and helps to strip the story of its images of grotesqueness that have previously been valorised. The rest of the ensemble cast also give strong performances. Annabelle Davis (in her professional stage debut) plays a multitude of characters from impoverished workers to circus barkers. And Nadia Nadarajah is excellent as the nurse who later befriends Merrick.

The second act focuses on Merrick’s later years confined to a basement room under the care of surgeon Frederick Treves, this shift in the play marked by Kenny’s more fully realised design. But the theme of entrapment is still clear: high, murky windows and looming walls surround the stage. Treves, often credited for treating Merrick and forming a close friendship with him, doesn’t fare so well here. Indeed, many of the perceptions of Merrick have been influenced by Treves’ written accounts. But, as director Stephen Bailey points out in a programme note, these contain inaccuracies, biases and largely focus on Merrick’s physical attributes rather than the person. Treves (Tim Pritchett) treats Joseph (whom he calls John) as a medical marvel, a subject to speak about as if he’s not a real, feeling person in the room with him. A clever design touch here sees Treves’ medical examination echo the circus advertising board from the first act. One of the play’s intentions seems to be to give Merrick’s earlier years more focus to give him more of a voice, but I’m not fully convinced this is achieved. The play’s second half, set nearly wholly in the hospital, is longer than the first and Merrick struggling to speak in his later years provides a dramaturgical problem. But this shouldn’t detract from what it does achieve, namely opening up the question of who Merrick was, and reflecting on how stories are told and who gets to tell them.

Bailey was the 2022 recipient of the Royal Theatrical Support Trust’s Sir Peter Hall Directorial Award. Previously won by Nancy Medina (Two Trains Running) and Anthony Almeida (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), the prize gives emerging directors the opportunity to produce work in mid-scale regional theatres. Bailey’s production is assured: they embrace the poetry of Wright’s text, give the story space to breathe, and put confidence in their cast to draw on their own experiences. There are some ideas though, for instance giving Killian Thomas Lefevre’s narrator character an electric guitar, which don’t seem fully realised. But on the whole Bailey clearly tackles the piece with sensitivity and imagination.

The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man is currently playing at Nottingham Playhouse until 7th October, followed by a short tour to Blackpool’s Grand Theatre and the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. For further information please visit

Annabelle Davis, Zak Ford-Williams and Nadia Nadarajah in The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man. Credit: Marc Brenner.

Thursday 21 September 2023


 Curve, Leicester

20th September, 2023

C’est la vie

Metamorphosis is perhaps just as well-known for its stage history as it is for Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella. The peculiar story of Gregor Samsa whose daily routine is interrupted when he wakes to find himself turned into a bug has long been associated with practitioners like Brecht and Artaud, making it a popular text for students. Steven Berkoff’s landmark adaptation in 1969 has cast a long shadow over the piece – even I studied it at A Level 40 years later. Thankfully, Frantic Assembly (in a co-production with Curve, Theatre Royal Plymouth, MAST Mayflower Studios and Lyric Hammersmith Theatre) have transformed the piece for a new generation in an adaptation by the poet and playwright Lemn Sissay. In typical Frantic Assembly style, Scott Graham fuses movement, language, lighting and sound in a startling production which makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar.

‘My name’s Mr Samsa and I love fabric’, our protagonist beams as he wakes up each day. A slave to the drudgery of his work routine, it takes all of Gregor’s strength to summon the energy to drag himself to work each morning. But still, he extends a hand and beams ‘My name’s Mr Samsa and I love fabric’. We see this repeated several times, each morning slightly more difficult than the last. The toil of Gregor’s life working to pay off the debt is made clear. It’s a funny line, befitting of a strange play. After hearing it so many times, it prompts us to think how his routine and job are so closely and depressingly interwoven with his identity. Each time we see this play out, we notice something new each time. His slow transformation has started into something more bug-like (although, cleverly, this is never explicit). His rehearsed handshakes (part of his daily performance as an important businessman) start to become more tense, his head movements twitchier, his limbs less reliable. Soon enough he’s crawling on the floor in search of his briefcase. ‘Fabric’, he mumbles as he picks it up, his work so ingrained on his mind. Felipe Pacheco gives an incredibly physical performance filled with detailed idiosyncrasies as Gregor: every muscle from the tips of his fingers to his toes are engaged. His voice work is also notable: the epitome of stifled, British optimism morphing into more animalistic cries as his desperation intensifies.

At first, his metamorphosis is something he resists and is able to hide. His family (Troy Glasgow and Louise Mai Newberry) are incredibly proud of his big business deals, initially unaware of what’s going on until the Chief Clerk (a commanding Joe Layton) arrives. A slavedriver and blind to what’s going on, the Chief Clerk issues preposterous unsympathetic proclamations like ‘You were a good person and now this disrespectful display’. When he bursts into room to discover Gregor, his total lack of empathy leads him to grabbing the nearest chair to swat him. I thought it was a nice touch that the stripes on his pinstripe suit are horizontal just to emphasise his ridiculousness (the costumes are by Becky Gunstone). Despite the extremes of the story, Sissay has a remarkable ability to make us reflect on our own world. So succumbed to his misery, Gregor resigns to the fact that he ‘will wake with a natural tiredness… that is the nature of mornings’. But what’s striking is that all this seems normal. Sissay gives us a wake-up call to the Kafkaesque nightmare to which we can easily succumb. It provides a commentary on an overworked, cruel society. But as Gregor loses his sense of self behind his bedroom door, I also found it to be a striking exploration on mental health crises. The play reaches even more profound heights in the second act as the Lodger (also Layton) ponders society’s greed. In any other situation, ‘detached is to be unmoored or unhinged’. But a ‘detached home is the pinnacle of success’.

The play (and in particular Sissay’s version) has a timeless quality to it. The setting is possibly 1950s London, but such is the universal nature of the themes there’s no clear specificity of time or place. It could easily be now. Jon Bausor’s set design is deceptive. What at first seems a well lived-in bedroom, imposing and solid as you walk in the auditorium, is not to be trusted. The bed can make figures appear and disappear; the walls are cloth which gives them movements as if the room itself is breathing; the coving is an opportunity for Gregor to cling on; the light and ceiling rose is used as a swing. The ceiling itself is stained around the edges, perhaps from time or perhaps from the ink of Ian William Galloway’s 1950s-style adverts which are projected onto them. The bedroom becomes a playground on which almost-acrobatic movement is achieved.

Whether Gregor is being attacked with chairs or is hanging upside down from the corner, Graham’s production is one of memorable images, thought-provoking ideas and Sissay’s fierce poetry. ‘Met by everyone… remembered by no one. I am done with it all’. In a system which crushes those who struggle, it’s also a timely reminder of the greater need for understanding and empathy.

Metamorphosis plays at Curve Leicester until 23rd September followed by a UK tour until 27th January. It then plays a season at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre from 2nd February, 2024. For more information please visit


Frantic Assembly's Metamorphosis. Credit: Tristram Kenton


Wednesday 16 August 2023

Heathers the Musical

 Curve, Leicester

15th August, 2023

Life could be beautiful

You can’t fault producers Bill Kenwright and Paul Taylor-Mills for what they’ve achieved with Heathers the Musical. Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe’s 2013 black musical comedy didn’t quite find its feet in the US. This side of the Atlantic the show, which last week announced the closure of its London production, has become a cult hit. Teenagers in the audience dress up as their favourite Heather and throw colourful scrunchies on stage at the curtain call. Based on the 1989 film, you can see why its dark humour and subversiveness appeals to a certain age. But whilst its tone aims to mix nihilism with bubble gum humour, it often strikes an odd chord.

In Heathers, the torments of high school life are emphasised to their extremes. Everyone is defined by a single characteristic or their clique: the sports jocks, the geeks and, predecessors to the Mean Girls, the Heathers, led by ‘mythical biatch’ Heather Chandler (Verity Thompson). Sporting blazers, miniskirts and croquet mallets, each one is assigned their own colour as accentuated in Ben Cracknell’s lighting. Nerdy Veronica Sawyer (Jenna Innes) lands herself a prime lunch spot with the Heathers once they discover her gift for forgery. She is subsequently torn between her distaste for her new friends, her desire to be popular and her increasing attraction to the mysterious new kid, JD (played convincingly with chilling quirk here by Jacob Fowler), that leads to jealousy, spite and eventually murder.

JD has an overprotective streak and father issues which leads him to a killing spree that propels the musical’s plot. School shootings have shockingly become a reoccurring event in America. Whilst there are plays which explore the subject matter more seriously (Simon Stephens’ Punk Rock in 2009, and Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli’s columbinus in 2005), the songs in Heathers help to keep such extremes in the realm of comedy whilst providing some insight into JD’s psychology and motivations. “Freeze Your Brain” explains how 7/11 stores have been his only mainstay in a nomadic upbringing, taking solace in the brain freeze that a Slushie brings: ‘Get lost in the pain/ Happiness comes when everything numbs’. It’s in numbers like this which the score quietly shines. While some of the ensemble numbers are a little hectic, the musical comes into its own in the quieter solo or duet set-pieces. Whether that be the dark humour in Veronica and JD ad-libbing Heather Chandler’s suicide note – ‘My problems were myriad, I was having my period’ – the pleasant simplicity of "Seventeen", or Heather McNamara’s moment of soulbearing in "Lifeboat".

Although the performance we saw was the 200th of the current UK tour, one of the challenges of touring is a new venue each week. It may be that the production is still settling into this week’s Westerburg High but, at this performance, Dan Samson’s sound design didn’t fare too well. Mics were occasionally turned up late and vocals were often drowned out by a fuzzy-sounding band which sounded like they were playing in a different room. What is an enjoyable show would have been more enjoyable had we been able to hear the lyrics a little more clearly.

With the London run closing next month, I’m confident Heathers will continue to find an audience. It’s a fun musical which doesn’t take its acerbic undercurrents too seriously and quite clearly speaks to a new generation of theatregoers which, ultimately, is something to celebrate.

Heathers the Musical plays at Curve, Leicester until 19th August and continues to tour until 4th November. The London production is currently playing at The Other Palace until 3rd September. For more information, please visit

Jenna Innes and Jacob Fowler in Heather the Musical. Credit: Pamela Raith

Friday 4 August 2023

A Little Life

Savoy, London

29th July 2023, matinee


‘How hard it is to keep alive

someone who doesn't want to stay alive’


Hanya Yanagihara’s best-selling and immensely popular 2015 novel A Little Life is not without its controversies. Having been accused of touting ‘torture porn’ amongst other criticisms, Yanagihara’s story is not for the faint-hearted, but is in reality, so much more than the sensationalist headlines suggest. It seems fitting that such a divisive novel has been adapted for the stage by one of theatre’s most divisive directors, Ivo van Hove. The director harnesses his signature style of heightened realism combined with some very striking imagery to create a vivid production that is (in some cases literally) an assault on the senses.

The plot focuses on four college friends as they navigate the ups and downs of life in New York City. Malcolm comes from a privileged but distant family and aspires to be a master architect, JB is a bolshy but talented painter, and Willem is a passionate, kind-hearted struggling actor. At the centre of the group lies the enigmatic Jude: a sweet natured and quiet man whose traumatic childhood haunts his adult life. Through the relationship between these friends and the other important people that come into and out of their lives, the play explores a spectrum of emotional intensity and poses the question ‘what is a life worth?’.

As a lover of the book I could mourn the loss of certain characters (Harold’s wife Julia being perhaps the most sorely missed) or rue the way certain storylines have been side-lined (Malcolm and JB are more secondary here), however van Hove, Koen Tachelet and Yanagihara have done a great job of retaining and, in some ways, enhancing the essence of the book without having to sacrifice too much of the detail. Even while clocking in at a whopping 4 hours, the creative team have condensed the 700+ page tome into a play that feels streamlined yet also has a wonderful way of allowing individual moments to breathe. This is particularly evident in van Hove’s use of music; whether it be the live string quartet that empathetically underscore the action, Jude’s quietly reflective classical singing, or the devastating moment of uninhibited joy in which Jude and Willem dance to Arcade Fire’s ‘Wake Up’.

Van Hove similarly builds an authentic relationship with the audience by peppering the stage with ‘real-life’ action. Before the play begins characters congregate on stage to cook bacon and eggs, the aroma filling the auditorium, and throughout the performance background goings-on include characters cooking appetisers and elaborate puddings, painting, reading and cleaning. This domestic realism helps us to invest in the action and makes the painful aspects of the story even more shocking. The violence on show is horrific and deeply upsetting, and that’s before even considering the gory nature of the special effects used (we had a least 2 fainters and one show-stop at the performance we attended).

While it’s easy to focus on the physical and psychological trauma on display – yes, there are gruelling scenes of sexual assault, sadism and self-harm – it’s also important to note that through the course of the evening we are also privy to the most intimate facets of the characters’ inner emotional selves; we share their happiness, grief, anger and guilt, in all their enriching and contradictory complexities. I would argue that above all, A Little Life is a story about love – platonic love, parental love, romantic love, self-love – whether it be pure, muddied or elusive, and that is what makes the novel, and now the play, so enduringly touching.

The cast bring to life Yanagihara’s characters with ease and cultivate a company-wide chemistry that is unmatched by any other show in the West End at present. Luke Thompson is instantly likeable as the affable Willem and Omari Douglas’s JB hits just the right balance between passion and petulance. The always impressive Zubin Varla gives a gravity laden and soulful performance as Jude’s adoptive father, Harold, and carries the weight of the final moments of the play with tremendous feeling, while Elliot Cowan’s portrayal of the monsters lurking in Jude’s past is every bit as chilling and hateful as you could hope for. Yet, for many James Norton’s tireless performance is the real highlight. Never off-stage, Norton plumbs the depths of every raw emotion, every animalistic instinct known to man, yet he imbues Jude with a beautiful air of gentle dignity, even during his lowest moments. I defy anyone to watch Norton in action here and remain unmoved, not least for the sheer dedication he shows to the role.

Jan Versweyveld’s set is almost a character in its own right.  Deceptively economic yet immersive, hospital beds emerge from the wells, a fully working kitchen acts as a hub for the action, and Versweyveld’s video projections provide a fascinating insight into Jude’s psyche. Playing constantly throughout the performance, seamless video tours through the streets of NYC subtly speed up, slow down, lose and gain colour, and crackle with static depending on the Jude’s state of mind. While it could be argued that van Hove can perhaps be over-reliant on video in his previous ventures, I felt that here it is entirely justified without ever becoming a distraction.

When this production was first announced I had my doubts about whether an adaptation would be able to do justice to Yanagihara’s extraordinary novel. However, these doubts have been completely quashed after seeing the show. I laughed, I raged, I winced, I cried (and cried, and cried) and I am still thinking about what I watched nearly a week later. A lot of care and attention has been poured into this production and it deserves every success that comes its way.


A Little Life plays at the Savoy Theatre until 5th August, followed by a nation-wide cinema screening on 28th September 2023.

For more information please visit: 

Zach Wyatt, Luke Thompson and James Norton
in A Little Life. 
Credit: Jan Versweyveld

Tuesday 11 July 2023



Curve, Leicester

10th July, 2023

10,000 miles away from Boston, but I’m home

Freya Catrin Smith and Jack Williams’ new musical about Annie Londonderry, the first woman to ever cycle around the world, first performed pre-lockdown, has gained a cult popularity through word-of-mouth and now embarks on a new outing at Curve, before playing the Southwark Playhouse Elephant. Some gutsy performances and playfully expansive narrative bolster this neat little chamber musical.

It’s 1895 and Annie Londonderry (Liv Andrusier) has returned to America, confident following her victorious venture around the world. The set up has Annie pitching her story, and perhaps more importantly, herself, to an offstage group of editors for a newspaper publication. She is aided in her narration by the admiring but reserved secretary, Martha (Katy Ellis), who takes on a miscellany of roles with increasing assuredness, ranging from a French Border Control worker, to an Oxford Don, a lonely Harvard Academic, and even Annie herself.

The show’s title song is a hymn to the new freedoms brought by the bicycle. Everyday people were afforded the prospect of travel, of possibility, of female liberation, and, for Annie, an escape from painful memories at home: “a different state of mind… take a road that has no end”. Taking up a wager that could net her an unprecedented $10,000, Annie has a wobbly start to her mission and much publicity from the doubting US press. The zippy songs fling facts at us in quick succession, eg. once a door-to-door advertisement seller, Annie becomes sponsored by “every goddam business in the USA” from funeral directors to rat poison in a bid to raise $5,000 during her trek as part of the wager. We subsequently rattle through country after country at whirlwind speed, with months of the journey condensed into short monologues or songs - an amusing section of ‘Out Of Time’ speeds through Annie’s increasing discontent travelling through Asia; ‘I get no joy from Hanoi!’.

Just as Annie educates her international audiences on the road, Smith and Williams present a history lesson peppered with many fanciful moments. The audience is well aware that Annie is fond of bending the truth – as showcased in the toe-tapping ‘Everybody Loves a Lie’ - and she and Martha even have a brief debate about what constitutes ‘reality’ and ‘truth’. While I won’t spoil any of the narrative twists resulting from this fact-fudging, I enjoyed the way the creative team use this theme to play with the structure of the piece. Using Martha to embody the various characters Annie meets is a great way of playing on the reality vs pretence of theatrical and storytelling traditions. Just as we’re never quite sure about Annie’s stories, we’re never quite sure where the line lies between Martha and the character she is playing.

Amy Jane Cook’s design deftly encapsulates the piece, the old-timey editor’s office evokes a very specific time and place which later unfolds into wide, dreamy expanses of foreign lands, the perfect stage upon which Annie’s recollections and fantasies play out. The condensed nature of the musical means that RIDE lives or dies on its central performances, and thankfully here both are exceptional. Andrusier gives a star-making performance as Annie; initially full of bravado and broad Bostonian sass, her mask gradually slips and the character becomes more and more unsure of herself. While in an arguably less showy role, Ellis more than holds her own against Andrusier, instilling Martha with a bumbling likability that is occasionally lacking in our protagonist. The two actors have great chemistry, highlighted in the charming love song ‘Miles Away From Boston’, and effortlessly captivate the audience for the solid 90-minute run time.

Smith, Williams and director, Sarah Meadows, have triumphed in creating an endearing original musical which focuses on issues of feminism, class, wealth and race without ever feeling preachy. Similarly, when isolated, the story has the potential to run the risk of being merely ‘quaint’, however, the strength of the central character, the knowingly playful structure and some top-notch performances make this a memorable show thanks to its inherently theatrical take on a neglected yet unforgettable feminist icon.


RIDE plays at Curve, Leicester until 15th July before playing at Southwark Playhouse Elephant from 19th July to 12th August. For more information, please visit

Liv Andrusier in RIDE
Credit: Danny Kaan

Saturday 24 June 2023

About Us

Adam and Jasmine have been writing about theatre for Not Exactly Billington since 2012. Both students of English Literature and Drama, Adam started the blog in 2012 as a hobby to keep a record of the growing variety of theatre he was seeing. Jasmine joined a few years later, and the two now share writing responsibilities. Sometimes they take turns writing reviews, sometimes they collaborate. Below are some of their thoughts on why they write and what they hope to achieve with the blog:


Both Leicester born and bred, we have been championing the arts in Leicester, East Midlands and around the UK for over a decade. We love writing about theatre and have written reviews for a range of shows: from Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon, to Sondheim at the National Theatre; from new writing at the Royal Court, to musicals on Broadway; from productions made at Leicester’s Curve, Sheffield’s Crucible and Northampton’s Royal & Derngate, to shows touring the UK.

We aim for our approach to be thoughtful, creative, honest and insightful. We have a passion for the theatrical canon and like to place our reviews in their historical/performance context. We also aim for consistency with the quality of our reviews. There’s so much creativity, passion, talent, intelligence and pure graft that goes into every decision of what we see on stage. We hope to do justice by capturing those efforts in our writing.

We’re grateful to occasionally receive comp tickets from theatres around the UK in exchange for a review. Other than that, much of the theatre we review is done for our own enjoyment, and our blog is subsequently ad-free. Ultimately, we feel that a review’s purpose should be to capture the feeling of what it’s like to be in the audience. ‘Writing letters to posterity’, as Tynan put it. It’s surely an almost impossible task. But theatre criticism is a practice and with each review we hope to continue contributing to an exciting, eclectic and thriving blogging community.

Friday 16 June 2023

Groundhog Day

 Old Vic, London

10th June, 2023, matinee

I thought the only way to better days was through tomorrow

To see a musical about being stuck in winter on the hottest day of the year seems fitting. Tim Minchin and Danny Rubin’s Olivier-award winning Groundhog Day (2016) returns to the Old Vic this summer along with its Olivier-winning star Andy Karl as self-centred weatherman Phil Connors. In a recent NY Times article looking forward to this year’s Tony Awards, Jesse Green argued that for two decades the winner of Best Musical has often been fought between the smallish, honed off-Broadway sweethearts versus blow-the-roof-off, made-for-Broadway hits. As a case in point, at Sunday evening’s ceremony Kimberly Akimbo won over this year’s blowouts Some Like It Hot and New York, New York. Groundhog Day defies such categorisation. It’s true that it has plenty of big songs, spectacle and, as you’d expect from its source material (the 1993 Hollywood comedy), it’s hilarious. But beneath that, perhaps unlike many screen-to-stage musicals, it mines complex emotions. It’s easy to bring out lazy adjectives when reviewing, but the result is a theatrical triumph: a musical about being stuck (metaphorically and otherwise), transformation, and practicing better ways to be.

It’s February 2nd and Phil Connors is once again sent to Punxsutawney, PA to report on the annual tradition of a groundhog (“Is it a squirrel, is it a beaver? Kinda both but not quite either”) predicting whether the town will face six more weeks of winter or enjoy an early spring. Neither answer can deter the perpetual cheeriness of the locals. ‘Small Town, USA’ pits their small-town idealism against his big-shot cynicism. It sets the scene brilliantly and introduces us to Minchin’s lyrical dexterity (“Watercolours of bucolic vistas painted by octogenarian spinsters”). Trapped there by a snowstorm, Phil wakes up the next day (and the 10,000 following that) back on Groundhog Day. The show then follows Phil through the various stages of this nightmare: his horror of being stuck in the sticks, his joy at the realisation he faces no consequences, his depression that he’ll seemingly never escape this world, and his eventual enlightenment of how he can become the best version of himself.

The score is unmistakably Minchin: perceptive, mischievous, hilarious, subversive. In one song (‘If I Had My Time Again’) in which Rita imagines what she would do if she was in Phil’s predicament, her well-intentioned tropes and metaphors about starting afresh contrast with Phil’s blunt honesty: the line “I once masturbated seven times… in the bath… in one evening” is particularly memorable. Elsewhere, ‘Stuck’ satirises an endless line of experts practicing alternative medicine. From jaunty, upbeat numbers to melodies that just bathe over you, Minchin also goes deeper and darker than most dare. Tormented by this “everlasting farcical disaster”, ‘Hope’ sees Phil commit suicide multiple times. It’s a superb gravelly rock ballad filled with pathos and also a perfect theatrical metaphor. Its staging also features brilliant illusions by Paul Kieve.

Danny Rubin’s book and Minchin’s score marry well together. At times, there are whole scenes within songs, the music advancing both plot and character. In ‘One Day’, we see Rita (Tanisha Spring, brilliant) long for her dream man whilst Phil repeatedly fails to woo her. Karl is just as mesmerising as he was in 2016, arrogant yet likeable as he traverses the entire spectrum of human emotion. Each ensemble character is drawn with care and portrayed in detail too. In the second act’s opening number ‘Being Nancy’, Eve Norris explores the inner life of a character written solely to be Phil’s collateral. Yet it’s dramaturgically fitting that the moments when he’s being honest and enjoying the moment produce the purest, simplest songs (‘Everything About You’ and ‘Seeing You’). There’s a brilliant line ‘Everything About You’ where Phil sings “if you knew how deep my shallowness goes you’d be shocked”. It sums up an outward sheen and bravado that conceals a deeper density of character. And the humble power ‘Seeing You’ yields is immense. As the music swells, and the ensemble embrace the snow, it’s exhilarating, euphoric, and brilliantly satisfying.

Matthew Warchus’ production is like a rollercoaster as February 2nd is acted out again and again in increasing speed. Rob Howell’s colourful design features marching bands with Gobbler’s Knob banners and a groundhog on a drumkit. And in the rockabilly infused ‘Nobody Cares’, stop signs and houses fly across the stage as the police chase Phil down some train tracks. His design has been simplified from its first iterance. Notably, the complex concentric circles revolve has gone. While I miss some of this original staging, it hopefully makes touring the show much easier (fingers crossed) and liberates Warchus' staging. Other than that, the show remains much the same as it was in 2016. Eagle-eared fans may spot “My doctor said one day my heart will stop beatin’ unless I cut down on that cheesin’” replacing the previous rhyme of “tickin’” and “chicken”.

A whimsical study of inertia, Groundhog Day is a transcendental journey through human morality in all its splendour, despondent lows and incandescent highs. Bring out the superlatives and the expletives, Groundhog Day is a five-star hit! I hope we don’t have to wait another seven years before we can see it again.

Groundhog Day plays at the Old Vic until 19th August. For further information, please visit

Andy Karl and the company of Groundhog Day. Credit: Manuel Harlan


Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

27th May, 2023

“What is ‘Quintessence’?”

For over 407 years Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets have entertained, educated and beguiled audiences and readers the world over, yet much of the man himself is still a mystery. From the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love to Ben Elton’s broad sitcom Upstart Crow, fictionalised versions of the Bard have posited the question that experts and laymen alike have perpetually sought answers; ‘how much of the man, his life and those surrounding him, inspired the great works?’. It is human nature to want to empathise, and to seek parallels between fact and fiction, and Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s bestselling novel Hamnet offers perhaps the most poignant interpretation of the man yet.

Yet, to say that this is a play about Shakespeare is to do it disservice, as the spotlight is steadfastly focused on William’s wife, Agnes Hathaway (an earnest and mighty Madeleine Mantock), and their children. Agnes is earthy, yet spiritual, having an affinity with nature and an intuitiveness that leaves locals accusing her of witchcraft. ‘I feel more than now’ she says at one point. She meets eighteen-year-old William Shakespeare (a puppyish Tom Varey) in her family’s apple store, he on a break from tutoring her younger brothers. The connection is instant and when Agnes falls pregnant the couple hastily marry, much to the chagrin of their families.

O’Farrell and Chakrabarti’s narrative spans decades, as we watch the Shakespeare family grow alongside William’s burgeoning career as a writer. However, his move to London to pursue his calling leaves Agnes to raise their three children alone. Soon enough, disaster strikes as young Judith (Alex Jarrett) contracts the plague. Agnes refuses medical help, instead leaning on her intricate knowledge of natural remedies. Meanwhile, Judith’s twin brother, Hamnet (Ajani Cabey) watches from the rafters as his beloved sister grows ever weaker. The plot takes a sudden turn, when the untimely death of Hamnet shakes the family to the core and Agnes is unable to understand her distant husband’s reluctance to mourn.

Chakrabarti and director Erica Whyman draw a nice contrast between the more comedic scenes featuring the Lord Chamberlain’s Men rehearsing in London, and the domestic, bucolic and graveness of those set in Stratford-upon-Avon. The rift between the central couple becomes starker through this tonal juxtaposition. Tom Piper makes great use of the Swan Theatre’s timber in a simple but evocative set. Rafter beams form attic bedrooms and haylofts while also echoing the gabled houses of Tudor England and the boards of the Globe theatre.

I think this story in all its guises is so successful because the audience and reader can relate to the family drama at its centre. At times we forget we are watching a play about the most famous playwright in history; the creative team make an elusive yet ubiquitous figure a being of flesh and blood, and, even more impressive, they make him a side-character to the markedly more heroic Agnes! For example, the play focuses on the almost feral nature of the mother/child bond. When Agnes flees home to give birth in the woods it feels like a natural – universal – calling for her, and the moment loses all baseness and reminds us of the beautifully physical, earthy and animalistic instinctiveness that connects mother and baby on a deeply molecular level.

Likewise, O’Farrell and Chakrabarti also explore the unique relationship between twins, with Hamnet’s death taking on an ethereal aspect as he seemingly sacrifices himself to save his sister; just as the siblings fool their family and friends by swapping clothes and identities, so too do they trick death. The third example of the triptych of familial relationships under the microscope, is, of course, that of husband and wife. The shared happiness, the conflicts, the secrets. The concluding scene, in which a distraught Agnes covertly watches an early performance of Hamlet, is one of such luminescence it changes not only the way we view the couple, the way we view their grief, but also the way we view Shakespeare’s work in general. Certain lines from that play will never sound the same again.

It was a treat to see Hamnet performed in the heart of Shakespeare’s hometown, just meters away from the historic setting of the story. Chakrabarti has done a wonderful job of translating O’Farrell’s heady novel into a linear narrative that stirs the emotions and pays tribute to an unsung hero of literary history.

Hamnet plays at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until 17th June. It then transfers to the Garrick Theatre, London from 30th September 2023 – 6th January 2024. For more information please visit:


Tom Vary (William) and Madeleine Mantock (Agnes) in Hamnet. Credit: Manuel Harlan