Friday, 9 June 2023

Unexpected Twist

 Curve, Leicester

8th June, 2023

This is my life, and I’m resigned to it

James Dacre’s tenure at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate comes to an end this season. During his decade as Artistic Director, he’s developed the theatre as a major producing house, marked by a diverse, innovative repertoire. He’s programmed stellar productions of European and regional premieres (Our Lady of Kibeho, Rules for Living), revivals of modern classics (Blue/Orange, Two Trains Running), and vibrantly theatrical adaptations of novels (The Lovely Bones). His last show before stepping down is a new stage adaptation of Michael Rosen’s 2018 novel Unexpected Twist alongside The Children’s Theatre Partnership. Inspired by Oliver Twist, Rosen transposes Dickens’ story to contemporary Britain complete with beatboxing, iPhones and county line gangs.

Following her mother’s death and her father being laid-off from work, young Shona (Drew Hylton) has moved from bedsit to bedsit, and constantly worries about debts owed and the cost of everyday necessities. When Shona arrives at her new school she is thrown into the world of Dickens’ Oliver Twist by well-meaning English teacher, Miss Cavani (Rosie Hilal). While her peers scoff at the old-fashioned language, Shona is shaken by the similarities between her life and those of Dickens’ fictional workhouse. These similarities extend to the people around her, with figures such as Shona’s Nan, her new friend Tino and the local drug kingpin, Pops, paralleling the characters of Fagin, the Artful Dodger and Bill Sikes. When, tempted by the promise of a state-of-the-art phone she could never normally afford, Shona gets lured into Pops’ circle of drug trafficking and money laundering she faces difficult questions relating to crime, socio-economic justice and identity.

Rory Beaton’s dramatic lighting lifts the grey school lockers and wooden climbing frames of Frankie Bradshaw’s set using colourful LEDs and well-placed spotlights. Bradshaw also excels at bringing to life the characters of Dickens’ novel, the rich Victorian-era costumes contrast nicely with the drab greyness of modern-day London. I particularly enjoyed the moments in the play where the two worlds merge together, most impressively realised in the Noah Claypole interrogation scene. The image of the ghostly Noah looming eerily over Shona/Oliver, goading them, is a menacingly dramatic moment.

While Rosen and Roy Williams draw analogies with broad strokes, one can hardly criticise them for moralising in the current political climate. Unexpected Twist is not subtle in the way it hammers home issues such as childhood poverty and domestic violence, but this is justified by the bombast and energy with which the piece is performed and directed by Dacre. Yaya Bey and Conrad Murray’s music – a mix of Grime, RnB and Soul - is impressively performed by the cast (completely acapella!) and features some really melodic tunes. A slight grapple is that the songs sometimes dominate the action, and occasionally feel like excess padding, but it’s testament to the talent involved and Rosen’s inspiration that the songs excel in advancing character. Ultimately, this production is a commendable attempt to get younger generations interested and invested in both literature and politics.

Unexpected Twist plays at Curve, Leicester until 10th June. For further information, please visit

Drew Hylton and the company of Unexpected Twist. Credit: Manuel Harlan

Wednesday, 24 May 2023

42nd Street

 Curve, Leicester

23rd May 2023

Come and meet those dancing feet

In the programme notes for this new production of 42nd Street, director Jonathan Church writes about wanting to send audiences out into the night with their head in the clouds. His production, and especially Bill Deamer’s choreography and musical staging, reaches dizzying heights which do just that. Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, this Tony Award-winning backstage musical (first staged in 1980) is a perfect homage to the adage ‘The show must go on’.

The show opens with Jon Driscoll’s projections which take us to 1930s New York: from the bright lights of Ziegfeld Follies in Times Square to breadlines serving food for the laid off. Another breadline is gathering onstage as a group of hoofers warm up to audition for a new Broadway musical called ‘Pretty Lady’. Despite having missed the audition because she couldn’t summon up the courage to go through the stage door, novice Peggy Sawyer wangles herself a role in her first Broadway show. At the other end of the production, things aren’t going so swimmingly. Veteran leading lady Dorothy Brock (Ruthie Henshall) has been cast despite not being in a hit for over a decade. Her jealous, millionaire beau is financing the run so what she says goes. But when Peggy accidentally knocks Dorothy to the floor, the show is put in peril. This is until director Julian Marsh (Adam Garcia) is persuaded to cast Peggy in the leading role.

If the plot is rather thin, this is more than made up for by the Busby Berkeley-inspired set pieces, each one sending the audience into a frenzy more than the last. Robert Jones’ mighty set is transformed from a vast, unglamorous Broadway stage (exposed bricks, pulleys, a loading dock) to the painted sets and gilt proscenium of the 1930s musical-within. The handsome period costumes (also by Jones) evoke a world of glamour and extravagance. Whereas similar musicals of the time like Follies (1971) and A Chorus Line (1975) favour a more psychological insight into the inner workings of Broadway, 42nd Street provides tongue-in-cheek, spectacular escapism. Harry Warren’s and Al Dubin’s score contains big numbers such as ‘We’re in the Money’ which sparkle with pizzazz, while the second act’s ‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo’ embraces the vaudeville musical comedy style.

The cast add granular detail to their characters. Henshall brings out much of the humour in Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble’s book, and adds a drollness so that all the laughs aren’t at Brock’s expense. Josefina Gabrielle and Les Dennis make a fetching double act as Maggie Jones and Bert Barry. And as Peggy Sawyer, Nicole-Lily Baisden exudes the energy and charisma of a bona fide leading lady. As Marsh says to her, “Sawyer, you're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!” Church and company have created a 42nd Street which evokes an era of tap-dancing, high-kicking, endorphin-inducing Broadway extravaganzas. The fact that it’s touring the UK at this scale will ensure plenty more people can come and meet those dancing feet.

42nd Street plays at Curve, Leicester until 3rd June, followed by a London run at Sadler’s Wells until 2nd July. This is followed by a UK tour. For further information, please visit

Adam Garcia as Julian Marsh in 42nd Street. Credit: Johan Persson

Thursday, 27 April 2023

Jersey Boys

 Curve, Leicester

26th April, 2023

After eight bars, I know I need to write for this voice

It’s strange how you can see a long-running musical for the first time and feel like you’re jumping back into a well-worn jacket. Such is the brand awareness and public appeal of the jukebox musical charting the founding, success and tribulations of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. On trips to the West End growing up, when passing the Prince Edward Theatre, seeing the backs of the four red jerseys always struck me as an iconic poster. And after 4,600 performances on Broadway, a successful London run, and multiple tours and international productions, Jersey Boys (2004) is like a well-oiled machine by now. Des McAnuff’s Tony and Olivier award winning production is now touring the UK where it’s currently enjoying a two-week run at Leicester’s Curve.

Marshall Brickman’s and Rick Elice’s book creates a documentary style story lifting the lid on the group’s rags to riches back story. On its premiere, founding member Bob Gaudio said not much was known about their story, and that they went against the squeaky-clean image of many of their contemporaries such as Frank Sinatra and Neil Sedaka. The musical goes back to the roots of the band, introducing us to four normal guys from New Jersey with mob connections, prison sentences and friendships with Joe Pesci. Brickman and Elice present short scenes which swiftly move on to the next. While this structure gives the story pace, it does compromise characters’ depth. The overall effect is that we’re given a biographical breakdown of events which sometimes lacks emotional grit or purpose. Not that this matters at all. The back stories provide context and substance but the main enjoyment comes when the group has formed and perform their polished numbers for the audience. When the four members align in their various jerseys, with broad smiles, coiffed hair and synchronised dance movements, the show really comes alive. At one point, Bob says he’s never heard a voice like Frankie Valli’s. That’s certainly true. These numbers, led by Michael Pickering’s falsetto, are captivating. The remaining cast members mostly play peripheral characters; I found Damien Winchester particularly impressive both vocally and in his multiple characterisations.

McAnuff’s staging serves the story well, and whilst its fairly traditional you can’t fault its smoothness. A drum kit roams the stage, mic stands slide on and off, swivel chairs whizz on, lit-up signs fly in and out with the efficiency you’d expect of a long-runner. Klara Zieglerova’s design of metal staircases and walkways is complemented by Michael Clark’s art deco projections and Howell Binkley’s lighting, which at the end of act one shines bright into the audience as the group recreates that iconic pose from the poster. And numbers like ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’, ‘Walk Like a Man’, ‘December 1963’ and ‘My Eyes Adored You’ prove why The Four Seasons were a hit factory – and Jersey Boys, almost 20 years on from its premiere at La Jolla Playhouse, still a hit.

Jersey Boys concludes its UK tour at Curve, Leicester on 6th May. The West End production is booking at the Trafalgar Theatre into 2024. For further information, please visit

(L-R) Blair Gibson (Bob Gaudio), Michael Pickering (Frankie Valli), Dalton Wood (Tommy DeVito) and Christopher Short (Nick Massi) outside Curve, Leicester. Photography by Hitz Rao

Wednesday, 26 April 2023

Sucker Punch

 Curve, Leicester

25th April, 2023

You can’t win, neither of you

In 2017, the National Theatre established the Theatre Nation Partnerships network. It strives to support the ‘long-term health of local theatre audiences’ by reaching new audiences and particularly engaging young people in priority areas across England. As part of its commitment to mid-scale touring, and in partnership with Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, Roy Williams’ 2010 play Sucker Punch opened at Curve last night. Set in the 1980s, the play uses boxing as a cipher to explore social and racial division in British society. Williams’ portrayal of the boxing world and how it is entwined with identity is unflinching. But what is perhaps most striking is the play’s contemporaneity. It’s a seminal play, surely a modern classic, and crucial it’s being toured to a wider audience for the first time.

We first meet Leon and Troy arguing over the chores they’ve been assigned as punishment for breaking into a local boxing club. They soon catch the attention of Charlie, a bigoted, washed-up gym owner who trains them to fight. The play follows the two boys as they progress down different paths: Leon grows in stature as a serious UK boxing contender, while Troy compromises his talent as he rails against the police, eventually leaving London for a new life in the US. The boys also embody diverse attitudes towards the prejudice and injustice they encounter on a daily basis. Troy is angry, lashing out against institutionalised racism, while Leon takes a more fatalistic view, seeking acceptance from his white, working class trainer/father figure Charlie. There is a sense that Charlie is genuinely affectionate and proud of Leon, yet he cannot hide his bigotry when he discovers the relationship between his daughter Becky and Leon.

Williams scrutinises aspects of racial and masculine identity amidst Thatcherite Britain against the backdrop of the Brixton Riots. However, the play highlights how these issues are just as pertinent in 21st century Britain. Sucker Punch premiered just one year before the London riots in 2011, ignited by the police shooting of Mark Duggan. In 2023, we see it through the lens of the ongoing Black Lives Matter campaign against institutionalised racism which came more into prominence following the death of George Floyd in the USA. The themes explored in Sucker Punch echo through the decades. It becomes increasingly obvious that the boys have little control over their own lives. The imposing Ray gets into Troy’s face, telling him ‘I made you […] You are mine’, and Charlie manipulates his bigoted relationship with Leon for his own gain. He presents him with an ultimatum; he will become Leon’s manager, but only if he stops seeing Becky.

While excelling in sport, Williams highlights the inevitable contradictions in the boxers’ roles. At the end of Act 1, Leon fights Charlie’s ex-pupil. The ‘white, pale faces […] cheering Tommy on, telling him to bury me’, demonstrate the way boxing, in its legitimised violence, can, in the worst cases, become a vicarious outlet for racial hatred. Despite the two protagonists being set up as opposites in attitude and philosophy, in one of the most elucidating passages, Leon’s father offers some home truths ahead of the climactic match: ‘You can’t win, neither of you […] they love nothing better than to see two black men beat up on each other. They too afraid to do it themselves, so they get you to do it’.


Nathan Powell’s production is more literal than the original Royal Court staging. Whereas that production turned the entire space into a boxing ring, Sandra Falase’s design plunges us into a grotty gym: a shipping container is used as a makeshift office, and sentimentalised photos of fights from years gone by adorn the walls. From this, we get a fuller sense of the world the characters inhabit, and it also allows Powell to bring out some of the lighter moments in the play. The production is fleshed out by some engaging performances. Shem Hamilton traces Leon’s arc extremely impressively. He goes from displaying Leon’s scrappy energy, doing tricks with the skipping rope and bouncing around the ring, to focusing his performance as the play progresses to show Leon becoming more disciplined. Liam Smith plays the older East End trainer very well. In the first act, he embodies Charlie’s masculine performativity and beagle-eyed focus which slips away to something more desperate in the second act. As well as attitudes to race, Powell also highlights the play’s emphasis on toxic masculinity particularly in how the teenagers talk to Becky. Portrayed by Poppy Winter as fierce and strong-willed, we’re reminded that she’s really the strongest character in the play.

In his earlier play Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads (2002), and in his later blistering Death of England trilogy (2020-2021, co-written with Clint Dyer), Williams uses football to explore English national identity in relation to race and class. Through the more confrontational metaphor and concentrated space of a boxing ring, Sucker Punch presents us with the bleak reality that racism and violence are even more a pressing issue now than they ever were.

Sucker Punch plays at Curve, Leicester until 29th April. It then tours until 24th June. For further information please visit

Shem Hamilton as Leon in Sucker Punch. Credit: Manuel Harlan

Tuesday, 18 April 2023

The Bodyguard

 Curve, Leicester

17th April, 2023

Because I've got you to protect me, right?

Rachel Marron asks her bodyguard this question as she looks into his eyes, seeking reassurance that she’ll be safe at the Academy Awards ceremony. By this point in the show, a stalker has broken into her house, had the opportunity to kidnap her son, and murdered her sister all under his watch. The fact she still trusts her bodyguard says something of her love for him. The 1992 movie The Bodyguard was Whitney Houston’s acting debut and, despite its poor critical reception, one of the highest-grossing movies of its time. Its single ‘I Will Always Love You’ created one of the most iconic pop power ballads of the 90s and ever since. The 2012 Olivier-nominated musical adaptation, now touring the UK, hasn’t solved the flimsiness of the story but does deliver a dose of nostalgia and ensures that Whitney Houston’s artistry and songs are the enduring stars of the show.

Rachel Marron, an Oscar-nominated actress and singing superstar, has a face and voice everyone recognises. At the peril of a crazed stalker, her management hires a new bodyguard Frank Farmer (Ayden Callaghan) to protect her at home and work, day and night much to the dismay of her publicist. He has a say on all aspects of her life from limiting which venues she plays to where she can have brunch. Rachel’s freedom is fairly restricted, unlike the comparative invisibility of her sister Nicki, also a singer-songwriter. This is until Frank takes Rachel to a Karaoke bar filled with fans badly singing her songs (are they bating the audience?!). By the end of the first act, the stalker is closer to Rachel than he’s ever been and both sisters are in love with Frank.

It strikes me that Marron is a challenging role to play. It requires diva star quality, the ability to pull off dance numbers and big songs, as well the need to elicit empathy. At this performance, Marron was played by Samantha Mbolekwa who does a fine job. Although she may not yet have the experience of other actresses in the role, she exudes confidence in the concert numbers and highlights the character’s vulnerability and desire to occasionally blend into the background. Emily-Mae as Nicki delivers a stand-out performance. She has a confident grasp on the songs’ vocal demands whilst imbuing them with a sense of character.

As expected with Thea Sharrock’s staging, the production gives the audience what they want. Usually with jukebox musicals, the songs are reworked to find an inner meaning which can help to advance song or story. Whilst this is true of some of the songs, many are simply performed as concert numbers. Whilst these louder numbers involving scissor lifts and flames may provide a rush of excitement, the more effective moments are where Sharrock allows the music and the voices to take centre stage. The duet ‘Run to You’ between Rachel and Nicki where they both realise their feelings for Frank is a particular highlight.

Tim Hatley’s design works well to create multiple spaces. Brickwork prosceniums evoke large performance spaces, on top of which more detailed places are layered: from the white drapes of Rachel’s mansion to the lakeside lodges of Frank’s so-called safehouse. What the show lacks overall is a sense of specificity which makes it feel a bit hollow. Back stories, if there at all, often come too late in the second act. But it’s the iconic moments from the movie and numbers like 'I Will Always Love You' that I imagine audiences want to hear and they won’t be disappointed.

The Bodyguard plays at Curve, Leicester until 22nd April as part of a UK tour until 30th December. For further information, please visit

Ayden Callaghan and Samantha Mbolekwa in The Bodyguard. Credit: Paul Coltas

Wednesday, 5 April 2023

Steel Magnolias

 Curve, Leicester

4th April, 2023

That's what my mind says. I wish somebody would explain that to my heart

Robert Harling’s 1987 play (made famous by the 1989 film starring Julia Roberts and Sally Field) enjoyed a three-year run Off-Broadway. There’s a moment in its second act where the sarcastic Ouiser Boudreaux (‘I'm not crazy, I've just been in a very bad mood for 40 years!’) takes pride in not being exposed to culture. Why should she broaden her horizons at the theatre or cinema when she can watch a mini-series at home? It’s a line full of knowing irony considering the play’s success on stage and screen. But for the women of Chinquapin, Louisiana, it’s the local hair salon that provides the biggest form of escape and company. Steel Magnolias, which opened at Curve last night as part of a UK tour, may provide a small slice of southern domestic life, but this drama of familial love and friendship has an enduring and universal appeal.

We are in Truvy’s: a carport-turned-hair salon which provides a home away from home for other women in the neighbourhood. Laura Hopkins’ set design feels authentic and feels like an American salon well worn by its staff and clients: hair on the floor, wooden panels on the wall and strip lights overhead. In the first scene, Shelby (Diana Vickers) is having her wedding hair done. Young and pretty, she appears to have it all and her whole life ahead of her. After we see her have a hypoglycaemic attack brought on by Diabetes, we understand why her mother M’Lynn (Laura Main) is so over-protective. Over the course of two years, we see Shelby grow up. From getting married and insisting she wants a baby of her own despite the possible health implications to becoming a mother and then needing a kidney transplant. And in the final scene (*spoilers follow*) we see M’Lynn prepare for her daughter’s funeral. Remarkably, this was Harling's first play (he also wrote the screenplay), and he has a strong understanding of female friendships and how to craft stage drama. Heartbreak and comedy, as in life, sit alongside each other and there are some genuinely funny one liners. As a domestic drama, it may seem a bit slight 35 years on, but it has an ingratiating quality which still warms the audience. The standing ovation last night certainly accounts for that.

This is aided by Anthony Banks’ production and in particular some excellent performances which bring out the steeliness of the characters’ title description. Lucy Speed keeps the play moving forward as Truvy: big Dolly Parton-esque hair, droll observations, and heaps of southern charm. She also has a nice double act with Elizabeth Ayodele as her evangelical new assistant Annelle. But it’s the touching mother-daughter relationship of Main and Vickers which provides the heart of the story and they both deliver fully-rounded performances. In the first scene, there’s still a child-like goofiness to Shelby as Vickers enjoys drawing out those long southern vowel sounds and rolling her eyes talking about the men in their lives. She then matures through the play along with Main’s realisation that her daughter is no longer a little girl. And in the final scene, M’Lynn’s fury at the injustice of her daughter’s death is excellently-wrought. The fact that one of the most tender points in the play is immediately followed by its biggest laugh is a testament to the cast’s efforts and Harling's writing.

Steel Magnolias plays at Curve, Leicester until 8th April as part of a UK tour until 22nd April. For further information, please visit

Lucy Speed and Diana Vickers in Steel Magnolias. Credit: Pamela Raith

Thursday, 30 March 2023

Noughts and Crosses


Curve, Leicester
Wednesday 29th March, 2023

‘With new life there’s new hope, right?’


Malorie Blackman was a seminal figure in my adolescence and a huge influence on my love of literature. I first read her Noughts and Crosses series aged 13. To my maturing mind the books were revelatory; they dealt with adult themes such as race, politics, sex and class, with striking confidence, a gripping plot and without ever talking down to the reader. These were grown-up novels and I ate them up with relish. In the 20 years since publication Blackman’s story has gone from strength to strength, becoming a set text for schools, spawning a hit BBC tv series, and now inspiring it’s second stage adaptation. Sabrina Mahfouz’s version highlights the prescience and urgency of Blackman’s story, conveying both the universality of the themes while emphasising their pertinence in contemporary society.

Sephy and Callum have known each other all their lives, their bond is seemingly unshakeable, yet the society they live in places them worlds apart in terms of wealth, liberty, education and class. Sephy Hadley is a Cross, the daughter of a top politician, living in an expensive house with its own private beach, and all the material riches she could ever want. Callum McGregor is a Nought, the son of the Hadleys’ maid, a lower-class citizen within a racially segregated state built on oppression and capital punishment. A new government policy permitting the integration of Noughts into Cross schools, along with the increasing violence and unrest brought about by the extremist paramilitary group, the Liberation Militia, forces Sephy and Callum to confront their differences and question their place in social history. Political and personal clashes ultimately end in tragedy in Blackman’s modern parable, which still holds the power to shock.

Mahfouz stays true to the source material in her adaptation, while adding her own linguistic flourishes that lift the piece into the realm of drama. I particularly enjoyed Mahfouz’s sections of verse which portray the inner thoughts of our protagonists. Internal rhymes and a striking use of mirroring/repetition are earthily poetic while demonstrating both the confluence of the characters and the incongruous, duplicitous systems which dictate their lives.

Simon Kenny’s deceptively simple design makes great use of blocky, urban set pieces which occasionally melt into gauzy windows or burst into pops of violence – whether rhetorical or physical – via Ian William Galloway’s vast video projections that flood the stage. We are in a familiar world of rolling news channels, shopping malls and mobile phones (although only Crosses are permitted to own them), which hammers home the similarities with the increased racial tensions in our own society over recent years.

If Esther Richardson’s production is a little rough around the edges at times this does not detract from the narrative punch. In fact, the lack of gloss and intimacy of the piece draws the audience into this world, relying not on high tech theatrical wizardry, but old-fashioned story-telling charm. Yes, Blackman and Mahfouz’s social commentary is painted in broad strokes, but this plays well with the mainly teenaged audience, who were rapt and enthusiastic throughout. Long may Noughts and Crosses inspire and fire up generations to come.

 Noughts and Crosses plays at Curve, Leicester until 1st April 2023.

The cast of Noughts and Crosses
Credit: Robert Day

Wednesday, 29 March 2023

Fisherman's Friends the Musical

 Curve, Leicester

28th March, 2023

Semi-circle, a cappella, striking sound

There’s no denying that the success story of Fisherman’s Friends is an interesting one. Formed in 1995 in Port Isaac, the Cornish folk group went from performing sea shanties locally to raise money for the lifeboats, to signing with Universal Music in 2010. A top 10 album, a spot on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury, and two feature films later, the story has now been turned into a musical. Was this inevitable? It certainly fits the template of similar British feel-good stories which inspired Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls (2003 film, 2009 play) and Simon Beaufoy’s The Fully Monty (1997 film, 2013 play): a bunch of reluctant performers proud of their local identity take centre stage and become an unlikely overnight sensation. Translated to the stage, Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical is pleasingly genial. Well-sung and with a book by Amanda Whittington which serves the material well, James Grieve’s actor-muso production achieves the balance between musical theatre polish and folk group authenticity.

We hear how sea shanties, work-songs traditionally sung by men about fishing, distant wives and drink, have a 300-year history. We’re plunged into that sense of male camaraderie and hard work from the show’s opening moments. The light of a fishing trawler appears through the mist of the sea to reveal men at work singing shanties. Back on dry land, the singing and real ale don’t stop at their local pub. Like in Chris Foggin’s 2019 film, the conflict comes when down-on-his-luck music producer Danny (Jason Langley) arrives from London in his Chelsea tractor. Having lost his way and his job, he rocks up in Port Isaac completely ignorant of Cornwall, its people and, much to his dismay after parking his car on the beach, tidal movements. Stranded and with no money, he initially doesn’t have much luck with the locals: ‘Not much call for fizzy pop’ is barmaid Maggie’s (Susan Penhaligon) response when he asks for a lager. But when he hears the shanties, he’s exhilarated by their raw emotion, harmonising, call and response phrases and heavy rhythms. He also sees pound signs, not only for his own benefit but to help the fledgling pub and its young owners. Whilst there’s initially some scepticism mainly from James Gaddas’ character Jim, his Dad Jago (Robert Duncan), having recently retired and wanting to embrace life, persuades him to record an album. It’s easy to understand his cynicism. You could see the commodifying of songs passed down through the generations by a local community reproduced for mass entertainment as cultural tourism, something which the film, this musical and its audiences are contributing towards. On the other hand, maybe sharing the story and music of Fisherman’s Friends with a wider audience helps to reinforce identity and preserve cultural heritage. It’s Grieve’s intention for the audience to leave any cynicism at the door and simply enjoy the story’s whimsy.

The result is a well-produced new musical which mostly hits all the right notes. Lucy Osborne’s set and costumes achieve an attractive Cornish aesthetic. With its white-washed harbour walls, wooden steps, and thick jumpers, it could be sponsored by Cornwall’s Tourism Board. And the shanties themselves are extremely well-performed by the cast. We’re told that ‘trust, respect and community’ are their key pillars and that certainly rings true. What I really liked is that Grieve retains a rusticity to the piece which feels true. The on-stage band (led by MD James William-Pattison) interweave with the action to help people the stage with life. In a nice stroke of theatricality, the fishing trawler is attached to the set with ropes so that the fishermen have to (or at least appear to) pull the rope to create movement and thus heightening that sense of hard work.

David White’s arrangements ensure the shanties are performed traditionally without too much intervention from a more conventional musical theatre sound. However, it’s a shame that the music, although undoubtedly the star of the show, doesn’t advance plot or character as it often does in a musical. Many of the songs help to establish place, especially “Village by the Sea” beautifully performed by Parisa Shahmir, but they’re otherwise mostly disconnected from the story. Whilst they’re not without their own emotional intensity, I was struggling to remember many once I left the auditorium. Amanda Whittington’s book translates the story well for the stage, capturing the fishermen’s bawdy humour and creating more emotional depth for the characters. I’m not entirely convinced that the depictions of Cornwall and “that there London” ring true, but this dichotomy fuels many of the jokes and conflicts in the story.

Even if it is ‘a drinking group with a singing problem’, Fisherman’s Friends is a very British success story which has made its move to the stage seamlessly. I have a feeling it will have the same enduring appeal as the songs upon which it is based.

Fisherman’s Friends the Musical plays at Curve, Leicester until 1st April as part of a UK tour until 20th May. It plays Truro’s Hall for Cornwall 11th-22nd April. For further info, please visit 

The cast of Fisherman's Friends the Musical. Credit: Pamela Raith

Wednesday, 22 March 2023

An Inspector Calls

 Curve, Leicester

21st March, 2023

We don't live alone

Stephen Daldry’s production of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls (1945), first staged at the National Theatre in 1992, is one of the most successful revivals of a play in British theatre history. Initially only programmed for 33 performances in the Lyttelton, the National briefly considered pulling it from the schedule to save money and instead extend the hugely popular The Madness of George III. It was only kept in the schedule because a small regional tour was booked for the Autumn. Thirty years on, following a return to the National, countless UK and international tours, and five lengthy West End runs between 1993 and 2016, An Inspector Calls is still a set text and a global success. Having reportedly called it a ‘terrible play’ when first approached to direct it, Daldry went on to free it from its baggage of being perceived as a tired war horse of regional rep. Rather than tease out, his production pulls out the political and social prescience of Priestley’s play. This was my first time seeing it (I studied Blood Brothers for GCSE English), but it still has the power to thrill and stun an audience which included several appreciative school groups at Leicester’s Curve last night.

On a rainy night in a town in the Midlands, Inspector Goole interrupts a celebratory engagement dinner at the Birling household. He brings news of the suicide of a young woman he’s investigating (we’re told Eva Smith is one of the names she used). When the family all initially deny any connection to or knowledge of the girl, he in turn interrogates each family member and uncovers the part they played in her undoing. As Goole shows each member a photograph of Smith, we hear that former employer Arthur Birling (Jeffrey Harmer) denied her a wage rise and fired her for leading strike action. We also hear how his wife Sybil Birling (Christine Kavanagh) refused the girl help when she came to her charity committee. One by one, we hear how each is in some way culpable. There are several plot twists along the way, right to the moment the curtain falls. Priestley’s point, ultimately, is we don’t just exist in our insular lives; we are part of a society and have a responsibility to each other.

Daldry’s and Ian MacNeil’s (set designer) visions perfectly align. MacNeil confines the Birling’s drawing room to a large Edwardian doll’s house looming over the middle of the stage. Sitting on stilts with a forced perspective, the opening lines of dialogue are enclosed in the house out of view of the audience. Downstage is made up of more uncertain terrain, a phone box and street lamp. Soon after Inspector Goole arrives (in an image reminiscent of The Exorcist), the house springs open, forcing the Birlings to confront the world outside of their middle-class trappings and their complicity in Smith’s death. In a coup-de-théâtre, as Goole turns the Birling’s world upside down, their house also collapses: dinnerware crashes to the stage, doors swing open, fire comes out of the chimney. Despite the many questions we’re left with at the end, we see the Inspector’s visit has literally and perhaps irrevocably shaken their world.

It’s a play with a strong social commentary dressed up as a thriller, and both elements are ripped open by Daldry and played to full effect. Inside the house, it’s 1912; outside it’s 1945. Most of Inspector Goole’s interrogations are played downstage addressing the audience. His interaction with a small child who watches much of the action perhaps provides a link between the two time settings and acts as a reminder of the next generation who will hopefully take on his call for better social responsibility. The children in the play (and indeed the audience) perhaps also represent ‘the famous younger generation who know it all’, as Mr Birling scoffs towards the end of the play. But any of the play’s didacticism is dialled back by Liam Brennan’s engaging, well-balanced performance and MacNeil’s film noir design. Rick Fisher’s lighting casts long shadows and dry ice is used effectively to keep the tension high. A timely play and a timeless production, An Inspector Calls is surely a masterpiece of twentieth century theatre.

An Inspector Calls plays at Curve, Leicester until 25th March as part of a UK tour. For further details please visit

Liam Brennan in An Inspector Calls. Credit: Mark Douet

Wednesday, 8 March 2023

Girl from the North Country

 Curve, Leicester

7th March, 2023

Back here – some of the guests we’ll meet along the way

Girl from the North Country, Conor McPherson’s play with music and lyrics by Bob Dylan, premiered at the Old Vic in 2017 and has since gone to successful runs in the West End and on Broadway. A play with music, a jukebox musical(?!), a series of vignettes linked by music, Girl from the North Country defies conventional classification. McPherson’s show is a genre all in itself. It’s both a tableau of hardships from a Minnesota guesthouse in the winter of 1934, and haunting elegy to the pains, injustices, losses and (un)fulfilled hopes of the human spirit. It’s McPherson’s specific evocation of time and place running simultaneously with the timeless and universal soul of Dylan’s folk music which makes it a classic. Poised between transience and permanence, the personal and the universal, time and space, Girl from the North Country epitomises the unique adversity of the human soul.

Set in a Minnesota boarding house during the depression we are shown both arching and intimate insights into the lives of its residents. Nick Laine (Colin Connor), who runs the boarding house, struggles with mounting debts and looking after his wife, Elizabeth (played at this performance by Nichola MacEvilly), who suffers from dementia. Their adopted daughter Marianne (Justina Kehinde) is pregnant but the father is nowhere to be seen. House regulars include the Burkes, perhaps on the run from a tragic past, and Nick’s lover Mrs Neilsen. When two strangers appear in the dead of night the residents of this small community face monumental decisions regarding love, life, death and fortune.

The play is not particularly plot-led, McPherson instead choosing to collate a series of interlinking scenes united by the communal setting and the themes of transience, regret and hope, all interspersed with Dylan’s elucidating music. These vignettes (postcards if you will, heightened by the flat images in parts of Rae Smith’s design), far from being sketchy, get under the skin. We soon realise that it is often what is left unsaid, the stories that are untold, that are so evocative of the human experience. The play is a series of snapshots and achingly insightful epiphanies, whether it be Elizabeth’s moments of lucidity in which she offers nuggets of wisdom amid the banalities, or the varying realisations that they cannot carry on living the way they do. And McPherson is perhaps mining his own personal struggles through the character of Gene, Nick and Elizabeth’s son, who aspires to be a writer but struggles with alcoholism. For better or worse, by the end every character has been touched by change.

Simon Hale’s haunting orchestrations of Dylan’s classics blend the songs together seamlessly, and the arrangements and incorporation of harmonies highlight not only what a masterful poet Dylan is, but how melodic and instinctive his music is too. Dylan’s music strikes a chord with so many because we all feel he speaks to us, for us, encapsulating what is so often thought of as inexpressible with a simplicity that is able to articulate the vagaries of life in a strikingly obvious manner. The struggles of the boarding house residents may be played out upon the backdrop of the great depression, yet the sentiment is eternal. A particular highlight is the heartstopping intimacy and understated stillness of Gene’s duet ‘I Want You’, which captures all the tragedy and yearning mournfulness of the deadbeat writer’s inertia.

There are surely echoes to McPherson’s other work including the presence of ghosts like in his play Shining City (2004). The ephemeral lives of characters whose stories are brought together by a central place reminded me of The Weir (1997). And the dark corners of Smith’s set reminded me of her design for McPherson’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya in the West End in 2020, emphasised here by Mark Henderson’s subtle lighting. Performed by a remarkable cast and band and always leaving us wanting more, Girl from the North Country is a truly beguiling and indefinable piece of theatre.

Girl from the North Country runs at Curve, Leicester until 11th March and then plays at New Wimbledon Theatre until 18th March. For more information please visit

The company from Girl from the North Country. Credit: Johan Persson

Friday, 3 March 2023

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons

 Harold Pinter Theatre

11th February, 2023, matinee

Have you said that before?

After several successful fringe productions, Sam Steiner’s 2015 play Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons has now been revived in the West End in an assured production by Josie Rourke. Set in a society about to pass a law which limits people to using no more than 140 words a day, Steiner explores its implications on a relationship and the limits of language itself.

Looking at the play text, there is an economy not only to Steiner’s dialogue (partly necessitated by the plot) but also to the stage directions. A simple * denotes a scene change and there’s no indication of time or place. Well, that’s not quite true. The length of Bernadette and Oliver’s exchanges and the care with which they use language is a clue to when the scene might be set, even before it’s fully clear what’s going on. We soon sense that the scenes are not in chronological order, with moments from later in their relationship sitting cheek by jowl with scenes of before they started dating. For any production of Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons (no word count in this review!), a decision needs to be made about how and if such changes in time are presented. Cleverly, Rourke keeps the breaks between scenes short and sharp, a slight change in lighting the only thing marking a new scene as if it’s a new breath. It is also clear that the scenes have been split into ‘pre-word limit’ and ‘post-word limit’. Aideen Malone’s lighting bathes the ovular playing space in a warm glow for scenes before the law has passed whereas scenes after have a cold blue tint, as if the world is bereft of the richness and creativity that language affords. Like the text, Robert Jones’ design also has a clean aesthetic. Shelves filled with the detritus of everyday life line the back of the stage: pots and pans, a toaster, a car wheel. Malone uses neon strip lights to compartmentalise the shelves in different ways. It’s a nod, perhaps, to language being another dispensable object which we take for granted.

Both Aidan Turner and Jenna Coleman are believable and very likeable as the couple, Oliver and Bernadette. Oliver protests the bill, passionately arguing it’s a censorship on free speech. Bernadette on the other hand is more hesitant: ‘Words are the weapons of the middle class’ she tells Oliver, believing the limit may democratise how we communicate. However, her workplace is partly exempt which later causes tension between them. Interestingly, parliament is another exemption; one rule for them and all that. It’s an interesting concept and you can’t help but wonder about the consequences if characters do go over the daily limit. Steiner instead uses it as an opportunity to explore the effect it has on how we communicate, prompting us to interrogate every wasted word in our own conversations.

Faced with the prospect, how do Oliver and Bernadette choose to spend their verbal exchanges? Is it more important to compliment your lover’s hair or to tell them to put more cayenne in the beans? What becomes of connections and relationships without qualifiers, fillers and hesitations? In a sequence of short scenes in which Oliver and Bernadette say ‘I love you’, we hear the multitude of different ways those three words can be said: to comfort, to celebrate, to apologise, to reassure, simply out of habit. Both meaningfully and unmeaningfully they are just three of thousands of words they said to each other each day throughout their relationship. This sits next to a scene where they’re forced to contract the words to ‘Lovou’ which somehow loses its depth of meaning. The placing of scenes seems more important as the play goes on. The scene after the word limit comes into effect is a scene where they met at a pet cemetery. They talk about nothing in particular and yet there’s so much meaning beneath the words. Is language purely functional, does it only exist for its surface meaning?

I’ve heard the play compared to the works of Caryl Churchill, particularly Blue Heart (1997). But I think there’s less of a disconnect with Steiner’s play, I felt more involved with the characters. Such a major revival now will surely help to establish it as a contemporary classic. It’s a compelling play with a puzzle-like quality, and I found myself becoming more absorbed as it went on, making connections with earlier (later?) scenes.

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 18th March followed by a short tour to Manchester and Brighton.

Aidan Turner and Jenna Coleman in Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons. Credit: Johan Persson

Wednesday, 1 March 2023


 Curve, Leicester

28th February 2023


‘Don't it feel like the wind is always howlin’?
Don't it seem like there's never any light?’


While I have fond childhood memories of wearing out an old VHS of the 1982 film adaptation of Annie (a double cassette with Oliver!), I’ve never seen the classic musical on stage. So for old fans and newcomers alike, this new tour of Nikolai Foster’s revival, which started life at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2011, is a solid production, showcasing all the well-loved songs while adding a pinch of Matilda-esque punch thanks to some imaginative design and sharp choreography. The story of the little red-haired orphan in search of her parents is simple, well-paced and very sweet, if bordering on saccharine (the stuff with FDR stuck me as bizarre even as a child!). Throw in some cute kids and a scene-stealing dog, and Foster and co. have a sure-fire hit on their hands.

Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin’s score has lost none of its charm and those standards of the musical-songbook (‘Hard Knock Life’, ‘Tomorrow’, ‘Easy Street’, ‘You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile’, etc.) are served well by a committed ensemble and some smashing choreography from Nick Winston. An early stand out number situates the musical in a much more political sphere than I’d anticipated. ‘Hooverville’, a satirical ‘up yours’ sung by the homeless community of NYC, lambasts the policy-makers of the day and (light-heartedly) highlights the everyday suffering brought on by the Depression. Unfamiliar to me (the number doesn’t feature in the film) this was a surprising and very welcome (albeit short-lived) segue into more adult wit and thematic substance. From thereon in the musical reverts to fantastical realism, with an emphasis on the fantastical - Colin Richmond’s set features stretched looming doorways dominating the orphanage, while oversized furniture and art deco glitz characterises the Warbucks house. Richmond’s sets are embellished by chalkboard drawings and giant puzzle piece prosceniums, and this filtering of the action through the lens of child’s play ultimately tempers the more cloying elements of the plot.

As ever, the abundance of talent on offer from the youngsters in the cast is inspiring. Carrying the show on her small but mighty shoulders, Zoe Akinyosade is an assured, sweet and down-to-earth Annie. She is endearing and has the audience on side from the off. Alex Bourne and Amelia Adams provide strong support as a rather soft and fuzzy Daddy Warbucks and glamorous-yet-practical Grace Farrell, respectively. Yet star-billing is reserved for Craig Revel Horwood’s beleaguered, bosom-adjusting fishwife Miss Hannigan. Revel Horwood plays a fine drunk and is clearly having a ball in the role, despite occasionally being upstaged by charismatic turns from Paul French and Billie-Kay as Hannigan’s dastardly brother, Rooster and girlfriend Lily St Regis.

Annie safely remains a solid family-friendly show, and a perfect introduction to theatre for young children. The production is in safe hands as the creative team maximises the musical’s plus points while also highlighting some perhaps previously overlooked elements. The production is both contemporary and nostalgic and it most certainly had me tapping my toes and humming the tunes as we exited the theatre. As a tonic to those late-winter blues Annie is a sugary dose of escapism that entices broad smiles and warm hearts. With a roster of names set to don the Miss Hannigan mantle throughout the tour (Paul O’Grady, Jodie Prenger and Elaine C Smith are all due to step into the role), there is plenty to keep fans intrigued and I’ll be interested to hear how the show evolves over time.

Annie plays at Curve, Leicester until 4th March 2023.

For full tour dates please visit:

Craig Revel Horwood as Miss Hannigan in Annie. Credit: Paul Coltas

Sunday, 26 February 2023

Prima Facie

National Theatre at Home

Streamed 2022 (initially broadcast 21st July following a run at the Pinter Theatre)

Let him think I have lost my way

Browsing a renowned Brighton flea market last year, I came across an American theatre magazine from 1954 (a subscription address on the back indicates it was once owned by Roy Plomley incidentally). One article entitled ‘Thirty Million Angels’ envisages a future where a “TV viewer will be able to see the Broadway premiere of a play in his own parlour” by purchasing a subscription by mail. Technology has thankfully simplified the means for streaming theatre since then but the article was certainly right about the public’s demand for it. Born out of lockdown as a substitution for live cinema screenings, NT at Home is now as accessible and affordable as monthly subscriptions to Netflix or Disney+. Following a successful run in the West End and a record-breaking cinema release (one cinema in Sheffield screened it a staggering 228 times), Suzie Miller’s one-woman play Prima Facie is now available to stream until 9th March. So, living in a town with a population of almost 60,000 but with no theatre or cinema, we’re able to watch it from the comfort of our living room.

Top criminal defence barrister Tessa Ensler (Jodie Comer) has unlimited potential. From a working-class background, she made it into Cambridge, passed the bar, and hasn’t lost a case in months. Catapulting us into the play’s relentless pace, the opening sequence introduces us to Tessa cross-examining a witness, lulling them into a false sense of security before going in for the kill. Miller’s text is like a stream of consciousness: her protagonist analyses every raised eyebrow and each paper shuffle, dissecting the game of cat and mouse in which she lets the mouse think it’s got the upper hand. In this way, Tessa is every bit an actor as Comer’s protagonist in Killing Eve. She plays up the innocent, inexperienced lawyer act to uncover any trace of doubt in a witness’ story. But underneath Tessa’s ability to navigate the system is an unshakable belief in the process of law. For her, the right to innocence is a human right. So when Tessa is raped by a colleague, she struggles to square legal instinct against the reality of human instinct.

Comer shows us Tessa’s unstoppable energy from the start. After winning a case, we see her dancing on a table and doing shots in a nightclub at 2am and then back in silks munching on Chipsticks by 8. She radiates Tessa’s confidence and embraces her successes and later devastatingly conveys her isolated terror. Intricate details in Miller’s text leave indelible images which root the play with a sense of character and place. When Tessa goes back home (Comer’s Liverpudlian accent comes to the fore here) she sees her mum picking up carrots from the floor. It’s such a small moment but one which evokes pity, love and a sense of home all in one line. Justin Martin’s production brings together different design elements to also give the play its forward momentum. Natasha Chivers’ lighting, for instance, can take us from the warmth of home to the intrusive white light of a police interview room.

The play takes a phenomenological approach as it explores Tessa’s personal experiences. When she’s being medically examined she tells us “eyes on the ceiling, gritted teeth” giving a sense that she’s trying to survive each passing moment. Miller’s language is prosaic if a little over-egged especially later on when we see her take the stand: “this brightly lit, suffocating courtroom”, for instance. When the play turns the dial up on its polemic, Comer stares down the camera to remind us of the depressing statistic that one in three women are sexually assaulted. It would be easy to say this is too preachy, but here the play cleverly steps out of its world, aware of the responsibility it has, and embraces its voice.

There are also some effective decisions from Mathew Amos as its director for the screen. One frame captures both the large oak table adorned with bankers’ lamps along with the wine bottle from the night of the rape which shows how entwined Tessa’s professional and personal lives are. And in the closing moments, the floor-to-ceiling shelves of folders in Miriam Buether’s elegant design gain new meaning to suggest the scale of injustice in a system where the odds are stacked against the victims.

There have been a number of fine single-actor plays in recent years (Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott, Richard Gadd’s Baby Reindeer). Combative and fierce, Prima Facie is another momentous addition to these. We may have been at home, but I was totally absorbed in the play and Comer’s towering performance that I forgot the interruptions of everyday life.

Prima Facie is available to stream on NT at Home until 9th March. Jodie Comer then reprises her role at the John Golden Theatre on Broadway from 11th April.

Jodie Comer in Prima Facie. Credit: Helen Murray