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

Tuesday 7 February 2023

Curve 2023 Season Launch

Curve, Leicester

6th February, 2023

Last night, we were invited to Leicester’s Curve to hear more about their upcoming season. Set in the Studio, with the back wall lifted to reveal the illuminated back of Fly Davis’s atmospheric set for The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the event was hosted by Artistic Director Nikolai Foster, The Stage’s Deputy Editor Matt Hemley, and BBC Leicester’s Aminata Kamara. It was also our first opportunity to enjoy the new seating in the Studio. Replacing the two-tier black seats, the plush red seats are not only more comfortable but the space now feels like one. ‘Studio theatre’ can sometimes imply the work is more subordinate to what’s on the main stage, but this isn’t the case. The work we’ve seen in Curve’s Studio is certainly just as vital and dynamic as that produced next door and the new seating now reflects that. Similarly, Sheffield’s Crucible recently renamed its Studio to the Tanya Moiseiwitsch Playhouse to welcome audiences to the space with a renewed vigour. Likewise, the new seating at Curve makes it a more democratic space and one which matches the audience’s experience to sitting in the main auditorium.

The evening started by reflecting on the last year: major revivals of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Billy Elliot, and The Wizard of Oz; West End transfers; UK tours; and community productions. Curve’s productivity and its commitment to make theatre coming out of the pandemic has (in my opinion at least) been unrivalled. Foster and Curve’s new Chair of the Board of Trustees Sita McIntosh spoke about Curve’s mission to create work with a local and national impact which encourages the next generation to engage with theatre. Their belief in the work and commitment to community is clear. From the bus loads of school groups seeing Ocean…, Curve is once again buzzing with activity.

After hearing a gorgeous rendition of ‘Tight Connection to My Heart’ from Conor McPherson and Bob Dylan’s The Girl from the North Country which plays at Curve next month, we moved on to the upcoming season. The breadth and eclecticism of work on and off the stage really stands out. In April, audiences can see Roy Williams’ 2010 play Sucker Punch and new musical Cake, a Parisian dance gig in one act. In May, Curve presents Jonathan Church’s new production of Broadway musical 42nd Street with choreography by Bill Deamer prior to a London run and UK tour. In the same month, the annual co-production with DMU will see students stage Jim Cartwright’s 1986 play Road in the Studio.

In September, after a well-received run last year at Bolton’s Octagon Theatre, Lotte Wakeham brings her production of The Book Thief, based on Marcus Zusak's novel, to Curve. There will also be a co-production with Frantic Assembly on a new version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis written by Lemn Sissay. Their accessible and contemporary take on Othello last year showed why they’re one of the most exciting theatre companies working today so I’m sure this will likewise be a must-see. And at Christmas, Foster will direct a new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s Evita (1978). What’s really exciting is that Foster hinted it will make full use of the main stage similar to Billy Elliot, A Chorus Line and West Side Story. And in 2024, Curve will launch the UK tour of Come From Away, from which we heard Alice Fearn’s breath-taking version of ‘Me and the Sky’. There are also much anticipated UK tours of Annie, An Inspector Calls, Noughts and Crosses, SpongeBob the Musical and much more.

For further information, please visit

Wednesday 1 February 2023

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Tuesday 31st January 2023

Curve, Leicester


‘It’s a rip in Forever.

Where anything is possible’


In recent years theatre goers have been relishing what has turned out to be a golden era for British literary adaptations. Theatre makers have mined seemingly unadaptable source novels for a spectacle of riches that has brought a new wave of visually and thematically imaginative plays with broad appeal to audiences nationwide. While the West End has profited from recent successes such as the record-breaking Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Sheffield Theatres’ acclaimed Life of Pi, at the forefront of this cultural trend is the National Theatre, proving that they remain champions of innovative, entertaining and accessible art. Building upon such juggernauts as War Horse and Curious Incident, their latest mega-play sees Writer Joel Horwood and Director Katy Rudd bring to life Neil Gaiman’s 2013 novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The result is an enchanting blend of heartfelt magical realism with more than a touch of whimsy and a delicious dash of horror.

Gaiman’s story focuses on a Boy (played by Daniel Cornish at this performance), who’s world is turned upside down by the Hempstocks, a trigenerational family of magical women. On the day of the Boy’s twelfth birthday his family’s lodger kills himself via carbon monoxide poisoning, stealing the family car and plunging them into crisis. While his widowed Father works extra shifts to make ends meet, he urges Boy to be a grown up. This mainly involves feigning stoicism and outright lying to protect his younger Sister (Laurie Ogden). Rejecting this, the Boy finds adventure and escape via his new friend Lettie Hempstock (Millie Hikasa) and her otherworldly farm. For a story featuring wormholes, shapeshifting ‘Fleas’ and journeys through an ocean of eternity the plot could seem impenetrably dense, however in Horwood and Rudd’s hands the piece never seems overcomplicated or abstract, thanks to some deftly deployed exposition and excellent pacing.

The story is framed as a memory play, beginning and ending with the grown-up Boy reminiscing about his visits to the farm, aided by a familiar yet strange figure. The blurred lines between memory, imagination and reality are exquisitely played upon by Gaiman, Horwood and Rudd – a dream isn’t just a dream, if a person imagines something it exists as it is real to that person. Similarly, the imagined magic of stories (notably, Alice in Wonderland and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) are utilised by Gaiman and co. as powerful forces against both real and imagined monsters – Boy reads every night to conquer his fear of the dark, but he later uses these stories he’s come to memorize to help him evade a monster that has infiltrated his home, in a feat of simple but gratifying ingenuity. The story is a perfect fit for theatre, where we likewise experience the boundary-blurring, imagination-enriching mesh of the actual and the fantastical.

Rudd makes fine use of Steven Hoggett’s movement direction and Samuel Wyer’s puppetry, animating high-concept theories and phantasmagorical creatures with some truly captivating stagecraft. There’s also a great scene featuring misdirection trickery, wherein multiple Ursulas (Charlie Brooks) appear to torment the Boy. Fly Davis’s enchanted wood set is atmospheric, shifting from being gnarly and imposing to embodying an ethereal dreamscape. I was also struck by Jherek Bischoff’s original music – not something that often stands out in a play – but, like Adrian Sutton’s scores for War Horse and Curious Incident, the music here feels like a character in its own right. From 80’s synths to melting string harmonies and menacing rhythms, Bischoff enhances the action and feeling presented onstage.

It is telling that amid all the supernatural goings-on (mind-reading, parasitic nannies; intergalactic vultures) and all their theatrical realisation, it is the mundane horrors in Ocean that prove most nightmarish, such as the punishment dealt to the Boy by his Father for disobeying him, and the eery image of the suicidal lodger, hosepipe affixed to his face like an uncanny gasmask. Gaiman’s story succeeds because the magic in the plot is so deeply rooted in the real-life issues of 1980’s working-class Britain; Boy first suspects that his new friend is not as she seems when he regurgitates a fifty pence piece in his sleep, and the demonic Ursula feeds off the family’s financial hardship and the want of a wife/mother figure. The tale is also an excellent example of a coming-of-age narrative; we are repeatedly reminded that nothing is as it appears on the outside, most poignantly in the case of grown-ups merely being the children they always were, trapped in an adult shell of deception. Growing up is a pervasive theme amongst young adult literature, and from the juxtaposition of Boy refusing to ‘be a man’ and Lettie’s anguish at being unable to grow older, to the ways that the older Boy remembers and mis-remembers his fantastical childhood, here it is addressed with an exhilarating mix of wonder and terror.

While the themes and 80’s setting of Ocean are strikingly reminiscent of smash-hit Netflix series Stranger Things, Horwood has ensured that the play retains Gaiman’s very British sensibilities. Memorable lines are peppered throughout the play, from the whimsical (‘Monsters are things that everyone is scared of – Then what are monsters scared of?’) to some wonderfully droll one liners from Finty Williams’ matriarchal Old Mrs Hempstock (‘A cup of tea is a human right’; ‘Do you think she’d do something so common as die?’). The National Theatre has once again produced a play that will appeal to all ages (although very young children may be a little too frightened) and perfectly marries plot, spectacle and feeling. Gaiman has articulated the very personal yet universal experiences of loss, love, hardship and change, with a masterly touch. The bittersweet ending certainly leaves audiences enamoured with the characters and wishing to linger in the uncanny world of the Hempstocks a while longer.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane plays at Curve until 11th February.

For full tour details please visit: 

The cast of Ocean at the End of the Lane
Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg