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