Saturday 24 June 2023

About Us

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


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

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

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

Friday 16 June 2023

Groundhog Day

 Old Vic, London

10th June, 2023, matinee

I thought the only way to better days was through tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

27th May, 2023

“What is ‘Quintessence’?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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