Wednesday 24 April 2024

Blood Brothers

 Curve, Leicester

23rd April, 2024

And only if we didn’t live in life, as well as dreams

A NY Times theatre critic recently said that the thing about live theatre is that it’s perpetually dying. That’s not the case with Blood Brothers. Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson’s production has been playing almost continually since the mid-80s. Willy Russell’s 1983 musical of twins separated at birth only to grow up on different sides of the track is an epic tale of class and superstition. Its original production closed after 6 months, but after Kenwright and Tomson picked up the reins, they reworked and refined the show on tour before taking it back into the West End in 1988. Alongside the show’s 24-year run in London (I was there on closing night in 2012!), the show has enjoyed UK tours and international productions. Even by the early 90s, when the show opened on Broadway, it had achieved ‘Now and forever’ status. In a successful attempt to whip up word of mouth about the show, Kenwright reportedly flew 87 guests from the UK to New York for the opening, including several London critics. He was arguably the show’s biggest champion and in return it’s probably his biggest hit. Blood Brothers is as strong as ever, with not only audience members returning but also cast members staying with the show for decades. The result is that both new and returning cast members breathe new life into it.

After agreeing to give one of her twins away to the upper-class lady she cleans for, the superstitious Mrs Johnstone is forced to make a pact. If either twin finds out they’re one of a pair, she’s convinced they’ll both immediately die. The next couple of hours condenses thirty years of their lives, from when they’re seven (nearly eight!), teenage friendships, and the hardships of their young adult lives set on the backdrop of the dole lines of Thatcher’s government. The cast do well to manage the fine line between melodrama and mawkish. As Mrs Johnstone, Niki Colwell Evans carries the show’s emotional intensity to its inevitably tragic end. She also has a powerhouse voice, especially in her vocal inflections in ‘Easy Terms’, her riffs in ‘Bright New Day’ and her performance in ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’. Complementing her throughout, Sarah Jane Buckley pitches a beautifully understated performance as Mrs Lyons. Scott Anson, returning to the role of the omniscient Narrator after 20 years, is a more menacing narrator than some past interpretations. Stalking the stage for much of the show, he really comes into his own in the monologues. The ‘Summer Sequence’, charting the highs and misbegotten dreams of being a teenager, is especially moving. But the heart of the show comes in the relationship between Mickey, Eddie (Joe Sleight) and the girl in the middle of the pair, Linda (Gemma Brodrick). Sean Jones has been playing Mickey since the 90s and charts the journey from youthful innocence to adult tragedy compellingly. He’s crafted his performance over 25 years but what’s refreshing is that he’s still as invested as the new cast members. From his brotherly bond with Eddie and awkward teenage presence with Linda, you can see him reacting in the moment to new things Sleight and Brodrick are bringing to their roles. It’s their innocence and the actors’ conviction to the show’s momentum which makes the ending so devastating. Timothy Lucas as Mickey's older brother Sammy also brings new ideas to the role.

Kenwright and Tomson keep the show moving at an impressive pace on Andy Walmsley’s multi-functional set, with the iconic Liver Building towering over the streets of terraced houses in the background. Russell's text is filled with motifs, echoes and parallels which their direction enhances. Hiding places for toy guns become hiding places for real guns, childhood jokes extend into adulthood, and Russell’s melodies and lyrics are cleverly reprised. Apart from a line that’s been understandably cut from the second act, the show remains the same now as it has for years. Whether Blood Brothers is a fan favourite to which they keep returning or a reluctant student’s gateway into theatre, it’s still a resounding success. Six months after his death, it remains one of Kenwright’s lasting legacies to British theatre.

Blood Brothers plays at Leicester’s Curve until 27th April as part of a UK tour. For further information, please visit

The cast of Blood Brothers. Credit: Jack Merriman

Friday 12 April 2024

The Motive and The Cue, and Dear England

 We saw The Motive and The Cue at the National Theatre Lyttelton on 3rd June, 2023 and Dear England at the National Theatre Olivier on 28th July, 2023

Two of the biggest new plays of last year opened on the South Bank. Big in terms of their subjects, staging, cast sizes and acting prowess, both also enjoyed huge reach. Jack Thorne’s The Motive and The Cue concluded its run at the Noel Coward Theatre last month and was broadcast in cinemas across the country. James Graham’s Dear England was the first play to run at the Prince Edward Theatre in nearly 80 years, has also enjoyed an NT Live screening and will soon be adapted into a miniseries for the BBC. Both were immensely enjoyable pieces of theatre and among our theatrical highlights of 2023. And yet, I’ve struggled to write about them since. Not because they were unremarkable – far from it. Reflecting on them several months on, and in anticipation of the Olivier Awards this weekend, I find it striking how the plays share some qualities.

Both plays feature characters based on real people from recent history. And, in a way, both are work plays in which characters bring a new approach which clashes with the old. One play looks inwards at the world of theatre and acting through the lens of Richard Burton’s Hamlet in 1964, the other is a state of the nation play about the England men’s football team under Gareth Southgate’s management. One was stylish and elegant in the hands of Sam Mendes, the other a high concept, fast-paced production by Rupert Goold. One strived for verisimilitude even with its minor characters, the other a more broad-brush approach even with some of its more significant characters.

A dream itself is but a shadow

The Motive and The Cue depicts the month-long rehearsal period of John Gielgud’s Broadway production of Hamlet. From the read-through to the first preview, scenes from the rehearsal room document the increasingly fraught relationship between Gielgud and Burton as their styles rub up against each other. For Burton, the weight of Gielgud’s Hamlet bears down on him made worse by a perceived lack of practical direction. For Gielgud, the feeling that he produced his best work at 27 can’t quite escape him. Thorne based his play on two books, both chronicling the troubles from the rehearsal room, and he structures the play excellently so the tension bubbles away. Initially it’s perhaps just a phrase that’s taken the wrong way or which has been deliberately loaded, designed to irritate. This slowly builds to some explosive arguments and there are some delicious lines. But this is more than just a backstage drama, it’s a play about aging, and actors’ changing approach to their process. Ultimately, the play’s the thing. It’s what drives a wedge between them but also leads to their reconciliation. The payoff is that Gielgud is able to unlock the play for Burton who finds his own way of approaching the Dane. As Gielgud says, “Your actions. Your deeds. Your Hamlet”.

These scenes are interspersed by lighter scenes featuring Burton (Johnny Flynn) with his wife Elizabeth Taylor (during their first marriage) and parties in their apartment. Taylor (Tuppence Middleton) is given more credibility here than some other representations of her, such as in the TV film Burton and Taylor (2013). She’s fun and doesn’t fully realise her own talents but also has a passion for theatre even though she comes from a different acting lineage. She also exudes great chemistry with Burton and has some cracking lines. When Burton can’t decide whether he needs a drink or a slap, she replies ‘I believe you married me because I’m quite prepared to give you both’. Other scenes are tête-à-têtes between Gielgud and Taylor, or his stage manager, or even a gigolo. Mark Gatiss’ performance as Gielgud is superb. His portrayal goes beyond the aphorisms and ‘Dear boy’ term of endearment, digging deeper to capture his care with words, his loneliness, modesty and temperament consistently and credibly.

Reading the text, I was fascinated by Thorne’s use of stage directions to navigate the escalating tensions between Burton and Gielgud: ‘A match flares between them’, ‘Gielgud knows this moment will blow up if he continues’, ‘They are still circling each other, but finally Gielgud goes for the kill’. The beats and silences give time for characters to process thoughts and calculate their next steps which makes for great drama. Mendes’ production realised this with such clarity, echoed in Es Devlin’s set with its fine eye for detail and smooth scene transitions. The Motive and The Cue is a great character study and a sharply written play, deserving of the Olivier.

And the dream is over for England

Rufus Norris isn’t the first Artistic Director of the National to use their tenure to ask questions about nationhood. Indeed, asking what it means to be a National Theatre and what work should be on its stages is a key part of its role. His touring production of Carol Ann Duffy’s My Country was an ambitious if flawed attempt at holding a mirror up to the nation. Rory Mullarkey’s Saint George and the Dragon offered an epic slice of English folklore and a scramble to diagnose contemporary Britain’s problems. And Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’ excellent Death of England series uses football to explore English national identity in relation to race and class. Now its James Graham’s turn to ask the England question. And who better than Graham, who’s become celebrated for his ‘modern history’ plays which include This House, Ink and Quiz, to write a big play about the highs and lows of Gareth Southgate’s English national football team for a national stage.

It’s unashamedly populist fare that wears its heart on its sleeve. In the first act, we’re given a potted history of the team’s disappointments in recent history followed by Southgate’s appointment and how the team adjusts to his new approach. The crux of the play comes from fear being at the heart of what’s holding England back. Southgate’s job is to change England’s story. And what better way to tap into the national psyche than with the presence of an actual psychologist. Much of the play’s conflict comes from Southgate’s addition of Head of People and Team Development Pippa Grange (an ever-watchable Gina McKee) to his team. Her approach to make the team fearless is too touchy-feely for some. Dramaturgically, she slows the pace of the play and gives it some space to breathe. Despite Southgate and the team being recognisable names and faces, it’s strange that she seems the most real character on stage. Much has been said about Joseph Fiennes as Southgate, Will Close as Harry Kane and Josh Barrow as Jordan Pickford. They give hugely enjoyable, uncanny, performances. And it’s perhaps a clever trick from Graham and Goold that they seem even more like their real-life counterparts because the chorus is made up of a parade of caricatures (including vicars, milkmen and workmen) giving a street-level commentary on England’s woes and triumphs.

Ultimately, the play is a game of two halves. In the second, Graham has given himself quite the task: he’s got to finish act one and work through another two, both of which go deeper with its questions. As Southgate says, it’s about something much bigger than football. It does start to feel a little rushed and as a result doesn’t quite live up to the first act. But this is not to detract from the play’s successes. Whilst it may not be the most intellectually rousing, Dear England is emotionally stirring in a way that plays seldom are.

The Motive and The Cue and Dear England can still be seen at cinemas across the country. For more information, please visit The Olivier Awards will be presented in a ceremony at the Royal Albert Hall on 14th April. Both plays have been nominated for Best New Play alongside Jez Butterworth’s The Hills of California and Beth Steel’s Till The Stars Come Down.

Mark Gatiss and Johnny Flynn in The Motive and The Cue. Credit: Mark Douet

Lewis Shepard, Albert Magashi, Josh Barrow, Will Close, Ebenezer Gyau, Darragh Hand, Adam Hugill, Ryan Whittle in Dear England. Credit: Marc Brenner.

Sunday 31 March 2024

The Children

 Nottingham Playhouse

30th March, 2024, matinee

They don’t like having things taken away from them

A woman stands in the kitchen of a friend she’s not seen in 38 years with blood pouring out of her nose. This opening image, both comic and dark and full of intrigue, is typical in a play full of similarly striking moments. Set in a coastal cottage in the months after a triple-whammy of an environmental disaster, The Children sees two retired nuclear physicists getting to grips with the changing world around them. Having vacated their farm near the exclusion zone of the affected nuclear power plant, Hazel and Robin are enjoying a simpler existence: there are power shortages to contend with and they still daren’t use running water. But other than that, they have swallowed the immediate dangers and are seemingly content. So when their former colleague and friend Rose (Sally Dexter) turns up out of the blue, the couple are faced with a life-changing decision.

Lucy Kirkwood’s Tony-nominated play, which opened this week at Nottingham Playhouse, premiered at the Royal Court in 2016. Interestingly, Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone also opened at that theatre in 2016, another play which likewise mixes the domestic and the catastrophic led by characters who are all over 60. But whereas Churchill’s play sharply contrasts banal conversations with the dystopian through sudden monologues which express the characters’ fears, Kirkwood’s play is more of a slow-burner. The setting tends towards the naturalistic. As realised by Amy Jane Cook and handsomely lit by Jamie Platt, we see a fairly sparse cottage kitchen in need of a lick of paint. You can tell it’s not well lived-in but an attempt has been made by its occupants to make an effort: wild flowers and melted candles sit in wine bottles, there’s a fruit bowl on the table, and throws are draped over a wicker chair. Hazel and Robin inhabit the setting seamlessly, ensuring there’s a veneer of normality to their lives. ‘We haven’t seen [the children] since the disaster, of course’ Hazel (Caroline Harker) nonchalantly tells Rose. Later, when Robin (Clive Mantle) enters carrying a child’s trike, he casually waves a Geiger counter over it. Kirkwood places the everyday side by side with existential terror, and Kirsty Patrick Ward’s production excellently blends these different elements. Kirkwood’s dialogue is energetic and filled with humour, and she’s structured the play so cleverly. Moments which seem inconsequential take on new meaning later, and every line has been carefully considered.

The play’s setting and the environmental disaster which makes it so captivating doesn’t override the play. All three characters have led interesting, full and rewarding lives and that gives cause for conflict to arise. Despite Rose not seeing Hazel for 38 years, it’s as if she’s been to this cottage before. On being invited to sit down, she pulls a footstall out from under the chair she couldn’t have known was there. She later fetches Hazel a glass of water and knows exactly where the glasses are kept. Something is clearly amiss and her relationship to Hazel and Robin is later revealed to be more than it first appears. The characters’ hidden depths are reflected in the performances – the production is finely acted by Dexter, Harker and Mantle. Ward has harnessed the cast’s familiarity with the text leaving you feel relaxed in the actors’ company such is their trust in each other. Dialogue just tumbles from their mouths, occasionally overlapping like it would in everyday conversation.

The effect is to emphasise the realism so when the play explores questions of epic proportion it’s all the more disturbing. As the play progresses, the reality of Rose’s visit comes to the fore. I won’t give too much away but she presents them with an opportunity which would involve a great deal of sacrifice. For Hazel, she adamantly refuses. Cautious by nature (she eats healthily, keeps fit and puts sunscreen on even during the winter), she feels she’s earnt the right to relax in her twilight years. But Robin’s more tempted. The flimsiness of his daily routine is apparent, the homemade wine and the tending to the cows is all filler. In Mantle’s performance, you can sense Robin’s restlessness, a yearning to contribute something more. An early story about him daring to drive his tractor closer to the cliff’s edge is telling. Death, he knows, is inevitable. But for Rose (an especially compelling performance by Dexter), we just rent our bodies for a short time. The question that the play poses about our responsibility to younger generations is one which lingers. And in the eight years since the play’s first production, it carries new meanings and even more weight.

The play’s closing image is as intriguing as the first: Hazel performs a yoga routine whilst Robin mops up water; one focusing on self-preservation, the other cleaning up the mess around them. It’s a refinement of the play’s central question and provides opportunity for the audience to reflect on the responsibility we carry in our time on this planet. Plaudits go to Nottingham Playhouse for reviving The Children, helping to cement its status as a contemporary classic.

The Children plays at Nottingham Playhouse until 6th April. For further information please visit

Clive Mantle, Caroline Harker and Sally Dexter in The Children. Credit: Manuel Harlan

Wednesday 20 March 2024

An Enemy of the People

Duke of York’s, London

2nd March, 2024, matinee

Drain the swamp

Thomas Ostermeier’s production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (1882) premiered at Berlin’s Schaubühne in 2012. Since then, it’s played at theatre festivals across the globe and has even been remounted by other directors. It’s now in the West End starring Matt Smith as Dr Thomas Stockmann, the medical officer of the local baths trying to convince the townspeople that the water which feeds the spa (the town’s main income stream) is polluted. In a production which blurs the line between fictional drama and political reality, Ibsen’s enthralling play is made even more engaging. But in a production which perhaps foregrounds the satire, however rousing and provocative Ostermeier’s staging is, can it really inspire change?

As often is the case with Ibsen, the conflict and the stakes are clear. Dr Stockmann’s research has found the baths’ water supply has been poisoned by the local tanneries which has led to some bathers becoming ill. It’s his duty, both professionally and morally, to report the matter and ensure his recommendation of closing the baths is enacted. But his brother Peter (Paul Hilton), the town’s mayor, is adamant he should keep schtum. Addressing the issue would take time and money, driving tourists away, closing local businesses and mongering fear. But Stockmann ploughs on, pinning Peter’s indifference on his cantankerous nature and sibling rivalry. Stockmann has the truth on his side, and that’s good enough for him. He wins his friends over and initially gets the media on his side. But this doesn’t last long before the town ostracises him. Led by his brother, Stockmann’s science is undermined, his ardour perceived as querulousness, and his intellect seen as elitism.

As Stockmann, Smith is affable, persuasive and shows the doctor’s weaknesses – he’s a fine orator but can slip into antagonistic grumbling. Also excellent is Hilton, always acting his brother’s superior. He is supercilious and pernickety, wiping the furniture before sitting down. The way he drags out the word ‘blog’ at the patronising suggestion that Thomas will write a blog post about the water (who would lower themselves to such a thing!) is telling. Together, they quarrel like children (at one point, after a physical fight, they amusingly mirror each other as they run their fingers through their hairstyles). The mayor is a corrupt leader who favours lies, forfeiting truth and integrity for reputation and profit. His strength-in-numbers approach soon overpowers Stockmann to the margins of society. Ibsen is clearly interested in the role of truth in society and the nature of lies in public life. It’s a prescient play and you soon find yourself getting wrapped up in this central division.

I was interested to read that Amy Herzog’s adaptation for the current Broadway production (which opened this week and stars Jeremy Strong) has cut the role of Stockmann’s wife but has instead made the daughter a larger role, and with more agency. But in Ostermeier and Florian Borchmeyer’s adaptation, Stockmann’s wife (played by Jessica Brown Findlay) is a key part of the drama. As the play opens, we get a glimpse of their enlightened lives: along with friends, they eat together, sing together, and play together. This is perhaps Ostermeier’s way of showing, as referenced in a programme note, the bourgeois class surviving in global capitalism. A picture-perfect modern family, juggling work and looking after a baby, invested in the arts, socially conscious, and striving for Utopia. But all of this is what Stockmann faces to lose. Jan Pappelbaum’s set and Natasha Jenkins’ costumes create a stark, modern aesthetic. Chalkboard walls line the stage, onto which actors write changes in the time setting. One of those allies that Stockmann loses is Priyanga Burford (who, along with Hilton, has been nominated for an Olivier Award) as the newspaper’s owner. Concerned about the role her paper might play in causing dissent, we trace her switch from supporting Stockmann to denouncing him.

In an electrifying scene set in the town hall, the audience becomes the townspeople for a lively, engaged debate (the house was packed when we saw it, people standing adding to the feeling of a mass of concerned citizens). This interplay of the two worlds sees the drama transcend the proscenium into the reality of the auditorium and vice versa. The aim of Stockmann’s diatribe wanders, the water supply just a symptom of a society that no longer cares. It’s a fierce and unrepenting speech in an English translation by Duncan Macmillian which is contemporary without being too on the nose (other than an earlier reference to the Post Office Horizon scandal). Burford, as moderator, opens up the floor to the audience. I imagine the quality of responses varies at each performance. At the matinee we saw, I couldn’t help but feel a couple of the participants fixated on Stockmann’s reference to our overreliance on Amazon – this surely was just an example of modern society’s problems, not Stockmann’s main focus. But then one man near us in the Upper Circle put his hand up to speak. On being handed the mic, the auditorium fell silent as he told the story of his daughter being killed in a road incident over 15 years ago. He and his wife’s campaigning for better safety measures have largely not been listened to by the government. He spoke passionately, articulately and with purpose. And that’s something that Dr Stockmann isn’t always able to do.

In a fascinating programme interview, Ostermeier discusses theatre’s ineffectiveness at enacting change, but this blurring of the lines is a way to give the audience courage to become political activists. However, I fear, no matter how true the audience’s intentions are, this is flawed. From the security of a West End theatre where you have the option to order Prosecco from your seat, how politically engaged are we? If people are paying up to £200 per ticket, how accessible is this debate? But Ostermeier is also savvy to know that political art that affords you credibility is marketable in commercial theatre.

Following the town hall scene, there is a restlessness in returning to the world of Ibsen’s play. The house lights lower and the debate is abruptly halted when Stockmann is pelted with paint by protestors, a physical sign of the consequences of his actions. A shout out must go to Pippa Meyer’s stage management team for what must be quite the clean up after each show! Cleverly, Ibsen mixes the personal into Stockmann’s dilemma. The owner of the tanneries is his father-in-law (a brusque Nigel Lindsay, often accompanied by an Alsatian) who changes his will so that his shares in the spa go to Stockmann and Katharina. Faced with being kicked out of their home, unemployed and people throwing bricks through their windows, they face a dilemma. With their financial fate in their hands, do they continue to advocate for the truth or follow the crowd? Our complicity in the earlier scene has a lasting effect, prompting us to reflect how far we’d let our own ideals be tested. Can theatre solve society’s big problems? No, not necessarily, but then again neither can Dr Stockmann. Even if facts are on his side.

An Enemy of the People plays at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 13th April. For further information please visit

Zachary Hart, Jessica Brown Findlay, Matt Smith and Shubham Saraf in An Enemy of the People. Credit: Manuel Harlan

Saturday 16 March 2024

Standing at the Sky's Edge

 Gillian Lynne, London

2nd March, 2024

You should see where I am now

On your next visit to Sheffield’s Crucible, turn around upon leaving the station and marvel at the Park Hill estate. Designed as social housing, Park Hill sits on the hill overlooking the city. Its concrete brutalist structure, its yellow and orange window panels and its notorious message of love graffitied onto a walkway dominate the sky. The Park Hill estate also dominates the stage in Chris Bush and Richard Hawley’s musical Standing at the Sky’s Edge (2019) which, following two runs at the Crucible, a run at the National and picking up the Olivier Award for Best New Musical, has triumphantly made its way into the West End. Of course, Bush is no stranger to triumphs when it comes to writing about Sheffield. Her 2022 play Rock/Paper/Scissors was our highlight of the year and similarly saw a perfect coming together of theatrical space with dramatised place. Likewise, Hawley’s work has long been influenced by Sheffield so it’s no surprise that this collaboration works so well. Set in one of Park Hill’s flats, Standing at the Sky’s Edge follows three of its occupying families across six decades. A love letter to Sheffield and its people without romanticising the past, Bush and Hawley’s writing is full of heart without succumbing to easy sentiment. Sheffield is more than just its setting: it’s the musical’s DNA, its source of conflict and its beating heart.

It’s 1960 and Rose (Rachael Wooding) and Harry (Joel Harper-Jackson) have just moved in to the newly built estate. Gratitude is their overriding feeling. Practically from a slum, they’re now in awe at the amount of space, the views of the city, and the waste disposal unit. The ‘streets in the sky’ social experiment is a utopia to them. It’s also 1989 and, having escaped an impending war in Liberia, Joy (Elizabeth Ayodele) and her aunt and uncle are the flat’s next tenants. ‘Lock the door’, the estate agent tells them before hurrying off from an estate which is now rife with crime, anti-social behaviour and falling into disrepair. It’s also 2015 and Poppy (Laura Pitt-Pulford) has moved into the flat, which is newly renovated as part of a regeneration project that’s gentrified the area. Bush cleverly intertwines and overlaps the three time settings in Robert Hastie’s production which impressively hits every beat of the story with utter clarity. In one scene, characters are eating a meal in 1960, 1989 and 2015, all bonding over Henderson’s Relish and sat around the same table (as often in drama, food is a great marker of place and social cohesion). Once again, I’m in awe at Bush’s intricate plotting and ability to weave multiple stories in a complex yet seemingly simple way. Her play is one of ambitious scope and scale and yet also mines the depths of characters.

We follow each timeline over the years through personal and social upheaval: strikes, unemployment, general elections, heartache, death. But despite disappointment after disappointment after disappointment, it’s the characters’ resilience which shines through. For instance, in the contemporary setting, Poppy has uprooted herself from her home in an attempt to make a new one. You can’t fault her effort at getting stuck in, inviting colleagues around for dinner, hosting parties and leafleting to get to know her new neighbours (where she has any). Her parents wonder why she is doing this, seeing it as a self-induced exile. When her ex-fiancée Nikki turns up to try to win her back (a great performance from Lauryn Redding), she questions whether Poppy’s attempts to bed in are really what she wants, however genuine they seem. Poppy is more than one character trait, such are the depths of Bush’s characters, both eschewing and embracing any ‘Richard Curtis bullshit’. Through all this, Bush explores the push and pull of home and what it means to belong. Like in Rock/Paper/Scissors, characters compellingly advocate for progress, shunning nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. When Nikki implies Poppy’s taking the home of a person that needs it, Connie (Joy’s daughter from the middle time setting) reminds her that ‘no one cared about this place until the posh prices came along… and that is progress’. Knock it down, do it up, move on – new houses and new residents will come along. For Connie, a ‘home is a series of boxes that stops the rain coming in’. For others, however, home is a part of who you are; some even hang around the estate like ghosts.

Hawley’s score is a soundtrack of mostly pre-existing songs arranged and orchestrated by Tom Deering, who translates them effortlessly to the stage. I found it was reminiscent of Bob Dylan and Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country. Rather than driving the narrative, the songs set the mood of the piece. The searing ‘After the Rain’ is beautifully filled with longing as performed by Wooding.There's A Storm A-Comin'’ is mixed with Thatcher’s ‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony’ speech, a rock anthem for the disharmony that was brought to many in the city and marked a change for the estate. And ‘Don't Get Hung Up in Your Soul’ is a soulful ballad sung by Connie (Mel Lowe) to her younger self.

Ben Stones’ set impressively recreates the concrete brutalist balconies and geometric designs of the real estate, richly complemented by Mark Henderson’s lighting. Lynne Page’s choreography brings the stairwells and walkways of the estate to life. Watching the show, there is a strong connection to the city and its people. And whilst it is intrinsically Sheffield-centric, it also prompted in me a proud connection with my own home city. Place at a local level is an important part of one’s identity and it’s great to see that explored on stage – on local, national and commercial stages. Last week, Hastie announced he will be stepping down as Artistic Director of Sheffield’s Crucible next year. This show is just one of several acclaimed productions over the past eight years, some of which have had a local focus but a wide reach. Standing at the Sky’s Edge is a layered work which has earnt its accolades. Profound, uplifting, original, inspiring theatre!

Standing at the Sky’s Edge is playing at the Gillian Lynne Theatre. For further information please visit

Laura Pitt-Pulford, Elizabeth Ayodele and Rachael Wooding in Standing at the Sky's Edge. Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Thursday 14 March 2024

Life of Pi

Curve, Leicester

13th March, 2024

What do you believe?

Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s ‘unadaptable’ novel Life of Pi was first seen at Sheffield Theatres in 2019. Telling the story of Piscine ‘Pi’ Patel who survives a storm which capsizes the ship that his family and their zoo were on, Pi’s resilience, his determination to survive the most adverse conditions, and his extraordinary outlook on life has made Martel’s novel a classic. Just as vivid is Max Webster’s production which, after triumphant runs in the West End and on Broadway, is now on tour. The staging has been very slightly simplified since we saw it at the Wyndham’s Theatre to make the show easier to tour, but Life of Pi remains a remarkable achievement in epic storytelling.

The story is framed by scenes in a hospital room in Mexico. Pi’s lifeboat has washed up on the shore and he’s now struggling to piece together the tragedy at the request of a shipping company official tasked with filing a report. But his post-traumatic stress doesn’t take away his gentle humour and thoughtful demeanour. Taking a sherbet lemon from his hiding spot under the bed, his hand pops out the other side to offer it to one of his visitors. When he does resurface, Pi (Divesh Subaskaran in an excellent professional debut) is genial, innocent-minded and funny. Soon enough, the white washed walls of the hospital open up to the vibrancy of his home in India. We meet a parade of animals from giraffes, goats, meerkats and hyenas. We’re also introduced to Pi’s philosophical outlook on religion. Frequenting the mosque, church and temple, he rejects his family’s plea to choose just one religion to follow, likening it to being asked to choose the better story. When his family’s zoo falls victim to the country’s political instability, rioting on the streets forces the family to move to Canada.

What follows is a genius, uber-theatrical piece of storytelling: from Webster's staging of the sinking ship to the following months Pi spends on a lifeboat in middle of the Pacific Ocean with a tiger named Richard Parker. But for all of its theatricality, Chakrabarti’s adaptation ensures the heart of Martel’s novel is beating strong. It’s not only a great story that makes Life of Pi such a popular novel, it’s also because Pi is a great protagonist and that really shines here. The show’s utter brilliance comes from how it highlights that theatre is a truly collaborative artform: from Tim Hatley’s set design to Nick Barnes & Finn Caldwell’s driftwood-style puppets to Andrzej Goulding’s video design to the multiple actors who play the tiger (an Olivier Award winning part), all superbly helmed by Webster. The various design elements, movement and puppetry come together to create a show which visually dazzles and serves the story’s emotional and intellectual core.

Also clever is how, just like theatre, imagination and reality sit side by side, the sterile walls of the hospital existing in the same moment as the deep blue of the ocean. Quite quickly you get enraptured in the storytelling: the terror of a screaming orangutan flailing its arms about; the humour of a disoriented Pi seeing an anthropomorphic Richard Parker enthusing about his favourite foods; and the bobbing up and down of rain catchers on the water. You find yourself literally moving in your seat with the sinking of the ship and the motion of the lifeboat.

At the end of the play, when we’re prompted to question the likeliness of Pi’s story, and whether it was just a story, and we reflect on the power of storytelling ourselves. Life of Pi is a classic of the novel adaptation genre, and a reminder of our human need for stories to survive.

Life of Pi plays at Curve, Leicester until 16th March as part of a UK & Ireland tour. For further information please visit 

Life of Pi. Credit: Johan Persson

Wednesday 6 March 2024

Come From Away

 Curve, Leicester

Tuesday 5th March, 2024


“Because we come from everywhere, we all come from away”


Around six years ago we visited Ground Zero and the 9/11 memorial in New York. Never had I felt the magnitude of emotion I felt that day. From the physicality of land and space around the memorial, to the simple but deeply touching gesture of placing a single white rose upon the names of victims on their birthdays, it is a place of tranquillity, reflection and sorrow. The events of September 11th 2001 are etched in the minds of a nation – a world – and while it may be one of the most horrific atrocities to occur in the West in my living memory, it also brought out the best in humanity – something which Irene Sankoff and David Hein home in on in their life-affirming musical, Come From Away. Following a successful run in the West End, the musical is kicking off its first UK tour at Curve, aiming to bring the small but immense story of kindness to a wider audience.

Following the attacks, 7,000 passengers had their planes diverted to a remote Newfoundland airport, nearly doubling the island’s population in the space of a morning. The musical follows the townspeople as they do all they can to accommodate the panic-stricken ‘come from aways’, while also focusing on the personal losses of those aboard the diverted planes and the life-long friendships formed over those fateful five days north of the border. Suspicions, cultural differences, and even language barriers are eventually put to one side as the islanders and the plane people unite during a time of hardship and uncertainty. I got goosebumps during a scene where a Newfoundland bus driver finally reassures an African family using passages from the bible and the universal numbering system of verses to communicate. Likewise, the bond between local teacher, Beulah (Amanda Henderson), and Hannah (Bree Smith), whose son is an NYC firefighter and currently missing, is forged via a shared fondness for terrible jokes. Humour. Faith. Love. These universal human traits are shown to abide within the darkest moments.

One of the musical’s most charming through-lines is that of awkward British businessman, Nick (Daniel Crowder), and Diane (Kirsty Hoiles), a single mother from Texas whose instant connection aboard their stranded plane blossoms into a tender and hesitant relationship. It’s a romance between two very ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, and one can’t help but feel touched by Diane’s survivors-guilt when admitting she feels a kind of remorse that something so special, that had brought her so much happiness, could transpire out of something so awful. Moreover, Sankoff and Hein don’t shy away from the extreme fear and paranoia that dogged communities in the aftermath of the attacks. A Muslim passenger is viewed with unwarranted suspicion by his fellow travellers and is forced to undergo a humiliating strip-search before being allowed to re-board his plane.

However, on the whole, Come From Away is a story of togetherness, highlighted in the local bar ‘Screech In’, in which several of the plane people are bestowed with full Islander status – after downing shots and kissing a freshly caught fish in a booze-fuelled initiation ritual. This rustic traditionalism is captured in Sankoff and Hein’s folky music; quaint yet never twee, it effuses a sense of wilderness entwined with the serene harmonies brought about by collective familiarity. Stand out numbers include the lilting paean to momentary happiness, ‘Stop The World’, Hannah’s desperation to protect her child in ‘I Am Here’, and pilot Beverley’s (Sara Poyzer) triumphant love-letter to flight, ‘Me and the Sky’.

Beowulf Boritt’s set invites us into the rural haven of Gander. Wood panelling and a landscape of lofty trees provide the backdrop to director Christopher Ashley’s deceptively simple staging. The minute the plane people land we are plunged into a world of swirling perpetual motion wherein those still, quiet moments of reflection are illuminated and all the more touching in contrast. Ashley directs a faultless cast in an array of roles in which actors switch from playing Newfoundlanders to plane people at the drop of a hat. In a case of art imitating life, the piece zips along in breathless fashion, meaning our time in Gander is short but sweet, clocking in at a succinct 100 minutes.

Ultimately, Come From Away is so much more than the sum of its parts. The reaction of the audience when we saw it was overwhelmingly positive and the auditorium was aflood with emotion. At a time where cynicism, bigotry and selfishness seem to reign supreme, Sankoff, Hein, Ashley and, most importantly, those Newfoundland islanders that agreed to share their stories can’t help but restore one’s faith in humanity.


Come From Away is playing at Curve, Leicester until 9th March

For full tour details please visit:

Sara Poyzer and the cast of Come From Away. Credit: Craig Sugden

Saturday 24 February 2024

Bonnie & Clyde

 Curve, Leicester

23rd February, 2024

Well who would’ve thought…

You’ve got to love the power of a devoted fanbase. Frank Wildhorn and Don Black’s 2009 musical may not have been able to outrun poor ticket sales when it first opened (it closed within a month of opening on Broadway in 2011), but the show has since become a sleeper hit. Following a London concert in 2022 and two West End runs, Bonnie & Clyde is now in its spiritual home: on the road.

The true story of two loved-up runaway bank robbers is good source material for a musical. In the Dust Bowl of the 1920s mid-West, we meet Bonnie Parker, a waitress from Rowena with her sights set on stardom, and Clyde Barrow, a farm boy from Telico who valorises Al Capone. The two have much in common: big plans, no prospects, and a longing to get out of West Dallas. In love and with a live fast, die young mentality, the pair are pitched as victims of the poverty into which they were born. Blinkered into chasing a skewed American Dream, the couple get stuck in a cycle of evading the law and snubbing authority.

Wildhorn’s score and Black’s lyrics are the engine of the show, establishing character and motivation. Desire, even lust, fuels much of Bonnie and Clyde’s actions. Declaring his love for Bonnie, Clyde sings ‘My name is gonna make the hist'ry books… I got lots of reasons to keep livin'’. Though well-sung, it’s a pity that I left the theatre not humming the tunes I’d just been listening to for two and a half hours, but instead the songs that Wildhorn’s score are reminiscent of. ‘This World Will Remember Me’ is a jazzy bop with more than a ring of Duke Ellington’s ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’ to it. Likewise, during Bonnie’s eleventh hour torch song ‘Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad’ I was distracted by how much the melody reminded me of Bonnie Raitt’s ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’.

 It’s also disappointing that Ivan Menchell’s book is underpowered, leaving the show feeling unbalanced and giving it an episodic structure: short scene followed by a song. This is particularly apparent in the second act where the protagonists’ psychologies are forfeited for pastiche. For instance, in a scene where they hold a bank hostage, the customers practically fall over themselves to flatter their gun-wielding guests, requesting autographs with a shotgun pointing at their faces. There is some truth in these comedic scenes: newspaper articles and photos of the couple glamorised their stylish image and lifted the couple to celebrity status. But the second act doesn’t build on what was established in the first, showing the couple desperately racing to their inevitable downfall and leaving motivation to take a backseat. For me, the journey to gin-slinging, jail-breaking love birds seemingly driven to be captured is not convincingly developed. In a surprisingly well-mined genre of musical, Bonnie and Clyde is vastly outshone by the likes of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago and Sondheim’s Assassins, both of which similarly showcase the phenomenon of the celebrity-criminal, but have more memorable scores and razor-sharp satire.

The score and book have their weaknesses, but it is nevertheless superbly performed by the cast. Katie Tonkinson’s Bonnie is a pocket rocket: feisty and with an ambitious glint in her eye. Alex James-Hatton emits a youthful charisma as Clyde that provides an authenticity to the fan-girling on show. Catherine Tyldesley is a stand-out as Clyde’s sister-in-law Blanche. She provides much of the show’s comic relief but also carries much of its emotional weight through her relationship with Clyde’s brother Buck. Devoutly religious, a good citizen but also fiercely loyal, she’s caught in the cross-fire of Buck’s blind loyalty to his brother. A comic highlight is ‘You’re Going Back to Jail’, in which she and the salon girls try to convince Buck of the benefits of handing himself in. As Blanche is persuading him that ‘When you have served your time/ We'll still be young and in our prime’, another wife sings ‘Then I met this boy from Tucson… [and] I've now got lots of habits I can't curtail’.

Whereas young love in some musicals may be saccharine, Nick Winston’s production doesn’t put a dampener on it. The show could easily have the feeling of a chamber piece but here it is impressively full-bodied. Philip Witcomb’s atmospheric set and period costumes are darkly lit by Zoe Spurr and gorgeously complemented by Nina Dunn’s video design which adds depth. It’s an aesthetic of grit and glamour which gives the show a texture which the material sometimes lacks. The score may not be deserving of a Best Musical award, but I admire how it has captured the attention of young adults in the same light as Six and Heathers. And if any show can find its audience over a decade after its inception, that’s something to celebrate.

Bonnie & Clyde plays at Curve, Leicester until 24th February as part of a UK and Ireland tour. For further information please visit

Katie Tonkinson and Alex James-Hatton in Bonnie & Clyde. Credit: Richard Davenport

Thursday 22 February 2024

My Beautiful Laundrette

 Curve, Leicester

Wednesday 21st February 2024

“Make yourself indispensable”

Over thirty-five years on, Hanif Kureishi’s tale of cultural and religious conflict, gender constraints and sexual liberty resonates with today’s society as much now as it did decades ago – despite the 80s shoulder pads and neon nylon on display. Following Nikolai Foster’s successful 2019 production, Curve have remounted Kureishi’s My Beautiful Laundrette, this time directed by Nicole Behan. While this revival perhaps lacks the vibrancy it had five years ago, the play still shines a spotlight on the wrongs of yesteryear at a time when the country seems to be in a state of sinfully wilful regression.

Omar (Lucca Chadwick-Patel), a down-and-out no-hoper with an alcoholic socialist father of Pakistani heritage, is given a chance to better himself in Thatcher’s world of ruthless Capitalism when his Uncle offers him a job in his decrepit laundrette. Amid a divided society terrorised by National Front skinheads, Omar strikes up an ‘odd-couple’ friendship with his old school bully, Johnny (Sam Mitchell). As their relationship blossoms, together they reinvent the laundrette despite opposition from their family and friends.

Kureishi’s text is often brutal, both physically and verbally, but is also peppered with a distinctly British sense of humour that captures the essence of the working-classes in 1980s London while avoiding the temptation to stray into the maudlin. Kureishi is a deft hand when it comes to innuendo, and the frequent smirks and barely restrained giggles of the cast are infectious. The play gets slightly rushed and muddled towards then end, particularly during the engagement party scene, as Kureishi and Behan try to round the action off neatly, while maintaining the integrity of the characters. And while some characters feel a little broadly drawn – namely Omar’s Uncle Nasser (Kammy Darweish) and Yuppie drug-dealer Salim (Hareet Deol), Laundrette feels unpretentious in its portrayal of modern British multiculturalism.

Thematically, there’s no escaping the comparisons with today’s Brexit and Trump-stoked prejudice. As the far-right encroach ever more into the centre of the national and international political sphere, some of the language evidenced in Laundrette is eerily familiar, as national pride rhetoric becomes an outlet for overt racism. ‘British jobs for British people’ – thus reads a slogan on a placard at a National Front march. The oft quoted argument of Brexiteers similarly fuses seemingly innocuous economic manifestos with an insidious fear of migrants, people of diverse ethnicity and anyone deemed to be ‘other’.

So too resonates the disparate identities of the characters, the sense of wanting to ‘belong’ to a community without feeling wholly connected. Much is made of Omar’s ‘half’ status, he sees himself as British but is demonised by the white supremacist skinheads. Likewise, he feels adrift from the traditions of his Muslim Pakistani family. He’s a person adrift in a society that is unable to accept social evolution. Elsewhere, Johnny struggles to resolve his feelings of loyalty to his friends, and the twisted sense of ‘purpose’ in the casual violence they revel in, with his growing attachment to the Pakistani community – not only to Omar, but Omar’s Papa (Gordon Warnecke – who played Omar in the original film!), who has always offered Johnny sage advice, even in the knowledge that he is hated by him for his racial identity. Rounding off Kureishi’s youth-in-limbo is Omar’s cousin and would-be wife, Tania (Sharan Phull), a free-spirited artist at loggerheads with her conservative, sexist, hypocritical father and her down-trodden mother, whom she loves and admires, but also pities and is repulsed by her culturally-imposed subservience.

Grace Smart’s design is suitably brash in its mix of day-glo plushness and concrete jungle realism – although I felt the neon spray painted champagne flutes a tad over-egged. Incidental music provided by 80s icons the Pet Shop Boys helps set the scene and I enjoyed the brief bursts of classic hits such as ‘West End Girls’ and ‘Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)’. While the play is by no means perfect – I felt that several scenes were rather hectic and confusing, some scene changes slightly clunky, and the ending a little too convenient – the production can be engaging, warm and thought-provoking. Foster and Behan’s production, while rough-and-ready at times, is a fine example of pertinent programming. Unlike the film, My Beautiful Laundrette may not become a classic, but it certainly speaks to the current air of displacement and opposing views on national and cultural identity.

My Beautiful Laundrette plays at Curve, Leicester until 17th February, before touring the UK. For full tour details please visit:


Lucca Chadwick-Patel (Omar) and Sam Mitchell (Johnny) in My Beautiful Laundrette. Credit: Ellie Kurttz

Tuesday 13 February 2024

Jesus Christ Superstar

 Curve, Leicester

12th February, 2024

And relax, think of nothing tonight

Eight years after Timothy Sheader’s Olivier Award-winning production of Jesus Christ Superstar opened at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre to great acclaim, and following runs at the Barbican and in North America, it’s on tour in the UK. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1971 musical, which started life as a concept album in 1970, takes the Passion story (the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion) and turns it into a rock opera. The result is arguably their best work. As a child, I remember loving the studio recordings of Joseph and Cats which we had on VHS, watching them on repeat. We also had Jesus Christ Superstar which I was probably too young to appreciate. To 8-year-old me, the whole thing (and Rik Mayall’s show-stealing performance as Herod alone) was simultaneously strange, terrifying and fixating. Over twenty years later, the experience is the same. In what is a thrilling production which often leaves you holding your breath, you find yourself succumbing to the experience.

Any director is posed with the dilemma of what type of production of Superstar they want to stage. Do you stage a more literal portrayal of events or lean towards something more figurative? Do you impose a high concept on it such as Laurence Connor’s 2012 arena production which was inspired by the Occupy protests? Or perhaps an aerial production like the one opening under the direction of Ivo van Hove in Amsterdam this year? Sheader has a clarity of vision which results in a production which is original, authentic to the show’s origins and is full of strong visual metaphors.

Tom Scutt’s industrial design is flagged by twin rusting steel structures which house the band. Between this, a raked catwalk in the style of the cross dominates the stage, beyond which a barely visible olive tree branch can be seen, hinting at something natural and ethereal. It’s a clean, modern aesthetic which serves the production extremely well. Sheader strips the show’s history of any concepts or obtuse imagery, portraying the story unambiguously and with clear artistic decisions. Music is a key motif: amps can be plugged into the stage and songs are often performed with hand mics and accompanied by guitars. Flight cases become part of the set, and microphones play a vital role in the deaths of both protagonists, including Judas hanging himself using a microphone wire. It’s often visually stunning too. At the end of act one, Judas (Shem Omari James, superb) takes a bribe from Caiaphas (Jad Habchi). Bringing his hands out of the chest, his hands are dripping in silver, stained for the rest of the show as a physical sign of his betrayal and guilt. And in the lead up to the title song, Jesus receives 39 lashes of golden glitter. It’s brutal, striking and oddly fabulous at the same. As Jesus crawls up the cross covered in blood and glitter, he’s strung up on the cross made of microphone stands. ‘Superstar’ is a coup-de-théâtre in itself: musically electrifying and enough to convert a non-believer into the power of theatre whilst being transcendent beyond it as well.

Scutt’s design is gorgeously complemented by Lee Curran’s lighting: from the orange flashes and roaming spotlights which enhance the feeling of a music gig, to bathing the stage in blue and purple during Mary Magdalene’s songs (delivered in a soulful and earthy performance from Hannah Richardson). Lloyd Webber’s music (realised here in Tom Deering’s musical supervision) delivers a full sound. It can go from wistful flutes and lulling piano melodies to strange, dissonant rock sounds within the space of a few bars. It’s a rich and varied score from the brilliant opening number ‘Heaven on their Minds’ to more playful songs such as ‘Herod’s Song’ – I was surprised but not shocked to learn that its melody was a reject for the Eurovision Song Contest! ‘Herod’s Song’ is delivered with panache by Timo Tatzber, here reminiscent of the Emcee from Cabaret. Ian McIntosh as Jesus has a powerful voice, particularly in the belting moments such as ‘Gethsemane’. And Drew McOnie’s spasmatic choreography veers from capturing the frenetic ecstasy of the heady hero worshipping of the early scenes to expertly portraying the intensity of the baying mob. It’s here that the ensemble really comes together, moving as one and filling the stage to an overwhelming effect.

Strange, terrifying, fixating, Jesus Christ Superstar is one of the best productions of a musical I’ve ever seen.

Jesus Christ Superstar plays at Curve, Leicester until 17th February as part of a UK tour. For further information please visit

Ian McIntosh as Jesus and Shem Omari James as Judas with the company of Jesus Christ Superstar. Credit: Paul Coltas