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