Saturday 19 August 2023

Circle of lives... The Arc: A Trilogy of New Jewish Plays, Soho Theatre


There are as many different ways to be Jewish as there are Jews in the world, and all of us have myriad stories to tell and ways of telling them. The Arc director, Kayla Feldman

On my way up the stairs in the Soho Theatre there’s a sign explaining that on this site stood the West End Great Synagogue from 1880 to 1996, “a sanctuary of friendship” and so there could be few better locations to present this world premiere of short plays by three of the UK’s leading Jewish playwrights exploring the great subjects from birth, marriage to death. No lack of ambition there then!

What does it mean to be of Jewish heritage in modern Britain? Is there a kind of complacent boredom in some quarters, as David Baddiel has said, that leads to an unconscious racism or is it more the failure of imagination and empathy as we may fall victim to categorical thinking and the idea of “sides” with collective values and purpose. Talking of which, what can I bring to the topic as a lapsed Methodist of Irish Catholic descent? Well, belief and heritage are one thing, but human experience is another and these three short plays are full to the brim with humanity and, whilst there are surely some that flew over my head, there are enough knowing winks to hit home.

As one of the young couple in the second play, literally a recurring nightmare of a first date going wrong time after time, asks why a shared genetic heritage makes them anymore likely to connect with the other then pointing out that everyone has a shared genetic heritage. It’s a minefield of course, but there’s also many centuries of cultural nurture versus nature and that’s what brings us together and divides us. These two are non-observant and when God/a man called Godfrey intervenes, with a clap of possibly coincidental thunder, they’re brought together by their differences. This is as it should be.

Caroline Gruber and Dorothea Myer-Bennett (all shots Danny With a Camera)

It all begins with Amy Rosenthal’s Birth, which is a skilful weaving together of a fiftieth wedding anniversary and unintended consequences of that wedding arriving in the form of Naomi (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) who may or may not have been induced so that over-worked gynaecologist Michael (Nigel Planer) could take a week off to honeymoon in Greece with his new bride, Linda (Caroline Gruber).

Naomi arrives from Clapham via a replacement bus service and Michael, unable to recall her mother, suggests she heads straight back. There’s something of The Inspector Calls about the visit as Naomi gradually reveals how therapy has made her feel somehow incomplete and unready for the world even at fifty yet she comes not to point the finger or commence legal action, her motivations are altogether subtler.

Michael is confounded by the younger generation’s need to self-examine, his “… it’s not as if you’ve got numbers on your arm…” feeling like a gut punch even said in jest by one of a different generation. The search for meaning transcends history and, just like the crossword he’s struggling with, can sometimes sneak up on you when you’re unprepared.

Rosenthal’s aim is to write joyful, punchy, unexpected plays that look unflinchingly at the Jewish experience but always through a lens of humour and hope - which I think is how we survive. She certainly succeeds here and is not alone.

Abigail Weinstock and Sam Thorpe-Spinks

Alexis Zegerman’s Marriage is next and begins with a flash of lightning as a young couple start and re-start their first date. Adrian (Sam Thorpe-Spinks) is a very nervy podiatrist from Edgeware who can’t help but say the wrong things to the sharper-edged Eva (Abigail Weinstock) including a schoolboy error about the causes of his RSI. After a number of false starts – would you Adrian an’ Eve it? – they settle into a stuttering pattern covering their motivations and cultural references, with Adrian’s Proust joke – “I thought you liked reading…” – rebounding as Eve slapping him round and over the head with acute Proustian observations.

An older man (Mr Planer again) has joined them in the restaurant and smiles at their struggle before finally revealing himself as the aforementioned God/Godfrey… he’s either the deity or finely tuned with the establishment’s faulty electrics but his intervention gives them something to react against and they break their silence. It’s deftly handled and very funny, “Jesus Christ!” says an exasperated Adrian, don’t get me started replies God or is it God-free?

Abigail Weinstock, Dan Wolff and Adrian Schiller

Ryan Craig’s Death is the final act and concerns the funeral of Golda Meir, a restless hamster who travelled far and who appears to die twice rather than the Ukrainian-born former prime minister of Israel. As with the first play’s “numbers” reference this is a joke only someone from the culture could make and, without question, humour is indeed part of our survival mechanism and a way of bringing people together around the commonality of a shared laugh.

Death is more concerned with other, more formalistic rituals as siblings Adam (Dan Wolff) and Leah (Abigail Weinstock) discuss their aunt’s funeral arrangements as per her wishes, even though she is only 76 and in good health. Leah is the elder and is trying to coach the reluctant Adam to follow instructions, he has the air of a man undermined by the responsibility of life and expectation overshadowed by his sister and their highly successful father Dan (Adrian Schiller).

We soon discover Adam’s struggle with grief for the passing of Golda, the rodent being a key connection with his daughter now living with his ex-wife. Adam has bought a small coffin although he hasn’t formalised plans yet and Golda’s body lies in state inside a supermarket plastic bag… as with the statements of the first play, he isn’t “ready”, not for any of it but perhaps there’s room for tradition still.

We’re played out by Carol King’s I Feel the Earth Move… a suitably upbeat needle-drop and one from a songwriter who always captures the broader human connections in her music. Carol is as defined by her creativity as her New York Jewish background yet the two are inseparable.

IThankYou Theatre Rating: **** The Arc is a breath of theatrical fresh air that entertains as well as it informs. Impeccably staged and directed by Kayla Feldman its cast effortlessly energised by the rich subject matter on display, I want more!

The Arc plays until Saturday 26th August 2023 so get in quick, ticket details are available from the Soho Theatre box office or via their website here.

Emanate Productions was founded in 2021, and the company focuses on nurturing talent in emerging and established artists of Jewish heritage, platforming urgent, exciting and passionate stories with an integral Jewish soul. The Arc is produced by the company’s Co-Artistic Directors, Sam Thorpe-Spinks and Dan Wolff along with Associate Producer Tanya Truman.

Wednesday 19 April 2023

Killing us softly… Snowflakes, Park Theatre

Snowflakes is perhaps not the first play to use the idea of murder as an entertainment but it’s probably ahead of the game in following social media to its natural conclusion in this Age of Rage and our instant hot, takes of hate. Ever tried to establish a middle ground with someone you disagree with on Twitter, it’s almost impossible whether the subject is films, soccer or even something serious. Wrongdoers are a matter of opinion and not established facts because, Amber, Johnny not only has alternative facts but a social marketing budget of millions.

Snowflakes is funny, frightening and highly engaging, even more so than gazing at Twitter, Insta and Tik Tok for an hour and a half, which I’ve seen someone attempt in the front row of the Donmar until the performers intervened. There’s none of that in the packed house tonight because not only are the actors armed, they’re also killing us softly with their words like John Denver after a very bad experience at Centre Parks, of which more later…

Robert Boulton’s play has already been Offie-Nominated and you can understand why, it’s an audacious debut which dares to tackle its subject matter in a complex way with the debate largely mirrored by the trial by social media jury that is the centrepiece. For every attempt to trump the appeal of hyper-normalised misinformation there’s a response that points the finger at all of us leaving the question of how this will all stop especially for the generations now raised on the internet.

Boulton also takes the lead as Marcus, lead executioner of a start-up that specialises in capturing and interrogating individuals who may or may not have done something wrong but who having already been found guilty in the eyes of public opinion, now have to hope for the slim chance of talking their way out of being sentenced to death by an online audience with itchy trigger fingers. He got his big break after a notorious slaughter at Centre Parks which brought admiration and instant psychopathic stardom.

Louise Hoare and Robert Boulton (All photos from Jennifer Evans)

Along with rising star Sarah (Louise Hoare), Marcus captures writer and opinion maker Tony (Henry Davis) in a hotel room after he has just woken from a drunken night’s infidelity. Tony has been accused of sexual assault and whilst no charges have been brought and he continually denies it, he will have to mount a defence if he is to win over the already converted… who else would watch such a show.

It's Sarah’s first time and she’s inscrutably concerned about the details, much to Marcus’ disgust she hasn’t even decided what weapon she’ll use when push comes to slaughter. Louise Hoare presents Sarah almost as our witness to this extraordinary circus, she wants to make a difference but feels in neutral with a seeming objectivity which annoys Marcus. Boulton plays his man as almost likeable, he’s thoroughly persuaded of the importance and validity of his job and is far smarter than he lets on.

With Tony mostly unconscious for the first parts of the play the two characters feel each other out, Marcus ready to kill at any point and Sarah perhaps not fully reconciled to everything she’s going to have to do. They rouse Tony from his drugged stupor and the real debate begins as the camera is set up and his guilt or otherwise will be decided not so much by his honesty as his ability to appear convincing on screen.

Props to Henry Davis for his skill at feigning unconsciousness not just as we entered the theatre but also after being knocked out. His Tony is too clever for his own good and yet we are torn between his testimony and refusal to play the game and Marcus’ bloodied cynicism; he’s heard it all before and believes nothing.

Henry Davis and Louise Hoare (photos from Jennifer Evans)

But no one escapes the inquisition and all three will have to confront their own truth in a startlingly vivid final half. It’s a visceral treat in the close quarters intimacy of the Park with Mike Cottrell’s direction using every inch of the performance space as the characters move in relation to each other, the audience and our confused sympathies… there is no fourth wall left by the end.

There’s superb stage design from Alys Whitehead with a sparse set utilising Jonathan Chan’s lighting to shift focus and dynamics as the tension ebbs and flows. There’s also the most chilling of stage scraps, expertly directed by Bethan Clark, that had us shifting uncomfortably in our seats: this is not ambient box-ticking theatre, they mean it and it’s going to hurt.

IThankYou Theatre rating: **** We didn’t need a Twitter poll to decide on the play’s fate at the end as the ovation proved. This is not a play you’ll forget in a hurry especially as you turn on your mobile on the way home and it turns on you, the blue glow making you see red yet again. As Tony suggests it’s not about the politics anymore it’s about the personal and your very identity is under attack.

Snowflakes plays at the Park Theatre until 6th May 2023 full details are on their website, another fabulous show at one of the very finest independent theatres in London.

Thursday 23 March 2023

The skin game... Trade, Pleasance Theatre and on tour

This is a story told from inside out, a narrative swirled around a single character looking back from a pivotal moment as she explains herself to an audience close enough to see the whites of her eyes, the sick on her shirt, the blood on her trousers. There’s no place for the audience to hide in the Pleasance’s downstairs theatre and crammed in on three sides the audience were simply outnumbered and overwhelmed by the three players on stage as we looked into their eyes and saw only Sarajevo, Yugoslavia and the London nobody will admit to knowing.

 I didn’t know until I bought the book after the show that this was Katarina Novkovic’s professional stage debut, the second show of the week long run at the Pleasance… her second ever gig. She is so strikingly assured you’d never know it, switching the mood and holding the play together with forceful assurity, completely within character, pulling us into the moments. She is joined in this seemingly effortless alchemy by Eleanor Roberts who’d been in the play’s debut at Central St Martins and the run at last year’s Vault Festival, and Ojan Genc (recently seen in the excellent Slow Horses). Between them the three play many characters and create a dramatic experience that is both exhausting, humbling and, in parts, very funny.

 Yes, Trade is remarkably varied in tone for a play about human trafficking but as Katarina’s character, Jana, counts the tens, hundreds and thousands of days she’s been away from her home and family, she shows much resilient humanity and her jokes are not just about breaking the mood as adapting to horrendous circumstance and enabling her to survive. 

Katarina Novkovic (all photos from Ali Painter)

Written by Ella Dorman-Gajic, who is of Serbian and Austrian heritage, Trade is dedicated to a single story out of the millions around the world who are the victims of modern slavery and part of the play’s script sales goes to Unseen, a charity supporting such victims in the UK. The numbers in slavery are greater than at any point in history and estimates put over 100,000 people in this country in this position including many in forced sexual exploitation, 99% of which are women and girls who, in the cases of Jana and her sister Katarine (Eleanor), are of similar age to my daughter.

The play doesn’t take any easy routes to making its points though, this is a fierce entertainment that pulls you in and leaves you breathless by the end when Jana’s full journey is finally revealed. It’s not a binary world by any means and the worst of it is almost unmentioned as we focus on Jana’s head stretched to keep above the swirling depravity of her daily experience. 

The play opens with her every inch the “professional” as she later says, taking a call from some punter for one of the girls she helps manage. There’s a loud knock on the door and the police shouting through threats as she smiles us back to her teenage years working in the family grocers with her mother and younger sister. Jana is smart, almost fluent in English as she helps to tutor her sister. 

Katarina Novkovic and Ojan Genc

She meets a boy, Stefan (Ojan) who has come in looking for potatoes and the two bond over a cabbage, as you do. Their romance develops and the two plan to go to London, a place she has always dreamed of, plans are made and the two head off, Jana promising to see her sister soon. Once they reach Sarajevo, Jana soon discovers that everything is not at all as she was led to believe along with those of us who probably had too large a supper at the Depot Deli next door.

The moments of the first assault are horrifically quiet as the play lets our imaginations do the hard work as Jana’s bright white clothing is covered in a splash of deep red blood, she loses her virginity to the first of many men. It’s brutal and her casually resigned exposition only serves to underline how her life has been viciously removed from her control….

From there onto the UK via the sea, a gut punch given recent announcements, these are indeed some of our “invaders” … Once in London Jana’s routine of cleaning and sex work gets into a deadening groove and her escape is blocked off by her handler, Nicola (Ojan again), remind her that they know where her family and especially her sister lives. She’s trapped and yet resilient enough to find a means to survive within this horror; playing a version of herself that meets these men in terms of cunning, refusing the help of a journalist because she knows it will get her nowhere. 

The deeper she goes, the deeper she gets but there will be a reckoning… won’t there? Survival is complicated.

Eleanor Roberts 

IThankYou rating: **** Superbly directed by Maddy Corner, this is a play that pulls you into another world and continuously wrong-foots expectations and it will haunt me for days. Unsurprisingly it won an OFFIE Award and there will be many such garlands for this cast and this crew in the years ahead. 

Props too to stage designers Natasha Gatwood, Timothy Kelly and Kristina Kapilin for an impactful backdrop and artistically integrated captions that make Trade accessible to both d/Deaf audiences and native Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian speakers.

Trade runs at Pleasance Theatre until 25th March, Full details are on the Pleasance site.

It then moves on, click the links for ticket information: 

Nottingham Nonsuch on 1st April

Exeter Phoenix on 6th April, 

Birmingham Old Joint Stock from 7-9 April and

Norwich Arts Centre on 13th April. 


The Unseen website is here to find out more about modern slavery and human trafficking in this country; it’s here and there are people like Jana working throughout our economy, only a few paces away from our daily normalities, if we're lucky.

You can also order the Trade paperback from Salamander Street publishing with 10% of the sales going to support Unseen.

Friday 24 February 2023

Levelled down… The City and the Town (2023), Wilton’s Music Hall and on tour


Who makes the Nazis?  Bad-bias TV,  Arena badges,  BBC, George Orwell, Burmese police...  Who Makes the Nazis?

Mark E Smith, The Fall

Go see this play. It’s funny it’s tragic and it doesn’t necessarily take your side. Unlike Mr Smith it suggests that answer to the question above is rather closer to home, but only if you fully engage in Anders Lustgarten’s finely wrought argument and sparked, cultured, characters each full of our pride and violence, our hate and our complacency, our privilege and our moral decline. As its title implies The City and the Town contains opposing concepts in equal measure, extremes balanced by an equality of uncertainty and an audience increasingly aware of its own complicity. There are no easy answers and there is no solution unless we accept everyone’s right to that resolution.

In his introduction to the script, Lustgarden quotes the hot dog guy meme – a group of people standing around discussing who could have possibly driven a hot dog shaped car through a shop window with a man dressed as a hot dog… but it’s not just Boris Johnson that’s to blame, the writer is equally scathing about Keir Starmer and Labour’s speedy return to old new Labour and a centre ground that we liberal elitists crave  mostly because it’s an improvement on the blatant cruelty and deception of the right.

Categorical thinking, pattern-recognition reflexes all undermine our ability to accept complexity and responsibility and the play runs headlong into these instincts and takes the audience with it with deft humour and three fascinating personas.

Gareth Watkins and Sam Collings - production shots Karl Andre 

It’s a story of a family forced apart by circumstance and two estranged brothers who come face-to-face for the first time in thirteen years for their father’s funeral. Ben (Sam Collings) is a corporate lawyer living in Crouch End with a nice wife and children, Nathaniel and Esmerelda, playing in their big garden. He looks around his father’s wreck of a house with all the disdain of someone who things they’ve improved beyond their roots, a place at Oxford having set him on a course for conventional success: a large Peugeot and a moustache.

By contrast, brother Magnus (Gareth Watkins) has the trappings of regional working-class culture, a tattoos on his skull that he couldn’t remove even if he wanted and which literally mark him apart from the bourgeoise concepts that cloud Ben’s self-esteem. Unlike Ben, Marcus has stayed the course and, after their mother left them and then his brother went to college, he was the one who stayed loyal to their father, supporting him in his hand-to-mouth engineering business.

Father and son preferred British motor bikes of more character than reliability, Triumph and BSA, as opposed to the far too perfect Japanese models. This affection is emblematic of pride in lost British manufacturing which gradually disappeared over decades of multi-party miss-management and capitalist imperatives, taking the heart from regional towns and cities many of which have not recovered… The Red Wall, the Brexit heartlands and a hotbed of alienation all far from “levelled up”.

Sam Collings and Gareth Watkins 

All brother Ben sees is someone less successful than himself, he tries to re-establish their relationship by bringing Magnus a suit jacket, a sign that he can only really view success on his terms – he doesn’t even consider that his brother may already have a suit. Magnus, for his part, is proud of the thousands of hours he has put into crafting his body in the gym: after all you either can or can’t bench-press 200kg, there’s no pretension just the act of strength, of manhood.

The brothers keep on moving closer, bonding on shared memories, Auntie Pauline and her Christmas gifts of chocolate selections which were bartered based on their favourites, the time they re-enacted the destruction of the death star, old haunts, old girlfriends… but they always violently pull apart. Too much water has passed under the bridge and Magnus’ now feels like his father’s keeper and that Ben is both phoney and faithless.

They argue bitterly about the funeral – a cremation not a burial and with no time for a speech from Ben, and then packing books from shelves, Ben come across tomes on right wing conspiracies which Magnus insists were his fathers but we learn later were his. Ben lacks the expression to truly relate and can only throw accusations of fascism and “perform disapproval” as Magnus pushes back at his southern softie of a sibling.

Sam Collings and Amelia Donkor

Act two starts off with Ben nursing a black eye delivered, as promised, by Magnus when he tried to speak at the funeral. He is being looked after by Lyndsay (Amelia Donkor) an ex-girlfriend who he left behind like everyone else… there’s still some warmth there but Lyndsay’s decision to say mystifies Ben as if the only solution to the situation they shared lay elsewhere.

Lyndsay proves more than his equal in eloquence and her own reasons for choosing the course she has gradually become painfully clear and carry a moral force that gradually shames both brothers as we find out the truth of Magnus’ situation and Ben’s essentially selfish decisions.

Ultimately both have taken refuge where they could, Magnus in far-right politics and Ben in imply following the money. Magnus is a remarkable creation, revulsion and sympathy mixed in one character and, in the end the same is true of his brother for different reasons. It’s not enough to call each other names, we need to understand and engage, as well as paying the price… to this extent Lyndsay is the bravest of the three.

But that’s just my take, catch this play if you can.

Gareth Watkins 

IThankYou Theatre Rating: **** Astonishingly well-written and performed with total commitment, this is a warm and brutally open story of our need to be truthful, loving and forgiving. We all need to take responsibility especially those of us from Northern towns who got lucky with an Oxbridge place and never really went home…

Riksteatern’s Head of Theatre and Artistic Director Dritëro Kasapi directs with power and clarity with his players leaving everything out on the stage, even big Gareth looking drained by the end, his a fascinating potrayal of a good man gone to waste. Sam and Amelia are equally intense and this is the closest you'll get to watching a three-way fifth set tie-break in theatrical Britain.

Ace design to from Hannah Sibai with lighting by Matt Haskins. 

The City and the Town is at Wilton’s Music Hall until Saturday 25th and then onto the Mercury Theatre, Colchester, Norwich Playhouse and then Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough before a tour of Sweden in the autumn.

Full details can be found on the play’s website


Wednesday 18 January 2023

The ties that liberate… In the Net (2023), Jermyn Street Theatre, The Promise Season

Listen… We know we’re irritating, which is half the point. But not the main thing… An Eruv no one’s seen before… You think it’s insolent and flip. What if it has to be that way to open your eyes?

I have to mention the lighting design because as this play reaches its surreal conclusion, Jonathan Chan’s lighting mixes with multiple coloured strands of thread to create the impression that we’re all suspended high above ground fighting alongside the three women in this play to maintain the higher ground and a unity of purpose that transcends the lines that normally have us bound. Maybe it was the interval can of pale ale, but it was a lofty feeling indeed and fully matched the elevated poetic prose that infuses Misha Levkov’s first play.

Kicking of the year for Jermyn Street’s Promise Season, In the Net is wordy, erudite and quite hard to pin down until the closing. It’s a play grounded in the seeming inevitability of a near future in which the horrific rhetoric of the current Government who talk of swarms of refugees and controlling our borders in order to prevent an invasion. Wars driven by a shifting world order, contested energy resources and an accelerating climate catastrophe, could within the space of two years leave us in the same position as those in this play… 

Levkov’s London is sweltering under an unprecedented heat with water rationing par for the course as an increasingly authoritarian state regulates daily life in 2025. We find two half-sisters, the older Anna (Anya Murphy), fresh from a Buddhist retreat – going back to the World - already accepting beyond her years, and her younger sibling, Laura (Carlie Diamond, surprisingly in only her first professional role) who is forthright, restless and angry. Her biological mother… their mother, has just died and Laura is externalising her response. Their father, Harry, aka Papa (Hywell Simons) is confused by his daughters and intent on an escape fantasy involving Eastbourne; whilst the women want to confront reality in their own way. 

Anya Murphy and Carlie Diamond (All photography by Steve Gregson)

Their mother helped to rescue a Syrian refugee, Hala (Suzanne Ahmet) who holds a highly intelligent mirror up to this mix of heartfelt but slightly unworldly North London sensibilities. She grounds the play, her lived experience far beyond the well-intentioned family, her teenage son left behind and forces of the Immigration services probing for any reason to restrict her movement. Tony Bell plays the sinister Immigration Officer with escalating menace, his unusual vocabulary belying the delight with which he bullies and threatens… every authoritarian state needs men like him. Mt Bell is also the bumbling, Councillor (Acting Deputy Chair), seemingly good humoured but stickler for the cruelty of rules.

Whilst the Officer is concerned with immigration, the Councillor is just obsessed with regulation and Laura’s plan to establish and area of peaceful co-operation, a Jewish Eruv, a sanctuary demarcated by a network of coloured threads bound from the highest branches of the trees in their garden across the whole neighbourhood, under which everyone will be free to do what they need to help those within*. Laura takes her idea to the local council were other jews object to this ancient idea, possibly concerned about the impact on their reputation at this delicate time. 

It is an idea that is wistful and Laura is indulged and gently challenged by bother Anna and Hala, the latter seeing a lot of herself in the younger woman even as she relates much better to her sister. Laura takes offence when Hala and her Muslim friends start to string out their own Eruv in solidarity; like the child she can still be Laura cannot accept this bending of the strict rules of the Eruv and yet, as with so many situations, the women seem able to reach an almost unspoken agreement and even without specific words being used their communication transcends the situation. 

This is true of the whole narrative, as all the men come and go, threaten, misunderstand, try to reason and yet, in the end, the three will act as one, connected to the higher emotional environment within the net. Even Papa Harry doesn’t get it, perhaps he’s too used to masking his fears through actions and decision making. 

Anya Murphy and Hywell Simons (Photography by Steve Gregson)

You’re the best loved, dead-tired practical father. Who spawned Eruv children who can’t stop now. But practical’s not enough. It doesn’t catch the vision… 

The vision provided by this play is truly a promising one and In the Net is a philosophical triumph, forcing its audience to engage with the triumvirate in ways they wouldn’t have expected during the last Teams meeting of the day. Vicky Moran directs her players very well, and they move with emotional precision around the fixed space of the JST, ultimately flowing in gentle co-ordination across the upside of the thread, moving with each other as if the threads were hardly there. So powerful and so puzzling… but also funny, delicate and quietly terrifying. There’s a future here.

The cast are assured and energetic, none more so that Carlie Diamond on her debut and her forthright delivery eats through a wordy script as naturally as breathing, her words absorbed by Anya Murphy, the two presenting as not just half sisters but whole ones too. Suzanne Ahmet also does well as the play's most grounded and likeable character, refusing well-intentioned help as she tries to forge a new legitimacy in this hostile environment. 

Props to the movement director Nadia Sohawon, as well as the set and costume design of Ingrid Hu and Daniel Denton’s projection work in support of the aforementioned Jonathan Chan’s lighting. Combined with Matt Eaton’s sound, you are transported and I hadn’t expected to be so caught up… climbing the stairs back onto the streets with strings of thought drifting behind me. 

And all this on a long working Tuesday… ****

Suzanne Ahmet and Tony Bell (Photography by Steve Gregson)

In the Net runs until 4th February and is well worth your time, a promising new playwright with something spirited to say and, as I travel home, I know I’ll be thinking about this for days.

Full details and booking at the JST website.


*Wikiparently an Eruv “is a ritual halakhic enclosure made for the purpose of allowing activities which are normally prohibited on Shabbat, specifically: carrying objects from a private domain to a semi-public domain, and transporting objects four cubits or more within a semi-public domain.”

Sunday 27 November 2022

Madame Bovary, est mort… The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary, Jermyn Street Theatre


Every tragedy can have a silver lining…

John Nicholson’s approach to Flaubert’s genuinely iconic heroine is akin to Tom Cruise’s to the Mission Impossible franchise, he, or rather his cast, are genuinely hanging off the side of an airplane in front of our very eyes, frequently breaching the fourth wall in ways that carry potential danger both in terms of narrative cohesion but also audience ad-libbing. At one point the action is stopped and Dennis Herdman, aka Ratman 1 and  various Emma Bovary lovers, asks for a show of hands of those who have read the book, about half of us raised ours and he quickly pointed at me to ask what my favourite part was, “I love the bit with the hamsters” came my reply, cue side-eyed response as the cast discussed whether we were just pretending to be well-read.

Nothing was going to throw panto-hardened Mr Herdman though and it is indeed a valid question for this play works both as a stand-alone comedy but also as an examination of so many nineteenth century heroines who loved and lived only to face the ultimate penalty. In another section the cast discussed the inevitability or otherwise of Emma’s fate, with the actress playing her, Jennifer Kirby (late of Call the Midwife but also the RSC, and it showed), saying that she wanted her character to have agency which is very much how Flaubert challenged his audience in 1856. I was reminded of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in which he added substance to two minor and easily dismissed characters from Hamlet to show what choices any of us have. In its own way, Nicholson’s play is closer to his source material but then there is so much to work with, Emma Bovary is a character written with substance, as well-detailed as any of the descriptive passages in the “realist” novel.

This play is realist only to the extent that its players know they are in a play and, have to make decisions that honour their characters. Other than that, it is a rip-roaring pantomime that looks to blow the narrative off course through the introduction of two rat catchers, or Vermin Termination Officers, played by Dennis Herdman and Sam Alexander. Ratman 1 just happens to buy all of the arsenic in the chemists, a necessary ingredient for their new vermination business, leaving none left for the suicidal wife of the local GP/health officer. In the Ratcatchers’ room at the Golden Lion, Emma unfolds her tale to Ratman 1 and thus the play meets the book… and you wonder how the gap in tonality can be joined.

Jennifer Kirby - all photographs from Steve Gregson

The whole enterprise rests on a fabulous performance from Jennifer Kirby, who is with one brief exception, always playing Emma Bovary throughout and grounding events in a version of the character that exists in both comedic and tragic variations. Her delivery is strong and the classical background pays dividends along with her physicality as a well-cast Madame B. Her steadfast presence allows Herdman and Alexander to play the fool along with the marvellous Alistair Cope… who transitions from a man with a wooden leg to a pharmacist, inn keeper and a cow with ease.

Alexander plays Dr Bovary as an innocent largely unaware of the depth of his wife’s needs, he’s achieved his ambition of being a general practitioner in a small town but cannot fathom why she needs more, exhibiting what Flaubert described as “the natural cowardice that characterizes the stronger sex.” Emma’s needs, founded on her heavy addiction to romantic fiction and her search for the truest emotions described within, lead her not just to the many men played by Herdman, but also to fine fabrics and expensive clothes aided by the unscrupulous Monsieur Lheureux (Mr Cope), happy to extend her ruinous credit.

But it’s in her relationships with earnest local clerk Leon and wealthy gadfly Rodolphe Boulanger who’s scene riding in the woods with Emma as they consummate their attraction is performed through the means of prestidigitation, as flowers are pulled from under dresses, bunting from the Bovary bodice and red balls from hands and mouth… it’s the play’s party piece, and based on a show of hands at the start of act two, they did it all over again as Emma announces she has a lover… a lover.

Sam Alexander, Jennifer Kirby and Alistair Cope get medical...

IThankYou Theatre verdict: The theatre was full and, as this was not the press night, the audience were there with no other expectation than to be entertained and the play certainly succeeded on that front. It’s a tricky path to “find the comedy in tragedy” but I think, in the end, the play finds the tragedy in comedy too; it’s a celebration of a book we all should read and in the hands of these four marvellous actors, it is the perfect pantomime for those who seek integrity in their heroes and villains.

Marieke Audsley directs with authority and clearly has the team on stage playing for each other, as we’d say in soccer and props also to Amy Watts stage design (see what I did there?) for an innovative set that allows the actors to chalk up signs, poems, ducks and record players – a needle drop of Noel Harrison singing Michel Legrand’s Windmills of You Mind (written for the Thomas Crown Affair) being especially welcome.

I’d say: **** Fearlessly funny around and not about the story, with a sympathetic Emma in Jennifer Kirby, humour as well as longings all intact, as she looks to the future now, it’s only just begun.

The play runs until 17th December and you can order via the Jermyn Street Theatre website here.

Flaubert is further examined in the JST’s forthcoming Promise Season with the debut play by historian Orlando Figes.  The Oyster Problem tells the story of the French novelist’s catastrophic search for a day job. 

New energies are flooding through Jermyn Street and 2023 promises to be very interesting indeed!

Sam Alexander and Dennis Herdman: Buckle up, it's going to be a bumpy ride!

Thursday 1 September 2022

Songs from the wood… Jessie Buckley and Bernard Butler, Home Farm, Elstree, Herts

This was one of the most complete vocal performances I’ve ever seen, not just in a woodland setting but in any auditorium. I don’t often cry at gigs but, in amidst the smiles, I was a goner. These are songs in the great tradition, stories to stir the soul and fearless performers holding out their hearts to an audience willing to return that trust with unconditional engagement. If you went down to the woods today, you will have been charmed.

Technically this was a gig but it was also some of the most dramatically theatrical music I’ve heard live. It’s hard to resist the superlatives when trying to describe what we heard and saw… all I could think of saying to Butler and Buckley was “brilliant” much in the manner of Paul Whitehouse’s character in The Fast Show but gradually a word cluster of expletive-laden praise resolved itself down to a more structured appreciation and the Word is Love.

They say that most people stop listening to new music past they age of 33 in which case I and the attending “Whispering” Bob Harris are freaks – in the nicest possible way Bob. Jessie Buckley and Bernard Butler’s album, For All Our Days that Tear the Heart, isn’t just another new album I’ve listened to, it’s one that has moved me in ways that make this old heart of mine sigh, cry and smile like a fool. I’m head over heels for this album, falling hard for its irresistible mix of past, present and future, songs that do indeed celebrate all our days with plaintive echoes of Joni, Sandy, Nick, John Martyn, Lou Rhodes, Terry Callier, Jeff and Tim, Bert and Anne, any number of Wainwrights, songs with a new alchemical potency.

The venue

Bernard Butler, the man with the best hair in rock, as Jessie announced, is also one of the best collaborators and simply one of the best musicians to emerge from the 1990s. He has forged a varied career on his own or in collaboration with the likes of Dr Catherine Anne Davies (aka The Anchoress), In Memory of My Feelings (2020) and Sam Lee, Old Wow (2020). I watch a lot of silent films with improvised music and seeing the act of collaboration taking place between the players and the screen, the audience and each other is to watch creative confidence and generosity in action.

Butler always allows his collaborators centre stage, steering them to their own conclusions, with flourishes of guitar, arrangement and production bring out the best of the writing, performance and personality.

The pandemic bought Jessie Buckley and Bernard together and it took only a few seconds of the sample of The Eagle and the Dove to make me pre-order the album. Jessie is one of the finest actors of her generation, Oscar and BAFTA nominated already for The Lost Daughter and recent winner of an Olivier Award for Sally Bowles in Cabaret. I first saw her at the Globe Theatre, Miranda in The Tempest, not long after the graduated from RADA. She has unique energy and her gifts are prodigious, hidden behind an honest modesty and fearsome work ethic.

Lost in music (photo from video someone posted on YouTube...)

Tonight, she said she wasn’t sure whether Bernard would want to carry on after their first exchange of ideas but, to quote Florence Shaw of Dry Cleaning (second favourite album of the year), it was an instant yes! The results we’ve heard on vinyl and CD but tonight, after a rather fine hog roast, we were led into the darkened woodlands of Home Farm to seats made of straw bales and a stage lit up against a backdrop of hundred-year-old trees with the occasional moth and bat catching the light to add to the atmosphere.

Then on stage they trouped, as if from nowhere, Butler on guitar and effects, Misha Mullov-Abbado on upright bass as warm, string and fluid as Danny Thomson, Sally Herbett illuminating all with a one-woman string section and the most emotionally intuitive percussion from Chris Vatalaro. There were also two backing singers who helped start things off with a three-part harmony on the acapella start to The Eagle & the Dove. From those first notes onwards, it was clear that Jessie Buckley has perfect emotional pitch in addition to everything else. She knows exactly how to get the most out of her remarkable tonality and strength and boy can she sell a song…

Her control is remarkable as is her power, on For All Our Days That Tear the Heart she belts out so loud and clear she held the microphone well away, all was clear and true to jaw-dropping effect. I didn’t hear a single off note or even felt her straining at any point; rock and roll “head” vocals with jazz, folk and musical/theatrical styling and restraint. Every song is a story and Buckley acts as well as performs leaving tears and, in this close-nit audience, a feeling that we’re almost intruding.

Raw Power, not in the Iggy sense but, more so!

I Cried Your Tears was a prime example, with febrile, spine-tingling accompaniment from Butler who barely touched the strings… before Jessie brought in the most delicious of melodies.

But what does it matter: a painter, a thief?

The sin that was taken wasn't yours to keep

She talked the first line, whispered the second and as the verse progressed was in full voice.

But how can I return to the night that I stole

Into the arms of your lover who gave you your soul?

And I cry your tears 

This was remarkable mix of so much technique all driven by the need to express these emotions. What began as a private collaboration has now reached out and touched the hearts of so many and I mean every word. Jessie said that she wanted the album to feel like an old chest of photographs you find in a dusty room and surprise yourself by going through these new discoveries, experiencing emotions new and old. As a mission statement that’s pretty bold, as a project she and Bernard have been miraculously successful.

The album is uncanny. Everything works, she’s killing us softly.

For a self-professed “actress who sings” Jessie knows how to work a crowd and we were invited to singalong with Footnotes on the Map with Bernard providing the lead, and by the end of this song all discipline was lost and people rushed to dance at the front as Jessie stepped off stage amongst us.

For the encore a breath-taking cover of Bob Dylan’s Just Like a Woman was followed by the live debut of the highly appropriate Stars, followed by an emotional Catch the Dust, as the two hugged each other at what looks like the end of the tour.

I sincerely hope that this is not the end and that Jessie finds time to play more with Bernard but they’ve already caught lightning in a bottle once and for that we should be thankful. Tonight, we were privileged to see how it was done.

An enriching evening I won’t forget. *****

Thank you both!