Inkheart, HOME

rsz_js78563653Meggie (Katherine Carlton) and her bookbinder father Mo (Paul McEwan) love books. They also share a fantastical gift that’s causing them to be chased all over the world (or Europe, at least) by fictional characters that aren’t very nice at all. Cornelia Funke’s young adult novel Inkheart is adapted for the stage by director Walter Meierjohann in a high-spirited production with inventive staging. The mountain of books and projections that make the set effectively reinforce the importance of the stories that drive the action. The plot is rushed and over-complicated though, particularly for a family show. Books generally have way more content than will fit into a reasonable timeframe, and Inkheart feels like Meierjohann tries to fit the entire novel into two hours on stage.

This is a great play for villains: Will Irvine is Capricorn, a ruthless, Dr Evil-like pursuer who needs Mo to help him bring his assassin, The Shadow, into this world. His stooges Basta (Darryl Clark) and Flatnose (Griffin Stevens) provide excellent comic relief with a dash of audience interaction. Rachel Atkins is the intimidating, book collecting Great Aunt Elinor and the nonspeaking figure draped in black, Mortola. They all provide an excellent foil to the protagonists, even though Meggie is feisty and temperamental (a fantastic role model for young girls struggling to assert themselves). Mo is gentle and kind, with a warm heart and an inner secret – a complex, developed character that adults can relate to.

The pace in the first act ticks along nicely but after the interval, there seem to be leaps in time and space caused by huge chunks cut from the original novel. There are several twists and reveals, making the second act crowded with information. The character development from the first act is neglected in favour of chucking plot points at us, one after the other. Though, this is a story about a long love affair with books and their power, as well as the power we have to write the stories of our own lives. It’s an adventure, a love story and a coming of age tale with great performances, and a flawed, unexpected narrative. Much like our own lives.


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Red Riding Hood, Preston Continental

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What makes the story of Red Riding Hood so enduring? Is it the clever heroine? Is it the metaphor for growing up? Is it the violence and gore? Horse & Bamboo choose to focus on the colour red and its symbolism in their touring Red Riding Hood. Two actors, Nix Wood and Alex Kanefsky, are actor-storytellers-puppeteers who endow the story with a richness and life that appeals to their young audience as well as their families. The company’s lo-fi touring aesthetic uses a surprising amount of puppets at different sizes, masks and costume to keep the kids’ attention. It’s a bit hodgepodge on the surface but there’s a good amount of layers to this piece: meta theatre, storytelling, playing at the characters, and embodying them. Wood and Kanefsky fluidly switch between the styles that initially feel excessive in their quantity, but the children are so absorbed in the story that cannot be deemed as anything but highly effective and engaging.

The main focus of the story is the dynamic between Red and the Wolf. Mum and Grandma make appearances, but they don’t waste any time getting to the woods. The deeper Red gets, the larger the characters become – a great device. Initially, a tiny Red and mum are reading bedtime stories in a dolls’ house, eventually Wood plays Red in a full mask and the wolf is a nearly life-sized puppet with excellent movement and expression in the head and neck. Music and animated projections add additional detail to Wood’s controlled, emotional physicality communicating the unspeaking Red’s inner life. The wolf and Red focus results in a reinforcement of the “don’t trust strangers particularly if they seem nice” moral, which works for a children’s show but is quite a shallow interpretation in a production that has such depths of performance technique and style.

Red’s cloak is a dark, rich red that stands out beautifully against the rest of the set. Wood sets up red as her favourite colour as she chats with the entering audience pre-show; it’s lovely to watch. Kanefsky is goofy and warm, and loves cakes. This trait follows his characters through the rest of the story. The set is made of abstract blues and greens, inspired by Paul Klee’s art (my initial association was with Kandinsky’s work). Though the idea of starting with visual art for a way into a concept is a common one, the abstract set design clashes with the concrete realism of the puppets and mask, and the animation style was the starkness of shadow puppetry.

As children’s theatre goes, Horse & Bamboo’s Red Riding Hood is more sophisticated than it appears. Despite the moralizing, the craftsmanship and performance skill can be appreciated and enjoyed by all ages. Knowing that Horse & Bamboo are a touring company with just two actors makes their work all the more impressive. An excellent production for families at any time of year, too.


The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Top Ten Shows of 2015

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  1. Carmen Disruption 

This Simon Stephens deconstruction bore little resemblance to the opera. Instead, we had a cast of dysfunctional, damaged characters unable to connect with the world around them on any meaningful level. They filled the Almeida with an electric loneliness that grasped the desperate humanity residing deep inside us all before chucking us out, exposed and raw, into the London night.

  1. Pomona

Written by a 27-year-old, Pomona captures the millennial generation in a single play. Frantically set over several levels of dystopian reality and never able to settle, this epitomises those who suffer the consequences of  baby boomers’ past choices.

  1. Light

The first show I ever gave five stars to, after more than a year of criticism. Good intentions and government exploitation address increasing surveillance with stunningly precise physical theatre, object manipulation and light.

  1. Tether 

A two-hander about a blind runner and her guide, this piece is refreshingly unromantic and driven by dialogue and characterisation. This is a simple and powerful piece by a promising young writer set in a world rarely considered by non-disabled people.

  1. Shakespeare & the Alchemy of Gender

A solo performance by veteran Shakespearean, Lisa Wolpe, founder of L.A. Women’s Shakespeare Company. Exquisite extracts of Shakespeare’s most celebrated male roles interspersed with her father’s biography raises important points about performance, gender and family.

  1. Town Hall Cherubs

Theatre Ad Infinitum and Battersea Arts Centre team up to create an immersive, site-specific piece for 2-5 year-olds. Gentle and responsive to the children’s attention spans, this is a bit of a winter treasure hunt around the BAC that stimulates all the senses.

  1. Chef 

Another sharp one-woman show, this one by Sabrina Mahfouz and performed by Jade Anouka. Anouka is a Michelin-star chef who runs the prison kitchen. Part fictional memoir/part foodie homage, this character driven piece cuts an unforgettable character.

  1. This is How We Die

An explosive spoken word/music piece by Canadian Chris Brett Bailey, it defies description and instead must be experienced. A marmite production amongst critics but Bailey’s use of imagery within language is incomparable.

  1. Don Q

A warm and lovely adaptation of Cervantes’ novel, Don Q is an old man’s gleeful adventure story. Four actors multi-role through this story that looks at the way we treat the elderly and the joy of play-acting.

  1. Eclipsed

Set during the Liberian Civil War, the all-woman cast of Danai Gurira’s doesn’t hold back on the experience of women in wartime. This is a brutally raw survival story with the power to leave you shaken, guilty and grateful for the benefits of Western comforts.

Honourable mention: Invisible Treasure

This is an interactive experience that is audience-led, with no actors and no plot. Like a game, the audience is led into a hi-tech room and led through a series of tasks in order to escape. Fun, challenging and frustrating, it makes some powerful points about group dynamics and personal approaches to problem solving.


The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Lost, Voyager Business Park

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An invitation to review this different kind of theatrical experience landed in my inbox:

Different Breed Theatre invite you to come down to Gary’s Warehouse in Bermondsey and watch an elf (well…he says he’s an elf, the little shit) talk his way out of a hostage-taking situation. Enjoy Anthony Neilson’s hour-long dark Christmas comedy ‘The Night Before Christmas’ performed by West End actors at bargain prices. There’s food from local market traders. There’s beer from local breweries. There’s questionable secret Santa gifts, rude Christmas cards, music, and of course, an elf. You might even get to sit on Santa’s (mildly pervy) knee.

Sounds like fun, right? This will be my last London production before heading north for the holidays and it sounds like a hell of a finale. Instead, what results is a confusing, audience-led, anti-climax with a profound lack of promised food and entertainment.

The press release gives a clear, full address: Unit 3, Voyager Business Estate, Spa Road, Bermondsey, London SE16 4RP. I follow normal procedure by using Maps on my phone when I don’t know a venue. Voyager Business Estate! Sounds exciting, like the spaceship. I rush from Bermondsey Station about 20 minutes before curtain. Time is tight so tension is building prematurely. Surrounded by blocks of new-build flats in the Bermondsey Spa regeneration area, I overshoot the small industrial estate. Consulting Maps verifies this instinct, so I turn around. Triumph! There is a lull in the action driven by success. On the corner by the railway arch, high above my head, a sign: Network Rail Voyager Business Park, Units 5-8. The set placement, in conjunction with lighting, deliberately challenges the audience, particularly if they are short with poor night vision.

The lull doesn’t last long. Five – eight! No! I need number three. The street isn’t well lit and I cross over to check the dark warehouses across the road, as I can’t read the signage. No, they were called something else. It’s 10 minutes to blast off. I ring the contact number on the press release, no answer, so I leave a message. Confusion and stress is rapidly increasing in this immersive, site-specific piece.

Then it dawns on me. This is the moment where the penny drops within the slow plot reveal.

There is no hostage elf. The audience of one is the hostage. A hostage of time, a clever invitation and trendy warehouse theatre. Or am I? That seed of doubt is still present, but I now know that it is the product of years of honest, run-of-the-mill press releases that disclose more to press than they do to audiences. This is a progressive, cutting edge approach to marketing and press management, but one not particularly suited to objectivity.

A ha! Units 1-4, on the other side of the railway line. Another sign stoically sits at the top of the fence. No sign of a spaceship, though. The units are small small, set back in the railway arches. The gates are open so I can walk into the car park with a few vans, strategically using the space to block sightlines and further exacerbate audience tension. Low lighting helps generates a sinister environment.

I face Unit 3. It’s shuttered. No lights. It’s 7:27. The shutter is sturdy and dark, an effective aversion to potential trespassers, symbolizing the shutters around cynics’ hearts in the run up to Christmas. I phone again. Still no answer. I leave another message. I like the agency of using our own phones to make contact and the integration of technology, a powerful reminder of our dependency on mobile phones.

It’s at this point that the experience is a let down. There is no signage, no other characters, nothing. Just me, stood in a dark, empty car park. Do I wait? The plot starts to disintegrate. I explore the space. I even knock on the unit 3 shutter. Is this a test? A puzzle? Will I soon be met by someone who’s running late? Whatever this performance has become, it’s effectively evoking anxiety in the audience. A final phone call goes straight to voicemail. The performance started a few minutes ago but it already feels like it’s ended despite the promised hour-long running time. The sound also seems to malfunction, as there is no music. Stomach growls also pointedly comment on the obvious lack of food and drink. I decide to utilize my autonomy and head home.

As hours pass and puzzlement fails to dissipate, I question the message of the piece. It raises more questions than answers, but perhaps that is the entire point: sometimes, communications and events mysteriously malfunction, but it’s up to us to take control of the spaceship that is our life. A powerful thought.


The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Goodnight Mister Tom, Duke of York’s Theatre

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The WWII image of dejected, scrappy children with brown tags around their necks, clutching their most precious belongings as they are re-homed with strangers in the countryside is a powerful one. It’s one that inspired author Michelle Magorian to write Goodnight Mister Tom, adapted by David Wood for the stage, now in London after a successful run at Chichester and before heading off for a national tour. The audience meets little William, who is sent from Deptford to Dorset and assigned to live with the reclusive Tom Oakley. With a focus on Tom more so than the relocated children, this is a story about finding love again after a devastating loss. This part of the production is moving, but the story is slow to develop over a long time period and the flimsy, thin dialogue doesn’t support the large cast of characters, their development and the devastation of wartime.

David Troughton as Tom is a sad and sensitive widower, the complete opposite of the grump that his fellow villagers see. Three Williams, three Zachs (William’s precocious evacuee friend) and a gaggle of children make up half the cast; all are very much child actors. Alex Taylor-McDowall is today’s William, a lanky shy boy poisoned by his fundamentalist Christian single mother, Melle Stewart. We hear a lot about her, but only meet her in one scene. Stewart is unable to show just how evil (and mentally ill) the character is, though she does her best to live up to the previously discussed monster. Most of the other characters have similarly brief stage time, but plenty of multi-rolling and puppetry keeps the generally good ensemble performers busy.

But the first half takes its time to get going. It’s not from a lack of energy in individuals, but the overall pace is languid. It’s lovely and sweet, but flat. The war seems far away from this village, country life is slow, and day-to-day life is filled with routine and little errands. It’s in these small tasks that we see Tom’s affection for William grow: getting “new” clothes for him, teaching him to read and write and fending of bullies who pick on the “townies” and “vaccies” from London.

It’s no wonder the local kids pick on the Londoners. William can’t read or write, sleeps under the bed rather than on it, and his toxic mother skewed his worldview about, well, everything. Zach is well-spoken, attention seeking and flamboyant, the son of actors. It’s interesting that the London children the audience meets are either desperately camp or from the slums in this story; does this reflect Magorian’s preconceptions?

Along with Troughton’s performance, the puppets are outstanding. Tom’s dog, Sammy (Elisa de Grey) is gorgeously constructed, and full of movement and life from de Grey’s work. After the interval, there’s an increase in momentum after an unnecessary subplot involving William’s return to London and the effects of war creep closer, creating more tension and loss. The audience learns more about Tom’s past and the ending is a tearjerker and concise resolution.

For a family show however, the whole thing is too long and convoluted. Tom and William’s story could have easily had more focus with a reduction of other characters, more fleshed out scenes and additional detail about Tom’s life leading up to the point he takes in William. Fortunately, Troughton has enough stage time to keep this otherwise lovely, but flat, production going.

Press ticket for Goodnight Mister Tom is courtesy of theatrebloggers.co.uk.


The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

The Xmas Carol, Old Red Lion Theatre

rsz_2cc9d33d00000578-3250546-i_ve_never_doubted_that_mr_cameron_like_most_of_his_generation_w-m-2_1443338742165Dominic Cavendish thinks this year’s theatre lacks relevance to current affairs. He’s probably been working under a commercial and subsidized theatre-shaped rock (as mainstream critics are prone to), citing Anders Lustgarten’s Lampedusa as, “number one in a field of one” where, “nothing stood out as ‘the’ play for today.” Matt Trueman defends theatre’s ability to respond at the speed Cavendish would like, and also cites several examples Cavendish neglected: “The Fear of Breathing by Zoe Lafferty and Lucien Bourjeily’s 66 Minutes in Damascus, part of the 2012 LIFT festival, spring to mind, though Cordelia Lynn’s Lela & Co was set in an unnamed country gripped by a similar civil war.” Also springing to mind and not set in Syria but Liberia, Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed starkly presents the victims of another civil war.

The nightmare in Syria driving tens of thousands of people to flee their homeland in search of safety demands global action and aid, of course. But there were numerous other hotbed issues addressed in British theatre over the past year, even the last couple of weeks. Theatre Ad Infinitum’s Light looked at government surveillance, As Is reminded us that AIDS diagnoses are on the rise, Goodstock describes the uncertain life as a young woman with a high risk of breast cancer. Down & Out in Paris and London rallies support for the working poor, The State vs. John Hayes gives us the last night of a schizophrenic woman on death row, and Skyline is a relentless attack on the London housing crisis. There are many others as well, and that’s just in the past year of one critic’s theatregoing.

Within the past week, The Old Red Lion opened Arthur Miller’s first play, No Villain, a love letter to communism and the strikers of 1936 New York City. Accomplished theatre critic and author T L Wiswell also offered her latest work for two nights only, a satirical update of Dickens’ classic Christmas novel to the current 10 Downing Street, The Xmas Carol. That’s just at one venue, not specifically known for political theatre. The Xmas Carol has a dig at pop culture/The X-Factor to frame the consequences of David Cameron’s legislation on everyday, working people after his annual Christmas party, similar to Miller’s use of the strikes to focus on the life of one family out of millions. Both plays need further development (though it’s obviously too late for Miller), but both brashly and fearlessly confront the politics of their day.

In The Xmas Carol, Simon Cowell (Chris Royds) introduces his latest programme that’s sure to be a ratings hit; it’s an interesting meta-theatrical device that works towards justifying Cameron’s (Warren Brooking) travels through his past, present and future. Jason Meininger’s lighting and Keri Danielle Chesser’s sound effectively evoke transitions in time and space. Some more exposition to set up the television show that Cowell is steering would have clarified Cameron’s complicity and aim to improve his ratings, but the device itself is a creative deviation from having Cameron fall asleep and dream the whole thing.

There are some great impressions in the cast, particularly from Luke Theobald as Ghost of Christmas Past Margaret Thatcher. Brooking could have been a louder, bolder Cameron but he captures an element of the man in his gestures and general lack of humanity. Will Bridges is an amusing, though not particularly accurate Jeremy Corbyn but as this is a satire, his punditry can be excused. Jenny Wills as Cameron’s PA Bob Cratchett brings some grounded naturalism to this piece. She’s a lovely character, warm and family focused, with some good dialogue, but her performance style jars with the heightened delivery from the rest of the cast. It works to ground Cameron’s devastating policies in reality, but she could use some backup from other characters. As the play’s currently just under on hour, more down-at-heel, working people could easily be brought in to further emphasise the battle between the ridiculous politicians and celebrities, and the everyday man.

Having gone to a reading of The Xmas Carol about a month ago, the concept has developed quite a bit since then, but the structure could still use additional tightening and detail. More dialogue and exposition will help, particularly in the beginning and end. There are some genuinely funny moments and well-crafted scenes, but a brief resolution. The Tory criticism is relentless and mocking but also pointed and moving. Wiswell is certainly in the process of striking a good balance within the piece, but it needs just a bit more shaping.

Both The Xmas Carol and No Villain are highly political, but in very different ways; the same can be said of many of the aforementioned productions. Sure, they’re not about Syrian civil war and refugees, but they focus on diverse, divisive issues relevant to contemporary life. Perhaps Cavendish needs to visit the fringe more: it’s where angry voices can express their views unfettered, without the burden of corporate sponsors and other such bureaucratic obstacles. These shows don’t have the high production values or years of development and funding that commercial theatre does, but political theatre on the fringe is some of the most raw, honest, relevant theatre I have seen this year.


The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

The Wasp, Trafalgar Studios

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Hampstead Theatre does it again with another powerful, thought-provoking transfer after last month’s Four Minutes Twelve Seconds. Heather and Carla went to secondary school together about 20 years ago, live in the same town, but have little else in common. Heather comes from a stable, middle class family, is now married and lives quite comfortably. Carla is working poor, pregnant with her fifth child, and has a drunkard for a husband. Both had a terrible time in high school: Carla came from an abusive home, and Heather became one of a Carla’s targets after a brief friendship in year 7. They haven’t seen each other since school, but out of the blue, Heather asks Carla for coffee and makes her a surprising offer in Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s both horrifying and enthralling The Wasp.

Myanna Buring as Carla and Laura Donnelly as Heather are an electric pair, as they should be in this relentless two-hander with sudden plot twists that keep the audience guessing. Their characters’ contrast naturally creates tension anyway, and the story generates even more. Most of the play is a hotbed of tension. The layers of lies and manipulation and abrupt reveals are surprising; there are audible gasps from the audience at certain key moments. The script has a fairly formulaic structure, but it’s the content that surprises. Albee’s Zoo Story, Miller’s The Crucible and most of LaBute’s work appear to influence. The characters’ behaviour is shocking, but the realisation that this could be anyone we know, or ourselves, uncomfortably resonates within.

Though there are a lot of big social and psychological issues presented: revenge, infidelity, class difference, abuse, rape and infertility. It doesn’t feel excessive to conflate them, but aids in creating complex characters that feel like genuine people backed up by Buring and Donnelly’s performances. This toxic cocktail of topics emphasises just how easy it is to cause lasting emotional damage in someone unintentionally, be it a family member, friend, partner or acquaintance. Kids especially: we all had tough times at school and treated each other badly but children are so self-absorbed (the ability to empathise is the last part of the human brain to develop) that they don’t often realize the consequences of their actions. And this is why each and every one of us is the hot mess we are, because of how we were treated by others when we were younger. It doesn’t take much more on top of all the baggage we already carry to send us over the edge, and that message resounds loud and clear through the women’s past and present actions that slowly unravel in the intimate Trafalgar 2.

David Woodhead’s set similarly beds in the horror of the characters’ actions. Benign, commonplace objects become aids for capture in his construction that emulates life. There’s an overly lengthy set change, but the transformation from outside a dingy café to Heather’s sitting room is as big a difference as the two women are to each other. The detail and naturalistic design make the story feel all the more like real life, an effective and powerful choice when simplicity and abstraction are the more common styles.

The Wasp presents the capacity for evil within each of us whilst challenging social stereotypes and making powerful comment on how we treat our fellow human beings. Outstandingly committed performances endowed with energy and high emotion and Lloyd Malcolm’s script create a disturbing landscape, disguised in the routine of day to day life, that can be revealed in a moment.


The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.