Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Theatre N16

John Patrick Shanley isn’t particularly well-known this side of the pond, but back in the States, this Irish-American playwright from a rough part of the Bronx is regularly produced. Probably most well-known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt: A Parable, he is still writing plays and films. Currently exceeding 23 in number, he’s as prolific as Shakespeare and much more so than many playwrights of his generation. Though his early works lack the trappings of modern technology, the focus on relationship and family dynamics transcend any dated aspects of the setting. Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is Shanley’s second play, a two-handler set in a dingy Bronx bar where Danny and Roberta, two strangers running out of steam to continue in their own skin, find solace in a night of intimacy. Theatrum Veritatus resurrect this Shanley play from the ’80s with a solid production grounded in good performances and direction that seeks to tell this story of two lonely, angry people looking for someone to help them escape their dismal realities. 

Gareth O’Connor and Megan Lloyd-Jones are Danny and Roberta. Both are coldly aggressive, defensive against the world that has dragged them through the muck. Both have their secrets and recognise a kindred spirit across an empty bar. O’Connor nails Danny’s aggression but convincingly softens in his intimate moments with Roberta. Lloyd-Jones does the same with a character that is arguably more horrific and manipulative, but her capacity for vulnerability within such a character is admirable. The two have great chemistry and ability to capture nuance within broader characterisation choices.

Director Courtney Larkin takes advantage of the small bar in TheatreN16 and doubles up the technician as an unspeaking barman. It’s a clever device; luckily she found a willing board operator. The staging didn’t always cater to audience sight lines, though. With the bar perpendicular to one side of the audience, she followed that line rather than a diagonal that would make it easier to see both characters when they are sitting at the same table. The bedroom scenes avoided this, but with the bed as a mattress on the floor and no audience rake, this also challenged audience members beyond the first row. Otherwise there are no issues with Larkin’s work – she allows the text to breathe and grow at its own pace. 

Shanley’s script is understandably dated and has some implausible transitions, especially considering New Yorkers aren’t prone to striking up conversations with random strangers. These are soon forgotten in favour of the performances and actors’ sensitivity to the other’s character. It’s a touching story about the human condition and need to connect with others, no matter how damaged we might be, and the character-driven plot in a well-suited venue make this a good production of a little-known modern American classic.

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Princess Caraboo, Finborough Theatre

In the 1820s, a wealthy English couple who recently lost their daughter take in young girl arrested for begging. Convinced by her companion that she is a princess from a Pacific island who doesn’t speak any English, they are determined to look after her as their own, bringing her up in aristocratic society. The princess turns out to be no more than a lying servant girl from Devon, so Sir Charles Worrall and Lady Worrall rally their servants to perform the story of Princess Caraboo to a curious Victorian audience. Phil Willmott’s latest musical, inspired by true events, looks at how desperate times call for desperate measures and the “golden age” of the British Empire’s propensity for exploration and collecting exotic specimens. It’s a polished, well-made and potentially commercial work that, whilst not progressive in form or style, is crafted with detail and well performed.

The cast of ten have a commendable 50/50 gender split, though the male characters are generally more developed and distinct from each other. Eddie (Cristian James) is the charmingly meek orphaned nephew of Lord and Lady Worrall (the jolly Phil Sealey and warm, maternal Sarah Lawn), recently returned from adventures at sea. His budding relationship with the princess (Nikita Johal) is seriously sweet but not saccharine, and he’s a great foil to the laddish, bullying Lord Marlborough (Oliver Stanley, who has the makings of a fantastic villain). Johal as Princess Caraboo is physically expressive when in roles as the mostly non-speaking, smily princess, but is ferociously bold as Mary who does everything she can to escape her past. The ensemble work well together in the already small space, made smaller by a trio of on-stage musicians. Occasionally the space feels too crowded and the choreography consequently is a bit clumsy and restrained.

Willmott and Mark Collins’ music takes some time to build up to the most memorable numbers, but it finally smashes it with ‘My Own Person,’ Mary’s empowering anthem that carries through the rest of the two and half hour show as a reoccurring theme. The lyrics are a bit basic, but fit the modern, pop-musical style with some great large numbers. Willmott also wrote the book, which uses meta theatre to frame the story and address the theme of lying through both the Caraboo plot line and Lord Worrall’s lecture-like narrative evoking Greek philosopher Aracticus. Incorporating the Victorian search for enlightenment through knowledge adds an additional level to the historical context without making the main through-line too dense with exposition. 

The set here is sparse, but it’s easy to picture something much more grand with a larger cast in the West End. Working well with the intimate playing space to create mood and setting is Jack Weir’s lighting design, often playing off the large piece of glass that is sometimes a mirror and sometimes transparent. The multiple storm scenes use LEDs to good effect, as well as contrasts in brightness and colour. The wonderful, happy aristocratic England and the workhouse where Mary lived are worlds apart thanks to Weir’s work.

Phil Willmott’s musical could easily be at home in a large, commercial venue but rather than wait for a big money backer, he puts it on the fringe. Though it lacks progressiveness in form, Princess Caraboo is polished and ready to go onto bigger and brighter things.

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.