The Magic Flute, King’s Head Theatre

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by guest critic Alistair Wilkinson

The King’s Head Theatre has been turned into a South American jungle, and we are invited to go along with the intrigued explorer Tamino, as he embarks on his journey to discover a world full of magical beings. In this world, and actually this performance too, nothing is what is expected.

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Russian Dolls, King’s Head Theatre

Russian Dolls at King's Head Theatre, Stephanie Fayerman and Mollie Lambert_1 © Andreas Grieger

Camelia’s just got out of young offenders’ but her mum never turned up to collect her, so she’s back to looking after herself. Hilda is a blind elderly woman fending of her goddaughter’s attempts to move her to Basingstoke. When Camelia robs Hilda after tricking into believing she’s covering for her carer, the two end up influencing each other much more than ever expected. Kate Lock’s Russian Dolls tells the fraught story of an unlikely dependency that is doomed to end badly for both women. Lock’s characters are fantastic, and their scenes together are tense and charged with moments of genuine tenderness. In between the scenes are narrative monologues that, whilst providing necessary information, are awkwardly addressed to the ether and disrupt the story’s momentum.

Stephanie Fayerman as Hilda and Mollie Lambert as Camelia are a volatile pair. The energy between them is either stormy or potentially so; the tension makes them wonderfully watchable. Their few scenes of relaxed openness towards the other are fleeting, but hugely rewarding and loaded with tough love. Both performances are excellent, and the dependency on the other is great to watch.

There is no sentimentality towards young people, the care system or aging in Lock’s script. The lack of happy ending is a touch disappointing, but it’s accurate. The stories of young people from broken homes actually managing to turn their lives around are rare considering the 69,540 young people in care as of March last year. Every now and again an “inspiring” case hits the news, but for the majority of these children, their lives are part of an endless cycle of poverty, abuse, drugs and jail time. Well done to Lock for not going the easy route with her narrative.

Structurally, the script is quite simple and there are large, frustrating chronological jumps that skips huge sections of both characters’ emotional journeys. This could easily be a full length, two-act play and would work very well as such. Provided the current ending is kept, a 2 hour or so build up would make it all the more devastating.

Russian Dolls, winner of the Adrian Pagan Award and shortlisted for the Bruntwood Prize, is a bolshy play full of life in all of its glorious imperfections. It’s an honest look at the care system and its flaws, but the actors’ characterization and electric relationship is the highlight of this new play.

Russian Dolls runs through 23 April.

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.

To Kill a Machine, King’s Head Theatre

To Kill a Machine: Scriptography Productions

How well can you condense Alan Turing’s life and work into one hour? Considering his technologically groundbreaking career, WWII code breaking and conviction for crimes of gross indecency, that’s a lot of source material for precious little time. Catrin Fflur Huws chooses to focus on the man behind the achievements at various pivotal points in his life for To Kill a Machine. From boarding school days to chemical castration shortly before his death, Huws shows the relationships rather than the events that shaped his life. Scenes of naturalism are interspersed with a surreal, presentational game show indicating the factors outside of Turing’s control that dictate his unfortunate fate at the hands of discrimination. Though stylistically dynamic, they are less compelling than the latter. Together, they make a good whole but with so much missing from Turing’s life, the highlights contained in To Kill a Machine shortchange the story of such an important man.

In the centre of a round platform, a wiry, mechanical tree by designer Cordielia Ashwell sprouts important mementos from Turing’s life: a photograph of Christopher, his first love at school, pages of indecipherable code, and the apple that he may or may not have used to kill himself. Its trunk is also a convenient place to store props and costume, but the visual aspect is the most dominant, and strikingly so. The symbol of life manifested in an everlasting, sculptural form against the items that were his downfall is powerful image.

The tree also dictates circular movements from the cast of four, most prominent in the game show scenes and Turing’s sex with his younger lover, Arnold Murray, who eventually betrays him – the moments where his life spirals irrevocably out of control. Alan’s eventual tethering to the tree via medical equipment during his “treatment” is a horrible,  effective reminder of history’s handing of people discovered to be gay and sapping their life force with discriminatory legislation.

Gwydion Rhys as Alan Turing is the anchor in the cast, with a nuanced and sensitive performance that leaves Benedict Cumberbatch’s generic interpretation in the dust. He is complimented well by intimate scenes with François Pandolfo as his school friend Christopher, and older brother John giving him advice in the run up the trial. This latter scene is by far the best in the play.

Though the script is good, it’s short length is unsatisfying and otherwise dwarfed by the performances and design. The structure works as does the lens with which it views Turing’s life, but surely there is more than an hour’s worth of material on the man behind the life-changing mathematician and inventor.

To Kill A Machine runs through 23 April.

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.

Something Something Lazarus, King’s Head Theatre

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Musical theatre is growing rapidly on the fringe, thanks to venues that focus on small-scale shows and producers staging lesser-known works. New British musicals are seen less often, with only a handful of producers focusing on bringing audiences this new musical writing. Broken Cabaret, around since 1997, aim to create new kind of musical. Something Something Lazarus is part cabaret, part backstage/play-within-a-play dark comedy, part surreal fantasy. The structure is the most interesting part of the show, with a plot and songs that are sometimes surreally nonsensical. Performances are consistently excellent and whilst there isn’t always the sense that Something Something Lazarus is radically innovative, it has a British quirkiness that US imports, the most commonly produced musicals on the fringe and commercially, lack.

Four characters based on contrasting musical theatre and cabaret stereotypes generate plenty of conflict and more than a few laughs. Daisy Amphlett as Della is a no-nonsense musical director and accompanist with no patience for, well, anything. Amphlett’s powerful voice and ferocious presence is a joy to watch along with her ability to play several instruments. Valerie Cutko as fading star Vee is glamourous, seductive and rather useless, belonging somewhere more than the Midnight Sun cabaret. Daniel (Ralph Bogard) runs the venue with his twink bartender boyfriend and aspiring singer, Jay (Daniel Cech-Lucas). Daniel and Jay don’t have much love for each other; it’s a relationship of boredom and convenience amusingly played by both. When an unexpected delivery from Daniel’s ex arrives, his freewheeling emotions cause a violent eruption that moves the action, and the real cabaret, into Jay’s mind.

Much of the story takes place in real-time before the evening’s show starts. It’s pretty typical meta, backstage fare but with music and dialogue flowing into each other like an actual rehearsal – a lovely change from standard musical theatre structure. Though not innovative, it’s nice to see a more low-key, Kiss Me, Kate type of musical. The action is continuous and the dialogue feels natural, though the characters are more heightened versions of those you typically encounter in this environment. John Myatt’s dialogue is punchy and fun, with plenty of bitchiness. The cabaret-in-my-head section is both surreal and more like an actual cabaret performance – a disorientating but more interesting outcome, and with more memorable songs by Simon Arrowsmith than the first part of the show.

Accompanying the show is Simon and Jonny Arrowsmith’s transmedia, three websites that add further detail to the world of Something Something Lazarus that isn’t clarified within the dialogue and plot. Whilst it’s a great extension of the performances, I’m uncertain how much audiences engage with the work. I expect transmedia will come to be used more and more, what with the legacy it creates and an easy way to further engage with audiences.

Though Something Something Lazarus isn’t as innovative as it makes itself out to be, there are a lot of great elements. The performances are excellent, the transmedia is a nice touch and it’s great to see British theatre makers creating new musical theatre that doesn’t follow American trends.

Something Something Lazarus is at the King’s Head Theatre until 2nd April.

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.

Big Brother Blitzkrieg, King’s Head Theatre

Lots of things seem like a great idea at uni. Some of them are genuinely good ideas. A great deal more aren’t. Writing a play about Hitler in the Big Brother House is one of the latter. In 2014, Newcastle University students Hew Rous Eyre and Max Elton founded Bitter Pill Theatre to produce their debut play, Big Brother Blitzkrieg, at Edinburgh Fringe that year. With a couple of other shows now under their belt, they bring their popular first production to London. Meant to somehow satirise Big Brother and Hitler, this stereotype-driven piece doesn’t follow any sort of consistent narrative logic and doesn’t manage to rise to satirical humour. The performances are very good despite the character limitations, but the script comes across as a drunks, nonsensical idea that would have been better off forgotten.

When Hitler fails to kill himself after his final rejection from art school, he wakes up in the garden of the Big Brother House during its final season. True to life, no one watches the programme anymore and the contestants are just in it for the money. Bafflingly, none of them no who Hitler is, even the educated, middle class housemates. Clearly this is a world where WWII never happened, but I’m not sure what point that’s meant to make. Similarly, the plot follows what I imagine to be standard Big Brother events: evictions, competitions, surprises and character clashes that are largely unfunny and offer no new perspective on the show or reality TV format. Though the story defies the laws of Physics through the use of time travel, this element is wholly neglected.

The cast are very good, or at least at playing their respective stereotypes. Stephen Chance is an expressive, quick-witted Hitler with no idea of how to deal with charming, bouncy Essex lad M-Cat (Kit Loyd) and ageing queen Felix (Neil Summerville). He finds kinship in corporate PR and Tory Lucy (Jenny Johns), a delightfully despicable Katie Hopkins homage. The house is completed with femi-gendered Charlie (Hannah Douglas) who has some cracking exchanges with Lucy, and the bland as plain toast housewife Rachel (Tracey Ann Wood), who Hitler immediately distrusts. The combinations invites inevitable situation comedy but again, it’s not sophisticated enough to count as satire, or have any sort of message at all. A shame, as the actors all seem to have great potential but are stuck playing two dimensions.

The show would suit a much smaller format, like a reoccurring sketch as part of a comedy show limiting each slot to ten minutes. About half an hour in, Big Brother Blitzkrieg already feels too long. There were a few good lines, but in 75 minutes, a few isn’t enough to save this play even with the hardworking cast. Despite the commendation these young practitioners deserve for setting up a company whilst still studying and keeping it going for nearly two years, part of artistic development is knowing when to let an idea go. This is a production that needs to retire in favour of more advanced, relevant work.

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 Long Road South, King’s Head Theatre

The Civil Rights movement in America was time of turbulence and violence but both black and white activists retaliated with their passion for equality. The issue divided individual families across generations, recreating the conflict on a microcosmic level. Paul Minx’s The Long Road South recreates this excruciating tension through close examination of the dysfunctional Price family in suburban Indiana.

Stay at home Carol Ann (Imogen Stubbs)is mother  to teenager Ivy (Lydea Perkins) and married to supermarket manager Jake (Michael Brandon). They are the only family in their neighbourhood able to afford “help”, black couple Grace (Krissi Bohn) and Andre (Cornelius Macarthy). On the surface, these characters are aspirational and progressive. That American Dream veneer doesn’t hold up for long, though. The characters’ gangrenous innards seep out, creating a kitchen sink drama with excellent moments, dramatic themes  and characterisation akin to Miller and Williams, but lacks the linguistic sophistication of these revolutionary writers and a few too many twists and turns for a one-act play.

The cast is generally strong, with Brandon outshining the rest when he eventually appears in Willy Loman-esque glory. Perkins has a grating vocal quality that, though appropriate to the lying, manipulative character, was nails on a blackboard after a few scenes. Bohn and Macarthy are good foils to each other with a lovely chemistry and sharp edges that sporadically pop out, adding to the dissonance. Stubbs is the tragic heroine, trapped in her house by alcoholism and the memory of an institutionalised child. This lot are a close-knit ensemble, an extended family with all the complexity of a real life one. Unfortunately, the accents spanned the country rather than uniting this family in a common place.

Director Sarah Berger skilfully uses the irregular playing space and space to enhance tension. Rarely touching or even close to each other, this shows the power of religious belief in these characters constantly aware of Satan’s temptations. Adrian Linford’s sunny back garden with its perfectly mowed grass and pastel BBQ juxtaposes the family’s chaos. Minx has an instinct for conflict, but the production’s subtlety comes from the performances rather than the dialogue. There’s no overt moralising or thickly laid Americanisms, just the characters’ genuine need to do what they think is right.

The Long Road South is a quite the good script by a writer with plenty of promise and a great cast. It’s a good reminder of a crucial period of American history, and that monumental change can wreak havoc on the closest of family units. The cast and the characters’ individual stories are certainly the best features here, but the other production elements aren’t far behind.

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.

Mirror Mirror: A Snow White Pantomime, King’s Head Theatre

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They are new to the King’s Head, but Charles Court Opera aren’t new to pantomime. This year’s Mirror Mirror: A Snow White Pantomime is their ninth “boutique” panto. Though an opera company, this show and cast of six are anything but stereotypical opera fare. John Savournin’s script is fresh and witty, the performances are camp and vibrant, and the re-written pop song soundtrack is so well sung that it deserves a cast recording. There’s plenty of typical panto interaction, made easier and more personal in a fringe venue but doesn’t overwhelm the space, either. Though the costumes are detailed and fun, the set is a bit analog and takes up a lot of playing space, restricting movement and choreography. Some of the performances were more genuine than others, but this remains a wonderfully current panto with excellent writing.

Savournin also directs and plays Snow White, the ditzy, ingénue widow of Barry White living with the seven dwarfs, all distinctly and energetically played by Matthew Kellet. Greedy queen Andrea Tweedale uses her mirror (Simon Masterton-Smith) to help her search for a husband, but her plans are thwarted when prince Larry Black (Amy J Payne) and his valet Harry (Nichola Jolly) show up looking for a bride and instead of being impressed by her beauty, Larry falls for Snow. The traditional story veers off in numerous contemporary directions from there, which adds to the audience’s delight and prevents the show from becoming stale or generic. The music is mostly cleverly reworked pop songs, but there’s a bit of musical theatre thrown in and the Act one Finale numbers are fantastic.

No individual performer overshadows the others, instead they are a balanced lot with clear strengths. Payne and Jolly are a charismatic pair, with Kellett’s range of dwarves a hilarious counterpoint to the leads. Savournin’s Snow is shallow but sweet and doesn’t fall short in any of the creative roles he takes on. Tweedale stokes the audiences’ booing and aww-ing brilliantly. The height difference between Savournin and Payne supports the comedy heavily peppering the dialogue, as does the cross-gender casting that goes beyond the dame and principal boy. There is some lovely chemistry between some of the characters but even though it’s a panto, there could be more between Payne and Savournin.

There’s loads of audience interaction and mess, the best being a Great British Bake Off-style competition that results in dough everywhere. Of course, there’s your usual panto call and response but not so much so that the script is otherwise flimsy. The unique visual gags Savournin employs are much more satisfying, anyway (pro tip: look out for Barry). A few give a nod to tradition, but this is definitely a language-focused script. This gives the performance a richness and depth missing from more traditional fare, hence the “boutique” label. Charles Court Opera is certainly onto a winning formula here within London pantomime offerings and is not one panto fans should miss.


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.