The Beggar’s Opera, Brockley Jack

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By guest critic Michaela Clement-Hayes, @_mickychaela

London in 1728 was a dark and dangerous place. Highwaymen, hangmen and harlots roamed the streets and life was hard. John Gay’s satirical musical The Beggar’s Opera steps away from the traditional romanticised stories of heroes and villains, unrequited love, choosing instead to tell a tale of rogues and murderers. And a little bit of love, for good measure.

Polly Peachum (Michaela Bennison) has defied her parents and married the notorious highwayman Macheath (Sherwood Alexander) However, he has most certainly not forsaken all others. Wanted for his crimes, he leaves Polly with a promise to return.

Lazarus Theatre have taken David Gay’s story and brought it into the 21st century with a bang. Literally – there are party poppers. It’s a whirlwind of a tale – quirky and fun, transcending the centuries and combining modern day with the past.

Performances are strong from everyone, with the cast acknowledging the audience with intense stares throughout, involving them discreetly yet hardly breaking the fourth wall. The staging is simple yet effective, with ladders, coloured masking tape and a few pieces of furniture whisked on and off, and the cast adopting masks and a few props as they switch from key character to chorus.

Singing is good, but feels a little strained in places. However, this does not detract from the story (adapted and directed by Ricky Dukes), and the new lyrics (penned by Bobby Locke) are both clever and amusing.

It’s fun, fast-paced and funny – a very enjoyable show.

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.

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What I Learned From Johnny Bevan, Soho Theatre; The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Jack Studio Theatre

Is revolution in the air? Or, are we all so broken and defeated by rising costs and a falling quality of life that all we can do is complain bitterly? Perhaps a bit of both? In any case, this is not the first time that I wonder if theatre is responding to the liberal sense of disaffection recently. Shortly before Christmas I questioned Dominic Cavendish’s assertion that theatre isn’t political enough, and my sentiment still stands, particularly after the coincidence of seeing two highly charged political pieces two nights in a row. Fringe theatre, like grassroots politics, is a place of community, a catalyst for change, and the foundations of revolt, as seen in Lazarus Theatre Company’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Luke Wright’s What I Learned From Johnny Bevan.

1997. The eve of the general election. Nick, who’s studying English Literature at a nameless uni stays up all night with his best mate, poet Johnny Bevan, to watch Tony Blair win. It’s the dawn of a new era and change is coming for the working class long oppressed by Thatcherite rule.  Fast forward fifteen years and Nick’s a journalist in London, but Johnny’s student aspirations didn’t come to fruition, and neither have Tony Blair’s. The story of these two lads’ friendship, written and performed by Luke Wright in a blaze of fiery spoken word, is an hour long tale of youthful vigour soured by the realities of adult life. Wright’s delivery and writing is fervent, topical and no moment is out of place in the trendy and on-point What I Learned From Johnny Bevan.

South of the river, an older revolution is taking place. In Soviet Russia, a group of peasants stages a play about a servant girl in Georgia raising the governor’s newborn baby that was abandoned during the family’s escape from a war zone. After a perilous journey, sacrifice for the sake of the infant, and a regime change, everything is put right again by a citizen judge. Lazarus Theatre Company, with its trademarks of a large cast and striking visuals, draws parallels between Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle and the despair of modern life – but “change is hope”. Energetic and in the round, the characters rally the audience to their side like they do in Wright’s monologue.

There’s optimism in both productions as well as despair, and an underlying current of discontent with the state of the UK’s current socio-political trajectory. Both display humanity’s capability for selflessness and selfishness, and the feeling that nothing has changed from Soviet ruled Eastern Europe, to Labour’s late-90’s victory, to present unviable economic conditions and Tory tyranny. We are undeniably flawed with a fickleness vulnerable to power and money, but as a society we are also deeply unhappy and feel that we lack the power to affect change. This sentiment now seems to be emerging in fringe theatre.

Though completely different in form and structure, both What I Learned From Johnny Bevan and The Caucasian Chalk Circle have plenty to say about the contemporary world from similar angles. What I Learned From Johnny Bevan is the better of the two productions, and  the more progressive. A solo performance delivered in spoken word accompanied by charcoal and watercolour landscape projections, most of the imagery in Wright’s language is precise and evocative. Brecht’s well-known play is linguistically stilted and stuffy in contrast, but it’s characters are just as colourful.

Performance poet Luke Wright is a singular tour de force and What I Learned From Johnny Bevan is politically charged and practically flawless. Lazarus Theatre’s performances vary, but of the ten-strong ensemble, no one was particularly strong or weak. Their choreography is well-rehearsed but director Ricky Dukes normally powerful movement sequences  lack impact in the round. The set components take up a lot of space and are used well occasionally, but otherwise clutter the stage with bright, industrial chaos. Neil McKeown’s sound design hints at atmosphere and mood, but is much too quiet to add the impact it could. It’s certainly not a bad production, but neither is it one of Lazarus’ stronger ones.

If theatre is a mirror held up to the world, then evidence is increasing that change is imminent. But what form will it take? Will the people rally as in The Caucasian Chalk Circle or will we either sell out or run away from it all like Nick or Johnny? Only time will tell.

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.

Tamburlaine the Great, Tristan Bates Theatre

That which goes up must eventually fall. Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great tells of the title role’s rise from common thug to emperor of Persia and Africa. A precursor to, and probable influence of, Shakespeare’s ruthless Richard III, the man is needlessly brutal: he orders rivals’ remains displayed on city walls, women and children killed, manipulates others to join his cause and then betrays them. Fate eventually catches up with Tamburlaine after he sets fire to books, including the Qu’ran, and proclaims himself more powerful than God.

Lazarus Theatre Company returns to form after a disappointing Henry V with a modern, concise presentation of Marlowe’s play depicting Tamburlaine as a violent, string vest wearing hood rat transformed into a suited and booted world ruler. Social mobility is the dominant theme, emphasized through Rachel Dingle’s costume design in this rags to riches tale. With visually arresting movement sequences, skillful use of light, and pointed similarities with Middle Eastern politics, immigration and Western meddling in the region, this is a relevant, well-crafted adaptation of the Elizabethan original.

The defining feature of this Lazarus’ adaptation is the extended movement sequences, with a powerfully striking one opening the show. A large cast use militaristic stylization and East Asian performance techniques to slowly travel across the stage, setting the tone for Tamburlaine’s merciless and unfeeling crusade. The choreography is precisely angular and even though the actors are well-rehearsed and the effect is visually stunning, there are hints of restrained self-consciousness from some of the company. Accompanied by deep, tonal sound design by Neil McKeown with the actors smartly dressed in modern suits, it reflects the contemporary Western political machine that coldly invades other countries. These sequences are used throughout, enough to be effective but not so much that they lose their power. No choreographer is credited, so they are assumed to be a product of co-directors Ricky Dukes and Gavin Marrington-Odedra.

Performances from the company of 15 are good, with delivery occasionally broken and overindulgent. These moments are rare and don’t affect the pace or energy of the cast as a whole. Particular highlights are Kate Austen as the aggressive, trackie-bottomed Techelles who is Tamburlaine’s number two. She never loses her fierceness, even when Tamburlaine’s success means she has to wear a fitted dress. Robert Gosling is the simpering, camp Mycetes, Emperor of Persia. He’s a great contrast to Prince Plockey’s earthy Tamburlaine. Alex Reynolds is the captured prisoner Zenocrates that Tamburlaine woos and makes his bride. Her transition from victim to doting wife is a disturbingly good example of Stockholm Syndrome, reinforcing Tamburlaine’s power and manipulation. Lorna Reed plays three smaller roles, with a calm strength and subtly powerful voice. She would make an excellent Hermione or Lady Anne. The bombastic Bajozeth, Emperor of the Turks, is played by Alex Maude and is a joy to watch, particularly when imprisoned and force fed by Tamburlaine.

There are few weaknesses in this Lazarus production, but those that are present are minor. Tamburlaine’s final speech has too many pauses and the use of five identical crowns can cause confusion as to which character is the most important at any given moment. There was also an unsatisfying lack of blood considering the play’s violence. However, fringe productions tend to not have a dry cleaning budget; having the Mads Mikkelsen-as-Hannibal Lector suits cleaned daily would cost a small fortune. Artistic director Dukes’ flair for updating classical theatre with contemporary relevance and visual staging is at its finest in Tamburlaine the Great and is certainly worth a watch, particularly as it’s a play rarely staged.


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Henry V, Union Theatre

I’ve known Lazarus THTP-037-4heatre Company and artistic director Ricky Dukes’ work for a long time. We first met back in 2010 sharing a venue at Camden Fringe when I was a fledgling producer. Since then, I’ve seen several of their shows and reviewed others, including The Spanish Tragedy (my first review for everything theatre) and last summer’s Troilus & Cressida. Dukes is visually inventive, with a solid grasp on the challenges of classical theatre. He boldly reconceptualises plays, honouring the language but ensuring productions are energetic and a feast for the eyes and ears. I expect Lazarus shows to provide a creative, unique perspective on the play, with high quality performances. Until this Henry V at The Union Theatre, they have always fulfilled these expectations.

The all-female, barefoot cast is rendered androgynous by identical navy blue boiler suits, emphasising Lazarus’ dedicated ensemble approach. Whilst this easily allows for multi-rolling, there is no visual distinction between characters. This hinders understanding of the story, particularly with the sweeping cuts to the text. The dark colour is a striking contrast to the dominating white table in the middle of the thrust stage, covered in religiously symbolic items, all white or light coloured: candles, an ornate bible, an alter cloth, a bowl of water for ritualistic washing, and Henry’s crown. These objects justify Henry’s contentious claim to France. A stack of self-referential Arden scripts is tucked under the table. There is no other set, save for black metal chairs ringing the playing space for actors to sit when not performing. The cast are on stage the entire time, a Brechtian technique used to emphasise the narrative aspect of theatre. Additional visuals include a creepily masked French herald, bright pink gift bags filled with the Dauphin’s luminous green tennis balls and a single pink helium balloon. These remain on stage for the duration, as well as the balls, which are thrown about the space upon delivery, causing the actors to tread warily. The overall look of the production harks back to the 1960’s.

The colour combinations and excellent lighting design looks fantastic. Dukes and the actors use the stage effectively, playing to all sides of the audience. Any individual moment could be photographed and it would make a striking image. The issue is that none of these visual choices supports the production concept. Dukes wants the audience to question whether Henry really has the right to invade France. Clutching at straws, I connected the boiler suits to mechanics, or builders – perhaps these characters are tearing down England and rebuilding it to be bigger, faster and stronger? This is tenuous, at best.

I really want this production to be as good as Lazarus’ past productions I’ve seen. Adaptations of Shakespeare should give the audience new insight into the play and provide a clear level of understanding, but this time Lazarus did not succeed in doing so. Other than it looking great, the reason behind the design choices remains unclear and they do not support the production concept.

The ensemble has some excellent performances. Colette O’Rourke is a feisty Northern Henry that holds attention throughout her lengthy trademark speeches. She is grounded, but with a volatile, pent up aggression. Her performance is reminiscent of Clare Dunn’s Hal in Phyllida Lloyd’s Henry IV at the Donmar last year. Just as watchable is RJ Seeley as Fluellen, who has some great scenes with Emily Owens’ Pistol. Nuala McGowan is vibrant and dynamic as the disturbing French herald and Captain MacMorris. The rest of the cast struggle to distinguish themselves from each other, delivering the text with nearly identical rhythm and pace.

Other devices that add distinctive features but no further clarification to the production concept include a loud hailer through which Henry rallies his troops, but it flattens delivery. Some speeches are delivered in prayer, emphasising the driving force of religion in Henry’s mission. Direct address is used copiously as it should be, but not excessively so. The St. Crispin’s speech is a wonderfully intimate interpretation. Pistol adds in some “fuck you’s”, which although gratuitous, suit the character. The diverse female cast, whilst laudable for diversity reasons, also provides no unique insight into the play, as their costume and performance style does not pander to any particular gender identity.

This Henry V is certainly not a bad production, but it is not up to Lazarus’ usual standard of excellence. A great performance from the title role and striking visuals help hold audience interest to some extent, but the lack of concept and design unity prevent total audience engagement.


The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.