Curtain Call, White Bear Theatre

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The backstage comedy has been around for what feels like as long as theatre itself, and it’s difficult to improve upon or innovate it. Simon Bradbury’s attempted dark comedy Curtain Call takes a different direction, instead using the genre to look at ageing, failure and unrequited love. The overwritten script needs significant cutting and dramaturgical streamlining, but it has a dynamic premise that looks at an often-ignored demographic.

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Thebes Land, Arcola Theatre

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A playwright wants to write a play about patricide, but with an actual criminal onstage instead of an actor. Initial research leads him to a young man called Martin Santos, serving consecutive life sentences in Belmarsh for killing his father. As weeks pass and the two men get to know each other, stereotypes and expectations are upended in this moving story of masculinity, violence and theatre.

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The Marriage of Kim K, Arcola Theatre

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by guest critic Maeve Campbell

In 2011 Osama Bin Laden was killed, Pope John Paul II was beautified, and Kate and Wills tied the knot. Nearly as many people watched another televised wedding that year  as a new reality-TV religion swept the globe. This is where The Marriage of Kim K, a new opera penned by Leoe Mercer and Steven Hyde, begins.

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Don Q, Greenwich Theatre

Production shot 4 croppedI really struggled to come up with a suitably erudite introduction to this review of Flintlock Theatre’s Don Q. Not because it’s hard to summarize – quite the opposite. The structure works, the message and plot are clear and the performances are excellent in this suitable-for-all-ages appropriation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I am chalking my difficulties up to this being such an enchanting and moving play that words aren’t quite capturing that “warm and fuzzy but actually quite sad” feeling I had the entire time. Everything I tried to write came across as cold and clinical. It’s a rare occasion that I go to theatre and nearly forget to take notes because what I am seeing on stage grips me by the proverbials that as a woman, I don’t even have. Seeing Don Q evoked the joy and wonderment I had on my first experience of theatre as a small child.

It’s not a simple show, though. Four actors take on numerous levels of characterization. Like Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a group of unrelated characters bookend the play. In this case hapless librarians, frustrated by the council’s efforts to close them down, highlight the importance of storytelling by relating the tale of Norman Vaughan to us. Norman, as we soon find out, is probably their most infamous patron. Norman’s nameless nephew thinks Norman, now 81 years old, has gone mad. You see, Norman loves to read and reenact the stories he reads with his younger friend Sam and anyone else he cajoles into joining him. It is immediately and painfully clear that Norman is completely lucid; he just has a joyful passion for stories and acting them out. The younger generation are so busy being adults that they have forgotten the pleasure of playacting and the power of an absorbing tale. So not only are the audience reminded of the importance of reading and allowing ourselves to be absorbed in a good book, we are also more subtly admonished for not taking the time to listen to our elders and treat them like human beings. So what if Norman (or any other elderly person) loves what he does? As long as no one gets hurt, we are told to leave well enough alone.

Norman’s nephew, having had enough of Norman’s mishaps and convinced he has gone mad, puts him in a nursing home to be looked after properly. He strictly forbids Norman from having access to any books. Sam, on one of his visits, smuggles in a copy of Don Quixote into the nursing home. A comedy chase results in their escape and an adventure imitating a selection of escapades from the original novel. Sam is a begrudging Sancho Panza, a pair of scooters augmented with push brooms and spoons are their trusty steeds and other people they encounter on the way play other characters (some more willingly than others). Their madcap journey is full of whimsy, spontaneity and emotional turmoil but with a potentially tearful ending for the more sentimental of audience members.

Director Robin Colyer skillfully employs physical theatre sequences to add variation and an atmosphere of a touring troupe of players. This is clearly a well-rehearsed, established production; not a breath was out of time. Objects and costume pieces are used liberally and often comically, in a style reminding me of the West End’s 39 Steps. The set and costumes are simple and rustic, but versatile and thought through. Nothing is excessive, nor sparse; the production design is just right.

The performances unite a fantastic script with heaps of audience interaction, and the great design to create a beautifully polished little show. Some call and response would have made more people feel included, as well as giving costume and lines to those in all parts of the auditorium rather than only those sat in the front row. Actors Jeremy Barlow, Francesca Binefa, Kate Colebrook and Samuel Davies are versatile multi-rollers with outstanding chemistry as an ensemble. Whilst I considered that having an older man play the role of Norman would have brought more to the story, the role is incredibly physically demanding and would be difficult to play at a more advanced age.

Don Q is only at Greenwich Theatre for a brief time, but then continues its national tour. This Oxford-based company is worth seeing no matter what your age, where you are or what you do. They use physical theatre, Brecht, storytelling and meta theatre but in an unobtrusive, charming way to create this lovely, warm, gem of a play.

Intention: ☆☆☆☆☆

Outcome: ☆☆☆☆

Star Rating: ☆☆☆☆ 1/2


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.

Lardo, Old Red Lion Theatre

Deep in working class Scotland where you’re a celebrity if Poundland invites you to open their newest store and Buckfast is the drink of choice, bullied Lardo desperately wants a regular spot on The Depot’s “Tartan Wrestling Madness” bill. He has aspired towards this since he was a kid, wanting to live up to his dad who died in the ring. Lardo is also a youtuber, a call centre worker and not coping well with his girlfriend Kelly’s revelation of her pregnancy. Event promoter and producer Gavin Stairs takes a shine to the supposedly fearless, pudgy Lardo and gives him a chance but Stairs is not the sort of person to give anything away for free.

Daniel Buckley plays Lardo as a wide-eyed, immature escapist with pathos and enthusiasm, like a well intentioned but hapless pantomime hero. Nick Karimi’s Stairs is a fitting villain, a failed wrestler refusing to let go of his past glories and grudges. Pushing the limits of health and safety regulations and the boundaries of inspector Cassie (Rebecca Pownall), Stairs wants to bring real violence into the ring. There is an undercurrent of danger in him, foreshadowing a violent end. Zoe Hunter plays Mary (who moonlights as hard as nails Whiplash), a single mother trying to get by and do the right thing. Wrestling director Henry Devas’ choreography captures the theatricality of pro wrestling, which all of the performers embraced eagerly and executed skilfully.

During the wrestling matches in the ring that takes up most of the pub theatre stage, the characters interact directly with the audience and encourage them to cheer, shout and root for their favourite. Part pantomime and part live sporting event, the fights blend these forms of theatre, pulling the audience into a meta-theatricality where actors play characters who play more exaggerated characters in the ring. Just as Lardo, Mary and Stairs transform into a heightened Lardo, Whiplash and Heartbreaker to escape the misery of daily life in their weekly wrestling nights, the audience are pulled out of their reality as people watching a play and become spectators of a wrestling match in Scotland. It is rather like living inside their heads, seeing the otherwise-guarded fantasies instead displayed under the bright lights of a dingy wrestling club. The audience also sees some of the wrestlers’ rehearsals. Like rehearsals for a play, these scenes come across as intimate moments that are a privilege to witness.

This is writer Mike Stone’s first full length play and it is an excellent start. Lardo uses an array of theatrical and cultural influences to expose the inner life of the characters, but more depth would not go amiss in the characters’ real lives and relationships. A couple of jumps forward in time created ambiguity and suspense but additional clarity would be welcome and would not have to reveal the missing action. The characters’ need to escape is one we all can relate to, so the audience willingly plays pretend with the characters.

This is a wonderfully fun play, with genuine belly laughs as well as moments of exposed, raw pain that have the ability to slide the audience along a spectrum of feelings. There is certainly scope to develop these characters more and the play would work well in a larger theatre, where the ring is a separate set element rather than the set itself. This production gives insight into an often-troubled world desperate for a distraction and temporary escape, even if it means risking life and limb to do so.

Intention: ☆☆☆☆☆

Outcome: ☆☆☆

Star Rating: ☆☆☆☆


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.