Miss Nightingale, The Vaults

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By guest critic Alistair Wilkinson

Fly to the front line. Sing some songs. Win the war. Live happily ever after. Sounds easy, right? That’s the idyllic goal that two queers, an unmarried mother and an unborn child feel in Matthew Bugg’s dreamy production of Miss Nightingale. This gorgeous depiction of 1940’s Britain hits you right in the feels and pulls on all heartstrings. The set provides an intimate cabaret club vibe, decorated with posters stating memorable lines from the wonderful songs that are performed throughout.

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The Wild Party, The Other Palace

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Newly rebranded as The Other Palace and now part of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s empire, the former St Jame’s Theatre aims to focus on new British musical theatre. With Paul Taylor-Mills at the creative helm and two spaces in which to develop and showcase new work from the UK, their debut production is…(drumroll)…an American musical from 2000. An odd choice considering the Broadway production nearly two decades ago left critics unimpressed.

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Assisted Suicide: The Musical, Royal Festival Hall

It’s uncomfortable to watch a play that conflicts with your politics or world view, and Liz Carr’s Assisted Suicide: The Musical does just that. The gay actor and comedian aligns with cuddly liberal ideology other than her avowed opposition to legalising assisted suicide in the UK. As a disabled woman, she worries that disabled people will consequently feel pressured to end their lives so they are no longer burdens on their loved ones, especially as many non-disabled people flippantly comment how hard their lives must be. After all, if you’re told the same thing over and over again, it’s too easy to start believing it.

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The Wild Party, Hope Theatre

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By guest reviewer Martin Pettitt

The Wild Party, a simple and to-the-point title, perfectly describes the show as well as the evening I experienced. There was so much to like about this performance. Adapted into a performance piece here by Mingled Yarn Theatre Company, The Wild Party was originally a book-length narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March in the roaring twenties. Initially deemed too racy to publish, it has since become a seminal work finding ever more relevance as we venture further into the 2000s.

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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.

The Last Five Years, St James Theatre

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Even the most moving performances are often largely removed from our day-to-day lives. But every so often you come across a piece of theatre that, whilst it may not be the objective best thing you’ve seen, encapsulates your life so well that you can’t not fall in love with it.

The Last Five Years is good though, even if it’s been a favourite of mine since I discovered it as a student back in 2002. The Jason Robert Brown musical, now 15 years old, is a wonderfully simple (albeit heteronormative) tale of boy and girl meeting, falling in love and falling apart. Framed by the late 90s NYC arts world (that I watched as a teenager in the suburbs and later joined as a drama school student), his story is told in chronological order and hers in reverse. There are two performers; the only time they interact directly is at their wedding, making the songs function more like reflective monologues. Though there is hardly any book, Brown’s lyrics tell the story clearly and sensitively. Dynamic staging and committed performances, like those in this anniversary production that Brown directs, are necessary to keep this quirky little musical from falling flat. It’s a powerful, disarming show when executed effectively, and this production may well be its new definitive.

Jamie is a writer and Cathy is an actor. They are 23 when they meet; neither has had any success yet but both are wide-eyed, bushy tailed, and ready to fall in love. Jamie quickly becomes a bestselling novelist whilst Cathy is left in his wake, waitressing and doing summer theatre in the depths of the Midwest. It’s within this career disparity that their relationship deteriorates, and I find Cathy painfully echoes my own life as a failed actor. The isolation and jealousy that Brown fosters in his songs is wholly believably and all too familiar.

Both characters are flawed but generally likeable and despite reservoirs of love, it’s not enough to save their marriage. Though both characters can be irritating in their own way, their good intentions and fundamental incompatibility also ring true to anyone that’s endured the heartbreak of an ended relationship or marriage. Here is yet another parallel to my past, but this time I’m more like Jamie – I married young and naive and was divorced by 30 as a result of my own mistakes.

Samantha Barks and Jonathan Bailey are Cathy and Jamie. Barks is a stronger singer, but Bailey’s full of charisma and confidently flirts with the audience – it’s a lovely touch. Both have great emotional range and their chemistry is undeniable. Their performances, layered with Brown’s storytelling, reduces many to tears. Sniffling and eye wiping is plentiful in this intimate house.

The small scale of the show is fleshed out with some delightful video design by Jeff Sugg and Derek McLane’s set. These provide the context that’s missing from the script and grounds their story in a real time and place, though its Gabriella Slade’s costumes that indicate the 1990s setting. The videos are simple and cartoon-like, a sweet and charming addition that Brown underuses.

Though more of a song cycle with hardly any spoken dialogue (if you were to listen to the soundtrack you would hear almost the entire show) and arguably rather insubstantial, this one-act show has the ability to burrow into the depths of your guts. It’s a heartfelt love letter to the countless New York City artists doing their best to get by and find meaning in each other, and to everyone that’s every fallen in and out of love. The poignant, timeless story of youthful love and loss has the sorts of songs that you play on loop whilst crying in bed with a heart broken by your own failures (I’ve done this more than I care to admit), and those you can dance to after a brilliant first date or a career win. With the excellent performances and slick design of this production, it’s not one to miss – even if you cry through it.

The Last Five Years runs through 3 December.

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.

Poena 5×1 and No Horizon, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Science and Mathematics. Vaccinations, space travel, electricity. Nuclear weapons, lethal injections, pollution. Poena 5×1 and No Horizon. One is a new play showing the dark potential of science, the other a new musical celebrating overcoming disadvantage through maths. Radically different in style and story, both productions find inspiration in the potential of science, maths and technology, and both need further development.

Scientist Bryony Adams works for the Department of Justice in Poena 5×1. She’s a typical Tory suit who fully believes her horrifying work benefits the greater good – she invented Poena, a drug that reduces prison populations through humane punishment (whatever that is). Named after the minor goddess of punishment, Poena induces a state of despair and hopelessness that can lead to catastrophic mental consequences for the prisoners that are her voluntary test subjects. Bryony becomes emboldened by praise as she further develops the drug, deciding to test it on an unknowing volunteer.

Bryony is a despicable character that Cathy Conneff plays admirably, particularly as she begins to emotionally deteriorate. Considering this is a solo performance with little visual element, her ability to maintain audience focus through compelling embodiment of the character is excellent. The character presents her work to the audience until a twist reveals all is not what it seems. It’s at this point that Abbie Spallen’s script starts to lose its way. As Bryony’s story becomes more personal and less about her work, the narrative becomes knotty and unclear, having a knock-on effect on the script as a whole that until this point, terrifies through the government’s potential to commit heinous acts. Any themes and messages established about the horror of governmental capital punishment are unfortunately diluted. Reworking the ending to maintain character and plot continuity and clarifying the play’s message would take little work but have great effect.

In contrast to Poena 5×1, No Horizon has a solid, consistent script, but this new musical’s shortcomings are its music and the casting of this particular production. The true story of a remarkable young man in the 1680s looks at the power of mathematics to unite people across social class and ability. Nicholas Saunderson, blinded by Smallpox as an infant, learns to read through his friends’ support and tracing letters on gravestones. His envy and frustration grow as his parents enforce limitations on him because of his disability and his best friend in their tiny Yorkshire village goes to Cambridge. Through sheer determination and an innate aptitude for maths and physics, he eventually proves that in a pre-Braille era, disability is still no barrier to success.

It’s a wonderful, uplifting story with a generally good narrative arc, though most of the cast are gifted singers who struggle to match their acting ability to their voices. There is frustratingly little connection between characters, though George Griffiths as Joshua Dunn is a notable exception. The music is rather samey and repetitive without distinction, though there are some standout numbers amongst the Cambridge students. The music is pre-recorded, which makes it even harder to capture any nuance in tone and volume. There is minimal choreography, making the ensemble numbers more choric than musical theatre.

Theatre can be a powerful vehicle for maths and science, but in the cases of No Horizon and Poena 5×1, the subjects are let down a bit. Some tinkering is definitely needed to whip these productions into shape, but there is much potential in these character-driven stories.

Poena 5×1 runs through 29th August, No Horizon runs through 27th August.

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.