Talk Radio, Old Red Lion Theatre

by an anonymous guest critic

First produced off-Broadway in 1987, Eric Bogosian’s brilliant drama has finally been produced in London for the first time by Covent Garden Productions and the Old Red Lion Theatre.

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Mrs Orwell, Old Red Lion Theatre

by guest critic Simona Negretto

In 1949, George Orwell lived the final months of his life in University College Hospital due to a severe case of tuberculosis. Torn between an uncertain faith in a recovery and the consciousness of the approaching end, hoping to write again, he decided to marry Sonia Brownell, a young and beautiful magazine editor. The marriage, as the play keeps reminding us, was a sort of pragmatic contra-deal conceived more out of interests than of love.

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One Last Thing (For Now), Old Red Lion

Families separated by war and conflict have kept in touch one way or another for time immemorial. Recently giving way to skype, texts and emails, letter writing is now largely neglected – but surviving relics betray heartache, fear and longing. International theatre company Althea Theatre draw on choral physical theatre and the intimate communications between family members from a range of global conflicts to create a moving tribute to love and patriotism.

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Ugly Lovely, Old Red Lion


It’s Shell’s 26th birthday and she’s not happy. Her boyfriend Carl is AWOL and probably banging Smelly Kelly, her nan died recently, and she wants to leave Wales for the big city of Liverpool. Her best mate Tash is trying to convince her to stay, but her reasons are far from convincing. Shell is miserable, frustrated and angry. She feels the pull of adventure, but the tug of the sea she knows so well is strong, too. Shell tries to decide what to do as best she can – chatting with the urn that holds her nan’s ashes, going out clubbing and leaving her son Kieran with her mum. Ugly Lovely snapshots down-at-heel but aspirational Swansea with well-rounded characters who are excellently performed within a promising script, but it has a somewhat unsatisfying resolution.

This is writer Ffion Jones’ first play, and as debuts go, it’s a a rather good one. She’s built a sound narrative structure, though some trimming wouldn’t go amiss. The plot isn’t complex enough to warrant the current length or the interval, though too much cutting would rush the climax and dénouement. She has written detailed, nuanced characters with emotional depth that rally the audience’s support, but this leads to disappointment when Shell ignores her ambitions. Jones has an aptitude for sharp dialogue and dark humour, and there are some brilliant comedic moments within the characters’ misery.

Jones plays Shell, endowing the character with emotional truth and lived experience. Sophie Hughes as her best friend Tash is her cheerful sidekick, maintaining a wonderful sense of optimism despite an abusive home life. Oliver Morgan-Thomas rounds out the cast as their laddish schoolmate Robyn who is also doing the best he can to get by, though isn’t the nicest of individuals. His introduction leads to a brutal conflict and adds variation to the individual scenes’ structures, and his rough charm brings a great energy to the dynamic created by the women.

Nikolai Ribnikov’s direction is smooth and instinctive, and Lizzy Leech’s set enhances the gritty naturalism of their day-to-day lives. There is an awkward park bench that doubles as a couch, and the exposed toilet sits unused and exposed in a corner for most of the play, but adds additional dinginess.

This is a great little play that is remarkably polished for a new writer; it shows much promise even though it could use some tweaking. Jones is clearly a skilled theatre maker, and the rest of the creative team serves her script excellently. Production company Velvet Trumpet did exceedingly well in choosing this script, and Jones is certainly one to watch as both an actor and writer.

Ugly Lovely runs through 16 July.

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 Xmas Carol, Old Red Lion Theatre

rsz_2cc9d33d00000578-3250546-i_ve_never_doubted_that_mr_cameron_like_most_of_his_generation_w-m-2_1443338742165Dominic Cavendish thinks this year’s theatre lacks relevance to current affairs. He’s probably been working under a commercial and subsidized theatre-shaped rock (as mainstream critics are prone to), citing Anders Lustgarten’s Lampedusa as, “number one in a field of one” where, “nothing stood out as ‘the’ play for today.” Matt Trueman defends theatre’s ability to respond at the speed Cavendish would like, and also cites several examples Cavendish neglected: “The Fear of Breathing by Zoe Lafferty and Lucien Bourjeily’s 66 Minutes in Damascus, part of the 2012 LIFT festival, spring to mind, though Cordelia Lynn’s Lela & Co was set in an unnamed country gripped by a similar civil war.” Also springing to mind and not set in Syria but Liberia, Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed starkly presents the victims of another civil war.

The nightmare in Syria driving tens of thousands of people to flee their homeland in search of safety demands global action and aid, of course. But there were numerous other hotbed issues addressed in British theatre over the past year, even the last couple of weeks. Theatre Ad Infinitum’s Light looked at government surveillance, As Is reminded us that AIDS diagnoses are on the rise, Goodstock describes the uncertain life as a young woman with a high risk of breast cancer. Down & Out in Paris and London rallies support for the working poor, The State vs. John Hayes gives us the last night of a schizophrenic woman on death row, and Skyline is a relentless attack on the London housing crisis. There are many others as well, and that’s just in the past year of one critic’s theatregoing.

Within the past week, The Old Red Lion opened Arthur Miller’s first play, No Villain, a love letter to communism and the strikers of 1936 New York City. Accomplished theatre critic and author T L Wiswell also offered her latest work for two nights only, a satirical update of Dickens’ classic Christmas novel to the current 10 Downing Street, The Xmas Carol. That’s just at one venue, not specifically known for political theatre. The Xmas Carol has a dig at pop culture/The X-Factor to frame the consequences of David Cameron’s legislation on everyday, working people after his annual Christmas party, similar to Miller’s use of the strikes to focus on the life of one family out of millions. Both plays need further development (though it’s obviously too late for Miller), but both brashly and fearlessly confront the politics of their day.

In The Xmas Carol, Simon Cowell (Chris Royds) introduces his latest programme that’s sure to be a ratings hit; it’s an interesting meta-theatrical device that works towards justifying Cameron’s (Warren Brooking) travels through his past, present and future. Jason Meininger’s lighting and Keri Danielle Chesser’s sound effectively evoke transitions in time and space. Some more exposition to set up the television show that Cowell is steering would have clarified Cameron’s complicity and aim to improve his ratings, but the device itself is a creative deviation from having Cameron fall asleep and dream the whole thing.

There are some great impressions in the cast, particularly from Luke Theobald as Ghost of Christmas Past Margaret Thatcher. Brooking could have been a louder, bolder Cameron but he captures an element of the man in his gestures and general lack of humanity. Will Bridges is an amusing, though not particularly accurate Jeremy Corbyn but as this is a satire, his punditry can be excused. Jenny Wills as Cameron’s PA Bob Cratchett brings some grounded naturalism to this piece. She’s a lovely character, warm and family focused, with some good dialogue, but her performance style jars with the heightened delivery from the rest of the cast. It works to ground Cameron’s devastating policies in reality, but she could use some backup from other characters. As the play’s currently just under on hour, more down-at-heel, working people could easily be brought in to further emphasise the battle between the ridiculous politicians and celebrities, and the everyday man.

Having gone to a reading of The Xmas Carol about a month ago, the concept has developed quite a bit since then, but the structure could still use additional tightening and detail. More dialogue and exposition will help, particularly in the beginning and end. There are some genuinely funny moments and well-crafted scenes, but a brief resolution. The Tory criticism is relentless and mocking but also pointed and moving. Wiswell is certainly in the process of striking a good balance within the piece, but it needs just a bit more shaping.

Both The Xmas Carol and No Villain are highly political, but in very different ways; the same can be said of many of the aforementioned productions. Sure, they’re not about Syrian civil war and refugees, but they focus on diverse, divisive issues relevant to contemporary life. Perhaps Cavendish needs to visit the fringe more: it’s where angry voices can express their views unfettered, without the burden of corporate sponsors and other such bureaucratic obstacles. These shows don’t have the high production values or years of development and funding that commercial theatre does, but political theatre on the fringe is some of the most raw, honest, relevant theatre I have seen this year.

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.

No Villain, Old Red Lion Theatre


There’s usually good reason why renowned writers have known but unpublished early works. They hone their craft by writing, usually badly at first, and then have a major breakthrough after they have been writing for some time. Expecting this to be the case with Arthur Miller’s world premiere of the unpublished No Villain, the play proved to be surprisingly good. Miller’s autobiographical one act was written for a playwriting competition when the 20-year-old undergraduate at the University of Michigan was on the verge of leaving due to his family’s losses during the Great Depression. It was in the university’s archives that director Sean Turner found the manuscript mentioned in Miller’s memoirs, dashed off with the desperate hope of saving his Journalism degree. A theatrical and historical relic, the script isn’t a particularly polished affair but brims with youthful enthusiasm, political activism, and familial conflict that hints at the greatness to come in later works like Death of a Salesman and The Crucible.

From beginning to end, tension dominates this story set in 1936 New York City during the strikes that paralysed the garment district and bankrupted businesses barely holding on to their survival. Father Abe Simon (David Bromley) has no sympathy or understanding for the strikers or his sons’ recent discovery and devotion to the new political system taking over the East, Communism. Arnold (Adam Harley) is a thinly veiled Miller who at the beginning of the play returns from Michigan for the holidays. Refusing to help his father (David Bromley) at the shop because it would compromise his principles, older brother Ben (George Turvey) is more practical. The action largely centres around these three men, but the strain of the Depression also shows in their interactions with their mother (Nesba Crenshaw), sister Maxine (Helen Coles) and grandfather (Kenneth Jay).

Focused, emotionally endowed performances in heightened realism and moments of good dialogue generate exquisite set piece scenes, but the overall plot structure and storyline is a bit loose, and the politics are so blatant that it’s agitprop. This is not a subtle play, but it’s certainly not poorly made. The story is a microcosmic representation of Big Issues but it’s clear that this is real life replicated on stage rather than pure fiction. There’s a lot of preaching and arguing and threats, but the actors truthfully capture this almost-constant tension within the family, and these moments are plentiful. Like a baby Death of a Salesman, we see the idealism and father-son relationships that help make Miller one of the greatest dramatists of the 20th century.

Max Dorey’s set and Natalie Pryce’s costumes contribute detail and further authenticity to the production. Stylistically, this is a great example of early 20th century American theatre (but with accents from different parts of the US in one family) made popular by Clurman, Adler, Meisner and the rest of the Group Theatre in the 1920s and 30s. Turner captures this performance style well and in combination with the factual/biographical nature of the script, it feels like the audience is watching a moment of history brought to life.

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.

Mugs Arrows, everything theatre

“…Visually striking yet incredibly simple, it immediately creates tension that carries on through the entire play and keeps the audience watching. The lights then come up on two men tensely playing a game of darts without speaking…As dialogue slowly starts, we gather that the two have just been to the funeral of a dear friend…Both Rhys King (Pat) and Eddie Elks (Ed) are clearly excellent performers who can skilfully use naturalism to create highly developed characters.

“What you perceive to be true is turned upside down when Sarah (Chiara Wilde) enters in a wedding dress and joins in darts game. Rather than a funeral, Pat and Ed have lost their best mate another way…With an inevitable violent end and convincing stage combat by Lyndall Grant, I thought the play had ended.

“But, no! Writer Eddie Elks surprises us. A final, joyfully weird scene takes everything you perceive to be real within the action and turns it upside down. You will leave with a head full of questions, but truly innovative theatre will have that effect...Whilst an incredible show for theatre folk, those who like their theatre conventional and commercial would struggle to watch this play…

“Go see this show before it closes if cutting edge independent theatre is your thing.”

Read the entire review here on everything theatre.