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.

The Verb, To Love and Portia Coughlan, Old Red Lion

Love, loss and obsession: Aria Entertainment’s double bill explores these themes with dramatically different outcomes. New British musical The Verb, To Love follows college lecturer Simon’s attempts to find a lasting relationship after breaking up with his boyfriend of 23 years. Mid-90’s Irish play Portia Coughlan shows the title role’s failure to function in day-to-day life whilst clinging to memories of her twin brother who drowned 15 years previously. Both productions, which can be seen singly or one after the other, depict emotion in its most raw, desperate state with committed performances and unique design elements.

The Verb, To LThe Verb, 'To Love', Old Red Lion Theatre, 29 April - 23 May 2015. Copyright Claire Bilyard -16ove by Andy Collyer is a two-hander but focuses almost exclusively on Simon (Martin Neely). He falls in love with fellow teacher, the wide-eyed, much younger Ben (Gareth Bretherton) after a breakup. Simon sings us the story of their friendship progressing to a reluctant confession of love, but there is no happily ever after. Several years later after building a successful career, Ben decides its time to move on even though doting Simon would do anything for his “baby boy”. Simon’s songs then journey through the stages of grief and forays in online dating until he finds peace with his houseplants.

Though billed as a musical there is little spoken dialogue. The contemporary musical theatre songs continuously flow into each other with few breaks and Ben doesn’t enter until he breaks up with Simon halfway through the show. Until their breakup, we hear their story exclusively from Simon’s perspective. Ben doesn’t interject often after he arrives, making this almost a one-man show. Even though it was only an hour, it’s a long time for Neely to sing almost continuously, which he does splendidly.

This is clearly a musical under development, but it has plenty of potential. Simon’s character is detailed and well developed; Neely adds plenty of nuance. The songs have enough variation to not sound too similar, but with a strong motif. It would not take much to make this a full-length show: more scenes, more Ben, and possibly some other characters – though The Last 5 Years proves a two-hander works beautifully, particularly when telling the rise and fall of a relationship. More substance will also help dilute the sentimentality, though it was never cloying. Focusing the bulk of the story on Ben and Simon’s relationship gave the show a sturdy narrative arc rather than showing a snapshot from Simon’s life. There was no dancing, lighting changes corresponded with emotional intensity and the flowery parkland set reminded the audience that there is light at the end of every tough time. I look forward to seeing The Verb, To Love develop and hope Aria Entertainment stages it again in a more fully formed state.

Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan is mPortia Coughlan, Old Red Lion Theatre, 28 April - 23 May 2015. Copyright Claire Bilyard -42uch darker and more complete fare. Set in rural Ireland, Portia celebrates her thirtieth birthday. Fifteen years ago tomorrow, her twin brother drowned in the Belmont River that runs behind her father’s farm. She never recovered from his death, despite having a life that reads perfectly on paper: a wealthy husband, close family and three sons. Susan Stanley plays tortured Portia with a coiled spring intensity that never relents, even when drinking and flirting in the local pub. The verdant, grassy floor from The Verb, to Love remains, but a pool of water is Belmont River and a rustic kitchen set is her country home. The lighting is darker and ethereal music draws attention to the appearances of Portia’s ghostly brother, Gabriel.

Similarly broken people with hidden family secrets inhabit Portia’s world. Her parents pop in uninvited and berate her for not fulfilling her wifely duties. Her paternal grandmother abuses her and her mother relentlessly. Her best friend Stacia helps Portia with the kids, but only has one eye and needs of her own. Her patient husband Raphael (Ben Mulhern) does his best to look after their children when Portia says she wants nothing to do with them, as she’s afraid she’ll harm them. She never wanted to be a mother. She never wanted to marry Raphael. She doesn’t really want anything to do with this world at all, instead dwells on her brother’s death. She tries to distract herself with love affairs, to no avail. The day after her birthday has a predicable outcome halfway through the play, but then the action jumps back in time for more horrific familial revelations.

A cast of eleven creates Portia’s intimate, oppressive world of family, lovers and friends. Most have good intention in their hearts, but none of their efforts can save Portia from her deteriorating mental stability and Grabriel’s increasingly frequent, haunting presence. The dialogue is frank, but taps into an innate Irish poetry and spirit world of Celtic mythology. Though these characters simultaneously evoke pity and disdain, there is a grounded earthiness about them and their connections to each other. The ensemble work is excellent, particularly from those playing Portia’s family, though the other roles are certainly to be commended. Veronica Quilligan and James Holmes as older family friends, the Doorley’s, provide some comic relief and comfort amongst the abuse. Portia’s lovers Damus Halion (Alan Devally) and Fintan Goolan (Conan Sweeny) both barely conceal pent up rage and disdain for Portia. Even though she does not help herself, Portia is framed as a tragic hero, the victim of circumstances beyond her control. Carr’s writing is outstanding captures the often stark isolation of village life. Director Bronagh Lagan successfully captures the tone and mood of the play as it barrels towards its inevitable end. This is a production that would benefit from a larger venue and more space to create an even more atmospherically complex set.

Though radically different in tone, these two productions show desperate characters on the brink of collapse. Simon has a much more supportive, comfortable life and manages to pull himself back from edge after some facebook stalking and late night phone calls to Ben. Portia’s brother eventually catches up with her, but no one in her village is functional enough to save her. We could all to easily find ourselves in similar circumstances, but I hope we tend more towards Simon than Portia. The pairing of these two pieces shows great insight and intuition in producer Katy Lipson of Aria Entertainment. An accomplished young producer who focuses on British musicals, she made a wise choice to pair The Verb, To Love with Portia Coughlan.

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.