The Alchemist, Rose Playhouse

rsz_flyer-front

When butler Jeremy’s master goes out of town, he transforms himself into Captain Face and recruits his comrade in deceit, Subtle the Alchemist, to help him make a quick buck from gullible townsfolk. Aided by the local prozzie Doll Common, the three create bespoke schemes for each potential customer. Their plans spiral out of control and the risk of discovery becomes all too real in typical Jacobean comedy format, but also typical of the style, it all ends well – or as much as it can for the victims of their scams. With jokes that come quick and fast in this surprisingly straightforward story, it’s a fun, light-hearted play that needs clear direction to succeed.

Though The Alchemist can be considered Ben Jonson’s best play, it doesn’t get staged often. The slapstick comedy satirising a cross section of Jacobean society is swift, easy to follow and jolly so it deserves much more stage time than it receives. In Mercurius’ strongest of their last three productions, an energetic cast fully commit to the stock characters’ hijinks and trickery with clear staging and character doubling. Jenny Eastop’s direction is tight and precise, though altering the time period from the original is gratuitous and occasionally inconsistent with the text. This light production of a rarely staged play is a midsummer treat with few shortcomings.

The cast of eight are a generally tight ensemble with good chemistry. Peter Wicks as Jeremy/Captain Face has a commanding presence and wonderful speaking voice that is easily watchable. Benjamin Garrison as Subtle is a delightfully flamboyant foil but with the character having less to lose, he has less depth. Alec Bennie as Surly is the star of the supporting roles, playing the posh sceptic with a dry, steely wit. Charlie Ryall is strong as the feisty nun Ananias, but her disinterested Widow Pliant is harder to engage with.

Eastop’s choosing to set the play in the 1800s is justified in the programme notes, but with a play that is so undeniably Jacobean in its style, the costumes (that are in a poorly made/maintained state and betray a lack of time and/or budget) look out of place, particularly next to some set pieces that look much older. Nothing other than the characters’ dress indicate a change in time period, and as such, the adaptation contributes nothing to the understanding of the play. She also, nonsensically, reinvents two protestant characters as nuns who have derogatory dialogue about the Catholic Church. Despite the change in setting, this choice is painfully jarring. Otherwise, Eastop’s direction and choreography is well paced and takes advantage of the script’s inherent comedy.

This production suits the Rose Playhouse’s unique structure well, with the rear of the site being used occasionally for comic effect. Placing most of the action on the small stage in close proximity to the audience makes these larger than life characters all the more exaggerated, further emphasising the stereotypes that the play relies on for laughs. With a good cast and intuition for light comedy, The Alchemist makes for some excellent entertainment.

The Alchemist runs through 30 June.

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.

Advertisements

Hamlet, The Rose Bankside

The Rose, the tiny fringe theatre built on the remains of its Elizabethan original, is one of the most unique theatres in London. It has its issues, though. Rather than the hierarchy with an artistic director at the top, it is managed by a team of artistic associates, all volunteers. Due to the lack of  an individual’s clear programming vision, the productions here are hit and miss. Their current production of Hamlet, though it has a few moments of invention and effectiveness, largely misses the mark due to poor performances and a huge reduction in length, which hacks the dramatic arc and character journeys to bits.

Of the cast of seven, Luke Jasztal as Horatio is the only one with completely consistent characterisation and stage presence. As the confident, loyal friend and member of the court’s inner circle, he holds the plot together and picks up the energy in lagging scenes with warmth and charisma. Chris Clynes in the title role is more believable once Hamlet decides to feign madness. His ‘to be, or not to be’ is simple and honest, and he is full of energy whilst deeming Polonius a fishmonger. Clynes’ initial sullen sulk casts him as an overgrown, spoils teenager rather than a grieving young adult, but fortunately he gets over that quickly. The remaining cast tended towards either completely flat, monotone delivery or overwrought melodrama, with little light and shade between the two performance styles. The verse handling is also hugely inconsistent amongst this cast.

At nearly three hours if left intact, to reduce Shakespeare’s script to 90 minutes removes a lot of action. Though director Diana Vucane’s edit is linguistically seamless, major plot points are inevitably lost. The focus on Hamlet is maintained, but with so much of his dialogue cut, his character choices come across as unjustified. With The Rose’s 90-minute limit on productions, perhaps Hamlet isn’t the most suitable for this venue.

Some of Vucane’s choices were strong, whilst others questionable. Hamlet’s use of puppets in the players’ scene was inventive, but the impact of the scene was diminished with the murder reveal coming from Hamlet rather than strangers. Contemporary dress also worked in this casual, reduced version of the original but the number of costume changes was excessive and pointless. I stopped counting after Ophelia’s dresses numbered four, in as many different scenes. The rich sound design that stood in for the ghost and scene transitions was rich and spooky, but inexplicably gave way to vintage show tunes. (I’ll never know why “The Lonely Goatherd” made an appearance, or Judi Dench’s rendition of “Send in the Clowns” after the evocative introduction.) She utilises the rear of the The Rose rarely, but it is striking and powerful when she does. If she cast the play, she ought to look at her audition process in order to secure more consistent talent. No lighting designer or fight choreographer is credited, but both of these elements are well done and can count towards Vucane’s strengths as a director.

Though the abbreviated length works against the original play, with the performances given it largely goes in this production’s favour. Diana Vucane shows some promise as an emerging director, but her choices need more clarity in their justification. Luke Jasztal is a pleasure to watch, and Chris Clynes gets closer to his level eventually, but this Hamlet, like the Midsummer mechanicals, is tedious brief.

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.

Wilde Without the Boy/The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Rose Playhouse

rsz_wilde-without-the-boy-publicity-shot

Near the end of his two-year imprisonment for gross indecency, Oscar Wilde was a man broken from hard labour, isolation and social disgrace. Until a sympathetic warden at Reading Gaol allowed him restricted writing privileges, he hadn’t been able to write at all. Provided with a single sheet of paper that would be collected and replaced when that one was filled, Wilde penned an 80-page letter of 50,000 words to the selfish lover who was his downfall, Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas. Heavily edited and published posthumously by Wilde’s friend and former lover Robbie Ross, the chatty letter was titled “De Profundis”. After Wilde’s release, he wrote poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” whilst exiled in Paris; this work details the execution of a fellow inmate.

In Wilde Without the Boy/The Ballad of Reading Gaol, actor Gerard Logan and director/writer Gareth Armstrong team up to create a staged version of these two narratives as a one-man show in two acts. Dramatic in structure and reasonably well performed, this is a text-heavy piece that suits the intimate Rose Playhouse. However, the consistent, even tone and pace that Logan employs has a lulling effect and the verbosity overwhelms with details. There is little to watch; though Wilde Without the Boy gives insight into Wilde’s state of mind at this challenging point in his life, it would make more sense as an audio recording and I cannot discern why it was put on the stage. The Ballad of Reading Gaol is performed with more vocal and physical variation so even though it is the shorter part of the event, it is the more compelling piece.

The set is simple: a bare table and two chairs for the first act, with a stack of documents that are occasionally referenced as letters. The red rope lighting that outlines the Rose’s archaeological remains casts a faint red glow on the walls reminiscent of the passion and anger that constantly burns in Wilde’s heart. Whether or not this was intentional, it effectively contributes to the heavy mood of both pieces. In the second piece, the table is covered with summer linen and a sole green carnation rests there. It is another powerful symbol of Wilde’s homosexuality that is repeatedly denied in Wilde Without the Boy. This show completely ignores the vast space beyond the stage, a decision that suits the script, but it’s still a shame to neglect such a unique feature. The musical score, intermittent in Wilde Without the Boy but a constant presence in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, is latterly a character in itself and Logan’s delivery is impeccably timed to its rise and fall. No programme was supplied, but whoever designed or composed this score deserves acknowledgement.

Though both are interesting pieces of text in that they aren’t normally performed or read by anyone other that Wilde enthusiasts or students, their theatrical potential is limited. Even with Armstrong’s adaptation and edit of the letter, as a one-person show it’s still more of a recitation with a thin story arc detailing Wilde’s views of Bosie and his experiences in prison. Logan has some lovely emotional moments, but it’s not enough to keep the mind from drifting. The Ballad of Reading Gaol has an actual storyline, which is an immense boost to Logan’s performance. He has a compelling stage present and vocal agility, but Wilde Without the Boy is not the best showcase of his abilities, the Rose as a venue or theatre itself.


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 Devil is an Ass, Rose Playhouse

rsz_devil-is-an-ass-700x455Enthusiastic little devil Pug wants a crack at antagonizing mortals, but big man Satan isn’t sure he’s ready. After some discussion, Pug eventually gets his way and finds himself in London, where he is encouraged to bother greedy Fabian Fitzdottrell, an odd little man obsessed with using the dark arts to get rich. Taking up a position as his servant, Pug witnesses all sorts of bad behaviour and scheming from Fitzdottrell and the various con men after his money. Ben Jonson’s The Devil is an Ass is less about the devil and more about devilment, and Mercurius bring this farcical, Jacobean world to life with a snappy edit, good energy and some excellent performances in original dress.

At just over an hour, the edited script becomes focused on plot points rather than character development, but it works well for this story consisting of constant attempts at trickery that go wrong. Short, energetic scenes keep the action ticking along nicely in The Rose’s intimate staging area; only two moments are staged at the back of the archaeological site across the pool of water preserving the theatre’s remains. It’s a shame to rarely this part of such a unique venue, particularly as it would have expedited some of the longer transitions. Director Jenny Eastop’s use of fabric drapes and a few wooden chairs to create various locations is lovely though, particularly when arranged to make windows across a courtyard from which handsome Wittipol (Monty D’Inverno) attempts to woo Fitzdottrell’s much abused wife (Beth Eyre). Handy signs also add clarity and sumptuousness to a story driven by money and deception.

The men lead in the performances, with Michael Watson-Gray as the hapless Fitzdottrell who is unable to decline Meercraft’s (Benjamin Garrison) blatant exploitation of his greediness. Watson-Gray’s Fitzdottrell is also wonderfully abhorrent in the way he treats his wife and the men that he, in turn, also tries to con. Garrison gives a performance nearly identical to the style of Jack Whitehall, but this professional debut of a recent graduate shows confidence, presence and style. D’Inverno is delightful disguised as a Spanish lady in his attempts to get some alone time with Mistress Fitzdottrell, and Nicholas Oliver as Ambler is also very good. Some of the other performances lack confidence and seem unsure about handling the text, but do not detract from the others much.

Rather than forcing this play into an unrelated time period, Eastop wisely focuses on the text-based comedy and leaves the setting in its original time and place. As Pug becomes more and more baffled by the antics of these mere mortals and misses the roaring fires of home, his frustration eventually explodes after a run in with a lady of fashion, of which there is no greater hell. With a focus on money as much as the dark arts, there is some contemporary relevance, but it is very much a relic of its time. There are definitely some great choices in Mercurius’ funny production of Jonson’s rarely staged play that makes it worth seeing in this very special venue.


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 PayPal.

Twelfth Night: A Gender Experiment (opposite gender cast), The Rose Playhouse

Most Shakespeare I see is performed with the actors’ genders matching that of the characters they play. Sometimes I see token cross-gender or gender-blind casting within an own-gender cast, sometimes all-male productions and less often, all-female productions (I wrote about the scarcity of all-female Shakespeare companies in the UK for The Shakespeare Standard last month). What I hadn’t seen however, was a completely cross-gendered production. As part of a gender experiment, actor/director Natasha Rickman stages Twelfth Night: A Gender Experiment four ways: all-female, all-male, same gendered and cross-gendered. Rather than seeing all four, I went for the most rare of the options out of curiosity, which was satisfied by excellent performances and a 90-minute edit with plenty of fun and energy. I’m now tempted to see the remaining three as I can’t decipher quite what Rickman seeks to prove or disprove with her experiment, but the questions surrounding the nature of the experiment did not dampen the enjoyment of the evening.

A cast of seven, three men, three women and a sock puppet, play all parts. There are the same number of men and women in all four versions, supporting Equity’s goal for 50/50 gender representation in theatre. Rickman is a RADA grad, as are most of her cast so handle Shakespeare’s text easily. Julia Goulding is an outstanding, versatile Orsino, Sir Andrew and Feste, using accents to clearly differentiate her characters. Shauna Snow is, hands down, the best Malvolio I have ever seen – serpentine and androgynous, but utterly buffoonish upon discovery of Maria’s planted letter and vulnerable after her release from prison. Henry Gilbert is a lovely Olivia, feminine but not helpless. Christopher Logan’s Viola has a hard, threatening edge when fending off Olivia’s advances, rare in a female playing the role. There is a notable lack of racial diversity, though. This cast is all white and the actors that make up the rest of the company appear to be as well, or at least look like it in the small, black & white photographs in the copied programme.

Sorcha Corcoran clothes the women in costumes inspired by Smooth Faced Gentlemen’s skinny jeans, shirts and braces, showing masculinity without hiding feminine features. The men wear dresses, but don’t hide their short hair with wigs. Though they still play the gender of the characters, Rickman doesn’t strive for realism in design or performance, which works well for this play that has such a heavy focus on gender. She indicates gender with the costume rather than playing it, creating a self-referential style more in keeping with Shakespeare’s original performance practice than contemporary productions that seek total naturalism. Also, she draws on stereotypes to create the roles; there is a heavy dose of Commedia dell’arte in the characters’ movements, which would have been a large influence on Shakespeare’s comedic characters in both writing and performance. The overall feel is light, funny and camp from both the men and women, with any references to the characters’ genders heightened due to the reversed casting. Combined with a good sense for pace and timing, the 90 minutes feel more like a relaxed hour filled with laughter and music.

Rickman uses diagonals well on the small stage, but doesn’t place much action around the rest of the Rose’s site despite the tea lights scattered around the pool and back wall. Sir Andrew and Viola’s almost-fight is oddly conducted with tree branches, which feel out of place. There’s a good dose of music and a jig during Feste’s final song, ending the evening with a flourish and reinforcing the sheer joy of Shakespeare’s comedies. This is one of The Rose Playhouse’s stronger offerings, and a rare opportunity to see a cast with impressive credits perform Shakespeare in an intimate space, regardless of any gender “experiments” the production seeks to conduct.


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 PayPal.

Reckless, Rose Playhouse

The pool preserving the remains of The Rose Playhouse is the sea surrounding a nameless, remote island. Fascinating, dangerous, wild or wonderful, all of the island dwellers have lengthy, close relationships with the sea, for better or worse. These intertwining, turbulent histories meet and join each other at the Old Man and his Boy, a story of a new, young love and a past love, long lost. Heady Conduct’s Reckless unfolds a timeless tale of love, truth and community dictated by the sea using narration, site-specific influences and direct address interspersed with conventional performance. The story is both sweet and saddening, but the play’s structure is disjointed and thin, occasionally unclear in time and place, causing the story to lose support and clarity. Fortunately, the scenes between characters are endowed with honesty and intimacy, and the unique performance venue is fantastically utilized by director/actor Rebecca Rogers.

Rogers is the central narrator figure, the Harbour Master. She is the all-seeing and all-knowing, performing with a reserved omniscience. Rogers also plays the Old Man’s dead wife, a quiet enigmatic character often referenced but rarely seen. She’s a wonderful, etherial presence when she does eventually appear. The other living characters have more energy, particularly Alison Tennant as feisty, confident Girl that shy Boy falls in love with, and Blake Kubena as the Old Man, father of Boy. Kubena’s Old Man is a ball of pent up mourning that’s become a threatening obsessive, controlling his son’s every move. Though there is no issue with their performance, Kubena and Simon Rodda’s Boy look like they could be brothers in their late 20s or early 30s, not an elderly man and his teenaged son. The lighthouse keeper, played by Edward Bijl, is a watchful outsider trying to engage with the native islanders though never succeeds, resorting to desperate measures to fit in. Though the character provides some comic relief, he contributes little to the story and provides minimal plot progression.

The general atmosphere is good; atmosphere is vital to make a successful show in such a vast and unusual performance space. It gives productions here specificity of location and time period, otherwise the dark emptiness beyond the stage dwarfs the play. Nautical elements deck the back wall of the site, a hut perches precariously on the water’s edge, seagull puppets and some good sound design add specificity. The lighting isn’t fully utilized to create mood, nor does it do much to counter the sweeping grey ceiling and walls, but this island could be in a location that’s perpetually cloudy.

The use of ritual and tradition gives the story gravitas; the Harbour Master’s Festival of the Lost is a moving tribute to those drowned at sea. It connects the characters to each other and to the island, helping to counteract the loosely fitting scene structure. It also emphasizes the seriousness of the small twist at the end where the audience learns the details of the Wife’s death, and the gradual muddying of the truth with the passage of time. The most moving plot point is Boy giving a ring of his mother’s to Girl, inscribed with a medieval French saying, “pences pour moye du” or “think of me, God willing”. Historically, this ring was found during the Rose’s excavations and now lives in the Museum of London (The Rose sells replicas in its giftshop). This is a delightful nugget of Rose history bonding the theatre to this particular production.

Though Reckless is in the early stages of its expansion into a full production from a one-person show, it still needs more flesh on its skeletal frame. There are great characters and the love story at its core is wonderful, but its dreamlike atmosphere needs more detail to make the world of the play truly believable. It’s most certainly achievable, and this play will develop its sea legs as it continues its development.


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.

The Ghost Sonata, Rose Playhouse

A mysterious old man manipulates a poor student, then a wealthy colonel. A woman – or is she a parrot? – lives in a wardrobe. A beautiful, sick daughter always stays indoors. Servants control their masters. There is discussion of past love affairs, betrayal, and deceit. Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata is inhabited by a cast of damaged, dysfunctional characters drawn to a house that rots them all from the inside. Director Charlotte Ive has adapted the original to suit a small cast and stage at The Rose on Bankside with good intuition for creating mystery without losing momentum. Though I am unfamiliar with Strindberg’s script, Ive seems to have made some edits but keeps the crux of the story, all which is made clear at the end. There are some issues, but this is a lovely intimate piece of theatre with strong directorial choices that mostly support the performance, and an able, predominantly female, cast.

They story is slow to develop, but does so with deliberating measure, managing to escape stagnation. The start is somewhat unclear: the initial location is vague, as is why two characters meeting for the first time are in what is an obviously engineered situation. These factors enhance the mysterious aspect of the story, but do not foster understanding. Foss Shepherd is Jacob Hummel, an 80-year-old, chatting to female Charley Willow who plays young male student Arkenholtz. Willow’s gender is not particularly well disguised, and a less convincing boy than she is as the old colonel. Hummel clearly wants something from Arkenholtz, but what and why is only revealed later. Shepherd and Willow’s performances have enough tension and energy to keep the story moving; lesser talent would cause the action to stall.

Making up the rest of the cast are Sophie Lakely and Olivia Meguer, who play the rest of the roles. Meguer as the revolting chef who stuffs the family full of food drained of nutrients is particularly fun to watch. Lakely as the supposedly ill daughter never quite connects with Willow’s student, though her conviction is genuine. They also play disembodied ghosts voiced from the audience or the edge of the stage. Shepherd bends and twists his way through his performance as Hummel, though I wonder why Ive did not cast an older man. Though with this run starting the same time as Edinburgh Fringe and Camden Fringe, perhaps the older male fringe actors were otherwise engaged.

The design is provincial and pretty with flower garlands canopied over the stage, drawing attention away from the heavy gray concrete that forms the theatre’s walls and ceiling. A small table, jug and basin and other items add period signposts without taking up too much space. The costumes are simple, but in keeping with the time period. Ive chose not to use the entire site, with the exception of an unlit dancing couple at the far side of the pool that preserves the old Rose’s foundations. For a production that is adapted to The Rose, neglecting this part of the venue raises a question: what then makes the Rose so vital to this production?

This is a production that requires patience and acceptance from its audience. The performances are worthy of attention as the plot gently and almost imperceptibly unfolds. The characters switch between expressionism and naturalism without fanfare; very little information is actually revealed until the end. The language is evocative of broken people in a time long ago who don’t quite manage to cope with life as they should and is a wonderful, odd production despite its shortcomings.

NOTE: The performance reviewed was a preview performance.


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.