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.

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The Doctor in Spite of Himself, Drayton Arms Theatre

The Doctor in Spite of Himself (c) Ulysse Beauvois (3)

When the abusive, drunken woodcutter Sganarelle beats his wife one time too many, she takes advantage of passing strangers looking for a doctor to cure a young woman’s mysterious illness. Telling them she knows just the man, an eccentric but renowned man of medicine, sets the ball rolling on an absurd adventure of lust, remorse, and blagging it. Exchange Theatre, a French company based in London, have adapted Moliere’s The Doctor In Spite of Himself into a 75-minute contemporary version loaded with metatheatre, energy and good leading performances from a French cast. Plenty of slapstick, detailed design and Shakespearian influence make this a fun, easy to watch adaptation of the French classic.

Actor-director David Furlong plays Sganarelle with a goofy, watchable charm. His undeniable charisma is at odds with the unlikeable character, though his comeuppance and subsequent reform are a somewhat satisfying narrative despite the anti-feminist premise from the 1660s. Furlong is by far the strongest in the cast, but the others are generally good. Anita Adam Gabay as the mostly mute Lucinda exudes a sweet innocence, particularly in the opening montage where she discovers her betrothal to a man she doesn’t love. Matt Mella is the hilariously dumb Lucas, able to evoke laughter with a well-timed pause and a blank look. Some of the actors find it hard to connect to the language in English at times, but these jarring moments are fairly infrequent.

The edited plot occasionally feels rushed and overly compact, though it’s easy to follow and the translation uses relatively modern English. The excused wife beating is uncomfortably old fashioned, but at least it’s ridiculed – along with medicine and the gullibility of the upper classes. These themes translate fairly well to the modern day and English culture, especially considering the Shakespeare-esque comedy sequences that are likely to have drawn on the same commedia del’arte heritage that Shakespeare did. Furlong updates even further by adding in discreetly funny elements of self-reference, even if they don’t always work. The bust of Moliere as a weapon is cute, but characters dictating text to others from an anthology of Moliere plays isn’t as effective and causes energy to drop.

The design, presumably also by Furlong, incorporates an Elizabethan stage-within-a-stage to emphasise the metatheatre and clarify location. It’s clever and looks great, though it causes some difficulties with sightlines and narrows the playing area. Furlong’s overarching concept of using the metatheatre to create distance is a strong one what with its acknowledgment the absurdity of the story and the plot points that don’t work in a present day context.

This production of The Doctor in Spite of Himself is a funny, palatable adaptation of Moliere for London audiences. It’s a good laugh, a good length and has good performances. The company’s talent and vision is highly commendable and deserving of larger production values; their commitment to bringing audiences high quality French theatre in intimate venues makes them one to watch.

The Doctor in Spite of Himself runs through 17 July with performances in both French and English.

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 Alchemist, Rose Playhouse

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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.

You Tweet My Face Space, Theatre N16

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David and Charlotte’s ten-year relationship is on the rocks. He’s struggling with an addiction that’s pushing her out of his busy life, but David’s social media and internet habits aren’t allowing him to give Charlotte the attention she deserves. When an indiscretion on a night out is immediately published and Charlotte leaves him, David vows to quit cold turkey. It’s not so easy though. As the personified apps crash his peace and quiet, this romcom takes a surreal, satirical turn. With bitingly funny moments, good comic timing and some good performances, this surprising one-act is a great giggle for those of us enslaved by technology.

Tom Hartwell is the bookish, quiet David who’s frustration becomes real and relatable. He’s wonderfully foiled by characters such as Hotmail (suave, aloof Hadley Smith), self-obsessed Instagram (girl next door Ellie Goffe with a heart of gold) and Facebook (subtly vicious Evan Rees). Tinder (Kate Okello), Farmville (the wonderfully dour Katie Dalzell) and a couple of others join in to try to persuade David to stay in the internet realm, and some glorious clashes ensue with plenty of digital pop culture in-jokes. Pacing is excellent, as is the energy and ensemble work of the cast.

Hartwell is also the playwright; he has good intuition for the relationship story arc that frames and justifies the chaos, though the moral is a rather obvious one and not particularly profound. His dialogue is punchy and fun, regularly inducing laughs. (It would be interesting to see what his serious material is like.) Director Anne Stoffels has her hands full with a large cast in a small space, but usually manages to keep the action moving without messiness.

For a social media comedy, You Tweet My Face Space is well crafted and even though some of the performances are weaker than others, it reminds us to take a break from our online worlds and interact with people face-to-face more often. It’s a fun, frivolous piece with some excellent moments and a bit of post-holiday season fun.

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.

Big Brother Blitzkrieg, King’s Head Theatre

Lots of things seem like a great idea at uni. Some of them are genuinely good ideas. A great deal more aren’t. Writing a play about Hitler in the Big Brother House is one of the latter. In 2014, Newcastle University students Hew Rous Eyre and Max Elton founded Bitter Pill Theatre to produce their debut play, Big Brother Blitzkrieg, at Edinburgh Fringe that year. With a couple of other shows now under their belt, they bring their popular first production to London. Meant to somehow satirise Big Brother and Hitler, this stereotype-driven piece doesn’t follow any sort of consistent narrative logic and doesn’t manage to rise to satirical humour. The performances are very good despite the character limitations, but the script comes across as a drunks, nonsensical idea that would have been better off forgotten.

When Hitler fails to kill himself after his final rejection from art school, he wakes up in the garden of the Big Brother House during its final season. True to life, no one watches the programme anymore and the contestants are just in it for the money. Bafflingly, none of them no who Hitler is, even the educated, middle class housemates. Clearly this is a world where WWII never happened, but I’m not sure what point that’s meant to make. Similarly, the plot follows what I imagine to be standard Big Brother events: evictions, competitions, surprises and character clashes that are largely unfunny and offer no new perspective on the show or reality TV format. Though the story defies the laws of Physics through the use of time travel, this element is wholly neglected.

The cast are very good, or at least at playing their respective stereotypes. Stephen Chance is an expressive, quick-witted Hitler with no idea of how to deal with charming, bouncy Essex lad M-Cat (Kit Loyd) and ageing queen Felix (Neil Summerville). He finds kinship in corporate PR and Tory Lucy (Jenny Johns), a delightfully despicable Katie Hopkins homage. The house is completed with femi-gendered Charlie (Hannah Douglas) who has some cracking exchanges with Lucy, and the bland as plain toast housewife Rachel (Tracey Ann Wood), who Hitler immediately distrusts. The combinations invites inevitable situation comedy but again, it’s not sophisticated enough to count as satire, or have any sort of message at all. A shame, as the actors all seem to have great potential but are stuck playing two dimensions.

The show would suit a much smaller format, like a reoccurring sketch as part of a comedy show limiting each slot to ten minutes. About half an hour in, Big Brother Blitzkrieg already feels too long. There were a few good lines, but in 75 minutes, a few isn’t enough to save this play even with the hardworking cast. Despite the commendation these young practitioners deserve for setting up a company whilst still studying and keeping it going for nearly two years, part of artistic development is knowing when to let an idea go. This is a production that needs to retire in favour of more advanced, relevant work.

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.