Me and Robin Hood, Royal Court

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by guest critic Maeve Campbell

Shon Dale-Jones and Hoipolloi’s Me and Robin Hood has admirable intentions in aiming to raise awareness and money for charity ‘Street Child’. Dale-Jones’ one-man show is a personal narrative, part biography and part discussion on class and wealth divisions in Britain. The mythical medieval do-gooder is a central figure in the piece, an inspiration and obsession for the socially conflicted Dale-Jones.

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Politic Man, Ivy House

What with growing up outside of the UK, my knowledge of British history is quite patchy. I can tell you a lot about the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean eras when Shakespeare was alive, but outside of these time periods, I know little. I quite like social history, so learning about new-to-me historical figures through theatre is an event of joyous discovery. What with my leftie sentiments currently battered, encountering someone from the past committed to social justice and equality adds to the excitement even if the play has its shortcomings.

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Ugly Lovely, Old Red Lion

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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.

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Goodnight Polly Jones, Theatre N16

The wonderful thing about new writing is the potential for discovering unknown gems, perfectly formed and ready for a transfer or a tour, or a piece that is still finding its shape but its promise is evident. There’s also the chance of having to endure work that, though trying its hardest, isn’t ready to be put in front of critics. Goodnight Polly Jones is the latter. In its current state, Andrew Sharpe’s script bears more resemblance to a GCSE issue-based devised piece than a play suited to a professional small-scale theatre. Isolated scenes at key plot points and painfully long transitions with busy sound design and terrible voiceovers turn sexual assault and rape into a banal one hour, exacerbated by a performance matching the script’s clunkiness.

Ben Keenan as the jumped up, inappropriately hired Peter provides some redemption. He handles the awkward dialogue and tenuous circumstances extraordinarily well, adding gravitas and emotional truth to the HR manager with a disgustingly flippant disregard for sexual consent. Polly (Victoria Morrison) at her youngest and most immature supermarket clerk manages to match him, but as the older accountant taking that supermarket into administration, she is self-conscious and awkward.

The root problem of this production is the script. Composed solely of four distinct scenes at different times, they show dramatic change in tone and character development, but the story is neglected. This is potentially an important, character-driven play, but there’s no subtlety to the plot – every progression is beaten to death with dialogue rather than shown. The transitions attempt to fill in some gaps, but they too are overt, too long and too cringy, with am dram worthy voice acting. The resolution is half-baked, and Sharpe’s propensity for signposting (that treats the audience as if they were children with ADHD and learning difficulties) misses a glaring, albeit predictable, opportunity to tie up loose ends in the final moments of the play. The scenes as individual units aren’t awful, but the connective thread between them is most thin indeed.

Goodnight Polly Jones doesn’t completely lack potential, but it is in such an early stage of development that it feels wholly inappropriate to stage it in front of a judging audience. A scratch night or a workshop? Absolutely. Though it needs extensive work, it addresses an important issue with some isolated nice moments.

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 Wasp, Trafalgar Studios

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Hampstead Theatre does it again with another powerful, thought-provoking transfer after last month’s Four Minutes Twelve Seconds. Heather and Carla went to secondary school together about 20 years ago, live in the same town, but have little else in common. Heather comes from a stable, middle class family, is now married and lives quite comfortably. Carla is working poor, pregnant with her fifth child, and has a drunkard for a husband. Both had a terrible time in high school: Carla came from an abusive home, and Heather became one of a Carla’s targets after a brief friendship in year 7. They haven’t seen each other since school, but out of the blue, Heather asks Carla for coffee and makes her a surprising offer in Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s both horrifying and enthralling The Wasp.

Myanna Buring as Carla and Laura Donnelly as Heather are an electric pair, as they should be in this relentless two-hander with sudden plot twists that keep the audience guessing. Their characters’ contrast naturally creates tension anyway, and the story generates even more. Most of the play is a hotbed of tension. The layers of lies and manipulation and abrupt reveals are surprising; there are audible gasps from the audience at certain key moments. The script has a fairly formulaic structure, but it’s the content that surprises. Albee’s Zoo Story, Miller’s The Crucible and most of LaBute’s work appear to influence. The characters’ behaviour is shocking, but the realisation that this could be anyone we know, or ourselves, uncomfortably resonates within.

Though there are a lot of big social and psychological issues presented: revenge, infidelity, class difference, abuse, rape and infertility. It doesn’t feel excessive to conflate them, but aids in creating complex characters that feel like genuine people backed up by Buring and Donnelly’s performances. This toxic cocktail of topics emphasises just how easy it is to cause lasting emotional damage in someone unintentionally, be it a family member, friend, partner or acquaintance. Kids especially: we all had tough times at school and treated each other badly but children are so self-absorbed (the ability to empathise is the last part of the human brain to develop) that they don’t often realize the consequences of their actions. And this is why each and every one of us is the hot mess we are, because of how we were treated by others when we were younger. It doesn’t take much more on top of all the baggage we already carry to send us over the edge, and that message resounds loud and clear through the women’s past and present actions that slowly unravel in the intimate Trafalgar 2.

David Woodhead’s set similarly beds in the horror of the characters’ actions. Benign, commonplace objects become aids for capture in his construction that emulates life. There’s an overly lengthy set change, but the transformation from outside a dingy café to Heather’s sitting room is as big a difference as the two women are to each other. The detail and naturalistic design make the story feel all the more like real life, an effective and powerful choice when simplicity and abstraction are the more common styles.

The Wasp presents the capacity for evil within each of us whilst challenging social stereotypes and making powerful comment on how we treat our fellow human beings. Outstandingly committed performances endowed with energy and high emotion and Lloyd Malcolm’s script create a disturbing landscape, disguised in the routine of day to day life, that can be revealed in a moment.


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.

Tamburlaine the Great, Tristan Bates Theatre

That which goes up must eventually fall. Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great tells of the title role’s rise from common thug to emperor of Persia and Africa. A precursor to, and probable influence of, Shakespeare’s ruthless Richard III, the man is needlessly brutal: he orders rivals’ remains displayed on city walls, women and children killed, manipulates others to join his cause and then betrays them. Fate eventually catches up with Tamburlaine after he sets fire to books, including the Qu’ran, and proclaims himself more powerful than God.

Lazarus Theatre Company returns to form after a disappointing Henry V with a modern, concise presentation of Marlowe’s play depicting Tamburlaine as a violent, string vest wearing hood rat transformed into a suited and booted world ruler. Social mobility is the dominant theme, emphasized through Rachel Dingle’s costume design in this rags to riches tale. With visually arresting movement sequences, skillful use of light, and pointed similarities with Middle Eastern politics, immigration and Western meddling in the region, this is a relevant, well-crafted adaptation of the Elizabethan original.

The defining feature of this Lazarus’ adaptation is the extended movement sequences, with a powerfully striking one opening the show. A large cast use militaristic stylization and East Asian performance techniques to slowly travel across the stage, setting the tone for Tamburlaine’s merciless and unfeeling crusade. The choreography is precisely angular and even though the actors are well-rehearsed and the effect is visually stunning, there are hints of restrained self-consciousness from some of the company. Accompanied by deep, tonal sound design by Neil McKeown with the actors smartly dressed in modern suits, it reflects the contemporary Western political machine that coldly invades other countries. These sequences are used throughout, enough to be effective but not so much that they lose their power. No choreographer is credited, so they are assumed to be a product of co-directors Ricky Dukes and Gavin Marrington-Odedra.

Performances from the company of 15 are good, with delivery occasionally broken and overindulgent. These moments are rare and don’t affect the pace or energy of the cast as a whole. Particular highlights are Kate Austen as the aggressive, trackie-bottomed Techelles who is Tamburlaine’s number two. She never loses her fierceness, even when Tamburlaine’s success means she has to wear a fitted dress. Robert Gosling is the simpering, camp Mycetes, Emperor of Persia. He’s a great contrast to Prince Plockey’s earthy Tamburlaine. Alex Reynolds is the captured prisoner Zenocrates that Tamburlaine woos and makes his bride. Her transition from victim to doting wife is a disturbingly good example of Stockholm Syndrome, reinforcing Tamburlaine’s power and manipulation. Lorna Reed plays three smaller roles, with a calm strength and subtly powerful voice. She would make an excellent Hermione or Lady Anne. The bombastic Bajozeth, Emperor of the Turks, is played by Alex Maude and is a joy to watch, particularly when imprisoned and force fed by Tamburlaine.

There are few weaknesses in this Lazarus production, but those that are present are minor. Tamburlaine’s final speech has too many pauses and the use of five identical crowns can cause confusion as to which character is the most important at any given moment. There was also an unsatisfying lack of blood considering the play’s violence. However, fringe productions tend to not have a dry cleaning budget; having the Mads Mikkelsen-as-Hannibal Lector suits cleaned daily would cost a small fortune. Artistic director Dukes’ flair for updating classical theatre with contemporary relevance and visual staging is at its finest in Tamburlaine the Great and is certainly worth a watch, particularly as it’s a play rarely staged.


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