An Inspector Calls, Playhouse Theatre

Seventy years ago, J B Priestley’s thriller An Inspector Calls was first staged in the UK. Twenty-five years ago, Stephen Daldry’s acclaimed, progressive production opened at the National. His approach shook up the insular, drawing room script in order to highlight the selfish elitism of the middle and upper classes and has been regularly staged since 1992. Now, in a post-Brexit, post-Trump 2016 punctuated by hate crime, polarised political views and gaping social inequality, Daldry’s production about the death of a working class woman known to all members of a posh family still feels relevant. Though there are some clunky moments and miss-matched performance styles, the crusade for accountability and justice that drives the plot keeps this play firmly in the present within a stunning production concept.

Daldry’s interpretation manifests through Ian MacNeil’s design that takes much of the action out of the Birling family home and into the dark, wet street below. Copious fog and treacherous cobbles interfere with their joyous engagement celebrations and ruling class entitlement, endowing the inspector with more power as the Birlings are actually destabilised. The family and their guests are drawn out of the warm comfort of their stilted home that quickly becomes remote and inaccessible, and made to face the dirty secrets that Inspector Goole extracts from each of them in a landscape of damp despair. As their individual facades collapse, so does the home that protects and elevates them from the working classes, the people of the streets. Some of the set transitions are a bit mechanical, but it’s otherwise a powerful visual metaphor and one that’s excellently executed.

The cast’s performances are good, though there are a few different styles. Barbara Marten’s matriarchal Sybil Birling is comedically melodramatic, earning a laugh whenever she speaks. Considering the gravity of the play’s message, this is a strange choice and one that clashes with the largely naturalistic work from the rest. Liam Brennan is an excellent Inspector Goole, earthy and immoveable. Clive Francis is a somewhat frail Arthur Birling, though his vocal power and characterful rage keep him in constant battle with the inspector.

This visually striking production is still relevant what with Priestley’s attacks on the British class system and the casualness with which the upper classes and government treat the lives of the working class and those down at heel. The energy, pace and tension keep it from descending into stale playacting that dances around a real, serious problem and the high production values give it popular appeal and spectacle. With hope, its wide reach will have a big impact and remind audiences that the unseen, working girl in the play is the entire population of impoverished people in this country at the mercy of those with more financial power.

The Inspector Calls runs through 4 February.

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Goodnight Mister Tom, Duke of York’s Theatre


The WWII image of dejected, scrappy children with brown tags around their necks, clutching their most precious belongings as they are re-homed with strangers in the countryside is a powerful one. It’s one that inspired author Michelle Magorian to write Goodnight Mister Tom, adapted by David Wood for the stage, now in London after a successful run at Chichester and before heading off for a national tour. The audience meets little William, who is sent from Deptford to Dorset and assigned to live with the reclusive Tom Oakley. With a focus on Tom more so than the relocated children, this is a story about finding love again after a devastating loss. This part of the production is moving, but the story is slow to develop over a long time period and the flimsy, thin dialogue doesn’t support the large cast of characters, their development and the devastation of wartime.

David Troughton as Tom is a sad and sensitive widower, the complete opposite of the grump that his fellow villagers see. Three Williams, three Zachs (William’s precocious evacuee friend) and a gaggle of children make up half the cast; all are very much child actors. Alex Taylor-McDowall is today’s William, a lanky shy boy poisoned by his fundamentalist Christian single mother, Melle Stewart. We hear a lot about her, but only meet her in one scene. Stewart is unable to show just how evil (and mentally ill) the character is, though she does her best to live up to the previously discussed monster. Most of the other characters have similarly brief stage time, but plenty of multi-rolling and puppetry keeps the generally good ensemble performers busy.

But the first half takes its time to get going. It’s not from a lack of energy in individuals, but the overall pace is languid. It’s lovely and sweet, but flat. The war seems far away from this village, country life is slow, and day-to-day life is filled with routine and little errands. It’s in these small tasks that we see Tom’s affection for William grow: getting “new” clothes for him, teaching him to read and write and fending of bullies who pick on the “townies” and “vaccies” from London.

It’s no wonder the local kids pick on the Londoners. William can’t read or write, sleeps under the bed rather than on it, and his toxic mother skewed his worldview about, well, everything. Zach is well-spoken, attention seeking and flamboyant, the son of actors. It’s interesting that the London children the audience meets are either desperately camp or from the slums in this story; does this reflect Magorian’s preconceptions?

Along with Troughton’s performance, the puppets are outstanding. Tom’s dog, Sammy (Elisa de Grey) is gorgeously constructed, and full of movement and life from de Grey’s work. After the interval, there’s an increase in momentum after an unnecessary subplot involving William’s return to London and the effects of war creep closer, creating more tension and loss. The audience learns more about Tom’s past and the ending is a tearjerker and concise resolution.

For a family show however, the whole thing is too long and convoluted. Tom and William’s story could have easily had more focus with a reduction of other characters, more fleshed out scenes and additional detail about Tom’s life leading up to the point he takes in William. Fortunately, Troughton has enough stage time to keep this otherwise lovely, but flat, production going.

Press ticket for Goodnight Mister Tom is courtesy of

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.

Rocky Horror Show, Playhouse Theatre

Though touring regularly, The Rocky Horror Show hasn’t appeared in the West End since 1990-1991. For a limited time, this camp, B-side parody musical returns to the Playhouse Theatre before embarking on a new UK tour. Devoted fans attend in costume and call out responses during the show, carrying on long-held traditions developed after the release of the film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Audience behaviour is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the West End and the regular punters don’t quite know what to make of the anarchy, but it’s a fun night out and a cultural awakening to this cult phenomenon. This is a polished revival with some inventive touches and great performances, but does the award winning musical from the 1970s withstand the test of time? Not so much.

The casting highlight for the fans is playwright Richard O’Brien as the Narrator. A small role, but an inspiring sight to behold considering the gent is in his 70s. From the applause and screams on his first entrance, fans regard O’Brien as a god among men, or an actual god. He’s charismatic, still has a wonderfully rich speaking voice and indulges the audience’s adoration. David Bedella as Frank-N-Furter is sexy with a dangerous edge and excellent comic timing, particularly in the bedroom at the beginning of Act II. Disappointingly, he corpses a couple of times at some of the more rare audience call-outs and often loses his flow. There’s no banter with the audience; instead long pauses cause frequent disruption to the pace as the actors wait for the audience to recover from the call-out humour. The performances are otherwise excellent from this highly experienced cast of thirteen, several who have been in previous Rocky Horror Show tours. The audience have the potential to become a character and do their best to make themselves known through the call-outs and bad behaviour, including talking at full volume, taking photos and shining torches, but they are largely ignored by the cast.

The design is nuanced, with elements of meta-theatre in the cinema reel edging to remind us of its root in the film world. Frank’s reveal in a striking backlit wardrobe is used enough to create impact but not overly employed. Hugh Durrant’s set richly contrasts Brad and Janet’s pre-Frank world with the castle interior. Haze is used enough to sharpen beams of light to make a laser effect with using actual lasers or an overkill on the smoke. Costumes match those in the film and are mirrored in the audience who chose to dress up.

There’s no denying that this is a slick production of a show that, to be frank, isn’t very good. Structurally, the first act has the best numbers and consistent momentum, albeit with clunky and rushed transitions into the songs. After the interval, the story and music loses its way with ballads and plot twists that don’t fit the conventions established in the first half. Some of the new sub-plots don’t even really make sense and are introduced too late to develop properly, such as the appearance of Dr. Scott in his brief scene. Most pointedly, The Rocky Horror Show is painfully misogynistic and offensive by current social standards: there’s slut-shaming, the antiquated term ‘transvestite’ (and the character labeled as such is a rather horrible villain), rape that’s justified by the victims’ enjoyment of it, objectification and sex slavery. It can be argued that it’s all in good fun and is a product of its time, but at the time it was written these were more socially acceptable behaviours that society has now rightly condemned and tries to move past. There is no element of moralizing in the story to draw attention to these actions’ unacceptability, nor are they new enough to theatrical content to make them edgy or shocking.

The fans drive the demand for The Rocky Horror Show and as such, it will never quietly fade away into retirement, despite its highly questionable themes. The skillful performances and high production values make the night enjoyable, but the story is an unpleasant relic from a time with a more limited understanding of human rights.

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As Is, Trafalgar Studios

As Is, Bevan Celestine, Natalie Burt, Steven Webb & Russel Morton,Trafalgar Studios, 1 July - 1 August 2015. Courtesy Scott Rylander-022The AIDS play of my generation was Rent. I saw the original cast on Broadway when I was 15 or 16 and felt a strong bond with the characters that weren’t much older than me. By that age, my peers and I had the fear of AIDS drilled into us over several years of sex education. It was still a death sentence then, but treatment was available and quality of life was improving. We knew the history of the disease, though. We knew how it exploded into the gay community, then spread to everyone else. We knew how many people died, and how horribly. We knew that no one was safe.

In 1985, the first AIDS play, As Is was staged in New York City. The AIDS epidemic is ravaging the city, particularly the gay community. As the disease spreads and people die, fear mounts. Diagnosis is a death sentence. Oblivious in the New York City suburbs, I was 3 years old.

Now I’m 33, and this is the 30th anniversary production of As Is. AIDS is still here, and the number of AIDS cases is rising. The fear isn’t so strong any more due to advances in medicine; it’s certainly not something on my radar like it was when I was a child. People are forgetting the disease’s history and the impact it had only a few decades ago because it’s now possible to lead a full life with medication and early diagnosis. That’s why staging As Is, a production that captures the desperation and rising panic of the generation first exposed to AIDS, is crucial. Though dated, it is a vital depiction of an era of social history that must be remembered, but does so with humour, humanity and a fantastic cast.

Centered around recent exes Rich (Steven Webb) and Saul (David Poyner) who initially meet to divide up their belongings, their world suddenly alters after Rich confesses he has “it.” The story becomes a detailed and intimate journey of a man struggling to come to terms with his illness, and his ex-boyfriend’s obsessive urge to care for him. Six other actors play a variety of characters associated with Rich and Saul’s life ranging from drug dealers, to family, to medical staff. Some of the best supporting characters include Natalie Burt as best friend Lily and older hospice worker Jane Lowe. Performances are excellently committed across the board, capturing the microcosmic struggle of a disease that has affected millions since it first appeared. The only performance issue is the over-egged accents. People from the New York City area haven’t spoken with accents that stereotypical for a long time, but this is not something a non-American is likely to notice.

Written by William M. Hoffman, the dialogue races through a gamut of emotions, evoking belly laughs one moment and tears the next. Without the regular levity, the script would be entirely too depressing, and proves the necessity of laughter when coping with personal trauma. Even though the humour is ever present, so is fear. The script walks a fine line that wavers between the two, and every other emotion associated with the devastation of an AIDS diagnosis. Particularly evocative scenes include Rich nihilistically on the pull in a nightclub shortly after learning of his condition, a support group of mostly gay men with the striking presence of a pregnant woman who’s husband infected her, and Rich’s first hospital stay with Saul devotedly by his side.

The costumes are distinctly early 1980s, and the simple, versatile set of lockers, chairs and pipes captures the industrial dinginess of New York City that is still present today. The design contrasts the script, a montage of fast-paced, overlapping scenes and a frantic depiction of fear and desperation that is sweeping the city.

Trafalgar Studios 2 is an intimate venue, perfect for the immensely personal journeys depicted in the play. The actors boldly interact with the audience, atypical of naturalism. This allows the audience to feel embedded in their world and reminds us that AIDS can affect all of us. Even though it is a lovely experience to see this play in a small venue, it definitely deserves larger audiences and would be able to fill a bigger stage.

As Is perfectly balances humour and seriousness to remind audiences that AIDS is still here and has the power to irrevocably alter lives, despite medical care. It accurately evokes a fearful time that I remember in flashes of news broadcasts, interviews and health classes. Stunning, fearless performances and a great script capture a unique moment in American history, but one that has left an indelible mark on global society. We are reminded that Rich’s “it” could still happen to any of us.

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Gypsy, Savoy Theatre

23725_fullWhen you think of musical theatre you think of singing and dancing. Sequins and jazz hands. Sparkling smiles and happiness. More recent musicals have been experimenting hugely with structure and form, but written in the 1950s, Gypsy was ahead of its time. With a focus on the main characters’ journeys rather glitz and glamour, this production creates a new standard for outstanding acting in musical theatre.

Imelda Staunton is without a doubt the star of the show. Rose’s tenacity and gradual unraveling is played with nuance, conviction and unfailing energy. Peter Davison’s Herbie contrasts Rose’s brashness with a quiet devotion, creating a lovely dynamic but that painfully mirrors every failed relationship. Though Lara Pulver’s journey from the shy Louise to the cold Gypsy Rose Lee is inevitable, it taps into the vulnerability of all characters involved. Her naïve devotion completes a charming, though dysfunctional threesome that eventually crumbles. None of these three principal actors relied on hackneyed, two-dimensional characterizations that are so easy to adopt in musical theatre.

The book certainly helps, providing a vigorous, well-constructed skeleton on which the actors lovingly add meat and flesh. The only point when the book lets down the show in the final scene. In this case, the ambiguity is unsatisfying. The show could have ended earlier, when Rose finally comes to terms with her actions, or she could have been left by Louise to face the loneliness of a life alone. Otherwise, this genre-defining book musical holds up wonderfully.

The Savoy is a splendid setting for Gypsy, capturing the grand bygone days of vaudeville and the sort of houses Rose yearns to play. The Savoy juxtaposes the meta-theatrical set of the shabby world of the regional houses Rose’s kids actually play. It’s omnipresent, just out of her reach as a shadow she can’t see properly beyond the footlights, but one that adds to the audience’s visual experience immensely. The sequins and glitter Rose eventually encounters bedeck intimidating, crude burlesque performers signifying the demise of the grand old days of vaudeville and the decent into the more sexualized, desperate world of the Great Depression.

This production is one to see for those people that are not keen on musical theatre but want the experience of brilliant acting and character development. Of course there are songs and dances, but they are not the focal point of the show. This is a musical that brushes the genre, but doesn’t overwhelm with anything other than some of the best British talent gracing the West End musical stage.

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Closer, Donmar Warehouse

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,” stated Newton. In David Levaux’s Donmar Warehouse production of Closer, we see Newton’s laws of physics personified: when you fall in love with someone completely, they eventually leave you (usually for someone else).

Written nearly 20 years ago, this production is successfully contemporary. The use of large-scale projections and a minimalist set reinforce the modern setting, and the language has not dated. Whilst this was initially surprising due to our reliance on instant communication technology, the focus of Marber’s play is the relationships; these remain timeless. Excellent performances by the ensemble cast of four (Nancy Carrol, Oliver Chris, Rachel Redford and Rufus Sewel) and Marber’s snappy dialogue fully engage the audience, reminding them of the absurdity of love and the pain of its loss.

Repeatedly throughout the play, the absurdity of love and lust is highlighted. We all want what we cannot have, and once we get it, we want someone else. The story condenses several years into an intense two hours but due to the outstanding characterisation and range of roles, the audience can relate to at least some element of the constant musical chairs of falling in and out of love. The repetitive, mindless toying with a Newton’s Cradle reminds us of the inherent pointlessness of our own relationship’s difficulties, which feel like the world is collapsing in that moment.

The performances and the play itself are the stars of this production, but it is not without its faults. During several of the regularly-occurring arguments, there were unrealistically lengthy pauses between lines. The direction was obvious in these moments, but may have been a deliberate directorial choice to emphasise the ridiculousness of the moment. Redford’s delivery could tend towards overly sarcastic and lacked some of the nuance of the others’ but again, this may have been a character choice to highlight her youth.

Despite characters that all can relate to, this is not a play that naturally reflects life. It liberally utilises humour to again draw attention to the absurd, but has a painfully beautiful ending that drops us to earth with a resounding thud. We are each surrounded by a wall of lies, falling in love with these same constructions of others. With attraction, trust and love, we take down our walls. But once we see the flaws in the other, we no longer want them. We go, looking for another perfectly constructed fabrication – the next ball in Newton’s Cradle.

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.