The Nassim Plays, Bush Theatre

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An actor stands on stage. They are handed a script they have never read before. A frank look at suicide, choice and learned behaviour unfolds after a menagerie of animal impressions.

An actor stands on stage. They are handed a script they have never read before. An hour of hilarious and revealing Mad Libs ensues.

An actor stands on stage. They are handed a script they have never read before. It’s a recipe that the actor must prepare whilst reflecting on the cultural importance and ritual of food.

An actor stands on stage. On the screen behind them, a script is projected they have never read before. Then there’s a live feed, a language lesson and a tender reflection on the meaning of home.

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Blondel, Union Theatre

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I am often impressed with theatre’s ability to transform the most serious of topics into bouncy, chirpy musicals. Tim Rice and Tom Williams looked to the Crusades for their comedic tale of Richard I’s court musician, Blondel, but discarded much of the history. This 1983 show has some great numbers, but its frivolity and insubstantial book focusing on a personal journey rather than the larger political landscape is diminutive rather than powerfully sweeping. This is no Les Mis or Miss Saigon; it is instead an under-developed documentation of a rise to fame – but it still has its moments of fun.

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I Know You of Old, Hope Theatre

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Hero’s coffin lies in a candlelit chapel of rest, draped in lace, overlooked by a portrait of the virgin Mary. Her cousin Beatrice and her lover Claudio quietly mourn the young woman, but their friend Benedick disrupts their grief. The characters are from Much Ado About Nothing of course, but this is not Much Ado About Nothing. David Fairs rips apart Shakespeare’s script to create a totally new story with Shakespeare’s verse and characters, I Know You of Old.

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A Year From Now, VAULT Festival

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by guest critic Jo Trainor

“Two or three people with guitars call themselves a band, they’re a group!”

Red Belly Black Theatre Company asked fourteen people where they think they’ll be a year from now, and have used their voices to create an hour of witty, beautiful and moving theatre.

Lip-synced verbatim is a new experience for this reviewer, and if you’re not used to it there is a brief moment where you need to get on board with the style. Luckily Red Belly Black are so precise with their movements and mannerisms that it’s impossible not to love A Year From Now.

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Monorogue: Elf Off, Old Red Lion Theatre

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The Salon:Collective’s Monorogue is back again, this time with a Christmas edition. The monologue showcase is now in Santa’s workshop, where perky elf Gingersparkles is interviewing human candidates for a vacancy in the Lapland workshop. Seven lacklustre individuals who can’t otherwise find seasonal employment are created and performed by Salon:Collective actors in this spunky, lighthearted show where the audience gets to vote for the best performer/character. Distinctive characters and good performances are the trademark of this regular event, and the framework around the monologues makes for more palatable viewing.

The set is a simple construction of heaps of brightly wrapped presents, Christmas decorations and toys. It’s easy, cheap and hugely effective in the intimate blackbox theatre. Though perhaps unintended, it is also a lovely juxtaposition to some of the more down-at-heel characters.

The performances are generally good, though some of the characters tend towards stereotypical and miss opportunities for nuance. The standouts are Lucy Gallagher and Louise Devlin’s intense Scottish tomboy Mae, and Angela Harvey’s struggling mum of five Hayley. Rachel Stoneley’s confused but sweet stripper, Jade, is a great way to wrap up the candidates. Laurie Stevens is the adorable Gingersparkles, but she surprises with a ferocious climax that wraps up the evening well.

The scripts have a strong lean towards comedy, which suits the time of year, but some of them lack depth and choose to mock personality traits rather than empathise. Whilst there is nothing overtly offensive and the stereotypes created are identifiable and relatable, there is room for more variation.

Monorogue proves again that they offer an entertaining event that allows actors and playwrights to showcase their talents without taking the more common, in your face approach to self-marketing usually found in showcases. The theme sets the actor/writers a challenge and gives the audiences a needed framing device, and the performances are usually good.

Monorogue: Elf Off is now closed.

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 Last Five Years, St James Theatre

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Even the most moving performances are often largely removed from our day-to-day lives. But every so often you come across a piece of theatre that, whilst it may not be the objective best thing you’ve seen, encapsulates your life so well that you can’t not fall in love with it.

The Last Five Years is good though, even if it’s been a favourite of mine since I discovered it as a student back in 2002. The Jason Robert Brown musical, now 15 years old, is a wonderfully simple (albeit heteronormative) tale of boy and girl meeting, falling in love and falling apart. Framed by the late 90s NYC arts world (that I watched as a teenager in the suburbs and later joined as a drama school student), his story is told in chronological order and hers in reverse. There are two performers; the only time they interact directly is at their wedding, making the songs function more like reflective monologues. Though there is hardly any book, Brown’s lyrics tell the story clearly and sensitively. Dynamic staging and committed performances, like those in this anniversary production that Brown directs, are necessary to keep this quirky little musical from falling flat. It’s a powerful, disarming show when executed effectively, and this production may well be its new definitive.

Jamie is a writer and Cathy is an actor. They are 23 when they meet; neither has had any success yet but both are wide-eyed, bushy tailed, and ready to fall in love. Jamie quickly becomes a bestselling novelist whilst Cathy is left in his wake, waitressing and doing summer theatre in the depths of the Midwest. It’s within this career disparity that their relationship deteriorates, and I find Cathy painfully echoes my own life as a failed actor. The isolation and jealousy that Brown fosters in his songs is wholly believably and all too familiar.

Both characters are flawed but generally likeable and despite reservoirs of love, it’s not enough to save their marriage. Though both characters can be irritating in their own way, their good intentions and fundamental incompatibility also ring true to anyone that’s endured the heartbreak of an ended relationship or marriage. Here is yet another parallel to my past, but this time I’m more like Jamie – I married young and naive and was divorced by 30 as a result of my own mistakes.

Samantha Barks and Jonathan Bailey are Cathy and Jamie. Barks is a stronger singer, but Bailey’s full of charisma and confidently flirts with the audience – it’s a lovely touch. Both have great emotional range and their chemistry is undeniable. Their performances, layered with Brown’s storytelling, reduces many to tears. Sniffling and eye wiping is plentiful in this intimate house.

The small scale of the show is fleshed out with some delightful video design by Jeff Sugg and Derek McLane’s set. These provide the context that’s missing from the script and grounds their story in a real time and place, though its Gabriella Slade’s costumes that indicate the 1990s setting. The videos are simple and cartoon-like, a sweet and charming addition that Brown underuses.

Though more of a song cycle with hardly any spoken dialogue (if you were to listen to the soundtrack you would hear almost the entire show) and arguably rather insubstantial, this one-act show has the ability to burrow into the depths of your guts. It’s a heartfelt love letter to the countless New York City artists doing their best to get by and find meaning in each other, and to everyone that’s every fallen in and out of love. The poignant, timeless story of youthful love and loss has the sorts of songs that you play on loop whilst crying in bed with a heart broken by your own failures (I’ve done this more than I care to admit), and those you can dance to after a brilliant first date or a career win. With the excellent performances and slick design of this production, it’s not one to miss – even if you cry through it.

The Last Five Years runs through 3 December.

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.

Undead Bard, Theatre N16

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Professor Ashborn is on a mission to disprove Shakespeare’s existence, but the academics with leather patches on their elbows are trying to stop him. Following Ashborn’s lecture and an interval, Undead Bard creator Robert Crighton summons Shakespeare to talk to him about his life, work and death in an unrelated second half. This two-part show on Shakespeare in the modern world, bardolatry and the authorship debate certainly has some very funny moments of satire, but others are utterly bizarre and the poor execution of an idea. A significantly stronger first act sets up a reasonably enjoyable event, but the second is self-indulgent and anti-climactic in this overly long solo performance.

The paranoid Professor Ashborn’s lecture rips the piss out of Shakespeare academics, those that believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s works, those that believe someone else did under Shakespeare’s name and anyone with a love for Shakespeare’s plays. Crighton as Ashborn talks the audience through his various ridiculous authorship theories with energy and eccentric humour, evoking plenty of laughs. The script follows a natural rhythm of discovery, disappointment and eventual confession; it’s a story carefully crafted with intuition and skill.

Considering the second act, the first would be better served as a stand-alone piece. After what is quite a good piece of character storytelling, this random, rambling seance on the mundanity of Shakespeare’s life and afterlife is, well, mundane. The inclusion of toilet humour and sexual innuendo do not improve the piece. Shakespeare’s confusion at his legacy is cute, but it absolutely doesn’t warrant nearly an hour of discourse and disconnected pop culture references.

Crighton clearly has an aptitude for crafting a story, as evidenced in the first part of the show. Unfortunately, the rest of it is a muddled letdown that needs to be sent back to the drawing board or discarded completely.

Undead Bard runs through 13 October.

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.