REVIEW! Fighter @ Stratford Circus Arts Center

Written by Libby Liburd
Directed by Julie Addy
25th – 27th April  2019

Boxing was illegal for women in Britain until 1998. That’s not a typo: 1998. This is when the action of the play is set – when the boxing rings of Britain were just getting used to women running the ropes.

Written by and starring Libby Liburd, based on her own experiences as a single mother who found belonging in the male dominated boxing scene of the nineties, Fighter is a comforting narrative about forging your own path.

The script is full of warm and witty character voices, though the plot was a familiar rehash of obvious cliches. It felt like a show that wasn’t quite sure what it wanted to be – a three hander or a monologue? An action packed drama or a domestic comedy?

The main cast, including Cathy Tyson and David Schaal as Lee’s (Liburd) trainers, were excellent performers. Their interactions were a joy to watch. A group of young boxers from Fight for Peace provided energetic set dressing – skipping, bobbing, and feinting – but were a little awkward when called on to act.

Images courtesy of Alex Brenner

The production raises some great questions about the value of boxing – for women and men – as well as motherhood. Lee was at her most convincing when justifying how the skills of being a fighter are similar to those needed for raising a child.

This is an enjoyable show with an engaging cast and a few exciting moments. Despite issues with pacing, it’s valuable to see a play about a single mother and a female boxer, and fun to see one with this much heart.

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Previous Review: Twelfth Night @ Rose Playhouse

REVIEW! Twelfth Night @ The Rose Playhouse

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Adam Nichols
Musical direction by Tom Cagnoni
23rd April – 5th May 2019

This jukebox interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s awkward comedies is a fun romp, showcasing a widely talented cast.

Photography Credit – Lou Morris Photography

Set on a 1920’s cruise ship, the production runs to a tight 90 minutes, necessary as the semi-excavated historic Rose Playhouse has no heating or bathrooms. Behind the narrow shelf of the stage is a cavernous pit where the 400 year old structure is being revealed – in this production, the pit becomes the sea.

The 1920’s setting gives reason to the characters’ manias and hedonism – the war is over, and now we can drink, play pranks and fall in love. Duke Orsino (Will Forester playing him as frankly bi-curious) is our captain, Olivia (Emma Watson at full glamour) a famous actress. The innocent, plucky Viola (Lucy Crick) washes up on board and finds herself stuffing her trunks to convince people that she is worth employing – still a legitimate concern, even in the post-war relaxing of gender roles, women should not be alone with men.

The small staging space was cleverly used, the primary set piece being a modified piano that provided backing music as well as serving as a prop. The fourteen actors played music, sang and clowned, keeping the audience laughing and clapping along. Not all the songs felt entirely necessary – it’s not that they were poorly performed as much as they didn’t add much to our understanding of the characters. I don’t really need to hear the jazzy redux of the Thong Song in its entirety to know that Toby Belch is gross, or a cover of Alessia Cara’s Here to know that Feste feels out of place.

Photography Credit – Lou Morris Photography

There tends to be little to add to Shakespeare’s comedies, which play with gender and expectation in a cultural context we have no experience of. It’s common enough to cast Feste the fool as a girl, and Hannah Francis-Baker does a fine job as a grinning Greek chorus, using re-arranged pop songs to comment on the action of the play. This production, however, really leaned into the amorality of charismatic drunk Lady Toby (Anna Franklin as a washed up music hall star) and her crew, making a female Malvolia (Faith Turner playing priggish perfection) suffer – it’s more distressing to see a woman stripped to yellow stockings and taunted for thinking she might be loved than it is a man. In between that and the gentle, pitiably foolish Sir Andrew (James Douglas, at peak upper class twit), the play ends on a curious note, perhaps commenting on the torment of being the butt of jokes. It doesn’t entirely land – as it maybe can’t, without adding a post-script to Shakespeare’s play.

This production is worth your attention, appropriate for fans of pop, comedy and Shakespeare.

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Previous Review: H.M.A.S. Pinafore @ The King’s Head Theatre

REVIEW! H.M.S. Pinafore @ The King’s Head Theatre

Music and lyrics by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
Directed by John Savournin
Music directed by David Eaton
Produced by Michelle Barnette for Charles Court Opera
10 April – 11 May 2019

One must approach a Gilbert and Sullivan production with a keen understanding of exactly what one is in for. In many ways, their operettas bridge the gap between a comic opera and what we think of as “modern” musical theatre. Often the principle reserve of the amateur theatrical society, the student musical ensemble, or unambitious independent theatre group, it is very easy to do a G&S production very poorly. Fortunately, Charles Court Opera’s production of H.M.S. Pinafore at the King’s Head Theatre is not an example of this.

(c) Robert Workman. From left to right_ Alys Roberts, Philip Lee.jpg

Image credit: Robert Workman

Subtitled ‘the lass who loved a sailor’, H.M.S. Pinafore tells the story of the star-crossed lovers Ralph Rackstraw (Philip Lee), able seaman, and Josephine Corcoran (Alys Roberts), captain’s daughter. As with all Gilbert and Sullivan productions, the core themes revolve around class, duty, love and the comedy to be found in the intersection and conflict between the three. The narrative is familiar, unthreatening and concludes ludicrously. There is a sameness to many of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas that leads me to forget which beginnings go with which endings, and which songs are present in which, and I have seen my fair share over the years. But every time I heard a familiar refrain strike up at the start of a song I was reminded of how enjoyable these productions can be when done as well as they are here, and I spent a vast majority of this show beaming widely at the ridiculous antics of the crew of the Pinafore and all they came into contact with.

Gaily rendered in bright, 1960s tones, replete with an interpretation of the Pinafore as nothing less than a yellow submarine, the set and costumes created by designer Rachel Szmukler were charming and effective. Clever use was made of the small space, and the low ceilings of the King’s Head make for a believably claustrophobic submarine, setting the stage for some truly excellent performances.

With a tight cast of eight and gender parity, it is hard to fault any of the performances given by the cast on the night. Particular mention must go to Joseph Shovelton’s Sir Joseph Porter, the perfect embodiment of the bombastic, patriarchal, British twit so familiar across Gilbert and Sullivan’s opuses, commanding attention in every scene in which he was present, and consistently eliciting laughs from the entire audience. Matthew Palmer’s Captain Corcoran (also played on alternating weeks by Matthew Siveter) was endearing and feckless as he was carried along by the nonsensical story and Jennie Jacobs doubling as Little Buttercup and Sir Joseph’s Sister was the master of the sideways glance to the audience and always a highlight. As excellent as all the performances were, the bravest and most effective choice was undoubtedly the casting of Sir Joseph’s Aunt, who was an absolute scene-stealer whenever she was present.

(c) Robert Workman. From left to right - Catrine Kirkman..jpg

Image credit: Robert Workman

Accompanied only by musical director David Eaton on the keys, the music was tight and the harmonies flawless, as the cast fully embraced the operatic style that the show was written in, with no invasion of a more typical contemporary or “musical theatre” tone to the vocals.

Of course there are certain cringe-worthy moments that are borne of the dated mores of Gilbert and Sullivan’s era (though, admittedly, far fewer than are present in their other shows), particularly in reference to Little Buttercup’s “gypsy blood” and the apparent oracular abilities it gives her. The question must be asked whether anything would be lost from the original script for these references to be changed or omitted, and I don’t pretend to have the answer, though we are prepared to suffer much worse in other forms of historical popular culture.

For fans of Gilbert and Sullivan, the Charles Court Opera’s production of H.M.S. Pinafore is unmissable, and for anyone who has never seen a G&S show, it is hard to imagine a more accessible introduction to the form. The production runs at the King’s Head Theatre until the 11th of May, and tickets are selling fast, so grab them before it ships out for good.

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Previous review: Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story @ The Hope Theatre

REVIEW! Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story @ The Hope Theatre

Performed by Bart Lambert and Richard Loeb
Book, music, and lyrics by Stephen Dolginofff
Directed by Matthew Parker
Music directed by Tim Shaw
Produced by Benjamin Alborough for The Hope Theatre
2 – 20 April
Reviewer: Peter Hoekstra-Bass
On May 21, 1924, two young college students in Chicago committed what the press of the time would go on to call the crime of the century; this story is told across eighty gripping minutes in Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story.
The musical’s framing device is Leopold’s parole hearing, decades after events, as he recounts the crime to the parole board in the hope of earning his freedom. Leopold tells of his early relationship with Loeb and the lead-up to their crime. He paints his younger self as an impressionable young man, utterly enthralled and entwined with his friend-cum-lover-cum-rival, the dangerous and manipulative Loeb. Obssessed with themselves and each other, the young men are convinced of their own brilliance, and Loeb in particular with the writing of Friedrich Nietzsche. He envisions himself the Übermensch, above society and its laws. When a slew of petty crimes fails to satisfy this superiority complex, Loeb decides to hunt the ultimate thrill: murder.
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Intense and intimate, Thrill Me is an inventive two-handed show that lives and dies on the considerable talents of its two leads. Nathan Leopold is brought to life by the expressive Bart Lambert, who juggles well the role of unreliable narrator, ably affecting the manner of a much older man when addressing the parole board, and seamlessly slipping back into the frenetic energy of the younger Leopold. Jack Reitman’s Richard Loeb is seductive and serpentine, a linen-suited Mephistopheles who cracks just enough to let the uncertainty and fear show through when needed.
The book itself is adequate to the task, with enough interesting numbers never to lag, but don’t expect to see any of its songs topping the charts. Cursory research into the true Leopold and Loeb story shows that there is little in the way of consensus regarding the two men’s characters or the exact nature of their crimes and relationship, waters muddied by almost a century of rumour, hearsay and pop-cultural obfuscation.
The fixation on the sexual relationship between the two men is an unfortunate feature of the musical. Although it provides an engrossing anchor for the narrative, there is little enough queer representation in modern media, that telling such a grim, twisted story in such an overtly homoerotic way seems in bad taste, if not tone-deaf and salacious.
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Designer Rachael Taylor has ensured that, visually, the production is at the upper end of what can be expected of pub theatre. A wood-paneled set evokes the basement of a bygone era, walls papered with newspaper clippings pertaining to the murder, all joined by web of red string stretching across the walls and overhead, cleverly suggesting the classic “conspiracy wall”.
With the rise and rise of the true-crime genre across pop culture, Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb story is of the moment, engaging throughout, and executes a surprising and satisfying twist in the eleventh hour. Fans of unusual, modern musical theatre, or those with a penchant for the macabre are advised to catch it at the Hope Theatre before it escapes on April 20.
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REVIEW! Oliver With A Twist, Sh!t-Faced Showtime @ Leicester Square Theatre

Director and Writer: Katy Baker
Producer: Issy Wroe Wright
A Magnificent Bastards Production
27 March – 12 April, 2019

Image credit: Rah Petherbridge

The company which lurched into success – and the impressive Leicester Square Theatre – with Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare has expanded from the Bard to Dickens, with this tipsy twisty version of Oliver!. For the uninitiated, the gimmick of Shit-Faced Showtime is that they take classical, mainly serious theatre, and get one of the cast members outrageously drunk before the show. The result is somewhere between parody, improvisational comedy, and your most attention-seeking mate getting a bit sloppy on a night out.

The chosen drunkard on press night was Issy Wroe Wright, who was playing Oliver and is, incidentally, the producer of the theatre company. When I’ve seen Sh!t-Faced plays in the past, the afflicted actor was always instantly obvious – but in Wroe Wright’s case, it took me a little while to be sure. While I’m staunchly against alcohol abuse as well as abuse of actors, I couldn’t help but feel that she wasn’t quite soused enough to live up to the production’s central concept. The very first dance numbers were absolutely hilarious, as she scrambled after her co-stars, always a comedic, stumbling beat behind, completely failing to do hand claps or knee slaps – but as the show progressed, she seemed to sober up, and her numbers were increasingly just mediocre performances rather than bad enough to be funny. This was despite the beers handed to her by both the MC and audience members when she was deemed to need another; she never actually drank from these, instead just disposing of them offstage. Now, I can’t take my drink very well myself, and usually would absolutely be on the side of someone who’s decided they want to stop and move on to water, but… being willing to get a bit shit-faced is literally in the job description, in this case.

Image credit: Rah Petherbridge

Negativity aside, the rest of the cast – despite their sobriety – provided enough comedic relief to distract from Oliver’s straightness, and play up what boozy behaviour there was. Writer/director Katy Baker was wonderful as the MC, strutting about the stage with wit and wickedness, bantering with the audience and directing the action. Nick Moore (I think? both actors who alternate nights as Fagin are tall, fair Australians, according to the programme!) is excellent in his many roles, from orphan master to criminal master to court master. Alan McHale’s Dodger was as charming a cockney sidekick as Oliver could have asked, and Beth Rowe as Nancy impressed with a sped-up version of I Dreamed A Dream out of absolutely nowhere (as, I assume, they couldn’t afford Lionel Bart’s music, most of the production’s songs were cobbled together from various other sources, in bite-sized chunks small enough not to trip the rights wire). The cast was obviously having a lot of fun together on stage, and there was enough wittiness and silliness that I did find myself guffawing and snorting at points in the show.

Unfortunately, without delivering on the central premise and promise of a raucously sloshed actor, there wasn’t much else to the show. It ended up occupying that awkward window of being too facetious to be good theatre, but not bad enough to be funny theatre. As stated, I have seen other Sh!t-Faced productions in which the drunken actors were either better actors or drunks, and the concept really did work in a “dumb but harmless fun, and hey it’s making the classics more accessible” kind of way. I’m hoping that this time was an outlier, and that next time I catch one of their shows, the inebriated actor will be one who’s more willing to say “please sir, I want some more.”

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Previous review: Maggie May by SDWC Productions @ the Finborough Theatre

REVIEW! Maggie May by SDWC Productions @ the Finborough Theatre

Music and Lyrics: Lionel Bart
Book: Alun Owen
Director: Matthew Iliffe
Musical Director: Henry Brennan
Choreographer: Sam Spencer-Lane
Review by Peter Hoekstra-Bass and Sophia Halpin

James Darch and Kara Lily Hayworth in Maggie May at Finborough Theatre (courtesy Ali Wright) (4).jpg

Image credit: Ali Wright

When one hears of a revival of a musical that hasn’t seen the London stage for over fifty years, it is understandable to respond with a measure of scepticism. The stage is always hungry for vibrant musical productions, whether old or new, and five decades of West End silence do not speak well to a show’s calibre. The production at the Finborough Theatre proudly touts their season of Maggie May as the first professional UK production in over fifty years. I went in with moderated expectations.

Inspired by the folk ballad of the same name, Maggie May tells the story of two young lovers: Pat Casey, son and heir apparent of the once-and-future king of the docklands unionists, and Pat’s sweetheart – the titular heroine, a Liverpudlian sex worker-with-a-heart-of-gold. The show is unrepentantly political and working class, as most of the action is given over to the struggles of Casey and his friends against the establishment, personified in their corrupt union leader Willie Morgan.

While the refrains of “Solidarity Forever” seem to echo over almost every scene, the political backdrop of the story is rarely more than that, as the broad beats of the story could be put over any narrative aesthetic and work just as well. Indeed, in his role as the son of a union organiser murdered by the police and heir presumptive to his father’s position, Patrick Casey has more of Aragorn about him than he does Enjolras. And while the themes of social stratification, exploitation of workers, and economic hardship may still ring true today, the piece shows its age in its one-note depictions of women. It’s certainly the sort of mid-twentieth century musical in which the boys sing about politics, social change, identity, and personal destiny, and the girls sing about… boys.

Joshua Barton, Kara Lily Hayworth and Michael Nelson in Maggie May at Finborough Theatre (courtesy Ali Wright).jpg

Image credit: Ali Wright

By a significant margin, the weakest element of this revival of Maggie May is the book itself, which is to say that this is an excellent production of some mediocre material.

The cast (seemingly impossibly large for the pub-theatre scale of the production) is uniformly excellent, and it was hard to believe they had only been performing together for a few days. Whether in their roles as friends or foes, lovers or rivals, the chemistry was always vivid and convincing between all the characters, and the obvious comfort the cast had with each other was keenly felt by the audience.

In his role as the pauper prince Pat Casey, James Darch was charming and endlessly watchable; twinkle-eyed when he needed to be, but effortlessly powerful when he assumed his father’s mantle. Similarly, Kara Lily Hayworth inhabited the admittedly thin role of Maggie May with ease and made more of her Bechdel-Test-failing scenes than should have been possible. David Keller as the elder statesman and unionist true believer was always entertaining, and Mark Pearce’s slimy union leader brought just the right amount of Fagin and Thénardier to his scenes. Indeed, there is almost no member of the cast who does not deserve singling out, and some of the strongest scenes in the production were when the small, pub-theatre stage was filled to bursting with singing, dancing Liverpudlians.

Which brings me to one of the highlights of the production, namely: the dancing. Choreographer Sam Spencer-Lane has worked magic with this production, as her dance numbers, executed ever-so-tightly by the cast, seemed to grow the small venue to that of a West End theatre. This masterful use of the space, combined with Jonathan Simpson’s bold but effective lighting, made it easy to forget I was in a cosy attic upstairs of a pub – although, sat as I was in the front row, I did sometimes feel that I could catch a high kick to the face at any moment!

Michael Nelson, Kara Lily Hayworth and Joshua Barton in Maggie May at Finborough Theatre (courtesy Ali Wright).jpg

Image credit: Ali Wright

Before summarising my overall impression of this production of Maggie May, I must preface with a reiteration that the original text is not strong. There is certainly charm and linguistic interest in the language used – an appealing if often unintelligible docklands mixture of Scouser, Irish Gaelic, and Welsh – but the plot often felt as grey and grimy as Liverpool bilge water. What really brought this show to life was the superb skill and energy of the creatives involved, most especially the director, choreographer, and actors. While emotional investment in Liverpool and/or trade union politics of the 60s would probably enhance the experience, all you really need is a love of musical theatre to enjoy this show. But hurry, Maggie will be gone by May!

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Previous review: Sick @ Kings Head Theatre