Top Girls

It does seem timely, reviving Caryl Churchill’s ground-breaking 1982 play, which takes a look at differing views of feminism, but is it a modern classic or a play of its time?

The story centres on Marlene, a ruthlessly ambitious Thatcherite who gets the top job at recruitment agency Top Girls, beating Howard, who everyone expected to be promoted. In the first act, she’s celebrating at a fantasy dinner party to which she’s invited five unpredictable historical figures with differing perspectives on being a woman. We see her in action in the agency, where each of the historical characters has a contemporary parallel, before we travel back in time to visit her sister back home in Suffolk and learn what she’s really given up.

The first act is brilliantly inventive, but it outstays its welcome and becomes irritating, the second act’s first scene is a trip back to Suffolk with Marlene’s niece and her friend and seemed unnecessary to me, and the second scene of this act, in the agency, seemed a bit overcooked, a touch too caricature. The third act is the heart of the play, and its staged and performed to perfection.

Director Lyndsay Turner has assembled a fine cast of actresses, including many favourites of mine. Katherine Kingsley is terrific as Marlene and there’s brilliant support from Amanda Lawrence, Siobhan Redmond, Ashley McGuire, Lucy Ellinson and Lucy Black and an outstanding performance from Liv Hill as Marlene’s niece Angie.

It seems to be the first time the play has been performed without doubling up, and I wondered if the frisson this provides, given the historical / contemporary parallels, was missing. I was glad I saw it, but it seems more play of its time than modern classic to me.


Queen of the Mist

American musicals writer Michael John LaCiusa’s subjects are as diverse as Sondheim and Kander & Ebb, though he isn’t in their league. The four I’ve seen include adaptations of Schnitzler and Lorca, the stories of four First Ladies and a hedonistic wild party. This one is based on the true story of Anna Edson Taylor, who rode over Niagara Falls in a barrel! It’s a quirky show, but it gets a fine UK premiere at the Brockley Jack Theatre.

The story starts by visiting a series of widowed Anna’s homes across America, as she tries, and fails, to make a living as a teacher, being evicted from every one, penniless. The Niagara project is her last ditch attempt to make money. She dismisses her critics and detractors and gets her own barrel made. The first half ends tantalisingly, as she is about to plunge.

Act II takes a surprising turn. She’s succeeded in doing something no-one else has achieved, a woman in a world of failed male dare-devils, but she seems disinclined to exploit her notoriety, perhaps because of the psychological impact of her experience. She goes through a series of managers, but fame is a fickle thing and she is soon forgotten.

LaChuisa’s score is very good, seeped in early 20th century Americana, but I did wonder if a separate book writer might have produced a better narrative. I loved the orchestration for keyboards, strings, woodwind and horn and here it’s played by one of the finest ensembles, onstage in period costume, I’ve ever heard at a fringe musical, under MD Jordan Li-Smith. The vocal standards of the seven actors were outstanding too, with an exceptional performance by Trudi Camilleri in the leading role. Dom O’Hanlon’s staging makes great use of the small space, complemented by an excellent design from Tara Usher.

Whatever you think of the show, the production is excellent and it’s good to get the chance to see it here. This was my first visit to Brockley Jack, only seven miles from my home, but it won’t be my last.



In the Barbican / Guildhall School’s Silk Street Theatre the seating has gone and there are five giant white boxes inside which there are five rooms. You enter them in turn and once you’ve absorbed the extraordinary detail of Paul Fahy’s design, there is a recorded monologue. This makes it different from anything I’ve seen before.

We started in the Kitchen, typical of a modest family home, then on to a shabby Hotel Room for a very hypnotic monologue from Niall Buggy. The Bathroom smelt like it had just been used and there was something very creepy about the Girls Bedroom. We ended in a grubby Office where the smell once again pervaded the room, and things took a more sinister turn. The monologues were read by five fine Irish actors and were occasionally broken up by sounds and light effects.

Enda Walsh’s stories are very poetic but I didn’t always engage with or fully understand the narrative. The whole thing was mesmerising though, and you’re still processing it long after it’s over. It’s an original idea brilliantly executed and for once my three fellow travellers proceeded with the silence it both needed and deserved.

Come From Away

I was in Newfoundland in 2016. It’s a lovely place and, surprisingly, just over four hours from London by air. In the days of refuelling on transatlantic flights, its airport at Gander was well used; not much since, though it still has a huge capacity. The town isn’t a Newfoundland highlight. I drove through it twice. Without stopping. If I’d known its people had shown so much humanity in a world wrought with anger and hate on 9/11, I’d have probably stopped to pay my own tribute. But I didn’t.

It became the destination for 38 planes containing 7000 passengers, diverted after the attacks. At first they stayed aboard, expecting to move on to their original destinations shortly. When it became clear this was more than a short stop, they disembarked. The population of Gander, not much more than the total of stranded passengers, mobilised to provide shelter, food, clothing, phones, eventually inviting them into their homes, virtually adopting them. Relationships developed, but five days later they were waving goodbye.

It was the 10th anniversary, when residents and passengers were reunited, that gave the writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein the idea to tell their story. They interviewed both locals and the once stranded and created this extraordinary musical telling some of their stories. You might wonder why the musical style seems Irish folk, think Once, but I remember hearing this sound on my travels. Many Newfoundlanders are of Irish descent, the province only joined Canada after the second world war, and it is unlike any other part of Canada. What’s surprising is how earnest the show isn’t, and how funny it is. Though it’s often moving, I didn’t find it too sentimental; in fact I would say its one of the most exhilarating, uplifting shows I’ve seen.

A very simple staging, with some trees representing the island and chairs to create every location, leave the twelve actors to tell the stories of the many more they play unencumbered. The music hardly stops and there’s great pace and energy to Christopher Ashley and Kelly Devine’s staging. It’s breathless, grabbing you quickly and never letting go for 100 unbroken minutes. It struck me that now was a good time to see it here, to remind us that there is human kindness in this divided, angry world.

A joyful experience born of tragic events. Very much a musical for our times.

The Bay at Nice

This early David Hare play was first staged at the NT’s Cottesloe Theatre 33 years ago, paired with another called Wrecked Eggs. It’s now flying solo at the Menier in an impeccable production by Richard Eyre with a stunning design by Fotini Dimou, but I’m not sure its substantial enough to hold an evening on its own.

It’s 1955 and Valentina Nrovka has been invited to the Hermitage in St Petersburg to contribute to the debate about the provenance of a painting believed to be by Matisse, who was her friend. Valentina’s daughter Sophia comes too, and much of the play is in fact about their relationship and Sophia’s intention to leave her husband for a much older man, Peter, who also turns up. The personal story, the art and the Soviet state are interwoven to form the narrative.

Valentina is acid tongued and Hare has written some brilliant lines for her, delivered to perfection by Penelope Wilton, so much so that she dominates the piece, a bit like Lady Bracknell does in The Importance of Being Earnest. Ophelia Lovibond provides fine support as Sophia, and David Rintoul as Peter and Martin Hutson as the Assistant Curator give fine cameos, but it’s Wilton’s evening, worth the visit for her masterclass in acting, plus a truly evocative design of a seemingly vast room in the Winter Palace.

After Edward

I was intrigued by the prospect of this response to Edward II, written by the actor who play’s him in Marlowe’s play, running in rep with it. It turns out to be a very clever yet entertaining review of attitudes to LGBT rights since, made more poignant as I saw it on the day the state of Brunei introduced stoning as a punishment.

Edward ‘falls’ into another place and the first person he meets in the dark is the Archbishop of Canterbury. They talk while they light the theatre’s candles together. He’s soon gone and three rather diverse gay icons turn up – Gertrude Stein, Quentin Crisp and Harvey Milk – who share their perspectives and experiences. At various times we briefly meet Maria von Trapp, The Village People and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, obviously. Another character from history, actor Edward Alleyn, adds his historical perspective. Gaveston arrives to take us full circle as the actor playing Edward becomes himself and introduces his story, during which we get to meet his school bully. In the final scene the stage and auditorium is invaded by the cast, musicians and a choir for an exhilarating conclusion.

It’s a well written play which makes its point, that we’ve come a long way but there’s still further to go, really well, whilst always entertaining. By linking the story of Edward and Gaveston with the writer’s own and those of the historical public figures, it produces a multi-layered and very satisfying narrative, and its very funny. Brendan O’Hea’s staging and Jessica Worrall’s design both serve it well. Tom Stuart is excellent as Edward as well as himself!, there’s a terrific performance by Richard Cant as Quentin Crisp, and Polly Frame, Annette Badland & Jonathan Livingstone are excellent as Harvey Milk, Gertrude Stein and Edward Alleyn respectively.

The highlight of the Winter Season in the SWP. Don’t miss!

If I was asked to create a musical writing partnership, I’m not sure I’d put together the writer of sophisticated, clever stuff like Sunday in the Park with George & Into the Woods, James Levine, and the man behind chirpy, quirky shows like The 24th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and the three Falsetto musicals, William Finn, but here they are together, adapting the 2006 hit film of the same name.

Olive is runner-up in the regional Little Miss Sunshine pageant, but gets through to the national final when the winner is disqualified. This necessitates a road-trip for the entire family – mom Sheryl, dad Richard, Grandpa, Uncle Frank and teenage brother Dwayne – from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Redondo Beach, California. They are beset with problems along the way – car breakdowns, dad’s book deal falling through, the discovery of a condition that will blight Dwayne’s chosen career, a chance meeting with an ex. and his new lover for Frank and something way more serious for grandpa – but they make it.

It’s hard to like a show about an institution you loathe, even if it is sending it up a bit, but its not helped by a fairly pedestrian book and a bland score. The first half in particular fails to engage enough, and the second half makes a customary descent into American musical theatre sentimentality. There’s nothing wrong with Mehmet Ergen’s production, with an excellent design by David Woodhead and some nifty choreography from Anthony Whiteman. I don’t know which of the three Olive’s we had on Tuesday, but she melted hearts on cue. The five leads are uniformly good – Laura Pitt-Pulver, Gabriel Vick, Gary Wilmot, Paul Keating & Sev Keoshgerian – and there are terrific comic turns from Imelda Warren-Green as Linda the bereavement liaison and Miss California.

I just don’t think it was really worth the transatlantic crossing, and why are they serving American cheese at the edgy Arcola anyway?