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This is a 1955 work by African American playwright Alice Childress, written and first produced at the beginning of the civil rights movement (Rosa Parks challenged segregation the same year) which was staged off-Broadway but never got its planned Broadway run because of the playwright’s refusal to water down its satire on racism in the American theatre. Until 2021, that is, when it finally made it to the ironically named ‘Great White Way’ (actually named after the white lights on billboards and marquees).

The whole play is a rehearsal for a ‘coloured show’, where black actors play stereotypes like servants and ‘mammies’. It sends them up with exaggerated acting and mannerisms. Leading character Wiletta has a song and dance background but is desperate to become a proper actor, something reserved for white people at the time. Though relationships develop and individual character stories emerge, it’s essentially a one issue play. One reviewer of this production suggested each of the three acts are set in historically different periods, moving forward in time, but I have to confess I didn’t see that.

Though it’s important in highlighting unacceptable practices, I felt it was somewhat laboured, often lacked pace and despite the exceptional performances, 2.5 hours felt like a long time to make its point, perhaps less effectively because of the length. I’m not sure it has stood the test of time. Designer Rajha Shakiry has created a very realistic period backstage environment. Tanya Moodie leads an excellent cast that includes the great Cyril Nri, on fine form, a superb performance from Rory Keenan as the director of the play-within-a-play, a delightful cameo from Gary Lilburn as Henry the stage doorman and an outstanding professional debut from Daniel Adeosun as John Nevins, a newbie actor from the same town as Wiletta.

Though the black lives matter movement has made us realise this issue still exists, I’m not sure this play brings them to the fore in a way that would add to the debate and promote reform. I felt it was an interesting period piece rather than a contribution to the current discussion.

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Rufus Norris & Katrina Lindsay have created a new musical adaptation of Sleeping Beauty which is visually stunning, often funny, gradually getting darker, with a terrific central performance by Rosalie Craig as Fairy. With all the Covid malarky, there’s only two weeks left, so they’ve already announced it’s return next Christmas / New Year, delaying the press night until then.

The King & Queen, Rex and Regina, can’t get their daughter Rose to sleep, so they send their steward Smith into the woods to find a fairy who can put a sleep spell on her. Fairy returns with him but is reluctant because it will require something strong that she doesn’t really do, a hex. She does, however, eventually comply, but loses her powers in the process.

Rose sleeps until she is sixteen, when a kiss from a prince will break the spell. Of the ten contenders, Fairy has brought Ben, the son of reformed ogre Queenie, and he successfully wakes her and takes her away to wedlock and children. A few years later, Fairy decides its time he reconnected with his mother so that she can meet his wife and her grandchildren, but she has reverted to type and it all turns dark, very dark.

It could do with a bit of trimming in the first half. Tanya Ronder’s book doesn’t really live up to Rufus Norris’ lyrics, which are left to carry the weight of the narrative more than the dialogue. Jim Fortune’s score is patchy, at it’s best in the opening and closing song Make It All Good and the two songs for the loser princes’ – One Of These Days and Mine Is The Kiss. It’s lowest point is Sixteen, which is like an X-factor contestant over-singing something from Wicked.

In addition to Rosalie Craig, there are excellent performances from Tamsin Carroll as Queenie and Michael Elcock as Ben and Kat Rooney’s turn as baby Rose was spookily brilliant. It’s full of invention, with the palace and a whole load of wheels and broomsticks hanging above the stage, with superb projections onto these and the characters by Ash J Woodward. Lindsay’s costumes are outstanding, with generic styles and colours for both the loser princes and the thorns. I loved the fact the Olivier revolve has its own manual operator!

There’s much to enjoy and they now have time to deal with its faults. Our first date was cancelled, but I’m glad I rearranged it. Above all, a visual treat.

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Nell Leyshon’s play was a Covid cancellation casualty which got a BBC radio production instead. Finally, its on stage at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, where it has even more impact as a thoughtful, charming piece about both folk song collecting and life in early 20th Century Somerset.

Louie and Lucy are half-sisters, living in the Somerset levels. They are very different personalities, though they both make gloves at home and sing the songs their recently deceased mother taught them. Lucy flirts with John, who collects the finished gloves. He has another job working for the local minister and persuades Louie to take on the role of maid for the minister’s visitor, Cecil Sharp, who is on a song collecting mission. He persuades Louie to sing her mothers songs so that he can write them down for posterity, something she struggles to understand, seeing songs as things passed on orally. Their relationship develops, Sharp in awe of her songs and singing, and Louie fascinated by her glimpse into his musical world.

The personal story of the sisters is seamlessly interwoven with the story of Sharp’s song collecting, as John moves in with Lucy and Louie’s relationship with Sharp continues with his second visit. He’s brought with him a book of the songs he collected on the first visit, which provokes the debate at the heart of the play about what right he has to take these ever evolving songs with their oral tradition and arrange them so that others can sing them uniformly. Louie feels he has stolen or hijacked her mother’s songs. He doesn’t even credit her in his book of them.

Simon Robson brilliantly captures the complexity of Sharp – genuine admiration and empathy, but with a less attractive superiority and arrogance. Mariam Haque plays Louie beautifully, liking the attention and opportunity to share the songs, but resisting the changes of both Sharp and her sister. Sasha Frost is a delight as feisty, flirty Lucy, whose own rejection brings her closer to her sister. Ben Allen is excellent as John, only really concerned with his own interests. The singing and piano playing is lovely.

Roxanna Sibert’s direction is delicate, very sensitive to the material, and Rose Revitt’s design is very evocative of both the place and the period. The writing is very economical; the play never outstays its welcome. I thought it was lovely, and would heartily recommend it.

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This black comedy is a stage adaptation of a much garlanded 2014 Swedish film by Ruben Ostlund. The American 2020 remake, Downhill, was a lot less successful it seems, and the stage version by Tim Price may illuminate why. I haven’t seen either film.

Tomas, Ebba, their teenage daughter Vera and young son Harry take a skiing holiday in the French Alps. On their first full day, whilst having lunch at a cafe at the top of the slopes, a controlled avalanche looks as if it is getting out of control and Tomas’ reaction has a profound effect on his family. That evening Ebba relates the tale to a guest she has befriended and the following day to Tomas’ friend and colleague Mats, who has by now arrived with his young girlfriend Jenny, during a drunken evening. In doing so, she embarrasses and humiliates Tomas. Things escalate as Tomas & Ebba’s relationship appears to disintegrate, affecting their children and contaminating Mats and Jenny’s relationship in the process. Whilst all this is going on, others party and the staff go about their business, but everyone knows there’s something up.

It’s often very funny, but also often uncomfortable. It makes us consider how we deal with different perceptions of the same event and our own and others’ flaws, and what happens when the acceptable / unacceptable line is crossed. The problem for me was the uneven pace, particularly in the multiple short scenes of the first 30 or 40 minutes. We were entertained during the scene changes by skiing, choreography and skiing choreography (!), but it still hampers the dramatic flow. The meatier scenes, like the drunken evening and Tomas and Ebba’s confrontation are excellent, though.

It isn’t easy to set a play in the Alps, but Jon Bausor’s design gives us ski slopes, restaurants & bars, bedrooms and an elevator on his brightly lit set. The four central characters are well played by Rory Kinnear, Lyndsey Marshal, Sule Rimi and Siena King, and there’s a fine supporting cast in Michael Longhurst’s production. As much as I enjoyed the evening, though, I couldn’t help wondering if it was really worth adapting for the stage.

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In another life as a theatre investor, I lost my shirt (well, actually a wardrobe full of shirts!) on the original West End production of Steven Slater & Duncan Sheik’s ground-breaking show. It arrived from Broadway just 5 days after its production ended its highly successful and profitable two-year run there, garlanded with eight Tony’s and four Drama Desk awards. It previewed at the Lyric Hammersmith, where it played to packed houses, earning more 5* reviews than I’d ever seen before, but it lasted just two months at the Novello, failing to find an audience, despite the reviews and four Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical. It launched the careers of newcomers including Charlotte Wakefield, Aneurin Barnard and Iwan Rheon, the latter two getting performance Olivier’s of their own. I’ve never really understood its commercial failure; theatre can be a surprising and risky world. So here we are 13 years later with an opportunity to re-evaluate it.

The show is based on Frank Wedekind’s 1890 German expressionist play about adolescence. The teenagers are growing up in a conservative and emotionally repressed world while they are experiencing the angst associated with these years. The issues are, somewhat surprisingly, still relevant today – coming to terms with their sexuality, mental health, suicide and teenage pregnancy – but in a world where they are told babies are delivered by storks, and both parents and teachers are disciplinarians, even bullies. The story, character names and period are unchanged, but feelings are expressed through contemporary music. It’s one of the most audacious ideas in musical theatre, yet somehow it works brilliantly.

When I walked into the auditorium to see ten rows of steps the width of the entire stage, Miriam Buether’s design reminded me of the Open Air Theatre’s semi-staged versions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, but the space is used very differently, and more theatrically, in Rupert Goold’s new staging, with great choreography from Lynne Page. Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes aren’t all identical school uniforms, as I recall in the original, which allows the personalities and idiosyncrasies of the characters to come through. It’s both more intimate and more ‘in your face’ which gives it a lot more emotional impact. Goold also references the activism of today’s teenagers, without it jarring with the rest of the story.

Raw talent was cast first time around, which gave it great energy and edginess, but here more experienced actors seem able to develop the characters, bringing out more visceral qualities which engage you with what they are experiencing. Laurie Kynaston impressed greatly in The Son, now with a brilliant Melchior he extends his range to include musical theatre. I last saw Amara Okereke play the lead in The Boyfriend, which is about as far as you can get from Wendla, but she’s just as thrilling. Stuart Thompson is terrific as the much troubled Moritz, as is Carly-Sophia Davies as the rebellious Ilse. It’s a great ensemble,who shine in chorus numbers. All of the adult ‘authoritarian’ characters are played by just two actors, Mark Lockyer and, on the night I went, an impressive stand-in by Mali O’Donnell.

A fresh new interpretation of an important contribution to the musical theatre genre. I loved seeing it again in this stunning new production.

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I didn’t bother with a ‘Best of’ last year as my theatre-going, apart from a handful of open air shows, came to a standstill after just over two months. 2021 started as badly as 2020 had ended, but I managed to see something like 65 shows in the last half of the year, so it seems worth restoring the tradition.

There were nine new plays worthy of consideration as Best New Play. These include Indecent at the Menier, Deciphering at the New Diorama, Camp Siegfried at the Old Vic and Best of Enemies at the Young Vic. Something that wasn’t strictly speaking a play but was a combination of taste, smell and music, and very theatrical, was Balsam at the Greenwich & Docklands International Festival. Out of town, in the Reading Abbey ruins, The Last Abbot impressed. Three major contenders emerged. The first was Grenfell: Value Engineering at the Tabernacle, continuing the tradition of staging inquiries, verbatim but edited, very powerfully. The remaining two had puppetry and imaginative theatricality in common. Both Life of Pi, transferring to Wyndham’s from Sheffield Theatres, and The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage at The Bridge were adaptations of books, but were thrilling on stage, and both had star performances from Hiran Abeysekera and newcomer Samuel Creasey respectively – I couldn’t choose between them.

The leanest category was New Musical, where there were only a few to choose from. I liked Moulin Rouge for the spectacle, but it was really just spectacle, and I enjoyed Back to the Future too, but it was the sense of tongue-in-cheek fun of What’s New Pussycat? at Birmingham Rep and the sheer energy of Get Up Stand Up at the Lyric Theatre, with a towering performance by Arinze Kene as Bob Marley, that elevated these jukebox musicals above the other two.

More to pick from with play revivals, including excellent productions of Under Milk Wood and East is East at the NT, The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Lyric Hammersmith and two Beckett miniatures – Footfalls & Rockaby – at the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre. GDIF’s Belgian visitors staged Blue Remembered Hills brilliantly on wasteland in Thamesmead, and Emma Rice’s Brief Encounter had a great new production at the Watermill near Newbury, but it was Yeal Farber’s Macbeth at the Almeida, as exciting as Shakespeare gets, that shone brightest, along with Hampstead’s revival of Alan Plater’s Peggy For You, with a stunning performance from Tamsin Greig, which ended my theatre-going year.

The musical revivals category was strong too, probably because we needed a dose of fun more than anything else (well, except vaccines!). I revisited productions of Come from Away and Singin’ in the Rain, though they don’t really count as revivals, likewise Hairspray which was a replica of the original, but I enjoyed all three immensely. Regents Park Open Air Theatre brought Carousel to Britain, in more ways than one, and the Watermill continued its musical roll with an excellent Top Hat. It was South Pacific at Chichester and Anything Goes at the Barbican that wowed most, though, the former bringing a more modern sensibility to an old story and the latter giving us Brits an opportunity to see what Broadway has been getting that we’ve been missing in Sutton Foster. If only we could detain her permanently.

In other theatrical and musical forms…..there were dance gems from New Adventures with Midnight Bell at Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Ballet’s Dante Project at Covent Garden, and a beautiful concert performance of Howard Goodall musical of Love Story at Cadogan Hall. There were lots of classical music highlights, but it was the world premiere of Mark Anthony Turnage’s Up for Grabs at the Barbican, accompanying footage of his beloved Arsenal, that packed the hall with football fans and proved to be a refreshing and surreal experience I wouldn’t have missed for the world (and I’m not a football fan, let alone an Arsenal one!). Somewhat ironically, most of my opera-going revolved around Grimeborn and Glyndebourne and it was a scaled down but thrilling Die Walkure at Hackney Empire as part of the former that proved to be the highlight.

Let’s hope its a full year of culture in 2022.

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This revival of Alan Plater’s 1999 play is the final offering in Hampstead Theatre’s look back over 60 years of new plays, a season sadly blighted by closures, at a theatre with a track record of new plays to be proud of. Plater’s play is particularly appropriate, being about plays and playwrights, though its central character is an agent. I saw the original production here, with Maureen Lipman as Peggy, and this is a great revival. Though set in the sixties, and first staged at the turn of the millennium, it feels as fresh as if it was written today.

Its protagonist is legendary theatrical agent Peggy Ramsey, a force of nature, who represented some 400 playwrights, a list that reads like a who’s-who of writers of the second half of the 20th Century, including Alan Ayckbourn, David Hare, Christopher Hampton, Caryl Churchill, J B Priestly, Stephen Poliakoff, Joe Orton (she appears in his biopic played by Vanessa Redgrave) and Plater himself. Here, her writers are represented by fictional archetypes – the new kid on the block, the current golden boy and the mature one who’s now struggling. She clearly loved nurturing new talent, she revelled in the glory of her successful clients, but she appeared to lose interest after that, at least in their eyes.

It all takes place on one day in her office, and that of her secretary Tessa, in Dickensian Godwin’s Court in theatre-land. In the morning she’s teaching, and playing with, 21-year-old Simon, who’s submitted a modern spin on Romeo & Juliet. She lunches with Philip, the toast of both the West End and Broadway with his somewhat superficial fare. In the afternoon, she is confronted by gritty northerner Henry, when it turns more serious, darker and edgier, without losing the sharp witty dialogue we’ve become used to by then. Plater very cleverly takes someone he knows well and sends us home feeling like we know her well too. His affection and admiration for her comes through, but he shows us her flaws as well.

When he wrote it he wondered who it was for, so he sent it to his friend Alan Ayckbourn who felt very much the same. Well, it’s certainly for me, an avid theatre-goer, but I can see how many of the references and in jokes might be lost on someone who isn’t, or someone younger. However, anyone can admire such outstanding writing, great characterisation (fictional or otherwise) and sparkling dialogue. Director Richard Wilson, and his designer James Cotterill (who’s excellent set is littered with play-scripts and posters) bring it alive two decades on, and the performances are terrific.

It must be hard for an actor to play against such a larger-than-life character as Peggy, but these four do it brilliantly. Josh Finan is great as young Simon, who proves wiser than his years and not as naive as he first seems. The great Trevor Cooper plays Henry, the jaded, cynical but empathetic older playwright desperate to be staged again, who provides the moral anchor of the piece. Danusia Samal’s Tessa, the latest in a seemingly long line of long suffering assistants who’s names Peggy often gets wrong, is resigned to being put upon, with a fondness for the clients Peggy cannot display. Jos Vantyler plays Philip, riding the crest of a wave, yet respectful to his colleagues. It’s Tamsin Greig’s evening, though. She commands the stage and inhabits the role with brilliant comic timing, switching to show another more thoughtful side of Peggy in the second half. It’s a stunning performance.

Four more weeks to catch this great revival.

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Northern Ireland playwright David Ireland has delivered two of the most surreal and controversial new plays of the last five years – Cyprus Avenue at the Royal Court, where a unionist was obsessed by his baby granddaughter’s likeness to Gerry Adams, and Ulster American at the Traverse in Edinburgh, where an Ulster Protestant playwright is outraged by Hollywood’s rewriting of Irish history. This 2011 play, now getting its British premiere, pre-dates them both, but is just as surreal and an even more controversial black comedy, a metaphor for the unionist view of Northern Ireland after the peace process.

Alan is bothered by his neighbour’s barking dog so he visits the doctor who diagnoses depression. Not satisfied, he goes the the BBC to seek mediation from Eamonn Holmes. He confronts his neighbour who claims he has no dog. Is it all in his head? What follows is a bestial attack on the dog, a visit from the paramilitary to exact punishment for it and ‘eye for an eye’ revenge for the attack. Ireland’s coruscating humour is aimed at the solution to ‘the troubles’ through the peace process, from a unionist perspective.

It’s superbly acted, with Daragh O’Malley commanding the stage as Alan, and Kevin Trainor doubling up brilliantly as doctor and dog! There’s excellent support in two roles each by Laura Dos Santos and Kevin Murphy and by Owen O’Neill and Declan Rodgers in individual roles. Director Max Elton and designer Ceci Calf use the tiny Finborough space brilliantly. Ireland really is a one off, a very distinctive playwright and a lone voice in reflecting on the unionist perspective of recent history and the political situation today.

The Finborough proving indispensable again.

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The transformation of the Piccadilly Theatre for this show is extraordinary; from the moment you enter the auditorium, it takes your breath away. Based on Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film, the show itself is the ultimate juke box musical. Unlike others in the genre, it doesn’t use the songs of one artist / group or songwriter(s), but has 74 songs / extracts from artists as diverse as Rogers & Hammerstein, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Lady Ga Ga, Edith Piaf, Adele and Talking Heads. It arrives in London (late, like just about everything else at the moment) garlanded with awards, including ten of the fourteen Tony’s for which it was nominated.

It tells the story of the love of penniless American songwriter Christian for Satine, the star of the Moulin Rouge. The Duke has rescued the struggling venue, but at a price – he just about owns everything and everyone, including Satine, who he takes as a mistress, providing her with accommodation and showering her with gifts. With his friends Toulouse-Lautrec and Santiago, Christian writes a new show, which is also part of the rescue plan, though it came about by accident in covering up Christian & Satine’s romance.The Duke interferes with this too.

The snatches of songs, sometime just one line, act as dialogue and recognising them is fun. Others are performed in full, some more than once. John Logan’s book is hardly relevant as, like the film, it’s all about the spectacle, which it delivers, with bells on! Brilliant sets, sensational costumes, superb lighting & effects, a cast of 38 and a 10-piece band. In the week of its return after cancellations, there were four understudies at the performance we attended, including the leading roles of Satine, The Duke and Toulouse Lautrec, and it’s a tribute to them that you wouldn’t know it without checking out the board in the foyer.

As much as I enjoyed the fun, energy and spectacle, there was something missing for me. Not enough depth or substance to the story and a lack of emotional engagement. I felt like the narrative was relegated to become the bits between the spectacle. There were boos for The Duke (the character, not the actor) at the curtain call which made me think ‘panto’ – but with set pieces and production values to die for.

Go for the spectacle and you won’t be disappointed. Expect to be thrilled rather than moved and you’ll probably have a lot of fun.

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This early Alan Bennett play, 48 years old now, is rarely seen. I can only recall one London revival, by Sam Mendes at the Donmar twenty-five years ago, which I missed because the performance I’d booked was cancelled and I couldn’t make another, so it’s been a long wait, not just the eighteen month lockdown one.

It’s his most farcical play, which seems to me to be a send up of the form, without slamming doors, but with the trouser dropping. It’s more Joe Orton than Brian Rix, both of which pre-date it. It also has more than a touch of absurdism, and is partly in verse. A very odd concoction which I’m not sure has stood the test of time.

Dr Arthur Wicksteed is a GP with a roving eye. His son Dennis is desperate to lose his virginity and his sister Constance wants false breasts to bag her a better man than the Canon, her fiancee. His wife’s ex flame is Sir Percy Shorter, the President of the BMA, who’s here in their home town of Hove for a conference. Lady Rumpers and her daughter Felicity, back from their colonial adventures, turn up, though it’s a long time before you realise why. Add in the false breast salesman / fitter, a suicidal patient and the Wicksteed’s housekeeper Mrs Swabb, our ‘narrator’ – a brilliant performance from Ria Jones – shake & stir and you have a surreal take on the classic British farce of that time.

It’s all very well plotted and littered with good jokes. There’s a coffin centre stage, the purpose of which remains unclear, otherwise there are no props, so it zips along. The costumes are pitch perfect 70’s, and of course the soundtrack is to die for. Underneath all this there may be some messages, but if there are they get lost in the form. You can’t fault the performers, who make the best of every line and every situation, but it didn’t really work for me.

It’s a curiosity, and as a big Bennett fan I’m glad I went to see what he was up to in early career, but it’s easy to see why its taken 25 years to reappear on a London stage again.

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