Theatre review: Glass Roots, Tristan Bates theatre

A sharply observed slice of social drama that examines racism and class

GLASS ROOTS by Alexander Matthews. Photo by Rory Lindsay (95)

Glass Roots by Alexander Matthews.

Glass Roots is the second play by writer and philosopher Alexander Matthews to be staged as part of the playwright’s debut season at the Tristan Bates Theatre, a hidden gem of a studio in Covent Garden.

While Matthews’ previous play at the Tristan Bates, Screaming Secrets, explored ruptured families and dark generational dishonesty, Glass Roots steps outside the front door and takes a look at wider societal fractures.

Glass Roots puts racism under the microscope, particularly in its relation to class. Thila (Natalie Perera) and her husband Sadjit (Kal Sabir) run an Indian restaurant in an unnamed – and largely unloved – part of south London. Sadjit is a reluctant waiter, writing poetry in-between serving chicken tikka masalas and beef madras. Thila,  his hardworking wife, is exasperated by his Byronic dreams as she juggles the more prosaic side of life. Their marriage is fractured, held back by unrealised dreams.

One of their regular customers is Celia (Victoria Broom) who has tonight brought along Rupert (Ben Warwick) on, what I took to be a first date – the kind of first date you dine out on for years to come – and not with the person you shared it with. They argue over their differing approaches to what Rupert (not the subtlest of names for a posho barrister ) describes as the ‘servant’ before veering into the subject of race. 

But before they can start throwing poppadoms at each other, the evening is interrupted by two racist thugs, Diesel (Mitchell Fisher) and Spaceman (Sam Rix) who sneer and threaten Celia and Rupert until they flee (coatless) leaving Sajit and Thila to fight off  racist abuse on their own.

In the middle of this storm Sajit and Thila are concerned only with the fate of their marriage. As they face the barrage of racial abuse, their focus isn’t on the spitting, bullying white boys in front of them, but on their future. When the men leave, it’s not the ordeal the couple discuss, but how they can make each other happy. It’s Thila who stands up to them fuelled, it appeared by a fury that felt provoked by boredom.

Glass Roots isn’t a theatrical game-changer. It never really answers the questions it asks, but it’s a taut, likeable play with largely sharp performances (the odd bout of  ‘hand acting’ aside). Sabir and Perera give particularly fine, controlled performances as the central couple who give the production a heart.

Glass Roots | Tristan Bates Theatre | Until 24 March 2018


Dance review: Macbeth, Wilton’s Music Hall

A haunting, gripping dance adaptation of Shakespeare’s sinister masterpiece

Jonathan Goddard and Eleanor Duval as the Macbeths

Jonathan Goddard and Eleanor Duval as the Macbeths.

Dancing to Shakespeare may sound a bit like dancing to architecture, to (badly) paraphrase a famous phrase, but in the hands of the fantastic Mark Bruce Company, one of the bard’s greatest – and bloodiest – plays becomes a piece of absorbing and captivating art in its own right.

Macbeth lends itself well to dance, the inner turmoil of a man and his wife willing to commit regicide to be king and queen of Scotland, create an energy that is both powerful yet intimate. Unearthing the hidden meaning behind what drives this ambitious couple to commit murder in order to get their bloody hands on the crown has long fascinated directors, and in this production their angst, greed and lust for power. and their subsequent all-consuming guilt, seems even more stark.

From gentle beginnings grows a performance of great drama and passion. Bold, clever lighting washes the stage in blood-red and casts a banquet in stunning aspic, while well-placed symbols create a brooding atmosphere as the score – largely comprised of Arvo Pärt’s multi-layered music – enhances without smothering. But as sharp as the visual spectacle is, it’s the power of the dance that brings Shakespeare’s words to life.

The choreography is wonderfully realised, with every hand gesture and head turn revealing the characters’ passion and emotions. Shakespeare’s big scenes are all there: there’s the dagger and Lady Macbeth’s hand-wringing; a sinister reactment of the witches’ prophesy of Banquo’s descendants long rule over Scotland, and the banquet scene where the murdered Banquo haunts Macbeth with a terrifying intensity.

Jonathan Goddard as the titular character reveals Macbeth’s ruthlessness alongside a vulnerability – this is a man who seems aghast at his own capacity for murder, astonished at his lust for power. But, as with so many Macbeths, it’s Lady Macbeth who draws the eye. Eleanor Duval is wonderful in the role, a hugely captivating dancer who conveys the character’s steely-eyed ambition and her descent into madness with an incredible force, recreating Shakespeare’s words with compelling charisma. Together the two dancers are beguiling and compelling – this is a couple who are destined to rule.

Mark Bruce Company’s Macbeth | Wilton’s Music Hall | Until 17 March 2018





Theatre review: Murder, She Didn’t Write, Leicester Square Theatre

A lively, witty improv show with a deathly turn of phrase


Degree of Error’s Murder, She Didn’t Write

Improv can go one of two ways: it can be toe-curlingly awkward, or skilfully quick-witted and pacey.

Murder, She Didn’t Write, brought to us by Bristol-based improve specialists, Degrees of Error, rifts off Agatha Christie murder tropes, including clipped accents, a butler called Jeeves, dubious motives and dastardly morals.

The performance is completely unplanned and unscripted with the audience – to a degree – playing scriptwriter and director.

The scenario is chosen by a shortlist compiled from the audience’s shout-outs, so on the afternoon we were there, the murder setting is a hen night – with a twist. For this is no ordinary hen night – and not just because it’s set in England in the 1920s when hen dos were as common as mobile phones: this one features actual hens (or rather imaginary actual hens). Meanwhile, the murder weapon is a very unlikely wet tea towel.

The audience member who is lucky enough – or perhaps unlucky, depending on your approach to participation – to catch the deerstalker hat thrown into the crowd by the inspector-come-narrator becomes Jerkins – the detective’s rather rubbish sidekick, who will help to solve The Case of the Wet Tea Towel.

The Cluedo-style colour coded suspects are a nod to another classic of the very English murder-genre and include Agatha Pink and Scarlet Scarlet. Then there’s bride-to-be Violet Violet, a well-known chicken scientist  (obviously) who will found dead in the chicken coop, surrounded by the plucked corpses of her beloved hens.

The hen setting is ripe for innuendo, especially in the first few scenes as the actors find their feet among the quagmire of scenarios and results in an over-reliance on cock jokes.

But the actors soon inhabit their flamboyant characters and the action moves along at a rapid tempo, reducing sections of the audience – and the inspector – to eye-watering levels.

There were obvious plot holes, and some scenes fell flatter than others, but it gathers momentum as the story develops, held together by wit and clever riffing. The length of each scene was wittily dictated by the lighting technician who – along with the musical accompaniment – often drove the punch lines. There were some great running gags and its sharp denouement is plausible thanks to some clever detective work by the stage-left sitting inspector.

Murder, She Didn’t Write | Leicester Square Theatre | 25 March to 29 April 2018


Theatre review: Dead and Breathing, Albany Theatre

A darkly comic look at age, gender, race and class

Lizan Mitchell as Carolyn (foreground) and Kim Tatum as Veronika in Dead and Breathing.

Lizan Mitchell as Carolyn (foreground) and Kim Tatum as Veronika in Dead and Breathing.


Cranky old biddy (although, she’s actually only 68, surely a spring chicken in baby boomer-terms),  Carolyn is a very rich woman with a very nasty streak.

Diagnosed with cancer years ago, she was meant to be dead within months, but she keeps on living to complain for another day.

Set in her big, expensive house (the set, featuring a real bath and a very comfy looking bed, is great), Carolyn snides from her place of huge privilege.

Cancer hasn’t so much turned her crankiness up to 11, but given her an excuse for it, sneering and sniping at the endless rounds of hospice nurses sent to her plush house to help and support her. Carolyn’s gone through 16 nurses in the past couple of years, and she’s proud of it.

But she hadn’t banked on Veronika, who’s her match in caustic words and silent strops. Carolyn is so enamoured with her new nurse, she’s soon phoning her lawyer to change her will, bequeathing her whole estate – $87 million plus the house – to Veronika.

The catch? Devoutly Christian Veronika has to kill an-on-the-bring-of-suicide Carolyn to secure her life-changing inheritance.

This two-hander is taut and engrossing, quietly – and darkly – comic, Chisa Hutchinson‘s script sharp and spiky. It zips along with a speed that defies Carolyn’s slow dying, occasioning lessening up as the two women’s pasts reveal themselves in the carpeted bedroom.  

There’s one misstep – a reveal towards the end of the last quarter is too easily and inadequately resolved. It would have packed a bigger punch if it had come earlier as it would have tested Carolyn’s personality further and revealed a great deal more about the two women and their relationship.

But this little trip is expectantly handled by Lizan Mitchell as Carolyn, who gives a fantastic performance, inhabiting the role as comfortably as she does Carolyn’s big bed. Kim Tatum is a little less confident as Veronika but burns brightly when the pace slows and Carolyn’s snippiness sends sharp arrows into unhealed scars.
Dead and Breathing | Albany Theatre | Until 3 March 2018


Theatre review: Screaming Secrets, Tristan Bates Theatre

A piercing family drama seen through the eye of a philosopher’s lens

Jack Klaff as Alessandro, Ilaria Ambrogi as Gina and Jack Gordon as Antonio in Screaming Secrets.

Jack Klaff as Alessandro, Ilaria Ambrogi as Gina and Jack Gordon as Antonio in Screaming Secrets.

Family dramas are the cornerstone of theatre. Nothing packs a dramatic punch like a group of mismatched relatives coming together for an occasion. You know it’s never going to end with fond farewells and promises to share the vol-au-vont recipe.

Screaming Secrets’ set piece is Antonio’s birthday party where long held family tensions are unleashed in a cacophony of bitterness and tragedy. The mid-70s setting further magnifies the Pinter associations, although this birthday party doesn’t need strangers to inject the menace.

Twisting between melancholy, comic and downright tragic, the show interweaves philosophical threads that help pull together the play’s moral compass.

Philosopher Antonio (Jack Gordon) is grappling with his masterpiece and the meaning of life, while his frustrated writer girlfriend Monika (Triana Terry) clings to him, desperate for him to deal with real life and marry her.

Their row is diffused by the first party guest – Antonio’s “only friend” and his doctor, Simon (played with a compelling poise by Ben Warwick), who is half way through the first bottle of champagne when Antonio’s father and sister arrive, fresh off a turbulent flight from Italy. Their arrival signals the beginning of a bumpy ride for everyone.

We know before Alessandro’s arrival that his is being sued by his employees, many now dying due to diseases caused from working as his factory. Alessandro (Jack Klaff) wants to by-pass this problem and hand the family business to Antonio, who is reluctant yet conflicted.

But this problem is soon dwarfed by another, larger, sadder discovery when Antonio discovers his hypochondria might not be in his head after all.

Writer Alexander Matthews, himself also a philosopher, delves into life’s bigger questions: how are our morals altered by the shadow of death? And what does it mean to protect our loved ones? Should we be altruistic to the point where we actually hurt others?

Screaming Secrets is a well-paced drama, with energy and verve that perhaps doesn’t give you the big takeaway it promises to deliver, but will get you musing on the injustice – as well as the meaning – of life.

Screaming Secrets | Until 24 February 2018 | Tristan Bates Theatre WC2H


Theatre review: Double Infemnity, Vaults Festival

A one-woman show that gives a feminist interpretation of this classic genre doesn’t ooze with quite enough noir.


Double Infemnity, a nice twist on the title of the 1940s-crime noir film Double Indemnity, is a one woman play, starring Katrina Foster as Effie-Lou, a former sex worker forced to turn detective when her PI friend Joe disappears.

Ellie-Lou’s hunt for Joe draws her deep into a world of murder, sex trafficking, and dodgy beehive wigs.

Double Infemnity bills itself as a stylish and gender-flipped crime noir and is the product of collaboration between two female theatre companies, Little but Fierce, and Paperclip Theatre. It’s a one woman play that turns the smokey, masculine world of crime noir into a feminist fight for justice.

Foster doubles, when needed to, as other characters in this off-beat crime noir. And she isn’t entirely alone on stage – she’s backed up by a virtual young Brad Pitt who pops up on a screen overhead to add a visually comic dimension.

But a topless Brad and Foster’s on-point red lips and red nails aren’t quite enough to lift this show from the atmospherically dingy Vaults Studio Theatre to seedy 1960s Los Angeles, despite Foster’s obvious strengths.

The show is peppered with some clever gender stereotypes role-reversal from co-writers Naomi Westerman, Catherine O’Shea, and Jennifer Cerys. But one performer plays are hard to pull off – how do you move the show beyond a storytelling monologue to something more dimensional?

There is an attempt to do this by including a couple of audience interactions, which added a bit of zip, but overall Double Infeminity doesn’t quite pack a big a punch as the genre it’s riffing off. Foster equips herself well in the role, but is encumbered by a script that never really lifts us into this sleazy world, relying too heavily on the crime noir tropes to tell its story.

The rumbling trains above aren’t the only reason the plot gets lost, the show’s main themes – exploitation of women, what it means to be a woman in a man’s world – don’t ring as loudly as they should, lost amid a narrative that isn’t as tough as the world it’s portraying.


Theatre review: Reunion and Dark Pony, John Harvard Library, SE1

Celebrate Libraries Week (9 – 14 October) with sombre, but touching father/daughter dynamics 

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David Schaal and Siu-see Hung in Dark Pony

Public libraries have always been about more than books. They have laid at the heart of many communities since their inception, designed to inspire, educate, engage and thrill. In recent years, they have become increasingly squeezed and compromised as budgets are slashed and their role questioned. So what better way to celebrate Libraries Week than show what they can be and turn these silent spaces into a stage. After all, libraries and theatres share the same currency: stories.

Baseless Fabric Theatre are a site-specific theatre and opera company that create work in public spaces to encourage people to see art forms and their local public spaces in new ways. As part of National Libraries Week, they have chosen two David ‘American Buffalo’ Mamet short plays (at seven minutes, Dark Pony is a slip of a piece), both sparse enough to lend themselves well to the space between the bookshelves (it helps that John Harvard Library has a coffee shop where Reunion, the night’s first performance, takes place).

The American playwright and scriptwriter is firmly in Richard Ford and Richard Yates territory where the all-American family is revealed to be less picket fence, more prison wall. Reunion, Mamet’s 1976 two-hander features a meeting between a father and his daughter, now (unhappily) married and a step-mother, who have been separated for nearly a lifetime. Through Mamet’s hyper-realistic dialogue that is both awkward yet precise, even lyrical at times, the characters’ attempt to find those lost years. Bernie, a reformed alcoholic, has largely found peace with himself, contemplating a third marriage and content with his job in a restaurant kitchen. He dominates the meeting, explaining his life and his mistakes through some amusing anecdotes. His daughter struggles more under the weight of his absence, her future also promising little. But while they may not walk off into the sunset, the pair do find some kind of equilibrium between the past and the present.

Dark Pony is a bitesized sketch where a father tells a favourite bedtime story to his young daughter as they drive home late at night – the story of a young native American brave and his trusty horse, Dark Pony. It’s sweet, although so fleeting it doesn’t have time to crawl under your skin.

David Schaal as Bernie and the book-reading father captures the right kind of wide-eyed intensity, reeling from his hard life and the mistakes he’s made, desperate for a fresh start. And you can almost hear Siu-see Hung’s (Carol and the young daughter) internal struggle, as she tries to find the words to put her life into focus.

Reunion and Dark Pony | Various library locations in London | Until 15 October 2018







Theatre review: A Nazi Comparison, Waterloo East Theatre

A PR student turns anti-capitalist warrior in this bold but uneven delve into media lies and government hypocrisy

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Craft Theatre’s A Nazi Comparision at Waterloo East Theatre


There is no doubt a need for more people to be angry and engaged with the wild inequality and injustice in the world. There is also no doubt that there is a need for art – and theatre in particular – to question the atrocities committed by the West that go unchallenged in the media. A Nazi Comparison makes a stab at being that play.

It’s a brave production that certainly doesn’t lack heart, but it’s too uneven and disjointed, too reliant on melodrama, to be entirely convincing.

The play spins around Clare (Louise Goodfield), who is introduced to right-on ideas when she is forced to get out of her taxi and walk through a Grenfell Tower protest that has blocked her way. Here she meets Craig (Craig Edgeley), the worst kind of lefty guy, hiding a selfish, narcissistic personality behind Ideas. Clare is enthralled – whether to Craig or the cause is unclear – and soon she’s telling her mum she doesn’t understand her and dropping out of university.

Her conversion to the left is cemented when her teacher lends her a copy of Shalateger by Hanns Johst, the Poet Laureate to the Third Reich (the play was dedicated to Adolf Hitler) in which Clare can’t help but see strong parallels in how the media was manipulated then and how it is now.

A Nazi Comparison throws every anti-capitalist, left-leaning cliché into the mix and rather ties itself in knots by doing so. There is a good story in there somewhere, but it’s rather lost in the production’s attempt to give everything. The (semi-improvised?) dialogue wasn’t punchy enough to lift the play out of hackneyed territory, and the production was cluttered with several unnecessary scenes that distracted, including a couple of tonally off message physical theatre set pieces.

The media – the current en vogue whipping boy – gets a beating – not necessarily undeserved – in fact one of the play’s highlights is a PowerPoint presentation that discusses the press’ bias against Jeremy Corbyn. But to make such a bold statement comparing Western governments and the media to Thirties Germany, you need to have your argument tightly presented. Goodfield as Clare did a good job of oscillating between student and angry squat dweller, her UCL speech well-delivered and stimulating. And the material Craft Theatre and writer Rocky Rodriguez are tackling is noble in its scale. The company provides a detailed dossier supporting the content of the play and there’s no doubt the material is shocking and thought-provoking.

But despite the enthusiasm and boldness of the cast, the threads this production began were left unravelled.

A Nazi Comparison | Waterloo East Theatre | Until 29 October 2017





Theatre review: Rebel Angel, the Old Operating Theatre

Keats’ early life as a medical student is dramatised against Europe’s oldest surviving operating theatre

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Jonny P Taylor as Keats with Peter Broad as his guardian, Mr Abbey, credit: Chris Nash

As atmospheric venues go, the Old Operating Theatre in London Bridge is hard to beat. Creaking with history, the tiny amphitheatre was used, until its closure in the mid-1800s,  by St Thomas’ Hospital to demonstrate surgery – usually amputations on the poor – to medical students who packed the narrow rows that look down on the bloody show.

One of the students who passed through the garret theatre was young nightingale fan John Keats. The poet lived over the road with his friend and fellow medical student Henry Stephens, who would also ditch the amputations and go on to make a fortune in ink. 

Doe-eyed Keats realised early on in his medical training that he was more cut out for stanzas than surgery and this production of Rebel Angel examines his journey from reluctant student to his (very) early Endymion days. The play doesn’t follow a chronological order, so we oscillate between Keats’ childhood as an obedient, enthusiastic child attempting to soothe his mother, whose violent coughing signposts both her own demise and her son’s early death, and his days as a student.  We leave John at the end waiting for his coach on the first leg of his travels to Rome where he would go on to write the poems that would see his name mentioned in the same breathe as his heroes, Byron and Shelley.

Thankfully Rebel Angel is far less bloody than the shows the audience witnessed in Victorian times, although this production is every bit as fascinating and enthralling as those demos would no doubt have been to the young men of the time (except Keats’ queasy friend Tyrrell who wisely opts for the pub over another botched surgery experiment).

Keats, played with considered intensity by Jonny P Taylor, sacrificed much for his poetry and posthumous fame. He fought with his guardian, Mr Abbey, who had been left as the boy’s charge when his mother died when Keats was 14. In this production Mr Abbey (Peter Broad) represents the old school, a man who has little time for fancy words and dandy ways and Keats isn’t afraid to leave him behind in hope of poetry glory.

Taylor’s Keats is far from the waif like figure he is often portrayed as – all flouncy blouses and pining for Fanny Brawne – he is determined and single-minded. He’s not afraid to stand up to boorish surgeon Bill Lucas (also played with great pomposity by Peter Broad) after a slip of the knife ends another young patient’s life. And young John doesn’t so much woo young ladies with fine words as experiment with their hearts – his poetry his surgeon’s knife.

The small cast play several characters adeptly and director and writer Angus Graham-Campbell makes fine use of the confined and stripped back setting. As any student of English Literature knows, having a framework can enable a poem to pack an even greater emotional punch.

Rebel Angel | the Old Operating Theatre, SE1 | Until 7 October 2017


Theatre review: The Divine Comedy, Barons Court Theatre

An impressive re-telling of an allegorical journey through sin and salvation.

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Alex Chard as Dante in So It Goes Theatre’s retelling of Dante’s Divine Comedy

There’s something fitting about hell being represented in a dank basement, with a pub (so often a heavenly respite) above us. Purgatory? Let that be the ramshackly awkward pre-curtain queue that wound up the stairs sending theatre goers into the path of diners and waiters.

Douglas Baker’s adaptation of Dante’s three-part journey through hell, purgatory and paradise is both ambitious and low-key. It takes the 14th century poet’s mammoth text and reduces it to a whirlwind 90-minute production, compressing  the main themes into a zippy, but no less powerful play.

The play is brought into the 21st century, a risky move that works despite the juxtaposition ofLatin poet Virgil in a Harrington jacket talking about sin and salvation and somehow God being the biggest character in this drama doesn’t seem anachronistic. 

We meet Dante – a character is his own poem – as he’s about to throw himself off a bridge in despair at the death of his lover. But his attempt is scuppered when Virgil, sent by the very woman he is grieving, turns up with a very persuasive case not to jump: a tour of hell, destined to be Dante’s abode for eternity should his suicide attempt work. 

In the original poem, Dante’s saviour, Beatrice is a mysterious woman whose identity remains a puzzle for scholars, but whose presence grounds the poem. In this production, her ambiguity is stripped away and she is positioned firmly as Dante’s dead lover.  

Oddly, while the pace of this production is brisk, Beatrice’s glacial arrival in beige heaven rather stalls the play. Despite Kathryn Taylor-Gears‘s calm, assured and thoughtful performance, the momentum sags as she argues with Dante to reconsider his faith before contemplating a jump into the afterlife.

The atmosphere in the Barons Court Theatre  is naturally claustrophobic and menacing, but the lighting and projections ramp up the tension.  While the moments of physical theatre movement director Matt Coulton introduces help to sustain the momentum and inject some energy.

The Divine Comedy is no Fawlty Towers in the laugh department, but there are some moments of wit in this production. The tube as purgatory is amusing – although during a heatwave, the Central line can feel more like hell.

The cast are all excellent, the all-female chorus (Sofia Greenacre, Marialuisa Ferro, Sophia Speakman and Michaela Mackenzie) bring a haunting aura in their various stages in the afterlife, while Alex Chard is captivating and assured as a baby-faced Dante.

An original and creative production that stokes the fire of Dante’s poem with flair and invention.

The Divine Comedy | Barons Court Theatre | Until 30 September 2017