Review: Hamlet @ Glyndebourne on Tour

Hamlet might be the most well-loved and influential play in the English language. Its tale of loss and revenge, of madness and fathers, hinges on that fateful question, to be or not to be. Daringly, this new take on the play begins with fragments of that famous soliloquy:  ‘ be..’, Hamlet intones, sounding deeply forlorn. This first sentence, torn from the middle of the play, lands strangely on the ears, setting the tone for Brett Dean’s stunning new opera – this production is about to breathe dark life into an age-old story.

wv2dvvlbdjtoqfi3x3sg(photos by Richard Hubert Smith)

What follows is an exhilarating treatment of a familiar tale. The narrative remains largely unchanged, but librettist Matthew Jocelyn is not afraid to chop and change things, make use of versions of famous speeches not usually performed and reassign crucial bits of dialogue. In any case, a Hamlet opera that stuck completely to the book would be at least longwinded, if not unfeasibly long, so the experimental treatment of the text is called for, and successful on top of that. We encounter Hamlet, a prince still mourning his father’s death while his mother has since taken his father’s brother as her new husband and king, as intrinsically youthful, at times sardonic, at times depressed. The treatment of the central character seems to change with each iteration of Hamlet, making it one of the most interesting points to measure a production by.


The cast give strong performances overall, but some singers and their roles prove particularly memorable. David Butt Philip in the title role is intensely committed, skilfully inhabiting the disjointedness of the singing and narrative. His Hamlet is rough, almost animalistic, a moody teenager with a savage edge. Then there is his sometime love, Ophelia. Though Barbara Hannigan sang the role during Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s summer production of Hamlet, the role of Ophelia seems to be written for Jennifer France with her sparkling soprano voice and obvious gift for acting. She lends a childlike quality to her earlier scenes and a gripping madness to her later deterioration, making the most of her every moment on stage. Lastly, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, played by James Hall and Rupert Enticknap as a countertenor duo, are perfect – their glib Tweedledum and Tweedledee-ness is almost sinister.


In Hamlet, Australian composer Brett Dean makes use of an extraordinary amount of unusual musical devices. The chorus, directed by Glyndebourne’s new chorus master Nicholas Jenkins, frame the action by moving about from onstage to offstage, appearing suddenly, singing at full volume, in different parts of the auditorium. A few instrumentalists that double as foley artists – banging rocks together, rustling plastic bags, and more – are stationed at the top of the auditorium behind each balcony. As I was up in the cheap seats at the side of the stage, I was as close as one could possibly be to the manipulators of these bizarre sound effects. The ingenious use of a semi-chorus positioned in the pit for the whole of the show adds an extra layer of stereophonic immersiveness. It was refreshing to feel so involved in a production, as even as an opera-lover and student, I find it hard to appreciate some works of contemporary opera, especially when an utter abandonment of melodic line makes them hard to swallow. However, Hamlet gets it just right – there is nothing boring or old-fashioned about it, but there are plenty of congruous musical components, and though the music is overwhelming, it is never uncomfortable to listen to.


Hamlet not only sounds but looks exciting – the set by Ralph Myers and the costumes by Alice Babidge have an air of subdued 19th century Nordic glamour which greatly suits the production. Great off-white sash windows and doors that frame the dining room in which the opera begins gradually fracture apart as things go more and more awry in the story and the chorus rush about in their smart dinner jackets and gowns of pale, pearly silks. The scene in which a play is staged in the royal household is especially wonderfully done as the versatile stage flats turn to become scaffolding-like structures hung with bright costumes and spotlights.


Though it is unlikely I will remember the music for long, Hamlet certainly provided me with a memorable first experience of Glyndebourne and its beautiful environs. The opera gets the balance of old and new just right and seems well on its way to making an impact on the continuous evolution of one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.


Glyndebourne’s Hamlet is on tour around England until 1st December 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.


Review: La Bohème @ Royal Opera House

Upon taking someone to the opera for the first time, I might well choose Puccini’s La Bohème. It’s a classic, the music is exquisite, and the story contains all the emotional highs and lows one expects from opera. This new production at the Royal Opera House, directed by Richard Jones, has a lot of expectations to live up to, as it replaces a well-loved older production that ran for 41 years.

ROYAL OPERA(photos by Catherine Ashmore)

Set around 1830, La Bohème tells the story of a group Bohemians living poor but happy in Paris attics. Poet Rodolfo is falling for ailing seamstress Mimì, painter Marcello is heartbroken over flighty and headstrong Musetta, musician Schaunard brings home some much-needed food and firewood through an enterprising commission to a gathering including philosopher Colline. A bohemian tale of love, friendship, jealousy and tragedy ensues.


Unfortunately, the cast do not fully match the passion that Puccini’s wonderful score provides. The comedic interactions between Marcello, Schaunard and the rest are very amusing, and the singing is excellent all-round, but the most watchable and best characterised is Nicole Car’s youthful Mimì. Though I was far away, she constantly drew my eyes to her. Her blue-grey dress complimenting her dark ginger hair beautifully, she fully inhabited her character and gave touching renditions of Mimì’s classic arias.


Stewart Laing‘s spectacular set and costumes sparkle. Though some aspects of 19th century Paris are pared down – the mostly bare wood garret that forms the first set is stark in design (and unfortunately greatly obscures the view of those in it for people in the cheap seats like me) – the opera’s setting in past resists too much modernisation. The colourful arcades and shops of the next scene with their bustling crowd of merry Parisians look like a beautifully Christmassy chocolate tin, making me wish this production with its Nutcracker-esque design were running til December. Certainly, the children’s chorus looked and sounded as happy and excited as if it were Christmas eve, singing out and clearly enjoying their bright sailor-suits and doll-like dresses. The classically rendered Café Momus set was pink and fluffy like a well-iced cake, and yet the giant black box of a stage in the background, slightly cinematic in quality in quality as slow lightly fell, reminded me (and another audience member I overheard on my way out) of Ian McNeil’s design for Angels in America at the National Theatre.


This Bohème, though barely unconventional or thought-provoking, succeeds overall. Even though I was up almost in the gods and standing, time flew by as I was swept up in the moving story. Whether the production’s power lies in the new staging or the opera’s enduring appeal will only be revealed over time.


La Bohème is playing at the Royal Opera House until 10th October 2017 and again from 16th June to 20th July 2018. For more information and tickets, click here.

Review: Thebes Land @ Arcola Theatre

THEBES-LAND-6-Trevor-White-and-Alex-Austin-Photo-Alex-Brenner(photo by Alex Brenner)

Thebes Land is hard to review – on the one hand, one does not want to spoil any of the gripping narrative, on the other, it seems impossible to explain this meta-theatrical conundrum of a play. After winning the 2016 Off West End Award for Best Production, Thebes Land returns to the Arcola Theatre as part of CASA, a Latin American theatre festival. A brilliant production, it is incredibly warped, darkly funny and completely fascinating.

In this work by Franco-Uruguayan writer Sergio Blanco, which for this staging has been skillfully adapted by director Daniel Goldman to take place in London, playwright T visits Martin Santos in prison. Martin is serving a life sentence for killing his father; T wants to stage his story. As the two men get to know each other and opening night draws near, their stories intertwine and unravel and the audience is taken on a journey exploring not just patricide but the nature of theatre, religion, Dostoyevsky and, of course, Oedipus.

In an ingenious feat of set design, the piece is staged inside a giant metal cage. At times, this creates a great tension between the actors and the audience; at others, it serves to make theatregoers feel safe. Security cameras feed their recordings onto screens, and with those images inside a cage inside an auditorium inside a larger building, the whole setting seems to mimic the multiple-reality nature of the narrative. The actors are utterly beguiling in their naturalistic ability and give very strong performances. Their commitment allows the many highbrow cultural references not to jar and makes spectators question over and over whether what is going on right in front of them is real or not.

A challenging and not always pleasant night out, Thebes Land fits in many moments of tenderness and humour among the morbidity. To anyone who wants to be put through their paces as an audience member, enjoys inventive new explorations of age-old themes or would like to see everything they thought they knew about storytelling twist and turn in front of them, this show is highly recommended.

Thebes Land is playing at the Arcola Theatre until 7th October 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.

Edinburgh Fringe



★★★★★ Ahir Shah: Control @ Cabaret Voltaire

★★★★★ The Cambridge Footlights International Tour: Dream Sequence @ Pleasance Dome

★★★★★ The Durham Revue: Laugh Actually @ Underbelly Cowgate

★★★★★ Mae Martin: Dope @ City Cafe

★★★★★ Ed Night: Anthem for Doomed Youth @ Pleasance Courtyard

★★★★ Jack Barry: High Treason @ The Mash House

★★★★ Nick Coyle: Queen of Wolves @ Underbelly Cowgate

★★★★ Rhys James: Wiseboy @ Pleasance Courtyard

★★★★ Tom Ballard: Problematic @ Pleasance Courtyard

★★★ Mae Martin & Nick Coyle: Show Party @ City Cafe

★★★ The Improverts @ Bedlam Theatre

★★ Hate ‘n Live @ The Counting House

★★ I Can Make You Tory @ The Free Sisters

Music, Musicals & Opera

★★★★★ All the King’s Men @ C Venues

★★★★★ The Marriage of Kim K @ C Venues

★★★★ A Super Happy Story (About Feeling Super Sad) @ Pleasance Courtyard

★★★★ Stop: The Musical @ C South

★★★ The Improv Musical @ C Venues

★★★ The Toxic Avenger @ Pleasance Courtyard

★★ Into The Woods @ Assembly Hall

Creatives @ Pleasance Courtyard


★★★★★ Dickens for Dinner @ C Venues

★★★★★ Hotter @ Paradise in Augustines

★★★★★ Lord Dismiss Us @ theSpace at Surgeon’s Hall

★★★★★ Testosterone @ Pleasance Courtyard

★★★★ Lists for the End of the Word @ Summerhall

★★★★ Shakespeare for Breakfast @ C Venues

★★★ An Act of Kindness @ C Cubed

★★★ From The Ground Up @ Assembly Roxy

★★★ Séance @ Summerhall

★★★ Sleepwalkers @ theSpace on the Mile

★★★ Wishing on a Stopgap at theSpace on the Mile

★★ Submission @ C Royale

My two favourites in each category (because it’s so hard to choose just one)

Comedy: Mae Martin, The Cambridge Footlights

Theatre: Lord Dismiss Us, Testosterone

Musical Theatre & Opera: The Marriage of Kim K, All the King’s Men



Review: Disco Pigs @ Trafalgar Studios

Pig and Runt have been inseparable since birth. Born to different mothers as Darren and Sinead, they came into the world in hospital beds next to each other and were raised in houses that stand side by side. The two are each other’s whole worlds. When their seventeenth birthday arrives, they decide to make a wild night of it. Disco Pigs grabs the audience and pulls them along on a journey of excitement, discovery and looming violence.

Colin-Campbell-and-Evanna-Lynch-c-Alex-Brenner-no-usage-without-credit-Disco-Pigs-Trafalgar-Studios-1-700x455photo credit: Alex Brenner

In this one-act play by by Dublin playwright Enda Walsh, two teenagers stuck on an estate in dismal Cork City create their own world in which they are ‘king and queen’. Written in a thick Cork dialect, with almost poetic, whimsically grammarless language, the play requires strong performances to bring it to life and make it understandable to an audience. Evanna Lynch (Harry Potter’s Luna Lovegood) as Runt and Colin Campbell as Pig do this brilliantly. They are full of relentless energy – beware, you may end up being sprayed with bodily fluids. Pig burns with desperation for sexual contact with Runt, which he details in an explicit monologue, and is ever on the cusp of violence, whilst Runt’s sparkiness contains a wistful dawning realisation of a world beyond Cork City. Part coming-of-age story, part love story, part working class drama, this play defies stereotypes through its eclectic structure and skilled, lyrical use of language. At times, it’s almost like watching spoken word.


The staging serves the play very well. In the small dark space of Trafalgar Studios 2, the intricate lighting design, the many sound effects and an old TV create the whole set. Lynch and Campbell run, hop and dance along with the lights, the whole 75 minutes expertly and intensely choreographed. Alleys, taxis, clubs, the seaside – all are created in the audience’s imagination. While Lynch retains some of the dreamy quality she brought to the role of Luna Lovegood, Campbell gives his role brute force mixed with a gangly quirkiness, the sweat running of him.


One could criticise that a strong emotional bond cannot really be formed between the duo and the audience. Perhaps it is because we are too close in the small studio space, perhaps it is due to their heavy accents or ever-escalating violence depicted. Nevertheless, Disco Pigs makes for a fast-paced, captivating evening, prompting us to consider our own dreams and fantasies as well as the consequences of loving.


Disco Pigs is playing the Trafalgar Studios until 19 August 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.

Review: Cunning Little Vixen @ Arcola Theatre (Grimeborn Opera Festival)

The Cunning Little Vixen is a strange little opera. Peter and the Wolf with a love story, or perhaps The Wind In The Willows with a dark side? This innovative production at the Arcola Theatre’s annual Grimeborn Opera Festival delves into Leoš Janáček’s 1920s work with energy and imagination.

www.arcolatheatre-1photo credit: Robert Workman

The story seems, at first, a strange subject for an opera. It tells, at times cheekily, at times movingly, but always simply and strangely plausibly, of the life of a young vixen. She is captured by a forester and lives in captivity before escaping and falling in love with a handsome boy fox, eventually coming to a tragic end. A host of anthropomorphic forest animals and some humans accompany her on this journey. The whole thing is set to experimental yet folk-like music that bears resemblance to the works of Debussy.


The Arcola’s Studio 1 is not easy to work with. The ceiling is low and space is limited. Performer entrances and exits take a long time, and the tiny space stage right for the musicians barely accommodates this production’s piano quintet, along with skilled young conductor Oliver Till. However, Vixen deals well with the Arcola’s restrictions and manages, through the use of an inventive set and and an arsenal of props, to believably conjure a woodland clearing, a pub and a barnyard in the space.


The Cunning Little Vixen is all about orchestral music. For an opera, there isn’t actually that much singing going on, and the many characters (over twenty) don’t get  a lot of time to develop. However, with such able and lovely voices as Alison Rose’s (Vixen) in the cast, that hardly matters. Most of them take on a few roles each and differentiate the various parts with great skill, helped by the bright visual aides that are designer Alexander McPherson and Denisa Dumitrescu’s costumes. The music is less glaring and more murky, in a good way. In this scaled-down new arrangement for piano quintet, Janáček’s haunting, textured melodies swirl and glimmer like soft light dappling a forest floor. The many periods of solely instrumental music, for which the composer gives little stage direction, have been well-dealt with – Nina von der Werth’s wonderful choreography sees dragonflies, frogs and other creatures gliding and leaping about in simple, entrancing sequences.


This opera, which contains everything from tragedy and dream sequences to sex and comedy, gives an audience much to talk about afterwards. My only criticism would be that even in English translation, the narrative was not completely clear and could have done with surtitles. Nevertheless, it sent my group discussing and praising well into the night, and was, for a Janáček novice like me, a perfect and approachable way to discover this gem of early 20th century opera for the first time.

The Cunning Little Vixen is playing the Arcola Theatre in Dalston until 4 August 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.

Musical review catch-up: Lady Day, Trial by Jury, Don Giovanni

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill @ Wyndham’s Theatre

When the wonderful Masterclass sent round an email offering £5 tickets to the first performance of Audra McDonald’s west end debut, my reaction was, of course, I’m there. True, I hadn’t really had the chance to see her in anything other than James Corden’s ‘Carpool Karaoke’, but I knew of her Broadway standing. And besides, pretty little Wyndham’s is one of my favourite West End theatres. I was completely unaware of the show’s content, but I was willing to risk it.

Lady Day is a show about Billie Holiday’s life – a first person-narrated play interpersed with her songs. We are led from her troubled childhood through the rise and fall of her career by way of struggles against racism, reminiscences about musical inspiration and a fluffy pet dog (it’s very cute and very real). All of this occurs within the framework of a performance in a jazz club towards the end of Holiday’s time, to which we are ostensibly the audience. The Wyndham’s stage has been turned into a club with appropriately faded glamour and a bar in the corner, and McDonald is a vision in white, a characteristic flower in her hair.

I rarely see one-man/woman shows, which is really what this is, though a very good jazz band (and a good handful of audience members) are onstage with McDonald. It needs a certain type of energy to sustain a story and a character for the duration of a show and keep me interested. However, McDonald does this beautifully, never letting her characterisation of Lady Day slip. I was most surprised by her ability to so consistently reign in her powerful singing voice, capturing Billie Holiday’s strange warble so perfectly and not overshadowing the character with her natural, much better, vocals.

I’m glad it did not go on too long, as it isn’t the most interesting of plays. It may also have been better in a smaller venue – the piece’s conversational nature and jazz club setting would suit a more intimate location. However, McDonald is wonderful and it is worth going for her (if your ticket isn’t terribly pricey). At least, I found this a lot more worth it for the star casting than what ran at Wyndham’s before this (yes David Tennant’s great and all but I really did not like Don Juan in Soho..).

imagephoto credit: Marc Brenner

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is playing Wyndham’s Theatre until 9 September 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.

Trial by Jury @ ENO Studio Live (Lilian Baylis House)

Confession time: this is the first Gilbert & Sullivan production I’ve ever seen onstage. Filmed school productions featuring my cousins, Youtube videos and other sources have familiarised me with the core repertoire, but this was the loss of my live G&S virginity.

For some reason not having made the mental leap that ENO’s Hampstead rehearsal space and the Coliseum are not the same thing, I arrived just in time, dripping with rain. I immediately warmed to the casual nature of Lilian Baylis, even managing to squeeze in a friendly conversation with an usher before finding myself a seat and settling in.

Trial by Jury is Gilbert and Sullivan’s 40-minute one-act comedy about a jilted bride who puts her rogue husband-to-be on trial and, spoiler alert, ends up marrying the trial’s judge instead. It is sung-through, fast-paced and rather silly.

With something so typically light opera-esque and fluffy, its understandable that ENO couldn’t resist modernising things a bit – this groom is a slick, white suit and Shades-wearing modern-day slimeball, and the bride quickly changes from her wedding gown into rock-and-roll, all-black tight jeans and tank top. The production mixes these new elements with traditional gowns and wigs and generally goes for a very colourful and in-your-face style. Physical comedy abounds, and there is much movement onstage.

Over in such a short time, it is what I might call an appetizer show – one could easily go on to another, a main course, afterwards. It is quick, frothy and enjoyable – if you like G&S you will like it, if not, you won’t. No matter what one does with the visuals, G&S music always stays very G&S.

With the piano and conductor to one side of the stage, the construction of the performance space obvious and the lack of reserved seating, this show has an obvious studio feel, which I found very refreshing in ‘an evening at the opera’. I’m not sure there is much deep exploration to be done with Trial by Jury – in any case, I thought the ENO Chorus, directed here by Matthew Monaghan, did a pretty good job with it.


ENO Studio Live’s production of Trial by Jury played at Lilian Baylis House until 6 June 2017.

Don Giovanni @ Opera Holland Park

After interning at Opera Holland Park in January, and sending out who knows how many score packs to chorus members, it was high time I saw one of their shows. Don Giovanni was the free ticket that was offered to me, and I happily accepted.

Director Oliver Platt has set this new production on a cruise ship in the 1930s. At first I wondered why, but it’s probably because I’ve never seen Don Giovanni live that the reasons for this weren’t immediately apparent. The tragi-comic story of a womanizer who can’t stop seducing married women, the intrigues that ensue and the way his upper class standing often excuses his scandalous behaviour can really only be modernised up to a point, and the claustrophobic but ostensibly luxurious atmosphere of a cruise ship, in which many different people are forced together, suits the story perfectly.

The design was excellent – the 1930s costumes sparkled and the cruise ship’s plethora of doors and hatches enabled many a ‘chance’ encounter. The principals each had their own style of dress, while the chorus looked beautiful as sailors, dancing partygoers and more.

It might be that Leporello is just the funnest role, but I greatly enjoyed John Savournin’s performance. His Leporello was very concerned with maintaining appearances, conscientious and loyal. This of course created much comedy between him and his rogue, audacious master, Don Giovanni.

A smooth, enjoyable, amusing production, this Don Giovanni sat very comfortably on the Opera Holland Park stage. On a balmy summer’s eve, it was wonderful to be swept up in this. I can imagine that in torrents of rain, which is what occured on press night, it would be an altogether more realistic experience!

imagephoto credit: Robert Workman

Don Giovanni played at Opera Holland Park until 24 June 2017.

‘Real love is never ambivalent’: Angels in America @ National Theatre

Perhaps it’s my youthful energy, but I absolutely loved this. Eight hours standing in the dark to watch some of my favourite actors perform a classic of American theatre? Sign me right up. At only £10 (the price of a standing ticket to both parts, bought on the day), this was surely a steal.

IMG_2539photo credit: Helen Maybanks

I know that some people have, not unreasonably, pointed out flaws. And sure, the show finishes after many a last train home has departed. However, nothing could spoil what a great time I had. The all-round excellent performances, the operatic staging, the experience of having such an epic text wash over me for the first time – all of this contributed to a really good night, I mean day, at the theatre.


Angels in America is Tony Kushner’s great Aids play and the behemoth of that genre. Spanning eight hours and incorporating many large and small roles (managed with surprisingly few actors in this production – quality over quantity, it seems), it tells the tale of Prior Walter, a young gay man in New York City who is dying of Aids. After his lover Louis leaves him, unable to deal with the illness, Prior is visited by a strange Angel who imparts a prophecy to him about how human beings are bringing about the fall of heaven. Other storylines include that of a Joe Pitt (a convincing Russell Tovey), a Mormon clerk who won’t come to terms with his homosexuality and has a difficult relationship with his unstable, Valium-addicted wife, Harper (a strong Denise Gough). Joe, who is a Republican, knows and looks up to Roy Cohn, a corrupt big-time lawyer who is outwardly homophobic but has many relations with men. Roy contracts Aids but insists the doctors call it liver cancer. Belize, the black gay nurse who cares for Roy in hospital, is a good friend and former lover of Prior’s. On and on, the many characters’ stories weave around each other to create a large-scale drama.


This production is so important because it works against how much Aids has faded from the public consciousness. The horror of what happened to the homosexual community during the 80s is brought home to those watching. Prior is utterly lost, watching his friends die around him without explanation. Angels shows a collection of fascinating people trying to find answers to their lives in this environment.

The show is mainly about the Aids crisis, but comments quite a lot on American politics, too. The characters represent many different political viewpoints – left-wing Louis, portrayed very well by James McArdle, can’t stop plaintively and eandearingly spouting his politics, while Joe glibly insists that Democrats and Republicans really want the same thing. The over-all atmosphere however is much more negative, telling of horrible things to come for America. It is sad that Kushner’s apocalyptic predictions no longer seem over-the-top – the many rueful laughs which the political comments illicit from the audience undoubtedly had everything to do with the current American president. It’s not surprising that Roy Cohn was Trump’s political advisor for ten years.


The stand-out performance for me is Andrew Garfield’s. Boy, what stamina that boy must have. His energetic, sweet and compelling performance, which he sustains over both multiple-hour parts of Angels, really surprised me. I guess I never know what to expect when I see actors I only know from the screen onstage for the first time. For me, Garfield makes the best kind of transition.

Another highlight was seeing Nathan Lane onstage. Surely everyone who has seen his screen work, from The Producers to Modern Family, must love him, and he was just as wonderful as I expected. His ability to remain consistenly funny yet horrible as Roy Cohn is astounding and I found him a joy to watch.


The set changes are managed by a team of dark-clad actors who lope and crawl around the stage with fluid, animalistic movements as they push and pull doors, beds and walls, ever hiding in the shadows. They are also puppeteers, responsible for the complex choreography of the Angel’s wings. These wings are not attached to the Angel but instead are giant bendable apparatuses that seem to float alongside her. I always find a childlike joy in seeing the workings of theatre onstage, so I greatly enjoyed all this.


What you would not expect about this seemingly heavy social-political drama about gay rights, black rights, women’s that it’s actually hilarious, a lot of the time. It also has a wonderful dream-like quality – the narrative is playfully free, many scenes are hallucinatory. I feel like this show has to be experienced. Especially if you have never seen Angels in America, this theatrical extravaganza should not be missed. Everything from the development of relationships and individual characters’ breakdowns to the flashing lights and colours of the ever-changing set is extremely watchable.  The National does this kind of thing very well – taking a classic and giving it the size, star casting and big-budget design it deserves.


Angels in America is playing the National Theatre in two parts until 19 August 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.

‘Pity the land that needs a hero’: Life of Galileo @ The Young Vic

Growing up in Germany and studying German literature at secondary school, I became very familiar with Brecht, ‘epic theatre’ and his distinctive writing style. I studied The Good Person of Szechuan in class and have seen multiple productions of the Threepenny Opera. However, I was as yet unfamiliar with Life of Galileo, Brecht’s great history play, if you could call it that.

This production certainly ticks the Brechtian box of making theatre a forum for political debate – its themes are relevant to pretty much any age. These days, it is almost blatantly pertinent to such conflicts as science vs climate change deniers, science vs creationists, science vs those ‘tired of experts’ vs any non-progressive views. Galileo’s struggles against the ideological constraints of the Catholic church are at the heart of this play. It’s easy to see why Brecht chose this subject matter to represent the struggle of progress against backwards institutions and societal norms.

IMG_2499.JPGphoto credit: Johan Persson

Brendan Cowell, who was previously seen in the Young Vic’s Yerma, plays Galileo as a powerhouse of loud, seemingly inexhaustible energy. Casually dressed in a graphic tshirt, jeans and trainers, his stocky frame bounces around the stage, commanding it yet enticing the audience to join in. He does reign it in during the more somber bits, which I won’t spoil, but keeps a great rapport with the audience throughout. On the date I saw the play, this involved giving a group of schoolchildren in the front row a line to say, as well as improvising funny little asides, rather like an MC of his own story. True, his monologues would be long-winded in some actors’ mouths, but he does his best to keep them fresh and exciting.

Though this Galileo’s exuberance is at first very unexpected in a character one might assume to be a venerable, scholarly type, it is in line with Brecht’s desire to disconcert his audiences. However, it probably stems from Joe Wright’s obvious joy at directing this production. Primarily a film director, Wright is known for such successes as Atonement. He hasn’t directed many stage plays, and it’s clear he decided to use this opportunity to try everything out. From puppets to masks to projecting the universe onto the ceiling, this production goes all out in the most obviously theatrical ways – no special effects here. Lizzie Clachan’s wonderful design generally makes great use of the space – the in-the-round staging serves this production well. The Brechtian scene introductions, narrated by an expertly handled puppet, have a lovely childlike quality. The use of an apple throughout the show (an obvious nod to Newton, a scientific genius yet to come) is indicative of the show’s simple yet effective symbolism.

The cast are all strong, no matter the size of their role. To name a few – Anjana Vasan is convincingly youthful and wonderfully poised as Galileo’s young daughter Virginia, while Joshua James is delightfully smarmy as her rather thick suitor Ludovico. On the whole, it looks like the cast are having a lot of fun, and they are very good at absorbing the audience into the spectacle of it all.

This show has much of the storytelling quality that made me love the National’s Peter Pan (though that was even more enjoyable as a theatrical experience!). Overtly Brechtian, the actors in Galileo are clearly trying first and foremost to tell a tale, not inhabit characters. Watching Life of Galileo is like watching an educational and very captivating puppet show in which the puppets are bursting with life, and I mean that in the best way.

Life of Galileo is playing the Young Vic until 1 July 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.

‘I love me’: The Ugly One @ Park Theatre

Written in German by Marius von Mayenburg, The Ugly One received its UK premiere in 2007 at the Royal Court. Buckland Theatre Company and the Park Theatre now present a new production in the Park’s smaller 90 space. This play is directed by the 2016 winner of the prestigious JMK Award for young directors, Roy Alexander Weise.


Lette works in plugs. His life seems normal – he is happily married, and doing well in his firm. But then he is told that he may not present a new product at a convention because his face is ‘unacceptable’. It turns out that Lette’s visage is unspeakably ugly, and no one ever told him. His wife confesses to only ever looking at his left eye. Horrified, Lette decides to undergo plastic surgery. In a bizarre turn of events, the intensive operation transforms Lette into the most beautiful man in the world, altering his career, his relationships and the lives of those around him forever.


This high-octane production features a talented and collaborative ensemble cast. However, each actor gives an individually praiseworthy performance. Charlie Dorfman, though his reactions at being called horrifically ugly by his wife and boss do not at first seem realistic, develops into a captivating Lette. Indra Ové is a relentless bundle of energy; her exaggerated portrayals of Lette’s wife Fanny, and later, an older exec Lette strikes up an affair with (confusingly also called Fanny), seem to sizzle.

Authoritative and no-nonsense T’Nia Miller is boss Scheffler, and hilariously unprofessional plastic surgeon, you guessed it, Scheffler. Arian Nik, a recent Mountview graduate makes his professional stage debut in this show. Excellently portraying Karlmann, the plug firm’s assistant who aspires to a higher position, Nik also plays another character called Karlmann, the exec’s vain gay son (a stereotypical and nevertheless amusing personage) who has a disturbingly adulterous relationship with his mother and is himself besotted with the new and beautiful Lette.


There is no doubt that this show makes for an enjoyable evening. The acting, so deliberate and big as to be farcical, has the audience in stitches. Though many of the jokes rely on repetition, Maja Zade’s translation of the comedy works very well. Nevertheless, most of the humour is down to Weise’s direction, aided by movement director Jennifer Jackson.


Nothing about this play is naturalistic – the acting is over-the-top, the production is near-expressionistic. However, all this is well-constructed and the overall effect is convincing. The scene changes, though not always smooth, are cleverly orchestrated – the last line from one scene becomes the first of another, with the actors deftly stepping out of each other’s way. The slightly raised stage is placed in the middle of the black box Park90 space, with two rows of seats on each side. It is less an intimate experience – the play is too unrelatable for that – than one in which the audience is very close to the action.

The actors occasionally address a line to the audience, or sit amongst them to watch the main action on stage. The stage itself is fascinating, used most effectively as a kind of multi-purpose table. As the main playing space is the floor around the stage, which is lower than the seats, the audience is mostly on eye-level with the actors, an unusually involving experience.  This show is obviously a team effort – the creative team seem to be as good an ensemble as the actors.


One of the most striking things about this play is the use of fruit. Perhaps in allusion to the on-going health food fad, fruit stands in for Lette’s body during the fated operation. Aided by a microphone for amplification and some surgical instruments, the actors perform a well-choreographed sequence in which the slurping of water, the slicing of an apple, the squeezing of an orange and more make gruesomely realistic sound effects, sending the audience into uncomfortable fits of squirms and giggles.


This play does not explore its themes – from ideas about acceptable appearance and self-portrayal to the career-driven nature of our society – as deeply or as subtly as it could have. This is largely due to its overtly satirical style. However, this is just as well – this production, rather than making you quietly chuckle, grabs you and shakes the laughs out of you. Eventually, Lette’s vanity spirals into a dark and refreshingly un-funny last scene, breaking the pattern of the rest of the show. At a crisp 90 minutes, it’s over before you’ve got the full measure of the story’s implications. Though it doesn’t plunge you into contemplation during the performance – you’re much too busy watching the spectacle – it gives you plenty to think about as you leave the theatre.

The Ugly One is playing at the Park Theatre’s PARK90 space until 24 June 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.