Although this is the website for our theatre-going group, we sometimes go to the theatre by ourselves or with friends. This is the page where we intend to write about those theatre visits. Our earlier theatre visits are lower down the page with the latest at the top of this page.

22/03/23 Fredo writes –

Dead City

There are often good reasons why books go out of print, plays fall out of the repertoire and operas disappear from sight. Occasionally it’s a question of fashion, and in the case of opera, logistics: there just isn’t the money to stage them. However, from time to time we stumble across a major work that was just biding its time to be rediscovered. This is one of them.

Die Tote Stadt by 23-year-old prodigy Erich Wolfgang Korngold premiered in 1920, but has been seldom seen or heard in this country. That’s why it’s urgent not to miss the current production as The Dead City by the English National Opera. Given that company’s uncertain future (thanks to bad decisions by Arts Council England, as instructed by Nadine Dorries) you might not get the chance again.

It’s a strange, and rather morbid story: Paul, mourning his dead wife Marie, becomes infatuated with Marietta, and tries to transform her into Marie. We were reminded of the Hitchcock movie Vertigo, but instead of Bernard Herrmann’s theme music, we have Korngold’s lush score, with soaring arias filling the vast space of the Coliseum. (“Does it remind you of Richard Strauss?” asked our friend Meryl, who knows about these things.)

It’s a strong, confident production from director Annilese Miskimmon, with an impassioned performance from Rolf Romeo as Paul, and a suitably ambiguous one from Allison Oakes as the object of his infatuation. In the smaller role of Brigitta, Sarah Connolly was luxury casting, but was effective, as always.

It’s difficult to judge if this staging explored all the layers of this unfamiliar work, but it’s a start in restoring it to the mainstream. Sadly, this work was suppressed by Hitler, and Korngold decided not to write any more operas till the overthrow of Nazism. Instead, he continued his career in Hollywood, writing symphonic scores for Warner Bros for movies such as The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Opera’s loss was Hollywood’s gain; it’s time to redress the balance.

Our rating: ★★★★ Group appeal ★★★★

15/03/23 Fredo writes –

Romeo and Julie

By Gary Owen, at the National: Dorfman Theatre

We’re a long way from fair Verona. Gary Owen’s play is set in Splott, a suburb of Cardiff. Romeo (and to make a point, it’s pronounced the Italian way, roMAYo) is a teenage single father. His girlfriend didn’t want an abortion, and then she didn’t want the baby either. Now Romeo is struggling to bring up baby Niamh on his own, and changing a pooey nappy is a major challenge.

Things look up when he meets bright student Julie, heading out of Splott to read Physics at Cambridge. It’s a rom-com, set against the backdrop of Romeo’s responsibilities to baby Niamh and the problems with his alcoholic mother, plus Julie’s personal aspirations and the expectations of her proud father and step-mother.

It’s not just the appealing performances of Callum Scott Howells (from TV’s It’s a Sin) and Rosie Sheehy (Oleanna) that draw us in, though that’s  a major part of it. Gary Owens has constructed his narrative carefully, and we hardly realised how much we have invested in Romy and Julie’s future happiness until he throws a curve-ball at them. All I can tell you is that the totally engaged audience gasped in anguish and sympathy, and not a few had to brush away a tear and fix their make-up at the end.

No, it isn’t a tragedy. Interestingly; this is the second play we’ve seen at the National that refers to a classical work in its title (the other one is Phaedra) in order to show us that the familiar stories can inform contemporary situations. Yes, we have a pair of star-cross’d lovers, but in this instance, the stars are slightly more benign.

Director Rachel O’Riordan moves the story along at a fast pace, and Catrin Aron, Paul Brennan and Anita Reynolds provide parental support – or lack of it. But it is a triumph for Gary Owen, and Callum Scott Howells and Rosie Sheehey give star-making performances. No wonder they looked so pleased with the audiences’ cheers at the end.

“It will be an O-level text,” declared our friend Janice, with an air of authority. Oh, I do hope she is right. There is so much in this play for young people to identify with, to debate and argue over, but most of all, to enjoy. If you really love your teenage grandchildren, buy them a ticket!

Our rating ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Group appeal: ★ ★ ★ ★

14/03/23 Mike writes –

A Little Life

based on the novel by Hanya Yanagihara, adapted by Koen Tachelet,
Ivo von Hove and Hanya Yanagihara, at Richmond Theatre

You may have read the book. Apparently it was a best seller in 2016, all 736 pages of it. But Fredo tells me he disliked it. Psychologies magazine said of the book “Astonishing . . . tender, torturous and achingly alive to the undeniable pain that can scar a life.” Some say they ‘devoured’ the book! But how do you turn a tome into a stage play? Ivo von Hove, the director, has attempted it and cast James Norton in the lead to ensure good box office returns. I thought I’d better see it, and catch it in preview at Richmond, at slightly cheaper prices.

It’s tough – there’s a very long list of trigger warnings for the weak-and-whiny and the faint-hearted.  No drug taking or smoking though, just a list of life challenging hazards. At first I was reminded of that two-part epic The Inheritance which we saw in the West End a few years ago, a stage masterpiece with great emotional clout. That was about the history and interaction of gay friends over many years. Here we have just four friends, together since college, now all in major professions – an architect, an actor, an artist, and a lawyer. We are introduced to each with light banter, affectionate grapplings, and then the tone of the evening turns dark, very dark.

The focus is on the lawyer Jude (a name which implies suffering) partly disabled, withdrawn, mentally damaged despite his academic achievements.  He cannot, he refuses, to talk of his past. Another reminder – Equus, the play about an emotionally damaged boy unable to speak of a past trauma. But A Little Life  probes; the play presents in unflinching detail the horrors of what has damaged Jude both physically and emotionally. As a child, between the ages of 8 and 15, he was sexually abused, violently and continually, by a controlling Father figure who prostituted him. Then as an older teenager addicted to self-harm, he was trapped in a coercive, violent and belittling relationship which ultimately crippled him, physically and emotionally. At one point he cries “I can’t get an erection without cutting myself!”.

It’s a devastating history of trauma. Are you still with me? Are you still in your theatre seat? Obviously most readers of the book turned every page, and thanks to this theatrical storytelling and prestige casting it keeps an appalling grip on one’s attention.

The audience is clustered fore and aft of a small performance area furnished oddly with a pedestal bathroom basin, a cooking stove to one side and office furniture to the other, with background video images of New York. The worn flooring is ominously red.

Of course it’s not an easy evening and the adaptation is not ideal. It has a truncated and fractured narrative, too transfixed on some detail and skimpy with other plot turns and characters. Some will find its negativity indulgent and persistent.  I felt that the self-harm, the razors and the blood may be too much for the squeamish. The careful mopping-up of the stage becomes part of the slow decent into the horrors of Jude’s tortured life. It is epically grim. However, and this is a big however, there is James Norton leading an heroic cast and Ivo von Hove ensuring the prolonged degradation never tips over into black humour.

There’s much work for the Intimacy Director in numerous scenes with James Norton, naked and being violently abused, comatose in hospital, or lovingly coaxed into intimacy. His performance makes us care, breaks our hearts; we can even overlook the overload of disaster and coincidence which directs Jude’s life and extends the play. All that is counterbalanced by the kindness and friendship of some peripheral characters and the support of Jude’s friends – one becomes his patiently affectionate lover.

Does it all end well? Is there a cathartic redemption? Of course I’m not saying, but there’s a long silence before the cheers and well-deserved standing ovation. Cast and audience alike have suffered and survived 3hours 45minutes together, in a packed to the rafters theatre, witnessing a side of human perversion we might prefer to be left unseen. After this unforgettable journey, the destination is a relief and a release.

I wonder if any newspaper critic will protest at the exposure of such ‘filth and degradation’ on a London stage. I certainly won’t.

My rating: ★★★½ / Group appeal: ★★★

But those enthusiastic about the book may rate it more highly.

11/03/23 Mike writes –

Women, Beware the Devil

By Lulu Raczka, at the Almeida Theatre

The Devil works in mysterious ways. He opens the play with a sardonic smile to the audience, introduces himself with some well chosen examples of his work today, then turns the clock back to 1640 with witchcraft in the air and a necessary task to achieve. 

An Englishman’s home is his ……inheritance, and his prestige too. Without an heir, his ancestral home could pass into the wrong hands; his legacy could be lost forever and the family name forgotten. When an heir Is not apparent, the important task of providing one needs urgent, even desperate, attention. Where to turn? Who to turn to? The answer here is the Devil himself.

Lady Elizabeth wants to see her brother’s wife with child heir, but Edward prefers to romp with chambermaids or accept a helping hand from his own sister, rather than bed his wife Katherine. Elizabeth decides to appoint Agnes, with her witchcraft knowledge and covert aspirations, as Katherine’s maid, to bring the devil’s doings to the bedchamber.

Some critics have been less than kind to this play but Rupert Goold, the Almeida’s artistic director, had faith in it, directs it himself, and has provided an elegant and atmospheric production. There are candles and shadows, corridors with hidden doorways, shuttered windows, an over-laden table to feast upon, and a four-poster bed (rather too small for much cavorting) rising through the checkerboard floor for bedtime gropings. 

Falling somewhere between a tragedy and a sex farce, the plot has potions and poisons, intrigue, blackmail, swapped identity and some bloody mayhem thrown in. If it misses the mark as a feminist treatise in gothic style, it still entertains enough to please a young audience and those of us who especially appreciate the visual Old Masterpiece approach. 

Lydia Leonard is forceful as Elizabeth, and Alison Oliver’s maid Agnes manages her transformation from cowering servant to commanding madam with ease. Leo Bill uses his best endeavours with an OTT caricature of entitlement (Fredo noticed some Boris Johnson in him) and the Devil played by Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea is as persuasive as the Devil usually is.

We enjoyed it a lot more than some critics suggested ( from the Times) and congratulate the young playwright Lulu Raczka on her originality and lively script.

Our rating: ★★★½

Group appeal: ★★★

08/03/23 Fredo writes –

Standing at the Sky’s Edge

Music & Lyrics by Richard Hawley, Book by Chris Bush, at the National: Olivier Theatre

When you come out of Sheffield station, look over your shoulder and you’ll be astonished to see the huge Park Hill Estate on the hill overlooking the city. This brutalist structure was part of the housing programme of the late 50s,  based on the designs and social theories of the architect Le Corbusier. It’s the largest Grade ll listed building in the country.

It doesn’t sound like promising material for the setting of a musical, but Standing at the Sky’s Edge is a triumph. Yes, the estate is the centre piece of every scene, recreated inside and outside on the Olivier stage, but we’re reminded that a home is not just a box to keep the rain out; it consists of what you put into it.

And writer Chris Bush introduces us to three sets of residents at different stages of Park Hill’s history, tracing their hopes, ambitions and disappointments over the 60 year history of the estate. Newly-weds Rose and Harry enter this utopia with its running water and waste-disposal unit with dreams of their future. They see that future darken, as the building deteriorates through damp and mould and rats in the wall. An immigrant family from Liberia arrive as refugees, determined to integrate but fearful of unlocking their doors. Finally, the estate is emptied and refurbished, and another refugee arrives – but this time it’s a yuppie from London, fleeing a broken relationship and trying to build a new life in her comfortable split-level duplex.

It takes a moment to adjust to the interleaving of the stories and intermingling of characters, but director Robert Hastie clearly signals the period and the concerns of the characters as the action moves forward through three momentous general elections, the miners’ strike, racism and urban renewal. There’s a brief loss of focus in a New Year’s Eve party scene, but it’s quickly back on track by the time midnight strikes. It’s a hymn to the community of Sheffield, but not an uncritical one.

The stories are linked tenuously by two characters, but this isn’t laboured, and might easily be overlooked. The script bristles with comic lines, particularly at the expense of the yuppie Poppy’s parents, who think their daughter has emigrated to some forlorn northern outpost. But its warm heart is in the right place: Sheffield and home. Even the local nectar, Henderson’s relish, gets a name-check.

The show has transferred from the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, and it’s strongly cast and powerfully sung, particularly by Alex Young, Rachel Wooding, Faith Omole and David McKechnie. There’s minimal dancing but the songs are sometimes highly emotional or softly lyrical and are often performed concert style direct to the audience. Two of our friends found some of the lyrics turgid and repetitive, but I can’t agree. The songs by Richard Hawley (formerly of Pulp, and with collaborations with Arctic Monkeys, Elbow and Paul Weller) seemed strong and appropriate to me. Open Up Your Door, both a plea and a song of love, could become a classic – it embraces your heart. Both the narrative structure and the placing of the songs reminded me of  Conor MacPherson’s use of Bob Dylan’s songs in Girl from the North Country – high praise indeed from me.

Our friend Jan reports that at the end of the performance she attended, she had to distribute Kleenex to her husband and her surrounding neighbours. I only wish that she had been sitting near me, as I had to search my pockets for my handkerchief to brush away the tears.

As an unapologetic lover of musicals, I’ve been embarrassed for some years in being unable to defend recent products. I’ve sat through quite a few that I never want to see again, and found difficult to enjoy once. Could things be looking up? The last six months have given us The Band’s Visit , Sylvia and now Standing at the Sky’s Edge. Are we standing on the edge of a new golden era? I live in hope.

Maimuna Memon sings Open Up Your Door
Video LINK (Skip the ad on the video)

Richard Hawley, the composer, sings
Open Up Your Door.
Video LINK (Skip the ad on the video)

My rating: ★★★★★ / Group appeal: ★★★★

16/02/23 Mike writes –

The Rhinegold

The opera by Richard Wagner, directed by Richard Jones,
at the London Coliseum

That lizard – don’t ask!

I was at the dress rehearsal of this new production (so a big Thank You to our friend Meryl for offering me the ticket). Critics, with Wagner flowing through their veins, have written in glowing terms of the Press Night performance, interpreting every aspect of the production in different ways. Perhaps I should say ‘in forgiving ways’, as  the benefit of doubt has crept in to praise quirky representations and forgive very dubious choices. They say “Witty and delightful; so damn good; a cheap delight; armed with more glitter than a drag convention”. Hmmmm….

For me the epic nature of the piece (I shall not even try to tell the tale or explain the mythology) has been reduced and grounded by designs both comical and ugly. The costumes (oh, the horror of those costumes!) are mainly hideous sixties frocks, worker’s dungarees or lycra sportswear, with a few cheap suits for the leading men. The stage is surrounded by glitter curtains, with oversized atom-model globes on poles, or crates and piles of (very light!) gold blocks. The proceedings begin with a naked man (in body-stocking) dragging a tree across the stage, which encouraged some titters from the audience. This is surely not what Wagnerites have come to see. 

Just close your eyes and listen. You will miss the surtitles (which I did anyway because of poor eyesight) but the huge sound from orchestra, chorus and principals is magnificent. The critics were full of praise and, with my eyes closed, I can agree.

It’s a long heavyweight slog with moments of frivolity and occasional effective staging, but I’m tempted to think the cast and chorus were allowed to improvise their acting requirements as long as they sang the right notes. They scurry about then regroup on cue.

After two and three-quarter uninterrupted hours, it does all come together with an effective storm of rainbow-coloured confetti. ‘Son et lumiere’ did the trick in the end – cheers, thanks, bows, big job done.

For my own pleasure – ★★★

For Wagnerites – possibly ★★★★★

15/02/23 Fredo writes –


by Simon Stone, at the National: Lyttelton Theatre

Our rating: ★★★★

Group appeal: ★★★

It’s a cosy domestic breakfast scene in affluent Holland Park; mother Helen (Janet McTeer) affectionately scolds her son and daughter Isolde (Mackenzie Davis) who bridles at the affection shown to her husband Eric by her mother. Father Hugo (Paul Chahidi) comes home with the shopping as they prepare to greet a guest from the past. 

And then the tensions that have rippled on the surface of the badinage become more turbulent. We learn that the guest is Soufiane, the Moroccan son of Helen’s former lover who died.

Suddenly the set makes sense. It’s a glass box, with vertical bars hiding strip-lights. The family are caged in, and their secrets and desires are going to be scrutinised and exposed, dissected behind the glass. 

When Soufiane (Assaad Bouab) arrives, the strain beneath the friendly ambience emerges as Soufiane’s long-harboured resentments explode. The glass box starts to revolve, as Helen and her comfortable world are spun into disarray.

Simon Stone’s play is billed as “after Euripides, Seneca and Racine” and it’s quite a long way after those classic texts. There’s humour in this heady mix too. It’s a chic contemporary setting and there  are contemporary references to remind us that this story is timeless. Helen is an MP, Hugo’s parents fled Iran, Isolde and Eric are about to adopt a child as they can’t conceive. Their First World concerns are about to be upended by the primal passions that suddenly possess Helen, Soufiane and Isolde in the searing drama that follows.

I was possessed as well, by the escalating power of Janet McTeer’s vivid performance of a woman no longer in control of her actions. She’s reawakened to a new sexual longing by the memory of her former lover  while losing her control in his son’s arms. It’s McTeer’s evening, and I never doubted her abandonment of self control. She has first rate support from Paul Chahidi as an initially supportive husband whose resentment grows, and from Mackenzie Davis as a younger woman seeking her own emotional and sexual fulfilment. 

Much depends on Assaad Bouab as the object of their desires, and fortunately this actor (from the French Call My Agent, but a million miles from that comedy series) convinces the audience that he has emotional depths to satisfy the women beyond his physical attractiveness . As a company, the cast rise to the occasion: it has all the excesses of a Greek tragedy transposed to our time.

I was particularly engaged by Simon Stone’s direction. The action is punctuated by blackouts  and throbbing music which enhance the tension; the stage revolves at moments of turmoil, and in one scene, the actors are lost in tall grass, almost obscured as they struggle to find their way to identify and express their feelings. The domestic scene that opens the play is almost parodied at the start of the second act, at a birthday dinner in an ultra smart restaurant where damaging secrets are exposed. I enjoyed too the way Stone has fun with the passive role of the confidante in Greek and French tragedy, where the character is almost characterless, just there to listen to the anxieties of whosever name is in the title. Here Omolara (Akıya Henry) wittily overturns this, by rounding on Helen with bold criticisms and “You don’t know anything about me, do you?”

It’s not a production that pleases everyone. The first act of the matinee was marked by several members of the audience absconding, and our two friends didn’t join in the raptures that Mike and I expressed. Fortunately, our neighbours in the front stalls were equally enthralled. I admit, the blackouts were perhaps too frequent, and some of them too long, and a crucial scene near the end that is performed in French and Arabic was poorly subtitled. The set was perhaps over furnished at times (why have a bath in the bedroom if no-one is going to have  a scrub-down?).  But I’m happy to forgive these blemishes because it’s a work of imagination and power, performed with commitment. Some may resist its traits and choices but I was more than satisfied.

11/02/23 Mike writes –


Book, Lyrics and Choreography by Kate Prince, Music by Josh Cohen & DJ Walde, at the Old Vic Theatre

Before –

I approached Sylvia with misgivings. I knew it was a hip-hop/funk musical which had had problems on its first outing pre-lockdown. Back then there had been cast illnesses which had reduced rehearsal time. It had opened at the Old Vic in 2018 described as a ‘work-in-progress’ and received poor reports and poor attendances. To cap that, the run was curtailed when all theatres were forced to close. But the production team were undeterred, determined to continue working on the show towards a better relaunch. 

As well as these problems, prospective audiences were not enthused by Suffragettes being portrayed by a reportedly black cast. It’s about the white middle-class Pankhurst family and their campaign for Votes for Women early last century – a hip-hop song’n’dance show seemed a strange and inappropriate amalgam of ideas and style. 

I am not enthusiastic about colourblind casting myself, especially when people of colour are given roles written as white, even familiar real-life white characters (eg. David Harewood in Best of Enemies), where a colour change can not only misrepresent that person but also ruin any sense of authenticity. I was not alone. A recent interview with Beverley Knight in the Times received on-line criticisms. One fan of Knight opposed the black-for-white casting and mean-spiritedly wished the show a short run – women’s suffrage was not a subject to be messed with by a black cast. Of course that fan had not seen Sylvia and did not want to. I did.

After –

Now I have seen the show myself and have had to rethink my previous misconceptions. It’s certainly a hip-hop/funk musical with all the energy, sound and dance which that suggests; it has a mixed black and white cast with the style and talent to showcase their historical tale of perseverance.
And it’s tremendous! 

The Pankhurst family were as determined to succeed in their campaign as this production team were to make their show work. Pankhurst means politics, protest, prison, parades, passion…and even more passion still from not just the characters but the cast too. The show is sung-through and danced-through – it never stops and carries its audience with it all the way. 

We begin in Manchester, come to London’s East End and to Parliament, sidestep to a death on Epsom racecourse, and Keir Hardie joins the Pankhursts in their political and sometimes literal battle with the Churchills and other worthies.  Winston and mother Lucy were staunch opponents to the Pankhursts. It’s a family saga too with tragedy and fallouts along the way. 

The songs tell the long running history of support and setbacks, with waves of historical detail on when and how to attack and defend (one song is called Suffrajitsu!) all against a background of helpful slogans and signs. It’s  strikingly set and dressed (bustles and breeches, top hats and bows) in appropriate black and white, with flashes of red (always a significant colour, like Keir Hardie’s scarf).

It’s an adrenalin rush of a show, its rhyming words and soul music combining with excitingly choreographed movement to stir us to tears and cheers. Beverley Knight takes charge as mother Emmeline Pankhurst (Sylvia is a daughter) but the rest of the largely unknown cast form a well-drilled ensemble which stirs the emotions with the passion of dedicated activists.

This was a preview performance, well prepared for Press Night, with only a few brief uncertainties and loss of focus, including an ending not quite as expected – votes for ALL women without restrictions came a further ten years AFTER the Pankhursts campaign.

Of course this is about the Women’s Suffrage movement but the theme, casting and music-style stand in for any universal cause worth fighting for. The title Sylvia may not encourage the Sound of Music fans or even the sound of funk crowds, but let’s hope word of mouth from cheering audiences now will. After five years of setbacks and revisions, Sylvia has arrived, fighting fit, and ready for, I hope, a clutch of awards.

Our rating: ★★★★½ 

Group apppeal: Would the Pankhurst content overcome any hip-hop/funk/soul resistance? I hope it would.

Previous OnOurOwn reviews for 2022 are on the next page
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