20/12/21 Mike writes –

West End Does: Christmas

A Christmas concert with West End stars, at the Cadogan Hall

Rob Houchen, Gina Beck, & Julian Ovenden, when they appeared together in ‘South Pacific’ at Chichester

Our first show out of lockdown in May this year was a visit to Cadogan Hall to hear Rob Houchen, one of our favourite vocalists. By coincidence this concert was our last theatre visit of 2021, our 41st this year, again to the Cadogan Hall and once more Rob was there, this time with a group of fellow West End performers. But what a contrast….

We attended a matinee performance, the first performance, and the lack of rehearsal time was evident. Some of the steller group assembled lived up to their reputation of reliable songsters (Rob Houchen, Gina Beck, Julian Ovenden – stars of the recent South Pacific). Others were sabotaged by poor lighting and very obviously had had little rehearsal time. The band was also too loud for the performers, as happens sometimes at Cadogan Hall. 

Maureen Lipman announcing proceedings was embarrassing, unprepared, no idea of who her performers were, fumbled her notes in Boris fashion, told a few Christmas cracker jokes which fell flat, and was eventually ignored in Part Two by Rob Houchen who took control. 

It was a disappointment, especially for the young amateur choir and dancers who had given their time and talent to join some well known names on stage. They did well and earned their applause. The enthusiastic band raised our spirits from time to time, but it was not until the evening performance (our friend  Andrew informed us) that it was “Total Razzle Dazzle from start to finish. Absolutely sensational!”.

Hey ho, we missed out – they tried but time was against them. However, we were grateful for being able to be there (we were invited by friends) – many shows are currently being halted by Covid restrictions but these performers battled on. We shall continue to support live performances while they struggles to survive.

Our rating: 2/5

Group appeal: 3/5

16/12/21 Mike writes –

Spring Awakening

Music by Duncan Sheik, Book and Lyrics by Steven Sater, based on the play by Frank Wedekind, at the Almeida Theatre

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.   

They may not mean to, but they do. 

Philip Larkin’s words could be used for the synopsis of this show, although it’s based on a German play by Frank Wedekind from 1891. Nature or Nurture, parents are responsible for the children they educate for their own social class. The original play was at first banned for its topic but now the musical celebrates young lives while at the same time criticising how those lives can be damaged by a blinkered upbringing.

It premiered in 2006 and even today looks as relevant as it did back in the nineteenth century. Appropriately “Totally Fucked” is the most exuberant number for all the young cast and here they certainly let us know how they feel. (It’s the only swearing in the whole show!) They are teenagers discovering all the torment of adolescent sexuality and emotion which the adults want to ignore, stifle or misrepresent.

Rupert Gould directs with sensitivity, simplicity and flare. The set is a steep flight of steps, black but dazzlingly lit; the costumes are semi-period, in grey; the tone is confrontational and emotive; the movement is an exercise workout that’s highly energetic and visually stunning.

One woman (Catherine Cusack) and one man (Mark Lockyer) play all the adults (parents, teachers, authority figures); the teenagers are individual but universal characters, recognisable as the youngsters we mixed with at their age and are seen on all the streets today.

You won’t remember the songs, you may not (unfortunately) even hear all the words clearly (I have a problem with lighter tones), but you will understand the feelings that are portrayed with anguish, tenderness and even humour.

You can tell I was impressed, especially by the originality of the presentation. And with the young cast, believably teenage yet most likely much older. Laurie Kynaston (who was Florian Zeller’s The Son) plays the central teen and is actually 27; his girlfriend Wendla played by Amara Okereke (from The Boyfriend at the Menier) loses her years too: for some others, this is their first professional performance; all the dozen or so ‘youngsters’ are remarkably well cast.

The show is vibrant and fresh, but at the same time darkly troubling, with a theatrical flourish that brought a cheering audience to its feet.

Our Rating: 4/5

Group appeal: 3/5

08/12/21 Guest reviewer Kathie writes –


by Moira Buffini, at the National: Lyttelton Theatre

Photos: Manuel Harlan

Having read some of the reviews following the play’s opening on 23 November I had gone with fairly low expectations. Booked in July, when attracted by the reputation of the playwright with the accompanying appeal of the two leads, Shaun Evans and Nancy Carroll, there had been hope for an occasion justifying the trek from Poole. Alas.

The premise is not unreasonable, and is certainly timely, with the cast of 10 covering a range of political leanings, sexual orientation and ethnicity. Set in a substantial but crumbling country property, dating from the Restoration, and during rainfall and flooding of biblical proportions, the metaphors come thick and fast. The resident couple and their daughter have their own traumas with the father, an ex-pop star, behaving in a bizarre and abusive way leading to his demise – or not. Added to the mix are the other characters seeking refuge from the worsening weather conditions – successively, we have arrivals of a black mother and daughter, the gay vicar, a group of 3 who, we learn, are the core of a far-right group Albion and, finally, a caravan-dwelling out-of-work man with many grievances and issues. Battle, verbal and physical, commences. Initially there is, intentionally presumably, some humour but by the second act the full weight of the truly leaden and cliched dialogue seals its fate.

Trying to find some positives, I was impressed by the set, making good use of the stage (decrepit and deconstructed manorhouse set by Lez Brotherston) although that wasn’t always used to its best, but the weather effects are impressive at times. The cast do their best, but either a few of them weren’t really trying or they had given up.

The critics’ comments almost all point the finger at the powers-that-be at the National for allowing this production to go ahead. Will they listen and learn? We shall see.

Our rating: 1/5

Group rating: 0/5

29/11/21 Mike writes –

Life of Pi

by Yann Martel, at the Wyndham’s Theatre. We were invited to a preview performance.

If you’ve read the book or seen the film, you will know this is the life of Pi Patel, and especially what occurred when he was ship-wrecked far from land with a cargo of zoo animals. Or is that really the story? As Fredo has explained in his report on the Q&A session which we enjoyed after the performance (see the News section on the Home page), this is also about religions, beliefs, family, human nature, all presented as a heady brew of magical realism.

The iconic image of Pi surviving in a boat with a tiger is one I thought could not sustain a theatrical evening. I was wrong. This episode forms the longest scene in the play but excites and fascinates throughout. The tiger, of course, is a manipulated puppet as was War Horse, but we soon forget the puppeteers. Pi calls him Richard Parker (it’s explained in the play) but there’s a zoo of other animals too – a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and more, all eager to eat each other…but no Lion King – that tiger is threat enough.

Just when I thought this was being aimed squarely at the school group and young adult audience, it took off into a realm of wondrous visuals and a story to tell that was amazing, heroic, fantastical and in the end both moving and thought-provoking. The standing ovation was well deserved, more usual for a musical than for a play. But this was a highly technical production, a play with all the staging attributes usually reserved for big musical numbers.

It flowed seamlessly from zoo to hospital ward and to the small boat on the wide expanse of the ocean. Waves crashed over the stage; the sky lit up with a starry universe; at one point the boat was surrounded by shoals of fish, and Richard Parker roared at us all.

Hiran Abeysekera as Pi held the many themes and time changes together with humour and charm. It was all a thrillingly imaginative delight, with plenty to discuss and ponder on the voyage back to our real world.

Our rating: 5/5

Group appeal: 5/5

18/11/21 Fredo writes –

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

by Christopher Durang, at the Charing Cross Theatre

Once overheard at a performance of The Cherry Orchard: “It’s funnier than this in Moscow!” Funny? Could any of Chekhov’s plays be comical? – the anguish of Madame Ranaveskaya, the despair of Konstantin in The Seagull, the wasted lives of the Three Sisters, the desolation of Vanya and Sonya in Uncle Vanya don’t leave much space for humour. In Russia they laugh, here not so much.

Yet there are laughs a-plenty in Christopher Durang’s USA-set homage, where Vanya and Sonia have grown weary of each other and bicker endlessly. They dread a visit from their even more self-absorbed movie-star sister Masha. They elevate Chekovian angst to unexplored levels, as they vie with each other about who has the most unfilled life, culminating in a funny cry-off between Janie Dee’s  Masha  and Rebecca Lacey’s Sonia. Complications arise when Masha introduces her latest toy-boy who spikes their pretensions (oh, that’s why he’s called Spike!) and is eager to show off his muscles.

But all this Chekhov stuff: is it just a play for the theatre cognoscenti to indulge in? Well, partly, but it is very funny along the way. Masha insists on going to a fancy dress party dressed as Snow White; and the girl next door (Nina, of course, played by Lukwesa Mwamba) admits she has never seen Snow White, but she has seen The Little Mermaid. Late in the play, when a more serious side emerges, Vanya (Michael Maloney) has a long and passionate speech about the loss of culture, but his points of reference are I Love Lucy and The Ossie and Harriet Show, and laments the forgotten values they represented.

Art and  Culture are evanescent; we lose our heritage as it dissolves before our eyes. It’s a weighty theme for a slender play, and perhaps Durang doesn’t explore it deeply enough. He wastes the potential of a character named Cassandra (Sara Powell) in the first act, and even Rebecca Lacey’s amusing impersonations of Maggie Smith outstay their welcome. Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining evening, and though the critics seem to have experienced a collective sense of humour failure, I had a good time.

Charlie Maher, as the shallow, treacherous Spike, deserves a special mention for his energetic performance, despite by now sporting a knee-brace and limping by the end of the play.

Our rating: 3/5

Group appeal: 3/5

09/11/21 Mike writes –

Pretty Woman – the musical

Direction and choreography by Jerry Mitchell, music and lyrics by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance, book by Garry Marshall and screenwriter J.F. Lawton, at the Savoy Theatre.

I shouldn’t be writing this. It was not a show we saw OnOurOwn, it was a show we saw with our Group at long last, and I think worth a note here – it was the first pre-lockdown show we have seen which had been postponed three times when all theatres had to close. We offered you tickets for this way back in October 2019 for a date in September 2020. We booked well in advance to ensure good seats and the show opened with a mixed response from the critics. Then along came Covid and the show was closed down. Our booked date was postponed to January 2021 but then another lockdown caused postponement to May 2021. It didn’t happen – we were in mid lockdown yet again. We were given a fourth date and thankfully all was well when eventually we arrived at the Savoy Theatre this week.

Danny Mac was still in the lead, but the show had moved to a different theatre (the Savoy instead of the Piccadilly) and I’m told we had an understudy in the title role (either Olivia Brookes or Paige Fenlon). Congratulations to everyone who patiently changed dates in their diaries when Fredo sent endless emails to update you all on the postponement arrangements.

Did we have a good time? We all remember the movie from 30 years ago (if we are old enough and, yes, it was released in 1990). We remember the stars, Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, so the new cast had some tight fitting Jimmy Choos to fit into if they were to live up to our hopes. I think they did.

Also making an impression was a nimble bellboy played by Harry Charles, and a Jack-of-all-supports popping up everywhere played by Bob Harms. He received the biggest cheer at curtain-call. We had to wait until the very end to hear the Roy Orbison title song – the strummed chord on a guitar got hearts beating again and sent us home with that songworm in our heads.

I think it also sent us home happy – happy with this rather smart and sassy musical adaptation from the screen, happy to be part of a packed theatre audience again, and happy we shall be seeing other postponed shows at last in the coming months. All in all, Pretty Good.

Our rating: 4/5

Group appeal: 5/5

Note: A happy hooker hooked by a suave millionaire may have been a fairy tale to delight us 30 years ago, but times have changed. Nowadays, goodness knows, the younger generation tut-tut at such a notion, and see prostitution as either exploitation of women by men or giving power to women over men. (Yes, it’s confusing.) A little romance enhanced by credit-card luxury is just so last century. And yet this “tasteless” (The Guardian) tale packs in a full audience today. I feel it wasn’t just the urge to ‘see a show’ that attracted the crowds. They needed this heady mixture of romance, luxury and sex to offset the New Puritanism censoring so much expression in the arts today. Lets not take it too seriously but…..three cheers for the musical makers and producers who brought back Pretty Woman in the face of some politically correct thinking about it being inappropriate in this age of #MeToo, Cancel Culture and woke.

06/11/21 Fredo writes –


by William Shakespeare, at the Young Vic

I’m not a huge fan of cross-gender casting, but there’s an honorable tradition in Shakespeare, stretching back to Sarah Bernhardt and beyond. Coming up to date, we’ve had Fiona Shaw as Richard ll, Glenda Jackson  as King Lear, Harriet Walter as Prospero, and Tamsin Greig as Malvolio. And we’ve had Mark Rylance as Olivia in two different productions of Twelfth Night.

We didn’t need much persuasion to check out the charismatic Cush Jumbo as Hamlet. We knew from her performance as Mark Antony in the Donmar’s Julius Caesar that she’s an actress who can command the stage, and that she knows how to deliver a complex speech and make the meaning  clear to  the audience. But was she up to the challenge of Shakespeare’s longest role in this multi-racially cast and somewhat shortened production directed by Greg Hersov?

The answer is emphatically Yes. from her first scene, it was evident that this was someone who had a deep understanding of her character, and as the play progressed, her delineation of Hamlet’s thoughts and development was logical and comprehensible. Her Hamlet was stroppy, cool, aggitated, slouchy, depressed, excitable…and mesmerising.

She animated the very long first half of the production, which concentrated on telling the story of the play. I was grateful on behalf of the young man sitting next to me for this; the production has one or two nods towards relating to today’s youth, but in general is relatively gimmick-free.

We arrive at the interval at the closet scene and the murder of Polonius before an oddly composed Gertrude (Tara Fitzgerald). And then something strange happened. Ms Jumbo and Hamlet are absent from the action for quite a long stretch soon after the start of Part Two, and I became aware of a sudden loss of energy in the production. I missed Joseph Marcell as Polonius; he’d made this tiresome character rather endearing. I noticed that the supporting players were undercast; Taz Skylar (Rosencrantz). and Joana Borja (Guildenstern) made an airhead duo, and even Adrian Dunbar (Claudius) and Tara Fitzgerald delivered their lines without bringing any characterisation to this important couple. However, Ms Fitzgerald gave a very good account of Ophelia’s death.

Although Cush Jumbo maintained her own high level of energy till the end, I concluded that this was a production that was good at telling the story, but it lacked substance and weight. It was a showcase for her talents, and a triumph for her: a 5 star performance in a 3 star production.

Our rating: 4/5

Group appeal: 3/5

04/11/21 Mike writes –

‘night, Mother

by Marsha Norman, at Hampstead Theatre

The chat is like so many mothers and daughters – easy, mundane, kindly, a bit irritable….but then the daughter announces she intends to kill herself. It’s a well planted bombshell, but is it a joke, a threat, or a real intention? Mother panics, daughter digs her heels in, and gradually we learn about the family, inherited health issues, and of course the relationships involved.

I was expecting an afternoon (we attended an almost full matinee performance) of grim and rather depressing discussion. It was not that at all – we were drawn towards both these women with sympathy and understanding of both views.

It was good to see Stockard Channing back on stage, relishing a dowdy character role she could inhabit and discover emotional depth. Rebecca Night remained calm, cool and determined, yet always maintained an ambiguity about whether she would or she wouldn’t.

And did she? you will ask. You will know by the end!

An impressive but over-large home setting was spacious, when cramped would have suited their relationship better. But the restrained use of the lighting and sound added the right atmosphere.

Our expectations were not high (some reviews had been mean) but we were impressed; it was worth its revival with this cast.

Our Rating: 3/5

Group appeal: 3/5

28/10/21 Guest reviewers Judith & John C write –

The Dante Project

A new three act ballet choreographed by Wayne McGregor, music by Thomas Ades, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The last time we were at Covent Garden was February 2020 to see Onegin. It seems so long ago and was good to be back. An excellent piece of navigation by Fredo saw us dropped opposite the Opera House, then straight up to the bar for a glass of wine on the covered balcony under a heater.

One disappointment was the lack of a printed cast list and resume. Yes we could down load it to the phone but you cannot use it to remind yourself during the performance.

Overall we were enthralled by the ballet and found parts to be mesmerising. We did a lot of reading beforehand to prepare, as we find we have much more enjoyment if we can connect the choreography and music to the dance, but it has left a lot of homework to do to make real sense of it.

Musically it was fascinating although we did wonder where it was going in the second act. Judith found the dancing to be very interesting and some recognisable as being from classical ballet and some from more modern movements: the symmetry and control were exemplary.

One criticism we would have is the difficulty in identifying the individual characters, as they were in such similar costumes, for example who were the 7 deadly sinners! Reading some reviews afterwards did explain some things that puzzled us. The chants in act 2 turned out to be ‘recordings from Great Adès Synagogue in Jerusalem reflecting the composer’s Syrian Jewish roots’. The lighting and set gave appropriate atmosphere but, again, a few things escaped us at the time, Such as the tree, a Jacaranda, signifying rebirth. The third act was uplifting in dance, lighting and music.

We look forward to a screened or recorded performance where we will have done more homework and filled in more gaps. Thanks Fredo and Mike for a slightly nervous but much awaited return.

26/10/21 Fredo writes –

Claire Martin and Michael Feinstein

Heaven! I’m in Heaven! In the past two weeks, I’ve enjoyed two superlative musical performances by artistes at the top of their game. And as though they were reading my mind, they both sang some of my favourite songs, as well as more that they added to my desert island list.

Claire Martin with David Newton

at Crazy Coqs

First up was Claire Martin on Tuesday 19 October. She is one of the most acclaimed jazz singers in the world, and is proud to announce herself as South London’s own. During her act, she paid tribute to the great Tony Bennett (she has opened for him at his concerts) and to the encouragement he gave her. 

On this occasion, she was accompanied by virtuoso jazz pianist David Newton, whose solos were among the many high spots of the evening. Clare announced that her programme didn’t have a theme; she had simply chosen a selection of great songs that she enjoyed singing.

And that we enjoyed hearing: The Man I Love followed At Long Last, Love and rapturously led into Lost in his Arms from Annie, Get Your Gun. As each song was introduced, Clare paid tribute to earlier female singers who had influenced her: Sarah Vaughan, Carmen MacRae, and of course Ella Fitzgerald. She asked us to imagine the expression on her face when one of her students announced her ambition to be a younger, “more vibrant” Ella Fitzgerald!

I’ll be forever grateful to her for introducing me to I Keep Going Back to Joe’s, which I’m sure is a jazz standard, but which was new to me. And for letting me hear live – for the first time in many years – the unfathomably romantic songs My Foolish Heart and Lover, Come Back to Me.

Our Rating: 4/5

David Newton

Michael Feinstein

at the Cadogan Hall

Michael Feinstein on Tuesday 25 October is possibly the greatest living authority on the The Great American Songbook – or, as he insisted, the International Songbook. And he should be – as a young man, he worked for lyricist Ira Gershwin, and got to know many great songwriters such as Hugh Martin (Meet Me in St Louis) and Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady). He counts among his friends Liza Minelli, who brought her friends such as Elizabeth Taylor and Gregory Peck to hear him play at a piano bar in Los Angeles at the start of his career.

Now a dapper and elegant 65, Michael is the doyen of cabaret and concert performances, totally at ease and assured in front of an audience. Though he took to the piano to accompany himself for several numbers, he had a trio consisting of piano, double bass and percussion to back him up.

And what a selection of songs! He started with It’s a Most Unusual Day, and carried on with Let There Be Love and Almost Like Being in Love from Brigadoon. He peppered his presentation with anecdotes: when young Hugh Martin, fresh from completing the score for Meet Me in St Louis joined the army and heard a military band playing The Trolley Song, he couldn’t resist whispering to  a fellow-soldier, “I wrote that song!”. “Yeah,”  replied his companion, “and I’m Bette Davis.”

There’s a song called Old Friend from an almost forgotten show called I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road and when the BBC gets round to inviting me on to Desert Island Discs, I’ll dedicate it to my own old friends. And I’ll chose Mr Feinstein’s rendition. I’m also grateful to him for singing Fly Me to the Moon in the composer’s preferred waltz-time, and not the Sinatra swing version – it was a completely new song. But in case he’d offended the Sinatra fans, he paid a generous tribute to that great singer with a medley of his hits.

There was inevitably an encore, and Michael tried to calm  down the audience who  were yelling for More, by paying tribute to the late Leslie Bricusse. 

Great songs, great singer, great performance!

Our Rating: 4/5

23/10/21 Mike writes –

Camp Siegfried

by Bess Wohl, at the Old Vic

The title is hardly enticing but does it intrigue? Perhaps not, as the performance we booked was cancelled and amalgamated with another date to build up a full audience. However, the play is a fascinating look at a subject totally unknown to me. This Camp Siegfried really existed before WW2 on Long Island, New York, where American supporters of Hitler raised funds for Germany and sent their kids to summer camp to learn and promote fascism. They came in their thousands to support Hitler’s efforts and follow his doctrine to make Germany (and America) great again. Yes, there’s a suggestion that Trump’s America may encourage similar thoughts but parallels are not forced. 

The teenagers in this two-hander are not symbols for political thinking but are treated as youngsters with the usual thoughts, enthusiasms, worries, hormones and desires of any young person today. But their circumstances are very particular to their time, 1938. They are Hitler Youth…in America. Springtime for Hitler is their spring awakening too.

Only sounds and grainy projected images evoke the time and place on a plain stage. But we follow Him and Her on their journey to adulthood from amusing innocence through touching experience to a chilling reality.

Patsy Ferran is always a young woman to watch and here she embodies every fragility, emotion, uncertainty and the ultimate determination of the 16 year old she plays. Luke Thallon, playing a year older, matches her well as the upcoming idealist preparing to support any twist that Hitler inflicts on history. Together their growing bond holds our attention, as much for their unusual situation as for the young and ‘so-far-so-innocent’ characters they play. This compelling duo grow through their adolescence to become radicalised young adults with an uncertain future we can only guess at. This is a history lesson as a warning for today.

The play was only written last year so many congratulations to the Old Vic for finding it, producing it, and giving us so much to think about when many audiences still want light cheerful fare.

(Footnote: Many thanks to the programme for explaining that the area where the camp existed is now Siegfried Park, a wooded area for the local community to enjoy, and its history is mostly forgotten. Back in the day there was even a Hitler Street, and up until as recently as 2015 only people of German extraction could buy properties there.)

Our Rating: 4/5

Group appeal: 3/5

21/10/21 Fredo writes –

Love and Other Acts of Violence

by Cordelia Lynn, at the Donmar Warehouse

There’s a superficial resemblance between Cordelia Lynn’s play and Nick Payne’s Constellations. The relationship between Him and Her develops through a series of short scenes of hesitant courtship, romance, arguments and reconciliation, all vividly delineated by Tom Mothersdale and Abigail Weinstock (making her professional debut). Sudden lighting effects and changes with uneasy sounds punctuate the transition from love to anger and violence, and while the actors delve into the personal aspect of the relationship, the writer explores how their heritage shapes the tension between them.

Gradually we move into a world where they are threatened by cancel culture and overbearing fascist regulations, and their love can’t survive the encroaching violence that isolates them.

Then we lurch back to Lemberg in 1918, on the eve of a violent pogrom. A family is destroyed; and an encounter and confrontation foreshadow the relatioship in the first part of the play. Love exists eternally, but so does violence. Man hands down misery to man, from then, till now, and forever more.

I was impressed by this play, but not consistently. There are some poetic interjections between scenes, and while some of them are effective, I had to uncurl my toes after others. Cordelia Lynn introduces weighty themes, and I’m not convinced that the structure of the play supports them.  Nevertheless, the actors are on blazing form, and director Elayce Ismail galvanises the action.

I couldn’t help but think of the final section of the play as the Fiddler on the Roof part, and that it isn’t as effective as that show.  The quality of the writing and the direction seemed to sag, and the device of a small wooden ram to unify the two parts of the play seemed contrived and sentimental, and the snow which falls on Baba’s head was just a pathetic fallacy. It was unfortunate that the play loses power at this crucial point.

Even so, I’d recommend this play, with only a few caveats. It’s already so good that I want it to be better.

Our Rating: 3/5

Group appeal: 3/5

18/10/21 Fredo writes

Back To The Future – the musical

Music and lyrics by Alan Silvestri  and Glen Ballard  and a book by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, adapted from their original screenplay, at the Adelphi Theatre.

I wasn’t sure I was going to like the new stage musical of Back to the Future, and before it started, I could feel a headache coming on because of the electronic sound effects in the theatre. And I admit I was thinking “Why? Why do they need to turn a perfect 1985 movie into a 2021 stage-show?”

My resistance remained high for about 20 minutes, but eventually the cheerfulness of the show wore me down. It’s bright, cheerful and colourful. The 1955 college setting gives every opportunity for dancing at the Prom and in the gym. The songs are pleasant, but not memorable, and Olly Dobson is perfect as Marty. He has a strong personality, sings and dances well, and wins the audience over instantly. Roger Bart, on the other hand, was more tiresome than Christopher Lloyd in the movie, and it was difficult to hear him when he sang. But as a mad professor, he filled the stereotype.

At the interval, we were treated to genuine 50s songs instead – what a treat!

The hi-tech special effects are as advanced as anything we have seen in a theatre before, certainly flying steps up from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Mary Poppins, with many nods to Star Wars. Whenever Marty and Doc get into the DeLorean to fly ‘back to the future’, our expectations are high and are certainly exceeded. The finale is visually amazing, raising eyebrows, cheers and a standing ovation. There’s a feel-good factor which is a mixture of nostalgia and eye-popping stage-wizardry, with the songs never straying from a musical comfort zone.

The audience was hyped up to enjoy it from the start – and they did, with applause and even cheers at every key moment. Not quite Future Perfect but good enough to satisfy the Grease and Hairspray fans. And fans of the film too, of course.

Our rating: 4/5

Group appeal: 4/5

Watch the show trailer at this LINK

16/10/21 Guest reviewer Margaret writes –

The Tragedy of Macbeth

By William Shakespeare, at the Almeida Theatre

Photos by Marc Brenne

Macbeth is a play that I know well, having studied it at O level back in the 1960s, but this production was so fiery and electric that I saw more in the play than ever before.  

The heart of its impact is the relationship between the Macbeths, at one moment confrontational, the next ecstatically happy, utterly entranced by each other.  James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan work brilliantly together, aware of every nuance in each other’s performance and playing off each other’s emotions.  To begin with, she is dominant, accusing him of cowardice and claiming an unnatural degree of determination to do evil whilst her husband is wrought by uncertainty. As the play progresses, Macbeth almost loses his sanity as his wife tries to hold it all together, like Laura Kuenssberg appearing calm and unflappable whilst political chaos is happening all around.  The banquet scene where Macbeth is haunted by the ghost of Banquo is chilling and, even though I knew it was a story, I was scared. By Act V, their relationship is wrecked, she is suicidal and he is the one holding on to any chance of survival, despite a weariness that has killed all joy.

This production takes a couple of liberties by having Lady Macbeth involved in or witnessing scenes where in the text she doesn’t appear.  This is used to great effect in the murder of the Macduff family where she sees in graphic detail how far her husband’s tyranny has become destructive and dangerous not only to their subjects but also to themselves. Saoirse Ronan’s physical and verbal skills convincingly portray how her character slides into madness and fragility.  Her suicide is rather gently done, although her women’s wail is stark.  I felt sorry for Lady Macbeth by the end of the play and that is something I haven’t felt before. 

James McArdle’s performance is outstanding, moving steadily from the celebrity warrior to the brutal murderer: a good man tempted, becoming like a terrified child before jaded inevitability finally destroys his life.  His vocal range and ability to move with delicacy or energy as required contribute so much to the excitement of this production.  The three witches are played as business women, no melodrama in sight, and at the end of the play they imply that all this could happen again, Macbeth simply being the latest person to get trapped in a vision that was too tempting to resist.

There is a melancholy musical accompaniment to most scenes and the musical quality of the Scottish and Irish accents added to the power of Shakespeare’s poetry, shot through as it is with so many images of darkness blocking out the light, disrupted nature and crimes against kinship.  Lady Macbeth in her pale costumes, blond and irresistibly beautiful, adored by her husband, admired by her guests, is the ultimate image of deceit and evil in the play.  Macbeth, intelligent, handsome and muscular, in his kilt naked to the waist or in his battle dress, is the ultimate image of the fallen hero.  Overall, this production was immensely powerful and thought-provoking, giving me a fresh view of a very familiar text.

My rating: 5/5

Group appeal: 4/5

14/10/21 Mike writes

Get Up Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical

at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue.

We were invited to a preview of this show, a week or so before its official opening night. Work needed to be done to bring it up to an acceptable standard – it was visually a mess, had a scrappy script, needed more controlled direction, and was hampered by the performed versions of Marley’s songs being mostly shortened (with added recorded applause!). We are admirers of Arinzé Kene (playing Bob Marley) and this is a great opportunity to play to the fans of Marley’s music, politics and personality. However we left at the Interval, feeling the second half was unlikely to improve. We hope changes will have been made by the time the show officially opens for fair appraisal.

22/10/21 – The show has now opened to very positive reviews and we have spoken to people who have enjoyed it. Does this prove the adage ‘never judge a show from its previews’?

14/10/21 Guest reviewer John R writes –

The Normal Heart

by Larry Kramer, at the National: Olivier Theatre

Photos: Helen Maybanks

The Normal Heart is certainly the biggest of the first plays addressing the crisis of the AIDS epidemic in New York around 1981-84.  Written by Larry Kramer, a forceful gay activist, in 1985, the lead character is Ned Weeks (read Kramer) who with fury and anger hoped to alert the gay community, the politicians and the medical world of the impending crisis. 

Frustrated by the evasiveness of just about everyone, his anger and confrontational style alienated him with many of those who he aimed to get on his side. Many wealthy and prominent gay men in New York were closeted and didn’t wish to be “outed” or have their comfortable lives linked to the rampant sex lives of those who frequented the bathhouses where just about everything “went”. 

One of Ned’s first allies is his own doctor, Doctor Emma Brookner, a wheelchair user who was a polio victim and who is bewildered and angry at the increasing number of cases she is presented with (a splendidly acerbic Liz Carr, from tv’s Silent Witness).  She also desperately needs government funding into research.  The establishment figures continue to turn a blind eye to the illness, and even the NY mayor, Mayor Koch, eventually sends an aide from his office to a meeting in a dreary basement room, and who is 90 minutes late. 

Ned has also been alienated from his brother Bruce who has not accepted his homosexuality, and who now plans to build a $2m house rather than give money to the cause.  In the meanwhile Ned falls in love for the first time in his life with Felix, a prominent journalist for the New York Times. Other characters appear and add their voices to the collective effort. 

It is a passionate play and the performance of Ben Daniels as Ned is exhilarating and exhausting in equal measure, and deserves all plaudits.  The play is nearly 3 hours long (one interval) and matinee days must be particularly challenging for all involved.

At our matinee performance there were many empty seats, especially in the Circle, and I do urge people to see this before it closes next month.  Seniors can get seats for £46 in the Stalls at midweek matinees (Top Price normally £86). 

My Rating:  5/5 

Group Appeal: 4/5

12/10/21 Mike writes –


The dress rehearsal of an Opera by Philip Glass, at the London Coliseum

Can I use the word “remarkable’ to describe this production when I can find few remarks to explain it, when I understood none of the words sung by the huge chorus and principals? No programmes or handouts were available at this dress rehearsal, so the only guidance was advance publicity or “on our website” as one attendant snapped. In-house help would have been appreciated. But none of this was unexpected – the opera is sung in Sanskrit with no surtitles! We are willingly mesmerised by an aural soundscape, the repetitive rolling chords of Philip Glass’s music, and the chanting of chorus and soloists. There’s a cast of about 50.

Ghandi is the subject of the work, his passivism, his life and times, his influencers and influences. Tolstoy, Tagore and Krishna become leading players too in a most spectacular staging.

With so little in the soundscape to focus on or comprehend, no libretto to latch on to or conventional plot to follow, the visual presentation becomes all important to hold our attention. Here, the match of visuals with the sound is perfect, beautiful, and, yes, remarkable. Words do feature as meditative statements projected regularly onto the stage background – narrative punctuation. With the repetition of the sound comes the repetition of movement, every action performed by the huge chorus as slow-motion rituals, processions, or continually re-grouping ensembles. There are flourishes too – gigantic puppets, cloudscapes, candles and flames, and even…er…a forest of dangling coat-hangers. But in such a minimalist presentation even a change of key becomes a flourish too.

In over three hypnotic hours I didn’t understand a word but I loved every minute.

Our rating: 5/5

Group appeal: 3/5

04/10/21 Fredo writes –

Matthew Bourne’s The Midnight Bell

Devised and directed by Matthew Bourne, Choreography by Matthew Bourne and the Company, Inspired by the novels of Patrick Hamilton, at Sadler’s Wells Theatre

Patrick Hamilton’s bleary-eyed observation of the world, as seen from a bar-stool in a West London pub, is contained in a series of novels from the 30s, including Twenty Thousand Streets under the Stars and Hangover Square. This view may not seem to chime with the more flamboyant outlook that Matthew Bourne has displayed in Nutcracker! and Edward Scissorhands; nevertheless, Bourne has plundered Hamilton’s works for his latest dance work at Sadler’s Wells.

This isn’t a straightforward adaptation of any one novel, but rather a representation of his characters, and most importantly, a distillation of the atmosphere of seediness and hopelessness that pervades his work. Don’t look away: Bourne has empathy with these characters, and infuses his version with sympathy and compassion.

Five couples drink at the same pub, The Midnight Bell. They jostle at the bar, share a table, pass each other in the street. Their relationships are transitory, love is transactionary, sex is unsatisfactory. As Hamilton would have it, they are slaves of solitude, trapped in their own disillusion with their broken dreams. Comic touches are few, but shrewdly positioned. The dance is seldom exuberant, but intricate and tightly controlled. 

The tense, jazzy score by Terry Davies is interrupted from time to time as the dancers step forward to mime exaggeratedly to yearning, romantic ballads such as The Man I Love  or The Nearness of You sung by Leslie Hutchinson or Elizabeth Welch. This borrowing from Dennis Potter gives us an insight into their aspirations.

Why didn’t we take a group? We know that Matthew Bourne has a dedicated following, and it would have been popular.  Well, the truth is, we didn’t know a thing about it until we had an enquiry from one of our London friends. The show opened, without fanfare, at Cheltenham, and is touching down at Sadler’s Wells for one week only. Although the set and costumes by Lez Brotherston look amazing under the atmospheric lighting by Paule Constable (we could practically smell the stale beer), my guess is that this is a work in progress, and will be introduced as a more finished product sometime next year.

How can it be improved? Matthew Bourne’s works always get better as they develop, and I expect he may want to clarify the interweaving narrative threads, perhaps add more humour to the louche situations and allow his team of dancers  – including regulars Paris Fitzpatrick, Michela Meazza and Liam Mower – more freedom to express the suppressed emotions of these desperate people.

In the meantime, I loved it – it’s right up one of my twenty thousand streets! 

Our rating: 4 stars

Group appeal: It’s Matthew Bourne – 5 stars

05/10/21 Mike writes –

Relatively Speaking + The Memory of Water

by Alan Ayckbourn at the Jermyn Street Theatre
by Shelagh Stephenson at Hampstead Theatre

I took myself to the theatre twice last week – two Off-WestEnd theatres; two comedies, two revivals of plays we had seen years ago. Once was enough for Fredo but with four and five star reviews from the press, I wanted to check them out for myself.

First up was the prolific Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking from 1965 – with his total of more than 80 plays written, this was his seventh. The oldies are the best. Well, that is our current thinking, so how would this ‘classic’ four-hander fare in the Jermyn Street Theatre, London’s tiniest theatre? It was like seeing it performed on one’s own hearthrug with a painted suburban house backcloth! The front row was left empty – no tripping over extended legs – but at such close quarters I felt the audience laughter was inhibited by the performers close proximity. They warmed up by the second scene.

In case you’ve forgotten, this is the one of mistaken identity –  Greg and Ginny are engaged, but when Greg wants to visit Ginny’s parents, he unwittingly turns up at the wrong house which belongs to her secret older lover Philip and his wife Sheila. Then Gilly arrives too and tries to keep up the pretence for Greg that they are her mum and dad. The cat’s cradle of cross-purpose conversations is a marvel to behold. Ayckbourn comedies are best performed absolutely straight with just a hint of mounting hysteria. Here the performances varied – Greg echoed Frank Spencer’s persona (remember him?) whereas Ginny was played straight; the older couple hit exactly the right note of forced middle class respectability with a teasing comic edge that was perfect for both the play and the small theatre. By Act Two, the audience had settled into the all-round deceit and just didn’t want it to stop. It didn’t. This was Ayckbourn’s manipulative plotting at its best, with a pair of bedroom slippers providing an unexpectedly neat conclusion. The play no longer surprises in the way it used to; it’s just ‘another Ayckbourn’; the playwright’s form is too predictable, too safe for this century, but as an undemanding Ayckbourn gem it can still satisfy his fans.

My rating: 3/5. Group appeal: 4/5

James Simmons / Lianne Harvey / Rachel Fielding / Christopher Bonwell

Next up was a visit to Hampstead Theatre for The Memory of Water dating from 1996, but still as fresh as ever. “Why are we always arguing?” asks one sister. “We don’t,” snaps another, “We bicker!”. Indeed they do, these three sisters preparing for their mother’s funeral and clearing out her things. These siblings chatter and tease and contradict each other as only family members can – different events are remembered in different ways by each of them, dominated by mum who was both loved and hated. If only they could piece together an accurate account they can agree on. Mother even appears as a vision to correct the memories. 

This is a comedy where one-liners are just the everyday humour of how we converse and react to each other. It’s how families are, how they connect however tentatively, but essentially it’s just how they talk to each other about everyday personal things. The chat is non-stop, and so too is the laughter as we recognise a universal truth in this familiar familial situation. 

As funeral time nears and the bottle of whisky is passed around  to boost spirits, so a darker side emerges, the barbs become sharper and a real sense of family love and loss is felt. 

The cast of six (two men are there to support their partners and be slagged off) they are a well balanced team of characters who spar endlessly with each other without breaking their bond.. But this is a women’s triumph in writing (Shelagh Stephenson), directing (Alice Hamilton) and acting (see photo below). I noted that it was the men in the audience that laughed the loudest. Recognition?

In the final scene mother’s coffin is brought home for final respects to be paid. A coffin on stage is rare; I remember another in Orton’s Loot. Oddly that was a comedy too.

My rating: 4/5. Group appeal: 4/5

Adam James / Laura Rogers / Carolina Main / Lucy Black / Kulvinda Ghir – with Lizzy McInnery

25/09/21 Fredo writes –

Shining City

by Conor McPherson, at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East.

It’s 17 years since we’d seen this play at the Royal Court, but I hadn’t forgotten a moment of it. I’d longed to see it again, but it has been overshadowed by Conor McPherson’s more popular The Weir, and it seemed unaccountably forgotten. That play brings a disparate group together by an unspoken but shared understanding of their experiences of the supernatural, and ends on a reassuringly positive note. Shining City, billed as a Dublin ghost story, appears to concern an exorcism through reasoning, yet it is much more unsettling.

John’s wife has died in an accident, and he seeks counselling from therapist Ian because he believes he has seen her ghost. In two long scenes, he reveals the story of their marriage, while Ian sits and listens. We find out more about Ian in the scenes that follow John’s narrative, and learn that he has his own demons in his complicated life. In the final scene, both men have reached a possible resolution. But wait……..!

Why do I admire this play so much? First of all, it is ingeniously constructed, in counterpointing the characters of John and Ian. John blurts out his story in an unstoppable flood of words, while Ian’s story is revealed by what we’re told by his girlfriend Neasa. McPherson cleverly misleads us into concentrating on John, while the play is more concerned with Ian’s conflicts. It’s a clever, complex work, and it raises issues that keep me thinking after the curtain comes down.

It’s a challenge for the actors. John’s hesitant yet gripping narrative requires a bravura performance, and Brendan Coyle (displaced from Downton Abbey) seizes the opportunity to flex his acting muscles. I particularly liked Rory Keenan’s performance as Ian – he keeps a professional distance from John (he is not above having a covert glance at the clock when John breaks down) but displays coldness and then furious anger towards Neasa, and an awkward  diffidence to an unexpected fourth character. 

As in The Weir,  McPherson demonstrates his skill in constructing the plot. Details are planted, but not emphasised: a red coat that John bought for his late wife, a bottle of wine offered as a gift by Neasa but consumed with someone else. These motifs return to jolt us into awareness of what is taking place before our eyes, and gain a resonance in the drama.

I loved it all over again, and I hope I don’t have to wait 17 years before I can see it again.

Our rating: 4/5

Group appeal: 3/5

05/09/21 Mike writes –


Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan / Music by Marc Shaiman / Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, at the Coliseum

It’s 1962 and we’re in Baltimore, Maryland, USA; the focus of every teen’s dream is to dance on the tv talent show…and become famous….and find true love. But issues are in the air – black issues, fat issues, integration – so can all this be resolved to the pounding disco beat of the era?

More important perhaps is…it’s 2021 and we’re at the London Coliseum; we’re coming out of covid restrictions;  it’s time to forget those dreary lockdowns; it’s time to party! That was certainly the vibe as we took to our seats on a sunny Sunday afternoon. The theatre was a-buzz; summer had returned; mobiles were active for snapping and messaging; the band was tuning up and Expectation was at bursting point. A Good Time was the demand of the day.

A quote in the paper today caught my eye – “We were making music that connected with everyday suburban people”.* This had no connection with Hairspray, and yet it sums up exactly the appeal of this show. It lifts the spirits without asking for attention; the goodwill on stage is infectious; the ‘60s beat encourages one’s own heart to beat faster; and all the characters are ones we already know, ordinary down-home types with no pretensions, just trying to improve their lives.

If that seems faint praise, it’s not meant to be. It covers the basics without taking account of the professionalism put up there on stage – it’s loud, it’s frenzied, it’s bedazzling, it’s larger than life, and yet Life is what we see up there with an abundance of laughter, colour, rhythm, dance,  and a torrent of songs just like we heard back in the sixties. 

The show us based on the John Water’s 1988 film; it premiered on Broadway in 2002, won 8 Tony awards and ran for 7 years; it won 4 Olivier awards in 2007 including the Best New Musical award; that same year it became a film musical, and has appeared around the world in numerous productions. What’s not to like?

Well, for grumps like me, it just might be Too Much, too OTT, too relentless. But that underestimates the persistent charm of its two overweight leading ladies. Teenager Tracy Turnblad (Lizzie Bea) is a buoyant force to contend with and obviously has her mother’s genes. Mother, Edna Turnblad, is a drab drag role in a fat-suit, waiting for a glam makeover, yet she upstages everyone who crosses her path. Michael Ball returns here to the part he played in the original London show, swishingly dressed to the nines with the audience in the palm of her hand. Les Dennis is her perfect partner. Oh, the bliss of the true troupers!

The audience cheered each song, clapped along to the beat of the band’s Act 2 intro, and rose to their feet in unison at the finale. Me too! That demand for A Good Time had been truly satisfied. But what I enjoyed more than the show itself was the overwhelming joy, yes joy, of the packed audience in that huge theatre – Populist Theatre was back in business.

My rating: 4/5

Group appeal: 4/5

*Richard Carpenter of The Carpenters

25/08/21 Fredo writes –


by Nick Payne, at the Vaudeville Theatre

It’s a sight I hadn’t seen before at a London theatre: a queue stretched down the Strand, and I hurried past it. This is the West End, not Broadway! “This can’t be for Constellations,” I told Mike – but it was. Michael Longhurst’s production of Nick Payne’s play had been a hit in the West End in 2008, and the Donmar have revived it at the Vaudeville Theatre, cleverly alternating four different casts, including Sheila Atim, Zoe Wanamaker, Peter Capaldi, Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O’Dowd. We’d chosen to see the gay version, with the charismatic Russell Tovey and the interesting actor Omari Douglas, who made a splash in It’s a Sin on television. We had to retreat to the back of the line, which in fact moved very quickly to fill the theatre to about 95% capacity.

Earlier in the evening, we’d been to the reception for Donmar Supporters at the Indigo Room at One, Aldwych. It was lovely to see our friends from the Donmar team again. The past year has been a struggle for theatres, but they have emerged triumphant, with a hit play and a brand new season to look forward to. And a new look for the Donmar auditorium, it seems – to be revealed at a later date.

I’d had some resistance to seeing Constellations again. as I hadn’t particularly enjoyed it first time around. I have a sneaking suspicion that perhaps I didn’t understand it, but viewing it again, I wonder if I really could have been so obtuse. The play presents snapshots of situations within a relationship, with multiple alternatives and variations on each event. It’s fast and entertaining and funny and moving, and though written for a man and a woman, it played without faltering with two men in the roles. It’s a great night in the theatre.

It’s always a privilege to hear actors discuss their work. in the Q&A afterwards, Associate Director of the Donmar Ben Gilbert asked them what it was like to perform such an intense play, when neither actor is off-stage and has a chance to draw breath. Omari and Russell agreed that they are never not nervous: there are 90 short scenes, and much repetition with different emphasis on the words. Russell admitted to dropping a line one night, and seeing the look of terror on Omari’s face; he had to improvise to get back on the page. They laughingly referred to having a competitive streak, and Russell said that they both love acting and being in front of an audience (you can tell!).

Both actors expected major alterations to “queer up” the text, but in fact there were very few. Michael had directed each duo of actors separately, and encouraged each one to find their own character. Each couple had stayed in its own rehearsal bubble -Michael hadn’t wanted any cross-interference in their performances, and forced them to make their own bold choices in their characters. This resulted in very different interpretations, Ben told us. “Which couple did you like best?” asked Russell cheekily… Ben answered diplomatically that each one had a valid  exploration of the play. 

It was exciting to be back in the theatre, with an audience totally engaged with the actors. And the queues? Perhaps this is part of theatre in future. Theatre is back – and so are audiences.

My rating: 4/5

Group appeal: 4/5

(You can find our friend Jennifer’s thoughts in the News section on the Home page.)

18/08/21 Mike writes –

Bagdad Cafe

by Percy & Eleonore Adlon, adapted by Emma Rice from the film, at the Old Vic.

We’re in the Mojave desert, California, the horizon glows with the sunset, a neon motel sign buzzes beside the Route 66 highway, and a caravan on stage introduces us to the Bagdad Cafe. There’s no coffee machine at the Cafe but a magical bottomless thermos flask provides endless caffeine. Those with a long memory may remember the West German film from 1987, some sort of cine-milestone which made its mark back then and earns an entry in Wikipedia.

A German tourist abandoned by her husband is taken in by the lonely stressed-out landlady and her bunch of cliche hangers-on. I think we are supposed to find them quirky and amusing but, with little plot and a lack of direction, I felt a better time was being had on stage than off. It’s the sort of thing Fellini did better in his day. For a long while only an occasional laugh broke the matinee audience’s stupor. It’s a short One Act-er, only 90 minutes, so when would I connect to the characters, succumb to what was evidently meant to be their whimsical charm?

Puppets and small-scale model trucks deliver us new characters; the caravan twirls around to show us its inside and out; an accompanying keyboard and drums provide a constant soundtrack; and some magic tricks spice the mixture. In typical Emma Rice fashion, the movie has been deconstructed then left in pieces to fend for itself.

Somewhere way down the highway, I was coaxed into attention and realised we were supposed to find these characters endearing. There was romance, a song, some dancing, a glitter curtain with exploding thermoses – you get the picture – and a happy ending to convince us we had had a good time at Emma’s party. I was not convinced. Maybe I should watch the original film to see what I was missing here.

My rating: 2/5

Group appeal: 3/5

24/07/21 Mike writes –

The Two Character Play

by Tennessee Williams, at the Hampstead Theatre

We saw a matinee preview of this production and I immediately gave it a five-star response. The critics in the Times and Sunday Times thought otherwise, each giving it a one-star rating – Clive Davis thought it “dreary” while Quentin Letts said “one of the points of theatre” was to cheer us up which we particularly need post covid. Really?  Happily, theatre has many other points too. It sometimes requires us to take a brain to the theatre, a little knowledge to build on, an imagination, and always a sense of adventure. Investment reaps rewards.

Clare (Kate O’Flynn) and Felice (Zubin Varla) are siblings, also actors, and they are performing a play about their own conflicted lives. Their fellow thesps have deserted them, so in an empty auditorium (except for us!) they support each other, reminisce and improvise. Inventive direction (Sam Yates) makes this fascinating theatre – it brings this ‘very Tennessee Williams’ script to life. 

It’s a late play from a great playwright which certainly makes it worth seeing with its many allusions to his earlier plays, but more importantly it’s brought to life in the most satisfying theatrical way possible. We watch the actors ‘putting on their play’, fixing wigs, arranging the stage with its props, lights, cameras and screens – we are drawn into their lives – it’s like entering a maze of family memories, vaudeville routines, troubled times, a spectrum of emotions with a bond of reliance that holds the siblings together. The actors are mesmerising and work hard in this creative physical staging, giving us much to watch as we fathom our way through the mysteries of an often meandering script. But it’s worth the effort and brings the rewards. The audience we were part of gave a very enthusiastic response, and other critics were more generous with their thoughts than the Clive and Quentin dismal duo.

I wonder if this brave choice by Hampstead Theatre has come at the wrong time, before some audiences are ready for theatre in all its forms and moods, when even critics are still wanting some light relief from covid gloom. This is a pity – theatre has always provided something for everyone and I hope Hampstead will find its audience for this rare and well-worth-seeing revival of a famous playwright’s forgotten work. It’s time to get serious about theatre-going again.

My rating: 5/5

Group appeal: 3/5

21/07/21 Mike writes –

Bach & Sons

by Nina Raine, at the Bridge Theatre

Bach composed his exquisite music for royal commissions. I suspect something similar has happened here when the Bridge saw Simon Russell Beale as a possible lure to bring audiences back, post lockdown. Bach = Beale; if they commissioned Raine to write a vehicle for their star, it was commercial thinking – if Beale says it’s safe to be back in the theatre then his fans follow. This is theatre as safe, pleasing, elegant entertainment, with added music. If only it was a better play.

This is ‘Lives of the Composers’ as Readers’ Digest would do it. Bach was grumpy, treated his family badly, but his music was divine, so that’s ok, isn’t it? As a mix of bio exposition and music lesson, it gives Bach the opportunity to sit at his piano and compose. If only they had let SRB do just that, play music for us, without having to go through a succession of brief tableaux portraying his less than fascinating family life. The play struggled to hold my interest, with plodding dialogue and variable performances. Nina Raine has already proved herself capable of better writing. Maybe she had a hasty deadline to meet.

The production looks attractive on the open stage so let’s hand out some praise. Set designer: Vicki Mortimer. Lighting designer: Jon Clark. Costume Designer: Khadija Raza. Wigs, hair and make-up design supervisor: Suzanne Scotcher. Yes, it really is the window dressing that is more impressive than the goods.

Beale is reliably Beale, but the standout performance was Samuel Blenkin as Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach who brought passion to his exasperation with his father. Enough praise…Frederick The Great thought it sufficient to dress up and large it soap opera style.

Our friend Elizabeth has written about her Bridge visit (see our Home page News) with a kindlier view, but for me this was two hours of disappointment. Even the applause was only polite.

My rating: 2/5

Group appeal: 3/5

17/07/21 Fredo writes –

Under Milk Wood

by Dylan Thomas, at the National: Olivier Theatre

It seemed like an adventure to return to the National Theatre after so many months of closure. No cafes or bookshop, but welcoming attendants and free programmes, and a socially distanced audience surrounding a circus-ring stage all helped to recreate the feeling that the theatre is coming to life again. Even if the play was not one I really wanted to see….

Everybody goes through a Dylan Thomas phase. Fortunately I grew out of mine after ‘O’ levels. It’s the reckless, relentless, remorseless alliteration, the similes strangling the meaning like bindweed in a flowerbed, the crackle and crunch of the onomatopoeia and the squandering of every literary device known to man – except nuance – that scares me off him.

In this production, the dreaded opening words “Bible-black night” don’t come until 20 minutes into the play, as it has strangely acquired a framing device set in an old peoples’ home, where a father is visited by his estranged son. This segues into Thomas’s text, and the play is acted out by the residents of the home, which somehow effects a reconciliation between father and son.

This presents a number of problems, and the first is the uneasy fit between the framing section and the actual play.  Then – dare I say this? – most of the cast are old, and while they have earned their stripes over the years, they do show their age. It doesn’t help that some of them confusingly  play several roles, of varying ages, and in a play that already lacks narrative and is composed of vignettes, this bleeds any drama or coherence from the performance.

This is not to say that Karl Johnson (I remember when he was young) or Michael Sheen (I remember when he was slim) or Sian Phillips (I remember when she was middle-aged) don’t do their considerable best, or that Lindsay Turner’s direction isn’t inventive. Whatever boldness lay behind the conception of the production hasn’t been translated into the performance. But I have to admit that the response from the audience at the end was enthusiastic. Maybe, like us, they were just pleased to be back at the National.

My rating: 2/5

Group Appeal: 3/5 
 I’m sure there are people out there who think this play is profound.

13/07/21 Garth (guest reviewer) writes –


by Charles Dyer at the Southwark Playhouse

STAIRCASE by Charles Dyer

What’s it about? Harry Leeds, a barber, and his partner, Charlie Dyer, wrestle verbally with each other, their long-term relationship (illegal as the law stands in 1966) aggravated by their respective worries: Harry is losing his hair, and Charlie is facing prosecution for an alleged sexual offence. 

What did it have going for it? This is a rare revival of a gay-themed play produced in 1966 by the RSC with Paul Schofield and Patrick Magee, and filmed in 1969 with Rex Harrison and Richard Burton.

Did we enjoy it? The couple are following their Sunday afternoon rituals in Harry’s saloon, buffing fingernails, preening in front of the mirrors, listening out for the unseen upstairs neighbour. Their relationship rests on a slightly rocky basis of scratchy banter, varied reminiscences and shared fears of discovery by hostile authority. In a protracted ebb and flow, Charlie agonises in anticipation of facing court for sitting in drag on the lap of a man in the pub, while Harry worries that a balding barber is a bad advert for his trade. And Charlie’s purported daughter is coming to visit. While these superficially comic threads are played with, a darker tone emerges as Harry winkles out of Charlie secrets which seem to imperil their 20 years together.

A more conventional drama might have made something of this clearing of the air – new beginnings, new growth – but my sense was that there was to be no change in their mutuality, with legalisation still pending. 

There was much to relish in this production (direction by Tricia Thorne) which remains faithful to the original as the censor left it. The revival is a piece of social archaeology, revealing both how different things were in 1966 and how some potent resonances have survived into our own era. Sexual relationships between consenting adult males in private had yet to be legalised, hence the grip of potential discovery and humiliation that forms an undertow to the play. 

(A radical change of pitch can be found in La Cage Aux Folles, both the play {1973} and the musical {1983}, which use a similar theme.) 

Paul Rider as Harry – wonderfully still, downbeat and waspish – and John Sackville as Charlie – unstoppably verbose, fanciful and fretful – are masterly in their roles, both utterly convincing, their campy dialogue rapidly flicking between bitchiness and affection. The comedic surface sits over something akin to tragedy, with a sense of regrets and of failed, unfulfilled lives. The hermetic atmosphere is strong (we are with them in their basement saloon (set by Alex Marker)). Indeed it serves to make almost credible unexpected revelations in the second half.

Social distancing prevailed on stage as much as in the auditorium. In the original production, the Lord Chamberlain’s office wanted no hugging but director Peter Hall persisted. Covid restrictions censored hugging this time around. A touch or a hug might have complemented the dialogue which, it has to be said, at times was wordy and bookish. Maybe some Pinteresque pauses might have helped. 

Not perhaps a great play, rather ragged in its story-telling, but surely a sensitive, serious and thought-provoking one.

Our Rating: ***

Would the Group have booked? The play may have temped a small group to Southwark, but at present some are resisting returning to theatre at all.

Group appeal: ***

25/06/21 Fredo writes –

Ria Jones at the Crazy Coqs

Have you met Miss Jones? She’s a seasoned West End performer, who started her career as the youngest ever Evita, and worked her way through leading roles in Chess, Les Miserables and Joseph, as well as appearing in many shows in the provinces.

In recent years, she has made a name for herself internationally as an assured and entertaining cabaret performer. However, her most remarkable credit is that Andrew Lloyd Webber created the songs for Sunset Boulevard on her when he was composing that show. She later took the part of Norma Desmond  to great acclaim in Leicester, and understudied Glenn Close at the Colisseum.

We weren’t surprised therefore when she began her evening at Crazy Coqs with a heartfelt rendering of As If We Never Said Goodbye from that show, and we all felt emotional as the words of the song are so appropriate to this very moment. Ms Jones told us that this was as close as she’d ever come to breaking down in the middle of a song. 

The audience was packed with Ria’s friends and admirers, including a contingent from her native Wales, who’d brought gifts of Welsh cakes, chocolates and pink champagne!  Having friends in the house can be a downfall for many performers, but Ria extended a warm musical embrace to all of us, and gave a balanced programme of song, chat and anecdote (and a bit of shameless name-dropping about Catherine Zeta-Jones!). 

With flawless accompaniment from her 21-year-old pianist Sam Young (graduating from the Royal Academy in August, and a phenomenon to look out for) Ria’s material ranged from Lloyd Webber to  Sondheim, Peggy Lee and Jerry Herman. Confiding her admiration for Doris Day, she paid tribute with Secret Love, and then had us singing along to Che Sera, Sera.

It was a generous playlist of a dozen songs that gave us a warm glow. At the end, when she encouraged us to sing along again to The Best of Times is Now, we were prepared (despite the current situation) to agree with her.

If you haven’t met Miss Jones, make a date with her soon. We’re going to!

Pianist Sam Young

Our Rating: *****

15/06/21 Mike writes –


by David Mamet, at the Theatre Royal’s Ustinov Studio, Bath

Our Rating: *****

This is one of my favourite plays! It picks on a contemporary concern, sets up a confrontation and lets the antagonists rip. This is all about how we teach, how we learn, about gender difference and gender conflict. And it’s about manipulation. Seeing it again today, almost 30 years since we first saw it premiered in New York, it looks just as relevant –  even more so given current campus news – than it did back then. With #MeToo, Cancel Culture and Everyone’s Invited hitting our headlines today, this was and is an audience tester, daring us to take sides or at least discuss enthusiastically those ‘issues’ raised.

John (Jonathan Slinger) is the professor, patronising and paternal; Carol (Rosie Sheehy) is the student, dim and demanding. As the telephone (almost a third character) continually interrupts their meetings, outside influences fan the flames. Her ‘group’ whips up her anger and directs her accusations; his tenure committee flexes its authority to neutralise fallout. Parallels with what is happening in universities today make this essential viewing for 2021. It banishes completely any earlier idea that this was ever a fanciful and exaggerated interpretation of the eternal gender war. 

Both actors excel in their authentic characterisations, but Rosie Sheehy astounds in her buildup of self-righteous power. Jonathan Slinger rises to the occasion to defend himself in ever deteriorating circumstances.

Roll up, roll up, take sides and lay your bets for the battle of the century! Just remember this was written last century but the battle still continues every day. Statues may not fall here, nor are debates cancelled, but accusations fly with all the topical abundance of the aggrieved in today’s papers. The rules of the game have changed and it’s up to you and me to fight for our corner. We can all disagree, but the greatness of this play lies in its power to encourage debate and send minds soaring. 

(This production transfers from Bath to the Arts Theatre in London from Wednesday 21 July.)

Photos: Nobby Clark

05/06/21 Mike writes –

The Death of a Black Man

by Alfred Fagon, at the Hampstead Theatre

Nickcolia King-N’Da / Toyin Omari-Kinch / Natalie Simpson

What’s it about? Shakie and Stumpie are two cool young Kings Road wheeler-dealers doing well  by underhand means, then along comes disruptive “baby-mother” Jackie, a few years older, maybe wiser, who had Shakie’s son when he was only 15. It’s time to reflect on our duo’s dubious entrepreneurial  past, and scheme ahead to a more profitable if illicit future with late addition of Jackie. 

What did it have going for it? Its author, Alfred Fagon, has an award named after him for black play writes, and this production is part of a Hampstead revival season to celebrate this theatre during its 50 year history.

Did we enjoy it? It’s not just us who are returning to the theatre after the lockdowns. We must not forget it’s the theatre technicians and actors too. I was reminded of this first when we saw Walden (see below) and again during this visit to Hampstead Theatre. The actor whose short monologue opened the play hardly reached across the imaginary footlights and later the phrase ‘school production’ crossed my mind. It had not settled into its stride, even after a week of performances, and a technical hitch delayed the second Act. But the play’s the thing and The Death of a Black Man was written in 1974 and probably broke down barriers then with its all black cast of three, its West Indian theme and patois. 

Think the film Shaft (1971) as chapters of black history are touched upon, including West Indies cricket skills  and the jazz world of Shakie’s dad. But then it turns towards Pinter’s The Homecoming and more contemporary concerns. Nearly 50 years on, the play hardly looks worth reviving and has less impact than it must have had back then. In this weak production it does little for the reputation of its author who remains respected as the black writer of his day.

Our rating: 2/5

Would the Group have booked? Hampstead groupies, perhaps.

Group appeal: 2/5

24/05/21 Mike writes –


by Amy Berryman, at the Harold Pinter Theatre

What’s it about? Big themes – Conservation v. Exploration and Colonisation. And sibling rivalry between twin sisters.

What did it have going for it? Gemma Arterton, always worth a watch, and our first chance to return to the West End.

Did we enjoy it? Our expectations were high, but I admit this was more for the chance of enjoying being back inside a theatre with an audience and a live on-stage cast, than for the play itself – new and still in preview.

Walden, if you need to Google it (as I did), is a book published in 1854 with an alternative title of Life in the Woods, by “transcendentalist writer” Henry David Thoreau. The playwright must aim high if she wishes to compete. Our three characters here are in the woods but their thoughts are on matters further afield. Cassie has returned from the moon where she was developing a botanical project. Mars is her next stop. Her twin sister Stella, scientifically minded too, is setting up home with Bryan who has more earthly concerns. Where would a play be without conflict and so the scene is set for a Stoppard or a Shakespeare to take it somewhere. Amy Berryman tries hard to take us with her, raising feminist concerns and moral dilemmas, but this still looks like a first draft, a try-out, a small play aiming beyond its capabilities. At this second preview the cast were ill at ease – at times I wondered if social distancing was still holding them back – so it was only Fehinti Balogun who convinced us he was a character rather than a mouthpiece. The audience reception was enthusiastic (for the actors, for ‘being back’, for being determined to enjoy a night out at the theatre?) but allowances had to be made for the unusual arrival in the West End of a play perhaps better suited to the Royal Court’s small Theatre Upstairs.

Our rating: 3/5 (Mike) and 2/5 (Fredo)

Would the Group have booked? At this post-Covid time, No.

Group Appeal: 2/5

22/05/21 Fredo writes –

Rob Houchen at Cadogan Hall

What’s it about?  It’s about time we started getting back to the theatre!

What did it have going for it?  We spotted Rob Houchen in a television documentary about the making of West Side Story some years ago, and we’ve been impressed by his strong voice and confident performance several times since then. We particularly enjoyed him at an intimate concert we were lucky enough to attend last year.

Did we enjoy it?  Seating at Cadogan Hall was severely socially-distanced, which didn’t help the atmosphere, and the band was loud enough to fill the O2. However, Rob was on exuberant rocking form, and determined to have a good time and give everyone else a good time as well. Mike and I and other friends we met there agreed that he would be well-advised to blend in some more familiar material with the new, edgier songs. Nevertheless, he’s a very neat performer and pleasing to watch and listen to. He treated us to a soaring Maria, and I had to blink back tears at his duet with Alice Fearns on Move On. Another highlight was his second duet, this time with Cedric Neal on I Knew You Were Waiting For Me. Any more advice? Well, I think he should drop the a capella request spot; only Joe Stilgoe can carry that off.

Our Rating:  3/5 and I was hoping it would be 5/5.

Would the Group have booked?  There is evidence of a reluctance on the part of group members to travel to London just yet.

Would the group have enjoyed it?  I think they would love to see Rob singing songs from the shows. I should add that his young fans were ecstatic.

 Group Appeal:  3/5

Rob Houchen

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