My Stagey Week - 11
The Stockwell Playhouse, not to be confused with the Southwark Playhouse. Although they are less than 3 miles apart, and have similar sounding names, they are not the same company. In fact for eight years Stockwell Playhouse was called the Lost Theatre before changing it’s name, probably as a deliberate attempt to mascaraed as the same company, or to at least imply some form of association.
The Stockwell Playhouse, has an unfortunate layout, it boasts an impressive 180 auditorium, however to call its bar and entrance area modest is an understatement, it is at best miniscule in relation to its audience capacity. With this, I have yet to see the auditorium at capacity. The modest facilities and profile of the theatre, limit it’s growth, and although it might have changed it’s name, it’s yet to really make a name for itself. This means that the rent is reasonable and because of this they attract mostly companies that are starting out. This also means it’s a great place to find new work and some hidden gems.
On Monday, I was invited by my friend Scott Le Crass to watch the latest show he has directed. I have known Scott for some years, since we met at the Tristan Bates Theatre where he was directed a show there. He is a talented and emerging director who is on the cusp a huge career trajectory. I recently revisited his production Sid as well as Kicked In The Shitter both written by Leon Fleming, and both were brilliant.
When Scott asked me if I could come on Monday to watch Never Trust a Man Bun, I was happy to, based solely on his involvement and endorsement. I offered for him, to film some interviews with the cast after the show.
Scott was absent as he had other work commitments so I took my brother along to watch the show with me.
When I began to read the notes about the production, I discovered that it had been done once before at the Theatre N16. For those unfamiliar, Theatre N16 in Balham, is another theatre that sits in the lower end price bracket to hire, and because of this it is also popular for new and first-time producers and writers. It transpired that Never Trust a Man Bun was indeed the work of a first-time writer, Katherine Thomas, who as I continued to read was also one of the four actors in it.
Although it could be a cost saving exercise for a writer to cast themselves in their work, I have mentioned before in my blog about the play Anomaly this is not often the case. Admittedly yes, some actors do pick up a pen and write their own work as an exercise and vehicle to star in themselves, because they’re not getting any work, but often is the case it’s actually because they are frustrated that the type of work they want to do isn’t out there, and so they create it themselves. If anything it’s actually quite a logical strategy.
It was probably safe to assume that the newly founded company Chidell Productions, who were producing this show was also another hat being worn by it’s writer and actor Katherine Thomas.
Although I champion anyone who creates their own work and makes it happen, and it goes without saying we all have to start somewhere, as an audience it is fair to approach work like this with caution. When work is self funded and self produced in this way, it can often mean it’s not been vetted. With that I mean to say, it’s not had to pass any tests or approval to be staged. Most theatres appoint an artistic director and a literary department, although this is not to say even they always get it right, even the National has been known to produce work, which I often come away from thinking “how did that get commissioned”. All I am saying is, when someone is putting on their own self funded show that they have written and are acting in, it can be equivalent to putting on a show in your own living room which you then invite your mates to come and watch. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing either.
Recent examples of successful ‘if you can’t find work, make it’ include Dust by Millie Thomas and Misty by Arinze Kene which both transferred to the Trafalgar Studios, and both started out as vehicles for their writers to star in. Furthermore Arinze Kene has now been nominated for best actor at this year’s Olivier Awards, proving that it is possible to write and appear in your own work successfully.
The biggest example of them all being Phoebe Waller-Bride, whose one women show Fleabag, started life at the Soho Theatre. It is now being performed on Broadway and a televised version of it is now into it’s second series on BBC 3, starring Academy Award Winner Olivia Colman and Andrew Scott.
As I began to watch Never Trust A Man Bun, I realised that we are in the whelms of Fleabag. The piece centres around an uncomfortable double date, bringing together four opposing millennials. The comedy thrives on its awkwardness with Katherine playing a very sarcastic, witty, intelligent women.
Although I was enjoying the show, I began to realise that where Fleabag and Phoebe Waller-Bridge can perhaps be credited for inspiring or at least opening the door to this kind of comedy, and for these kind of characters to exist, and be written in such a liberal and unapologetic way. The comparisons to Fleabag also weigh heavily on this production, as unfortunately it’s difficult not to hold one up against the other, which is not the fault of Katherine Thomas, and is perhaps unfair on her. This is after all her first play, and what it represents is promise and potential. It is generally very good, almost great. But it’s not quite there, yet. But then why should it be, it’s her first attempt, and this is a production that has had limited rehearsal time, has a cast relatively new to acting, and is only on for a week.
When you take that on board and with all things considered. This really was a good show.
I fulfilled my commitment to Scott by happily interviewing the cast afterwards which was in itself a challenge. It was awkward to ask cast member Jack Forsyth Noble what he thought of the writing, when the writer is sat next to him and played opposite him. None the less, I was happy with what I managed to get out of the interview, and managed to put together a package for them.
Scott was soon back from his work commitment and joined me for a drink and debrief about the show, we popped along to Above the Stag to chat candidly there, away from the prying ears of the cast.
Christian Lunn and Tom Blackmore, who had recently played the title role in Grindr the Opera, were there and both now serving on the bar. This is one thing that can be said about Peter Bull, the proprietor of Above the Stag, he really does regard his company as a family, and consistently keeps his actors in work whether it’s by putting them into another show or by offering them bar work to tie them over. It also creates a nice familiarity when you walk in to the theatre to see past actors behind the bar.
The interview with the cast of Never Trust a Man Bun is on my YouTube page: https://youtu.be/os4nYIxPp1g
Tuesday was spent editing and uploading the interview for Never Trust a Man Bun. I then went to the Union to watch Othello.
Othello is the third in Phil Willmott’s Enemies of the People series. I’ll be honest I hadn’t really enjoyed the first two, an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s An Enemy of the People and Can-Can! and truth be known I have always struggled with Shakespeare, so I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Othello.
However, I was very impressed. Drawing on 2019 being the centenary of the Amritsar massacre, Phil has found comparisons between the themes in Othello and the incidents centered around the British colonial rule of India. Some of the cuts are a little rough around the edges but on the whole he has done a good job of condensing the play into a palatable two hours. The performances are strong with a stand out performance from Rikki Lawton playing Iago.
Iago is a huge role for any actor to tackle, and Rikki handles it with confidence and assurance, making each iconic line his own without trepidation.
It was while I was interviewing the cast afterwards that I realised I had met Rikki recently when he escorted his girlfriend T’shan Williams to the Offie Awards where she was presenting an award.
What sets this production apart, as well as the beautiful set designed by Justin Williams and Jonny Rust is the incredible film-like soundscape designed by Julian Starr, meticulously detailed to include flocks of birds ascending when voices are raised, the transitions within scenes indicated by the change in music transports you completely between the worlds they have created.
I chatted to Sasha Regan afterwards who was still delighted with the interviews I had done for her with the cast of the Pirates of Penzance, I offered for her to come back the next day to interview the cast of Othello. You can see this interview on my YouTube page: https://youtu.be/fVNsfb3H0Lw
Othello runs at the Union Theatre until 6th April, tickets can be booked here: http://www.uniontheatre.biz/
On Wednesday I was at the Young Vic, a theatre which continues to impress me. They do a tremendous amount of work for their local community, and program some brilliant work. Tonight’s play was no exception. Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is a beautifully constructed play about God, morality and life itself. The set is beautifully simplistic yet depicted, creating an expanding and contracting glass prison cell balanced on top of a metaphoric and symbolic train track.
Dervla Kirwan, known for her beautiful Irish voice, is remarkably almost unrecognisable in this role, absolutely nailing the American accent. She turns in an incredible performance too, on a par with everyone in this production who are collectively incredible.
Dervla has been married to British actor Rupert Penry-Jones for over twelve years. Rupert who is beautiful, happened to be sat two rows in front of me, watching his wife. I had worked once with Rupert on the ITV series Whitechapel in which I played a tailor bludgeoned to death with a hammer, and he investigated my murder.
Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train runs at the Young Vic until 6th April, tickets can be booked here: https://www.youngvic.org/ On Thursday I popped across to Crystal Palace where Peter Caulfield was performing an intimate gig of acoustic soul with guitarist Matt Chandler.
Peter has an exceptional voice, I first met him two years ago at the Olivier Awards where he was with my friend Joel Harper Jackson, they had both worked together in the Regents Park Theatre production of Jesus Christ Superstar where Peter played King Herod, and as well as TV appearances in Doctor Who and the channel 4 series Cucumber, Peter recently played Bob Cratchit in the stunning production of A Christmas Carol. After this Peter went travelling for nine weeks. Back now in London, he wanted to do a night of acoustic soul for an audience of thirty in the Brown & Green café.
I always feel strangely honoured in settings like this. Peter has commanded huge audiences playing to Regents Park and the Old Vic, and here among thirty people we are being treated to an up close and personal experience, and for only £12.50.
Peter played an array of stripped back soul songs which perfectly suit his voice and style, these ranged from Van Morrison’s ‘Vincent’ to John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’.
In the audience watching I also caught up with my old friend Eugene McCoy, Eugene and I were both brought up in the North-East and as children lived in neighbouring villages, I even spent my teens working in his uncle’s restaurant. Eugene then moved to London to study musical theatre at Arts Ed, where I would later train too. Eugene was in the same year as Steph Parry and has had an incredible career, recently working with Peter in A Christmas Carol. He is currently rehearsing with Kelsey Grammer for the ENO’s production of Man of La Mancha.
On Friday I was at Above the Stag, to watch a piece of new writing Goodbye Norma Jeane, written by first time writer Liam Burke. Framed around an interesting concept with Tim English playing the revered choreographer Jack Cole, it explores in the form of a talking journal his encounters and experiences with screen sirens Lana Turner, Norma Jean Mortenson, Ann Miller, Gwen Verdon, Jane Russell, Betty Grable, and Rita Hayworth, who are all played in quick succession by Rachel Stanley.
It’s certainly a chance for designer Stewart J Charlesworth to have a field day recreating their iconic looks with costumes by Giada Speranza and wigs from Ryan Walklett.
What begins as a neat concept, with Rachel Stanley frantically quick changing back stage to slip into each next costume soon becomes tired and descends into a gimmick, with the intermittent monologues delivered by Tim English as Jack Cole serving to fill time. The problem here with the writing, is that there is a lot of exposition, resulting in the whole play feeling like you are listening to an audio book of Jack Cole’s autobiography. There is little to any drama. It is at best a talking wikipedia page.
With that said I didn’t came away from the play feeling I learnt or discovered anything about Jack Cole. The photo in the programme of Jack choregraphing Marilyn Monroe actually depicts more about Jack’s character in one image than in the whole hour long play. The photo shows him with a tear in his trousers and a cigarette in hand.
I feel a lot more research into Jack should have been done by writer Liam Burke for us to get a better impression of who Jack was and who he became. The casting of an overweight actor suggests that Jack in his later years was a shadow of his former self. Even searching through google, it is impossible to find any photos of Jack in his later years to corroborate, he died in 1974 aged 62.
Working on the bar that evening was another Above the Stag Alumni, Harry Cooper Millar who appeared in He Shoots! He Scores! As we caught up during the interval, I asked how his boyfriend Bradley was, Bradley was over in Wimbledon performing in the new touring production of Hair! Which opened this week. I will be seeing it next Thursday.
Goodbye Norma Jeane runs at Above the Stag until 7th April, tickets can be booked here: http://www.abovethestag.com/vxl/whatson/goodbye-norma-jeane/
On Sunday, I was back at Above the Stag to watch Romance Romance in their larger space. This is a reimagined version of the Broadway show from 1987 that originally starred Scott Bacula. It was produced in London in 1987, and revived at the Landor in 2015. Where is was directed by Robert McWhir, who is now one of the resident directors at Above the Stag. I assume he was busy this time directing Goodbye Norma Jeane so has handed Romance Romance over to the other resident director Steven Dexter. He was joined by stage actress Summer Strallen as associate director and musical staging. This is certainly a step in the right direction for Above the Stag, who have yet to appoint a female director for any of their work.
The West End is currently enjoying a reimagined version of Company, with gender swapped characters. Romance Romance sets out to do the same with this version, adapting the female characters to male to enable them to form gay couples. Whether this serves anything to the story, or is done simply to comply with Above the Stag’s obligation to only produce LGBT work, it does never the less work in it’s own right.
The casting is strong, with handsome actors Blair Robertson, Jordan Lee Davis, Alex Lodge and Ryan Anderson all having great voices and strong acting. Their dance skills are also utilised well under the direction of Summer Strallen whose style is distinct to her.
The obvious comparison to Company, which is even pointed out in the programme actually does the show a disservice, as although the music attempts to emulate Sondheim, it still remains an inferior copy. Despite this, it is joyous all the same, and Ryan Anderson delivers some very tender moments whilst Jordan Lee Davies offers a strong comic performance.
Romance Romance runs at Above the Stag until 6th April, tickets can be booked here: http://www.abovethestag.com/vxl/whatson/romance-romance/
Later on Sunday, I went over to the Pizza Express Pheasantry, where Steph Parry was performing a cabaret as part of their Broadway Meets West End series. Steph had acknowledged earlier that day that she was recovering from laryngitis, but refused to let anyone down and took to the stage like a super trooper. She told the story of how she once had tickets to Celine Dion who much to Steph’s disappointment cancelled the show with two hours notice due to a chest infection. From then on Steph vowed never to cancel any of her shows, and true to form Steph presented a rather husky version of her typical comedy infused mix of classic show tunes and ballads.
She quipped after her voice cracked during one song, that having spent her life as an understudy, she could now really do with one. Support came from her two guests, first up was a rather handsome musical theatre student Ross Harmon who sang ‘Lost in the Wilderness’ before joining Steph to sing Queen’s ‘Hammer to Fall’. In the second act, Steph welcomed Jade Chaston who had played her stage daughter Sophie in Mamma Mia, they sang a version of ‘For Good’.
As croaky as Steph’s voice might have been, she still sounded incredible and still delivered a fantastic show, even managing to get all her words right this time. Her prowess as a performer wins over the audience ever time, and as she finished her set with ‘The Winner Takes It All’, Steph reminded us why we all love her.
You can watch or listen to the vlog that accompanies this journal.
📺 Video: https://youtu.be/hTJc3d9R0EI