Review: The Jungle at Playhouse Theatre

“The Jungle isn’t just a piece of theatre – it’s a glimpse at the world through the eyes of those who lived through the horrors in Calais.”

The Jungle Playhouse Theatre

The Jungle was first performed to audiences late last year and, after the disappointment of missing out on seeing its debut at the Young Vic, I was lucky enough to snap up tickets as soon as its transfer to Playhouse Theatre went on sale.

It was January 2015 when a migrant and refugee camp emerged in the French city of Calais. With more than 7,000 people inhabiting the camp at its peak, the people who came to call the Jungle home had fled their homes in the Middle East. In fear of their lives, many traveled by boat in risky conditions with one thing pushing them forward: the thought of setting up a new life for themselves in England.

Stepping foot in the transformed Playhouse, I knew instantly that this was going to be the most immersive piece of theatre I’d witnessed. Colourful materials draped from the ceiling; hand-painted signs bearing the phrase ‘London calling’; long, uncomfortable benches lining the narrow stage for audiences, my own seat a cushion on a podium… There was hustle and bustle from the get go, bringing the recreation of Salar’s Afghan Café (reviewed by late food critic, AA Gill, for The Times newspaper) to life. We were handed sweet tea and Nân-i Afğânī (an Afghan bread) by the cast, already in character and drawing us in with them.

When English volunteers arrive in the Jungle to assist with re-housing and educating the young, there are mixed reactions from the multi-national inhabitants of the camp – and understandably, as it’s often difficult to tell whether Eton boy, Sam (Alex Lawther), is intentionally condescending or genuinely oblivious to the way he comes across.

The predominant speakers amongst the refugees are Salar (Ben Turner), Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmed) and Okot (John Pfumojena), whose recounts of their ordeals are so heartfelt that it’s easy to forget that the cast are acting.

Every element of this show – from the moments of darkness and torchlight to the loud sound effects of the machinery arriving to demolish the camp – is so well-thought-out that, as a member of the audience, it’s a challenge to fight for the panic and chaos not to take hold of you. Or perhaps the challenge is to let it?

Staged drama is combined with haunting, real-life footage, including images of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on a beach; images we all undoubtedly remember but would definitely rather forget are there, unavoidable on television screens and the silence that echoes around the auditorium dares you to put yourself in the shoes of these refugees, if only for a minute.

The Jungle isn’t just a piece of theatre – it’s a glimpse at the world through the eyes of those who lived through the horrors in Calais and an insight into the great lengths they went to in order to get there (as well as to leave again in an attempt to reach British shores).

For audiences, this is a couple of hours of eye-opening entertainment; for others, this was a reality they didn’t have a chance to escape from simply by standing up and stepping out of a theatre.

This is an important story that needs to be told far and wide. The Jungle needs to tour the country, make it to Broadway and beyond – but in case it doesn’t, I implore you to go and see it before its run comes to an end this November. The people who once called the Jungle home deserve for their story to be heard.

Closing date: 3rd November
Approx. running time: 2 hours 40 minutes, including interval
Understudies: none

Review: The Grinning Man at Trafalgar Studios

“Despite its dark and dismal depths, The Grinning Man is one of the most humorous West End shows I’ve seen to date.”

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Having originally booked to see The Grinning Man back in January, illness prevented me from attending; but with its outstanding reviews, captivating imagery and strong recommendations, I felt I couldn’t just let this one slip through my fingers – and I’m sincerely glad that I didn’t.

I can honestly say I fell in love with this show from the very moment I walked down the corridor and into Trafalgar Studio 1. With hundreds upon hundreds of multicoloured lights reaching up to the ceiling, circus posters plastering the walls and the iconic grinning stage, the care and attention that have gone into the set design are second to none – and then there’s the show, itself…

Adapted from Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughed and brought to life by director, Tom Morris, and writer, Carl Grose, The Grinning Man made its debut in the Bristol Old Vic back in 2016.

Disfigured as a child and later paraded around as the freak of Trafalgar Fair, this musical tells the tragic tale of Grinpayne (Louis Maskell) and the perpetual smile engraved into his cheeks. Doted on by his blind companion, Dea (Sanne Den Besten), the two only separate when Princess Josiana (Amanda Wilkin) takes somewhat of a shine to Grinpayne and whisks him away in an attempt to ensure he rises to stardom.

Although the entire cast delivered noteworthy performances, Maskell steals the show in the lead role. His movements, at times, are more puppet-like than the puppets themselves, demonstrating the fact that he’s mastered the art of puppetry in more ways than one.

And speaking of the puppets, it’s unsurprising just how enchanting Mojo the wolf and young Grinpayne and Dea are, given that they’re creations of the original War Horse puppeteers, Gyre & Gimble. At one point, I’m sure I caught a gleam in the young boy’s eye from the front row that had me feeling more emotional than many human performers ever could.

Mojo was expertly handled by understudies, Rachel Leonard and Leo Elso, who blended into the background as puppeteers should, allowing us as the audience to be lost in the performance and maybe, if just for a second, forget that Mojo isn’t real.

Despite its dark and dismal depths, The Grinning Man is one of the most humorous West End shows I’ve seen to date; introduced by jester Barkilphedro (Julian Bleach) as ‘a tale so utterly horrid, yet strangely uplifting’, it’d be hard to coin a more befitting one-line summary – and there’s certainly no better character to introduce the show as such, plus Bleach, for me, gave one of the greatest performances of the show.

From set and score to stellar cast, I’m surprised that this show has received little acknowledgement bar critical acclaim. I, for one, would love to see it return to the West End to one day receive the recognition it deserves.

Approx. running time: 2 hours 50 minutes, including interval
Understudies: Christina Bloom as Queen Angelica, Jonathan Cobb as King Clarence, and Rachel Leonard and Leo Elso as Mojo

 

Review: Frozen at Theatre Royal Haymarket

“Dark and disruptive, Frozen doesn’t make for comfortable viewing – and rightly so.”

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In the days running up to my most recent visit to the West End, many people thought I was travelling to watch princesses skate around an ice rink singing Let It Go. In reality, Bryony Lavery’s Frozen could only be described as the polar opposite of its Disney blockbuster namesake.

Set in England in the 1980s and 1990s, this psychological thriller returns to London some 16 years after it appeared in the National Theatre. Frozen tells the stories of Nancy (Suranne Jones), Ralph (Jason Watkins) and Agnetha (Nina Sosanya), three people whose lives become intertwined in the grisliest of circumstances.

Ralph is a disturbed individual with a fondness for tattoos, a beloved collection of pornography tapes featuring minors and a habit of kidnapping, abusing and murdering children. Heartbreakingly for Nancy, her 10-year-old daughter Rhona falls prey to him on the way to visit her grandmother one afternoon, though she doesn’t discover this until several years after her disappearance.

Agnetha, an American psychologist, has an interest in criminal psychology and works to unearth the reasons behind why people like Ralph behave the way they do. Frequenting the prison where Ralph is held, she works to gain his trust – and insight into why he did what he did.

For me, Watkins was the stand-out performer from the get-go, delivering a performance that was no less than chilling. So convincing is his performance that there were times throughout the play when I actually forgot that he isn’t the character he’s portraying. As unsettling as it was to watch Ralph pore over his VHS collection and treat each tape with such care and affection (even referring to them as ‘precious’ at one point, which was all the more disturbing given that the word is oftentimes used to describe a child), there are moments when he appears entirely harmless. And that is exactly what makes Watkins’ performance so sinister.

Jones, staring off into the distance as she delivers her monologues, creates a likeable character from the outset; something I’ve found her able to do in all her on screen roles. Frozen gifts her with some powerful scenes and, although the tension is occasionally broken with a witty comment or two, Nancy’s grief never fades – it’s almost as though you can see it resting upon her shoulders, weighing her down.

Sosanya portrays multidimensional Agnetha with true conviction. Smart and savvy, Agnetha’s character is much more difficult to empathise with, despite having so much empathy herself. To say that it’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of someone who would choose to comfort a convicted paedophile and serial killer is an understatement yet, somehow, Sosanya succeeded in getting me to feel something more than disgust towards Ralph, if only for a split second.

Ralph, having lived most of his life emotionally detached from the crimes he’s committed, struggles under the weight of feeling a sudden sense of remorse for the things he has done and – with young characters unseen throughout the majority of the show – I feel this makes Rhona’s appearance in the final few scenes representative of Ralph’s new-found conscience.

Dark and disruptive, Frozen doesn’t make for comfortable viewing – and rightly so. The life-destroying events that Frozen brings to stage exist beyond the walls of TRH and that’s exactly why this story is such an important one.

Approx. running time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Understudies: None

Review: Apologia at Trafalgar Studios

“The perfect balance between comedy and drama, Apologia is an honourable piece of theatre – and it’s not only the cast that makes it so.”

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Set in the UK in fairly recent times, this is Jamie’s Lloyd’s second take on Alexi Kaye Campbell’s 2009 family drama, and I can confidently say that it’s one of the greatest shows I’ve seen this year. With a healthy balance of comedy and drama, and a captivating cast to boot, the performance had me hooked from the opening moments – and I was lucky enough to see it all from the second row.

Kristin (Stockard Channing), a well-known activist and art historian, has recently released a memoir that has caused great offence to her sons, Peter and Simon, for one reason: she has failed to mention their existence. When Peter (Joseph Millson) shows up at his mother’s quintessential British home with girlfriend Trudi (Laura Carmichael), he’s an ill-disguised ticking time bomb, desperate to confront her over the omission, but refraining from doing so, presumably because it’s her birthday celebration.

This is Trudi and Kristin’s first meeting and Kristin makes little effort to hide her contempt over the fact that her son’s girlfriend in American, despite being American herself. Trudi’s patience with Kristin and the ease with which she counteracts Kristin’s scathing remarks with kindness are perhaps largely down to her Christian beliefs – yet another thing Kristin scoffs at.

Later, we meet Claire (understudy, Isaura Barbé-Brown), Simon’s soap star girlfriend. Instantaneously, we realise she’s another of Kristin’s favourite targets for criticism, although she holds her ground much better than Trudi can, accustomed to tackling her barbs.

Simon (also Joseph Millson), thinner skinned than brother Peter, fails to join his family and flamboyant dinner guest Hugh (Desmond Barrit), and so the awkwardly entertaining evening continues without him.

For the whole of Act One, it’s clear to see how much Channing revels in delivering Kristin’s most biting blows. At points, she looks out into the audience, smirking or fighting to disguise a laugh; I was often unsure whether she was in character or corpsing during these moments as it could quite easily be either of the two, but I loved them nonetheless.

Millson and Carmichael make a sickeningly sweet couple, as they’re supposed to. Trudi’s habit of adding the word ‘sweetie’ to the end of practically every sentence she says to Peter is intentionally irritating – and if anyone can pull it off, it’s Carmichael and her American inflection.

Barbé-Brown does an incredible job of standing in for Freema Agyeman; playing up to Claire’s penchant for arguing that her show is a serial drama rather than a soap, it’s clear that she has fun with the role. The dynamic between her and Carmichael is interesting to watch, as Claire and Trudi – women of a similar age – couldn’t be much further from each other in attitude and aspirations.

Barrit, the one man humour-mill in this show, is amusing, although the character brings little depth to the tale. Hugh is humorous and he knows it, but he serves no purpose other than to crack jokes and very occasionally act as a glowing reference for Kristin when talk turns to the ‘good old days’, when she was heavily involved in activism and hardly involved in her children’s lives.

Act Two sees a shift in focus as Simon makes an appearance. Downtrodden and depressed, most of the stage time in this act is dedicated to Channing and Millson, as Simon recounts an eventful night when his mother forgot to collect him from a train station in Genoa and an unknown man stepped in to pick up her slack.

A stark contrast to what we’ve seen so far, the Kristin unable to climb down from her high horse has been replaced by an emotionally vulnerable fraction of the version of her we saw just half-an-hour before, and… is that regret we can see in her eyes?

She dabs at a wound on Simon’s arm – the only mothering thing she’s done for the duration of the play – anxious for him to reach the end of that story because, if the man at the station did indeed cause him harm, she’s unsure whether she’ll ever be able to forgive herself.

The perfect balance between comedy and drama, Apologia is an honourable piece of theatre – and it’s not only the cast that makes it so. The set was one of the things I loved most about this show. Carefully crafted by Soutra Gilmour, the countryside kitchen is beautifully British and has a way of drawing you right in and making you feel at home. Sitting in the front two rows, you almost feel as though you’re a guest at Kristin’s birthday dinner.

The lighting and sound only add to the ambience, too – the soft light emitted from the fridge during the opening scene adds intrigue, as we are introduced to Channing’s character incompletely, whereas the harsh rainfall against the back of the set makes good use of pathetic fallacy.

All in all, I found Channing’s return to the West End after some 25 years of absence to be a triumphant one. Undoubtedly my favourite performer in the unapologetic Apologia, I for one hope she won’t wait too long before treading the boards on a West End stage once again.

Approx. running time: 2 hours
Understudies: Isaura Barbé-Brown as Claire

Review: Godiva Rocks at The Belgrade, Coventry

“Alexia McIntosh was without question the strongest performer in the show.”

I was lucky enough to be living in London when my passion for theatre developed. With the West End just a short tube journey away from my previous home, I had some of the country’s – and world’s – finest shows within comfortable reach.

Having moved out of the city several months ago, I’m now dealing with the fact that my obsession is just that little bit harder to feed; I’m also preparing myself to dabble in productions outside of London, hopeful that there are shows just as incredible as the ones that grace the West End stages.

Last week, I went to see Coventry-based musical Godiva Rocks at the Belgrade Theatre in the city centre. Despite being fully aware that it wouldn’t have the same production values and high-calibre cast as the shows I’ve seen in recent months, I was impressed with Libby Watson’s set design and lighting from the moment I stepped through the door. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of few things I admired about the show.

Set in the 1980s, Godiva Rocks focuses on a family of four; the father, Leo Freeman (Ross Gurney Randall), is slowly taking over the city with his redevelopment plans, much to the disgust of the people of Coventry. His daughter, Nell (Georgie Ashford), meets Patrick (Lejaun Sheppard) at a party and soon learns that he’s in search of who he believes to be his estranged father. The pair soon develop feelings for each other, but Leo fiercely opposes the match. With some cheesy duets and angst thrown in for good measure, Nell’s and Patrick’s stories soon wind together in the strangest of ways.

Frequent flashbacks to the 1960s show a trio of female singers – one of whom is Rosa (Alexia McIntosh), Patrick’s mother – and an on-going dispute over who is the most deserved lead singer. I’m sorry to say, this wasn’t the most coherent of storylines. It isn’t clear from the outset that the characters in the flashbacks are also characters from the show’s present day.

Alexia was without question the strongest performer in the show. Her voice was powerful, her solo was impressive and she was a joy to watch on stage. Judging by the cheers and applause in the room after she performed her solo, I wasn’t the only person of this opinion.

Other notable performances came from 2007 X Factor contestant, Niki Evans, playing the role of feisty singer, Bev, and Lejaun for his portrayal of Patrick. Both had good voices, although Lejaun’s didn’t quite gel with Georgie’s during their duets. And while Georgie had a good, yet unremarkable singing voice, I found her acting wooden and was surprised so learn that she’s appeared in the West End.

While there were aspects of the show I liked – the showcase of and passion for homegrown musicians, and seeing a city I’ve previously struggled to connect with brought to life on stage – Godiva Rocks felt more like a poor imitation of Dreamgirls than it did the ultimate Coventry musical.

Approx. running time: 2 hours 25 minutes
Understudies: none named

Review: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Apollo Theatre

“Act One is dominated by Miller and O’Connell, baring the trials and tribulations of Brick and Maggie’s broken marriage for all to see.”

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I’ll be the first to admit I don’t read into plays too much before I book tickets. I’m sold after a brief glance over a plot overview or a stand-out performer on the cast list. Sometimes, if a show has received a string of five-star ratings, I’ll even book tickets without having a clue what it’s about.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was different, because Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was written by Tennessee Williams. It was just several months ago (seven, to be precise), when I fell in love with Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, so it wasn’t a case of waiting to discover how many stars the show would receive; if he wrote it, I had to see it.

And so it was with high expectations that I entered the Apollo, confident in a cast list which was inclusive of Sienna Miller, Jack O’Connell and Colm Meaney.

The striking thing about this performance, however, wasn’t the new take on Williams’ characters; it was the direction in which director, Benedict Andrews, had taken the 1955 play. In a modernisation which caused mixed feelings among audiences, we see husband and wife Brick (O’Connell) and Maggie (Miller) holed up in their room with little but a shower and several bottles of whiskey to distract them from the tensions in their relationship – both of which Brick turns to frequently.

It’s quite clear that something’s eating away at Brick; he’s sullen, serious, and forever on the defensive, not to mention a self-confessed alcoholic. Maggie unabashedly showers Brick with unwanted sexual advances, telling him how desperate she is to have a child, yet he keeps rejecting her. Could this be because he’s drowning in regret over his failure to reveal his true feelings to good friend, Skipper, before he died? Brick denied that he had any romantic feelings for Skipper years ago; in doing so, did he deny himself of what he really wanted?

Act One is dominated by Miller and O’Connell, baring the trials and tribulations of Brick and Maggie’s broken marriage for all to see, behaving as no-one would outside of the comfort of their own four walls. Walls which, in this instance, are ironically golden.

Act Two shifts the focus onto the relationship between Brick and his father, referred to as Big Daddy (Colm Meaney). He doesn’t yet know it, but Big Daddy is dying and that’s perhaps the thing that terrifies him most.

Of the three lead performers, I felt it was Miller who gave the best performance, with her simpering, Southern belle tongue and her ability to show the vulnerabilities that lie behind such a headstrong character. She featured very little in Act Two and, I have to say, the second half was severely lacking without her.

When it comes to O’Connell, I certainly admire his confidence on stage; when lights go up at the start of the show, they reveal O’Connell sat naked in the shower and this isn’t a one-time thing. Many asked the question: was it necessary? Perhaps not. Did he deliver with complete professionalism? Absolutely. Who knows, maybe these scenes will pave the way towards making nudity on stage less of a taboo.

His American accent, on the other hand, was a slightly different story and, although he was convincing at times, there were too many moments when I could detect his native undertones.

All in all, I can’t say that this production blew me away, despite some huge talent being involved in its creation. While I’m all for modern theatre, I feel that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was maybe one best left in the past – not literally, but certainly in terms of the production concept.

Approx. running time: 2 hour 45 mins
Understudies: none

Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at Palace Theatre

“Samuel – like Anthony Boyle before him – far outstrips all other cast members on stage, despite having a fraction of their experience.”

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WARNING: contains spoilers.

Since opening officially in the West End last July, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has racked up so many awards that I’ve lost count, including a record-breaking nine Oliviers. The days where theatre critics and fans were sceptical of this show are little but a distant memory and – as an avid Potter fan for the last 16 years – I have to admit that I was overwhelmed to see the show essentially giving those sceptics the middle finger.

Last month, I was lucky enough to return to the Palace for my fourth visit to Cursed Child and my first time seeing the new cast. While it may be said that the original, Broadway-bound cast were a hard act to follow, I won’t be the first to have noticed that Year 2 are taking ownership of their characters and doing an absolutely incredible job.

I’ll start with Theo Ancient (Albus Potter) and Samuel Blenkin (Scorpius Malfoy) – the true stars of the show. When you’re watching these two on stage, it really is far too easy to forget that they are straight out of drama school, and that’s what makes their performances so impressive.

Theo perfectly portrays Albus’ vulnerabilities and insecurities, and succeeds in showing audiences a likeable side to Albus – something which I doubted possible after seeing Sam Clemmett truly bring out the bratty side to Harry’s youngest son several times (and that’s not to discredit Sam’s performance, he’s great, he just plays the character in a way I struggled to find likeable).

Samuel – like Anthony Boyle before him – far outstrips all other cast members on stage, despite having a fraction of their experience. Honestly, it’s a joy to watch Samuel every moment that he’s on stage – his mannerisms, quirks and comedic timing are perfect for the role, and he certainly knows how to pull on the heartstrings, too (I needn’t say any more than ‘library scene’.) If Samuel goes on to win the amount of critical acclaim Anthony did, it will be thoroughly well deserved.

When it comes to the leading man, I see Jamie Glover (Harry) as somewhat of a ‘middle ground’ between Jamie Parker (who was incredibly shouty) and Stuart Ramsay (Jamie Parker’s softly-spoken understudy). He touches upon Harry’s troubles with a certain amount of ferocity, while keeping his struggle with fatherhood entirely relatable.

And talking of fatherhood struggles brings me nicely onto James Howard’s portrayal of Draco. While I could write about this character all day, I’ll keep it reasonably brief: for me, James brought a regality to Draco that I absolutely believe to be realistic. Both the way he carries himself and the way he speaks are so controlled, and in many ways he allows the self-assurance Draco had in his early teenage years lives on. However, Draco is shrouded in darkness due to the loss of his wife, Astoria, and clearly doubting his abilities as a father, and I feel that James hits the nail on the head when it comes to his emotions – he goes above and beyond in showing Draco’s grief and inner conflicts, not to mention his love for Scorpius and determination to do right by him. And, despite everything, James delivers Draco’s lighter lines in such a way that it’s impossible not to laugh. For me, he brings the perfect portrayal of a Draco who has learnt from his mistakes and strives to be a better person, for the sake of his wife and son, while keeping sight of key character traits that make the character development entirely believable, including his sense of superiority and burning desire to mock those around him.

My last cast member mention goes to Rayxia Ojo, who deserves some understudy love for making her debut as Rose Granger-Weasley in this performance. She was confident and commanding on stage, which made her an all-round great fit for the role.

There are many aspects of this play beyond the performances that contribute hugely towards making it the success that it is. Firstly, Imogen Heap’s musical composition. Many people, particularly the less intense fans, go to see the Cursed Child expecting to hear the tune everybody best associates with Harry Potter: Hedwig’s Theme. In reality, what Imogen has brought to the table gives the show its own identity, allowing it to break free from the Potter stereotype. From soft melodies for emotional scenes, to the harsher sounds of the AU, the soundtrack felt like a breath of fresh air for the franchise when I first saw the show, and fast became one of my favourite parts.

The special effects – as you might expect (or at least hope for) with a show that revolves around magic – are out of this world. I don’t want to go into specifics here as it will give too much away, but the honest truth is that some of the effects still leave me with my jaw on the floor, and I’m the first person to admit that I’m difficult to impress.

For me, the only part of this show that leaves room for criticism is the script. While I’m able to enjoy this show time and time again, I feel that has very little to do with the script, many parts of which seem to me to be little more than fan service. From Scorpius’ entirely unbelievable crush on Rose, to Draco’s subtle attempts to flirt with Hermione despite the fact he’s still grieving for his dead wife, the show seems to give a nod to every OTP that exists. Jo Rowling’s (I’m assuming this was her input at she did it in the novels, too) apparent need to pair characters off (or at least make them all have romantic feelings for each other) is irritating, unnecessary and adds nothing to the story.

This aside, the predictability of Astoria’s death still hits a nerve with me, and the fact that the storyline largely revolves around time travel seems to be a desperate attempt to bring back characters that Jo feels bad about killing off, if only for several minutes. As for the Voldemort-is-Scorpius’-real-daddy thing, don’t even get me started…

All in all, I feel the outstanding cast and crew, both past and present, have done an absolutely amazing job of bringing an average-at-best script to life, and bringing us fans back to the heart of the world that world that we love so much using an entirely different medium. This show will inspire a younger generation of theatre-goers as the books did a younger generation of avid readers. I admire every single person involved, and I can’t wait to see it all again.

Approx. running time: Part I – 2 hours 45 with interval, Part II – 2 hours 30 with interval
Understudies: Rayxia Ojo (Rose Granger-Weasley) and Joshua Wyatt (roles including Karl Jenkins)
Closing date: open-ended, currently booking until July 2018