Front Row

Get closer to all of today's theatre happenings with our critic Steve Barfield. Are you ready? It's curtain up...

Sebastian Michel, Top Story, at Old Vic Tunnels

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on Tuesday, 08 January 2013

Sebastien Michel, Top Story

Saturday, 5th January 2013 to Saturday, 2 February 2013

Old Vic Tunnels, Stage Door, Station Approach Road, London SE1 8SW

Web site Telephone  Box Office 020 7993 7420

3 stars

The Old Vic Tunnels are London's most resolutely trendy, underground venue - but theatre I have seen there can be very hit or miss.

A meteor the size of LA is on a collision course with LA and will extinguish all intelligent life on earth, as surely as it did for the dinosaurs – hence it is the ‘top story’ – and all in less than a week. In this respect the two heroes of this play, Lewis Goody’s Talfryn and Ed Pinker’s Gus have to discover how to live their life as if it mattered, in the brief time that they have left in this apocalyptic black comedy.

Though billed as Godot meets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for the Facebook generation’, these two twenty-something couch-potatoes seem more like an attempt at Bottom meets The Fault in our Stars. Talfryn and Gus, however, are just too charmless, selfish, dull and disengaged as characters for most of the time to be effective clowns, a situation not helped by the frequent inconsequentiality of their circular, Beckett-pastiche exchanges that seldom flare into life except towards the end. The characters seem to have very little at stake in the proceedings due to the lack of pathos within the attempted comedy, signalled by Gus refusing to see his girlfriend because he thinks the ‘whole end of world thing will make her too emotional’. In fact if you were stuck talking to either of them at a party for too long then you’d probably be hoping that the world would end, if you couldn’t find an excuse to get away to the toilet. It does pick up a bit towards the end and Goody and Pinker certainly do their best to animate their characters and rise above the problems of the script – but this is too much for relatively inexperienced actors.


Fig 1. Ed Pinker as Gus and Lewis Goody as Talfryn. L to R. 
Photography credit: Copyright: Foteini Christofilopoulou

It is of course the classic existential dilemma writ large as planetary catastrophe. The elements were discussed by Nietzsche who argued one should live every day, as if it would repeat for ever, and by Heidegger, who contended that we should live our life most authentically by an understanding of our own death as the ultimate finitude of our being. Summarising such ideas rather than locating them within the action of the characters – in the style of Stoppard – is one of the mistakes in the script. Hence there are a couple of rather ponderous boiler-suited angels, who spend the first couple of acts popping into the action to deliver ex-cathedra style, summarised ideas of the multi-verse from theoretical physics and in the last act deliver some existential arguments from Sartre and Heidegger. Director Adam Berzsenyi Bellaagh seems to at least have some fun with the angels pushing around the sofas to show scene changes.

Probably the only reason to go and see this play is really Josephine Kime, who brings some excellent comic skills to bear in her portrait of a British TV news anchor, Chrissie Craven; the fantasy of every man in the dying planet (or at least the projection of our barely adolescent couple’s media-saturated desires). Kime’s precise timing and exaggerated over-acting, as she undermines the conventions of live, rolling TV reportage of events, is by far the most watchable and entertaining thing in this production. Despite the fact her character is little more than a flimsy, sexist fantasy of a desirable news-reader; Kime nonetheless rises gracefully above the limitations of the script and the episodes of the play which feature her do seem to have some genuine satiric bite – albeit the media are an easy target. Andy Hawthorne and Richard Matthews contribute some nice comic vignettes to aid Kime. However, this certainly isn’t Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy style satire.

Fig 2.Josephine Kime as Chrissie Craven and Richard Matthew.
Photography credit: Copyright: Foteini Christofilopoulou

Top Story would have been satisfactory enough, I suspect, had it been a 20 minute skit on a late night TV comedy show concentrating on the news broadcasts and down-playing Talfryn and Gus. However, Top Story’s current combination of two hours odd of unnecessary additional running-time and a frequently flabby verbosity, as it struggles with delineating philosophical and scientific concepts on which one fears the playwright has only a superficial, flimsy grasp, makes it more an exercise in ennui and looking at your watch surreptitiously, rather than any argument to live authentically, as if every day were indeed to be your last.

The script is available to buy from the production company at the theatre and for some hip reason seems to have eschewed the use of capital letters in preference for exclusive use of the lower case and little punctuation. However, you can amuse your friends down the pub by asking them to spot the undergraduate style summaries spoken by the angels - based upon Heidegger and Sartre’s arguments among other philosophers - and then to identify the original sources if they can.

Two Alternative Pantomimes in 2012-13: Kneehigh's Midnight's Pumpkin at Battersea Arts Centre and Tara Arts' Dick Whittington Goes Bollywood

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on Thursday, 20 December 2012
If you want a slightly different kind of panto experience for Christmas, then I recently visited a couple of offerings in London which I rather enjoyed. 


The first is Tara Arts new, bold version of the old classic - Dick Whittington Goes Bollywood. From 5th December 2012 to 5th January 2013, at Tara Arts Studio, 356 Garratt Lane, Earlsfield, London SW18 4ES,, telephone 020 8333 4457.


It is immense fun and probably the cleverest multi-cultural London based panto in town. Read my full review from The Public Reviews here:


The other alternative Panto I admired and which I think could be the one that is ideal for difficult-to-please teenagers is Kneehigh's festive and clever retelling of the Cinderella story at Battersea Arts Centre, from 8th December 2012 to 13th January 2013,, telephone 020 7223 2223, 


Read my full review from The Public Reviews here:

Jack Thorne, Mydidae at the Soho Theatre

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on Monday, 17 December 2012
Jack Thorne,
December 5th - December 22nd  2012
Soho theatre, 21 Dean Street, London W1D 3NE
Web site          Telephone Box Office 020 7478 0100 
4 stars

Jack Thorne is building a reputation as one of the sharpest observers of relationships among contemporary British dramatists and here his dialogue sparks and flares as the plays develops momentum and along with some excellent acting, it is the dialogue that is the chief joy of the production.

Mydidae incidentally refers to a family of elusive flies, commonly called the Mydas flies, many of which live underground, while some mimic stinging insects such as wasps, as a self-protection measure against their vulnerability.


Phoebe Waller-Bridge

In this frequently compelling and unsettling two-hander Thorne has accepted new writing theatre company’s Drywrite’s rather strange and perhaps a little contrived brief to create a play set entirely in a bathroom: less the genre of kitchen sink drama then, than a bath, basin and WC performance. The two characters have a physically close but somewhat disconcerting relationship, it feels both intimate because of the vulnerability of the character’s nakedness (and there is perhaps no more intimate a setting than a couple’s bathroom), and yet it also feels as the play progresses as if they are also wrapped up in private troubles that hold them together as much as love.

There’s some extremely brave and effective acting by the two actors. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is the vivacious, but we realise emotionally broken woman, Marian. Waller-Bridge presents Marian as a shrewdly acted study in trauma and assumed guilt. Keir Charles as her partner David, brings some real feeling of repressed, anger and desperation to his role and his character seems to be struggling to find a way out of where the relationship is stuck. We discover it has become less about positive love than the shared co-dependency of a terrible, shared tragedy from the past and he too has internalised his anger against himself just as his partner. Thorne is also good on suggesting the social class and age differences between the two characters, but while this fleshes out the characters it does not really play any significant part in the unfolding plot. Like too many new plays this is perhaps stronger as a study of characters than an unfolding of meaningful themes and issues.


Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Keir Charles
There are more than few surprises as the play progresses, all the more remarkable as most of the second half of the play takes place in the large bath that is centre stage. Director Vicky Jones’ approach is good on the tiny moments of low key domestic intimacy, but she did not cope quite as well when the play switches into a tragedy of melancholia’s horror and its dumbfounded blockages of feeling. If there is a serious weakness to the play then it is that we never find out the details of the tragedy that happened to the couple and the play ends with no sense of either conclusion or a sense of the future. In a play that is as low-key and naturalistic as this one, trying to mimic the tautologies of Beckett or Sarah Kane to achieve a sense of the purgatorial did not really work. It makes the play feel instead rather unfinished and the audience worry that perhaps the past tragedy that is finally talked about very vaguely at the end, would not be enough to explain what has happened to the couple. To some extent I felt that had Thorne been allowed to move away from the brief he had been given rather more he could have created a rather more impressive play which was able to communicate more with the audience.


Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Keir Charles.

Last, but not least, I was fascinated by Amy Jane Cook’s design which created a fully plumbed bathroom in the small Soho's awkward upstairs theatre. This is one of the most amazing examples of stage scenery I have seen in an intimate space such as this and ably supports the strengths as well as the weaknesses of the play.

Seussical: The Musical at the Arts Theatre London

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on Monday, 10 December 2012

4 stars 

Arts Theatre, London, Great Newport St, WC2 7JB, telephone 0207 836 8643
Until 6th January 2012

I thoroughly enjoyed Seussical the musical at the Arts theatre it is a perfect show for the under 10s and those who are still young at heart.

David Hunter’s Horton the Elephant and Joe Morrow as the Cat in the Hat.

It combines some dozen of Seuss’ books, such as Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat, as well as my own personal favourites Horton Hears a Who! and Horton Hatches the Egg. Many of his best loved and most familiar characters are cleverly brought to life which will delight children and the score is a melodic and intriguing mix of Seuss lyrics and a variety of musical styles from pop and soul to jazz.

See my full review at The Public Reviews:awards.

Duncan Stevens, The Christmas Dinner - The White Rabbit, Stoke Newington

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on Saturday, 08 December 2012
Duncan Stevens, The Christmas Dinner

November 28th- December 16th 2012

The White Rabbit, 25 Stoke Newington Church St, London N16 OUH

Web site   Telephone  020 3556 3350

4 stars


Ghost stories performed as drama are all the rage around Christmas, but they are hard to perform successfully – in this rare instance I really did find myself both gripped by the action as it unfolded and increasingly tense and uneasy as the one act play progressed. By the final scene when the secret is revealed, I was genuinely a bit shocked and while I did not have nightmares; I certainly wasn’t tempted to walk past any graveyards as a shortcut home either.

There are several reasons for Second Skin’s success. First, they are experienced at dealing with supernatural themes and their Poe: Macabre Resurrections, set in the church in Stoke Newington which Poe attended as a child, was one of the creepiest shows I saw in 2012. The Christmas Dinner, is creepier and somewhat more worrying still, especially as its ghosts are the ghosts of the poor and the needy, making it somewhat in the tradition of socialist ghost stories which cunningly exploits the bourgeois guilt of the complacent property owning class and their Christmas excesses. It is an age of austerity, but not for the rich.

Second, the fact the play is about a party in a damp basement in gentrified Stoke Newington with its purple painted walls, which is where we actually are, does lend some useful chilly, atmospheric authenticity to the play. Third, there is some first rate and very funny acting from the four members of the cast. Their dialogue, which has been partly improvised Mike Leigh style before being written down, has the naturalistic ring of authenticity in its heavily ironic and satirical portrayal of the young and rich, and is often extremely funny. Laddish Terrence (played by Matthew Howell) and somewhat more sensitive Clara  (played by Sally Lofthouse) are giving the Christmas dinner party, but all is not well in their relationship and they have invited as guests their best friends. This couple are even more bonkers and seem on the verge of splitting up, Rachel (played with gushy, patronising, self-indulgence by Sarita Plowman), and dim by wealthy investment banker, ‘so we all made a few mistakes a few years ago’ Richard (played as a coke-snorting trader at full-throttle by George Collie).


From left to righ: George Collie as Richard, Sally Lofthouse as Clara, Sarita Plowman as Rachel,Matthew Howell as Terrence.  

Plowman is a scream as Rachel, as she tries out her sensitivity derived from couple counselling sessions and a trip to Africa where she patronised poor people and proceeds to berate husband Richard for his general unpleasantness towards her. We did have some sympathy towards him as she insisted on sharing with his friends his somewhat unusual interests in porn.  Collie turns Richard into an admirable comic character, his levels of insensitivity really could rival the character of Alan Partridge. But although you’d like to feel slightly sorry for him because of the treatment he gets from his partner Rachel, who seems to want to humiliate him passive-aggressive style as much as she can-  he is so unpleasantly self-centred and keen on being economically privileged – that sympathy is hard to find. I really wish that Duncan Stevens publishes the script as it is a hoot.

Andy McQuade’s directing often known for its stylisation is rather good at simply allowing them to appear like spoiled youngsters from the upper-class having a dinner party: acting is a real strength in this production. The characters are often like surreal out-takes from a comedy show and the two couples seem to be on the verge of manic hostility even before the supernatural events starts to happen. The humour (someone was laughing so exuberantly behind me all through the play that I really thought he might be possessed), serves to make the disturbing events that follow seems all too real and is an example of contrast which more dramatizations of ghost stories could profitably learn from. This is warmly recommended then, if you want a bit of a chill over the Christmas period. It’s a Christmas Carol without the sentimental happy ending – the poor and deprived are indeed always with us.

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