Front Row

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

Simon Callow in A Christmas Carol Guest Review by Melonie Clarke

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on Thursday, 06 December 2012
There are few things more synonymous with the festive season than Christmas trees, Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Christmas pudding and Dickens' classic tale.

And when it comes to Dickens, Simon Callow is the absolute master. Callow makes no attempt to hide his passion for the author and that passion and knowledge he has for the literary great comes across in his performance.

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Hearing Callow read lines from A Christmas Carol, on a snowy, prop bare stage is a sign that Christmas is well and truly here. There is something about his voice and his delivery that is truly mesmerising, holding us under his spell enitre one act production.

He energetically bounces about the stage portraying the many characters and emotions, transporting us from the busy streets of London to countryside scenes, we as an audience are taken on the journey with Callow. Be it portraying Scrooge himself or one of the Cratchit family, boy or girl, Callow is so believable. There are moments where he holds the audience so captive with his performance, you could hear a pin drop. Feeziwig's Christmas party scene, where Callow dances about the stage is a particular highlight of the production evoking hearty laughter from the audience.

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I did wonder how a one man production of a tale that is so full of different colourful characters would work. But this one man production, paired with the clever use of a very simple set design, made up of merely a few chairs, fairy lights and very little else was perfect. After all, Dickens' classic tale doesn't need a flashy set with colourful costumes, Callow is more than enough.

Simon Callow will be appearing in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol until 6 January www.callowchristmascarol.com/

Spamalot Guest Review by Melonie Clarke

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on Thursday, 06 December 2012
I am a huge fan of Monty Python, with my favourite film being Monty Python and The Holy Grail. It's hilarious, filled with both clever and really quite silly jokes, which in my opinion, makes for great comedy.

Since 2006 Eric Idle and John Du Prez's musical Spamalot, lovingly 'ripped off' from the motion picture Monty Python and the Holy Grail, has been making audiences laugh, sing, and look on the bright side of life, (although that song was from The Life of Brian).

The latest run at The Playhouse in London sees Stephen Tompkinson (a great stage actor we don't get to enjoy often enough) play the part of King Arthur, and what a great king he makes. Tompkinson isn't just a nice face, he can also sing very well and delivered the comedy lines brilliantly. His facial expressions were enough to have me laughing without him even opening his mouth- a joy to watch.

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His fellow knights, Lancelot (Graham MacDuff), Galahad (Jon Robyns), Bedevere (Robin Armstrong) and Robin (Rob Delaney) are all brilliant. Robyns' Galahad had me laughing from the off, clearly the image he was going for was "I'm a total sex pot and I know it" and with the constant hair flicking and gyrating it really came across.

One of the highlights for me (other than Galahad) was an elaborate song and dance about Lancelot being gay in which he wears a really rather spectacular silver leggings and black thong leotard combo. Pair that with the oh so '80s workout video dance moves and you have a laugh a minute scene!

Anna-Jane Casey's Lady of the Lake steals the limelight in some scenes with her brilliant numbers including "The Song That Goes Like That" and "Diva's Lament". Her delivery of some of the numbers was just brilliant, mocking the X Factor-esqe singing very over the top style to perfection.

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Some parts are lifted straight from the film. I did have mixed opinions about that, mainly because the newly written parts are just as good as the original Holy Grail script, so the production more than likely would have still been a laugh a minute affair without those scenes. Nonetheless, the bits taken from the film are comedy classics including the Knights who say 'Ni' (which induced such a laugh from one audience member, the cast couldn't help but chuckle along with the rest of us) and a number of great songs.

The production has a whole host of fresh gags keeping it up to date and making it register all the more with the audience, with gags about Boris and his bikes, "plebgate" and Prince Harry baring all in Vegas ; "What happens in Camelot stays in Camelot!".

I think the venue for this latest run adds to the feel of the production. It is smaller than the previous venue which makes it a lot more intimate, giving the cast a real chance to indulge in some banter with the audience, and in some parts giving it a panto feel - which isn't a bad thing.

Finishing with a bit of audience participation with everyone heartily singing along to "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life", it was impossible to leave the theatre without a broad smile which even the bitter winter's night could not dampen.

In fact, sitting here at my desk, writing this review two days after seeing the show I still have "we're knights of the round table..." whizzing around my head! Go and see it, it's that comical tonic that's perfect for the festive season.

Monty Python's Spamalot is at The Playhouse from 14 November 2012 www.spamalotwestend.co.uk/home

Nirjay Mahindru, Golgotha at The Tristan Bates Theatre

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on Friday, 30 November 2012
Nirjay Mahindru, Golgotha

November 14th-8th December 2012

Tristan Bates Theatre, 1a Tower Street London WC2H 9NP

Web site http://www.tristanbatestheatre.co.uk/ Telephone  020 7240 6283

3 stars

A two-hander starring Raj Ghatak and Anjana Vasan, Golgotha is a fierce and extremely provocative evening consisting of two interlinked stories set in different historical periods. Both stories give an uncomfortably desperate, warts and all picture of the plights of Indian immigrants to Britain in two very different theatrical styles.

The first story verges on the nightmarishly expressionistic, riffing on the familiar features of Victorian melodrama. However, the second story is almost down to earth in its provocative naturalism, but it has more than touch of Brecht in the way it asks questions of the audience - unlike the first story, this one is really a monologue. Family, identity and the problem of exile may be the ostensible themes throughout both works, but anger, violence and the effects of racial prejudice are equally important. There is some fluent and elegant direction by Iqbal Khan and Rachana Jadhav has created a nightmarish staging of detritus and rags for the first act/ story that catches the sense of Victorian London’s wastelands and slums.


The first act tells the story of  Loretta, an Indian ayah (nanny) for an Anglo-Indian that is to say white British family in the mid nineteenth century, who comes to London with the family she works for after the Indian Mutiny/ Sepoy Rebellion/ War of Independence of 1857. If Rozina Visram’s book Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: Indians in Britain 1700-1947 was the official inspiration for exploring the imagined life of a poor Indian woman in Victorian London, equally important seem to be the many melodramatic descent narratives of the fallen woman of from that period. In these the respectable woman’s relatively stable life is ruined by to false imprisonment or sexual seduction and then prostitution and often, finally madness.

Loretta is framed by a jealous servant for poisoning the family she works for and although condemned to death, she escapes prison by trading her sexual favours with the prison warder for freedom. After this she works as a relatively successful street prostitute with clients who desire her exotic charms, while she desperately tries to make enough money to return home.


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Fig 1. Raj Ghatak as Kalil.

Anjana Vasan gives a striking, heightened and angry performance of a woman plunging into the depth of Victorian Babylon and a London that teemed with street sex-workers, Vasan demonstrates her considerable skills it is an unremittingly gloomy picture of Loretta’s life in the period. This is not to say that racial prejudice was not a factor, especially after 1857, in determining British views of Indians and Julian Barnes’ semi-documentary novel, Arthur & George (2005), shows how such suspicious prejudice could lead to Indians being framed for crimes of which they were innocent as in the case of George Edalji. Nor is it to say that such stories as Loretta’s aren’t the other side to stories of Indian princes and the middle class studying in London, enjoying the metropolis and writing about the wonders of England. However, this is a portrayal of Indian woman as victim and even the shocking denouement, by which time the character may indeed be mad, continues the line of argument that there was no place for Indians in Victorian British society. I think politically this is problematic as it largely disempowers the figure of the Indian woman and she becomes yet another mad woman in the attic of the Victorian imagination. As a picture of the time this seems to me partial and while reminiscent of agit-prop plays from the 1980s; it leaves one feeling that the final argument is that Indians can never belong in Britain. But we should perhaps recall in the very different situation that Barnes wrote about, the victimised Indian solicitor was the subject of much public support and while the police and judiciary showed racial prejudice, it was no less than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who led the campaign against his ill treatment and false imprisonment and castigated the police for their racism.

The second story is a monologue where Raj Ghatak’s Kalil, an East African Indian immigrant to Britain tells us the unfortunate story of his life and explains his recent embrace of a radical Islam, curiously enough in his middle-age. Ghatak certainly catches the style and distinctiveness of this ‘unlettered man’, who if he sees himself justifiably as a victim, having to work as a taxi-driver in northern England after fleeing Kenya, is also sometimes pretty hard to like. There is evident racial prejudice on Kalil’s part towards the native Africans in Kenya, where his forebears had migrated to find employment with the British authorities. The gorilla impressions that Kalil frequently performs of Idi Amin (which as well as using racist stereotypes of Africans, seem unfair to one of the most noble of the primates), present a picture of Indians who had kept themselves very apart and aloof from the culture in which they had lived for over a hundred years. Ironically, this distance towards the native culture and passion for Indian superiority, seems in this account much stronger than that of the British themselves and seems to distinguish the East African Asians from almost all other Indian diasporas.

Kalil’s fantasies about perhaps being British one day are very much in the style of Fanon in Black Skins White Masks where he speaks of inauthenticity of natives who ape the coloniser and yet can never be more then second order versions of him. Perhaps the influence of Fanon’s ideas of de-colonising authenticity explored in the context of Algeria will also explain Kalil’s turn to Islam. After encountering diminished job opportunities and the violent prejudice of physical racial attacks against both him and his son Kalil finally flees to Luton and submits once again to Islam – in a Mosque whose radicalism (or perhaps its infiltration by radicals), is well-known. There is a final suggestion that his anger may have led him into becoming a suicide bomber.

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Fig 2: Anjana Vasan as Loretta. London staged as a waste land.

Raj Ghatak brings this difficult character off with admirable acuity and clarity and since we in the audience are addressed and accused directly there is something perhaps very Brechtian about the strategy: we are asked to think rather than empathise with the character of Kalil as we are frequently put into the position of the white British he believes have blighted his life. These would include those teachers who convinced him and his wife to speak English at home in order to help his children which has meant his children have lost their native language.


I think as a picture of trauma and distress this has considerable power, but there are also unanswered questions. There no exploration of  what is arguably the real emotional tragedy of the East African South Asians, that despite their desire to stay as Indian as possible in culture and religion, their imagined homeland of India was so shamefully, arrogantly indifferent to their plight; as other elements of the Indian diaspora pointed out at the time.

Even as India pushed ahead with a hugely expensive nuclear weapon programme to make sure it didn’t feel emasculated compared to rival adversary China’s nukes and to give yet more toys its nationalist boys, it was quite happy to abandon its people and hope that Britain would sort it out for them. While Kalil seems unhappy his children have lost their language we never see them or hear what they have to say about this, in a sense this is his monologue and their voices are obscured. In conclusion this is a powerful play, which raises more questions and uncomfortable ones at that, than it provides answers to.

A Fantastic New Version of A Clockwork Orange at the Soho Theatre

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on Thursday, 29 November 2012

I recently went to see a visually striking and balletic version of  Burgess's A Clockwork Orange at the Soho theatre.  Alexandra Spencer-Jones has created a sexy, exciting and physically thrilling production.  highly stylised and blackly camp,  - presented by a muscular, forceful all male cast who give some extremely strong performances.

See my full review in Exeunt Theatre Magazine here 
http://exeuntmagazine.com/reviews/a-clockwork-orange-3/ 


Photo credit: Simon Kane. Cast of A Clockwork Orange at the Soho theatre.
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Sleepwalk Collective: As The Flames Rose We Danced To The Sirens, The Sirens at The Pit, Barbican

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on Monday, 19 November 2012
November 13th-17th 2012 The Pit, Barbican Centre, London, Silk Street London EC2Y 8DS UK Web site http://www.barbican.org.uk/ , Telephone 020 7638 8891

3 stars

This is a sometimes striking in this playful, deadpan comic, one woman performance by Lara Solano Arana from Spain. Direction by Sammy Metcalfe (UK) and music is by Esme Squalor. Solano Arana and Metcalfe are founding members of rising young Anglo-Spanish performance group, Sleepwalk Collective, together with Malla Sofia Pessi and are currently based in Vitoria-Gasteiz in the Spanish Basque Country although they formed in Britain at Rose Bruford.

The show has toured Europe since 2009 and won awards at ACT Festival Bilbao, SKENA UP in Kosovo, and the BE Festival in Birmingham. It reminded me in some ways of the work of Forced Entertainment, in terms of the way it knowingly addresses the audience, its ironic sensibility towards the popular culture it continually references and its clichés, as well as its offbeat but knowing sense of humour; although it also has a streak of romanticism and lyricism in the presentation of the vulnerability of the female protagonist that seemed more seriously intended than in the case of the older experimental theatre company.

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Fig 1  Lara Solano Arana: credit Futura Tittaferrante.

Lara Solano Arana is clad in a blonde wig and that eponymous signifier of female attractiveness, a little black dress and as she speaks directly to us in an accent that sounds European with a hint of transatlantic drift, we realise that she is very much an ironic take on the image of the heroine in black and white period films. Despite her demonstrable charm, she is subject to self-imposed threat and danger, for example, there is an amusing sequence where she straps herself down to a tiny model railway like a B-movie heroine threatened by an imaginary villain, saying ‘tie me to the tracks!’ She also continually describes in exaggerated fashion the many grisly deaths she has had as a ‘damsel in distress’: a litany of falling from tall buildings to be smashed on the pavement to tumbling from an ocean liner and being caught up in the propellers.

However, her unnamed character is just as much an object of audience desire and fantasy like any true damsel in distress, a figure who is as much in need of being rescued, as she is a kind of impossible female object offering everything to the audience: the ‘take all of me’ woman as she tells the audience. At one point she stands completely still for 60 seconds and invites the audience to do anything they like with her, and in another moment she tries to cut herself in half using a hacksaw, entertaining us with the magic trick of the woman sawn in half.

It is a disjointed, dream-like and sometimes lyrical monologue which as the title suggests combines passion with desperation, connoting a women whose joie de vivre is juxtaposed against disaster, dancing as the room where she is becomes consumed by fire. Although some of these sequences are perhaps not always strongly focused or crisp enough to continually hold our interest during the entire performance, it ends powerfully. There is much stronger momentum towards the last fifteen minutes as the piece comes towards its strong and mesmerising finale.

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Fig 2 Lara Solano Arana: credit Futura Tittaferrante.

A looped sequence from a black and white Greta Garbo film shows a woman continuously discovering a dead man in an armchair and then falling into the arms of another man and Solano Arana uses this to vivid dramatic effect by dancing and energetically falling into the projected image, accompanied by a strong electronic soundtrack, as if seeking to be the woman who falls into the stranger's arms while the building burns. In a sense, this is an ambiguous comment about the way popular culture can be used almost as a substitute for religion as the performer struggles but perhaps never achieves authenticity through her attempts as of course, she can never actually join the film in Purple Rose of Cairo style.Her silhouette against the projected film clip is a memorable juxtaposition, perhaps more reminiscent of Theatre de Complicite, or Frantic Assembly, than of Forced Entertainment.

The performance ends however, with text rather than movement, in a deeply poetic and intense story told by our performer standing still now, of a woman and man engaging in a passionately romantic love tryst. In terms of the way it plays to the audience’s own imaginations and fantasies this perhaps suggests that theatre is more like film than at first seemed to be the case, as it is the space in which our desires are not simply reflected nor projected, but in fact recreated from the fabric of our own lives and experiences.


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