The Theatre Week: Best of BE Festival; Sherlock In Holmes 2: Murder On The Ice

During lockdown 3 and with live in-person events still a few months off, it appears the online theatrical experience has broadened out into three strands. There are the streams (both archived and live), the made for zoom and there is the interactive. Over the past year, I’ve seen countless works across the triptych. Streams are functional but by-and-large a little dry (the live ones at least have the frisson of things potentially going wrong); recorded zoom works have just made me wish I was bingeing another Married At First Sight: Australia, and so it has been left to the interactive pieces to provide the highlights of my starved theatrical diet.

Francesc Serra Villa Recall

So it’s no surprise that it’s an interactive piece that provides the highlight of the Virtual Best Of BE Festival 2021 online tour, that last weekend came to the SW in partnership with Tobacco Factory Theatre and Circomedia. Francesc Serra Vila’s Recall (☆☆☆☆) was a 15-minute one-on-one experience that connected the performer to his audience and then stretches its gaze to a wider community. In a lockdown where isolation feels more pertinent than ever, where even friends have started to appear like strangers, there was something poetic in sharing memories and dreams with a stranger and listening to fragments of life from another, a person that we will never know but been privy to their thoughts and dreams. Vila’s face is never seen, just his gloved hands and warm Spanish tone, a home-made space becoming a memory bank. He asks us to talk for four minutes about our day yesterday, our initial awkwardness (because who has enough content right now to fill four uninterrupted minutes) bleeding into something deeper. Like therapy, as we talk, description turns to thought turns to feeling. This uninterrupted stream of consciousness becomes fragments cut out, to be shared with another. I came out feeling as though I’d had a cathartic experience.

If the second in the double bill Shen Shui (☆☆☆) brought by Edurne Rubio and Maria Jerez can’t quite scale the heights of Recall, it is because it’s offering a passive experience. Using everyday objects from home to paint a landscape without paintings, it brings the sound of nature into the confines of home. It plays more art installation than theatre, and though technically highly impressive, it immersed me while failing to move me. Peter Brook talks about all you need to make Theatre is one actor, one spectator and a shared space. Digital has allowed that space to increase in distance but the transaction between the actor and the spectator still must happen. If the work occurs without the audience shaping it in some way than it lacks the vitalness that makes theatre such a powerful art form. Rubio and Jerez were exploring these ideas as a theatrical piece before translating the commission for digital and I hope to see it in person one day, maybe during the Festival 22 tour.

Not a formal review as I caught it in a dress rehearsal but Sharp Teeth theatre company has had a hit over the past few months with its version of Sherlock In Holmes: Murder At The Circus (playing until the end of March). Like all smashes, it now has a sequel Sherlock In Holmes 2: Murder On Ice. A highly interactive, cracking couple of hours with brilliant improvisers gently pushing its audiences into the right areas to feel like we do deserve to wear a deer-stalker and puff on a pipe. I’ve not had a more enjoyable theatrical experience since lockdown.

Best of BE Festival

Sherlock in Holmes: Murder At The Circus:

The Theatre Week: The Great Big Christmas Story Mix Up; Far From The Madding Crowd

Roustabout Theatre’s The Great Big Christmas Story Mix Up

So just like that, the theatres shut again. In many ways lockdown 3 feels the toughest one for our industry yet, all the hard work done by the theatre community up and down the country obliterated in another government briefing. Just before Christmas I was lucky to get to Bristol Old Vic to see Living Spit’s Beauty and The Beast in person and wasn’t surprised to see it purr with more energy from the King’s Street venue, hearing an audience’s laughter float around the auditorium as one, rather than the lonely emptiness of the sound when uttered singularly makes a huge difference when encountering comedy. Who knew…?

 First the tiers on the 26th, then the shutdown barely a week later; it feels inevitable now that we are looking at months until audiences will be gracing an auditorium again, even with stringent social distancing measures in place. So, for the foreseeable there appear to be two types of theatre audiences can access for their theatrical fixes. The empty auditorium Livestream or the interactivity of a zoom. Both have their positives, and both have their negatives. Both are no substitute for the real thing. Yet you can only doff your cap at any theatrical artist, company or building currently making work regardless.

 Take Roustabout Theatre’s, The Great Big Christmas Story Mix Up played live via zoom from the Wardrobe Theatre over the Christmas period (the one live in-person show scheduled was cancelled before they got an audience in). If losing most of the Christmas theatrical season means the heartbreak of a generation of young people not being introduced to their first taste of theatre, this Zoom provided a welcome tonic. Things feel much better when you can see the delighted faces of its young audience, eagerly putting in suggestions when asked; pushing their cherubic features up close to their webcams as if by doing so would allow them to be sucked into the story playing on the screen., Hopefully, these memories are for life, not just for the festive period.

Improvised theatre can be a danger, ideal for tapping into the creative spirit of any potential drama student, liable to fall off a cliff and into self-indulgence if not carefully charted in the live form. Yet the team of Robin Hemmings, Toby Hulse and Shaelee Rooke are vastly experienced at taking the unexpected (here including ninjas, a cowboy stealing the North Pole and a cameo from Rudolph) and making some form of coherence from it. The fun is in seeing how they will get out of ever convoluted plot twist they get themselves into and the trio is witty and inventive enough to respond to most with verve and likeable enough to be forgiven for any plot point that doesn’t get a satisfactory full stop.

Will Monks video design smartly uses the audiences own hand-drawn pictures as the set design and flips the screen upside down when the dastardly plot to switch the North and South Pole takes hold. Each show is significantly different, that is part of its appeal, but this hour-long show is smart and engaging enough to hold any youngsters attention.

Opening some six months later than planned Bristol Old Vic Theatre Schools version of Far From The Madding Crowd, originally slated to be the second year touring show, was instead live-streamed from the Redgrave Theatre at the beginning of December. Internet issues led to me catching it later on Bristol Old Vic’s very well done on-demand service, with the ability to pause, rewind and go back. Does theatre miss out on something when the audience knows it has this luxury? Is part of the contract around the theatre that for the few hours playing on the stage, both the actors and the audience are giving each other their full attention and without this, is it theatre at all? Theatre has an even more challenging time ahead of it, trying to keep its audiences focus when they’re watching from their office/home/bed.

Jake Kenny-Byrne (Gabriel Oak) and Amelia Paltridge (Bathsheba Everdene) in BOVTS Far From The Madding Crowd © Craig Fuller

I suspect Paul Chesterton’s originally conceived production would have felt more epic, utilising the entire year group instead of the eight seen in this version. Thomas Hardy’s original novel thrums with a sense of community, this version understandably lacks that, it’s hard-working cast multi-rolling well but sometimes feeling swallowed up on the vast expanses of the Redgrave stage. Adaptor Mark Healy’s version, originally commissioned by English Touring Theatre, tightens the original novel down to the personal rather than the societal, with its focus on its protagonist, the pioneering farm owner Bathsheba Everdene and the three men (the older bachelor, the rake, the childhood friend who inevitably is right for her) who vie for her hand. Admittedly, with the twists and turns of the great 19th century novels, without the social context the novel allows, this does carry the danger of turning everything soapy, Emmerdale farm plonked into the West Country, but Chesterton’s production has enough lyricism to overcome this.

Drama school works are a chance to test and stretch the young students about to enter the industry and it’s to the school’s credit that most of the time the casting choices fit their students like a glove. Here, however, there is a sense of some miscasting and consequently a display of uncomfortableness in some of the performances. Amelie Paltridge is excellent in the leading role though, carefully plotting Bathsheba’s arc and complexities in a way that can be tricky when transferring this heroine from novel to play. She is ably supported by Jake Kenny-Byrne’s Gabriel Oak, who may look more Byronic poet than simple farmhand, but gives a good account of Mr Right, consistently waiting in the wings, ever-supportive to eventually win his true love’s heart. There is top-notch work also from Theo Spofforth as a burly, jovial farmhand whose tender vocals provide a production highlight and Katie Dorman as the naïve and tragic Fanny Robin, jilted and then outcast.

The company of Far From The Madding Crowd © Craig Fuller

At close to three hours, it asks a lot of its audience and its cast to hold a live stream. However, in a year when so much has been scuppered, it’s worth celebrating the show must go on mentality that allowed the piece to finally get an airing in the annus horriblis that was 2020. Buckle up folks, online is here to stay for a while yet.

The Great Big Christmas Story Mix Up: Wardrobe Theatre Live Stream ☆☆☆☆

Far From The Madding Crowd: Redgrave Theatre Live Stream ☆☆☆

The Theatre Week: Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas; Beauty and The Beast; Bea and the Winter Winds

As London shuts down, a small blossoming of light for the South West theatre scene. If Christmas is not the same as usual, both in a societal or in a theatrical sense, there is still work out there to charm young and old alike this festive season.

Marcus Hendry (Father Christmas) in Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas

 By far the strongest is Lyric Hammersmith and Pins and Needles streamed production of Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas (****), presented in digital partnership with Tobacco Factory Theatres. Bristol’s Pins and Needles have been responsible for the beautifully crafted, original egg Christmas shows over the past few years (The Little MermaidThe Scarlett Pimpernel), and their take on  Briggs 1973 picture book is a delightful warm Christmas treat. Taking place over Christmas eve, Noel and Boxing day, we watch as Saint Nick; prepares for, executes and then recovers from his round the world, big present giveaway. Marcus Hendry is a grouchy delight as Santa, good-heartedly mumbling complaint and ailment as he goes about his duties Zoe Squire’s beautifully versatile set takes us from outside privy to reindeer stable to, well, the whole world while Stacey Ghent provides lush melodies and some cheeky foley artistry on a platform above. Emma Earle’s production balances the sweet and the wondrous, the innocence with a little bit of toilet humour designed to get all the family from Granny to Danny grinning ear to ear. In a curtailed year, there has not been a more magical stage moment then when Father Christmas fires up his sleigh and begins his magical festive journey. Highly recommended.

Howard Coggins and Stu McLoughlin in Beauty and The Beast

All cheers for Bristol Old Vic and Living Spit who held their nerve and were rewarded with a first live in-person audience since second lockdown yesterday evening. The night before saw them premiere their new show on the Bristol Old Vic streaming platform, Beauty and The Beast (***). For fans of the Living Spit boys, you know exactly what to expect, some well-calibrated silliness that promises nothing but a bloody good night out and some cracking original ditties. Both are on full display here, as Howard Coggins and Stu McLoughlin tackle the entire piece over 105 slapstick filled minutes that sticks closer to Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s original fairy-tale than the Disney corporations animated and live-action remake, even if talking household utensils still play their part. There are some lovely elements within Craig Edwards’ pun-filled production, the boys puffing on pipes to provide some metatextual analysis resembling the master of Hitchcock Presents, the deftly handled silly but surprisingly sweet falling in love montage, the charming text exchange replete with lols and emojis as they realise their feelings for each other. Perhaps there is a sense of knowing what you’re getting with a Living Spit show, a sense of not being surprised or as dazzled by anything as you are with the first encounter. Yet in 2020 of all years, isn’t there something reassuring about falling into the embrace of something that will cheer you up and get you chuckling warmly for a few hours. 

Bea and the Winter Winds

 The lovely market town of Frome already has one great company residing within it in Mark Bruce Company whose latest work Return To Heaven, dense in terrifying imagery could not even begin to replicate the horrors we’ve all faced this year when it played back in January. There may be a second in the years to come if the promise of Black Hound Productions Bea and the Winter Winds (***) comes to play out. This painfully young, vigorous and daring company would deserve plaudits simply for having made work this festive season for a live audience against the odds. The fact that it’s so theatrically sophisticated as well, demonstrates nous beyond their years and meant plenty of beaming faces behind the masks of the Merlin’s first live crowd in months. An original take on a Bulgarian folktale that follows a traditional classical structure, young Bea must head off on a journey to stop villainous Jack Frost from casting a permanent winter over the world. On the way she is helped along by new-found friends, learning life lessons before good overcomes evil and the world is set to right. Co-writers Patrick Withey and Benjamin Hardy-Phillips script structurally needs a little bit of work, folding into tangents that drift or rushing through narrative plot too quickly, but apart from that, there is joy aplenty to latch onto. Hardy-Phillips compositions are proper little earworms, given full value by the talented performance team, while Withey’s set design, replete with striking tree and multiple levels allows the production to move from location to location swiftly. Both are also strong performers, Hardy-Phillips proving strong of voice as the troubadour ailing brother that Bea must try to protect, Withey as the kilt-wearing Scottish trilling Alistair McNutty that helps Bea on her quest. Anabella Fairgreave is a convincing heroine while joining late to the cast Tiffany Rhodes is also an energetic delight. Keep an eye on these names and what comes next.

Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas plays until the 24 December online.

Beauty and The Beast plays at BOV until the 9 January.

Bea and The Winter Winds played at the Merlin Theatre until 19 December

Oleanna- Ustinov Studio ☆☆

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Jonathan Slinger (John) and Rosie Sheehy (Carol) in Oleanna ©Nobby Clark

David Mamet. If one name is bound to draw critical theatrical sniping in 2020 it’s the Chicago polymath whose last London premiere united almost all critics in declaring it the absolute pits of 2019. In the current political and cultural climate, Mamet, the writer of such masterpieces as The UntouchablesAmerican Buffalo and one of the great acting books True and False feels out of place and if a certain subsection of Twitter is to be believed, cancelled. TRB’s production of his 1993 two-hander Oleanna, demonstrates the two sides to his art; both the master craftsman who can glue his audience to their seats with the blazing intensity of dialogue and the twists and turns of the narrative and the slightly thornier side to his politics, which feels at times like the privileged gatekeeper screaming out at the persecution of his kind.

For make no mistake, Oleanna does not stack its deck equally for both its gladiatorial combatants. Soon to be tenured English professor John may be slightly smug, a little too glib in his ascertains that higher education may be little more than performance but there is little doubt that Mamet views him as his tragic hero, brought down by a consoling hand on the shoulder, sticking to his ideals in the face of downfall, a slightly less butch version of Miller’s John Procter. It’s not that he’s written or played heroically, Mamet is too smart a writer for that (or at least was during the early ’90s before all subtlety went out the window) and Jonathan Slinger demonstrates that there is something uncomfortable and unknowable about a professor slipping into supine on the sofa as he invites his female student to weekly 1 to 1’s and pushes his intellectual superiority in between phone calls that show all the trappings of mid-career success. It’s more the fact that Rosie Sheehy’s struggling student Carol feels like an avenging beta, overthrowing the alpha using base emotion rather than the idealised mind. There is something of the stereotype to both of them.

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Jonathan Slinger (John) and Rosie Sheehy (Carol) in Oleanna ©Nobby Clark

For the play to truly work you’d guess, each need to be equally balanced between right and wrong, palatable and unpalatable but Mamet’s writing pushes her towards villainy. Her frustrations about his use of language, clouding rather than illuminating concepts gives way to long missives where it’s clear she followed every word, her journey from confused, innocent, emotional undergrad to cold, colourless and laser sharped persecutor feels unearned and so consequently like John is walking right into a trap. Sheehy produces fine work, and especially in the first act a number of shades to the character, but this becomes deliberately one-note as it goes along and so loses any sense of balance.

The production has already taken a number of steps since being announced, with a different director, leading man and theatre. It’s trip from the Main House to the Ustinov feels like gain, granting its audience an intimacy that would be lacking in the larger auditorium and allowing its audience to almost be able to read the spines of the academic tomes in designer Alex Eales book bound office set. Yet you wonder what original director Nicole Charles and originally announced actor John Heffernan would have brought to it. Slinger is a fine actor, one of the best we have, but his take drifts into middle-aged disappointment and burn out, there is a frisson missing that may have pulled student and teacher closer to equal combat. Lucy Bailey’s direction doesn’t always go for the jugular either with the closing moments verging on pantomime, so what we end up with is a well-made 80 minutes that doesn’t create the electricity, debate or controversy that the original offered in spades.

Oleanna plays at the Ustinov Studio until the 22nd December and then again from 4-16 January.

Hedda- BOVTS Live Stream ☆☆☆☆

Emma Hadley-Leonard as Hedda Gabler in BOVTS Hedda ©Craig Fuller.

Peter Brook claimed that all it took to make theatre was an empty space, an actor and an audience all sharing one set of air. In the wake of a second lockdown, where only two of the three can currently happen, is it possible to make theatre at all? Absolutely, if Bristol Old Vic’s Theatre Schools immaculate live-streamed version of Hedda is anything to go by. In a 2020 which has seen theatre since March consist of a few outdoor pieces here, a 65-minute Pinter there, Luke Kirkwood’s modern transposition of Ibsen’s original, spread over four acts and with a 155 minute run time, playing in the atmospheric emptiness of the main house, feels like the real deal. For a few hours at least, I was transported away from the inept mishandlings of Government and the tragedy of an ever-rising death toll into a different world. Maybe if Brook was writing today, he would have added a fifth chapter to his seminal book for those of us starved of it for so long, the euphoric theatre.

Kirkwood’s 2008 version, originally seen at the Gate theatre, places her titular heroine into 21st century Notting Hill, a fitting postcode for the middle-class academics that a bored Hedda finds herself circling following her marriage to George (Charlie Hall). Production Designer Bronia Housman stretches their living room to cavernous dimensions, that highlights the solitude that Emma Hadley-Leonard’s feels, as she paces, grimaces and eventually flexes the only choice she feels she has left to escape.

Kirkwood’s version does not make it easy to sympathise with Hedda; her bored petulance, the desire to enrapture the men in her life to cure the feeling of life leading nowhere in particular, feels more questionable in a world where class and race seem a bigger barrier than gender. Her privilege needles.  Hadley-Leonard expertly holds the stage regardless, the close-ups on camera charting the journey as the condescending sneers fold into a lost stare, as she loses the hand she felt she held. If we can’t sympathise, then we can at least empathise.

Emma Hadley-Leonard as Hedda Gabler in BOVTS Hedda ©Craig Fuller.

A new academic year brings a new set of graduates to assess and the strength of depth throughout the cast demonstrates the promise of what’s to come. The trio of men Michael Drake, Hall, and Isaam Al Ghussain, expertly show why none of them can suitably bring Hedda the purpose she craves; too viperish, too wet, too consumed. Dumile Sibanda’s childhood friend Thea, folds in under the self-destructive flame that Hedda throws. Making the strongest impression of all though is Tessa Wong, who etches perfect little cameos as the sister in law and cleaner that opens three of the four acts. She has a smooth naturalness that the camera lingers on.

Jenny Stephens assured direction marks the beats and ramps up the tension of a piece that if not careful, can still fall into the static trap of the well-made play.  If Kirkwood’s piece shrinks rather than enlarges the masterpiece (this is true of most transposed adaptations in truth) the expertise both on stage and in the smoothness of the live stream, helmed by a crack team of ten, ensures this does feel like an event, as close as we can currently get to what we term theatre. Euphoric indeed.

Hedda streamed live from Bristol Old Vic from the 18-20 November 2020

HAMLET- Kelvin Players 7-21 April 2021 (delayed from April 2020)

Hamlet A0 - No Dates

This above all: to thine own self be true.’

 A dead king demands retribution from beyond the grave, Hamlet must take action.

 In the hedonistic court of Elsinore where eyes are everywhere and deceit abounds, a family is ripped apart by treachery and murder.

 Kelvin Players take a bold, contemporary approach for a fresh look at Shakespeare’s classic revenge tragedy, one of the greatest plays ever written.

 Torn by uncertainty, bitter with betrayal and driven by loss, Hamlet’s search for truth is at the heart of human existence.


Claudius – David Alexander

Gertrude – Marion Brazier

Guildenstern – Josh Cooper

Ophelia – Alina F Flaherty

Polonius – Carol Fuller

Horatio – Alex Heath

Rosencrantz – Jenny Hills

Hamlet – Fran Lewis

Gravedigger – Elizabeth Madgwick

First Player – Rick Procter-Lane

Laertes – Hannah Rousell

The Ghost – Tim Whitten


Hamlet Rehearsal Photo
David Alexander (Claudius) and Marion Brazier (Gertrude) ©Teri Mohiuddin
Fran Lewis (Hamlet) ©Teri Mohiuddin
Elizabeth Madgwick (Gravedigger) & Fran Lewis (Hamlet) ©Teri Mohiuddin
Fran Lewis (Hamlet) and Hannah Roussell (Laertes) ©TerMohiuddin
Alina F Flaherty (Ophelia) & Hannah Roussell (Laertes)

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf- Tobacco Factory ☆☆☆☆


Mark Meadows and Pooky Quesnel in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ©Mark Dawson Photography

There’s something about watching great writing in an intimate space that can sucker-punch the air out of its watching audience. As is the case with Edward Albee’s 1962 masterpiece about marriage warfare, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, given an ever-tightening production by David Mercatali that by the end leaves its audience as emotionally winded as the characters. Over 210 minutes its laid witness to a long, bruising night of the soul. I predict many stumbling out into the street needing their own generous measure of bourbon.

It’s 2 am and a party is only just getting started. Middle-aged History professor George and his wife Martha are hosting his young, high-flying colleague Nick and partner Honey. But as the drinks cabinet spirits flow, George and Martha launch into full trench warfare on their marriage and engage in a sadistic game of ‘get the guests’ on the unsuspecting visitors.

It originally feels overpitched in the space, characters pitching their bon viveur to a space somewhere further away than the fourth wall of Anisha Field’s fashionably 60’s set living room. The jokes are a bit egged, the forced intimacy a little too desperate. Pooky Quesnel’s Martha feels too obviously vampy, a cross between Elizabeth Taylor in the film and Bette Davies. Its first act feels the less focussed, not helped by a few minor line stumbles and a certain artificiality in the playing.

Yet as the alcohol kicks in the emotional truth becomes clearer as the alcoholic fog descends. The shields of forced affability are dropped and a direct attack on the human spirit is launched. The play ends with all four of them hunched in four corners of the room, barely still standing, reeling from almost fatal blows.

It’s a play that I’ve always come to see as Martha’s based on some recent star castings, the aforementioned Taylor, Kathleen Turner, Imelda Staunton, but here the play undoubtedly belongs to Mark Meadows George. He begins the evening with a stooped weary acceptance that he has missed his chance in life, constantly overlooked for promotion and seeing his light dim. Yet as the fight between him and Martha deepens, he puffs up until he is almost unbearably terrifying-looking to land the knockout punch. For the first time, he seems to be the moral compass of the work, the one its audience can feel genuine affection for. His late cruelty almost hurts us as much as it does Martha, as though we’ve witnessed a close friend overstep the boundaries. It is the first superb performance of the year.

Quesnel certainly brings the allure in a figure-hugging green dress and is a fine actor, but she struggles to find the balance between the venom the character sprouts and the vulnerability that these barbs hide. It is only in the last few minutes that you start to be let into her pain. In the best versions of the work, the sympathies of the audience should be flying between the pair as often as a tennis rally, here Meadows serves mostly to love.

Joseph Tweedale and Francesca Henry bring life to the dull All-American couple, Tweedale spinning into ever-increasing toxicity with every shot knocked back and Henry pitching perfectly the look of fear in her ever-widening ‘aw shucks’ smile.

Mercatali’s production, though long (the estate refused any cuts to be made in this version so we have the complete, not the definitive version of the play) finds layer after layer in the lashings of marital discord. The early comedy turns dark, the simmering violence turns erotic, the early ease ends in desolation. Each of these moments is carefully delineated in a production that requires regular movement for sightlines in the round while using ever-increasing stillness as the night slowly drifts into dawn.

A strong cast and fine director certainly bring clarity to this towering American masterpiece, but it will be remembered chiefly for Meadow’s George, crunching through broken glass, a fitting metaphor for a marriage long since shattered.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf plays at Tobacco Factory Theatres until the 21 March and then Salisbury Playhouse from the 26 March to 11 April

The Laramie Project- Weston Studio ☆☆☆☆


The Laramie Project © Mark Dawson Photography.

Though we are never directly introduced to Matthew Shephard his presence is all over The Laramie Project. He is in the stooped shoulders of the residence hanging around a bar, he is present in their defensive reactions to questioning, their furtive glances as their unease with difference is aired to a group of New York theatre-makers. If the small (he was reported to be little more than 5’2), queer Shephard was little more than a parenthesis in the history of Laramie, Wyoming before, he became a significant chapter on the night of October 6th 1998, when he was beaten, tortured and left for dead by two men who may have been driven to commit the crimes due to his sexual orientation. Tragically six days later, he was dead.

Moisés Kaufman’s verbatim play is not exactly an easy watch. Over 2 ½ hours, its audience is made to pay witness to viewpoints and crime details which explore the darker elements of the human soul. In closed-minded, small Laramie, to be gay was to be different and to be different could get you hurt. Conservative Christians from the Westboro Baptist Church who campaign against ‘fags’ rub shoulders with disaffected young men who claim they are fine with people’s sexuality as long as they don’t have to encounter it. Its long, first half feels particularly tough, you come out at the interval needing not only a stiff drink but probably also a shower to rub the stench of bigotry off you.

Yet somewhere within this hope still resides. It’s in the students who attended the funeral of Shephard and formed circles around the picketing Westboro bigots wearing wings that made them resemble angels. It is there in Shephard’s Father who makes a final moving speech to a jury about not putting his son’s killer to death. Even in the bleakest of moments, light can breakthrough.

The graduating class of BOVTS handle the challenges the play poses well. Kaufman’s work is adapted from over 200 interviews that he and his company the Tectonic Theatre Company conducted in the City, condensed and moulded into dramatic shape. Almost inevitably, the characters are little more than snapshots, yet the overall characterisation is shaded enough not to fall into caricature. Dialect coach James Gitsham has done an admirable job in ensuring the Western American accents of Wyoming and the Bronx accents of the theatre crew are sharp and on point.

The text and Nancy Medina’s fluid, lively production ensure that a play without direct character interaction feels connected and well populated. The funeral scene is elegantly staged as candle after candle is snuffed out while the courtroom scenes take on the air of a thriller as a killer’s life is debated in the dock.

In a strong cast of 15 multi-rollers, there is particular stand out work from Isobel Coward as the first police presence on the crime scene who may have become infected with HIV as a result, Sebastian Orozco as a wisecracking taxi driver and Danial Radze who flicks in an instant from killer to father, movingly delivering a eulogy about his fallen son.

Paired in the same week as Her Naked Skin under an LGBT themed season, the work showcases that in the battle for equality, work still needs to be done. The memory of Shephard and others murdered for who they are resonate with as much force as Emily Davison sacrifice under the King’s horse. The battles continue.

The Laramie Project plays at the Weston Studio until the 29 February

Her Naked Skin- Circomedia ☆☆☆


Kiera Lester in Her Naked Skin at Circomedia. ©Ed Felton

It took a shocking 32 years for a living female playwright to have an original play staged in the National’s Olivier Theatre, so Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s 2008 play Her Naked Skin, the first of its kind, deserves its place in the canon. Yet watching the play for a second time, in this revival by the BOVTS, it is difficult to be inspired by a text more workmanlike than inspired. It tackles the epic by combining the personal and the political on a grand scale, but its dialogue feels grounded and expository; even with a cast of talented, dedicated performers; it is only in its last few moments where it penetrates the soul.

It begins with arguably the most important moment in the history of the suffragist movement; Benjamin Thapa’s projections showing us Emily Davidson throwing herself under the hoofs of the King’s Horse Anmer during the 1913 Epsom Derby as Oliver Wareham’s sound design ratchets up the terror and frenzy of the moment that would come to define a movement. It was the greatest of sacrifices, but. only one of many, as women around the nation, campaigned for the right to vote; vandalising property, serving prison sentences and going on hunger strike.

It is in this gruelling cycle that the play springboards into the relationship that forms between two active suffragettes from different parts of the social strata, Lady Celia Cain (Clementine Medforth) and young Limehouse born worker Eve Douglas (Chanel Waddock). As the fight for the vote heats up, so does the romance between two women who feel constrained by the lives they feel themselves in.

Medforth shows us the women trapped in a life that she no longer desires. Her cut-glass accent may suggest her breeding but the longing in her voice tells us of the freedom she so craves away from the conventions of her social class. It is her play and Medforth anchors it, finding multiple nuances within this complicated campaigner, even if the play doesn’t allow her to make sense of how quickly she turns away from her working-class lover. In this role, Waddock is terrific, charting her journey from gawky mouthy teen to an oft-abused weary woman. If Lenkiewicz gives her less to work with, Waddock still manages to let us see that class boundary shielded the top from the worst of the degradation borne out to those at the bottom. The final scenes when we see her receive a forced feeding are painful to watch as the slight Waddock is forced down by a team of orderlies and receives feeding from a tube up her nostril.

This is a show for the women to shine and there is also sterling work from Kiera Lester as the older woman driven by her hopes for the future and Charlotte East who shows us the conflict in the prison guard Briggs. The men are written more boorishly, brayers and hayers, though Jake Simmance as William Cain gets to portray the conflict of a man trying to do best by a woman he has lost.

Staged in traverse, Sarah Bedi makes use of the configuration, turning it into a debating chamber as ideas and societal structures are challenged. If the first half feels overtly expository, the second half hurtles along, carried along by two women who want to create a future different from the ones written in stone.

Her Naked Skin plays at Circomedia until the 22 February.

The Realistic Joneses- Ustinov Studio ☆☆☆☆

Jack Laskey, Claire Foster, Sharon Small and Corey Johnson in The Realistic Joneses

If the theatre is an art-form where the word is boss, Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses pushes that maxim to its full capacity. His 2014 Broadway surprise is a world where the word is everything. Oh, not to communicate feelings in the way we have come to expect, but to deflect, block and drift into non-sequitur in a way that stops feeling ripping out at the seams. For a play that doesn’t stop speaking, it takes a long time for anything to be said. But Eno’s magic is to show us this is the way of the world, language expounded to camouflage the purpose of what its characters want to say. In his fascinating, slippery programme notes, Eno talks about the influence of Chekhov on this play and as this piece begins to heat up the tragi-comic masterpieces that the Russian master wrote, begin to grip ever tighter in their influences.

In Peter McKintosh’s clever mirror design, two sets of Joneses; married, neighbours, drifting; come together one night. Bob (Corey Johnson) and Jennifer (Sharon Small) are the older couple, caught in a world in which youthful idealism has slipped into the day to day drudge of being closer to cashing that last cheque. Pony (Clare Foster) and John (Jack Laskey) are the younger couple; naive, innocent; yet perhaps calling all the shots. Both men are suffering from a nerve disease that is affecting the language centre of their brains. The emptiness of language to convey feeling at the heart of the work mirrors their own feeling that words really aren’t enough.

Eno throws in plenty of doubles throughout. A scene in a supermarket where it looks like John may want to seduce Jennifer later takes the shape as Pony stares intently at Bob. Both men find support in the wife of the other who both desperately scramble to understand their own husbands. Its structure lets the play breathe even while seeming to tie itself into ever more complicated knots. The mirrors symbolise these two similar couples and the cardboard boxes that represent tables, cabinets and various household furniture perhaps symbolise the slight sense of impermanence that living with a disease provides. The future is as solid as a box provides.

Director Simon Evan’s production keeps the words at its centre. There is very little physical intimacy between the pairs, everyone keeping everything at bay, only through language, so that when a hug finally arrives it feels momentous. The last scene where the two couples lazily stroke arms, leave hands absent-mindedly on legs is riveting simply because we have been denied it before. It’s a brave decision, one that does leave the work feeling chilly for a substantial amount of its 105 minute playing time but one that does just about justify itself by it’s close, mostly helped by its strong quartet. 

This is another work from the Ustinov that features a feast of great acting. Laskey and Johnson are two sides of one illness, Laskey spinning into ever more webs as the illness takes hold while Johnson provides the heaviness of one who has lived with the illness for longer. As the two women, Foster and Small show the loneliness which living with a partner with illness can induce. Foster’s wide beam mask can’t help mask the tears rolling down her cheek while Small’s reaction to potentially being propositioned at the supermarket-as she tries to work out if she is being mocked or offered one final chance of something different- is worth the price of admission alone.

There is a sadness behind the sitcom-like deadpan that keeps its audience gripped while still holding it one step removed. Like much of the work here, you find yourself more impressed with it the longer you let it stew rather than necessarily in the space. Yet with Deborah Warner, all set to walk into the job come the Autumn there still feels like no other venue that challenges and enriches its audiences so much.