Category Archives: Arts

If you need a laugh Barking in Essex might just do it! @BarkingInEssex

If you don’t mind your humour dolled up and dumbed down then it’s likely you will find the late Clive Exton’s “new” comedy an easy laugh. Exton, most known for working on the scripts of Poirot and Jeeves and Wooster, blends the criminal and the comedic in this blue satire on the nation’s favourite stereotype.

The curtain rises to reveal a particularly garish lounge, complete with zebra print curtains, a floor to ceiling fish tank, a plastic stag’s head and a tower of Fererro Rocher arranged neatly on their own designated table.

The fabulously vulgar set is trumped promptly by the appearance of the first character, fake-tanned and high-heeled Chrissie Packer (Keeley Hawes) who is every bit the imagined Essex girl, announcing her presence with the cry “You c*nt!”

This outburst is aimed at her husband, Darnley (Lee Evans), who has just returned from a particularly disastrous attempt to win a million on the classic game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

It is easy to laugh at dimmer-than-a-burnt-out-light-bulb Darnley’s endearing ignorance, which is enhanced by Evans’ array of exaggerated gestures and facial expressions. Berated by his wife and mother Emmie (Sheila Hancock) for getting the answer to the £100 question wrong, we soon learn of the real reason for their fury. Darnley’s brother Algie is due to return from prison to collect the £3m he left safely in the hands of his mother – the problem being that there is no £3m. The money has been frittered away by Emmie and Chrissie, and the not-quite criminal masterminds have to quickly come up with a Plan B.

What ensues is a comedy of errors, including a botched murder by an elderly hitman, which seems to cause little more concern than the near staining of the leather sofa.

Perhaps a little more prudish than some, the profusion of F-words and C-words initially shocked, and then amused me, before beginning to feel somewhat gratuitous. In true Essex style, the script was more brash than nuanced, and I was left wanting there to be just a little more below the surface. The plot at times felt more gently winding than twisting and turning.

That said, Hancock’s portrayal of the foul-mouthed and loosely moraled Emmie raised more than a few laughs, and the rest of the cast did the best they could with an arguably lacking script.

If you’re looking for some food for thought, or something to take your gran to, this probably isn’t it. But as a respite from the pressures of work or study, a laugh that won’t ask for anything in return may be just what you need.

Barking Essex is playing at  Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Road.  Box office:  0844 482 5120.

Box office opening hours: Tue-Sat 10am-7.45pm; Sun-Mon 10am-6pm.

Performance times: Tue-Sat 7.30pm; Thu-Sat 2.30pm; Sundays 3pm.

A remarkable new twist on Sleeping Beauty

This Christmas, one of the most loved and enchanting stories ever told, Sleeping Beauty, is boldly adapted and transformed by Jez Bond and Mark Cameron. It’s premiering as the Park Theatre’s first annual Christmas pantomime.

This new stage version not only reinvents the classic fairytale, but completely transfigures it – spinning it upside-down and inside-out, dousing it in spectacular colours, showering  it with fairy dust, wrapping it in twinkling Christmas lights and inflating it to bursting point.

It comes with new and original music, comedy and drama – all in true raucous pantomime style. Co-written by the artistic director, Bond, and associate artist, Cameron, the original script and music brings a fresh, quirky and at times vulgar take on the good versus evil story to the stage. It’s bursting with bold, loveable characters tackled by a superbly talented cast, both human and canine.

The result? A wildly entertaining and, for the most part, captivating production in which the audience revels, drawn in with magnetic effect.

The attention to detail in every aspect of the script is a treat; set in the mythical land of Waa – a nonsensical far-away kingdom encompassing various distinctive provinces and a bizarre original dialect – the setting and background to the production and script is a creative success in itself. The ridiculous ‘Pilipotsian’ dialect used throughout the pantomime to tremendous audience amusement is a personal highlight, as is the simple but novel inclusion of “A Note on Pronunciation” – a guide to the language of Waa – that’s included in the production guide (a beautifully produced book covering all aspects of the production, together with the full script). It’s these small details that bring this Sleeping Beauty to life.

The cast of six, including co-writer Mark Cameron as the Dame, tackles the range of colourful roles confidently and with fluidity.  This is a feat, considering the amount of role-doubling in the production.  Every character exudes personality, charisma, charm and unique comedic value, and each is instantly loveable.

Special mention must be made of Cameron, who brings a most farcical, slapstick Dame to the stage, whose gaudy antics and constant demand for audience participation (Pilipotsian dialect training, including body movements) in true pantomime style adds a vigour to the production.

The original music is fabulous in its simplicity. The toe-tapping musical numbers are interwoven into the production in such a way that there’s a steady balance between song and drama. The entire cast does glorious justice to the vocal elements of the production. The visual elements, ranging from the set and lighting to the costumes, are all of an incredibly high standard and one would be pushed to find fault in any of these aspects.

Victor Craven’s eye-catching projection designs add an extra creative element to Sleeping Beauty and allow for smooth, swift transitions from scene to scene and far more visual exploration into the land of Waa than would otherwise be possible.

Unfortunately, it does feel as if the performance loses momentum and some of its spark towards the end of Act II, and the final few scenes feel somewhat rushed by the cast, especially when compared in duration to the opening few scenes. Distracted younger audience members – fidgeting, crying and generally restless – indicate a drifting audience, which is a huge pity as one gets the feeling that Sleeping Beauty climaxes early and doesn’t end at its best. It could perhaps do with being slightly shorter, even if purely for the youngsters.

Sleeping Beauty is as raucous and boisterous as it is charming, making for light-hearted entertainment that, taken at face value, is a joy for the entire family. Yes, the production is gloriously absurd in every way, but isn’t that the point and the appeal of the peculiar British tradition that is winter musical comedy theatre?

Cheesy, imaginative and thoroughly enjoyable, Sleeping Beauty is a true winter warmer and one that I recommend.

Sleeping Beauty runs until 19 January 2014 at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park.

Evenings: Tues – Sat 7.30pm
Matinees: Sat & Sun 3pm

Booking information:
By phone: 020 7870 6876

Women in Shakespeare a three day conference at Shakespeare’s Globe

Shakespeare’s Globe theatre jointly delivers the Birkbeck MA programme, Shakespeare and Contemporary Performance. It kicked off a three-day conference last night, Women in Shakespeare.

The conference includes discussions on women in Shakespeare and in scholarship editing and feminism. It will also honour Professor Ann Thompson, a renowned Shakespearean expert, who recently retired from King’s College London.

Thompson was described by her colleague Neal Taylor as a “scholar, teacher, feminist, journalist, and Shakespearean”. He went on to describe her as a person who led by example and that “she was superb to work for and superb to work with”.

Thompson herself was a little bit more restrained about her accomplishments, but as the evening went on it was evident that his words about her were correct.

Her delivery was impeccable and after hearing Thompson speak for just a short while, you were not surprised to learn she was the curator of the Women’s Wit season as well.

This event has been well subscribed to and tickets for Saturday are completely sold out. No further tickets will be sold for the event, but the Globe will re-release seats if there are confirmed cancellations.

It may well be worth your time to drop by the box office today or Sunday to try and secure entry.  Many academics will lead the discussions, such as Professor Lois Potter and Professor Kate McLuskie.

If you’re interested in the role of women in Shakespeare’s writing, then this is an opportunity to hear the views and theories of some of the leading names in Shakespearean studies. I’d urge you to try and get a ticket for this weekend.

The box office is at Shakespeare’s Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, London SE1 9DT – opening hours Monday – Saturday 10am – 5pm and Sunday 10am – 4pm.

‘Terms and Conditions’ at the White Bear in Kennington

Wittily written, ‘Terms and Conditions’ is a thought-provoking, angst-ridden play, which leaves one feeling unsurprisingly contemplative, one’s existential sensitivities firmly ablaze. This is of little surprise, since the writer of the play, Patrick Marmion, set out to write something that would explore and subvert the concept of ‘reality’. In an interview Director Patrick Marmion articulates his doubts over modern society’s seeming confidence in this idea of ‘reality’ – doubts which come across lucidly in the way the play examines ordinary, suburban life through the wanderings of the unconscious.

The play is set in the newly bought home of a young couple with two children. Whilst endeavoring to tackle the typically mundane suburban task of unblocking the toilet, Kat (wife and mother, played by Jennie Gruner) stumbles upon an old, repellent smelling man residing in her basement. ‘Liv,’ as he comes to be known, turns out to be a violinist of apparently Eastern European descent – though the specifics of his ethnic heritage are kept purposefully ambiguous throughout. With slightly questionable haste, the couple decides to allow this wandering stranger to continue living in their basement and integrate him into their family life. The play thence explores the somewhat fraught relationship built between the couple and this unconventional addition to their home, examining the pressures of suburban, ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ life, with an at times quite sinister edge.

Played brilliantly by Mike Burnside, Liv’s heart-warming and child-like persona detracts little from the symbolic efficacy of his occupying the rejected, contentious space of ‘the other’ and personifying the unconscious projections of both Kat and Les. This ‘otherness’ is emphasized continually in the heated arguments the couple have over the seeming irreconcilability of ‘his’ culture with theirs. By constantly reiterating that ‘they’re not like us where he comes from… they do things differently there,’ whilst never specifying this elusive ‘other’ place, Marmion provocatively explores the ‘us and them’ trope that is dominant within postcolonial thinking. Within this suburban, nuclear family, the casualness with which misinformed cultural assumptions are embedded in everyday thinking is brought into sharp relief. These tense confrontations also have one wincing somewhat at the less desirable side of young, married life, with interruptions from the crying newborn only serving to heighten one’s sense of empathetic frustration.

The audience is often left to wonder as to whether Liv is indeed ‘real’ in the objective sense, or whether he represents some phantasmal construction that differentially reflects each family member’s inner thinking. It is this looming ambiguity that overhangs the entire play, which renders the quite simple plot so thought-provoking and compelling. If it was Marmion’s intention to destabilize the audience’s confidence in ‘reality’, he certainly does so with great efficacy. However, whilst grappling with a number of pretty heavy issues and blurring the lines between ‘unreality’ and ‘reality’ (which, I might add, is no mean feat), Marmion keeps the play engaging and light-hearted with a brilliantly witty and fast-moving script. It is expertly cast too, so that the humorous side of the play is in no way overshadowed by the seriousness of some of the issues raised, and the audience is kept laughing throughout. The couple’s best friends, ‘Liz’ (played by Victoria Walsh) and ‘Walter’ (played by Jermaine Dominique) initially appear a delightfully comical pair, slurring and booty-shaking their way through one of the preliminary acts, only to sober up and reveal a more complex, darker side thereafter.

Mike Burnside was, for me, the highlight of the evening – from his heavy-footed meandering across the stage, to his frequent grunts and sighs, his performance was unfaultable. This is not to say that the other cast-members were not of an equal caliber, very much in fitting with the theatre’s obviously successful aim to ‘nurture talent’, with the likes of Emily Watson having previous ‘cut their teeth’ on its small stage. Self-described as a ‘space where risks can be taken’, The White Bear appears the perfect location in which to house Marmion’s play. This small, fringe theatre, located two minutes from Kennington tube station, in the back room of an old pub, facilitates an immediate intimacy between the cast and audience, who are a mere breath away from one another. For a play that seeks to blur the lines of ‘reality’, what better way to start than by spatially blurring the lines between actor and spectator?

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Running until the 1st December, with tickets priced at £15 for adults, £10 concessions, I thoroughly recommend heading to The White Bear to see this truly excellent play (and staying around for a drink or two at the pub at the front).


‘A Walk on Part’ @ The Soho Theatre

Chris Mullin’s diaries on the fall of New Labour brought to the stage.

It may seem an unlikely subject for a night’s theatrical entertainment but A Walk On Part, Michael Chaplin’s adaptation and distillation of Chris Mullin’s political diaries is funny, absorbing and cracks along at a terrific pace.

John Hodgkinson’s portrayal brings Chris Mullin’s honesty, humanity and self-effacing wit to bear on the follies, mistakes and, to Mullin’s mind at least, the successes of the New Labour years. The audience are guided from the heady days of May 1997’s landslide election victory to the fall of New Labour in 2010 by way of 9/11, George W. Bush, WMD, the Iraq war, MPs’ expenses and the financial crisis as Mullin progresses from backbencher to junior minister and back again.

The other four members of the cast – Sara Powell, Tracy Gillman, Hywel Morgan and Jim Kitson – between them bring to life a vast number of characters ranging from ‘JP’ (John Prescott) to ‘The Man’ (Tony Blair) and Clare Short to Mullin’s wife, Ngoc. Some of the impressions are spot on: the audience particularly enjoyed a demonstration of how long it takes for a smile to get from Gordon Brown’s brain to his lips.

A Walk On Part does not just concentrate on events in Westminster but is peppered with the less glamorous concerns of a constituency MP (Sunderland South) as well as providing touching vignettes from family life including Mullin’s wife’s observation that he’ll need more than one suit when he becomes Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (whew!).

Staging, by Max Roberts, is simple but effective. A screen at the back of the stage flashes up iconic images such as the planes smashing into the twin towers and key dates to keep us anchored in the story’s timeline. The other cast members weave in and out of John Hodgkinson’s performance seamlessly, making the whole seem effortless and shorter than its two hours.

Whatever you think of New Labour’s politics, A Walk On Part offers an insight, albeit an unfeasibly gentle one, to the Blair and Brown years as well as to the potentially more interesting character of Chris Mullin, himself.

For the performance, audience members are seated at tables, cabaret style and, while this may take some getting used to, it does not hinder enjoyment especially as there is a bar in the same room. All in all, a fun night out in a terrific venue.

Performances run until December 10th at 7:30pm with matinees on Thursdays and Saturdays at 2:30pm. There are no performances on Sundays. Tickets are generally £15 full price, £12.50 concessions (students, disabled, seniors, Westminster residents and unwaged) although some Fridays and Saturdays are £20 and £17.50 respectively and matinees are £12.50 full price and £10, concessions.

The Soho Theatre is at 21 Dean Street |Only 20-minutes walk from Birkbeck.

[Published initially 22/11/2011]