The Man in the Grand Circle is changing seats…

It’s almost three years since I launched this theatre blog, and the time has come for me to review my own performance.

After a robust feedback process, I’ve decided to continue writing my reviews – but they will be published on Twitter alone.

All of the reviews here will remain as an archive of what has proved to be a hugely turbulent period for the performing arts in 2020-21.

So, starting from 19 July – “Freedom Day” – The Man in the Grand Circle will be posting reviews in Twitter-sized chunks @ ManGrandCircle.

Thank you to all who’ve read my reviews here over the years.

Hopefully I’ll be seeing you in the Grand Circle, the Stalls or the restricted view cheap seats sometime soon!

Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner review – Royal Court

Leanne Henlon as Cleo (photo: Myah Jeffers)

The Royal Court is back with a banger.

First seen in the small upstairs space in 2019, Jasmine Lee-Jones’s debut play, directed by Milli Bhatia, returns on the main stage to kick off a new season at Sloane Square’s famous venue.

It’s classic Royal Court fare: Provocative? Check  Political? Check. Relevant? Check. Passionate? Thought-provoking? Shitloads of swearing? Check. Check. Check. 

At the heart of this powerful exploration of race, cultural appropriation and queerness through the prism of social media are two unforgettable performances from Leanne Henlon and Tia Bannon.

Henlon plays Cleo, a black woman who responds to the double standards around Kylie Jenner’s lip fillers by tweeting a thread of death threats against the billionaire reality TV star. Cleo’s never lost for words and speaks in social media slang at 100mph. Henlon imbues her with magnificent rage and pathos.

Bannon is funny, vulnerable and passionate as her mixed race friend Kara. A yin to Cleo’s yang.

Aside from Cleo’s hash-tagged fantasies of celebrity homicide, the play’s clever structure divides the scenes into real-world exchanges between the two friends, and what Jasmine Lee-Jones describes in her playtext as “Twitterludes”.

These see Henlon and Bannon bring a Twitterstorm into physical form – including emojis, memes and GIFs – in superbly choreographed sequences of sound and movement, which put me in mind of the chorus in ancient Greek drama.

Lee-Jones’s energetic script doesn’t skimp on modern-day zingers. One of Cleo’s Kylie Jenner tweets reads: ‘The last flash of light she’ll see/ Will not be a selfie/ But the coroner’s camera.”

I can’t not mention Rajha Shakiry’s surreal set design which I took to represent the Twittersphere as a huge cumulonimbus of neurons suspended over the stage.

While the play does occasionally feel more like dissertation than drama, and ends awkwardly, this is a shockingly original 90 minutes that really should be seen.

Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner is at the Royal Court, Sloane Square, London until 27 July.

Amelie The Musical review – Criterion Theatre

Audrey Bresson as Amelie (photo: Pamela Raith)

If you like your theatrical menu du jour to include singing goldfish, killer figs, a nun in a sex shop and possibly the best Elton John impression of all time then Amelie The Musical will be your tasse de thé.

Based on the 2001 film starring Audrey Tautou as the waitress who devotes herself to small acts of kindness in 1990s Paris, this musical by Daniel Messe, Nathan Tysen and Craig Lucas has arrived in the West End via Broadway, a UK tour and a pre-pandemic run at London’s The Other Palace. 

Michael Fentiman’s feel-good production surrounds Audrey Brisson’s immensely likable Amelie with a talented cast of wandering actor-musicians who play multiple characters while simultaneously providing the score.

While the stage does at times seem slightly overcrowded, one can’t help watch in admiration as the cast members navigate the set while vigorously playing a violin or coaxing mournful notes from a cello hooked around their necks. 

Stand out songs include The Girl with the Glass, sung by Amelie and her Renoir-loving artist neighbour Dufayel (Johnson Willis), and Caolan McCarthy’s pitch perfect take on Elton John as Amelie fantasises herself into Princess Diana’s funeral.

Madeleine Girling’s impressive set design conjures up the beauty of Montmartre, as well as the Metro and Notre Dame, with the ingenious use of two upright pianos and a revolving photo booth. 

After months of Covid misery for the theatre industry, this show feels like a joyful – if somewhat surreal – shot in the arm.

Je l’adore.

Amelie The Musical is at the Criterion Theatre, booking to 25 September.

Cruise review – Duchess Theatre

Jack Holden in Cruise (Photo: Pamela Raith)

As the West End comes out of hibernation, among the first new plays to emerge blinking into the light is this beautifully crafted one-man show about the devastating effect of HIV/AIDS on the gay scene in 1980s Soho.

Written and performed by Jack Holden, the play uses the framing device of a phone call to an LGBTQ+ helpline to tell the story of Michael Spencer, who is told he has four years to live after being diagnosed with HIV in 1984.

Michael’s odyssey through the pubs, clubs and house parties of Soho brings us into contact with an array of characters – among them the fur-clad Lady Lennox, Fat Sandy, DJ Fingers and Slutty Dave – all of them brought into vivid existence by Holden with little more than a change of accent or subtle mannerism.

Holden’s performance is sensational. He switches effortlessly from pathetic to energetic, from sleazy to teasing. One moment he’ll be singing or dancing, the next – staring silently at a telephone. For 90 minutes he held me spellbound.

There’s a glorious poetry to the play too. Old Compton Street is likened to a “street of X-rated Narnias”. A drag queen is “250 pounds of hairy-backed femme fatale”. On occasions it slips into rhyming couplets. All this backed with a throbbing 80s-infused electronic score played live on stage by John Elliott.

I’ll be shocked if this doesn’t win awards.

Cruise is at the Duchess Theatre until 13 June

Walden – First night report from the Harold Pinter Theatre

In the week that England’s theatres reopened, one of the most anticipated events was the world premiere of Walden, Amy Berryman’s debut play starring Gemma Arterton.

I was in the audience at the very first performance on Saturday 22 May. Here’s my report:

Before the play, the ritual:

Gemma Arterton, Fehinti Balogun and Lydia Wilson arrive like ghosts on the dimly lit stage.  Holding burning sticks, they draw smoke circles in the air around each other and the perimeter of the set.

It is a symbolic moment of cleansing that signals fresh start at the end of a dark chapter of theatre history.

“I believe this is the beginning of the great new emergence,” is how producer Sonia Friedman phrased it a few moments earlier as she addressed the first night audience, alongside director Ian Rickson, at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

Friedman recalled how in March last year she’d had to close her production of Uncle Vanya at the Pinter as the pandemic took hold.

“We thought it would just be for two weeks, then four weeks, then six weeks at the most…”

And some 14 months later, here we are.

Berryman’s play has an intriguing premise. It is set in future where the planet is in a state of environmental catastrophe. There are tsunamis and “climate refugees”. Even a bottle of wine with a real cork is deemed a luxury. 

In a remote cabin in the woods, former NASA architect Stella (Arterton) and her partner Bryan (Balogun) await the arrival of Stella’s estranged twin sister Cassie (Wilson), a NASA botanist who has just returned to Earth after a year on the Moon.  

While she has been exploring ways for the human race to colonise other planets, Bryan is an Earth Advocate – part of a movement that seeks a greener, more simple way of life here on Earth.

In a series of intense encounters between the three characters, the play explores the themes of sibling rivalry, isolation and survival. There is much that resonates with the here and now.

With atmospheric sound design by Emma Laxton, this absorbing human drama keeps its feet firmly on Earth but has its eyes on the stars.

Walden, part of the RE:Emerge season at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London, is on until 12 June.

The Mousetrap review – St Martin’s Theatre

Wedunnit!

We’re finally allowed back into the theatre in England for the first time this year.  Yes, we’re still in masks and sitting in bubbles. But what a good feeling it is to be in the Royal Circle watching a real live play unfolding on stage.

It seems so right that it’s The Mousetrap that’s leading the charge in London’s West End.

Agatha Christie’s whodunnit may be the longest running play on the planet but tonight’s performance – after so long in lockdown – had the excitement of a world premiere. A smattering of celebrities, including Alexander Armstrong, Michael Ball and Jamie Theakston, turned up to lend their support. 

Before curtain up, producer Adam Spiegel took to the stage with a few words for the socially distanced audience.

“There is something historic about this evening,” he said. “We are world leaders of theatre. We punch above our weight.  What’s historic about this evening is that our industry starts to punch again.”

This production, directed by Ian Talbot, has two casts – so even if you DO know who the murderer is (and I didn’t) there’s the added twist of which actors you’re going to see (you can check on the website if you really want to know in advance).

On opening night (17 May) the cast included familiar names such as Derek Griffiths, Cassidy Janson, Danny Mac, Susan Penhaligon and David Rintoul.

Christie’s thriller may be old school but Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the wee donkey it’s every bit as twisty as an episode of Line of Duty. The action takes place in 1950s England at snowbound Monkswell Manor, a guest house run by Mollie Ralston (Janson, excellent as ever) and husband Giles (Mac).

One by one, an odd selection of guests turns up out of the blizzard, each dressed – by bizarre coincidence – in garments that match the description of a wanted murderer. 

Penhaligon’s tweed-skirted Mrs Boyle is marvelously cantankerous, while Rintoul is memorably mysterious as the flamboyant Mr Paravicini.

I hugely enjoyed Alexander Wolfe’s energetic oddball young architect Christopher Wren.

And Paul Hilliar’s policeman DS Trotter, who turns up on skis, is every bit as thorough as anyone from AC-12.

To say much more would be giving too much away, except to say that Act Two expertly explores some interesting ideas around how much you really know about the people closest to you. 

The Mousetrap is back!

With its eerie atmosphere and occasional jump scares it’s not hard to see why The Mousetrap has endured for almost 70 years.

Amidst all this cautious optimism, we shouldn’t forget how badly the theatre industry has been hit by the pandemic.  This time a year ago the only way to experience theatre was to stream it.  

As live theatre like tonight’s show returns, it  will be a vital source of escapism as we emerge from lockdown. 

This is one trap I don’t mind getting caught in.

The Mousetrap is back at St Martin’s Theatre, London, from 17 May.

A Christmas Carol review – Jermyn Street Theatre / Guildford Shakespeare Company

Brian Blessed as the Ghost of Christmas Present

If you’ve spent too much of 2020 in Zoom meetings, here’s a delightful opportunity to have the irrepressible Brian Blessed booming out of your video conferencing software for a change.

Blessed plays the Ghost of Christmas Present in this inventively staged online production that uses technology to bring Dickens’ festive tale live to your laptop.

Adapted by Naylah Ahmed, this Christmas Carol stays pretty faithful to the original story but slips in topical references to the “sinister sickness” and the “rule of six” during a conversation about inviting Scrooge round for dinner.

As Scrooge, Jim Findley is suitably grouchy before his haunted night of time travel, and there’s more star casting in the form of Penelope Keith (yes, Penelope Keith), as a fabulously regal Ghost of Christmas Past.

Penelope Keith as the Ghost of Christmas Past

Three more actors (Paula James, Robin Morrissey and Lucy Pearson) play all of the other roles alongside three young ensembles as the various children. 

With each actor boxed up in their individual screens, director Natasha Rickman has the daunting job of keeping it all flowing – something she does with aplomb. The interplay between the characters in the Cratchit household works particularly well.

There’s even some Zoom audience participation in the Fezziwig dance scene, which adds to the sense of fun.

As you’d expect, Brian Blessed’s larger-than-life performance steals the show – at one point it seems like he’s trying to clamber out of the screen. He also sings a beautiful We Three Kings. Meanwhile, Robin Morrissey is particularly good in the multiple roles of Bob Cratchit, Jacob Marley and Mr Fezziwig, amongst others.

Beth Mann’s virtual backgrounds and visual effects add plenty of visual pop to the proceedings, and help make this one of the season’s more unusual and innovative offerings.

A Christmas Carol is online until 27 December

A Christmas Carol review – Dominion Theatre

Brian Conley as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol

Even the Ghost of Christmas Yet-To-Be didn’t foresee this…

Just a few hours before the opening night of this staged concert version of Dickens’ festive favourite it was announced that London would be going into Tier 3.

By the time this review is published the show will be in the bizarre situation of being about to close.

That’s a shame – because this uplifting production, directed by Shaun Kerrison, with vibrant musical accompaniment by the London Musical Theatre Orchestra led by Freddie Tapner, fills the Dominion’s giant auditorium full of Christmas cheer (and some snow if you’re lucky). 

After the Bridge Theatre’s excellent – and somewhat darker – stripped back three-hander version, this Christmas Carol feels like a widescreen epic with a cast of thousands.

Brian Conley’s miserly Scrooge has a wonderfully rich delivery (I’d love to see him as Jean Valjean in Les Mis.) While it’s very much Conley’s show, there’s excellent vocal support from Jacqueline Jossa as Scrooge’s old flame Emily (and the silent Ghost of Christmas Future) and Sam Oladeinde as the young Scrooge.

I also really liked Lucie Jones’ fairy-like Ghost of Christmas Past and Cedric Neal’s fun-loving, dancing spirit of the Present.

The show really warms up in Act Two with memorable ensemble pieces like the energetic Abundance and Charity and the spooky chant of Dancing on your Grave.

At the end, an emotional Conley paid tribute to the hard work of the cast, orchestra and production team. “This is the weirdest, weirdest opening night I’ve ever had – it’s bizarre,” he said.

“Tonight is like a shining star in the darkness. It proves that we can do it. It’s not just about us, it’s about every show.”

“We will be back,” Conley promised, like a theatrical version of The Terminator.

Let’s hope it won’t be too long.

A Christmas Carol began previews at the Dominion Theatre on 7 December, opened on 14 December and closed on 15 December due to Covid restrictions.

A Christmas Carol review – Bridge Theatre

After another theatrical hiatus due to Lockdown #2 it felt good to get back to the Bridge for this dark, delicious serving of festive Dickens.

My previous visit here was three months ago to see Ralph Fiennes flying solo. This time we are treated to a cast of three.

And what a cast: Simon Russell Beale (worth the ticket price alone), who plays Scrooge, along with the ever-wonderful Patsy Ferran and the vocally versatile Eben Figueiredo.

The last time I saw Simon Russell Beale on stage was in the sublime The Lehman Trilogy. This version of A Christmas Carol shares much of the same DNA. Three actors narrate the story while taking on multiple roles, often with simple swish of a scarf or the donning of a hat.

Nicholas Hytner’s production makes use of a few simple props, puppets, back projections and geysers of fog to conjure up an atmospheric, and often scary, Dickensian London.

Suspended above Bunny Christie and Rose Revitt’s set is a spaghetti of chains which clanks into action with each ghostly visit. Gareth Fry’s sound design – alive with whispering voices – is superb.

This may not be on the lavish scale of, say, the Old Vic’s annual crowd-pleaser, but it’s well worth putting on your Christmas list.

A Christmas Carol is at the Bridge Theatre until 16 January 2021.

Beat the Devil review – Bridge Theatre

My first indoor theatre experience after lockdown was, perhaps inevitably, this Covid-19 monologue written by David Hare about his own experience of having the virus.

To make this play possible, the Bridge Theatre has had the majority of its seats removed, enabling a masked audience to sit in socially isolated clusters. And it works. It feels safe. One hopes it will prove a viable model for other theatres to follow suit.

Hare’s rage-filled, and often very funny, script is brought to life by Ralph Fiennes on a simple set that consists of little more than a desk and chair. In a blue shirt and jeans, often with his hands on his hips, Fiennes is an engaging and likable narrator for this pandemic diary packed with politics and polemic.

Unsurprisingly, Hare directs much of his anger at the government’s handling of the crisis, and makes some fascinating points about the ministerial use of language; but what struck me most about this play was that it was the first time – despite all the blanket media coverage and survivors’ stories – that I had a genuine sense of what it must be like to have the virus invading your body.

Hare doesn’t skimp on the detail, and Fiennes gets to deliver delicious lines about food tasting like “sewage” and his skin turning the “colour of Bela Lugosi”. There are touching, intimate descriptions too – such as the moment when Hare’s wife Nicole places herself on top of him like a duvet in an attempt to cool his fever.

Directed by Nicholas Hytner, and running for just under an hour, this is a simple, beautifully written piece, that really helped me take stock of the extraordinary events of the last few months.

Unlike the pandemic, I didn’t want it to end.

Beat the Devil is at the Bridge Theatre in London on assorted dates until 31 October