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Towards Zero review – The Mill at Sonning

4 star review

Brian Blessed’s Agatha Christie productions have been an annual fixture at The Mill at Sonning since 2016, when I was lucky enough to interview him about his debut as a theatre director with The Hollow. “It’s a virginal experience!” he boomed at me back then across the Mill’s intimate auditorium.

This latest whodunnit Towards Zero, co-written with Gerald Verner, completes what Blessed calls his “quartet of Agatha Christie plays”. Visitors to his previous productions will recognise some returning cast members, including his wife Hildegard Neil and daughter Rosalind Blessed, as well as George Telfer, here playing Superintendent Battle.

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Hildegard Neil and Rob Heanley in Towards Zero (photo: Andreas Lambis)

The story takes place in the drawing room of wealthy Lady Tressilian’s clifftop home in Cornwall where an annual gathering includes Thomas Royde (Patrick Myles), back from Malaya and carrying a set of golf clubs (wonder what they might be used for?), family solicitor Matthew Treves (Noel White) and Lady T’s former ward Nevile Strange (Rob Heanley), who has turned up – rather awkwardly – with both his new wife Kay (Bethan Nash) and his ex Audrey (Kate Tydman).

Unsurprisingly, the atmosphere in the house is rather strained. Kay kicks things off by angrily ripping up a photo of Audrey. With talk of a large inheritance hanging in the air, it can only be a matter of time before someone gets murdered with a nine iron.

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Kay Strange (Bethan Nash) with her friend Ted Latimer (Duncan Wilkins) Photo by Andreas Lambis

While Brian Blessed himself doesn’t appear on stage, his distinctive voice opens the play reading the shipping forcecast on the wireless.

Neil’s Lady Tressilian is a joy, especially the way she delivers lines like: “Her mother was notorious all over the Riviera.” I also loved the simmering tension between Nash’s tempestuous Kay, and Tydman’s glacial Audrey.

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Matthew Treves (Noel White) and Superintendent Battle (George Telfer) in Towards Zero (photo: Andreas Lambis)

Although they don’t appear until later, Telfer’s Superintendent Battle and Chris Pybus’s Inspector Leach make a likeable crime-busting duo.

There are, of course, twists galore. The excellent cast, combined with Dinah England’s splendid period set, make this a thoroughly entertaining two hours.

No zeroes here, but a solid four stars.

Towards Zero is at The Mill at Sonning until 28 September








How Fleabag got kick-started

With Fleabag the hottest ticket in the West End right now, I’ve been thinking back to when I interviewed Phoebe Waller-Bridge in 2014 about the show’s inception.

It wasn’t the first time we’d met. That was in early 2013 when she told me about the challenges of appearing naked on stage in Jack Thorne’s Mydidae at Trafalgar Studios. But that’s another story.

Later that same year Phoebe performed Fleabag for the first time at the Edinburgh Fringe and at London’s Soho Theatre.

I caught up with Phoebe again at the Soho Theatre when Fleabag returned there in 2014.  By now the show had more buzz than a bag of bees.

This time I was writing a BBC News piece on how theatre productions of all sizes were embracing the world of crowdfunding.

Original Fleabag publicity image (DryWrite)

Phoebe and director Vicky Jones welcomed me backstage after the show. They told me how their company DryWrite made a promo video and sourced almost £4,000 via Kickstarter to help fund Fleabag’s run in Edinburgh.

“We thought it was too good to be true,” Phoebe said. “We watched other people’s videos and we thought this is where we should be.”

As you can still see on the original Kickstarter page, 54 people stumped up amounts ranging from £10 to £500 to help the show on its way. The script wasn’t even finished when the money started to come in.

You can read my original BBC article here.

The video on the Kickstarter page is worth a watch for an insight into how this one-woman show helped turn Phoebe Waller-Bridge into the household name behind the Fleabag TV series, Killing Eve and the new James Bond film No Time To Die.

“There are some things I just want to say out loud in front of an audience,” Phoebe says cheekily in the video amid the pleas for money.

One imagines that finances aren’t quite such a problem now. I remarked to a friend who paid £65 for a seat at Fleabag’s sold-out run at Wyndham’s Theatre that it worked out at exactly £1 a minute.

But, as those original investors must have felt back in 2013, it will be worth every penny.

Fleabag is at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, until 14 September







The Doctor review – Almeida Theatre

4 star review

Robert Icke ends his long and fruitful association with the Almeida (Hamlet, Uncle Vanya, Oresteia, 1984 to name a few) with this “freely” adapted version of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1912 play Professor Bernhardi.

Juliet Stevenson plays Professor Ruth Wolff, the head of a private medical institute, who finds herself at the centre of a PR storm when she refuses to allow a priest to administer the last rites to a teenager who is is dying from sepsis after a self-administered abortion.

Wolff likes to be “crystal clear” about what she thinks – it’s a phrase she uses multiple times – and she’s a stickler for the precise use of language. What’s so clever about Icke’s play is that things are not crystal clear at all.  It constantly forces you to reassess everything you see and hear.  A character may say they are a particular sex or colour, but that’s not what’s in front of you.

There’s a strangeness about many of the earlier scenes – such as Wolff’s conversations with her partner (Joy Richardson) and the teenager in her house (Ria Zmitrowicz) – which only start to make sense towards the end.

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Ria Zmitrowicz and Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor (photo: Manuel Harlan)


Stevenson, in her white coat, is a rivetting presence. Her performance seems to becomes more powerful as her character becomes increasingly vulnerable.

The play explores anti-semitism, faith versus science, personal versus public interest, gender politics,  freedom of choice and above all – the concept of identity.

The second act brings this into sharp focus in gripping scene in which Professor Wolff is quizzed in a live TV debate. Except it’s more like a witch trial (in an earlier scene Wolff says “doctors are witches in white”). This being an Icke play, it’s no surprise that this involves the use of a camera and big screen projections onto Hildegard Bechtler’s suitably clinical set.

Stevenson is utterly spellbinding throughout, and there’s strong support from Zmitrowicz, Mariah Louca as the hospital’s press officer, Nathalie Armin as Health Minster Jemima Flint and Paul Higgins as the priest.

My final diagnosis? It’s just what the doctor ordered.

The Doctor is at the Almeida Theatre until 28 September 2019

Actually review – Trafalgar Studios

3 star review

Back in 2015 Anna Ziegler had something of a West End hit with her play Photograph 51, which starred Nicole Kidman in an award-winning performance as pioneering British scientist Rosalind Franklin.

Four years on Ziegler is back in London with this intense two-hander which examines the thorny issue of sexual consent through the story of two students at America’s elite Princeton University.

We first see Amber (Yasmin Paige) and Tom (Simon Manyonda) begin their fateful date at a party where their courtship (or foreplay) includes a game of Two Truths and a Lie.

They spend the night in his room, but when Amber accuses Tom of rape the pair present their conflicting accounts in forensic detail to a college committee which will determine whether sexual misconduct occurred.

Tom points out that the weight of evidence required for either of their stories to be believed could be  “fifty percent plus a feather”. It’s a potent image that echoes throughout the play’s talky but engaging 90 minutes.

Manyonda and Paige have excellent chemistry and cope admirably with the script’s rapid switches between dialogue and their individual confessionals to the audience.

Yasmin Paige as Amber in Actually

Paige’s Amber is nervous and quirky, speaks at a hundred miles per hour and has a tendency to say the wrong thing. Manyonda brings plenty of depth and pathos to his confident and classical music loving Tom.

As Zeigler states in her playwright’s note, the statement she is trying to make is not about the standard of proof that decides these cases, but the wider motivations that drive us to behave as we do.

There are no easy answers here, but director Oscar Toeman keeps the action brisk,  ensuring each character has their story clearly heard.

As I headed out of the theatre towards Trafalgar Square under darkening skies I reflected on what I’d just seen and how that the concept of truth, in an age where fake news has become a daily mantra, now seemed more slippery than ever.

Actually is at Trafalgar Studios until 31 August












8 Hotels review – Chichester Festival Theatre

3 star review

As the title suggests, playwright Nicholas Wright makes clever use of eight different hotel rooms as the background setting for this story about race, politics and relationships in mid-20th Century America.

At the heart of the drama, based on real events, is the love triangle between actors Paul Robeson (of Ol’ Man River fame), Uta Hagen and her husband Jose Ferrer while on a coast to coast theatre tour of Othello after a successful run in New York.

Robeson was the first black American to play the title role on Broadway – opposite Hagen’s Desdemona and Ferrer’s Iago.

This being 1940s America, it was unusual to have an actor of colour in a leading role playing to racially integrated audiences across the country.

8 Hotels opens in 1944 with a scene between Hagen (Emma Paetz), and Ferrer (Ben Curer) in which her challenge over his control of the marital finances hints at the faultlines in their relationship.

The focus then switches to Robeson (Tory Kittles), who has been given a room in the hotel that “doesn’t exist”. It transpires that the hotel has “never had a negro guest”. In an act of protest, the trio of actors decide to leave and find alternative accommodation.

The only other character in the play is Othello’s English director Margaret Webster (Pandora Colin) through whom we learn of Ferrer’s infidelities with another actress in the cast.

The next scene then establishes that Hagen and Robeson are themselves having a fully-fledged affair.

Amidst the racial inequality and infidelity on display, other interesting details to emerge concern Robeson’s own political leanings (at one point he speaks of the Soviet Union as “the land of the free”) and his admission that his “acting’s not too hot”. On more than one occasion we witness Hagen’s attempts to teach her leading man how to emote from the heart.

Paetz is excellent as Hagen, filling her character with genuine passion and anger. The sparks of sexual tension between Hagen and Robeson flicker brightly through almost every scene. (Wright notes in the programme that some of the events in the play are based on interviews with Uta Hagen conducted in the 1980s.)

There are strong performance too from Curer and Kittles, particularly in a tense scene where Robeson and Ferrer play chess – the game acting as a metaphor for their intense rivalry over Hagen.

The hotel room set, designed by Rob Howell, wonderfully evokes the decor of the era while the video projections that accompany each scene change give a great sense of both the changing locations and seismic shifts in the politics of the time.

Richard Eyre’s production feels strongest when it foregrounds its human relationships. Some of the play’s momentum is lost towards the end as the story jumps forward several years to examine the after effects of the McCarthy-ist communist witch-hunts, but this world premiere takes an engaging and original approach in its examination of a turbulent period of American history.

8 Hotels is at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, until 24 August.