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.
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.
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.
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.