Katherine Parkinson is mesmerising in EV Crowe’s multi-layered, and sometimes baffling, tragicomedy about a woman who loses a shoe on her way to work.
In little over an hour we follow a day in the life of estate agent Viv as she wakes in bed, tends to her young son, stresses about her lopsided curtains, and then descends into increasing levels of frustration and panic as she attempts to cope wearing only one shoe, while her exposed foot is getting bloodier by the minute.
On the surface it all seems rather absurd but Crowe seems to be making a point about the fragility of the middle class comfort zone. The story is, for the most part, told through Viv’s monologue. On the page, her words are poetic and sparse. Under Vicky Featherstone’s direction, Parkinson brings them vividly to life alongside a handful of other speaking characters that include a similarly shoe-less homeless woman Elaine (Kayla Meikle) and, yes, a talking curtain.
Aided by Matthew Herbert’s atmospheric piano score, and an energetic song and dance number, the play’s 65 minutes fly by – and not just because Parkinson is almost always in motion on a travelator.
Shoe Lady is at the Royal Court, London, until 21 March
Here are a just a few of the plays The Man in the Grand Circle has his eye on this year.
Among the star names coming to the London stage are Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke (see above photo) in Anya Reiss’s adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull for the Jamie Lloyd Company at the Playhouse Theatre in March. Timothee Chalamet and Eileen Atkins appear in 4000 Miles at the Old Vic the following month, while back at the Playhouse Theatre in June is one of my favourite actresses (I’ve been lucky enough to interview her twice), Jessica Chastain, in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.
If you can’t wait that long for your Ibsen fix, then check out Stef Smith’s Nora: A Doll’s House – a “radical” retelling of the story at the Young Vic in February.
For Samuel Beckett fans it’s like Christmas all over again in January. Trevor Nunn directs a triple bill at London’s Jermyn Street Theatre (Krapp’s Last Tape, Eh Joe, The Old Tune) with a cast that includes Niall Buggy, Lisa Dwan, James Hayes and David Threlfall, while over at the Old Vic Alan Cumming, Daniel Radcliffe and Jane Horrocks star in Endgame.
February’s offerings include David Mitchell making his West End debut in Ben Elton’s Shakespearean comedy Upstart Crow at the Gielgud Theatre. I’m also intrigued by Hampstead Theatre’s The Haystack, a thriller by Al Blyth about GCHQ and surveillance.
Those who like their thrillers with a supernatural edge might want to check out The House on Cold Hill, starring Debbie McGee, at The Mill at Sonning in April.
On the National Theatre’s programme I like the look of Lucy Kirkwood’s The Welkin, starring Maxine Peake and Ria Zmitrowicz (opening this month). In April, Thea Sharrock directs Jack Absolute Flies Again, a new play by Richard Bean and Oliver Chris based on Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals. And in August Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley are the star-crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet.
Talking of unmissable Shakespeare, Cush Jumbo takes on Hamlet at the Young Vic in July.
Further afield, my theatrical sweet tooth is tempted by Quality Street, Northern Broadsides’ revival of JM Barrie’s farce by which opens in February in Halifax’s Viaduct Theatre and then tours. Barrie’s play was so popular at the time that it gave the chocolates their name.
And there I was trying to give up chocolate this month…
If you missed Laura Wade’s The Watsons at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2019, be sure to catch it at the Harold Pinter Theatre where it opens in May. This genius trip into the Jane Austen universe owes a lot to Pirandello, as does the title of this play at the Southwark Playhouse in April: Five Characters in Search of a Good Night’s Sleep.
Finally, to the Royal Court for a play (in June) which has quite possibly best title of the year: Purple Snowflakes and Titty Wanks.
Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s new play starts off as an entertaining and positive snapshot of multicultural Britain. School sweethearts Gary and Nicky are throwing a birthday party at their council flat. He’s black, she’s white – and they have their hopes pinned on Gary getting a promotion at work that will give them and their kids a better life.
The party guests include British Pakistani couple Mo and Anjum, Gary’s sister Karen, Gary’s workmate Mark (whose birthday it is) and Gary’s manager Victoria.
The big laughs and joyful atmosphere of the play’s opening scene quickly dissipate as Victoria gets drunk and comes out with a number of remarks that leave the atmosphere chillier than the Prosecco in the fridge.
What follows is a sharply observed examination of race, privilege, class and education in contemporary Britain. Victoria’s behaviour sets in motion a chain of events that open up devastating fault lines between Nicky, Gary and their friends.
At a brisk 95 minutes it sometimes feels like watching a soap opera, but director Michael Buffong ensures every scene has the power to make the audience squirm or cheer out loud.
Richie Campbell and Claire-Louise Cordwell are outstanding as the central couple Gary and Nicky. Petra Letang’s no-nonsense Karen and Asif Khan’s Mo provide some comic relief, and there’s strong support too from Manjinder Virk as the ambitious Anjum, Thomas Coombes as Mark and Amy Morgan as Victoria.
There’s not much Christmas cheer here, but Bhatti’s emotional drama delivers a punch that you’ll feel for a long time after you’ve left the theatre.
A Kind of People is at the Royal Court until 18 January
It’s no surprise that this staging of Dickens’ Christmas classic is back for a third year at the Old Vic. It clearly has the potential to become as perennial as other festive must-sees like The Snowman and It’s a Wonderful Life.
Directed by Matthew Warchus, writer Jack Thorne’s version of the Scrooge story manages to be both pleasingly traditional while at the same time feel like an exciting reinvention.
With the audience on all sides, Rob Howell’s atmospheric set cuts a path through the stalls, lit from above by myriad lanterns. The costumes, beautiful yet battered, might be described as distressed Dickensian chic.
Paterson Joseph plays Scrooge with the grouch dial turned up to 11. His dismissive description of the carol singers at his front door as “singing creatures” is particularly entertaining. And his handling of the old miser’s (spoiler alert) Christmas morning transformation was so well done I found myself grinning with uncontrollable delight.
Warchus doesn’t hold back on the emotional punches. Expect tears among the laughs, not least during Scrooge’s encounters with his lost love Belle (an excellent Rebecca Trehearn) and Tiny Tim (played variously by Rayhaan Kufuor-Gray, Lara Mehmet, Lenny Rush and Eleanor Stollery).
Not an inch of the auditorium is wasted, with some inventive set pieces popping up on every level, and the whole experience is enhanced by Christopher Nightingale’s exquisite score and beautifully sung carols.
This show is an absolute cracker. If you’re lucky you might even get given a mince pie or a satsuma from one of the cast as you settle in your seat. Merry Christmas, one and all!
A Christmas Carol is at The Old Vic until 18 January 2020
This vivacious new musical arrival in the West End opens with William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway having a marital disagreement over his tragic ending for Romeo and Juliet. Wouldn’t it be better, she argues, if the heroine didn’t kill herself in the final scene? “She’s got her whole life ahead of her, and she’s only had one boyfriend.”
And so begins a hugely entertaining mash-up of Shakespearean drama and the pop music of Max Martin, whose hits include Britney Spears’ Oops! I Did It Again, Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl and Ariane Grande’s Problem.
They’re all here among the 30 or so songs that help propel Juliet’s journey from Verona to Paris and back again, as well as the big themes of female empowerment and being the person you want to be.
As Juliet, Miriam-Teak Lee belts out the hits brilliantly, and shines equally in the quieter, more reflective moments. Cassidy Janson’s Anne Hathaway is a force of nature who gives the show so much of its joie de vivre, and I also enjoyed the comedy pairing of Lance (David Bedella) and Nurse (Melanie La Barrie).
Jukebox musicals often get a lot of stick, but this one, directed by Luke Sheppard, is done so well that you’d have to have taken a big gulp of Juliet’s sleeping potion not to come out smiling.
& Juliet is at the Shaftesbury Theatre until 30 May 2020
So many superlatives have already been used to describe this production of Arthur Miller’s classic, originally a hit at the Young Vic, that it seems almost pointless to seek out any more.
Now in the West End, this version – with the Lomans as an African-American family – is one not to be missed. It is poetic, moving and devastating.
At its heart are four stunning performances. Wendell Pierce enthralls as Willy Loman, the salesman of the title for whom the American Dream has remained out of reach. As his wife Linda Loman, Sharon D Clarke crackles with love, anger and grief, and Sope Dirisu and Natey Jones are outstanding as the Loman sons Biff and Happy.
Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell fill the the production with beautiful and subtle directorial touches such the use of silhouettes and as the way the characters sometimes find themselves repeating actions as if they have been transformed into animated gifs. The songs that permeate the story are beautifully handled.
Anna Fleischle’s impressive set, with its floating furniture and window frames, fills the whole play with hallucinatory unease.
On the night I saw this, a scene between Willy and his sons in Act Two was so emotionally charged that a man near me in the stalls spontaneously began to applaud. His solitary clap, ironically, destroyed the moment. But that’s how astounding the acting is in this production.
As the cast received a standing ovation at the end you could see it in their eyes that they know they are part of something very special indeed.
(This review was written after news broke of the ceiling collapse at the Piccadilly Theatre on 6 November. I was at the performance the previous evening. I wish those injured a speedy recovery and hope the production is able to get back to normal as soon as possible.)
Click here for the latest details on Death of a Salesman at the Piccadilly Theatre
Based on the 1951 Ealing comedy film, this stage adaptation of The Man in the White Suit stars Stephen Mangan as Sidney Stratton, a Cambridge-educated chemist who, while working at a textile mill, develops a fabric that can’t be stained and never wears out.
While writer and director Sean Foley has come up with an inventive and visually impressive production, it’s been cut from so many stylistic cloths that I couldn’t escape the feeling that it was trying too hard to fit everyone.
Foley throws everything into the fast-moving mix: a skiffle band, pyrotechnics, clever stage tricks, a dance number and impressive scene changes. Unfortunately there just aren’t enough big laughs to sew it all together.
The humour lurches from Chuckle Brothers-style lab explosions and fart jokes to satirical swipes about the cheap clothing industry and the now obligatory gags about Brexit. And there’s a sudden moment of violence that seems oddly out of place.
On the plus side Mangan is, as ever, hugely likeable in the role of Stratton and gives his character just the right blend of geekiness, charm and accident-prone enthusiasm, though a running joke about him being Dutch soon wears thin.
Kara Tointon plays Daphne Birnley, the smart and witty mill owner’s daughter, with an accent so posh that she sounds like a young Margaret Thatcher.
The pair get all the best scenes, including a hair-raising car journey through the countryside and a dance in act two that allows Tointon to show off her Strictly skills.
It’s a shame that Sue Johnston, as Stratton’s friend Mrs Watson, feels so underused.
Michael Taylor’s beautifully detailed set design steals the show. Even the scene transitions earn applause. One minute we are watching the annoyingly chirpy mill workers sinking pints in The Frinley Arms, the next we are in a busy factory full of bubbling and smoking test tubes or the grand interior of Mr Birnley’s mansion.
The songs, by Noah and the Whale’s Charlie Fink, work well too in establishing the 1950s setting, with the on-stage band led by the impressive Matthew Durkan.
Stratton turns from hero to hate figure when both the factory bosses and the workers realise that his invention is likely to put them out of work, and there’s a wider message here about consumerism and big industry’s control over supply and demand.
But the show’s desire to cram in so much material ends with it feeling like an ill-fitting suit in need of adjustment.
The Man in the White Suit is at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, until 11 January 2020
Back in 1982, as an impecunious student, I used to get standby tickets at my local theatre, the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford. I’d turn up half an hour before the show and often get a seat in the stalls for £1.50. Happy days.
Although I didn’t realise it at the time, I got to see one of the very first performances of Ray Cooney’s Run For Your Wife. I’m pretty sure it was Cooney himself in the lead role. The show itself went on to run for eight years in the West End and has been seen all over the world.
Cut to 2019. Cooney – now 87 – is directing this latest revival of his biggest hit in the intimate surroundings of The Mill at Sonning. The humour may have dated somewhat, but Run For Your Wife remains a masterpiece of plot construction and comic timing.
The story itself centres around John Smith, a bigamist cabbie who has a wife, Mary, in Streatham and another wife, Barbara, in Wimbledon. He maintains his double life through a complicated timetable, but things go wrong when he ends up in hospital after a mugging.
Cooney has gathered a first class cast to bring his classic farce back to the stage.
Nick Wilton is likeably roguish as John, whose constant look of bewilderment-cum-panic is a source of much amusement. He shares a great chemistry with Jeffrey Holland (of Hi-de-Hi! fame), who plays Stanley, John’s neighbour in Streatham. I particularly enjoyed Holland’s scenes in which he has to pretend to be a farmer in order to back up John’s increasingly bizarre cover stories.
A lot of laughs come from confused telephone conversations involving John’s wives: Michelle Morris and Judy Buxton (as Mary and Barbara) bring these to life with an impressive repertoire of baffled expressions. As you might expect, there’s also plenty of door slamming and disrobing.
An excellent supporting cast includes Cooney regular David Warwick as the apron-wearing DS Porterhouse, Elizabeth Elvin as no-nonsense Sgt Troughton and Delme Thomas as John and Barbara’s gay neighbour Bobby.
A word on the wonderful attention to detail in Jackie Dougan’s Eighties set design: surely I wasn’t the only person to notice the little patches of Artex ceiling above the colourful walls? And those giant phones with aerials brought back many memories.
It may be almost 40 years since Ray Cooney started writing Run For Your Wife, but this production is proof he is still the Farce Meister-General.
Run For Your Wife is at the Mill at Sonning until 23 November
On the afternoon of my trip to London to review Noises Off I was in a dentist’s chair having a dodgy filling replaced with a lot of noisy drilling.
A few hours later – in a stroke of comic timing of which surely the play’s author Michael Frayn would have been proud – the effect of the anaesthetic wore off just as I took my seat at the Garrick Theatre.
I went from not being able to feel half my face to feeling like I’d been whacked in the mouth by a well-aimed plate of sardines.
By coincidence, it’s a plate of sardines that causes no end of mayhem in Frayn’s intricately constructed meta-comedy about a theatre company putting on an old-school, trousers-down farce called Nothing On.
Over three acts we get to see the play in rehearsal, then witness it from a backstage point of view and finally in a disastrous live performance.
Jeremy Herrin’s gloriously funny production opened at the Lyric Hammersmith in June – the theatre where Noises Off was first seen in 1982. (Interestingly, Frayn conceived the idea for Noises Off backstage at the Garrick, some 12 years earlier, while watching a performance of his play The Two of Us.)
This West End transfer features some of the same cast, including Meera Syal as the show’s star Dotty Otley, Lloyd Owen as its sarcastic director, Simon Rouse as sozzled actor Selsdon and Daniel Rigby as awkward leading man Garry Lejeune. Among the new faces on board is Miranda’s Sarah Hadland.
Frayn’s play both sends up actors and their fragile egos and celebrates their “show must go on” attitude in the face of chaos. Its genius comes in the choreography of that chaos – particularly in the second act where the frantic backstage bickering takes place in silence as the play continues out front.
Herrin’s cast work superbly well together to bring all this off so successfully. I particularly enjoyed Lisa McGrillis’s performance as Brooke, the actress who keeps losing her contact lenses as well as her clothes, and Adrian Richards’ hassled stage manager Tim. And Rigby’s spectacular prat-fall down a flight of stairs surely deserves some kind of award.
Two hours after curtain up I suddenly realised I’d forgotten completely about my troublesome tooth. Proof, if it were needed, that laughter is the best medicine.
Noises Off is at the Garrick Theatre until 4 January 2020