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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

Theatre 2020: Pick of the plays

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.

Happy New Year!



Mary’s Babies review – Jermyn Street Theatre

Mary’s Babies is inspired by the story of fertility treatment pioneers Mary Barton and her husband Bertold Wiesner. Between the 1930s and 1960s they used Bertold’s sperm to inseminate up to 1,000 women before destroying the records.

Set in 2007, Maud Dromgoole’s play imagines a set of encounters between some of those grown-up children as they discover that they have hundreds of half-siblings.

Dromgoole doesn’t make things easy for the audience. Over 90 minutes we are presented with 39 characters played by two actors. Some scenes are so short they are over before you’ve worked out who’s speaking. It helps to have their names lit up in picture frames on the wall.

Emma Fielding and Katy Stephens brilliantly bring these diverse personalities to life.

I particularly liked Kieran, the nervous but big-hearted “little dweeb” who spearheads the efforts to get “Barton’s Brood” together. Stephens plays him so well that his presence acts as a helpful anchor amid the multifarious encounters.

Another standout is Fielding’s straight-talking Registrar who shares a laugh-out-loud scene about birth certificates with Bret, a character who wouldn’t be out of place in EastEnders.

Mary’s Babies - Maud Dromgoole - Jermyn Street Theatre - 20th March 2019Director - Tatty Hennessy Designer - Anna Reid Lighting Designer - Jai Morjaria Cast - Emma Fielding and Katy Stephens
Katy Stephens as Bret (photo: Robert Workman)

Not all of it works. I was baffled by a somewhat surreal scene with a ventriloquist in a hospital car park.

But the writing is whip-smart. It brims with poetry, wordplay and passages that prompt tears.

This is my second Maud Dromgoole play in a month. Here’s my review of 3 Billion Seconds.

I look forward to seeing what she conceives next.

Mary’s Babies is at Jermyn Street Theatre in London until 13 April.

Original Death Rabbit – Jermyn Street Theatre

“Mental health is a really difficult issue.” It’s a line you hear a lot in Original Death Rabbit. It’s the one you take home with you. And not only because it’s delivered by a vodka-swigging woman in a bunny onesie.

Rose Heiney’s play, which started life on BBC Radio 4, is getting its stage premiere at Jermyn Street Theatre, the perfect venue for such an intimate monologue about a woman’s struggle with internet fame and social media addiction.

Kimberley Nixon plays the Original Death Rabbit of the title. She’s instantly likeable in her stained pink onesie (with ears) as she tells her webcam the story of how she became a meme. For 90 minutes the theatre audience become her thousands of anonymous online followers.

It’s sad, funny, tragic – and not necessarily in that order. The onesie, we learn, was given to her as an ironic present after she wrote a 5,000 word university paper lambasting Playboy bunnies.

Nixon is brilliant, gliding expertly from jokes about Richard Curtis films into much darker territory.  Her excitement is tangible as she talks about joining Twitter and “feels godlike” as she quickly attracts followers. She becomes “wired on approval”. The flashes of anger and pain, when they emerge, feel real.

Louie Whitemore’s set is wonderfully detailed messy flat, complete with movie posters, books and assorted vodka bottles. Nixon uses it to the full. One patch of wall even doubles as a laptop screen.

The day after press night I was passing a pub and noticed a poster in the window advertising a “Onesie Party”. The picture showed a woman in a pink bunny outfit.

My advice: don’t go to that, hop along to this instead.

Original Death Rabbit is at the Jermyn Street Theatre, London until 9 February