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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!



Run For Your Wife review – The Mill at Sonning

4 star review

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.

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Michelle Morris and Nick Wilton in Run For Your Wife (photo: Andreas Lambis)

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.

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Michelle Morris and Jeffrey Holland (photo: Andreas Lambis)

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.

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Delme Thomas and Judy Buxton (photo: Andreas Lambis)

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











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








Private Lives review – The Mill at Sonning

3 star review

With Present Laughter about to open at London’s Old Vic, here’s an opportunity to see one of the Noel Coward’s sparkling gems from the previous decade.

According to the programme notes for this production, Coward wrote Private Lives in four days during a bout of flu in Shanghai in 1930. I’m glad to report that the only coughing and spluttering at the Mill at Sonning is likely to be with laughter.

The story begins with two mismatched couples – Elyot and Sibyl Chase and Victor and Amanda Prynne – on their respective honeymoons in the same French hotel.

The big problem is that Elyot (Darrell Brockis) and Amanda (Eva Jane Willis) were previously married to each other and fate has put them in adjacent rooms.

Once the divorced pair set eyes on each other they realise they are still in love and instantly abandon their new partners to escape to Amanda’s flat in Paris (great set design by Michael Holt).

Willis is outstanding as the headstrong and glamorous Amanda. The sexual chemistry between her and Brockis’s caddish Elyot is spot on.

Coward’s insightful lines about marital politics and promiscuity seem timeless, but it does seem strange to hear the ex-partners reminiscing about the first time they hit each other.

Amanda and Elyot’s love-hate relationship is nicely handled in Act Two culminating in an expertly choreographed fight involving a gramophone record, a bunch of flowers and assorted cushions from the chaise longue.

There’s strong support too from the rejected spouses: Lydea Perkins as the “insipid” Sybil and Tom Berkeley as the straight-laced Victor.

Director Tam Williams makes inspired use of the musical talents of Celia Cruwys-Finnigan to create a suitably Gallic atmosphere with a selection of accordion songs that include cleverly reworked versions of Toxic and Tainted Love.

Noel Coward would surely have approved.

Private Lives is at The Mill at Sonning, Oxfordshire, until 3 August

A Belly Full review – The Mill at Sonning

I’ve seen a lot of productions at The Mill at Sonning over the years, and I’m delighted to say this world premiere has shimmied its way to the top of my list of favourites.

Writers Marcia Kash and Mary Colin Chisholm’s superbly-scripted play has characters that you genuinely care about. All that belly dancing is a bonus.

The story focuses on two women. Marnie (Lesley Harcourt) is a new mum working hard to make her speciality cake business a success while her partner Ravi (Dharmesh Patel) shares parental duties and helps with deliveries.

Photo: Andreas Lambis

Marnie’s nervous friend Jane (Sarah Edwardson), a carer and cleaner, faces a challenging time at home with her agoraphobic partner Brian (Peter Hamilton Dyer) who is obsessed about her safety.

In this female-dominated play, the two male characters are strongly written. And for all the bare tums on display, it’s actually Ravi who flashes the flesh first as he emerges topless from the shower!

Determined to lose her “baby blubber”, Marnie goes to pilates with Jane, but a venue mix-up sees them end up at a belly dancing class led by the exotically-named Shalimar (Jacqueline Roberts).

“She’s about as exotic as a chip butty,” observes Marnie drily.

Photo: Andreas Lambis

Within a few short scenes, A Belly Full establishes a cast of engaging characters and throws in an excellent twist that spins out during the second act.

The enthusiastic belly dancing classmates include Alice Bell as Willow, Sabina Franklyn as Rose and Gilly Tompkins as Tess. Maia Watkins is brilliant as stroppy teenager Aleesha.

A Belly Full started out as a film screenplay. Seeing its potential, The Mill’s artistic director Sally Hughes suggested it should adapted for the stage.

It was a good call. This is a hip-wiggling hit.

A Belly Full is at The Mill at Sonning until 15 June

Gaslight review – The Mill at Sonning

The term “gaslighting” – a form of psychological abuse that makes the victim question their own sanity – has been much written about and discussed in recent years.

It gets its name from this 1938 stage play by Patrick Hamilton. Set in 1880, the story takes place in the London home of the apparently respectable Mr Jack Manningham (Damien Matthews) and his wife Bella (Charlotte Brimble).

Manningham’s manipulative behaviour – and his flirtatious relationship with Nancy the maid (Rhiannon Handy, excellent) – are evident in the first few minutes, setting the audience immediately on edge.

Photo: Andreas Lambis

Matthews and Brimble are both superb in their roles as the domineering husband and terrified wife, as is David Acton as Rough – a former detective who turns up out of the blue investigating a cold murder case. Under Robin Herford’s tight direction, the cast really succeed in turning up the tension.

The Mill at Sonning’s intimate stage is a perfect fit for this Victorian-set thriller. Its themes around power within relationships and mental health resonate strongly today. I found myself thoroughly sucked in.

Gaslight is at The Mill at Sonning until 13 April