King John (Temple Church, 10th and 17th April)

Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!

After seeing the Globe’s production of King John, two images came to mind. The first image is the Globe’s promotional video for its exhibition which shows an inquisitive Anjana Vasan entering the Globe and as she enters the place explodes with characters from the plays. In the video, if feels as if the figures have appeared from the walls of the theatre. The second image is from the current Savage Beauty exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum showing the model Kate Moss in an Alexander McQueen wedding dress appearing like a spectre from the darkness. The image of Moss is both beautiful and grotesque at the same time.

When watching the Globe’s production of King John, the light in the enormously beautiful Temple Church shone across the walls turning the stone to gold, and in the shadows characters emerged from the corners of the church. Indeed, as characters entered from the West, they could be heard speaking and then they started to appear out of the darkness. The acoustics gave the speech an eerie echoing sound. In the second half, as it was dark outside, this effect became even more prominent and at times it looked like characters floated across the stage.

As the light is faded outside the church, the production started in a murky light, but as it progressed and it became darker outside, the light inside became extremely bright. The light picked up the threads in the costumes, jewels and on crowns. The effect was to give a real feel for the transience of the power portrayed, and that we were watching the ephemeral characters passing through. The throne placed in front of the audience is lit by candles looking seductive in the light. Indeed, several characters sit on it as if drawn to it by a supernatural force. The photograph below of Alex Waldmann as the Bastard shows the effect of the candles on the throne.

The stage was a traverse stage that runs along the church and across both transepts in the shape of a cross. There’s something very uncomfortable about seeing attempted murder in a church; when Hubert tries to murder Arthur and again when Arthur slips to his death in the second half was particularly horrifying. There’s also something uncomfortable watching a war being enacted on a cross in a church. When as an audience member you’re so close to the action, it can be exciting to see swords flashing and the sounds of metal on metal as the battles rage around you.

This was site specific performance at its best. On the two occasions I went to see the production, there was a long queue outside before the doors opened. As we entered the space we passed monks who were singing and stood amongst the candlelit tombs. The pews were unreserved, and so it was about guessing which would be a good spot. On the second occasion that I went, I sat right at the end of the church near the throne and musicians and I found that a really good place to sit, with some great views of the action. The stage is very high, but the effect is that the characters move above you. It’s an interesting use of the space, so wherever you were sat you were presented with a very different experience.

For me it was the second half that was the most satisfying. As everything starts to fall apart for John, the music becomes haunting and there are screeches as John moves to excess undertaking another two coronations. The prophesy that John will die on ascension day keeps being repeated, and the whole atmosphere prepares us for John’s death. The combination of light and space creates the atmosphere of excess in seeing `John becoming more and more isolated as he crowns himself another two times. In the air there is a madness created through lift sound, the actors’ movement and the textures in the church itself.

There were some excellent moments in this production. For example, Tanya Moodie as Constance and Barbara Marten as Eleanor dressed as Monks, announce the deaths of their own characters. As the Pope’s envoy (Pandulph Joseph Marcell) persuades the two Kings to obey Rome, they hold, and we are waiting for the moment they disagree and drop hands. Alex Waldmann’s Bastard chides Giles Terera’s Austria knowing that he has killed his father, Richard the Lionheart and indeed gets his revenge by decapitating him and running in with the severed head in his hand like a trophy.

There was some outstanding performances from a very strong ensemble. Jo Stone-Fewings plays John with confidence. Barbara Marten, Aruhan Galieva and Tanya Moodie are fantastic as the women in a play where women are not afraid to speak. Alex Waldmann also gives a strong performance as the Bastard. The Bastard is a narrator, and connects the audience to the play, and Waldmann is able to engage the audience as he communicates with the different sides of the church.

I think the point was in this production that I was seeing representations of beings from the past that appeared before me and then disappeared. Well done James Dacre for directing a very even piece of work.

I did wonder if on a matinée with the summer sunshine whether the effects would be so good. I also wondered what it would be like in the Globe mainly playing to the front. We’ll see.

© Bronwen Sharp Alex Waldmann as the Bastard

Further Information


Laurence Belcher Arthur, Simon Coates King Philip, Aruhan Galieva Blanche of Castile, Joseph Marcell Cardinal Pandulph, Barbara Marten Eleanor of Aquitaine, Mark Meadows Hubert, Tanya Moodie Constance, Ciaran Owens Louis the Dauphin, Daniel Rabin Salisbury, Jo Stone-Fewings King John, Giles Terera’s Austria, Alex Waldmann The Bastard, King Philip Aruhan Galieva Blanche of Castile, Joseph Marcell Cardinal Pandulph, Barbara Marten Eleanor of Aquitaine, Mark Meadows Hubert, Tanya Moodie Constance, Ciaran Owens Louis the Dauphin, Daniel Rabin Salisbury, Jo Stone-Fewings King John, Giles Terera Austria, Alex Waldmann The Bastard.

A Breakfast of Eels (The Print Room, 11th April) and Carmen Disruption (Almeida, 11th April 2015)


Matthew Tennyson as Penrose and Andrew Sheridan as Francis (c)

Over a weekend I saw Robert Holman’s A Breakfast of Eels, and Simon Stephens’ Carmen Disruption at the Almeida. The former was on the last day of its run and the latter at the second night preview, but both laid bare the core of the theatre building itself. The Print Room was a new venue for me. It’s a theatre built in an old cinema, but I got  this lovely sense of going into a building of the past, where there are corridors to explore. We queued sat on seats waiting to go in, and there was a general feeling of not knowing where we would go – where we would enter the theatre -which I think added very much to the atmosphere. When we did enter down a slightly rundown passage, we were faced with a very steeply raked stage and this was strewn with apples.

On the evening, at the Almeida we were led into the theatre through the back stage area. Sharon Small (the Singer) in costume is in her dressing room, turning her head and smiling as we pass. I felt voyeuristic as if entering a forbidden area. The back theatre wall is visble and there’s rubble on the stage.

I booked to see A Breakfast of Eels because I had loved Jonah and Otto which starred Peter Egan and Alex Waldmann at the Park Theatre recently. What I’d really loved about that production was the way that the dialogue revealed things – some things you realised were true, whilst others were red herrings. Jonah and Otto brought these two strangers together, and at times there was very much a father and son relationship. In A Breakfast of Eels, we meet the two men (Penrose and Francis), and we believe they are brothers. It’s slowly revealed that one has come to the house to support the household with the maintenance of the house.

Like Jonah and Otto, the play takes us to different locations. We start in the garden, move into the house and travel to Northumbria and then back to Primrose Hill in London.  The play has so many layers and twists it was enthralling. The brothers slowly swap roles and Francis goes through a transformation that reminded me of a similar transformation in Lucy Prebble’s The Effect. Francis seems to be the the more mature of the pair, but as the play progresses we see Penrose growing up.

Whereas A Breakfast of Eels showed two people responding to each other, Carmen Disruption explored connected people who were unable to connect. Characters moved through the city  addicted to the various forms of social media: Facebook, snapchat, skype, twitter, Vine… One character’s phone runs out of power and she is alone, but yet she’s been alone all the time.

Carmen Disruption deconstructs the opera, Carmen, and it explore the theatre space itself. The bull on stage starts slowly moving. I felt myself looking to check that what I was seeing was really happening. The debris from the performance is scattered across the stage. There’s black tar seeping onto the stage which reminded me of Simon Stephens’ Birdland. Towards the end the wall of the side of stage opens and the foyer can be seen. It’s a visual delight and I was delighted by it all.

There were two very different productions, but I loved both.


Oppenheimer (The Swan Theatre and Vaudeville Theatre, 7th March and 4th April)

 “I am lead lined. I am tungsten”.


Last time I saw Oppenheimer was the last performance in the Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon. This was on the Swan’s thrust stage and when I left the theatre, the stage was covered in chalk and daffodils. Here was another transfer from Stratford that has moved from a thrust to a proscenium arch stage, and having loved the production, I was curious to see how it would work in a West End theatre.

A piano and a blackboard are juxtaposed on stage, and in many ways these two props symbolise the structure of Tom Morton-Smith’s narrative. The staging moves between a lecture and the social world of the characters. The play starts with a party and later in the play there is a grotesque reflection of this as the cast dance in the lights and night of the atomic bomb.

John Heffernan is a truly amazing actor. He is enchanting, and emotional, while at the same he can use his whole physique to seem menacing. At times, he seems to stoop towers down with an arch of his head, which felt  like Goya’s ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’, and then he can follow that by seeming to be so vulnerable with a slight tilt of his head. He could merge into the background and then come to the front of the stage and seduce the audience. I felt that Heffernan has the ability to look like he is looking me right in the eye, as if speaking directly do me. I am sure all the audience members felt the same.
Of course coming to the very front of the stage works well on a proscenium arch theatre, and the framing makes works well as well. What is lost is a little bit of the intimacy of the Swan Theatre, but I was sat near the front so I felt close to the action.
I couldn’t help thinking about comparisons with Shakespeare. Oppenheimer is a Cleopatra, often changing moods, as well as a ‘leader of men’. I was reminded  of The Winter’s Tale, when Oppenheimer uncomfortably holds his baby daughter, and pushes her away wanting to give her up for adoption. Like Macbeth he becomes more and more solitary and seems to reject his wife. He is a leader in a History play, and like Henry V, he is able to condemn his friends when they won’t drop their politics.
There’s something of the Mad Men as well about this production. I felt myself shocked at watching a pregnant woman smoke and drink, and I shuddered to think people wanted to be at the test site of an atomic bomb. That knowing hindsight puts us as the audience in a strange position. In the performance they actually smoke real cigarettes according to a notice in the theatre.
Heffernan might shine in this production, but it’s a very strong ensemble cast as well. The use of multimedia and plain chalk are a nice combination to support the lecture motif. It was clear that at some point the bomb would come on stage, and there’s that sense of anticipation waiting for it to happen. The staging of the bomb is highly effective.
One of Oppenheimer’s final lines is chilling. He says “I feel like I’ve left a loaded gun in the playground”.
Yes Oppenheimer is human, and when he acknowledges that “I am lead lined. I am tungsten”, I felt he understands that he has transformed from human to Death.
The running time is 3 hours.
PS. Clearly, the RSC must have made sure this was more than a six-week run so it would qualify for an Olivier. Let’s hope this production wins one.
Further Information
I also reviewed Oppenheimer for As Yet Unnamed London Podcast
(c) RSC

Shakespeare in Love (Noel Coward Theatre, 4th April, 2015)


“Oh dear, I went for a restricted view seat which cuts off the top of the set, and clearly there is a top of set which looks like things will happen on it” I think to myself as I sit down.

The wooden set is uncluttered and is obviously meant to resemble the Globe/Curtain stage. There’s a wooden floor and wooden stairs. There’s clearly also a wooden balcony and I can only see the lower railings. The set is used to great effect at the end of the play as the actors’ play is played to both the audience and back of the stage.

The production interweaves the romance between William Shakespeare and Viola with the story of Romeo and Juliet, and  is enormous fun. They are the kind of jokes that made me feel a little smug when I recognised lines – well I have a bit of a Shakespeare theatre addiction! There are lots of one line jokes in placing Shakespeare’s lines out of context such as ‘out damned spot’. I find myself laughing at things like ‘the plays the thing’, and ‘knave to th’ chops’. There’s of course the ongoing joke that Marlowe wrote all Shakespeare’s best lines and that John Webster was a vicious child. There’s even a dog. And yes I’m thinking, it is a pity that Shakespeare did not write more dogs into his plays.

I have seen the film, and the stage play does follow most of the action of the film, but there is something particularly entertaining about being in the theatre and spending an afternoon with theatre jokes.

I thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon. Though the musicians played on the balcony and at times there were some scenes up there – including a famous balcony scene – being in Row T and having a restricted view of the balcony didn’t feel so bad at all.

Running until 18th April.

Further Information

Crouch Touch Pause Engage (West Yorkshire Playhouse, 31st March 2015)

There are times when I go to the theatre and at the time I realise that I am watching something special and something that I’ll remember for some time. Seeing Robin Soans’ Crouch Touch Pause Engage is going to be one of those plays.  It is an excellent piece of theatre which is both harrowing and hopeful.

This is the story of the Welsh Rugby player, Gareth Thomas (Alfie) and the town of Bridgend. The story of Thomas and his professional and personal story,  is juxtaposed alongside the story of young people self harming in Bridgend.  Thomas as he grapples with whether to come out as gay,

The real strength of the piece is Robin Soans‘ lucid storytelling and the excellent acting from this Out of Joint Cast. Written after interviewing participants, Soans clearing captures the voices, and personalities of the people being portrayed.   The observation is precise.

The set is a locker room, but it also becomes many locations such as the rugby pitch, hospital, night club, school and homes.  All the actors play Thomas, who is known as Alfie in the play.  This approach is enormously effective and is signalled by passing the rugby ball and putting on Thomas’s rugby shirts.  I really believed that a young woman was Thomas the way this was done was done so well.

It felt like every word contributed something.  There is no padding or cliché. Crouch Touch Pause Engage are the actions before a scrum, but also reflect the physicality of the piece. One where thought is important.

The production is touring before arriving at the Arcola in London in May.

Further Information

Lauren Roberts as Alfie.