Harry’s Christmas, King’s Head Theatre, London ✭✭✭
For many people, Christmas is a day of partying. For others, it is just like any other day of the year. For Harry in the revival of Steven Berkoff’s 1985 solo play Harry’s Christmas, it is a time for torturing himself by taking stock of his life and relationships and confronting his intense loneliness.
Alone on stage, Harry greets us jovially in a jaunty green festive jumper, sipping a can of cider, next to a tree filled with decorations, with strings of brilliant fairy lights above. But, as the days count down to Christmas Day itself, Harry shifts from a ostensibly light-hearted meditation on greetings cards towards bitterness, rage and self-loathing. As he recalls ex-girlfriends and contemplates his lack of meaningful friendships, he goes from sipping cider to downing bottles of wine and rum as his mood turns darker.
Berkoff has created a complex character who, in Stephen Smith’s measured performance, wins us over initially with his likeable charm but – as anyone familiar with the playwright’s work might predict – Harry gradually reveals his tendency for misanthropic, and occasionally misogynistic, anger. He argues with himself, represented by a disembodied therapist-like voice which at times offers a positive counterpoint but also criticises and accuses – perfectly woven into the show through Julian Starr’s sound design. Harry seeks to dress up his existential angst with religious imagery and allusions to Christian guilt but it comes across merely as vain, meaningless and self-aggrandising
Despite touches of dark humour, Harry’s Christmas is a bleak seasonal offering. Directed by Scott Le Crass, the production keeps us fully engaged in the character’s disintegration, pulling no punches in its portrait of loneliness and self-isolation. Much of Harry’s plight will be recognisable to many who have spent Christmas alone, and the production promotes and supports CALM, the Campaign Against Living Miserably, a charity leading a movement against suicide. Harry’s Christmas unapologetically provides no easy answers but is certainly a pitch-dark antidote to pantos and seasonal song. It is even running on Christmas Eve!
Harry’s Christmas runs at King’s Head Theatre to 24 December 2022. Tickets on sale at kingsheadtheatre.com.
Show celebrating Aphra Behn to embark on new mini tour
A solo play celebrating the life and achievements of pioneering writer Aphra Behn is to go on a mini tour of venues in London and Kent.
Written and performed by Claire Louise Amias, The Masks of Aphra Behn uses excerpts from Behn’s letters, poetry and plays to bring the 17th-century playwright to life.
Directed by Pradeep Jey, it will be performed at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington, London, on January 11, 12 and 13 January 2023, The Space in London’s Docklands on February 17 and 18 and The Brooke Theatre in Chatham in Kent on February 22, taking Behn back to the county where she was born.
It also features costume design by Anna Sargent and sound design by Keri Chesser. It is being staged by theatre company A Monkey with Cymbals.
The show sees Aphra herself take to the stage in 1677 in front of an audience getting ready to watch her best-known play, The Rover. She recounts the extraordinary tale of her time as a spy for King Charles II in the Dutch Wars and how she became the first professional female writer.
The show premiered at the Women and War Festival in London in 2016 before going on a national tour, taking in regional theatres and both the Edinburgh and Rada Festivals. It celebrates Behn at a time when the A is for Aphra campaign continues fundraising for a statue of Aphra Behn.
Cast for premiere of comedy The Boys Are Kissing at Theatre503
Casting has been announced for the premiere of The Boys Are Kissing, the debut play from Zak Zarafshan, at Theatre503 in London.
The line-up will be Shane Convery, Philip Coreia, Amy McAllister, Seyan Sarvan, Kishore Walker and Eleanor Wyld, directed by the theatre’s artistic director, Lisa Spirling.
British-Iranian writer Zak Zarafshan is an alumnus of Theatre503’s development residency, 503Five. The Boys Are Kissing will run at Theatre503 from 17 January to 4 February 2023.
The play is described as a joyous and unexpected comedy that asks whether it really ever is “all about the children”. When Amira and Chloe’s nine-year-old son, Samira, shares a kiss with Lucas, another nine-year-old, in the playground, the school mums’ WhatsApp group goes wild, party invitations are rescinded, and Lucas’s seemingly liberal parents Matt and Sarah don’t know which way to turn. Luckily, two “cherubic winged guardians of the gays” – summoned to intervene in any queer disturbance – are on hand to drop in and cause a scene.
Zarafshan said: “The idea for this play was sparked by anti-LGBT education protests and the sense that as a society we increasingly seem to define ourselves in opposition to others.
“I wanted to explore the impact this has on family and community: How do we find compassion for people we disagree with if what they disagree with feels so personal to who we are?
“It was also really important to me to approach these themes in a way that felt subversive and full of humour. Theatre503 encourage new writers to be ambitious, brave and take risks. Working with them has been the most creatively fulfilling experience and I hope we’ve created a play that is first and foremost riotous fun.”
Spirling added: “The Boys Are Kissing is the theatrical adventure that the world needs right now. Funny, irreverent and celebratory, it asks key questions about who we are, why we are the way we are, and explores all that we might aspire to be.
“Theatre503 strives to tell stories that haven’t been heard before being told in ways we haven’t seen on stage before, and The Boys Are Kissing does this like no other.
“We’ve had the privilege to see Zak take this story from the earliest nugget of an idea though to a glorious full production and I’m buzzing to share it with audiences.”
The creative team also includes associate director Len Gwyn and movement director Mateus Daniel, with set and costume design by Aldo Vazquez, lighting design by Jo Underwood and sound design by Calum Perrin. Casting is by Emily Jones.
Tickets are on sale now at www.theatre503.com.
Park Theatre to stage UK premiere of thriller The Elephant Song
Park Theatre in London is to stage the UK premiere of psychological thriller The Elephant Song by Canadian playwright Nicolas Billon.
The production, directed by Jason Moore, will run in the theatre’s Park90 space from 18 January to 11 February 2023 with a cast including Gwithian Evans, Jon Osbaldeston and Louise Faulker.
Fraught with mind-games and verbal tugs-of-war, The Elephant Song sets a hospital director against a patient to find a missing psychiatrist. Against the advice of his colleagues, Dr Greenberg is determined to question Michael and ends up in a turbulent power struggle, trying to find the truth in Michael’s stories of elephants and opera, his distant mother, his forced stay and his sexuality.
As Michael tries to barter the truth for his freedom, he leads the director along with hints of relationships with his psychiatrist and the head nurse, with devastating consequences.
The play premiered at Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario in 2004 and later became a film starring Bruce Greenwood, Catherine Keener, Carrie-Anne Moss and Xavier Dolan, which was awarded the Canadian Screen Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2015.
The UK premiere is being presented by OnBook Theatre which was founded by partners Jason Moore and Ian Nicholas to produce quality productions by established and new playwrights.
Ian Nicholas said: “I first became aware of The Elephant Song when I saw the movie. I loved the story and researched the play it was based on. I brought it to Jason’s attention, knowing this is the sort of work he loves to direct and after a few months of digging, I was able to obtain the rights for us to do it.
“We have always wanted to work at Park Theatre, so I forwarded the play directly to Jez Bond, artistic director at Park, and fortunately he liked the play too. And thus a UK premiere is born.”
The creative team also includes set designer Ian Nicholas and assistant director Luke Mazzamuto.
Full casting for new Abba-inspired comedy touring in 2023
Full casting has been announced for Ian Hallard’s new Abba-inspired comedy The Way Old Friends Do, directed by Mark Gatiss, which tours in 2023.
As well as being the writer, Hallard will star alongside Donna Berlin, James Bradshaw, Sara Crowe, Andrew Horton and Rose Shalloo. They will be understudied by Anton Tweedale, Toby Holloway and Tariye Peterside.
The show, presented by James Seabright and Birmingham Rep, will also feature the pre-recorded voices of Miriam Margolyes and Paul O’Grady.
It will premiere at Birmingham Rep from 17 February to 4 March before touring to Sheffield Lyceum from 7 to 11 March, Park Theatre in London from 15 March to 15 April, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford from 17 to 22 April, Northcott Theatre Exeter from 24 to 29 April, Theatre Royal Brighton from 2 to 6 May, Cheltenham’s Everyman Theatre from 9 to 13 May, Oxford Playhouse from 15 to 20 May, The Lowry in Salford from 22 to 27 May, Theatre Royal Bath from 30 May to 3 June and Theatre Royal York from 6 to 10 June.
With Gatiss directing, the creative team will include set and costume designer Janet Bird, lighting designer Andrew Exeter, sound designer Ben Harrison and assistant director Gavin Joseph along with casting director Marc Frankum.
In 1988, two school friends tentatively come out to one another: one as gay, the other – more shockingly – as an Abba fan. Nearly 30 years later, a chance meeting sets the pair – played by Hallard and Bradshaw – on a brand-new path and they decide to form the world’s first Abba tribute band in drag. But can their friendship survive the tribulations of a life on the road which includes platform boots, fake beards and a distractingly attractive stranger?
Review: Tammy Faye, Almeida Theatre, London ✭✭✭✭
TV evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker released a string of albums, featuring such songs as “Somebody Touched Me”, “Fill Me Up Lord” and “He’s Coming Soon”,* so it makes a lot of sense to tell her story with music. Throw in the large personality and charm that helped turn her into a cultural icon – and a queer icon too – and you have the perfect ingredients for a musical. With two other queer icons, Elton John and Jake Shears, writing the music and lyrics, new musical Tammy Faye captures the exuberance and appeal that made her such a star way beyond the world of Christian TV. Combine this with a book by James Graham, the astute political playwright behind Quiz, Ink and Brexit: The Uncivil War, and you have an often insightful piece exploring Christian fundamentalism and American politics in America in the 1970s and 1980s.
The show charts the rise and fall of Tammy Faye and her troubled TV evangelist husband, Jim Bakker, from their early days running a puppet-oriented ministry for children. Benefiting from the opening up of TV broadcasting, they co-founded Christian channel PTL (Praise the Lord) and went on to build an empire that included a theme park and hotel. But the show turns the focus back on Tammy Faye as her charisma and compassion lead her to a solo career with her own chat show where she interviewed people not traditionally featured in Christian shows, such as a gay pastor with HIV. Graham sets this within the wider context of the growth of TV evangelism and the internal politics of the so-called “Electric Church”, placing the Bakkers in opposition to the more old-school pastors such as Jerry Falwell. At the same time, the story highlights how this was a period where the US abandoned the principle of “separation of church and state” in such a visceral way that the links between the Republican Party and Christianity remain embedded in American politics today.
The success of the musical owes much to its phenomenal cast and, in particular, Katie Brayben who gives a powerhouse of a performance as Tammy Faye, both vocally and bringing the character to life with humour and depth. Andrew Rannells is excellent as husband Jim, whose early ineptitude and awkwardness lose their cuteness as he succumbs to doubt, temptation and sexual confusion. Zubin Varla relishes in the role of their arch nemesis Jerry Falwell, driven by political ambitions and near-demented hatred of the relatively more “liberal” Bakkers, gloriously expressed in his solo song “Satellite of God”.
Many of the songs recall Tammy Faye’s own gospel hits although, in the hands of Elton John and Jake Shears, they are inevitably much better and mostly serve to move the story along. With retro curves and squares, Bunny Christie’s versatile set takes inspiration from 1970s TV studios, amplified by Katrina Lindsey’s costume design and some stunning wigs that match the periods perfectly. It veers between camp and kitsch but, thanks to Rupert Goold’s direction and Graham’s writing, it manages to tell the story with wit and irony while maintaining a level of sensitivity and subtlety that stops the characters turning into caricatures. The musical format may take away opportunities for a more complex exploration of TV evangelism and politics but it makes this an entertaining and ultimately uplifting portrait of a woman who injected glamour, glitz and compassion into American Christianity.
Tammy Faye runs at the Almeida Theatre in London until 3 December 2022.
*Song titles courtesy of discogs.com
Review: My Neighbour Totoro, Barbican Theatre, London ✭✭✭✭✭
With its fantastical creatures and striking images, Hayao Miyazaki’s 1988 animated film My Neighbor Totoro might appear unstageable but director Phelim McDermott has embraced the challenge and, with his creative team, devised a magical show full of charm and moments of sublime beauty. Adapted by Tom Morton-Smith, it is a 1950s-set fable of two girls moving with their father to an old house to be close to their mother who is being treated in a nearby hospital. Uprooted from the city, the girls discover a hidden, surreal world within the natural landscape, led by the titular forest creature who becomes their friend as they struggle with anxieties about their mum.
Thanks to production designer Tom Pye, My Neighbour Totoro fills the large stage of the Barbican Theatre with its woodland setting and the spectacular creatures who have been brought to life by puppetry designer Basil Twist. Whether you are unfamiliar with the film (like me) or a fan, the arrival of these creatures brings a real wow factor which unsurprisingly elicits rounds of applause. But the production succeeds not just because of the puppets, with a strong cast including Ami Okumura Jones as the older, 10-year-old sister Satsuki, Nino Furuhata as her school friend Kanta, Dai Tabuchi as their father, Haruka Abe as their mother, and Jacqueline Tate as Granny. However, the stand-out performance is Mei Mac as Mei, brilliantly capturing the highs and lows of being a four-year-old with both comedy and pathos.
Although not a musical, the show is given extra power through being soundtracked by songs performed by a live band with singer Ai Nakagawa. Based on Joe Hisaishi’s soundtrack for the original film, the music – orchestrated by Will Stuart – is a fusion of western and more traditional Japanese styles but works best when Nakagawa sings in Japanese. The story has the simplicity of a modern fairy tale but is lifted by a unique and wondrously weird imagination that makes this a family show with enough spectacle and feel-good joy to win over the most hard-nosed adult.
My Neighbour Totoro runs at the Barbican Theatre in London until 21 January 2023.
Review: The Poltergeist, Arcola Theatre, London ✭✭✭✭
Anger and trauma explode at a family do in Philip Ridley’s solo play, The Poltergeist. Restlessly troubled young man Sasha reluctantly agrees to attend his niece’s birthday party, supported by his boyfriend, Chet. Dosed up with hazardous levels of codeine and paracetamol, he struggles to keep his simmering rage and emotions under control as he is forced to confront complicated feelings from his childhood when he was proclaimed as an artistic prodigy. Like a disruptive spirit, he brings chaos everywhere he goes but, through love and compassion, Ridley suggests that demons can be calmed, if not completely exorcised.
In a terrific tour-de-force by Joseph Potter as Sasha, this is written as a monologue but he brings up to six people at a time to the stage in a dizzying but always lucid display of acting and narration. He seamlessly switches between the many different characters, often in quickfire conversations, while also sharing a turmoil of inner thoughts behind his fragile veneer of politeness. Directed by Wiebke Green, Potter’s Sasha commands the stage with tightly choreographed movement that adds to the frenetic energy of the piece.
Despite exploring dark themes around loss and guilt, The Poltergeist is full of humour, with Potter eliciting plenty of laughs through his pin-sharp timing. Sasha’s story may not be that remarkable but, through Potter’s intense performance, it gains epic proportions. The stage remains bare throughout, with only Chuma Emembolu’s lighting to illuminate Sasha’s mind as he shares his contorted multi-coloured vision of the world. Originally forced off the stage at Southwark Playhouse to become a digital production during lockdown, The Poltergeist now embraces the presence of a live audience through Potter’s masterful storytelling skills that engage with sometimes unsettling intimacy and directness.
The Poltergeist runs at the Arcola Theatre in London until 29 October 2022.
Casting for premiere of Terry Johnson play at Menier
American film star Timothy Hutton has been announced as part of casting for the world premiere of Terry Johnson’s new play, The Sex Party, at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
He will be joined by Amanda Donohoe, Kelly Price, Lisa Dwan, Jason Merrells, Lisa Dwan, John Hopkins, Pooya Mohseni and Molly Osborne in the production running from 15 November 2022 to 7 January 2023.
Written and directed by Terry Johnson, the play is the first show at the London theatre after its summer hiatus. The creative team also includes designer Tim Shortall, lighting designer Ben Ormerod and sound designer John Leonard.
The Sex Party is about four couples who gather in a suburban London home for an evening of wine, cheese and more intimate pleasures. Some are curious, some are more familiar, and one is rather unexpected – thus a promising evening is poised to go beyond anyone’s expectations.
As a playwright, Terry Johnson’s work includes Dead Funny, Prism and Ken, Insignificance, Cries from the Mammal House, Hysteria, Piano/Forte, Hitchcock Blonde, The Graduate, Mrs Henderson Presents, Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick, and The London Cuckolds. He has also directed shows in the West End and on Broadway including the Menier’s acclaimed production of La Cage aux Folles.
Tickets for The Sex Party at the Menier Chocolate Factory went on sale today (3 October) at www.menierchocolatefactory.com
Sherman Theatre conjures up Welsh fairyland in Midsummer Night’s Dream
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is to be adapted into a bi-lingual production at Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre, with Welsh becoming the language of the fairy kingdom.
Mari Izzard and the theatre’s writer in residence, Nia Morais, have adapted and created new dialogue in Welsh for the show, with English surtitles, working alongside dramaturg Branwen Davies.
It is being directed by Joe Murphy, the Sherman’s artistic director, who will also play with gender and sexuality in his new staging, including switching Lysander, one of the four Athenian lovers, to a female role, Lysanna.
It will run at the Sherman Theatre from 14 to 29 October 2022, with music by Eädyth Crawford, design by Elin Steele, lighting and projection designed by Andy Pike and sound designed by Ian Barnard.
Murphy said: “Few plays have the capacity to bring as much joy to audiences as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s the play we all need right now.
“I am so excited by the new perspectives Mari and Nia have brought to the play and I can’t wait to start working with this sensational Welsh and Wales-based cast and creative team.”
The cast includes Lauren Morais as Lysanna, Nia Roberts as Titania and Hippolyta, Sion Ifan as Oberon and Theseus, Sion Pritchard as Bottom and Egeus, Hannah McPake as carpenter and theatre-maker Peter Quince, Leah Gaffey as Puck, Dena Davies as Hermia, Tom Mumford as Demetrius and Rebecca Wilson as Helena.
Izzard said: “After working on a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the RSC back in 2016, I knew that there was a beautiful bi-lingual version waiting to be explored inside this tale that we all know and love.”
Nia Morais added: “Adapting has been an exciting challenge and I can’t wait to watch the show.”
Tickets are on sale at www.shermantheatre.co.uk.