Tag Archives: Review

Review: Dracula, Bronzehead Theatre

6 Nov
“Welcome to my house. Come freely. Go safely. And leave some of the happiness you bring.”
Dracula for me lives in dimly forgotten Year 7 English lessons and trips to Whitby, claiming to know more of the history and story than you care to admit. “Oh of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Transylvania. Scary castle. Sucking blood”… So I enter Bronzehead Theatre’s production with no real reverence for the text and no real knowledge of the story.
Mike J Oakes 2

Ruth Jamieson and Anna Rose James in Dracula. Photo by Michael J Oakes.

This in part, becomes a double edged sword. Tom Straszewski’s adaptation flits between real and imagined worlds and multiple characters so fast that as someone unbitten by the Dracula bug, I sometimes struggle to keep up. However, as a piece of theatre, Straszewski’s Dracula is undoubtedly skilled and imaginative. A thrilling atmosphere is created from the start, when the audience is ushered through the darkened building of 41 Monkgate by Ruth Jamieson’s character; from our own day and age and with a penchant for exploring old and mysterious buildings. Up in the John Cooper Studio itself, she is joined by the enigmatic Anna Rose James, the apparent inheritress of this building who tempts Jamieson into reenacting the Dracula tale aided by dusty letters and documents. The space itself is adeptly transformed by Director/Producer team Straszweski and Sandrine Enryd Carlsson to give the feeling of an eerie, decrepit building, so that we ourselves feel like the trespassers. The use of white scaffolding sheeting is especially creative as not only can it transform into props but it is used to create some very effective shadows and silhouettes, which complement the further inspired use of lighting, including open flame.
Mike J Oakes

Anna Rose James in Dracula. Photo by Michael J Oakes.

Light and shade is also seen in the lead performances. Our evening is in capable hands with Jamieson and James, and the two actors are eminently watchable. James is particularly skilled in effortlessly transforming into different characters and keeping the audience enraptured as she flits from each. Although billed as a two-hander, we are tempted throughout with an inevitable appearance of Dracula (James Swanton) through the aforementioned shadows and the surround sound provocation of his voice. When he finally arrives, he signals the dramatic denouement in which poor sight-lines unfortunately shield the undoubted blood from some of us. But no matter, we still leave the building slightly shaken and with a greater appreciation for this tale, good story-telling, and seriously good theatre.


Dracula was performed in 41 Monkgate Theatre, York w/c 30th October. Hopefully it will be revived (geddit) once again…

Review: When We Are Married

28 Oct

Here’s a review I wrote of Northern Broadside’s When We Are Married, on tour until 10th December (Dates here

This review was for Arts York.

The well-to-do Mr and Mrs Helliwell, Mr and Mrs Parker and Mr and Mrs Soppitt have been married 25 years today – or so they think. As it transpires, they were never officially married at all, and so begins J B Priestley’s When We Are Married at York Theatre Royal.

First staged in 1938 and set in 1908, much of Priestley’s play still charms today but many of its contrivances pre-date our modern sensibilities, leaving some of the plot neither shocking nor shockingly funny.

“I say we’ll have some fun!”

This is not to say that it is not good fun, just that the cast have to work hard to keep the audience on side. Fortunately, they do. Much of the humour here is thanks to impeccable casting and well-pitched comic timing rather than any plot device. Kat Rose-Martin stands out as Ruby Birtle, the Helliwell’s no-nonsense maid, with an accent that makes you proud to be Yorkshire and a presence that commands the stage whenever she enters. Steve Huison also catches the eye as the much-maligned Herbert Soppitt. Huison masters, rather than overplays, a physical humour that also serves to make Soppitt one of the most endearing, interesting, and human characters in the play, along with Annie Parker (Sue Devaney), with whom he shares a tender and funny scene.

Image result for when we are married northern broadsides

Steve Huison and Sue Devaney in When We are Married (Photo: Nobby Clark)

“Marriage is a serious business!”

Aside from the humour, the germination of the piercing social commentary found in Priestley’s most famous work An Inspector Calls can also be seen here, with Counsellor Parker surely being a pre-curser to Mr Birling. The blurring of the lines between the upper and lower classes is keenly felt when the sitting room becomes a free-for-all for any Tom, Dick, Harry or Henry. Mrs Northrop, the cook and housekeeper, even takes it upon herself to remind Mrs Soppitt of her past as a greengrocer’s daughter. There are also plenty of characters with not much to smile about by the end but comedies get ‘happy endings’, of course, and this one occurs rather abruptly and jarringly with a sing-along and a knees up. It is unclear if this decision was an intentional extension of Priestley’s irony. If so, then thumbs up.

Image result for when we are married northern broadsides

The cast of When We are Married (Photo: Nobby Clark)

The functional set and sumptuous costumes root us effectively in this past world, enabling our suspension of disbelief. Though not quite a barrel full, there are still plenty of laughs and Northern Broadsides have once again provided an enjoyable and high-quality evening of entertainment, with a consistently strong cast. Next time, let’s have some more grit.

Review: The Mai

16 Mar
“It’s not fair they teach us desperation so young, or if they do, they should never mention hope.”
Desperation, dejection, and disappointment seem to be the order of the day in Marina Carr’s 1995 play The Mai about a year in the life of a large Irish family full of brilliant but flawed women. Despite being a long and wordy play, with Carr displaying a flair for lyrical as well as naturalistic language, the plot is not the draw here; rather it is the characters and their inner lives that are so interesting and relatable, and the actors, without exception, skilfully bring them to life.
mai 3

Beth Sharrock as Millie (all photos by Michael J Oakes)

“I wanted my life to be so huge and heroic and pure.”
The title role of The Mai is a fantastic and exposing part for actor Beryl Nairn, which she clearly relishes and excels in, squeezing every last inch of emotion from this challenging and changeable character. The Mai’s daughter, Millie is our ‘narrator’ throughout, yet her speeches tend to be more poetic than expositional, which sometimes left the timeline of the story confused. However, Beth Sharrock (who plays Millie) shines in her myriad of metaphorical monologues and handles them sensitively and with genuine emotion, never overplayed. Millie, and her son, stand at the end of a long line of generations of wilful women who seem to have passed unfulfillment down through the ages like a dusty heirloom, and we are left wondering what her fate will be. At the top of this line is old Grandma Fraochlan, who gets all the best one-liners and is expertly played by Elizabeth Elsworth, with sparkling wit and expression. The family relationships are all nicely drawn, from that of The Mai and her husband Robert (Damian Fynes in a fine YSCP debut), to the three sisters The Mai, Connie (Helen Sant) and Beck (Jessica Murray), to the aunts Agnes (Vivienne Clare) and  Julie (an eminently watchable Sophie Buckley).

Elizabeth Elsworth as Grandma Fraochlan

“I’m not drunk, I’m trapped!”
This sort of play is exposing for an actor and the cast have obviously been sensitively directed by Jan Kirk to bring the best of themselves to their roles, their performances also aided by Helen Taylor and Maggie Smales’ costume design and Natalie Heijm’s make-up. Despite a slow start at the preview performance, the drama soon began to fizz and, particularly in the second half, the rapport between the actors was evident as the quick wit sparked between them and the tension grew to its foreshadowed conclusion.
mai 2

Beryl Nairn as The Mai

The Mai is a fantastic example of the talent York has to offer, both on stage and off, with set, costume, sound and lighting all playing their part, and you should take the chance to see this little performed claustrophobic and distinctly Chekhovian play.

Review Archive

5 Mar

Just doing a bit of spring cleaning and collating some of the reviews I have had published (which are still live) in the past into one place.

May 2014 – Blithe Spirit, York Theatre Royal (The Good Review)

May 2014 – A Number, York Theatre Royal (The Good Review)

November 2011 – Kafka’s Dick, OUDS (The Oxford Student)

October 2011 – 40 Years On, York Theatre Royal (A Younger Theatre)

July 2011 – Two Planks and a Passion, York Theatre Royal (A Younger Theatre)

March 2011 – To Kill A Mockingbird, York Theatre Royal (A Younger Theatre)

November 2008 – The Winter’s Tale, OUDS (The Oxford Student)

Review: Timon of Athens

9 Nov

Timon of Athens, National Theatre (I saw it with NT Live)

Nicholas Hytner’s revival of Timon of Athens couldn’t have come at a better time. It is a rather unloved Shakespeare play, rarely performed and probably rarely read. Thought to be a collaboration with Thomas Middleton, Timon has none of the familial or romantic relationships which endear us to other Shakespeare texts and it almost invariably has to be cut, rejigged and added to in order to make it more streamlined and coherent. Yet its themes of money, greed, credit and corruption, among others, make it fit, almost seamlessly, into a 21st Century context.

It is this idea that the National Theatre production has great fun with. Despite the references in the script to Athens, Tim Hatley’s design is a recognisable London, complete with sky scrapers, swanky bars and art galleries, gift bags labelled with ‘Fashion Week’ and even logos on visitor passes for ‘The Senate of Athens’ which seem to be taken straight out of the House of Commons. It is the small details, such as this, which highlight the care that has been taken to achieve the vision. Sometimes, updating Shakespeare to a modern setting can look cheesy and gimmicky, but this production, for the most part, avoids that. There were a few decisions that jarred with me. Timon finding blocks of gold was left in, rather than him finding wads of notes that he chooses not to spend but to give away to those who come grovelling. In a production that had taken great care in printing lookalike £50 notes for the earlier scenes, I found it strange that the rioters would scramble on the floor for gold discs that they couldn’t go out and immediately spend. Equally, though I appreciated the relevance of making the rebellious mob akin to the London rioters, the cutting of Alcibiades’ part in Act One meant that when he finally appeared in Act Two, it felt as if the ‘sub plot’ had been shoehorned in, something which the production tried to get around by occasionally making the rioters march around the stage during scene changes which got rather tiresome and a bit obvious. However, the Alcibiades plot is also rather awkward in the text itself and Hytner did what he could with it.

The majority of the acting was good, but I almost got the impression that you were meant to leave the theatre/cinema with an appreciation for the play and the staging than for the acting. Simon Russell Beale as Timon was impressive at showing the protagonist at the two ends of the spectrum of wealth. His Act Two Timon, shuffling around in his beanie hat and cast-off clothing, sifting through the rubbish bags for a cold takeaway to eat, was affecting. I also enjoyed Hilton McRae’s Apermantus, who captured his character’s misanthropy and droll wit effectively. However, some performances were more irritating and distracting. Deborah Findlay, as Flavia, for example, and Tom Robertson as Ventidius. Though I liked his Sid Vicious style characterisation at first, it increasingly looked as if he were overdoing the accent and playing for laughs.

Overall, though, an enjoyable and stylish revival of a relevant play. I found it hard to believe it was written in the 17th Century.

Review: Bouncers bounces back

9 Sep

Cast from L to R – William Ilkley, Don Gilet, Ian Reddington, Ace Bhatti (photo from http://www.bouncersonstage.com)

John Godber’s Bouncers, which has been frequently produced since its first performance in 1977, has been given a shake-up in this new version for Watershed Productions directed by the esteemed playwright himself. The play is set in and around a nightclub where Judd (William Ilkley), Les (Don Gilet), Lucky Eric (Ian Reddington) and Ralph (Ace Bhatti) work as doormen. The four actors also play a group of girls celebrating their friend’s 21st birthday and a group of rowdy lads out on the pull.

The cast effortlessly switch between their very different roles and seem equally at home in each of them. I particularly enjoyed Bhatti as sexy Susie and he and Reddington have a couple of very funny scenes together highlighting that physical comedy can be just as successful as wordplay. Set and props are minimal but excellent use is made of lighting and sound to create an effective club feel and Lucky Eric’s speeches are most effective when he is placed in a spotlight. These four speeches act as a kind of social commentary breaking up the comedy and reminding the audience that the sort of behaviour these bouncers see every night is very often not funny and can actually be disturbing and demeaning.

Bouncers has been ‘remixed’ before, and Godber has clearly tried his best to make this version as up to date as possible. This was a bit hit and miss. I enjoyed the music choice, for example – the actors first appeared to Rihanna’s Where Have You Been and the group of girls tried and failed to sing along to a Wanted song- but references to ‘records’ and having the girls and guys getting ready for their nights out at a hairdressers and barbers respectively just didn’t sit right. This is a minor complaint, however, of an evening which kept the packed theatre constantly in hysterics.

Bouncers was at York Theatre Royal 5-8 September and is touring until 17th November. For details see www.bouncersonstage.com

Press Preview: Kafka’s Dick

25 Nov

Last week I reviewed a preview of Alan Bennett’s ‘Kafka’s Dick’ which is on at the Burton Taylor Studio, Oxford 29th Nov- 3rd Dec.

You can read my review here:


From what I saw I’d probably give it 3*s. It was promising but needed a lot of polishing.

Review: 40 Years On

3 Oct

Alan Bennett’s first stage play, ’40 Years On’ is bravely tackled in the continuing ensemble season of the York Theatre Royal. It is an entertaining yet demanding and overly long play which is rarely performed. The company succeed in bringing out the sparks of brilliance but are sometimes let down by a clumpy and awkward structure.

The play is set in 1968 in an all boys school. The headmaster (Rob Pickavance) is due to retire and it’s also the last school play and assembly of some of the boys. What Damien Cruden’s production does excellently is creating the world of Albion House School. The set is spot on but even before entering the auditorium, the Belt Up and community cast of school boys wandered round the foyer handing out handmade programmes and the show got off to a flying start when the audience were invited to join in with a roof raising rendition of ‘Jerusalem’. The audience were also there to play a role, that of the parents and governors, and the interval refreshment trolley which some of us got to partake in was a nice and unexpected touch.

It was a shame that the script dictated that the school boys couldn’t be used more. For long periods they were stuck on the peripheries as the staff (Martin Barrass, Jonathan Race, Andrina Carroll and Sarah Quintrell) put on the end of term play. It was at these moments when the play often seemed to drag as we moved back and forth in history and more characters (invented and well known figures) were paraded around than you’ve had school dinners. Barrass in particular often descended into unnecessary slapstick but showed good range in his variety of personas (perhaps too much considering the ‘teachers’ are not supposed to be accomplished professional actors!).

’40 Years On’, then, came alive when the fifteen school boys took centre stage with songs, dances (all well choreographed by Jean Harvey) and general humorous antics. Nik Fenwick as Lord had great presence and a singing voice to match and Dominic Allen of Belt Up Theatre had some lovely touches as a rather geeky lectern reader, but the whole group was terrific.

Yet it was the aforementioned Rob Pickavance who was clearly the standout star. His character of the headmaster is an absolute gem and carried with it the bulk of the play’s wit, honesty, nostalgia and energy, not to mention lines!

If anything, then, the play and not the production was at fault at times and Bennett himself has admitted its complicated and often confusing structure. Yet it’s still worth a watch, even if it is no ‘History Boys’. (York Theatre Royal until 15th October)

This review can also be found here: http://www.ayoungertheatre.com/review-40-years-on-york-theatre-royal/

Review: Two Planks and a Passion

11 Jul

York Theatre Royal’s and Riding Lights’ Two Planks and a Passion – the third of the former’s main house ensemble plays – is a credit to York and to regional theatre. A charming and entertaining script by Anthony Minghella, a large and talented community cast and atmospheric music by Christopher Madin give this production (on until 16th July) a big heart.

Set in York and based around King Richard II’s visit to the city and to the mystery plays in the late 14th Century, the play focuses just as much on the royals (played by professionals) as on the ‘normal’ citizens of York and on the competition between two of the guilds putting on two of the plays.  Ambitiously, there are two community casts, totalling over 50, which are alternating the run and the cast I saw (the Taylors) had been impeccably cast; there wasn’t a weak link. Most impressively, voice projection, even discounting the fact that it was a largely amateur cast in the round, was spot on – here we have, quite clearly, professional amateurs. Rory Mulvihill and Rebecca Beattie, in particular, have great vocal presence.

The cast have clearly thought hard about their characters as there were some great nuances and subtleties to certain performances. It almost goes without saying that Jonathan Race (as King Richard), Michael Lambourne (as Oxford) and Emily Pithon (as Queen Anne) were on form but it was to the community cast’s credit that they did not seem to ‘stand out’ so significantly as to be distracting. Gemma Shelton, playing a wife of one of the players, gave a very truthful performance and Paul Stonehouse, as the non-too-holy Father Melton, was pitch perfect.

The promised spectacle of the 2012 Mystery Plays in York will need to build on the success of Two Planks and a Passion but it is without a doubt a great introduction to the project and an entertaining, if slightly over-long, stand alone production.

This review is also posted here: http://www.ayoungertheatre.com/review-two-planks-and-a-passion-york-theatre-royal/

Review: Ayckbourn’s Communicating Doors

22 Jun

Just a quick review of The Stephen Joseph Theatre Company’s ‘Communicating Doors’, written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn (at The Oxford Playhouse until 25th June, then Richmond Theatre 27th June- 2nd July).  (edit- when I said quick I forgot that I tend to ramble.)

Having read ‘Absurd Person Singular’ and ‘Absent Friends’, I thought I had cottoned on to Ayckbourn’s style. Unfortunately I think I picked the wrong play of his to be my first viewing of his work on stage. ‘Communicating Doors’ was received well by the audience at Oxford Playhouse, however at times I felt as if I must have been on a different hymn sheet. I did enjoy the play, by the end, but I have to admit that for the first twenty minutes or so I was wondering what I was doing there.

My initial feeling of detachment and disengagement was based on the feeling that I had walked into an amateur dramatics performance (please don’t take offence as I am partial to a bit myself). Laura Doddington as Poopay started off, perhaps conversely, a bit too slow and a bit too over the top. Her punch-lines, if you like, were delivered more to get a laugh pantomime style than from a result of being fully engaged with their immediate meaning within the context of the dialogue and Ben Jones, as Julian, was very two-dimensional. Luckily, unlike Jones, Doddington came into her own as soon as the meaty part of the story got underway. I’m not sure the clunky start did her any favours. Poopay is a dominatrix who thinks she has been hired by Reece (Ben Porter) for her “sexual consultancy”. He, however, only wants her to sign as a witness to a confession he has written, as a dying man, explaining that his business partner and friend, Julian, is guilty of killing Reece’s first and second wives, Jessica and Ruella. The audience is given a lot of information at once, the reasons for which unravel later, but it just seems that Reece’s character is simply there as a catalyst for the plot and there is not much excitement for the audience in the opening.

The play seems to be trying to do too many things at once and, in my opinion, it only manages this to a certain extent. It is a fantasy, comedy and thriller all rolled into one, where the characters time travel through the use of communicating doors in a London hotel between the years 1990, 2010 and 2030. These years have a significance for the characters of Jessica, Ruella and Poopay and their fates and planned deaths by the hands of Julian. The basic aim of the three female characters is to use the time travel to try and save themselves from certain death.

Personally, I enjoyed the second half of the play so much more. Liza Goddard, as Ruella, and Jamie Kenna, as the hotel’s porter and investigator Harold (a relatively unimportant but definitely the funniest role), as well as the increasingly sympathetic and funny character of Poopay played bigger roles and filled the production with a light and shade which lifted it into the witty yet moving production I expected. Goddard, as the put upon second wife of Reece, manages to convey vulnerability, humour, strength of will and a caring side simultaneously and when Reece delivers some news to Poopay at the end of the play I realised that I had been empathising with her character and that I had been drawn in to her story and to her developing friendship with Poopay. Another saving grace of the production was that by the end, it was clear that Ayckbourn had obviously very concientiously and cleverly made sure that the comedy and the thriller aspects balanced very well and there were laughs and gasps from the audience (yes, including me) in equal measure.

All in all, the initial cynic in me who I could feel developing at the start of the first half was just about quashed by a rather amusing and touching play. I’d give it three stars.

(Apologies for any strange sentence structures or spelling mistakes. It’s quite late..)