Review: Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma in Macbeth, Dock X

Macbeth poster

Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma's Macbeth is being staged in an industrial warehouse in Canada Water, south east London, which means there is space around the auditorium to start setting the scene.

As you step in from the dockside entrance, there are banners emblazoned with an 'M' and the sound of jet aircraft flying overhead. A military base-style siren goes off to let you know that the house is open.

Getting to your seat involves a walk through a battle-scarred street scene, and once inside, there are military personnel. The ominous post-battle sounds continue. It's a charged atmosphere.

The raked seating is on three sides of the stage, so even sitting almost at the back, it didn't feel too far away from the stage. The aisles are used during the performance for some even closer encounters.

A bomb-damaged concrete slab and a series of steps form the performance space. At the back are electronic sliding doors with frosted glass, which obscures all unless objects - or people - are very close.

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Review: 10 Nights, Omnibus Theatre - well-paced, funny and warm

10 nights omnibus theatre poster Feb 2024

The 10 nights of the title of Shahid Iqbal Khan play refers to itikaf, spending the last 10 days of Ramadan at the Mosque. The idea is to cut yourself off from worldly affairs, focus on prayer and read the Quran.

Yassar (Azan Ahmed) is always on TikTok, gets drunk with his friends and is generally a disappointment to his father.

When he half-seriously volunteers for itikaf, seemingly out of grief for his dead friend Aftab, it is the first time his father has been proud of him, so he can't back out.

Isolated from the distractions of social media and 'life' and with a strict routine of prayer, reading and breaking fast, it forces introspection.

Yasser has to confront some harsh truths about his behaviour, his faith and the death of his friend. 

Azan Ahmed deftly gives voice to Yasser's thoughts and conversations with the few people he encounters in the Mosque. From his frenemy Usman to the itikaf expert assigned to guide him.

This was an interesting insight into a world I'm not familiar with. Naturally, there were references and jokes that went over my head, but there were plenty that did land.

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Review: A Mirror, Trafalgar Theatre - truth and lies in theatre

Tanya Reynolds and Samuel Adewunmi for A Mirror at the Trafalgar Theatre - photo by Marc Brenner
Tanya Reynolds and Samuel Adewunmi in A Mirror at the Trafalgar Theatre - photo by Marc Brenner

The wedding between Layla and Joel is back on, having found a new venue at the Trafalgar Theatre.

Sam Holcroft's play A Mirror, which won rave reviews when it opened at the Almeida Theatre, has brought its lies to the West End.

That isn't a spoiler, it tells us the play is a lie in a tagline. And we, the audience, are complicit; we play along as wedding guests, standing for the bride and later to take an oath.

But for which lie are we complicit?

Inspired by Sam Holcroft's visit to North Korea, this is a play about culture in a repressive regime. What theatre is suitable for public consumption in the eyes of the state? Who is it for, and what does theatre mean in that scenario?

It is also about the truth and lies of theatre arts.

Layla and Joel's wedding is a performance, not so much a play within a play but a play to hide a play. 

That play follows Čelik (Jonny Lee Miller), the director at the Ministry of Culture, who believes he is a connoisseur of the arts and wants to improve the quality of what gets approved for performance.

When a play written by car mechanic Adem (Samuel Adewunmi) lands on his desk, it contains so many infractions of what is 'acceptable' theatre that Čelik should report him to the Ministry of Security.

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Review: Afterglow, Southwark Playhouse - passionate and poignant

Afterglow_011_Victor Hugo_James Nicholson_credit The Other Richard
Victor Hugo and James Nicholson in Afterglow, Southwark Playhouse, Jan 2024. Photo: The Other Richard

Afterglow at the Southwark Playhouse is a modern love story and a modern family story. Married couple Alex (Victor Hugo) and Josh (Peter McPherson) have an open relationship within certain boundaries.

The play opens with them having a steamy threesome with Darius (James Nicholson). Both are taken with the younger man and agree that they can meet up with him alone.

What starts as mostly about sex develops into something more for two of the men.

All this plays out against the backdrop of a soon-to-be expanded family as Alex and Josh are expecting a baby via a surrogate. It adds an extra layer of jeopardy to the relationship as there is more at risk than their marriage.

The staging is fairly simple, with shiny black surfaces that scream bachelor pad or nightclub. Although at one point, it is lit up and glitters beautifully to represent a clear starry sky.

A square framed platform makes up a bed or is dismantled and arranged into seats or a massage table to transport the narrative from apartments to workplaces and bars.

The centre of the stage is also cleared away to make way for a shower. Although how many shower scenes does one play need before it looks like an excuse to merely show off naked male bodies?

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Review: Cockfosters, The Turbine Theatre - fun and peculiar

Cockfosters The turbine theatre
Cockfosters, The Turbine Theatre January 2024

Described as a surreal comedy, Cockfosters at The Turbine Theatre is set on the Piccadilly line and centres on a man and a woman who get on at Heathrow.

Both are returning from trips abroad, and they strike up a conversation, which is surreal given the unwritten rules of tube etiquette 😉.

While travelling to Cockfosters at the other end of the line, various colourful and often outlandish passengers get on and off.

Among them are the loud American tourists in matching shirts, a loud hen do, a loud busker and a loud 'friend' of the man's (it is a surreal comedy).

Given how loud the passengers are, it wouldn't take much to flip this tube journey into the horror genre.

It's part a romantic comedy and part love letter to the underground.

Aside from the stereotypical tube passengers, it's packed full of references to the quirks of the underground, the sort of things that are never questioned but just accepted, like those mazes on the walls at the tube stations and the snippets of poetry.

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Review: The Unfriend, Wyndham's Theatre - Frances Barber elevates every scene she is in

Lee Mack  Frances Barber and Sarah Alexander in The Unfriend - photo by Manuel Harlan
Lee Mack, Frances Barber and Sarah Alexander in The Unfriend. Photo by Manuel Harlan

If you like sitcom-style comedy, then Steven Moffat's  The Unfriend at the Wyndham's Theatre could be the show for you. It centres on an unwelcome house guest whom the hosts are too polite (or British) to ask to leave despite discovering said guest's suspected murderous past.

Brits Peter (Lee Mack) and Debbie (Sarah Alexander) meet American Elsa (Frances Barber) on a cruise. Elsa is not afraid to share her opinions and vocalise her observations. And she makes for amusing and harmless company while on holiday.

However, when a polite rather than serious post-holiday invite is taken up, suspicion grows about who Peter and Debbie will have staying under their roof.

Attempts to curtail Elsa's stay are hampered by farcical and awkward ineptitude and the unexpected impact of Elsa on their two teenage kids, Alex (Jem Matthews) and Rosie (Maddie Holliday).

Peter and Debbie seem unable to deal with anything head-on, as the situation with Elsa, recurring visits by a boring neighbour, and attempts to parent their children demonstrate. It is in stark contrast with the direct and persuasive Elsa.

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Review: The Sex Lives of Puppets, Southwark Playhouse - cheeky and laugh out loud funny

The Sex Lives of Puppets  Southwark Playhouse
Simon Scardifield, Mark Down, Isobel Griffiths and Dale Wylde perform The Sex Lives of Puppets, Southwark Playhouse January 2024. Photo. Nigel Bewly

Puppets manipulated by humans talking about sex could be viewed as some sort of weird voyeurism, fetish or even an odd fantasy reenactment.

But in Blind Summit's The Sex Lives of Puppets at Southwark Playhouse, when one puppet bluntly corrects her lover's grammar while they are sexting, it moves it beyond the realms of titillation into a rich, observational human comedy.

Performed by four puppeteers - Simon Scardifield, Mark Down, Isobel Griffiths and Dale Wylde - The Sex Lives of Puppets is a series of interviews with individual puppets or 'couples'.

Each interview has a particular subject to do with sex, with the question to be discussed written on a piece of brown cardboard and displayed to the audience.

What goes on behind closed doors between two consenting 'adults' is naturally fascinating, and there is enough variety of questions and 'personalities' to keep it interesting.

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Theatre in 5 questions: Mark Down & Ben Keaton, co-writers/directors, The Sex Lives of Puppets, Southwark Playhouse

Ben Keaton Mark Down interview screenshot
What inspired theatre co-writers/directors Mark Down and Ben Keaton to create The Sex Lives of Puppets? I sat down with Mark and Ben ahead of the opening night at the Southwark Playhouse to find out more about Blind Summit's latest production and their theatre work.

Here's what they had to say (edited), and you can watch the full interview on YouTube by clicking here.

1. What inspired you to write The Sex Lives of Puppets? And why puppets?

Mark Down: We were messing around, and we loved them (the puppets) doing interview-style sort of backstage interviews, and they were very good when they talked about sex. 

Ben Keaton: You had a great title for a start.

Mark: I think it was a good title. And once we had it, it was sort of irresistible.

Ben: Mark brought me in, and I've said it many times, we just have to create a show around a great title. 

2. You are co-writers and co-directors. How does the collaboration work?

Mark: It's a f*cking nightmare.

Ben: I've made sure it's difficult. It's been my job to do this.

Mark: It came about because Ben auditioned, and he said, 'I know nothing about puppets'. And I was blown away by his voice.

I looked at who'd auditioned and said to my co-director, I want Ben, and if he really can't do puppets, I will do something else. And so that's how we got together, and then the arguments started.

Ben: Mark has an immense experience. He's incredibly passionate about what he does; he has a thing in his mind that he wants. And I come from a different world.

So the combination of our two skills come together in this, but not without bumping heads, that's for darn sure. What I love is we have one agenda, which is to make a great show, and everything clears its way for that.

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2023 theatre round up - top 10 favourite plays (and 4 least favourite)

Best of theatre 2023 montage

It feels like theatre returned with a splash in 2023 after the dark days of Covid. I saw 62 and a half plays (64 and a half, including second viewings) across London's plethora of theatres, from tiny pubs to big West End stages.

Here are my favourite 10 plays - in no particular order (links are to the full review).

1. No One, Omnibus Theatre

This was a fun, lively and inventive storytelling, with brilliant fight scenes.

2. Linck and Mulhahn, Hampstead Theatre

Based on a real same-sex couple living in the 18th Century Prussia, this was a witty, effervescent and heartbreaking play.

Mediocre white male king's head theatre

3. Mediocre White Male, King's Head Theatre

Subtle shifts and throwaway remarks build to make a powerful point.

4. A Little Life, Harold Pinter Theatre (and Savoy Theatre)

A harrowing and compelling play that utterly flawed me and I had to go back and see it again.

5. The Motive and the Cue, National Theatre and Noel Coward Theatre

Superb performances in this sharp, funny and interesting play. So good, I had to see it twice.

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Review: Ulster American, Riverside Studios - lacks subtlety to give it real punch

1. Louisa Harland (Ruth Davenport)  Andy Serkis (Leigh Carver) and Woody Harrelson (Jay Conway) in Second Half Production's Ulster American at Riverside Studios - photo by Johan Persson
Louisa Harland (Ruth Davenport) Andy Serkis (Leigh Carver) and Woody Harrelson (Jay Conway) in Ulster American at Riverside Studios. Photo by Johan Persson

If you've seen David Ireland's Cyprus Avenue, which had a sell-out run at the Royal Court a few years ago, you can tell Ulster American is written by the same hand, but it is nonetheless a very different beast.

Both plays look at sectarianism and identity in Northern Ireland, but Ulster American examines it through the lens of two outsiders: An Irish American actor Jay (Woody Harrelson) and an English theatre director Leigh (Andy Serkis).

The ignorance of the two is highlighted by protestant Northern Irish playwright Ruth (Louisa Harland).

But Ruth's presence also exposes their ignorance on a number of other issues. She adds a feminist lens to the narrative and a vehicle through which to examine attitudes towards equality - and sexual violence towards women.

The play is set in the London home of theatre director Leigh (Andy Serkis), the day before rehearsals begin on Ruth's violent new play set in Northern Ireland.

Jay, a Hollywood star, is playing the lead, and his lack of understanding of the play's subject matter and its historical context is problematic.

Leigh's only concern is keeping him on board, particularly with the promise of a Broadway run. He would rather change the play than lose the star.

But Ruth won't pander to Jay and Leigh's ignorance and prejudices and refuses to change a word of the play.

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