Review: Player Kings, Noel Coward Theatre - a vehicle for Ian McKellen at the expense of something richer

Player Kings at the Noel Coward Theatre is Henry IV parts 1 & 2 squished together to create just under four hours of Shakespeare with one interval.

Ian McKellen is the big star name, playing Falstaff with Richard Coyle as Henry IV and Toheeb Jimoh as Hal.

Prince Hal's behaviour is presented as influenced by his spending so much time hanging out in taverns and with thieves, and I really liked that.

It is particularly notable in the way he fights. There is one moment when his actions towards Hotspur, whom his father admires, are certainly dirty and dishonourable. It puts both characters in a different light.

Richard Coyle, as Henry IV, has such a commanding stage presence that you could hear a pin drop every time he appeared. He presents a formidable and slightly scary King.

Robert Icke, who has adapted and directed the play, leaves little room for guilt about the means by which Henry came by the crown.

Although the fact that Henry was able to leap out of bed and wrestle with his son when he was supposedly dying did feel a little comical.

Ian McKellen is going to be my favourite Falstaff. This production felt like it was a vehicle for him to do a series of comic turns.

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Interview: Camila França and Trine Garrett, co-artistic directors of Foreign Affairs theatre company

Rev Stan interview with Camila and Trine Foreign Affairs Theatre

Camila França and Trine Garrett are co-artistic directors of the Foreign Affairs theatre company, which produces translated work sometimes in unusual spaces.

Ahead of their latest production, Black Swans at the Omnibus Theatre (23 April-11 May), I asked them about the new piece, how they choose what stories to tell and the unusual places they've staged theatre in the past.  

Black Swans also sees Camila and Trine returning to acting after a 5-year break, so I asked them what they are looking forward to about being back on stage and how they'll be feeling on opening night.

You can watch the full interview on my YouTube channel here.

Your theatre company, Foreign Affairs, shares stories from afar. What is the process for finding the plays you put on, and what are you looking for from a piece?

Trine: Our focus is working with theatre in translation. And the translators are our best friends, so plays get pitched to us. We also discover them through our theatre translator mentorship, which we run every other year.

And this play [Black Swans] was discovered during one of those.

What draws us to the plays that we stage is a lot about identity and belonging. We are both not from the UK; I'm from Denmark and Camila's from Brazil.

And then plays about women. I think that has been at the forefront for the last year with this one in particular [Black Swans], and prior to that, we did a rehearsed reading of a play about a female Danish scientist.

Black Swans is about caregiving for an elderly parent in a world of increasing technological influence. Tell us a bit about the play and what drew you to this particular story.

Camila: It's a story about women, and that immediately appealed. And then there's also a personal connection to the story, both on my side and Trine's, caring for elderly family, which is something we as a society tend not to talk a lot about.

The play is about two sisters who have to care for their elderly mother, who can no longer look after herself.

In that comes all the beauty and the bickering of their relationship and what happens when decisions have to be made.

How do they deal with it, and how does it affect their personal relationships, their own lives, and their relationship with their mother?

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Review: The Long Run, New Diorma Theatre - humour and warmth in this comedy about cancer

The Long Run - Ali Wright-8
Katie Arnstein in The Long Run. Photo: Ali Wright

The Long Run is a comedy about cancer. Not words that normally go together and something writer and performer Katie Arnstein acknowledges right at the start of the play, but it turns out to be a very accurate description.

Rather than focusing on those with cancer, the play's spotlight centres on those caring for and supporting their loved ones on their treatment journey.

It's based on writer Katie Arnstein's own experiences of caring for her mum during her treatment for bowel cancer. We follow her experiences at the hospital and the people she meets sitting in the waiting room while her mum is off having radiotherapy and chemo.

Katie Arnstein's energetic and magnetic performance builds on the idea of traditional storytelling, with one person talking directly to a group of people but with added observational asides and descriptions.

These asides are delivered accompanied by a snap change in lighting in a way that gives the audience a front-row seat to her inner monologue.

It exposes how she feels about the situation she's in and her thoughts on those who, like her, are waiting for their loved ones' treatment to finish.

Her asides are simultaneously a humourous journey of how emotions combined with flawed judgement lead to some regrettable incidents and revelations.

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Review: Don't Make Tea, Soho Theatre - Funny and clever

Birds of Paradise - Don't Make Tea - Thu 21 March 2024 (© photographer - Andy Catlin
Neil John Gibson and Gillian Dean in Don't Make Tea © photographer - Andy Catlin

Don't Make Tea at the Soho Theatre is one of those plays that, if you wrote down all the elements, you'd think 'this isn't going to work' but somehow, on stage, it does.

It's the latest production from Birds of Paradise Theatre Company and is set in the flat of Chris (Gillian Dean), who has a degenerative disease, which means she's slowly going blind and has increasing levels of debilitating pain.

The Government has introduced a new assessment for eligibility for disability benefits, which is supposed to be fairer.

Chris' benefits have been frozen until she passes - or rather fails - her assessment because working is framed as the 'positive' outcome despite her level of disability or inability to work.

Ralph (Neil John Gibson), the assessor, arrives with recording equipment and a pulse monitor (to detect lies). It's a tricksy, ridiculous, definitely bureaucratic and sometimes invasive assessment.

Chris' frustrations begin to bubble up despite her best efforts to stay calm (and polite). The second half deals with the fallout of her frustrations in an increasingly surreal turn of events.

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Review: The Divine Mrs S, Hampstead Theatre - Moments of sparkle and laughter

Anushka Chakravarti  Rachael Stirling and Dominic Rowan_The Divine Mrs S_credit Johan Persson
Anushka Chakravarti, Rachael Stirling and Dominic Rowan in The Divine Mrs S at Hampstead Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

As The Divine Mrs S opens, we see brother and sister actors John Kemble (Dominic Rowan) and Sarah Siddens (Rachael Stirling) performing on stage at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

John gives a booming, stilted performance in comic contrast with Sarah, who is far more natural and emotionally charged. In delivering her final line, she faints from the effort and is carried off stage, a common occurrence we later find out.

The audience laps it up. Mrs Sarah Siddons is a celebrated actress guaranteed to pack out the theatre in late 18th-century London. John believes himself to be a great actor and, as the manager of the theatre, chooses the plays and casts himself in the starring roles.

Not that there are any lead roles for actresses.

Sarah might be adored for her stage performances but that doesn't stop the newspapers and gossip rags tearing into her for not being at home with her husband and children.

When one of her daughters gets sick and dies, she is accused of neglect.

Rachael Stirling's Mrs S is commanding and effervescent. She is sharp and witty character, which alongside her acting talent become her weapons - the only weapons she is afforded in a male-dominated society.

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Interview: Actor & writer Sam McArdle on The Manny and how it helped him bounce back into acting

Rev Stan and Sam McArdle

Sam McArdle had given up acting and started writing a play for 'something to do'. He ended up performing that play, The Manny, at the King's Head Theatre last year and a successful run in Dublin followed.

Ahead of The Manny's return to London at the Pleasance Theatre this week, I jumped on a video call to ask Sam about the play, the process of creating it, getting back into acting and what his ideal role would be.

You can watch the full interview here.

How did you decide what real parts of your experiences as a male nanny to include and what to leave out when you were writing The Manny?

Just the juiciest parts. I really wanted to keep in the bits about the child who is obsessed with World War II and then the bits about going to the school gates and seeing the other mannies literally trying to muscle in on your territory.

It's like a networking event. Picking up the mums at the school gate and working out, okay, I can get more shifts by working for them. I thought that was interesting and funny.

What parts did I want to leave out? The image of the male nanny is much more salacious than actually what the job entails.

So I left out a lot of the mundane day-to-day things of picking up the kids from school, cooking them dinner, making sure they do their homework. That would be a crap play.

Were you always writing The Manny for yourself to perform? And how did that inform the process?

No one else is going to play the Manny. No way.

To be honest, I just started writing it. I'd quit acting completely, and it was just something to do, and it's almost a form of therapy.

And then, after I got the bare bones of the script, I did a play reading during COVID, those ghastly Zoom play readings.

I thought, 'Oh, this feels really nice and good'. I felt like my old self was coming back.

And then I made a decision like the guy in The Bear, Richie, in the fourth episode, something in me just flicked, and I said, 'I've got to make a change and get back to London, put the show on, and I've got to see if I can still do it'.

So from there, after the first draught, it was something I wanted to do to express how I've been feeling the last couple of years.

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Review: For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy, Garrick Theatre - seamless theatre

D) For Black Boys... (ensemble)
For Black Boys... (ensemble). Photo: © Johan Persson

For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy is a play of experiences told as a seamless stream of stories.

But the play itself has its own story. This is the second West End run for Nouveau Riche's production in just over 12 months, but it started with a sell-out run at the bijou New Diorama Theatre in Euston back in 2021. It then transferred to the Royal Court before securing its first stint in the West End at the Apollo Theatre. 

It is a dream come true for any theatre production and a much-deserved success. This is an exceptional piece of theatre.

Written by Ryan Calais Cameron, the play is divided roughly into two main acts with a third shorter concluding act.

The first half is served up with a rap soundtrack focusing on black boy experiences from school, among friends and peers and at home.

It's like an informal therapy session, different characters sharing different experiences which get picked over by the rest of the group.

They discuss how it has shaped their outlook and approach to life. It isn't formal but rather a dialogue peppered with revealing banter and teasing. There is agreement and disagreement, empathy and sometimes fights.

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Review: Nachtland, Young Vic Theatre - provocation and problems

Nachtland Young Vic poster

As the audience arrives at the Young Vic, four of the Nachtland cast are removing a vast array of household items from the stage. It's a process I find strangely fascinating: Is it random what they take, or carefully coordinated and the same every night, timed to perfection to coincide with a 7.30pm start?

I'll probably never know, but after the final item is removed and the lights dimmed, the context behind the exercise becomes clear. In modern-day Germany, siblings Nicola (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) and Philipp (John Heffernan) are clearing out their late father's house.

They are helped by their respective spouses, Fabian (Gunnar Cauthary) and Judith (Jenna Augen), who is Jewish.

When Nicola addresses the audience (which is frequently the style in the play), she refers to 'my father' to which Philipp takes umbrage. The two fall into squabbling and verbal jibes, displaying resentment built up over many years.

And then there is a discovery. Tucked away in the loft, wrapped in brown paper, is a painting.

The siblings argue about its merits and what to do with it: Nicola wants to get rid, Philipp wants to keep. When the frame is removed, and the artist's identity and association with the Nazis are revealed, opinions about the painting and what to do with it change.

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Review: 52 Monologues for Young Transsexuals, Soho Theatre - pink sequins and wipe-clean rubber flooring

52 Monologues for Young Transsexuals  credit to Arabella Kennedy-Compston (11)

52 Monologues for Young Transsexuals at the Soho Theatre sets out its stall as you walk into the theatre and are asked to spit in a cup. It's a request that certainly sets you thinking.

Once inside, writer/performer Laurie Ward dances to a bouncy track in a pink sequined, halter-neck jumpsuit. The stage is covered in a pink, rubbery, wipe-clean tarpaulin.

It manages to be both frothy fun and slightly sinister at the same time.

The show is a montage of styles and stories. Snippets of verbatim theatre are woven between dance and movement segments and lip-syncing.

Trans women talk candidly about their experiences and feelings around love, sex, intimacy and their bodies. It reveals a heady mix of experiences, from the joyous to those that are much darker.

Sometimes, it is hard to keep up as the conversations weave tighter and tighter, and one story blends into another.

You also get Charli and Laurie's story, how they met and became best friends and their relationships with their parents. It is frank and honest, full of laughter and love, but as with all the stories, there is a darker edge.

There is a sense throughout of not knowing what will come next, which is exciting but also gives a sense of foreboding.

52 Monologues For Young Transsexuals is a play that fizzes with the light and shade of trans experience; it is pink sequins and certainly needs the wipe-clean rubber tarpaulin.

52 Monologues for Young Transsexuals, Soho Theatre

Written and performed by Charli Cowgill and Laurie Ward

Movement Director Naissa Bjørn

Director Ilona Sell (she/her)

Running time 60 minutes without an interval

Booking until March 16; for more information and to buy tickets, visit the Soho Theatre website

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Interview with Birds of Paradise Theatre Company artistic director Robert Softley Gale

Interview: Robert Softley Gale of Birds of Paradise Theatre talks disabled representation and snobbishness about musicals

Robert Softley-Gale
Robert Softley Gale, artistic director of Birds of Paradise Theatre Company

Birds of Paradise, Scotland's pre-eminent disabled-led theatre company, is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a tour of its darkly comic play Don't Make Tea.

Before the company hits the road later this month I spoke to artistic director Robert Softley Gale about how he chooses what work to produce, disabled representation in the theatre (and yes Richard III at The Globe comes up) and his favourite type of theatre to watch.

Here are the highlights from that chat, scroll down to watch the video.

Tell us a bit about the work you do as artistic director of the Birds of Paradise (BOP) theatre company and how you decide what work to produce.

The company has been going for 31 years, and I’ve been artistic director since 2012. And I think the role is best explained as putting disabled stories onto the stage.

And that sounds very simplistic and ‘what's the big deal with that’? But if you look at our culture, there's a real lack of disabled stories.

I feel like BOP has a role to play in putting those stories on stage.

The first show I produced was a sex comedy called Wendy Hoose in 2014. It was a very standard two-actor comedy where they meet online, get together, and then he comes to her apartment and discovers that she's got no legs.

So, he’s immediately having to navigate how that works.

Taking stories that are quite familiar, like a sex comedy, and then putting disability into them is something I think is very interesting.

The stories we have to tell aren't radically different, but with a different perspective, they've got something different to say. 

Then there was Purposeless Movements, which was a physical theatre piece with four disabled guys telling you about their lives and explaining what masculinity meant to them as disabled men.

Then My Left/Right Foot, which is a musical co-produced with the National Theatre of Scotland.

That took the story of Christie Brown who wrote My Left Foot and asked the question: If an amateur theatre company tried to put this on stage, how wrong could they get it, how inappropriate could you be?

It's a very in-your-face musical. It was really well received as a big scale, quite shocking but also quite endearing musical about disability.

The key is that people came for a great night at the theatre; they didn't come to be told what it's like to be disabled because that's not very exciting.

So I guess I'm telling you about those productions to explain how I pick things. It's very much about what will attract audiences.

"If you come away from a piece of theatre having laughed very hard, having cried and thinking about something a different way, then its job done"

I hate theatre that's navel-gazing and 'what I want to say'. I mean, obviously, it's about what I want to say, but it's about what audiences want to hear, what they want to find out about.

It's about being aware of where the audience is, what they're interested in, what will entertain and surprise them and what will educate them. That's not a very popular word.

If you come away from a piece of theatre having laughed very hard, having cried and thinking about something a different way, then its job done.

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