Review: Love's Labour's Lost, Royal Shakespeare Theatre - contemporary touches adds a freshness

RSC love's labour's lost posters 2024

Love's Labour's Lost, starring Luke Thomson, is the play that got me back to Stratford. It's been years since I jumped on a train to the West Midlands as it's become more of a faff since direct trains from London were ditched (such an idiotic decision).

Was it worth the journey?

Director Emily Burns has brought a contemporary freshness to Love's Labour's Lost. It's set in a luxury, exotic resort where Ferdinand, King of Navarre (Abiola Owokoniran), Berowne (Luke Thomson) and two other friends have signed an oath to study, fast and stay away from women for three years.

Even the Princess of France (Melanie-Joyce Bermudez) and her three ladies are not permitted beyond the grounds where the King insists they meet. However, this permitted 'off-site' doesn't stop Ferdinand falling in love with the Princess, Berowne falling for Rosaline (Ionna Kimbook) and Longville and Dumaine falling for the other two ladies.

Secret wooing, disguises and mistakes with letters ensue.

The contemporary resort setting works well with servants and courtiers becoming spa staff. There are sun loungers, golf tees and a tennis coach. Stripping away the court puts the focus on the men's behaviour. It also fits with the sassy way the women out-wit them and put them in their place.

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Review: Laughing Boy, Jermyn Street Theatre - urgent and emotional

Daniel Rainford  Lee Braithwaite  Alfie Friedman and Janie Dee in Laughing Boy_Jermyn Street Theatre_ photography by Alex Brenner
Daniel Rainford, Lee Braithwaite, Alfie Friedman and Janie Dee in Laughing Boy, Jermyn Street Theatre. Photo by Alex Brenner


Adapted from Sara Ryan's book 'Justice For Laughing Boy' this is a story about a mother's fight to find the truth about her 18-year-old son's death in a bath in an NHS facility.

Connor (Alfie Friedman), or Laughing Boy as his family calls him, has learning difficulties and epilepsy. He likes lorries and buses and often carries around a model of a red double-decker bus.

The play mixes happy family scenes from the past with the lead-up to Connor's admission to the unit and the subsequent campaign to find out what happened.

Connor's absence is, ironically, demonstrated in the fact that he is always there.

The conversation never shifts far from him, but micro-stories and examples of Connor in life are played out in interactions with his family, his comments and questions or when he simply sits playing with his bus.

Aside from Alfie Friedman and Janie Dee, the rest of the cast take on the menagerie of antagonists (medical staff and their representatives) and supporters of the family, lawyers and advisors. 

The stage is plain white, and the back wall curves around and acts as a screen for family photos, text messages, emails and documents. It feels almost like a docudrama, told primarily through Sara's eyes.


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Review: Black Swans, Omnibus Theatre - reflection on technology and what it says about humans

Black Swans featuring Trine Garrett © Tim Morrozzo
Black Swans, Omnibus Theatre, L-R  Camila França and Trine Garrett. Photo © Tim Morrozzo

In my interview with Camila França and Trine Garrett, who play sisters in Black Swans at the Omnibus Theatre, they said Christina Kettering's play felt futuristic when it came to them in 2020 years ago, but four years later, less so.

Such is the rampant advance in AI in the last couple of years that a robot that gathers medical, mood and domestic data to deliver the best care no longer seems quite so far-fetched.

The play sees two sisters arguing about who and how their elderly mother should be cared for. Neither has had a particularly close relationship with her, but the younger sister (Garrett) feels it's their moral duty and shouldn't be a burden.

Her older sister doesn't agree. She argues that others can provide much better care.

It is an argument that is perhaps motivated by a desire to live her life unencumbered by any caring responsibility, which echoes how she and her sister were raised.

However, seeing her sister struggling with caring, part-time work, family responsibilities and an absent husband, she buys her sister a robot carer to help out. They call the robot Rosie.

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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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