Lockdown London theatre walks: White Bear Theatre, Kennington and two very different memories

I should have thought of this back in March but better late than never... I've started using my lockdown weekend walks (or cycles) to visit some of my favourite London theatres.

White Bear Theatre in lockdown Jan 2021
White Bear Theatre, Kennington in lockdown Jan 2021

The off-the-top-of-my-head list I drew up has 18 non-West End theatres (well not the big West End Theatres anyway) so let's see how many I get to between now and, well, having something else to do at the weekends other than walk or cycle.

First up is the White Bear Theatre in Kennington, which is about a 30-minute walk from home.

Now I have to start with a question. Did the theatre at the White Bear use to be downstairs at the back of the pub before they moved it into swisher space upstairs? Or am I getting it mixed up with somewhere else?

Anyway, it's one of my favourite pub theatres, and I'm not just saying that because it's close to home. It's a nice size, has some raked seating (important when you are 5ft 2in tall) and puts on an interesting mix of new work.

I'm all for pub theatres being the proving ground for new talent and to be quite frank; I'm long over pub theatre productions of classics by Shakespeare and Chekhov. 

Going to a pub theatre is about the chance to see a spark of new talent or something different and inventive.

Two particular plays I've seen at the White Bear Theatre stand out for very different reasons:

Out There on Fried Meat Ridge Rd by Keith Stevenson

This was one of those productions which had me grinning and feeling full of life. It came at a dark time - Trump's inauguration and Theresa May spouting hard Brexit speeches - so was a very welcome diversion on a cold January evening.

As I said in my review, it was a reminder that there is some good in the world.

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Review: Overflow, live stream via Bush Theatre - toilet drama makes for clever and powerful storytelling

Travis Alabanza's play Overflow is set in the toilet of a club from where transgirl Rosie (Reece Lyons) has locked herself in.

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Overflow, Bush Theatre. Photography by Elise Rose. Art direction by Mia Maxwell

She talks about the power of a 'pre-emptive pee' but it isn't just about being organised enough to empty your bladder knowing the facilities, later on, will be less than ideal for a comfort break.

As she talks there is the possibility that she might want to avoid public toilets for reasons other than queues and cleanliness.

The toilet setting is the literal backdrop for stories of her past experiences from primary school to more recent club visits but each is revealing, peppered with revelations about life as a transgirl, how friends and society views her.

At first, the club toilet experience is about acceptance and friendly camaraderie where the girls bolster each other with compliments and rally to help out when one of them is in need.

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Sunday theatre question: Favourite Winter play

This week's theatre question is inspired by the wintery weather. The weathermen forecast snow for this weekend here in London but instead, it's peeing it down with rain. Not that I mind too much snow is just a pain - on those rare occasions we get it in the city.

Anyway, the prospect of snow got me thinking about plays that either have a wintery setting or remind me of the winter. Watch the video to find out my choice of favourite winter play and let me know your snowy-set play choices in the comments.

If you are looking for some inspiration, here are some other plays that have wintery connections:

The Red Barn, National Theatre - Mark Strong and Elizabeth Debicki starred in this intriguing and tense play in which a snowstorm throws a group of people together.

On Bear Ridge, Royal Court - The mountain setting, the snowy stage, the actors wrapped in layers against the 'cold' - a beautiful play with a bleak future setting and the weather to match.

A Christmas Carol, Old Vic - The one starring Rhys Ifans had everyone in the audience so giddy that when it started 'snowing' over the stalls there was spontaneous applause. It was such a joyful moment.

And my review of Macbeth at the Trafalgar Studios starring James McAvoy which had a distinctly wintery feel.


Sunday theatre question: What combo would be your nightmare theatre production?

If you had a theatre-watching nightmare, one where you were forced to sit an watch something and it was everything you hate, what would that look like for you?

Sunday theatre question

For me, it would be a musical, written by Tom Stoppard and starring Ben Whishaw for reasons I explain in the video below.

There is one Tom Stoppard play I really like and that is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead but I've realised over the years that the only reason I like that play is because I love Hamlet and crucially I'm familiar with it.

And that's the problem with Stoppard he relies on a lot of existing knowledge and if the references and ideas aren't familiar then it doesn't make much sense. Which has been the case with all the other plays I've seen.

I'm not one for dumbing down but I find them alienating because I don't have the prerequisite level of knowledge to adequately appreciate them.

And I've tried quite a few - I've seen Arcadia more than once - but after these years of testing, I've come to the conclusion that Stoppard isn't for me.

Here's a couple of reviews of Tom Stoppard plays I've seen:

The great: Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, Old Vic starring Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire

The tedious: The Hard Problem, Dorfman Theatre

 

 


Sunday theatre question: Who would star in your dream play in 2021?

Hopefully this year we'll see theatres reopening and a semblance of normality returning so with that in mind the first Sunday Theatre question of 2021 is about what your dream play would be and who would star in it.

So pick a genre - or a play if you have one in mind - the actor and/or actress you'd most like to star in it and then share it in the comments.

My choice would be a black comedy starring Ben Whishaw and Monica Dolan for reasons I explain in the video.

Looking forward to reading about your choices and scroll down for my favourite black comedies...

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Review: The Comeback, Noel Coward Theatre - is this the comedy we need?

I love a serious play, something thought-provoking and challenging but right now, with everything that is going on, I just want a laugh. I want frothy fun that is diverting. Did behind-the-scenes farce The Comeback at the Noel Coward Theatre fit the bill?

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Ben Ashenden & Alex Owen in The Comeback. Photo Marc Brenner

Written by and starring Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen, The Comeback is a bit like Michael Frayn's Noises Off but instead of seeing the on and off stage shenanigans during a play, it is set on a comedy tour.

The 'stars' of the tour are an ageing comedy duo (Morecombe and Wise-esq) trying to stage a comeback. Ben and Alex are the warm-up act and hoping the tour will catapult them into the big time.

When they spot the name of a Hollywood director on the list of ticket holders the need to impress suddenly becomes even more important.

Ashenden and Owen's humour is gentle, fun and cleverly disarming. You wonder where they are going with a skit or a gag but where it lands is often a surprise - and all the funnier for it.

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Who did you see in an early stage role before they became famous on screen?

The Guardian has published this great collection of photos of famous actors in early stage roles. It's one of the things I love about theatre, watching young actors cut their teeth in small stage roles, blossom into bigger roles and then go on to have success on screen.

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Although there is a part of me that does get frustrated when they gather a large fan base which makes it difficult to get tickets to see them when they do return to the stage.

So who did you see on stage before they were famous?

Probably my best haul was the first Hamlet I saw.

I was a student in Liverpool studying English and we went on a trip to Theatr Clwyd in Mold to see Hamlet.

This was the early 90s and it wasn't until relatively recently when I found the programme, I realised that playing the minor roles were none other than Toby Jones, Rhys Ifans and Jack Davenport.

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Digital theatre review: Paines Plough's In Tandem: Snippets of life and living during lockdown

The latest digital theatre from Paines Plough is a series of 6 vignettes - longest is 8 minutes - about different aspects of life in lockdown.

In Tandem Credit Michael Windsor-Ungureanu
Image: Michael Windsor-Ungureanu

You sign up with your email and twice a day for three days you get sent an email link to watch a video online.

Written by Travis Alabanza and Magdalena Zarebska-Wegrzyn, three of the films feature a mother and daughter (Sharon D. Clarke and Leanne Henlon) trying to maintain their relationship over Zoom.

They play games, do Zumba, discuss daily events and plant care. The latter is a heavy metaphor for individual needs and care.

The remaining three films feature a Polish couple (Patrycja Durska and Paweł Kumięga) and through their conversation examines their differing approaches to coping with the lockdown.

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Review: What a Carve Up!, digital theatre - slick 90s whodunnit that feels over-egged with modern references

What A Carve Up! is a digital theatre adaptation of Jonathan Coe's satirical murder mystery novel, published in 1994, updated to include contemporary references - think scandals and newspaper headlines.

Alfred Enoch
Alfred Enoch as Raymond Winshaw in What A Carve Up!

On one level it's a documentary-style investigation into the gruesome murder of the notoriously powerful Winshaw family, on another it's darkly comic exposé of corruption among those in positions of power and privilege.

The story is set 30 years later and is told documentary-style through the eyes of Raymond Owen (Alfred Enoch) son of the prime suspect Michael Owen (voiced by Samuel Barnett), a writer who was working on a book about the family when they were murdered.

Owen senior subsequently disappeared leaving Raymond to piece together what happened. He talks directly to camera introducing and commenting on bits of evidence and various clips.

Aside from Enoch, the only on-camera performance is a TV interview with surviving family member Josephine Winshaw-Eaves (Fiona Button) with - Tamzin Outhwaite playing the interviewer. The rest is told using voice-over, 'archive' images and footage.

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Review: Uncle Vanya, directed for the screen on the Harold Pinter stage - how does it compare?

Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter Theatre, starring Toby Jones, Richard Armitage, Eleanor Eleazar and Aimee Lou Wood, was one of the last plays I saw before theatres closed and it's safe to say I adored it. Which, considering me and Chekhov have a difficult relationship, is saying something. 

Uncle Vanya for screen
Uncle Vanya (c) Photography Seamus Ryan and Artwork Muse Creative Communications

So when it was announced that the cast was reuniting under Covid-safe conditions to re-perform the play on stage but this time directed for camera, I didn't hesitate to get a ticket to see it on the big screen.

But how did it compare to the original stage directed version?

Well, the first thing to say is that the only cast change for the filmed version was Roger Allam stepping in for Ciaran Hinds to play the professor. 

Allam is slightly less intimidating than Hinds but that didn't make any material difference.

As for the filming, without the constraints of a live audience, the piece felt less stagey and more like an actual film than the NT Live productions.

In fact, you quickly forgot you were watching something performed on stage - the only reminders were the doors through which the actors exited the stage. They are part of the theatre and therefore a more contemporary style to the rest of the set.

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