Tag Archives: King’s Head Theatre

Theatre Review: The Boat Factory (King’s Head Theatre, London)

"Don't stand and wonder how to do it - do it, and wonder how you did it." Dan Gordon (left) and Michael Condron (right). Photograph: Courtesy of the production

“Don’t stand and wonder how to do it – do it, and wonder how you did it.” Dan Gordon (left) and Michael Condron (right). Photograph: Courtesy of the production

Rating: *****

Belfast, for many, is a place of infamy; whether it’s because it’s the city that built the fated Titanic, or recollections wander towards “The Troubles”. But it’s so easy to forget that behind these grandiose preconceptions lay actual lives and families. Dan Gordon lived in the shadow of the domineering Harland & Wolff shipyard, and his father actually worked there. He has teamed up with Happenstance theatre company to produce this two-hander looking at the life of a young apprentice, Davy Gordon, and the people he meets and the friends he makes.

It’s a very simply show. Gordon is joined by only one other actor, Michael Condron. Between them they play Davy and his fellow apprentice Geordie Kilpatrick respectively, as well as a whole host of other characters. There is nothing more to the set and props other than two bits of scaffolding, a few raised levels, a cyclorama made up of a plan of the shipyard, and two hats. But the entire thing is less of a play and more a piece of storytelling, meaning that what’s actually happening on the stage is unimportant as it’s all in the mental imagery that these two conjure.

Gordon and Condron shifting in and out of different characters at the beginning of it all takes a moment to settle into. But it’s not difficult, and once you’re there, you find you’re suddenly plunged deep into the heart of post-war Northern Ireland, with these two fine actors stoking your imagination into recreating their world with vivid fascination. As character actors go, these guys are supreme. They effortlessly change from one persona to another, in mannerism, voice, and physicality. Condron, in particular, is especially masterful at this skill playing everything from an effeminate shoe shop boy to a bullying and violent foreman, without you ever quite realising that it always just him channelling these different characters. This peculiar ability makes everyone Davy meets, and therefore you meet too, seem wholly real and believable, cumulating into making the show incredibly absorbing.

The utterly immersive quality of the show is helped by Gordon’s rich text. The characters’ descriptions of the boat yard and its workers are so beautifully written that even if all you’ve seen of it are the pictures in the programme, you suddenly find yourself caught up in a mental image that’s incredibly tangible. These are also helped by some brilliant sound from Chris Warner and Gareth McLees, whether it’s subtle bits of composed music to augment a scene from Warner, or a sense of energy, drive, and rhythm from McLees’ percussion.

But ultimately, it’s Gordon’s modest and insightful accounts of Davy, Geordie, and the rest, that really clinches it. They’re ordinary folk who enjoy simple pleasures. They’re not melodramatic, they’re not caricatures, and neither are they outright heroes or villains. They’re just people. However, Geordie’s slightly more profound and left-of-centre look on life, as a result of the effects of childhood Polio, gives an enrapturing curiosity to the story: something which, as Davy gets swept up in himself, you can’t help but be totally beguiled by.

Despite all its earthliness, it’s still an incredibly high romantic look at the yard’s history: an incredibly fond remembrance more than anything else. But that by no manner means that the piece is self-indulgent or shallow. In fact, Gordon tempers his tale into something that can be universally understood, connected to, and engage with, by seamlessly weaving mentions of Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby Dick to devastating effect, making pristine crossover of its bleak imagery and themes. It magnificently augments the overall tragedy of the lost lives and the catastrophes that went on in the shipyard, that we unfortunately also bear witness to and feel the effects of during the course of the show.

But nonetheless, it would be impossible to create a piece about Northern Ireland without the use of Ulster humour. Cheeky, wry, and sometimes a bit bawdy, as well as being swept up in the high emotion of the piece there are also plenty of moments where you’ll laugh just as hard as you’ll cry.

The result is a dizzying and heart-shattering piece of theatre. Seldom does a play captivate you with its very essence of drama so quickly and so completely as this does. Achingly moving, endearingly human, and brutally honest, The Boat Factory is a show that is an astonishing and enduring portrait of those who worked at world’s most famous, yet infamous, shipbuilders. Do NOT miss it.

The Boat Factory runs at the King’s Head Theatre, London, N11QN, until 17 August 2013. Tickets are £20.50 – £25.00 (concessions available). To book visit http://www.kingsheadtheatre.com.

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Theatre Review: RIP (King’s Head Theatre, London)

Promotional image for RIP. Photograph: Courtesy of the King's Head Theatre.

Promotional image for RIP. Photograph: Courtesy of the King’s Head Theatre.

Rating: ***

Jack the Ripper is possibly one of the most enduring of morbid infamies. Five brutal murders and the fact he was never identified or caught, has managed to hold the fascination of centuries of generations. But whilst much is talked and debated about the murderous man himself, little is ever said about his victims.

Sonnie Beckett and Joe Morrow’s new musical sets to change this, looking beyond the mere names and occupation of Jack’s women, prising into the tragic back-stories of these five fated ladies. However, despite a worthy and interesting premise, there are issues that stop the show from being great, which is a shame because even if it’s not tremendously slick there is a definite spark of genuine inspiration here.

The main issue is the music. Whilst Beckett and Morrow manage to write a score with a great sense of variety and flair, the numbers are a little unrefined. Melodies and musical structure will often meander a bit making the songs feel hollow, never quite giving enough for the audience to sink their teeth into. Couple this with some rhyming schemes that are a little obvious and simplistic, and the music falls short of the mark more often than not.

But there are, however, a few good pieces that really illustrate that there is promise in the duo’s composing abilities. These include a rather chilling opening number, a beguilingly mournful folk tune, and Annie Chapman’s raucous burlesque of a ballad. Bolstering the score is also some very innovative use of scissors, whetting knives, and luggage as a rhythm and percussion section to accompany the single piano that provides the music, which in itself carries a lot of charisma.

The other things that let show down are smaller details that have a large impact. Hannah Kaye’s direction is very unsympathetic to the new configuration of the theatre. If you happen to have gotten a seat to close to the back wall of the stage area, or in one of the back rows, its impossible to see the heavy amount of action very central to the space and on the floor. It’s a shame, because you get the sense that if you could actually see what was going on it would indeed look quite impressive. Kaye is clearly a talented director and this is demonstrated in some frantically choreographed chorus numbers that add a sharp sense of the twisted ripe for the timbre of the tale, and the bleak tenderness she gives the women’s life stories. But she just needs to have had more thought about the dimensions and sight lines of the venue, as, unless you’re sat in a prime position, you can only imagine what’s happening, which doesn’t have quite the same effect.

Also, Jack the Ripper’s “mask” consisted of actor Peter-Lee Harper wearing some black tights over his head, which feels more silly than sinister, dissipating any tense build-up the production had been working towards.

But there is a great cast behind the production, and Beckett’s book is incredibly solid. All the women are strong actors and really manage to ply the depths of each of their characters. Especially notable was Gemma Brodrick as the drunk and downtrodden Polly Nicholas, and Emma Hook as the deranged Annie Chapman. Beckett also makes a wonderful juxtaposition of police coroners Thomas Bond and George Bagster Phillips (played by Morrow and Thomas Deplae respectively) revelling in the hideous details of the murders themselves, against the ghosts of the victims fleshing out their personal stories to build deep portraits of five real women.

Furthermore, the educated assumption Beckett makes of the identity of Jack, and the playing out of the unnerving indiscretions in the relationship he had with his own wife, is a really intriguing twist to what we already know about Jack.

It might not be totally ground-breaking in its execution, but it’s certainly a unique and interesting take on London’s most gruesome of histories. Although it doesn’t quite gleam like it wants to, it’s certainly worth your time as it’s brimming with potential and is none the less a provocative and entertaining evening.

RIP plays at the King’s Head Theatre, London, N1 1QN, on Sundays and Mondays until 21 July 2013. Tickets are £20.50 – £25.00 (concessions available). To book visit www.kingsheadtheatre.com.


Theatre Review: Our Town (King’s Head Theatre, London)

Stewart Clegg (left) and Siu-see Hung (right). Photograph: Courtesy of the King's Head Theatre.

Stewart Clegg (left) and Siu-see Hung (right). Photograph: Courtesy of the King’s Head Theatre.

Rating: ***

It’s been 75 years since Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning play was first performed on Broadway. Now, he’s the only playwright performed more than Shakespeare, with a minimum of one production of Our Town going on per day in the US. Therefore, the King’s Head Theatre has a great honour in staging the official London revival for the anniversary celebrations.

Straight off the bat you can see why the show was so ground breaking in its day. Deliberately metaphysical and sparse, the entire thing is narrated by a Stage Manager (Simon Dobson) interacting with both the play’s characters and the audience. Neil Gordon’s set is only but a few chairs and table, and a tree, with everything else mimed or imagined. This is by no means your average piece of theatre nowadays, let alone back then. Admittedly it’s still a little difficult to settle in to. But when you do, you appreciate its innovation in how it effectively frames the story.

This means that director Tim Sullivan and lighting designer Paul O’Shaughnessy really have their work cut out for them in making sure that, despite the absence of much of anything, they can create a piece that engages the audience. Sullivan really manages to somehow make the tiny jut/round theatre space feel like a sprawling neighbourhood, never making it feel too cramped, but also cosy and homely when it needs to be. His use of ladders in the first act also is a wonderful use of hidden levels which is not only visually striking, but emotively effective. O’Shaughnessy’s lighting is as simple as the play itself, toying mostly with lights and darks rather than an array of colours. But it really comes into its own in the third act to create not just a scene but also augment an emotion.

Sullivan also has a good cast behind him too. For instance, Dobson is incredibly energetic and engaging as the Stage Manager, and Ben Z. Fuiava as Mr. Webb is incredibly charismatic with an indomitable grand presence that makes him a particular pleasure to watch. But it’s Zoë Swenson-Graham as Emily Webb who really captures the whims and dreams of a young rural American girl, and seizes the opportunity to really astound in the final portion of the play with a deep and sensitive approach to her final speech that is sincerely affecting.

But what makes this performance of such an acclaimed text peter out into mediocrity is that something has gotten lost in translation in its journey across the Atlantic and down the decades. Whilst Sullivan’s direction makes it easy to imagine the physical town and the humble homes of its inhabitants, it’s difficult to be convinced that this is 1900s America. One reason for this is that the whole cast speak in their natural non-American accents; with the exception of Swenson-Graham who is actually American. It’s great that such an international cast are involved in this effort to make a truly cosmopolitan interpretation, and we can be thankful that Sullivan has opted for us not to endure dodgy accents. But it means that we forget it’s very specifically about a time and place in America, and because of this it doesn’t quite work.

Back in 1938, Wilder managed to capture an enduring essence of American life, and exploit it to great success. But we don’t quite see what that quality is, here. There’s something latent in his exploration of American monotony that this production hasn’t quite found, and therefore everything just seems mundane despite the enthusiasm of everyone involved. With the exception of Swenson-Graham, as able as the cast are you don’t feel that they quite comprehend that quality either, compounding the difficulty in making a non-American audience connect with the play enough to make it entertaining.

The conclusion to the play, however, is universal. Melancholy and philosophy are concepts without borders, and Wilder’s machinations are really quite profound. But whilst it’s interesting to see how this provocative epilogue ties into the first two acts, the fact that they weren’t particularly exciting means that this climax isn’t as satisfying as it could be.

It’s a good production of a classic, but as it doesn’t quite recreate what it is that makes this text outstanding. Though very well staged, it’s ultimately a less than exciting novelty performance of a theatrical paragon.

Our Town runs at the King’s Head Theatre, London N1 1QN, until 20 July 2013. Tickets are £20.50-£25 (concessions available). To book, visit www.kingsheadtheatre.com.


Theatre Reivew: Boys’ Life (King’s Head Theatre, London)

Safety pants! Matthew Crowley (left) and Max Warrick (right). Photograph: Courtesy of One Fell Swoop (from the production at the Etcetera Theatre)

Safety pants! Matthew Crowley (left) and Max Warrick (right). Photograph: Courtesy of One Fell Swoop (from the production at the Etcetera Theatre)

Rating: ***

After its initial run at the Etcetera Theatre, One Fell Swoop’s production takes up a short transfer at the newly rebranded and reconfigured King’s Head Theatre. With Boardwalk Empire co-writer Howard Korder’s Pulitzer Prize nominated play at hand, it’s a sure fire hit, right?

Written and set in 1980s America, this production is polished and brimming with colourful nostalgia. Rock classic from The Stone Roses, Nena, and Men Without Hats blare out the speakers during scene changes, and Kellie Jane Walter’s costumes are as bright and neon as they come.

The young cast are also energetic and competent. Even if their American accents aren’t always convincing, their portrayal of their characters are, especially the trio of leads. Matthew Crowley is incredibly endearing as the charmingly handsome but reckless Don; Luke Trebilcock wonderfully desperate and morose without overdoing it; and Max Warrick is brilliantly distasteful, crass, and juvenile as the show’s antagonist/anti-hero.

So what makes it fall short? For starters, Korder’s examination of coming of age and the crisis of masculinity just doesn’t feel too relevant anymore. Whilst there are some interesting notions that still chime true, they’re nothing particularly shocking. We’ve dealt with the existential notions of what it means to be a 1980s guy and since moved right the way through the 1990s New Man and the Noughties Metrosexual. Thus, everything feels incredibly period and distant. It doesn’t help with director Sebastien Blanc keeping the original 1980s setting and deciding not to update the time period. Despite all the talk of imminent nuclear holocaust, resetting to a more contemporary era might have helped to make it feel more current and foster a better connection with the audience, especially bringing to the fore some of the play’s other themes such as ambivalence, apathy, and crisis of purpose.

But the main problem is that somewhere along the line both cast and company forget that Korder’s text is supposed to be a comedy. The delivery is far too serious, revelling in the rhetorical aspect of the text and trying to be gritty. For example, Anna Brooks-Beckham is intense as sculptress Lisa, but her severity doesn’t give any room for Crowley’s funny retorts to be just that. Elsewhere you hear other great little zingers, but because they’re not delivered as such you don’t find yourself laughing. The only definite comic highlight of the entire play is Charlotte Gascoyne’s buzzingly insane fortune teller-cum-cheap trick. But there’s not much beyond that besides the odd titter. Instead of giving us food for thought by way of some giggles, we’re stuck with something maudlin and philosophical. But thankfully, at only 80 minutes without interval, it’s something that just about stays its welcome and is wholly watchable, even though it’s frustrating that this really should have been a better comic diversion.

Other than that, with a talented cast and slick production there’s nothing outside of the treatment of the text that’s fundamentally wrong. One Fell Swoop is a company that shows it has real potential to create some great fringe theatre, but really needs to choose a better text or at least one they understand.

Boys’ Life plays on Sundays and Mondays at the King’s Head Theatre, London, N1 1QN until 23 June 2013. Tickets are £19.50 – £25.00 (concessions available). To book visit http://www.kingsheadtheatre.com.


Theatre Review: Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (King’s Head Theatre, London)

Caw-blimey, guv'nor! Shelley Lang as the fantastic narrator La Corbie. Photograph: Christopher Tribble. Courtesy of Kevin Wilson PR.

Caw-blimey, guv’nor! Shelley Lang as the fantastic narrator La Corbie. Photograph: Christopher Tribble. Courtesy of Kevin Wilson PR.

Rating: ****

History, for many, isn’t exactly the most exciting of subjects, whether it involves historical figures portrayed as Mr. Men or not. But the Tudor dynasty, with all its blood and sex, has been intriguing the masses of late, with hit TV shows such as The Tudors and novels/films like The Other Boleyn Girl. Yet Liz Lochhead’s play about the life of Mary Stuart of Scotland and the relationship she had with her cousin Queen Elizabeth I has oddly not been seen in London for a full 25 years.

This overdue revival is given a home under the re-branded King’s Head Theatre company, now known as TheatreUpClose, and is a brilliant start to the famous fringe venue’s next chapter.

You’re welcomed into the auditorium reset as a thrust by Katie Bellman’s littered scrubland where a crow, La Corbie, awaits to tell you the real story of how a pretty Catholic queen met her bloody end. This shabby, grubby, and rubbish-strewn waste-land seems like the perfect stage for a tale of devious politics, betrayal, and lust. And sure enough it is. But if it seems that this simple yet impressive set doesn’t seem like it could possibly represent the length and breadth of “wan island” ruled by “twa queens”, it’s because the rest is conjured up by some excellent direction and a superb cast.

Indeed, the entire company carry the play with brilliant talent and tempo. All of them are exceptional and do credit to the theatre’s recent Equity House Agreement. But there are a couple of stand-out performances. For starters, you couldn’t ask for a better narrator as Shelley Lang as La Corbie. A native Glaswegian, she manages to make the throaty vowels and harsh constants of Lochhead’s Scots-soaked text lilt and bounce. She also has a tremendous hold over metre too, managing to recite her dialogue, which comprises mostly of rhyming couplets, without ever making it feel contrived. She brims with a cheeky and juvenile energy that makes you hang on her every word.

Furthermore Sarah Thom as Elizabeth is phenomenal. Playing such an imposing monarch is no mean feat, but she handles it with grace and ease. She manages to fully convey a domineering presence and confidence of the unyielding monarch, desperate to ensure her sex doesn’t get in the way of her ability as queen. But Thom also manages to get straight to the essence of her bitterness and fretting at how Mary manages to trump her every power-move at the expense of her own happiness, making her an utter marvel to watch.

Robin Norton-Hale’s direction does well to keep the pace moving in what could very easily be a static and dull play, though his great cast makes light work for him in keeping the audience engaged. She manages to ensure that nothing drags by making the changes between scenes quick and that there’s always a sense of movement and direction. She also makes very good use of physical theatre to add visual interest. It also means things like fight and sex scenes aren’t at risk of looking naff, something which can easily happen if not done well. But there are a few times where his abstract approach is just a little silly. For example, there’s a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ‘Music Box’ style-sequence which just doesn’t seem to really fit in with the rest of the play’s grim shabby-chic. But you can’t blame her for trying to ensure the dialogue never labours.

And it’s the text that is only the real issue with the play. Although as marvellous as Lochhead does to make the coarse Scots language sing lyrically and wax poetically, ingeniously reminiscent of English Jacobean playwriting, it does mean that many passages are difficult to understand unless you’re familiar with the dialect. Because of this, if you’ve not brushed up on you history homework before the show you can end up a little lost as to what’s going on, especially as a lot of factual nuance is really revelled in to give depth to the characters. Thankfully, due to the cast’s ability and Norton-Hale’s direction, even if you’ve gotten a bit lost on the way there are some moments of powerful and beguiling theatre that make the struggle worth your while. And eventually, you do catch up with what’s happening and leave feeling entertained and educated.

Overall this is a dark, intense, and ragged experience; a Scottish play that even Shakespeare himself couldn’t have written better.

Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off plays at the King’s Head Theatre, London, N1 1QN, until 22 June 2013. Tickets are £20.50 – £25.00 (concessions available). To book visit www.kingsheadtheatre.com.