Tag Archives: tragedy

Musical Review: Tess of the d’Urbervilles (New Wimbledon Studio, London)

17304_fullRating: ***

In A Nutshell

A rich, dramatic, and inventive score, but a show that is far too long for its own good.


Based on Thomas Hardy’s romantic melodrama, we see farm-girl Tess’ life turned upside down when her family learn that they’re the surviving heirs to an ancient aristocratic lineage. But her attempts to re-affiliate their family to the bloodline only ends in heartbreak and violence, causing Tess’ world to crumble around her in tragedy most bleak.


Award winning musical playwright, Alex Loveless, makes an incredibly comprehensive attempt at adapting Hardy’s celebrated novel into a musical. Indeed, there is very little, if anything, that is missing from the book in the musical. But whilst this is an incredibly worthy effort to stay as true to the original novel as possible, it also is the show’s major downfall as Alex Loveless’ work is a stark reminder at how complex and lengthy the original novel is. Given the story’s heavy emphasis on melodrama and tragedy, at over 2.5 hours long (including interval) – with Act I an epic 80 minutes long – it’s very difficult to stay engaged, even with such a solid score behind the production.

Not helping is that important plot points feel a bit rattled through whilst minor aspects of the story are dwelt upon for longer than needed. For example, Tess’ first meeting with Angel, accompanied by a wonderfully lilting romantic song, ‘I Saw Your Face’, feels disappointingly truncated, whereas later on we get almost a full four minutes of the ensemble singing about milking cows. There are more than a handful of moments and musical numbers that could have easily have been axed to speed the show along and make it more digestable. But instead, the audience are left to become fatigued for want of trying to stay focused, being made to sit through a truly mammoth amount of material.

Music & Lyrics

Score and songs is certainly Alex Loveless’ strong point. Having already picked up several awards for his work, including the Howard Goodall Award for composition, it’s no surprise that his score here is as solid here as elsewhere. For starters, Alex Loveless is not afraid to experiment a little, giving Tess of the d’Urbervilles a unique and inventive sound that marks it out from other new musicals. Here, Alex Loveless really embraces not just a modern musical style, but also the sounds, harmonies, and rhythms of English folk and pastoral music. Behind these he also puts behind a lot of thought and emotion, resulting in such stirring numbers like ‘Children of the Earth’ and ‘Joyfully, We Praise’, to soaring and rich numbers like ‘I Hear Your Voice’.

But not everything Alex Loveless writes works though. There are several weaker numbers such as ‘Saturday Night’ that is just too unwieldy and messy to be entertaining, and ‘The Belly of the Beast’ that is just a bit too unorthodox making it stick out like a sore thumb as it doesn’t gel with the timbre of the rest of the score.

Lyrically, whilst Alex Loveless doesn’t emulate the arch-poetry of Hardy’s style, he does bring an own sense of wit and creativity to the libretto that really compliment and augment the emotions he’s encapsulating in his music. There are more than a few unique and attention grabbing songs that demonstrate that Alex Loveless’ reputation is by no means one garnered from false praise.

Direction and Production

The production behind the show is also of a high standard and is as impressive as the new musical writing on offer here. David Shields stage design does a good job of portraying several of the abstract themes. His dilapidated arches, with peeling wood panelling and painted with drab pastoral scenes, very handsomely represent the ideas of a waning aristocracy and nature being unforgiving and harsh, not to mention easily conjuring up Stonehenge: where the novel’s climax takes place.

Director Chris Loveless also makes great use of the space. Particularly in capitalising on the nooks and crannies among Shield’s flats, meaning that actors end up being framed dramatically, appear, disappear, or be hidden with ease. Working closely with  Movement Director, Lucy Cullingford, there are also bits of choreography and physical theatre that really add energy and slick showmanship to parts of the show. It’s just a shame that these excellent production values can’t stop the show from labouring.


Kudos to Casting Director Benjamin Newsome for finding a cast that can also play a plethora of instruments on stage without sacrificing acting ability. It’s really great to find such multi-talented performers, and make full use of their many skills. Particularly, Emma Harrold, Sarah Kate Howarth, and Jessica Millward are a trio of ladies who not only interact and bounce high-spirits and impish energy off each other, they work just as close-knit and refined an ensemble on violin, flute, and viola respectively.

However, Jess Daley in the titular role really steals the show. She’s astonishing at being the heartbroken heroine, balancing out devastating misery with a wonderful sense of romantic hope and feminine tenacity. You really feel the inner pain and turmoil that is written clear across her face, and even if you find yourself flagging because of the length of the show, it’s still easy to get lost in her the beautifully tragic portrayal of Tess.


Certainly worth a look if you’re a hardy Hardy fan, or keen on supporting some really great new British musical writing. Whilst the score is rich, vibrant, and original, be prepared for a show as long as the book is thick!

[youtube http://youtu.be/uTKh3pLmZ_U]

Tess of the d’Urbervilles plays at the New Wimbledon Studio, London, SW19 1QG, until 27 September 2014. Tickets are £15.40 (concessions available). To book, visit www.atgtickets.com.

Theatre Review: Pause (Theatre Collection, London)

Rating: ****

Cataclysm is, for some reason, a particular favourite among new writers, especially on the fringe. Often it leads to sensationalism and shallow explorations of quite serious issues. Therefore, I was apprehensive about Pause, given the play’s plot outline of a woman coping with her son’s head injury leaving him in a vegetative state. However, Serena Haywood proves that she is a writer of brilliant insight by creating a piece that is incredibly honest and human. Couple this with a great production from director TutkuBarbaros and new company Moustache Contraption, this is an hour of touching, endearing, and heartbreaking drama.

The great success of the piece is that, given the tragic circumstance, it doesn’t wallow. The portrayal of Chris’s mother, Victoria, and Chris’ close childhood friend and lover, Mark, are incredibly down to earth. Instead of finding them cursing the air, shaking their fists, and generally being unreasonably grumpy at everyone and everything, they act like people who deal with this exact situation day in and day out; they try to converse normally with the patient as if nothing had happened, despite receiving nothing but a blank response; they try to come to terms with this unwelcomed situation; and they tell themselves little lies to get them through the day. Sometimes, what they say is cynical, sarcastic, and funny. As much as there are tears in this play, there is just as much humour in these everyday people, be it mistaking Tom Daley for David Beckham, or lamenting the decline of the Trio chocolate bar; Haywood’s characters are incredibly real.

As the narrative switches back and forth between before and after the accident, you quickly realise that this play is not just a vignette on adversity. It fasts becomes an essay on loss, deceit, and delusion. Chris keeps the real situation of his university education from his mother, and Victoria is also kept blissfully unaware of the depths of the relationship between Chris and Mark. When this is put into the context of Chris’ accident, the theme of lies and secrets become something profound and affecting; the pain it causes Mark in not being able to openly express his grief, and Victoria’s hopeless optimism for the recovery of her son.

Because of this astute approach to portraying people and a very real life narrative, by not over-egging the drama, the parts where the play is quietly tragic are absolutely devastating. I confess, I was touched to the point where I was moved to tears.

Barbaros directs the show with brilliant flair, and commands an all round great production. Especially notable is the use of light and James Lawrence’s sound design to add variety and atmosphere. Particularly effective is the use of a single pulsating spot light during the play’s climax, accompanied by deafening sound. This created a compelling sense of drama despite the size and simplicity of the Theatre Collection’s space and sparseness of set.

Ryan Wichert, as Chris, and Samuel Casely, as Mark, also give outstanding performances. They share an excellent and believable chemistry when it comes to their juvenile antics, solid camaraderie, and conspicuous, but tender, sexuality. Wichert is also incredibly commendable in his portrayal of someone in a vegetative state, producing a well studied portrait of someone with such a severe disability, rather than relying on shallow caricature.

The only criticism I can give is that some of the solo passages are a little contrived. Characters rattle through several stages of emotions and reasoning in the space of several minutes, and it’s here where the language feels a little forced. But even so, the comprehensive scope of internal conflicts is insightful none the less, and all are still delivered with fantastic conviction.

Haywood and Barbaros have shown how drama and tragedy should be done on the fringe, putting many pieces and productions of new writing to shame. A brilliant and heartfelt piece, and an intense and fulfilling evening out.

Pause plays at the Theatre Collection, London, NW1 9BH, until 25 August 2013, as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. Tickets are £10 (concessions available). To book, or to find out more about the festival, visit www.camdenfringe.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.