Category Archives: Reviews

Tales from the King James Bible, at St Barnabas Church

due to the arts cuts the supporting actors were replaced with bed sheets

Everybody is sat in pews, hymns are playing in the background, and a huge cross is hanging in front of us. It’s not a church service that’s about to begin, but a theatre performance.  As the King James Bible celebrates its four hundredth birthday this month, tributes have been coming through in the form of documentaries, exhibitions, books, and now theatre. Creation Theatre, who previously put on a play in Blackwell’s bookshop and an island in the River Cherwell, took on the epic task of staging the Bible in Oxford’s St Barnabas church.

The Bible stories are told through the eyes of a couple that are suddenly exiled from their home. They retell the stories to answer the big questions: does God care?  Why does he let bad things happen to good people? And, was it really all Eve’s fault? The stories are told thematically rather than chronologically, in turn the couple move from being frustrated to comforted by the process.

From the start of the production actors Tom Peters and Raewyn Lippert both launch across the stage with the force of David’s stone for Goliath. They climb onto tables, cling to pillars, and jump into the pulpit. Everything is snappy and smooth, moving from silly to sentimental in seconds.

Creation Theatre have aimed high: they’re covering some of the best known stories in the world, staging them in just under ninety minutes, and with only two actors. The overall tone is the Reduced Shakespeare Company meets Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Sodom and Gomorrah is brought to life by puppets, Cain and Abel’s feud is retold in the style of a spaghetti western, and Moses’ life is delivered in limericks. Lines like “I’m going below deck to find Jonah, there’s something fishy about that lad” fill the script more than the language of the King James Bible. The crucifixion, however, is genuinely moving, using harsh white lighting on the actors freezing to recreate images of Christ’s suffering.

If you don’t know the basic Bible stories, this will be difficult to follow. The majority of the audience was elderly with no diversity, something the company should do more to change. Here’s hoping for a miracle.

To see or not to see: * * *


Doctor Faustus, at Blackwell Bookshop’s Norrington Room

faustus' attempt at a mexican wave was not well received by the audience

Creation Theatre have put on performances at the Oxford Castle, an island in the River Cherwell, and the Amphitheatre at the Said Business School. Now Blackwell bookshop’s Norrington Room is home to their latest offering, Doctor Faustus.

Blackwell’s Norrington Room has three miles of shelving, and has even entered the Guinness Book of Records as the largest single room selling books. The set immediately gets you in the mood: you enter the dimly lit basement, the audience surround the stage like a séance, and there are plenty of philosophy and theology books to flick through before the play even starts. It is the perfect location for our main character.

The play tells the story of Doctor Faustus, a scholar who has an insatiable thirst for learning. As he studies the dark arts he meets a servant of the devil, Mephistopheles, and offers his soul to the devil in exchange for absolute power. Christopher Marlowe’s text has been cut to make the play two hours long.

Gus Gallagher’s portrayal of Doctor Faustus is decent. His moral dilemma, however, is not convincing, and is hindered by the two masks that represent his conscience telling him to be good or evil. Gwnfor Jones’ plays Mephistopheles best in his moments of deadpan humour, and Alex Scott Fairley is enjoyable as the comical Pope.

The mix of sixteenth century and contemporary costumes, from Doctor Faustus’ renaissance clothes to the devil and his helper’s National Front-like get up of Doctor Martens and shaved heads, suggests that the devils live outside of time and can dress anachronistically. Director Charlotte Conquest’s five actors make excellent use of space. The staging is creative with actors leaping up through trap doors, disappearing through secret passages, and illusions such as living heads served up on silver platters. The tricks make the first half surprising and shocking, but are unfortunately overdone in the second half making it gimmicky and predictable.

The choreography takes pains, especially with the literal representation of the seven deadly sins: sloth being accompanied with lullaby music and gluttony with burping. A promising effort made more exciting by the stimulating venue.

Runs till 26 March.

To see or not to see: * * *

Romeo and Juliet, at the Oxford Playhouse

she didn't believe him when he said she smelled like roses

It’s not often you go the theatre and find yourself surrounded by young people laughing. Not just laughing, but laughing at Shakespeare. Pilot Theatre and York Theatre Royal’s production of Romeo and Juliet pulls out all the stops to get the audience, largely made up of school children and students, to laugh out loud. The only problem is that it’s at sexual innuendos, which of course Shakespeare has many of, but at one’s that were never quite there. “Draw thy tool” is fittingly followed by a phallic object, erect, and thrusting, but so too is every other line that is said by the male characters. This modern version dumbs down the action, dashes through the verse, and does not shed any new light onto our understanding of the story.

The play tells the tale of Romeo, a Montague, who meets Juliet, a Capulet. The two are from feuding families, but fall in love, and don’t realise who the other is until it is too late. One of the unique things about the play is Chloe Lamford’s stage design. Before the action starts the stage is already like a shrine: a flowerbed at the front, flowers attached to posts, and flowers anywhere else possible. The symbolism is simple but clever: we are at a spot that will stage one of the greatest romances, but also where someone has tragically died.

Rachel Spicer, who plays Juliet, has come straight out of drama school to the company. Her Juliet looks young, pretty, and Topshop-clad, but is played bolshy, hard, and with little sincerity. Romeo and Juliet’s relationship should be erotically charged, but here it lacks any real passion. The masked ball, the moment two of the world’s most famous lovers meet, is unmemorable and unromantic. And the balcony scene pits Juliet more like an Amsterdam window girl framed by neon lights, pulling down her bra strap, and blowing kisses.

Oliver Wilson’s Romeo shows promise and is funny as a fumbling Romeo. Additionally, William Travis’ Lord Capulet is excellent at nailing Capulet’s anger, and Louisa Eyo is perfect as a friendly Jamaican accented Nurse. The main downfall for this production is the delivery, even some of the most famous lines like “a plague on both your houses” and “my only love sprung from my only hate”, are not said with conviction. The monotonous music does not help either, rather than adding a feeling of doom it adds a feeling of dreariness.

The company specialises in theatre for teenagers and young adults, and it certainly has this group laughing out loud. But by concentrating on gags it assumes this audience won’t be drawn to the most important thing about Romeo and Juliet: the tragedy.


Runs till November 13. Tours the country until 9 April 2011, including the Unicorn Theatre, London from 2 February till 12 February.

To see or not to see: * *

Prince of Denmark, at the National Theatre, Cuttesloe Theatre

she couldn't believe he forgot to tape the apprentice

Have you ever wondered what Hamlet was like before his father died? Was he more concerned with being a man or a prince? Was he truly in love with Ophelia? And did he always think so much? These are just some of the questions that are answered in director Anthony Banks and writer Michael Lesslie’s new specially commissioned play that is currently showing alongside Hamlet.


We follow the famous characters a decade before Hamlet. Polonius’ family have arrived making Laertes anxious about his position, so he tries to set up a way that Hamlet can meet his demise. If you have never read or seen Hamlet this would be difficult to follow, there are so many in-jokes and reference that would be lost. The play does not shed any new light onto Hamlet, but is extremely funny, witty, and interesting because of our hindsight.

The show stars teenagers drawn from the National Youth Theatre (of which Jude Law, a later Hamlet, is a famous alumnus). Eve Ponsoby’s Ophelia is mesmerising, and much of the story sympathetically explores her character as a girl in a man’s world. The whole take on Ophelia pre-Hamlet is much like Virginia Woolf’s idea of Shakespeare’s Sister, which wonders how a female who is just as talented as a male would succeed in Shakespeare’s world.

The sixteenth-century speech is wonderfully recreated, for example when Hamlet questions the “measure of a man” it has echoes of Macbeth’s “I dare do all that may become a man”. Additionally we constantly feel like we are a part of the action with actors lurking in the circle, and then shouting out lines from the aisle.

This is 50 minutes jam-packed with sword-fighting, verbal sparring, and full on flirting. Judging by the applause and enthusiasm of the audience largely made up of young people, this could have certainly been longer. Following on from the Royal Shakespeare’s tour of schools with a shortened Hamlet, which enraptured its eight-year-old audience, Banks’ version further shows how the play is perfect for getting a younger audience into theatre. A gem.

Runs till 26 October.

To see or not to see: * * * *

Hamlet, at the National Theatre, Olivier Theatre

he took method acting seriously and took to sleeping onstage

One of the most famous Shakespearean speeches, “to be or not to be”, is about to begin and Hamlet is at the front of the stage in a hoodie and puffing on a cigarette. This is Hamlet in modern day: he is dressed more like a student than a prince, Ophelia is first found listening to indie band The XX, and the players wear t-shirts with acid house smiley faces and “villain” across it in capital letters. If you’re a hardcore Hamlet-ite, you have been warned.

The play tells the story of Hamlet who is distraught by the recent death of his father, and “o’er hasty” marriage of his mother Gertrude to his uncle Claudius. He sees a ghost claiming to be his father, and it tells him to revenge his “foul and most unnatural murder” by Claudius. Director Nicholas Hytner’s version is refreshing, but the subtle changes certainly add to the text rather than take away from it: it is suggested that Ophelia’s death is a set-up not an accident, and there are secret agents often lurking onstage like sixteenth-century palace informers.

Rory Kinnear, son of late comedian Roy, is an outstanding Hamlet. He is played as an ordinary everyman in an extraordinary situation, and whose madness, which Kinnear excels at, is a comedy act. Kinnear effortlessly slips from being anxious to self-assured, from miserable to enraged, and in and out of Hamlet’s multifaceted parts. Clare Higgins Gertrude is played perfectly as the sympathetic mother with little attention to the Ernest Jones’ Oedipus Complex study, however Patrick Malahide’s Polonious remains a svengali figure with no suggestion that he could genuinely be in love with Gertrude.

The set, largely made up of white palace walls, works well indoors but does not always lend itself well to the outdoor scenes. One of the unexpected highlights, however, includes the players; what is often a dull moment in the play is vamped up with a dance narrating the story. Additionally you don’t notice that the play is a lengthy three hours and thirty minutes, instead it takes its time to simmer and sparkle. Hytner has done it: his previous work London Assurance was an eighteenth century comedy bash that was well received by critics, but Hamlet has been updated in a fresh and brave way for all audiences. A hit, a palpable hit.

Runs till 9 January, and tours the country until 12 March. Returns to National Theatre, Lyttelton Theatre from 13 April till 23 April.

To see or not to see: * * * *

Romeo and Juliet, at Sadler’s Wells

nope, i still got the hiccups

It’s certainly the season for ballet: Natalie Portman is already tipped as an Oscar favourite for her role as the tortured ballerina in Black Swan, Emily Blunt is starring as a ballerina falling for a politician in The Adjustment Bureau, and even Cheryl Cole is trading her harem pants for a tutu in her latest single Promise This. If you want to watch ballet at its best, however, the Birmingham Royal Ballet Company touring production of Kenneth Macmillan’s Romeo and Juliet is unmissable.

As the curtain rises there is no mistaking that we are in Verona; there are sixteenth century costumes and grand palace-like set pieces. In this ballet it is love at first dance for the two teenagers from feuding families. When Romeo, a Montague, meets Juliet, a Capulet, at a masked ball, they instantly fall in love and only recognise the other when it’s too late.

Sergei Prokofiev’s gripping and tragedy-tinged score accompanies the story of the two doomed lovers, taking us through the delights of first love to the heartbreak of their death. Highlights include the spectacular opening brawl that begins with two, four, and then suddenly up to ten pairs of sword fighters; the Dance of the Knights, better known as The Apprentice theme tune, as the backdrop of the ballroom dance; and the menacing dark chord progressions and soaring melodies accompanying Juliet’s suicide.

Everything about the production is polished, dramatic, and undeniably sensual. One of the most powerful images occurs in the ethereal moment when the lovers are at the balcony, never quite being able to hold hands, forever reaching out for each other. The image epitomises the play, which could do with being more erotically charged. Romeo and Juliet are a couple full not only of love, but lust, looking to get married soon so they can consummate their relationship.

Juliet, with this ballet, is the focal point, and Jenna Roberts does not disappoint as we constantly feel her psychological and emotional turmoil. One minor point is that it is difficult to see how she has progressed, as she does in the text, from being a girl into a young woman, as she remains forever angelic in her movements and virginal outfit. Mercutio is excitingly played by Alexander Campbell and is, as he should be, a crowd pleaser. He has a bravado that brings comedy to the performance in addition to sentimentality in his ill-fated death. And Michael O’Hare proves he is a fine performer, playing both Friar Lawrence and Lord Capulet.

A poignant and rich show from the start to finish.

Runs till 16 October, and tours the county until 20 October.

To see or not to see: * * * *

Krapp’s Last Tape, at the Duchess Theatre

excuse me, is that a mobile phone i hear

Michael Gambon is on stage and has been for the past twenty minutes. He blinks, flinches, ambles, and has not even spoken. It doesn’t matter. Everyone is engrossed. Watching Samuel Beckett for the first time can be baffling, it’s like seeing a Damien Hirst exhibition for the first time where you’re left questioning, as the two artists want you to, on the point and pointlessness of art.

Director Michael Colgan directs the one-man 50-minute show. It tells the story of Krapp, it’s his 69th birthday, and he’s listening to recordings he made of himself 30 years earlier. Whilst this may sound depressing, and it certainly looks that way from the opener where Krapp is head down in hibernation at his table, there is a lot of subtle Larkin-like comedy throughout. Krapp playfully teases us: he steps in and out of the spotlight; does not trip up on a banana skin, in a post-modern move, as we expect him to from Beckett’s stage directions; and has a mix of elderly and child-like manners.

Max Wall, John Hurt, and Harold Pinter have previously taken on the role. Gambon’s grey hair, heavily lined face, and haggard body make him a perfect fit for the ageing character. He indulges in every word, delivers Beckett’s lines like poetry, and leaves a ghost-like presence with every step he makes. He is enticing, repulsive, and above all a tragic figure left holding his tape recorder like a cross between a baby and a lover. An unforgettable performance.

Runs till 20 November.

To see or not to see: * * * *