Category Archives: Theatre Reviews


(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/3; Photo: Teenage kicks … an audience member in Viola’s Room. 

Photograph: Julian Abrams.)

One Cartridge Place, London
Helena Bonham Carter narrates as a bare-footed audience explore exquisite rooms in this unsettling, grief-soaked journey into the night

The immersive adventure begins with a sleep. We are invited to lie down as the lights fade and the story begins, narrated by Helena Bonham Carter. Her voice pours into our ears through binaural headphones, sometimes velvety and playful, other times a scratching whisper.

She tells a tangled tale, written by Booker-nominated novelist Daisy Johnson and featuring the parallel lives of a modern-day teenager alongside a princess. A re-imagining of Barry Pain’s 1901 short story The Moon-Slave, it is steeped in Victorian gothic, featuring Dionysian femininity, but also a prince, a disappearance and a grief-soaked journey into the night.

There is unfinished business to the concept: the company’s first show in 2000 was an interpretation of Pain’s story, only seen by four people due to cost constraints. Two decades on, the story is squeezed into a winding series of unlit corridors through which we travel wearing our headsets, and in which the everyday intersects with the otherworldly, from the teenager’s sparkly, poster-clad bedroom to a castle’s gothic interior and glittering forests. Johnson’s parallel worlds hold shades of Narnia – we wander through children’s dens and wardrobes to find fantasy realms nestling within the quotidian.

Conceived by Punchdrunk’s Felix Barrett who co-directs with Hector Harkness, it is a darkly alluring production which plays with well-worn tropes but spins them in unfamiliar ways. “It’s all a dream, surely?” says the narrator as the tale takes strange twists and it feels like a beautiful, enveloping one that hovers delicately between bedtime story, fairytale, children’s game and nightmare.

Where The Burnt City, the company’s inaugural show in their sprawling new south-east London home, left you stranded in its depths, this is its polar opposite. It is tightly story-lined with only one way to go: towards the lights winking a path ahead of us.

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(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/3; Photo: The party’s over … Nina Hoss in The Cherry Orchard. Photograph: Johan Persson.)

Donmar Warehouse, London
Nina Hoss stars in a kookily immersive production but the devastating hammer blow of the Russian tragicomedy is not lost in translation

It is initially hard to fathom where Benedict Andrews’ conspicuously kooky  take on Anton Chekhov’s final drama is going. Actors come on looking like modern-day eccentrics and festivalgoers rather than Russian aristocrats of an ancient regime giving way to the new.

They swear, vape and address us directly as they play out the fate of a bored, profligate landed family led by a glamorous matriarch, Ranevskaya (Nina Hoss), who returns home from her Parisian misadventures to continue the party, despite growing debt and the prospective sale of her centuries-old estate.

We stand in for props, too, on Magda Willi’s otherwise empty stage. One audience member is referred to as a side table, another a bookcase. It is supremely off-the-wall, not least because a garish carpet is wrapped all around the auditorium, making it look like a Russian drawing room that has been put through a surreal, Alice in Wonderland blender. Is this weird, immersive, audience-participation Chekhov?

Kind of, but rather than careering into an almighty misfire, Andrews’ production gradually builds to reveal its grand, devastating vision. An auditorium that never goes dark implicates us in the drama: we might be the family’s observing guests or the impoverished peasant interlopers who have taken up home in their estate.

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(Clare Brennan’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/2/2024; Photo: Pete Stonier.)

New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme
A first-rate cast delight in controlled chaos of the highest order in Conrad Nelson’s seamless revival of Richard Bean’s hit play

A couple on the stairs behind me, leaving the theatre. He: “And a band! What more could you ask?” She: “I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much…” Carlo Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte-inspired Il Servitore di Due Padroni, written in Venetian dialect about two and a half centuries ago, loses nothing in translation. Richard Bean’s award-garnered version, set in 1963 Brighton, was such a hit after its 2011 launch at the National Theatre in London that it went on to tour the UK three times and travelled abroad to the US, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand.

Good as that was, I think this new staging, by director Conrad Nelson, serves the text better – for two reasons. First, the ensemble is exceptionally strong – not only the 11 actor-musicians, but also the offstage artists (responsible for design, music, lighting, sound, movement and fight choreography and casting), and, like members of a commedia troupe, many are accustomed to working together, especially here, on the New Vic’s in-the-round stage. This gives the production its second advantage: the performers’ depth of rapport makes for seamless interactions and razor-sharp timings; it allows characters that might appear cartoonish to feel touchingly human.

First among equals is Michael Hugo, possibly the greatest actor-clown of the stage today, his physicality and rapport with audiences unmatched. Hugo is Henshall, the man who tries to double his income by secretly serving two guvnors staying in the same hotel (and unwittingly connected by one of the many plot convolutions). The famous central scene, where a hungry Henshall serves both guvnors a meal while trying to keep them apart, is taken to another level by the introduction of a hole in the stage, with stairs to a lower floor (Lis Evans’s design is played to eye-popping effect by Nick Haverson’s waiter, proving that there is no such thing as a small role). All in all, a hilarious combination of clockwork-clever plot and controlled chaos from a company who delight in delivering laughter to their audience.

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By Bob Shuman

In the disaster that ensued (Grenfell: in the Words of Survivors, now playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse until May 12), a Syrian man, a disabled man, who in this production is played by a disabled actor, using crutches, waited five minutes next to his front door to see if someone would come to help him: “There was smoke coming, so I decided to use the stairs like everyone else thinking that maybe . . . someone would help.  I was horrified to see that the residents were running at lightning speed.”  That is the human dilemma at the center of Gillian Slovo’s powerful, direct, unmelodramatic, verbatim drama, from Britain’s National Theatre, which transcends nations, nationalities, and boundaries – the idea of how far people are willing to go, or not, to help one another. The play is an examination of the “crack,” the fissure being discussed in the compound term “falling between the cracks,” alluding to those who want to help and can help, as well as to the disjunction between what social services and corporations can do for constituents, in industrialized countries, as well as what our own neighbors can provide, and where they stop.

For those who do not know about London’s high-rise apartment complex, which Americans would recognize as “projects,” and which happened to stand in an area of wealth and affluence, perhaps equivalent, in terms of income for many residents, to zip codes where New York’s Trump Tower stands or Barbra Streisand’s Malibu enclave tans, what happened on June 14, 2017 is a multifaceted story about a badly doctored eyesore and a fire.  The interests, with stakes in such a catastrophic failure, range from those of corporations, politicians, suppliers, and the residents in the Grenville Tower themselves; often the latter being  English-as-a-second language speakers, brown skinned, working, lower, and middle class renters (and those who bought their apartments), dealing with outsized tenant issues that, nevertheless, would be understood by most rent stabilized, or not, apartment dwellers, or owners, as well, in New York and elsewhere.  These concerns include threatening building management, unacceptable fixtures and appliances, and irresponsible maintenance.  A tinderbox in a gilded world, after a botched refurbishment, might be a metaphor for the destruction or better, as one resident described it, the handicapped resident, actually:  it looked as “if you’d taken a cup and covered it in gold.  The cover is better, but that’s all.”

What is intriguing, turning from the historical and civic realities to the way the devastation has been rendered artistically, is the highly original theatre-making that the directors, Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Simpson-Pike and their production teams have employed, reframing all the ephemera, the debris, the fragments of lost life and personal memory and distilling them into eleven brown, mundane storage boxes (the kind you might buy at Staples).  Thinking creatively, all of the remnant, singed and unrecoverable, smoking, torched, literally, drenched effects of innumerable memories, past ownership, family, dreams, pride, and what was obtained by struggle, distilled into a set of containers, with UPC codes, that become a symbolic, clinicalized setting and its properties.  The minimalism, together with projected photos, interviews and video design (Akhila Krishnan) and film (TEA Films), lighting (Azusa Ono), sound design and effects (Donato Wharton), set and costumes (Georgia Lowe), video clips, documentation—is brutalist, externalized, objectivized, and material.  The spare, icy music (Benjamin Kwasi Burell) is made up of only a few chords.  Grenfell is austere and postmodern, Brechtian, ensuring that viewers are analyzing, accumulating rational, critical thinking, instead of being emotionally drawn in, or, because of the subject matter, overwhelmed. 

Verbatim is a documentary style of drama used infrequently here in the States, perhaps best known to us through the work of Anna Deavere Smith. Viewers do not decide whether the accumulating data makes a character believable or whether the interpretation is “close enough” to reality or the assumptions of an imagined world; it’s blunter than that.  The character is believable because imaginative language is expelled: these are the actual words someone spoke—and because of the challenges of dramatic and literary form, it is exciting when the work, in all its hardness and inelegance and everyday banality, coalesces into an urgent living picture.

Actors are not breaking the fourth wall to enhance a fantasy:  They are part of a real confrontation.   Judge them at your own peril.  Their points of view are not examples of a commonly held belief, which evaporate as soon as we leave the theatre. It is his or her point of view, it is on record, it is part of the historical facts, and it goes with them into the harsh light of day.  Their words are evidence that can be acted upon. The cast, which makes minor costume adjustments, and who are working, at the state-of-the-art St. Ann’s Warehouse, in the round, in the aisles, on the stairs, and with and on their boxes, intensely for over three hours,  are not only excellent because their dictions, accents (Hazel Holder), movement (Chi-San Howard), and behavior  correspond to real people from various countries—they do not even seem to be acting. How would one expect to see these characters played in other ways? The picture does not need to be photoshopped.  Their names are:  Joe Alessi, Gaz Choudhry, Jackie Clune, Hounda Echouafni, Mona Goodwin, Keaton Guimarães-Tolley, Ash Hunter, Rachid Sabitri, Michael Shaeffer, Cominique Tipper, and Nahel Tzegai.

Some of the thoughts that have remained with this reviewer are the following:  how far will people, companies, and governments go to help in communities, in situations far less urgent and dramatic than the ones presented in Grenfell, before they cry “every man for himself” and “abandon ship” or simply throw up their hands?  Or, is the point of abandonment a matter of instinct and human nature?  Importantly, too, has it changed over time?—do people give up earlier now in situations or on each other in life or in extreme situations?  Is the focus more or less than in the past, and is there even a way to ascertain that?  Importantly, especially regarding this drama: can dereliction be traced to accents or race? The Grenfell fire happened seven years ago, and actually, with regard to reparations, and people who lost everything, that is a long time. It is reassuring that the event  has been memorialized, but actually, politicians, who knew the problems with the building design, before the fire ever happened, have, to this day, not been held accountable, as likewise, have companies involved with the building construction.  Grenfell is a problem, which many hope will go away, maybe with time, but that is the point.  Have we become desensitized to modern life and what human beings need and should actually expect?  Or has media normalized us to starving children and brutal attacks, mass destruction and a world of fire, actually addicting us to violent stories that disappear as news and new cycles change?

The Grenfell story is ongoing . . .

© by Bob Shuman

Tickets for Grenfell: in the words of survivors are on sale now and can be purchased at Performances take place April 13, 16–20, 23–27, & 30 and May 1–4, 7–11 at 7:30; April 14, 21, 28, and May 5 & 12 at 5pm; and April 20 & 27, and May 4 & 11 at 2pm.

The production opened on Sunday, April 21.

Photos: Teddy Wolff

Press: Blake Zidell

Note:  For transparency, Bob Shuman helped compile a drama collection, entitled Acts of War:  Iraq and Afghanistan in Seven Plays (Northwestern University Press), one of which was written by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo: Guantanamo: “Honor Bound to Defend Freedom.”  



(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/26; Photo: Sheridan Smith in Opening Night.  Photograph: Jan Versweyveld.)

Gielgud Theatre, London
Smith plays a Broadway star in the midst of a mental crisis in Ivo van Hove and Rufus Wainwright’s glittering and extravagantly original musical adaptation of the Cassavetes film

John Cassavetes’ 1977 film about a Broadway star in crisis might seem a natural fit for a stage adaptation. Then again, there is the risk of theatrical navel-gazing, and with its melange of gothicism, midlife angst and thespy drama, an odd narrative arc to navigate.

To throw songs into the mix – composed by Rufus Wainwright in his first foray into musical theatre – and swap the glacial queenliness of Gena Rowlands, who played troubled superstar Myrtle in the film, for the insuppressibly likable Sheridan Smith, might have been a step too far. Even for a writer-director with as much appetite for high-wire risk as Ivo van Hove.

Yet Opening Night is an extravagantly original production, every bit as eccentric as the film but also its own alchemical creation, more vivacious in this musical incarnation.

The trope of the brittle older woman in crisis is well worn, and Myrtle – an ageing alcoholic actor in meltdown over playing an even more ageing actor on stage – sits squarely alongside Blanche DuBois and Norma Desmond. We follow her as she is stalked by the ghost of a dead young fan, Nancy (Shira Haas), and contends with the desolations of stardom as well as the controlling men around her: Manny (Hadley Fraser), the play-within-the-play’s director who goes from charmer to bully in seconds; producer David (John Marquez); and former lover Maurice (Benjamin Walker).

But there is counterintuitive casting in Smith, who does not strive for Rowlands’ unreachability or dangerous magnetism. Instead her Myrtle has an earthbound glamour and a celebrity honed from hard graft, it seems, with a Brooklyn accent combined with a touch of Elizabeth Taylor. Smith brings vulnerability, even flecks of comedy, and makes Myrtle’s crisis modern, relatable – that of a woman wanting to age on her own terms.

There is compassionate treatment of the drama’s other midlife women too, from scriptwriter Sarah (Nicola Hughes, absolutely arresting) to Manny’s longsuffering wife Dorothy (Amy Lennox), who ruminate marital disappointment or menopausal hot flushes with disgruntled strength.

A film crew follow the fictive play’s rehearsals in a Broadway theatre, and a back screen gestures towards their captured footage. Jan Versweyveld’s set has a central sheer red curtain that captures the razzle of the theatre but also implicates our culture of celebrity voyeurism. There are many moving parts on stage, yet none of it feels like a churn.

The screen magnifies characters so we see their bloodshot eyes and tears. When Myrtle turns up drunk at the stage door on opening night, the screen shows her staggering at the back of the Gielgud theatre itself, a thrilling coup de hi-tech theatre which resembles the walk-about in Jamie Lloyd’s recent Sunset Boulevard but services the story better here. (Smith has said it attracts the passing crowd every night.)

The warmth of the production is counterintuitive too. Its tone is almost upbeat, but without clashing against Myrtle’s core anguish. Much of that is down to Wainwright’s slowly gorgeous music. The early songs have a springy, Chorus Line sound while later ones are full-bodied and tender with an edge of the operatic, bringing heat and intimacy to the drama.

Songs such as Meet Me at the Start, in which Myrtle confesses her love to Maurice, open up the show’s heart, while the soaring Ready for Battle, marking Myrtle’s comeback, turns her from a woman falling apart to one soldiering on, and raises hairs.

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(Ruby Harbour’s article appeared in the Ecologist, 3/13/2024. Photo: production PR.)

Thomas Ostermeier’s ‘An Enemy of the People’ puts one of the most important messages of our time on centre stage.

Matt Smith is starring in Thomas Ostermeier’s staging of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 comedy ‘An Enemy of the People’ at the Duke of York theatre in Covent Garden, London until Saturday, 13 April 2024. 

My initial interest in attending the production was peaked by the prospect of seeing a Doctor Who right before my eyes, but I soon found the play carries one of the most important messages of our time.

Doctor Thomas Stockmann discovers evidence that the town’s water supply has been contaminated. The audience watches as Stockmann painstakingly wrecks havoc on his friends, his family and himself in order to reveal the truth. And his struggle is all too real.


The livelihoods of the people in the town depend on the existence of the baths – and therefore the water supply. People are drawn into the town due to the healing properties of them, bringing money and generating a wealthy tourist destination. 

When Stockmann wants to uncover the truth about the contaminated waters, those around him, including his controlling and manipulative brother, Peter Stockmann (Paul Hilton), do everything in their power to shut him down.

His wife Katherina Stockmann, played by Jessica Brown Findlay, is confronted with financial burdens and the loneliness of taking the majority of the responsibility of caring for their baby. 

Stockmann is infuriating in his efforts to support his wife, for the determination to provide the town with the truth takes over like flames through a dry forest. The chaos and messiness on stage is a fitting reflection of our current societal and environmental issues.

The most pivotal and poignant part of the play is Stockmann’s’ dramatic monologue. It is guaranteed to captivate the audience as he sheds light on the reality of our democracy. 


He refers to the failures of our government, pointing at the inability to prioritise climate action, and responds to, as Matt Smith says in an interview with Laura Kuenssberg, “so much disinformation and misinformation” by exclaiming “it is not a cost of living crisis, it’s an inequality crisis!”

The fictional drama and the all too real truths intersect in the latter half of the play when the audience becomes a ‘council room’. Aslaksen, played by Priyanga Burford, stands in front of the stage and invites the audience to vote for whether they agree with the sentiments of Stockmann’s speech. 

The majority of the audience were in favour but when asked to expand on their reasons only a few shy hands began to raise. Passion and determinism then grew as the members of the public had the chance to say their piece. One person asked “can we talk about Alexei Navalny?”, the Russian opposition leader who died earlier in February. Dissent is dangerous in Russia. 

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(Nick Ahad’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/10/2024. Magnetic … Anoushka Lucas and Simon Manyonda in The Crucible at Crucible, Sheffield.  Photograph: Manuel Harlan.)

Crucible, Sheffield
Director Anthony Lau brings his fiercely rigorous intellect to bear on this intensely felt love story, with standout performances from Simon Manyonda and Anoushka Lucas

There is a particular quality to the silence that descends on the Crucible theatre when all dramatic elements in that unique space are operating at their most taut.

Whether it’s O’Sullivan bending to the baize to sink a black for another 147, or a more deliberately created drama, there is a heaviness to the silence that can envelop the place, a silence the audience are complicit in creating, as they hold a collective breath.

Rarely have I felt such a heavy stillness or such an intense concentration, than that which the audience brought to Anthony Lau’s take on Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

As associate artistic director at Sheffield Theatres, Lau has brought a fiercely rigorous intellect to his productions on this stage. From a psychedelic Anna Karenina, to a playful The Good Person of Szechwan, he refuses to patronise his audience, demanding we work to understand his purpose, evidenced again here with Miller’s 1953 American classic.

The play opens with the stage populated by microphones and the auditorium fully lit for a significant portion of the opening scene. There is a lightbox hanging above the stage giving us a moment of pause – we’re inside the theatre, but the display with the word “Crucible” looks the same as the one outside. Lau appears to be asking us to consider that we’re not just in the Crucible (theatre), but we are also in The Crucible (play). We are complicit in the action.

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(Mark Lawson’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/8; Near deranged … James Lance as Vanya. Photograph: Manuel Harlan.)

Orange Tree theatre, London
This chamber staging, movingly played by an immaculate ensemble, fits perfectly with the drama’s hothouse of disappointment

At 84, Sir Trevor Nunn is making his first attempt at Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov’s 1899 tragicomedy of turgid work and hopeless love on a failing rural Russian estate. Familiar with the largest stages – having run both the National Theatre and the RSC – Nunn is working in one of the smallest, Richmond’s Orange Tree, although it would be an injustice if this version ends there.

The minimalist space brings one immediate gain. Frequent references to the characters living suffocatingly together often seem fanciful in vast auditoria. Chekhov’s reputation can command, but here theatregoers nervously tuck their feet in as the eight actors drink, dance, duel and kiss within touching distance. So rawly authentic are the lines and looks that it feels as if we have somehow tuned into a late 19th-century Russian TV documentary.

A tangibly oppressive atmosphere, with lighting by Johanna Town and sound by Max Pappenheim, is defined by liquids craved (tea, vodka) and unwanted (tears, sweat, rain). Always alert to physical and historical detail, Nunn here makes hair, in an era and region short of salons, almost a subplot. Only a bald man – William Chubb as the desiccated academic Professor Serebryakov – looks neat, more hirsute fellows sporting wild spirals that appear self-hacked while they were half-cut. The women have long locks either flowing, braided, bunned, netted or scarved.

Other productions have been starrier in individual roles, but Nunn has drawn an immaculate ensemble. James Lance’s scathing, near-deranged Vanya still hints at the underlying spirit and intelligence that boredom and booze erode daily. Madeleine Gray makes Sonya’s naive and cheery demeanour a mask that heartbreakingly fractures. In this play, Chekhov most draws on his experience as a doctor, with plot twists involving gout, depression, alcoholism and morphine. Coutured and costumed to resemble the playwright, the Dr Astrov of Andrew Richardson, who made a dazzling professional stage debut as Sky Masterson in the Bridge’s Guys and Dolls, impresses as a physician destroying his body while inflaming women’s.

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(Mark Lawson’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/14, 2024; Drawing a younger audience … Mathew Baynton as Bottom and Pyramus. Photograph: Pamela Raith.)

Royal Shakespeare theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Eleanor Rhode’s ravishing fusion of flamboyancy, surrealism and raucous fun rouses audiences in a youthful, energetic riot

Directors of Shakespeare’s comedy of aristocrats, artisans and sprites getting confused in a wood often seem influenced by one title word. Midsummer stagings are light and magical, Night shows rather darker. Eleanor Rhode’s RSC revival is driven by Dream, crucially incorporating the sub-categories of nightmare and erotic fantasy, including the rather niche reverie of sex with a donkey.

Characters mash, worlds invert, flames burst from fingers, people move backwards (inflecting Tenet and Christopher Nolan’s dreamscape movie Inception), and surreal moments include one that resembles an explosion in a children’s indoor play pit.

Bally Gill’s charismatic doubling of Athenian Duke Theseus and faery king Oberon – matched by Sirine Saba’s sparky pairing of Hippolyta and faery queen Titania – strongly suggest that what we are seeing in the wood scenes is the nocturnal consequence of a big Greek pre-wedding dinner. In this reading, the elf Puck – athletically and musically played by Premi Tamang, replacing Rosie Sheehy, indisposed on press night – becomes a Freudian blurring of daughters, lovers and childhood fairytales.

The non-dream scenes are also strikingly earthy. In the workers’ play-within-the-play, Shakespeare, in casting someone as a Wall, enjoys joking about what the “hole” in such a barrier might be, but this production doubles down on the entendre. Emily Cundick’s Snout / Wall and Mathew Baynton’s Bottom / Pyramus will have required the ingenuity of the credited intimacy directors.

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(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/1/2024; Photo: Heady … Black as Hazel with Derek Riddell as John. Photograph: Manuel Harlan.)

Dorfman theatre, London

Beth Steel’s new drama is dazzlingly performed and full of pain, joy and laughter in a deft production by Bijan Sheibani

Awedding day is fertile ground for a family drama but is also riddled with the risk of cliches: drunken flirting, face-offs between estranged siblings, awkward aunts and, of course, an 11th-hour dress crisis.

Beth Steel’s play has them all, so how is it that it seems spun in gold, the earthy humour tingling with originality, the canvas both big and small and the larger-than-life characters dazzlingly performed and bouncing to life before us in pain, joy, and laughter?

Sylvia (Sinéad Matthews), one of a trio of sisters, is getting married to Polish Marek (Marc Wootton), who is welcomed into the family fold reluctantly. In Mansfield, a former pit town which has a newly arrived eastern European population, those tensions run organically alongside the human drama. Steel’s previous plays were also set in the same deindustrialised East Midlands landscape, but more often explored the politics around its former coalminers and their families. This play brings the women blazingly to the fore.

They are all forces of nature, from Sylvia’s sisters, Maggie (Lisa McGrillis) and Hazel (Lucy Black), to their fantastically gobby aunt Carol (Lorraine Ashbourne). They are broadly drawn, but distinct enough to become real and endearing. You feel part of the wedding, investing in the characters and their emotional lives.

The fathers, uncles and love interests are all off stage at first, while these women get ready for the big day. They drink Buck’s Fizz, bitch about next door’s hot-tub (“sex pond”), and talk in vivid demotic (“I don’t know my arsehole from my fanny this morning,” says Carol). This opening scene alone is a masterclass in multi-layered conversational naturalism.

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