Category Archives: Theatre Reviews


(Helen Meany’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/19; Photo: ‘Minute flickers of emotion’ … Stephen Rea in Krapp’s Last Tape, directed by Vicky Featherstone, at Project Arts Centre, Dublin. Photograph: Patricio Cassinoni.)


There isn’t a hint of sentimentality in Vicky Featherstone’s delicately calibrated production of Samuel Beckett’s monologue about mortality

Making his annual tape recording on the eve of his birthday, Krapp (Stephen Rea) lingers over words, as if English is not his first language. “Spool. Spooooool,” he pronounces, as he searches for reels of tape recorded in years past. Reminding us that Samuel Beckett wrote many of his works in French, it is one of a number of tiny, clever touches in Vicky Featherstone’s production.

Beckett’s celebrated play from 1958 is so precisely composed in its interplay of language, movement and silence that any new variations tend to be all in the detail. As the 69-year-old Krapp listens to tape recordings of his younger self, he pauses and interjects. Rea’s eyes register minute flickers of emotion, his years of performing to camera adding a subtlety that seems effortless.

Bemused by the confident delivery of the 39-year-old on tape, Krapp mocks his younger self’s artistic ambition. As he berates himself for his lack of achievement in the intervening years, Rea brings a harsh, almost sarcastic tone to his self-criticism, deepening its pathos. Not only does Krapp feel like a failure but he has to kick himself about it as well.

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(Claire Armitstead’s article appeared in the Guardian, 11/29 Photo:  Power couple … Stoppard and Vaclav Havel attending Rock ’n’ Roll at the Royal Court in 2006. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images.)

As his Velvet Revolution drama returns, the great writer talks about his mounting Israel-Gaza uncertainties, the epiphanies he has in every hot shower – and our one-star ‘corker’ review of The Crown

Tom Stoppard is chatting in the theatre bar when I arrive to interview him about a revival of his play Rock ’n’ Roll. He was comparing ailments with an elderly director friend, he says cheerfully, as he heads up the stairs, having declined an offer of the lift. At 86 he has the nonchalant elegance of a spy in a cold war thriller, lean and mop-haired in a discreetly expensive-looking coat.

Though Stoppard is feted around the world for some of the cleverest plays of the last 60 years, as well as the Oscar-winning screenplay for Shakespeare in Love, he is more gossipy than grand. “I said to him,” he reports of the conversation from which he has just been dragged away, “I’m being interviewed by the Guardian in half an hour and it’s supposed to be about Rock ’n’ Roll, but I’m going to have to have an opinion about Gaza, aren’t I?”

Would I have been a dissenter, or someone who kept his nose clean? I’ve a terrible feeling it would have been the latter

Being canvassed for opinions comes with the territory for a playwright whose identity straddles two of the biggest faultlines of 20th century history. His most recent play, Leopoldstadt, was a monumental reckoning with a Jewish heritage of which he only became aware in middle age. It ended with Leo, one of three survivors of a mighty dynasty, returning after the war to a Vienna of which he had no memory, having adopted his stepfather’s surname and lived in England since infancy.

Stoppard himself settled in England and adopted his stepfather’s name when he was eight, though his early childhood was spent not in Austria but Czechoslovakia. Rock ’n’ Roll, which premiered at the Royal Court in 2006, contains a different reckoning: what if, instead of getting remarried to an Englishman after the death of Stoppard’s doctor father in the war against Japan, his mother had returned to Soviet Czechoslovakia with him and his brother? “I thought I could write a play which was about myself as I imagined my life might have been from the age of eight,” he says. “And then I would find out whether I was brave enough to be a dissenter, or just somebody who would keep his head down and his nose clean. And I have a terrible feeling that it would have been the latter.”

Rock ’n’ Roll takes place between the viciously suppressed Prague Spring protests of 1968 and the period just after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which put an end to four decades of communist rule and saw the Rolling Stones bring 100,000 fans out for a historic concert in Prague in 1990. The play is framed as a decades-long argument between Jan, a Cambridge PhD student who goes back to Czechoslovakia in 1968, only to become badly disillusioned and nostalgic for the freedoms of the west, and his English professor, Max, who remains a Marxist idealist.

Along the way it takes in the poetry of Sappho, the music of the Stones, Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett and Czech rock group the Plastic People of the Universe, whose arrest at a rock festival in 1976 was one of the inspirations behind the human rights protest Charter 77. The play is dedicated to Stoppard’s friend Václav Havel, who went on to become president of the country in 1989.

Ever since he made his stage debut with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in 1966, new Stoppard plays have been an event. Havel, Mick Jagger and the Plastic People were among the audience for the Royal Court premiere of Rock ’n’ Roll, along with Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, though sadly not Barrett, its wayward Pan figure, who died days after the play opened.

Why revive it now? Even then, it was a history play, he says. “Plays don’t become dated, they become a period, and that’s all to the good.” There’s the small matter that he hasn’t been moved to write anything new in the four years since Leopoldstadt. This is a rare visit to London from the Dorset cottage where he lives with his third wife, Sabrina Guinness. “I’m busy the whole time, but I’ve been completely unproductive,” he says. “And you know, I may have stopped without realising it.”

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(Vinson Cunningham’s article appeared in The New Yorkers, 9/30; Odom plays each of Purlie’s notes with a musician’s tonal perfection. Illustration by Amrita Marino.)

Sophisticated comedic turns from Leslie Odom, Jr., and Kara Young guide Kenny Leon’s Broadway revival of Ossie Davis’s 1961 play.

The Reverend Purlie Victorious Judson (Leslie Odom, Jr.), the hero of Ossie Davis’s 1961 comedy, “Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch”—revived on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre, directed by Kenny Leon—is, above all else, a hustler. You might know somebody like this: He blusters onto the stage of your life, pouring out plans before he’s properly introduced himself, energized toward some vista that only he can see. He puts an arm over your shoulder and tries to convince you that you’re on your way there together, as partners, but in his mind’s eye, you can tell, he’s up in the pulpit and you’re down in the seats. Half of what he says sounds cockamamie, but something about him—his personal history, perhaps, or a kind of animal endurance in his bearing—persuades you that, somehow, he’ll get what he wants.

In the case of this show, most of what Purlie wants is a fair shake for Black people. He’s an itinerant minister who has come back to the postbellum Georgia plantation where he grew up. He wants to rally the people there—who now work as sharecroppers for Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee (the intensely funny Jay O. Sanders)—to take back their local church, Big Bethel. He cooks up a scheme that will, with one stroke, get them the deed to the church and free his family from their impossible debts to Ol’ Cap’n.

Purlie’s a benign enough con man whose con is social justice. He talks sonorously, in a nearly constant preacher’s cadence; he always seems to be skiing downhill, with great skill and heedless abandon, toward some grand, irrefutable point. When he gets really wound up, he adopts a half-sung, high-flown, heavily syncopated tone whose aim is less to emphasize an argument than to stoke a frenzy in a row of invisible congregants. At a peak moment, he rattles off this rhyming confection: “Let us, therefore, stifle the rifle of conflict, shatter the scatter of discord, smuggle the struggle, tickle the pickle, and grapple the apple of peace!”

It’s clear that the clergy isn’t his first racket, and it might not be his last. “Last time you was a professor of Negro philosophy,” his sister-in-law, Missy (Heather Alicia Simms), says, with a hint of acid in her voice. “You got yourself a license?” As the play unfolds, we watch Purlie oscillate between courage and cowardice, brilliance and haplessness, forthrightness and a penchant for telling tall tales. His plan is to pass off a girl whom he captivated via one of his sermons, Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins (Kara Young), as his long-lost cousin, Bee, and trick Ol’ Cap’n into handing over a five-hundred-dollar inheritance that he owes the family.

Purlie’s brother, Gitlow (the always impressive Billy Eugene Jones), works for Ol’ Cap’n and plays his role as the Good Negro, singing and shuffling, to a T. He’s been given the farcical title Deputy-for-the-Colored. Another Black member of Ol’ Cap’n’s household is Idella (Vanessa Bell Calloway), who has raised Ol’ Cap’n’s son, Charlie (Noah Robbins), as if he were her own. Purlie’s got to corral all these co-racialists—and their divergent loyalties—and lead them all toward reclaiming Big Bethel.

In creating Purlie, Davis took two long-lasting tropes of communal Black life and twinned them in a single body. On the one hand, Purlie is reminiscent of Father Divine, or, later, the Reverend Ike—a flashy, overconfident preacher who makes lofty promises of prosperity and wins wild, irrational allegiance from Black masses grown tired of living like the lowly Jesus. On the other hand, he’s decided on a career as a self-appointed, semi-professional spokesman for the race. He’s T. D. Jakes and Al Sharpton all at once, a study in the uses and abuses of oratory in Black life.

A creature like Purlie, made up of cultural memory and social satire, is often hard to play. Cliché and niche obscurity, the Scylla and Charybdis of in-group commentary, lie to either side of the role. But Odom guides his performance cannily, playing each of Purlie’s notes with a musician’s tonal perfection. Sometimes he’s an overbearing tuba, sometimes he’s an earnest flute. Odom makes plain at every impasse that, sure, Purlie cares about his image, about collecting disciples—but that he also wakes up each morning with his mind on real freedom for his people.

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(Mark Lawson’s review appeared in the Guardian, 9/21/2023; Photo: The Guardian.)

Marylebone theatre, London
Set in a Polish ghetto, Dmitry Glukhovsky’s superb play explores the terrible choices made by people under occupation

Only the hardest heart would not feel advance goodwill towards The White Factory. Playwright Dmitry Glukhovsky and director Maxim Didenko are Jewish Russians effectively made stateless dissidents by Putin’s dictatorship and invasion of Ukraine. And the subject is the Holocaust, which culture has a duty to keep current.

Warmth towards a drama, though, must be justified by the hottest creativity, which the play achieves by honouring Jewish dead and survivors while also engaging with today’s Russia and wider politics elsewhere.

Bookended by scenes in 1960s Brooklyn, the play is mainly set in Poland under Nazi occupation. It focuses on the Łódź ghetto which, unlike Warsaw’s and others, initially mitigated the scale of genocide by becoming “indispensable” – as Chaim Rumkowski, a Jewish elder, put it – to their would-be murderers by turning every building into a workplace, creating products Germany craved. The “White Factory” was an abandoned Catholic church that manufactured feather pillows.

While unsentimental about real-life figures – sexual harassment by Jewish leaders is frankly dramatised – the play accepts, as surely viewers must, that their deals with the Nazis were not collaboration but tactical desperation: whatever it took to reduce the death toll.

The troubling guts of the play, though, are the naivety of believing that the lives-for-goods arrangement would be taken in good faith. This theme of the futility of trusting tyrants seems clearly aimed at Putin as much as Hitler, but viewers in theoretically benign democracies are also invited to chew and perhaps choke on the calm arguments about what should happen to a society’s elderly or industrially unproductive people.

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(Miriam Gillinson’s article appeared in the Guardian 9/15.  Photo: Sensitivity and restraint … Kasper Hilton-Hille and Ruby Stokes in That Face. Photograph: Johan Persson.)

Orange Tree theatre, London
Revelatory performances fill this devastating production of Polly Stenham’s play about a family ripped apart by addiction and loneliness

Polly Stenham’s devastating play is about an affluent family ripped apart by addiction, loneliness and love directed in all the wrong places. This is the first major revival since That Face premiered to huge acclaim in 2007 and it’s an almost sickeningly intense experience, lit up by some stunning performances and Josh Seymour’s finely calibrated direction, which manages to be both stylised and punchy but intimate and truthful too.

In the original production, Lindsay Duncan played mum, Martha, with a hazy glamour – but there’s not a whiff of that here. Niamh Cusack’s Martha is an unequivocal mess. She’s wired, restless, always on the move as she scurries about the stage in a slinky nightgown. Her eyes dart about nervously and her hands reach out automatically for wine, pills, cigarettes and – above all – her son. Cusack’s Martha never asks for our sympathy and, because of that, she gets it. If only for a moment.

‘The remnants of something good’ … from left: Niamh Cusack, Kasper Hilton-Hille, Ruby Stokes and Dominic Mafham in That Face. Photograph: Johan Persson

Martha’s dazed and damaged children are played with sensitivity and restraint by two actors, Ruby Stokes and Kasper Hilton-Hille, on their stage debuts. Stokes keeps her voice flat and her tone resolutely unimpressed, as rebellious and neglected teenage daughter Mia. She buries her emotions down deep but they occasionally give her away as the young girl she so obviously still is – no more so than when she longs for her dad to fly back home from Hong Kong, where he’s shacked up with family “number two”, and save the day.

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(Mark Fisher’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/14/2023; Photo: Dark and surreal … Inga Mikshina-Zotova and Roman Mikshin-Zotov in The Last of the Soviets. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian.)

Zoo Playground, Edinburgh

Inspired by the work of Nobel-winning Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, this is a disturbing but blackly funny piece

Every performance of The Last of the Soviets by the Czech company Spitfire is dedicated to Belarusian political prisoner Palina Sharenda Panasyuk, an activist detained in 2021 for her opposition to the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. “We want to support people who are not afraid to speak out loud,” says actor Inga Mikshina-Zotova at the end of the show.

That seems only appropriate after a performance all about what can and cannot be said in a totalitarian regime. Petr Boháč’s unsettling production is inspired by the work of Nobel prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian investigative journalist who has specialised in first-hand testimonies about key moments in Soviet history. In its allusions to the Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s and other military conflicts, the show paints an image of a culture, whether in Russia or Belarus, debilitated by cognitive dissonance, unable to square the circle between national myth and actual experience.

Mikshina-Zotova and Roman Mikshin-Zotov – Russian actors currently living in Prague – play stony-faced newsreaders navigating truth and propaganda from behind a TV studio desk. It does not take long for their facade to crack, or their boosterism to give way to deathly dry gallows humour and violent outbursts. The more their jokes about Chernobyl victims get lost in translation, the more disturbing the reality seems. Mikshin-Zotov decides one joke simply cannot be translated at all and stops trying, leaving only bleakness.

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(Tim Ashley’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/19; Dramatic pressure … Endgame. Photograph: Sisi Burn.)

Royal Albert Hall, London
For its UK premiere, György Kurtág’s opera faced a challenge summoning the play’s claustrophobia in this venue, but performances and players were superb

Michael Billington, writing about Endgame in these pages a while ago, once used the phrase “the terrible music of Beckett’s prose” to describe the bitter beauty of the play’s language. In György Kurtág’s opera, the words retain their fierce, lacerating power, though the music extends a deep and ambivalent compassion to Beckett’s characters even as their rebarbative sparring masks fears of decline, isolation, endings and loss. This is not, in essence, the bleak comedy we often find, but a work of pervasive sadness that continues to haunt us after its final notes have died away.

Considered a masterpiece by many at its 2018 Milan premiere, Endgame (more correctly Fin de Partie, as Kurtág uses the French text) has now been given its first UK performance at the Proms by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ryan Wigglesworth, in a semi-staging by Victoria Newlyn. Playing and conducting, as one might expect, were superb. Wigglesworth dug deep into the score’s detail while maintaining the dramatic pressure throughout, and you couldn’t help but be struck both by Kurtág’s fastidious craftsmanship and the way every verbal and musical gesture tells, often through the sparest and simplest of means. Flaring brass suggested fury, futile or otherwise, and cimbalom taps quietly frayed the protagonists’ nerves. But there were also moments of quite extraordinary beauty, particularly as Nell (Hilary Summers) and Nagg (Leonardo Cortellazzi) lose themselves in memories of the past.

Available on BBC Sounds until 9 October. The Proms continue until 9 September.

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By Bob Shuman

Who is this Shakespeare who needs to be banned in Florida public schools, who dared to write a play called Romeo and Juliet?  Was he decadent?  Was he warped?  Has he really been infecting others with degenerate thought for over four hundred years?  The 2023 Little Shakespeare Festival, now playing at the tiny underground theatre, with bright red seats, UNDER St. Marks (94 St Marks Pl, New York, NY 10009) answers with a resounding, “Yes,” in shorts awash in cross dressers, wigs, effeminate tea-stirring parties, and grotesque morbidity, ad infinitum (there are 74 onstage deaths in the so-called playwright’s works, some count 75—the pyramid death scene, from Antony and Cleopatra takes place in both of the one acts, recurring many times).  The good news is that you can see them all in fifteen minutes (if you must—the entire production takes an hour), in First Flight Theatre Company’s presentation, directed by Frank Farrell, of Shakespeare’s Ladies at Tea or I Thought You’d Never Asp, written by Kathleen Kirk, and Shakespeare’s Deaths, by the Free Shakespeare Theatre Company of Chicago.  The production continues to play on Friday, 8/18 at 6pm and Saturday 8/19 at 7pm

There is always something with which to offend in each Shakespeare play—and, truth be told, this reviewer would not relish revisiting the horrors of Titus Andronicus (although one still wants to have seen Olivier play it).  To “cancel” the work, however, to not believe that people can simply close their eyes, would mean not knowing Shakespeare’s first Black character and one of the first in the language.  Can we actually think of more boring writing than that approved under the totalitarian gaze of thought police, and now being penned by A.I. robots?  Who ever said you have to like every second of a piece of writing, anyway?  Wasn’t there a certain enticement to knowing on what pages the “good parts” were in Lady Chatterley’s Lover?  Perhaps the more we clean up, the more we leave ourselves open to seeing problems appear again and, oh, the provocation we lose.

If it would be helpful to know the kind of language that this banned playwright actually uses, Shakespeare’s Ladies at Tea gives highlights—at a bar, sometimes with a disco beat–you might even find yourself knowing a good number of the lines, which does not say much for the culture.  If providing the titles of the blasphemous works would be helpful, for future banning, here is a partial list:  Hamlet; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; King John; Richard II; Othello; Antony and Cleopatra; Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part II; Henry VI, Part 1; Henry VI, Part 2; Henry VI, Part 3; Richard III; Romeo and Juliet.

Overzealous societal control takes power out of the hands of the individual, and leaves the gratification to the influencer, whether they be adherents of the left or right.  American theatre can only define itself in terms of politics, demonstrably of the left, but small work has a chance to not see itself in terms of powerful, dominant agendas.  Instead of hand-wringing over Romeo and Juliet, though, why not let students experience it?  Enough of them have disliked it over the years to decide, for themselves, whether they will study it or not.  That’s called democracy.

Although the content is in question, much can be said for the lively direction of Farrell and the spirited performances, in multiple roles, of Michael Brunetti, Lee DeCecco, Claudia Egli, Frank Farrell, Brian Hagerty, Haley Karlich, Jennier Kim, Adam Muñoz, Danielle Ruth and Hannah Simpson with Stage Managing by Thomas J. Donohoe II.

As debauched as it all is, some might even call it fun.


(c) By Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.

Press: Emily Owens PR.

Photos: Conor Mullen/First Flight; Bob Shuman.


First Flight Theatre Company


Shakespeare’s Ladies at Tea or I Thought You’d Never Asp

Written by Kathleen Kirk

Shakespeare’s Deaths

Written by the Free Shakespeare Theatre Company of Chicago

Directed by Frank Farrell

Presented as part of the 2023 Little Shakespeare Festival

August 3- 20 at UNDER St. Marks


performances on Thu 8/10 at 9pm, Fri 8/11 at 10pm, Sat 8/12 at 5pm, Fri 8/18 at 6pm & Sat 8/19 at 7pm. Tickets ($25 in person) are available for advance purchase at www.frigid.nycThe performance will run approximately 55 minutes.



(Mark Fisher’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/7/2023. Only the merciless survive … Dark Noon. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod)

Pleasance @ EICC, Edinburgh
South African actors replay the brutal events of the US’s formation as a catalogue of poverty, struggle, violence and pain

We know the story. We have heard it told countless times. One of the US’s great skills is in self-mythologising. Time and again, it has told the world about the first European settlers, the battles with the Indigenous people and the romantic dash for the western frontier. Everyone knows about cowboys, the gold rush, religion and commerce. Wherever you are from, you can talk about the American dream.

So it should not be a surprise to see this extraordinary show co-directed by Denmark’s Tue Biering and South Africa’s Nhlanhla Mahlangu for Fix & Foxy. On the surface, it sets itself the task of charting the birth of a nation from the arrival of its first impoverished immigrants to its early industrialisation, from lawlessness to civilisation. In a sequence of lightly narrated scenes, it plays out the key stages in the country’s development in pictorial style.

What makes it fresh, arresting and not a little troubling is who is telling the story. The seven actors are South African, six black, one white, who recount the familiar tales with the wonder of outsiders. Putting on blond wigs and daubing their faces in white makeup, they see nothing noble or romantic about this invasion of a foreign land, but a catalogue of poverty, struggle and violence. Most of the 35 million Europeans who crossed the Atlantic were as hungry and impoverished as the migrants in today’s world. Scarcely a scene goes by that does not end with a bullet.

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(Colette Davidson’s article appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, 5/17; Glen Stubbe Photography/Courtesy of Children’s Theatre Company.)

May 17, 2023|MINNEAPOLIS

Fievel Mousekewitz’s immigration story begins like so many others – a menacing, outside threat. The packing of bags. A tumultuous voyage at sea.

But, as the name suggests, Fievel isn’t a person, he’s a mouse. And the threat is a band of cats.

Fievel’s tale – “An American Tail” – is a story of loss, hope, rebuilding, and family. It is a story shared by many Americans, some recently, some in generations past.


A story focused on


Generations of American kids grew up on the story of Fievel Mousekewitz. At a time when roughly a quarter of Americans are satisfied with immigration levels, a new play looks at what it means to come to America.

Now, the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis is revisiting the 1986 film classic in dramatic form, in a world premiere from Tony-winning playwright Itamar Moses and Obie-winning director Taibi Magar. The tale of Fievel and his Jewish family’s traumatic uprooting from 19th-century Russia – in what is now Ukraine – to the boroughs of New York City is one that members of Generation X will remember from the animated film and a new generation can learn from.

In the opening act, the family of mice sing, “There are no cats in America, and the streets are paved with cheese!” The puns are abundant, but the lessons are universal.

“America is a patchwork of arrivals, but how do we welcome each new wave?” says Mr. Moses in an interview. “There are threats. But if we can work together, a better version of ourselves is always somewhere out there.”

Ultimately, “An American Tail” harks back to an era when immigration was romanticized, not politicized, in films like “West Side Story” (1961) or “Coming to America” (1988). This February, a Gallup Poll showed that Americans’ satisfaction with the country’s level of immigration had dropped to 28%, its lowest in a decade.

“This is reaching back to a happier time, a vision of immigration when it was seen simply as a part of the way this country worked,” says David Itzkowitz, a St. Paul-based historian. “Now, antisemitism is back in the media. … Immigration has become a race issue.”

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