Category Archives: Theatre Reviews


(John Shand’s article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, 4/5;  Photo: The play essentially a one-hander, although Jessica Bentley is also intermittently present.CREDIT:PRUEDENCE UPTON.)


Drama Theatre, April 4
Until May 20
Reviewed by


It builds like a storm. You see the cloud-front of abuse, disparagement and disrespect lining the horizon from the outset, gradually growing closer, darker and more intense, until the last 15 minutes of Joanna Murray- Smith’s play about Julia Gillard become an inevitability: the anti-misogyny speech the then-Prime Minister delivered in the Australian Parliament on October 9, 2012. This not only scorched the hide of its direct target, opposition leader Tony Abbott, it also shook the chamber’s walls and echoed around the world as a rallying cry that enough was enough.

Murray-Smith’s new play details the appalling treatment of Gillard by Abbott and his party (including the women and infantile Young Liberals), his sycophants in the Murdoch media, the spiteful Alan Jones and even one-time feminist Germaine Greer. But the play mainly contains the imagined thoughts of Gillard along the way. The writer’s narrative skill is plain in the build-up, in the conclusion’s inevitability and in the fact a verbatim delivery of Gillard’s speech slots so seamlessly into the play.

It’s essentially a one-hander, with the Justine Clarke as Gillard, although Jessica Bentley is also intermittently present in a primarily non-speaking role. Sarah Goodes’ unfussy yet precise Sydney Theatre Company production (subtly shaded by Steve Francis’ music) casts Clarke adrift on a wide, empty stage, which designer Renee Mulder has framed with reflective screens, so the sense of Gillard being alone is infinitely compounded. If she is to survive the vitriol, she must do it unaided; must dig inside the depths of her being until out pours a speech that was extemporised, apart from some researched examples of Abbott’s sexism.

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By Bob Shuman

Iceland, both the title and central metaphor for an opera by O-Lan Jones (director) and Emmet Tilley (music)–now playing at La MaMa through April 2–is like this year’s slow crawl out of winter in New York, as well as the country’s measured reawakening after COVID.  The show portrays heterosexual constraint,  the difficulties of forming social and physical relationships, oft standard musical theatre fare, to be sure, except that it gets stuck, like Stevie Nicks realizing that she has been singing the same song all night, at practice with Fleetwood Mac, none willing to finalize a song cut. Iceland, similarly, like the glaciers, echoes at the same emotional level for much of its 90 minutes; Act II does not evolve from the previous, where a young architect (Nancy McArthur), whose luggage is lost in a flight from Oslo, meets a mountaineer in Iceland (Oliver Demers), who has been caught in an avalanche (which might be more dramatic if it happens within the frame of the drama, instead of before it). All signs would point to a Rose-Marie or a hippy musical, set in the tundra (if not a show like Brigadoon; the cast includes characters of Icelandic legend, the hiddenfolk and landvaettir); here, though, the lyric is, “Come to me–I need your open arms” instead of “Come to me, Bend to Me.” The score is classically inspired, making use of four trained opera singers, as well as a chorus, with an eleven-piece live orchestra (music direction/conducting is by Robert Kahn).  Additionally, Iceland offers folk-pop songs, which may be reminiscent of the early music of Galt McDermot, Stephen Schwartz, Webber and Rice, and even Crosby, Stills & Nash.  Our time is clearly not that era, though, or the ‘40s and ‘50s and classic Broadway musicals, or of ‘20s operetta, but theatre-crafting, for now, despite incredible technological means, still must authentically find the wherewithal to figure itself out.

At times, an audience can only see how hard a show is trying and not its realization as dramatic art. Part of the issue, which may be affecting Iceland is that the tried-and-true boy-meets-girl formula does not automatically lend itself to the way life is being lived currently.  The show’s soulful self-seriousness is also reinforced by an October article in Psychology Today, by Greg Mattos, “Why Are So Many Young Men Single and Sexless,” which highlights Pew Research, indicating that “over 60 percent of young men are currently single, whereas only 30 percent of young women are.  Women, additionally, have prioritized “academic, professional, and financial goals” more firmly, solidifying men’s “generational inclination toward avoidance and withdrawal.” La MaMa has traditionally championed physical over language-based theatre, but here plot and story have been eclipsed by generalization, with lyrics that don’t automatically register. When they do, they seem sentimental, too generic, as if from a radio tune, on which anyone can be projected, and not from a character’s history and identity.  Yet, the setting, the movement and spiral dancing are well staged, with imaginative earth-toned costumes (Matsy Stinson) sets, lights, and stage pieces (Matthew Imhoff) and animation (Kayla Berry), even if they remain apart from accumulating, dramatic action. Trying to get so much right about a generation, the theatre-makers have not allowed themselves to be wrong enough to tell a specific human story.

Copyright © 2023 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.


Ariel Andrew, Marieke de Koker, Oliver Demers, Perri di Christina, Clayton Matthews, Nancy McArthur, A.C. “Ace” McCarthy, Matthew Moron, Matt Mueller, Carlos Pedroza, Isabel Springer, Andrew Wannigman, Angela Yam, Daiyao Zhong

Creative Team:

Composer/Librettists: O-Lan Jones and Emmett Tinley

Director: O-Lan Jones

Music Director: Robert Kahn

Assistant Director: Livia Reiner; with production support from BARE opera

Lighting and Scenic Design: Matthew Imhoff

Costume Designer: Matsy Stinson

Projection Content Design: Melody (Mela) London

The piece is arranged for two leads with a contemporary singer-songwriter sound, four classically trained operatic vocalists, and an SATB ensemble. It is orchestrated for Violin, Viola, Cello, Bass, Harp, Keyboards, French Horn, English Horn/Oboe, Flute, Guitar and Percussion.

Visit La MaMa

Publicity: Michelle Tabnick PR

Photo credits, from top: Bronwen Sharp (1, 3), Stacia French (2, 4)


(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 3/26; via Pam Green; Photo: Dark and vengeful: Josh Groban, Annaleigh Ashford and ensemble members in the new Broadway revival of “Sweeney Todd,” at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in Manhattan.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.)

Sondheim’s masterpiece, restored to its proper size and sung to the hilt by Josh Groban, makes a welcome Broadway return.

How do you like your “Sweeney Todd” done?

Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the score, favored the musical thriller take: the one that focuses on gore and shock. Blood spouts everywhere when Sweeney, “the demon barber of Fleet Street,” slits the throats of his customers; when his accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, grinds the corpses into meat pies, you wince at every crunch.

Also rather nice: the social critique version promoted by Harold Prince, the director of the original production in 1979. In that one, Sweeney, seen as a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution, isn’t so much a villain as a victim. The greed of the overlord class, mimicked by the grasping Mrs. Lovett, is what makes mincemeat of the proletariat.

Or perhaps you prefer your “Sweeney” intimate, with razors so close you recoil. Or psychological and stripped to the bone, with barely a set and Mrs. Lovett on tuba.

If there are so many worthy “Sweeney” options, that’s because the show isn’t just one of the greatest American musicals but several. Sondheim’s score, a homage to the sinister soundtracks of Bernard Herrmann, cannibalizes the book (by Hugh Wheeler) and the book’s remoter sources (a 1970 play by Christopher Bond, a 19th-century penny dreadful) until only their bones remain. But in return you get arias so beautiful, and musical scenes so intricately layered, that every possible genre seems to be baked inside.

Now comes a new special on the menu: the ravishingly sung, deeply emotional and strangely hilarious “Sweeney” revival that opened on Sunday at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater. Starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford, and directed by Thomas Kail, it has a rictus on its face and a scar in its heart.

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(Arifa Akhar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/39; Photo: ‘Beautiful moments of physical theatre’ … Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead at the Barbican, London. Photograph: Marc Brenner.)

Barbican, London
Simon McBurney directs a toweringly innovative adaptation of the eco-thriller by Nobel-winner Olga Tokarczuk

The opening night of this Complicité production was aborted at the 11th hour last week when its star, Kathryn Hunter, took ill. As the actor Amanda Hadingue walks on to a bare stage, house lights still on, and begins to speak about coughs and Covid, it seems to be leading to another postponement.

Complicité fans may recognise this unassuming start as a signature move, however, and know not to be fooled. From the simplicity of a single actor at a mic, this show directed by Simon McBurney grows like its own verdant forest. It becomes an almighty and toweringly innovative adaptation of Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s murder mystery eco-noir novel, written in wry, profound and glittering prose.

With the help of an autocue (entirely excusable given the gargantuan burden of narration), Hadingue plays Janina, a beady-eyed, chronically sick animal lover living in a remote Polish village rocked by a series of inexplicable murders. The dead are all from the hunting club and Janina volubly espouses the theory that woodland animals are getting their revenge.

Her friends – Dizzy (Alexander Uzoka), a former student; Boros (Johannes Flaschberger), an entomologist; and Oddball (César Sarachu), a neighbour – are all outsiders and non-conformists. Janina is a fabulous creation, both hero and antihero. She is a thorn in the side of the authorities, shooting off messages to the police and quoting government laws at the council – a Miss Marple, lady of letters and Fargo’s Marge Gunderson in one. Hadingue inhabits her so fully that we feel her grief over the death of her dogs – “my girls” – as an epic tragedy. Though Janina is, on the face of it, an animal rights activist, the core of this drama is about the condition of being human: how we live and age, our burdens, privileges and abuses.

Theatrically, this is a masterclass in how to fill a big stage, in part through sound (Christopher Shutt) and lighting (Paule Constable). The set by Rae Smith emerges organically until it seems there are forests behind and constellations above, much of it created through Dick Straker’s astonishing video design.

Scenes flare up out of darkness, with no visible setting up or dismantling. Present and past zoom back and forth so smoothly that it looks entirely seamless. The back-screen is used to brilliant effect, Janina’s projected nightmares of her dead mother appearing almost Hitchcockian.

Metatheatricality – nothing over-excitable – brings humorous flourishes: “May I borrow your microphone?” says Boros, who proceeds to tell us his backstory. “Will you turn that fucking music off?” shouts Janina as a stage instruction.

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(Jansson J. Antmann’s article appeared in Limelight Magazine, 3/2/2023;  Photo: Dogs of Europe. Photo © Adam Forte, Daylight Breaks.)

Exiled from their homeland, the performers of Belarus Free Theatre deliver an urgent warning against complacency in the face of rising authoritarianism.

Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre

 “Intellectual disgrace stares from every human face,” wrote WH Auden in his 1939 poem In Memory of WB Yeats; its “dogs of Europe” left barking in a nightmare world where poetry no longer unites nations.

In 2019, Belarusian author Alhierd Bacharevič drew upon this canine lament for the title of his sprawling, award-winning novel, which has been brilliantly adapted for the stage by Belarus Free Theatre. Both the book and the troupe have since been banned by the authoritarian government in Minsk, with most of the performers now residing in Poland.

The fabric of Bacharevič’s magnum opus comprises several interwoven storylines, but BFT’s co-directors Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada have largely focused on the stories of the young Belarusian Mauchun and a German investigator Teresius Skima, both played by Pavel Haradnitski.

Beginning in 2019, a teacher instructs his class to bury a time capsule. The play then fast-forwards to 2049 and a Europe once again divided. We learn that Russia has invaded Ukraine and, after a brief nuclear war, established the New Reich. This includes much of the former Soviet Union, including the Baltic states. The remaining countries fall under the European League, and the two blocs are physically separated by the latest iteration of the Iron Curtain, now called the Great Wall.

Not that the New Reich and the European League are all that dissimilar. This is a world in which a literary upbringing is a thing of the past, and the literate middle-class has been erased. Depending on which side of the wall you find yourself, books are either burned or simply rendered obsolete by the digital age.

In their place, an alcohol-infused, hyper-sexualised world is split between Russian traditionalism and a more inclusive, ‘Westernised’ hedonism. It’s very much a case of ‘same, same, but different’, and like dogs, the inhabitants on both sides are only too happy to urinate on the place they call home.

If the two blocs differ at all, it is in the New Reich’s rudimentary medical care and education system, which exists solely to breed mistrust, informants and spies. The setting of the first act is the fictional Belarusian border town of White Dews – a nightmarish Pieter Bruegel painting come to life, with people too drunk to recognise how disadvantaged they are.

The play takes place in 2049, but for those familiar with the remnants of the former Soviet Union, this is no dystopia. Barely 25 years after the fall of Communism, industrial towns like White Dews can still be found frozen in time, their Soviet infrastructure rusted, decaying and desperately in need of a capital injection that will never come.

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(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/17; via Pam Green; Photo: Never an outright monster … Sophie Okonedo, right, and Ben Daniels in Medea. Photograph: Johan Persson.)

Medea is as much victim as villain in Dominic Cooke’s psychologically subtle and subversive production, and Ben Daniels is superb playing all the puffed up men in her life

Medea sits high up in the ancient Greek pantheon of rebel women: a murderous mother and conniving sorceress who exacts revenge by killing her own children. What is remarkable in this production is that Sophie Okonedo’s spurned wife is never an outright monster but rather a deeply wounded, highly strategic, stateswomanly figure; a formidable opponent to unfaithful husband, Jason, and almost upstanding in her anger. It is a magnificent performance.

So is Ben Daniels’ as Creon, Jason and Aegeus, to whom she runs for safety in Athens. Daniels is superb in each role but the final scene, depicting Jason’s grief, is immense and abject.

What seems like a formal, declamatory interpretation of the play at first becomes psychological and subtly subversive in Dominic Cooke’s hands. Robinson Jeffers’s celebrated adaptation has an epic quality but is more Shakespearean than Euripidean in its pace and poetry; the show runs over 90 minutes but is meditative rather than fevered.

There is no high concept behind the production, only ancient drama in modern dress. Vicki Mortimer’s set is an illuminated circle outside which are the women of Corinth (Jo McInnes, Amy Trigg and Penny Layden). They are witnesses to the violence, seated among us and unable to stop the rumble of fate. But they are also voyeurs, looking on at a woman’s dramatised pain, to which Medea refers at the start. “You’ve come, let me suppose… to peer at my sorrow,” she tells them and us.

Gareth Fry’s sound cranks up the tension with drums, rattles, alarms and helicopters overhead, while the violence is all the more horrific for remaining unseen. A staircase leading down to a basement allows us to hear the children’s screams as they are murdered without seeing them, just as the death of Jason’s new wife – poisoned by Medea – is delivered in a report of eye-watering brutality. The children (Oscar Coleman and Eiden-River Coleman on the final night in preview) are angelic, running on to stage doe-like and silent.

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(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/11/23; Photo: Channelling Bette Davis … Patricia Hodge in Watch on the Rhine. Photograph: Manuel Harlan.)

Donmar Warehouse, London
Patricia Hodge stars in Hellman’s play about a liberal American family confronted by war in Europe and the dangers of inaction

Lillian Hellman’s 1941 play looks like the silver screen come to life. It is framed as if inside an old-style cinema, with a rolling prologue in period typeface, the back wall flickering intermittently – a reminder that her plays were numerously made into Hollywood films.

Despite these dated effects, this quietly incandescent play about Nazi tyranny in Europe – and the US’s inertia in the face of it – feels current in the ethical questions it raises.

We meet the Farrelly family in their refined Washington DC home as matriarch Fanny (Patricia Hodge) waits to welcome back, after a 20-year absence, her daughter Sara (Caitlin FitzGerald) who has a German husband Kurt (Mark Waschke) and three children in tow.

Impeccably directed by Ellen McDougall, with an inspired design by Basia Bińkowska, what seems like a potential comedy of manners or family friction drama becomes charged with bigger world politics and violence.

Sara and Kurt are anti-fascist fugitives who bring the war in Europe to the door of this ostensibly liberal household, albeit with a Black butler who answers Fanny with “yes’m”. Kurt describes how he was compelled to fight against nazism after watching 27 people killed in the street (the word “Jew” is rarely uttered in this play but lies just beneath its surface).

“I could not stand by and watch,” he says. That message might have been written as a wake-up call to the US which had still not entered the second world war at the time of the play’s Broadway premiere in 1941 – but it is also instructive for us in light of the Ukraine war.

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(Clare Brennan’s article appeared in the Guardian, 12/12; via Pam Green; Photo:  Eleanor Fransch, ‘sassy’ in the role of Alice. Photograph: Andrew Billington.)

New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme
An underprivileged Alice fights for the wonder of book-learning in Theresa Heskin’s transformative take on Carroll’s classic tale

Astubby barge manoeuvres through a lock and moors alongside a clutch of canalside bottle kilns (smoking projections from Daniella Beattie). On board, a curious Alice bombards her hardworking parents with impossible questions. Only one is answered: “What’s for tea?” “An onion in hot water and a pinch of powdered pepper,” replies her “mam”. If the girl wants more, she’d better go and see what she can find in town.

The inspiration for director Theresa Heskins’s adaptation is Lewis Carroll’s photograph of 10-year-old Alice Liddell (his model for the eponymous character), posed as a beggar girl, dressed in rags. Heskins’s Alice, too poor to afford an education, is indignant that books hold “a world of wonders I can’t know”. As she struggles to spell out the words “Eat me”, “Drink me”, it is clear that this Alice (sassy Eleanor Fransch) is determined to reach for the possibilities that reading opens up.

If the show’s message is moral, the method of delivery is spectacular. Having followed a magician (illusions by Darren Lang), with his white rabbit, into a theatre, Alice falls through a trap door and finds herself in a Wonderland that shares many of the same elements as Carroll’s original (and its Looking-Glass sequel). The skittish White Rabbit (Peter Watts) is still ever-late and the Mad Hatter (Danielle Bird) singing nonsense at the nonstop tea party (composer James Atherton’s jaunty live music, here and elsewhere, an auricular treat).

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(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian 12/6; via Pam Green; Photo: Shines in every role … James Ifan in Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Photograph: Photo by Mark Douet.)

Sherman theatre, Cardiff
As the characters in the classic tales revolt against their narrative bounds, a zesty cast make this imaginative rewrite very nearly brilliant

It’s fitting that a musical about two of the greatest children’s storytellers plays with the concept of telling a story itself. Once upon a time, the narrator tells us, as he creates circles within circles, and stops and starts the tale.

We begin in Cardiff in 1913 where young Stevie (Alice Eklund, filling in for Lily Beau) is to spend Christmas with her Lutheran-looking uncles but a storm transports her into the storybook world of the Grimm-dom. As in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, these fairytale characters enact their stories until Stevie interrupts them.

Cinderella (Katie Elin-Salt) smashes her glass slipper, Rapunzel (Sarah Workman) has her locks cut off and Sleeping Beauty (Bethzienna Williams) is roused awake. Prince Charming (James Ifan), meanwhile, tells of how he was reluctantly turned from a frog into a prince and dreams of going back to his old bog days.

Writer Hannah McPake’s universe is full of fizzing imagination and delightful rebellion: the characters set off on their own yellow brick road to find the brothers who can fix their broken stories but their quest turns into a tussle for freedom, led by the Snow Queen (also played by McPake), who has liberated herself from Hans Christian Andersen’s world and now wants to liberate this one.

Directed by Joe Murphy, there is some wonderful comedy and storytelling but not every song in Lucy Rivers’ score is memorable although some certainly hit the mark. Kyle Lima is like a young Tom Jones as he sings Big Bad Wolf and Williams blows the roof off with her opening number, Wide Awake.

What holds this musical back from being the belter it should be is its pacing. There are also too many repeated refrains, which slow the story down. Some performances are more energetic than others: Williams has a storming voice and stage presence while Ifan, who doubles up in roles, shines in every one. McPake gives a slightly halting performance as Stevie’s mother, but is better as the Snow Queen.

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(Susannah Clapp’s article appeared in the Observer, 11/27; via Pam Green; Photo: ‘Utterly concentrated’: Oliver Johnstone as Henry V. Photograph: Johan Persson.)

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse; Wyndham’s, London; Ustinov Studio, Bath

Oliver Johnstone mesmerises as Henry V, Vardy and Rooney go head to head, and Dickie Beau lipsyncs a swarm of voices, from Hitchcock to Fiona Shaw.)

Imagine Henry V without crowd-lashing feats of oratory. Imagine it without crowds. Without the patriotic fervour of Olivier’s 1944 film, the sceptical disaffection of Nicholas Hytner’s 2003 production. Without some of the most flaring speeches: no “muse of fire”! You might think you would hardly recognise Shakespeare’s play. Well think again. In an extraordinary stripped-back version, for which the playwright Cordelia Lynn was the dramaturg and Holly Race Roughan the director, you seem to be looking into the core of the young king. The battlefield may be France, the site of contention England. But it is also the self.

There is little rush and roar on this stage. Under the stately glow of the Wanamaker candelabra, Moi Tran’s design begins with unfortunate ruched curtains but moves revealingly to a glorious background of tarnished mirrors. The cast are in modern dress (Fluellen wears a Scandi jumper), often seated on chairs. Dialogue is intimate and intense.

Oliver Johnstone is terrific: utterly concentrated; steadily growing; a young king propelled by anger but riven. There are reminders of Hamlet and of Richard II. He delivers “once more unto the breach” hugging his knees, not roaring at troops but willing himself into action. The deathbed scene from Henry IV Part 2 is helpfully imported at the beginning so that inheritance haunts the action.

I have never seen a Henry with such an inner life – nor one so evidently toxic. He gloats over the dead. His threats to the French – basically, I’ll kill your babies – are not hurled from a distance but delivered with intimate menace. They have never sounded so horrifying, or so like curses – which are usually women’s work.

The personal and political are intertwined, growing one from another, helped by fine, crisp acting throughout, particularly from Eleanor Henderson as the dauphin. When the French princess Katherine – oh these familiar names – is handed over to seal the peace, the action is freezing, forced, brutal. You might expect a coda involving 21st-century British immigration officials to be embarrassing and obtrusive, yet the past seeps naturally into the present. What a feat.

There is a shift in outrage as the filthy online abuse hurled at Vardy is repeated

Vardy v Rooney: The Wagatha Christie Trial is a game of two halves. Half-panto, half-audience provocation. With impressive speed, Liv Hennessy has adapted the transcript of the mind-boggling court proceedings earlier this year between footballers’ wives Rebekah Vardy and Coleen Rooney. Lisa Spirling directs the result to make a springy insta-success.

Framed by avid commentators who deliver match reports on the action, the trial takes place in a set as flimsy as the evidence; the judge blows a whistle to declare time. It is not hard to reproduce the appearance of women branded from head to foot – tiny top-of-the-head buns, big top-of-the-range handbags – but Lucy May Barker (Rebekah Vardy) and Laura Dos Santos (Coleen Rooney) are vibrant with attitude.

Barker enters to boos and proceeds to do brilliant f***-off acting, much of it with her neck. Brass neck. Dos Santos, who grew up in Liverpool, emphasises Rooney’s Liverpudlian accent to an extent that a London audience found hilarious, and gets approving murmurs. She emits resigned attention – spelling out the word “Wags”, as she doesn’t use the term – her sharpness honed by a canny lifetime of dealing with the media. Beside her, Nathan McMullen’s Wayne looks bewildered.

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