Category Archives: Theatre Reviews


(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 Stella Berrettini, Joseph Bowen, Danny Crawford, Claudia Egli, Frank Farrell, Imogen Finlayson, Marsha-Ann Hay and Jennifer Kim 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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(Mark Lawson’s article appeared in the guardian, 5/4;Photo:  Peter De Jersey as Cymbeline. Photograph: Ellie Kurttz.)

Royal Shakespeare theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Departing artistic director Greg Doran reinvigorates this tale of a royal family in crisis with clarity and intelligence

The president of the Royal Shakespeare Company, King Charles III, may be bemused by the company premiering, pre-Coronation, a play about an English king in a contentious second marriage and in which an “oath of loyalty” becomes an issue. Republican mischief seems unlikely: Cymbeline was scheduled as the RSC farewell to departing artistic director Greg Doran, who is finally staging the only Shakespeare play to elude him.

As a second leaving present, Doran has published a tremendous textbook-memoir, My Shakespeare, explaining how rehearsals start with the cast paraphrasing each line in modern speech, sealing meanings to be revealed in verse. That must have been tough with Cymbeline, a very late play with knotted poetry and a plot so convoluted that some productions add an onstage narrator.

A triumph for Doran’s method is that there is never doubt about who is or pretending to be whom. And his scholarly attention to text is shown by an unusual division into three sections. In The Wager, the exiled Posthumus accepts in Italy a creepy challenge that his England-held wife Imogen will not succumb to an attempted seduction by nobleman Iachimo. The second section, Wales, features the sex bet’s consequences, comic and gruesome, around a Milford Haven cave. The War somehow coheres the bizarre last six scenes where, through human confusion or divine intervention (dazzling gilded design by Stephen Brimson Lewis), identities flip and the “dead” wed.

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(Clare Brennan’s article appeared in the Observer, 4/9; Photo: Conor O’Kane as John Hume and Naiomh Morgan as his wife, Pat, in Beyond Belief. Photograph: The Playhouse Derry-Londonderry)

 Guildhall, Derry
This musical drama about the lives of Northern Ireland peacemakers gives a familiar story a new dimension

Beyond Belief, written by Damian Gorman and composed by Brian O’Doherty, centres on two of the prime movers in the Northern Ireland peace process, SDLP leader John Hume and his wife, Pat. Commissioned to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement (in partnership with the Hume Foundation), it is the second musical drama in Derry Playhouse’s peace-building trilogy, following on from last year’s The White Handkerchief, which marked the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, widely regarded as the start of the Troubles.

The thrust-stage floor is piled with rich brown earth. The gnarled trunk of an ancient oak rises from a grassy knoll, young twigs sticking out from its broken branches spattered with green leaves: “doire” is an Irish word meaning “oak grove”, which is what the place where the action is set was before it became a walled town (Tracey Lindsay’s design). Over 32 scenes, the action progresses chronologically from the late 1950s to the 2020s. Rooted in facts, it has an emblematic quality that suggests a connection to universal struggles for peace and justice.

John’s younger, fiery self is played by Conor O’Kane; his older, more weary but tenacious self by Gerry Doherty. Pat, almost always the more sure and solid, is played throughout by Naiomh Morgan. Vignettes of family life (a summer by the sea; a flight from home following a threatening phone call) are intersected by intense dialogues (a near-verbatim reproduction of John confronting a British army colonel; him telling an incredulous Ian Paisley that one day he will talk peace with Gerry Adams; Pat engaging in a coded conversation with Martin McGuinness that results in a life being saved). Violence erupts; the horror is not shirked but tempered, under Kieran Griffiths’s direction, by stylised movement. Always, the emphasis is on talk.

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(Anya Ryan’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/2; Photo: Boyish energy … For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy. Photograph: Ali Wright.)

 Apollo theatre, London

Underneath the pain in Ryan Calais Cameron’s powerful play there is an abundance of light, as six Black men open up about the experiences and beliefs that have shaped them

Ryan Calais Cameron’s For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy first opened at the New Diorama theatre in 2021, and then transferred to the Royal Court for a run last year. But, it is here in its third incarnation in the West End that the play has found its rightful home, being performed on an expansive stage. Set in the rough form of a therapy session, six Black men take turns to open up about the beliefs and experiences that have shaped them into the people they’ve become. It’s a powerful and deeply moving meditation on Black masculinity and Black life in Britain. But underneath all the pain, there’s an abundance of light, laughter and boyish energy too.

Inspired by Ntozake Shange’s seminal work, For Coloured Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf, Cameron’s writing has a similar sense of confession. The men talk of racism in the playground, run-ins with the police, romantic love, colourism and male stereotypes. The potential of suicide hangs, potently, throughout it all. But, the stories of trauma they share are all too real. On press night, the audience nod along, click and cry in agreement. While the play could never be totally encompassing of all Black men’s lives, Cameron has neatly stitched together a wealth of opposing, recognisable issues. At its core, the play asks how to play the role of the right kind of Black man. Tragic, vulnerable and honest, these are voices that are usually buried, but need to be heard.

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