Review – The Merchant of Venice 1936, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 26th September 2023

Merchant 1936If you’re going to update Shakespeare, you might as well go for broke. And that’s exactly what Brigid Larmour and Tracy-Ann Oberman have done with their reimagined Merchant of Venice, produced by Watford Palace Theatre and Home Manchester, in association with the RSC. They have set it in the East End of London at the time of the Battle of Cable Street in 1936; this was the march organised by Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, designed to intimidate the people living in an area that contained a large number of Jewish and other immigrants. Up to 5,000 Blackshirts, maybe 7,000 police and innumerable counter-protestors clashed on the streets, and it’s considered to be the turning point where 1930s British fascism began its downfall.

CastGiven that this took place less than ninety years ago, it is extraordinary how it has been largely forgotten or indeed, never learned by most of the population; and this production serves a very useful purpose in bringing it back into our minds. It intertwines superbly well with Shakespeare’s play, with Antonio and his friends adopting the roles of BUF activists, Portia seen as a Diana Mitford-type character, and Shylock as a Jewish outsider, emblematic of what the fascists would regard as everything that’s wrong with the country. And it’s more relevant today than ever; the news radio on the drive home after the show reported a speech by the Home Secretary that was described by an interviewee as being further to the right than anything ever said by the British National Party in its heyday.

ShylockAt just two hours running time including an interval, the play is, by necessity, heavily cut. But it’s not a brutal cut; it’s a sensitive cut, keeping all the essential themes, plot threads and great speeches. Shakespeare must have sat back and congratulated himself on a good day at the office having written about The Quality of Mercy, All that Glisters is not Gold, and Hath not a Jew Eyes. Antonio, Bassanio, Gratiano, Portia and of course Shylock are all well-written, memorable characters, and this is without doubt one of Shakespeare’s Big Plays.

Shylock and blackshirtsUnfortunately, one of the major problems with The Merchant of Venice to a modern audience is not so much the exploration of antisemitism, but the plot content of Act Five. It feels like the whole story is wrapped up after Shylock gets his (her, in this instance) come-uppance for not showing that aforementioned quality of mercy. Thus the final scenes concerning how Bassanio and Gratiano have given away their rings to “complete strangers” often appear as an afterthought – but are necessary to give way to the usual happy ever after Shakespearean comedy ending. In this production, aligning so strongly 1930s fascism with the story of Shylock and those general themes of antisemitism, racism and othering, this ending seems all the more superfluous; even though they rattle through it at breakneck speed. For me, the final scene, where the ensemble reveal their They Shall Not Pass protest on Cable Street, comes as a rather disjointed add-on. However, the cynic in me admired the device of ensuring a standing ovation at the end.

Tracy-Ann ObermanWith strong use of vintage footage of the Blackshirts and newspaper headlines of the time projected on to the backdrop, Liz Cooke’s design brings you firmly into the drab, grey East End, although Portia’s glamorous outfit makes a superb contrast. The three caskets laid out on the basic kitchen trolley provide a nice visual suggestion of the idea of a stark choice, and the graffiti on Shylock’s door tells its own story.

Protest!The idea of making Shylock female is integral to the entire directorial vision of the play. Her characterisation was inspired by Tracy-Ann Oberman’s own great-grandmother, an immigrant to London from Russia to work in a factory. When you change the gender of a well-known character it inevitably makes you see that character in a new way, and this is no exception. This Shylock is a matriarch, proud and protective of her family, and even more of an outsider being a woman in a man’s world. It disgusts her to have to interact with the likes of Antonio, who has publicly reviled her in the past and avowed he will probably do so in the future, Still, business is business, and sometimes you just have to trade with your enemies. Tracy-Ann Oberman’s performance is simply a knock-out. Her presence, her expressions, the glare of her eyes, her pride, her resilience and her eventual defeat are all perfectly pitched – plus she adopts a powerful, alienating foreign accent which exemplifies her otherness. She is just superb.

CastI also enormously enjoyed Raymond Coulthard’s performance as both Antonio and Arragon. His Antonio is dignified, controlled, suppressed, and resigned; you almost forget he’s a fascist. As Arragon he gives us a splendid comic turn as the vain, flowery prince; more believable than a mere fop but truly wallowing in the sound of his own voice. Xavier Starr gives a terrific professional debut as Gratiano, his height emphasising a kind of lofty condescension and upper class bonhomie, but he descends into the gutter with his superbly delivered antisemitic vitriol. Hannah Morrish impresses as a rather aloof and superior Portia, later taking the guise of a very no-nonsense lawyer. There’s also excellent support from Gavin Fowler as Bassanio and Jessica Dennis as Nerissa and Mary Gobbo.

BondBrevity is the soul of wit, and the comparatively short running time for this production enormously helps in keeping the pace up and captivating our interest completely. If you’re expecting any kind of traditional production you may be disappointed, but this new slant is totally justified and brings a whole new insight into the play. Not perfect, but full of wow factor. After the production leaves the Swan on 7th October, the tour continues to High Wycombe, Malvern, Bromley, Cardiff, Wilton’s Music Hall, York, Chichester and Manchester, and returns to Stratford for another three weeks in January 2024.

Production photos by Marc Brenner

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – Macbeth, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 11th September 2023

MacbethWhen I saw that the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of Macbeth was scheduled to run for over three hours, my heart sank. This is Shakespeare’s second shortest play after Comedy of Errors; so how on earth are they going to make it last three hours? I’m sure when I saw Judi Dench and Ian McKellen at the Young Vic in 1978 they did it in little over two hours. Mind you, that was the production where Dame Judi rattled through Lady Macbeth’s letter scene so rapidly that they dubbed it the telegram scene.

MacbethMy heart sank further when I discovered that the porter scene was to be rewritten by Stewart Lee “because it’s not funny anymore and no one gets the jokes”. I don’t consider myself that much of a Shakespeare purist but there are limits. I was reminded of Julie Walters in the Victoria Wood sketch where the Piecrust Players are staging Hamlet. She pulls Ophelia up on her words: “That lovely line, there’s Rosemary, that’s for remembrance – it’s no good bunging a few herbs about saying don’t mind me I’m a loony. This is our marvellous bard – you cannot paraphrase.” The porter’s scene does indeed pose problems and frequently doesn’t work – but occasionally it does, if you do it really, really well. And that’s one of the challenges of staging this play.

WitchesHowever, having seen the show I happily confess both my reasons for heart-sinking were unfounded. Yes, this is quite a slow Macbeth, but not in a dull, laborious way. It takes the opportunity to dwell upon the silent moments in the play; the actions of the witches, the atmospheric eerie portents of the castle and the ghostly visions, not to mention the drawn-out personal battle to the death between Macbeth and Macduff. The densely packed speeches are delivered thoughtfully and respectfully, at a measured pace, allowing us all to appreciate the language and its meaning. It’s so easy to get lost in a Shakespeare production when the actors race through the words so quickly that you don’t know what’s going on. But that doesn’t happen here; the production’s careful tempo keeps the audience sticking with it all the way through.

PorterAnd as for the rewritten porter’s scene; if you’re going to do something differently you might as well go the whole hog. I thought I was either going to hate it or love it; in fact, I did neither. The porter is now re-imagined as a stand-up comedian, with the obligatory microphone stand and compere introduction, addressing today’s audience with a 100% wall-breaking routine that comments on the news, politicians, and on the students watching the play for GCSE research. In a striking moment of disrespecting the audience, she mischievously gives the game away by telling us that Macbeth dies in the end. When she starts to engage Macduff and Lennox in conversation (as in Shakespeare’s original) it’s their turn to go off-piste and complain about things like woke productions and having a black actor play Othello – whatever next?

Duncan and MacbethFor the most part, the new sequence is pretty funny, and the audience hooted all the way through it. Apparently, there are explicit performances and non-explicit performances, depending on the date, which relate to the content of the porter’s script. We saw a non-explicit performance; but, to be honest, I don’t see the point of pussyfooting here. If you’re going to make a big splash with an innovative and offensive scene, don’t hold back. Personally, I thought it could have gone even more outrageous. However, the rewritten scene does weaken the motif of knocking in the play. It’s a relentless buzzer that disturbs the porter rather than the usual knock knock knocking, and it recurs on a few other occasions, which removes that sense of fate knocking at Macbeth’s door, or knocking at his conscience. I’m not sure a buzzing quite does the same trick.

BanquoWils Wilson’s production truly excels in conveying a classic, eerie, dark atmosphere. Dead birds fall from the sky, discordant clangs reverberate from the on-stage musicians, rain pours down. The witches first appear as almost half-formed pupae oozing out of a hole on the stage. There’s also an artificiality that also lends a discomforting air. It’s an almost entirely bloodless production; Banquo’s ghost is a vision of pallor, Lady Macduff’s babies are puppets that get tossed between murderers until you hear an audible crack of their necks and they’re dispatched into binbags. The unwashable blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands is suggested by a red light up her sleeve. Dead bodies are calmly coaxed up and walk off the stage at the invitation of the witches. On the whole, the production doesn’t do histrionics; Macbeth’s speeches are frequently fragile, Lady M’s criticisms of her husband’s perceived weakness are quietly underplayed, and Macduff’s shock at the loss of his pretty chickens renders him almost speechless.

Macbeth and Lady MAs you might expect, there is some trademark Royal Shakespeare Company gender-shifting amongst some of the roles, usually an opportunity to question your traditional understanding of those characters. Having the porter as a woman and one of the witches as a man works nicely. However, in other areas the concept doesn’t fully flow quite so easily for a couple of reasons. Duncan is now Queen of Scotland – even though Duncan is clearly a male name, she is definitely a woman. Banquo is also a woman, as is the unseen Thane of Cawdor, until she is executed. However, Malcolm is still a male character, even though he is played by a woman, so there’s a lack of consistency there. Perhaps even more of a problem, this production sites women in positions of power with Duncan at the top and Banquo and Cawdor as solid supporting officers; so there’s absolutely no need for Lady Macbeth to bend over backwards to encourage her husband to take the Scottish throne – she could just as easily do it herself.

MacduffReuben Joseph is a rather reserved and controlled Macbeth, prone to flashes of petulance revealing a deep-down fragility and a tendency towards mental disorder that becomes more quickly apparent than in most productions. It’s an intelligent and calm reading of the part. For our performance, Lady Macbeth was played by Eilidh Loan, with another restrained and unhysterical characterisation, quietly dominating her husband, but primarily allowing the text to do the hard work – all whilst still retaining her usual role as a witch too, which is some feat! Anna Russell-Martin’s Banquo is a hearty soul, and Therese Bradley plays Duncan with a sunny and beneficent disposition. Amber Sylvia Edwards and Dylan Read are the other two intriguing and spooky witches, and there’s a terrific supporting performance from George Anton as Macduff – noble, respected, and thoroughly persistent. And Alison Peebles makes the role of the porter very much her own, full of cantankerous glaring and sarcasm. At our show there were a number of roles performed by understudies, and the quality of some of the performances was perhaps a little patchy as a result – but you can’t fault that level of commitment.

Lady MacduffBut it’s not the performances that linger in the mind with this production, it’s with the ominous sense of fear and eeriness where it truly succeeds. It’s a cunning blend of the traditional and the innovative, and although it may lack a little in drive and authenticity, it conjures a very powerful atmosphere.


Production photos by Marc Brenner.

3-starsThree-sy Does It!

Review – Never Have I Ever, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 2nd September 2023

Never Have I EverWe wrapped up our bumper Chichester day on Saturday with a visit to the Minerva Theatre and the second preview of Deborah Frances-White’s new play Never Have I Ever. You know that drinking game? … Or perhaps, my more salubrious readers, you don’t. The idea is that you say Never Have I Ever and you pick an activity that you haven’t done, but anyone who has done it takes a drink. And then it’s the next person’s turn, and so on and so on, ad ebrietatem. As you can guess, it’s probably not a game you should play if you’re not 100% confident in your fellow players.

RestaurantTobin has invested money – a lot of money – in Kas and Jacq’s restaurant. Nearly two years in, Kas and Jacq have admitted defeat and are pulling the plug on the business. They’ve invited Tobin and his wife Adaego around for dinner in the restaurant to break the news that he’s lost all his cash. However, Tobin is made of money; will he be furious, or will he take it in his stride? And what happens when they take to the bottles and start playing Never Have I Ever? It’s not going to end happily, is it? “It’s just like Indecent Exposure“, more than one of my theatregoing companions said to each other.

Four charactersIt’s a terrific starting point for a play and Ms Frances-White has created four very dynamic characters to place at loggerheads with each other. The four were all friends from university although Tobin was by far the oldest and was working in France whilst the others were still studying and – by the sound of it – drinking heavily. The play is also, at times, extremely funny with some stand-out comedy lines which you might expect, given the writer’s experiences as a stand-up comic.

Jacq and KasHowever, the play tries to take so many themes and deal with so many problems that it doesn’t really succeed in reaching any conclusions about any of them. Loyalty, trust, power, exploitation, forgiveness, privilege and revenge all play a part in this story, so it gets very intense, and as a result, sometimes the writing becomes heavy-handed and unsubtle. There are also a lot of quick scene changes designed to suggest the inevitable worsening of behaviour and increased outrageousness that a night on the vino brings – but they create an odd, stop-start sort of atmosphere, preventing the natural flow of the storytelling and character development.

LightingFrankie Bradshaw’s set is the epitome of East London restaurant chic, each table fitted out with its own cooking range – that was the restaurant’s USP – an individual chef per table, no wonder it didn’t make money. Separating the stage floor from the theatre floor are hundreds of wine bottles, stacked around like the most enticing cellar ever, assisted by some terrific mood lighting courtesy of Ryan Day’s lighting design, which also flashes, every so often, into some very groovy, hallucinatory effects during scene changes.

Tobin and AdaegoAll four performances are superb. Greg Wise is brilliant as Tobin, all avuncular bluster, bonhomie and woke-and-proud-of-it; until he discovers some news that he’d preferred to have not to known and then the change in his character becomes darkly sinister. Susan Wokoma’s Adaego is super-confident, comfortable in her skin, pushing the way forward for other women of colour. Alex Roach’s Jacq is rather cynical, working through anger management issues and prepared to think outside the box. Amit Shah plays Kas as unassuming, practical and placatory – but only to an extent; he, too, has a massive secret to get off his chest. The four work together tremendously well to get the best out of the outlandish predicament that Ms Frances-White has created for them, and deliver those great lines with terrific comic panache.

AdaegoI came away from the play wishing it had been written in a slightly subtler way. It certainly doesn’t shy away from some serious moral issues, but it does come down heavily on one side of the argument/predicament, whereas in real life I think there are more shades of grey going on here than the writing suggests. The person who has two reasons to be angry and consider themselves the wronged party is the person who becomes the baddie; it reminded me of Shylock, seeking punishment greater than the crime merits. It’s a play with loads to think about and plenty to laugh at, but it does get pretty hectic at times. To reiterate, the performance we saw was a preview but I doubt it has changed much over the last three days.

Production photos by Helen Murray

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – Falkland Sound, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 5th September 2023

Falkland SoundThe Falkland conflict; I remember it so well. I turned 22 during those alarming 74 days in 1982, and if it had escalated to full-scale extended war, I would have been ripe for conscription. Everyone watched and waited; hanging on every word reported by the Ministry of Defence’s Ian McDonald’s daily TV updates, gripped by Brian Hanrahan’s journalism:  I counted them all out and I counted them all back. The nation was divided when the Belgrano was sunk as it was sailing away from the exclusion zone – your attitude towards it basically depended on whether you were a fan of Thatcher. It was the era of Gotcha! and Stick it up your Junta! And of course, the conflict was Thatcher’s golden key to No. 10 for the next eight years.

the islandersRather than concentrating on the conflict’s effects on Thatcher and her government, Brad Birch’s new play tells the story of the Falkland Islanders themselves; their way of life, their environment, their national attachments (to Britain, and by nature of location, to Argentina), their relationships, their work, their leisure. 8,000 miles is a long way away, and few Brits ever get to visit the Falklands, so any extra insight into this loyal community is always welcome. Although they still had access to the pop music of the time, it still seems a world apart; letters take ages to arrive, and the prospect of coming to Britain to study is just a pipe dream for most. Still, if your boss is kindly disposed, he might allow you to let off steam with the occasional two-nighter, which sounds like the maddest hangover experience ever.

GabrielThis is a bold attempt to remind ourselves of the conflict and also that the Falklands are still there, still part of Britain, and still loyal. The characterisations of the islanders are both creative and powerful, with much of the narrative coming from two outsiders – John, who has arrived from England as a teacher, and Gabriel who works at a scientific research establishment and is Argentinian. The experiences they share with us, both concerning their day-to-day lives before the invasion and how they survived both the occupation and the liberation, are told with moving realism and sensitivity.

John and the islandersHowever, these scenes are also juxtaposed with life back in Britain, where the Conservative government was very unpopular and Tory grandees were looking for a way to make Mrs Thatcher look good again – and the Falklands invasion was the perfect opportunity. However, these scenes are depicted in a completely different way; unlike the realism of the Falklanders, the government figures are caricatures. They don’t even have names, just numbers, and there’s an almost pantomime-like ridiculousness to the way they behave. As a result, for me, the UK scenes are much less successful than the Falklands scenes.

Joe UsherThere’s also the problem that, with a lot to say, Brad Birch’s play gets very wordy and rather heavy going at times; to the extent that I found some of the narratives rather difficult to follow, with so many characters involved, including those who are not actually portrayed on stage, so there’s a lot of reported activity and conversation. As the play progresses, the writing improves as Mr Birch can concentrate on the immediate issue at hand – the arrival of the British troops and the recapture of the islands. But overall, the play does feel a bit chewy and long.

IslandersI wasn’t sure about the music; not so much the local playing at the drinking get-togethers, but more why the characters would break into the occasional rendition of, for example, Supertramp’s Goodbye Stranger or Spandau Ballet’s Gold. And it didn’t really aid our understanding of the play to have the islanders regularly picking up their buildings – houses, church, shop, etc – and moving them around the stage. I think the idea was to indicate whereabouts in Port Stanley each scene was set; but in reality it’s just a distraction.

Mrs HargreavesThere are some very good performances – Tom Milligan’s John and Eduardo Arcelus’ Gabriel stand out, as does Joanne Howarth’s Mrs Hargreaves and her impressive Mrs Thatcher impersonation. Joe Usher is excellent as Robbie, the British soldier who basically represents the entire British army. At our performance Oliver Hembrough who plays Geoff/Dad was indisposed and assistant director Mariana Aristizabal Pardo stood in, presumably at very short notice, and enabled the performance to go ahead – so three cheers to her!

RosieA fine attempt to tell this important and still relevant story, and it’s a fascinating insight into the lives of the islanders themselves. It’s a little heavy, a little slow, and a little inconsistent. But there’s much more that’s good about it than isn’t.

Production photos by Ellie Kurttz

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – The Sound of Music, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 2nd September 2023

The Sound of MusicNo sooner were Mrs Chrisparkle and I back from our four weeks at the  Edinburgh Fringe, we were off to Chichester for a weekend of (hopefully!) top quality entertainment at those terrific theatres. And, late to the party, we started off with the last Saturday matinee of the run of Adam Penford’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. It’s ended now, but I’m sure it had a very successful run. As soon as you knew this was to be Chichester’s summer big show offering, you knew it was going to be a crowd pleaser. And Saturday afternoon’s audience was packed to the gunwales, with lots of kids all starting their journeys as the theatregoers of tomorrow, which is always great to see.

Gina BeckRobert Jones’s design is perhaps a little heavy on the ecclesiastical side, with grey abbey windows and arches which deftly slide in and out. An ornate front door and mansion frontage is wheeled into place to suggest the von Trapp residence, which seems very grand indeed. However, you never get a feel for those rolling meadows of green and the Alpine peaks that lurk just outside the abbey that were so important to the young Maria; and indeed, when we first see her she emerges from beneath the stage via a trap laying down in the glorious sunshine, appreciating God’s glorious scenery, whilst supine, not on a verdant bank, but on an expanse of grey. Fortunately, Matt Samer’s orchestra bathes us in musical sunshine throughout the show, which makes up for the lack of colour variety.

Gina Beck and kidsThe production itself is extremely classy and hits the right level of emotional engagement. I know I was not the only person in our party who noticed a tinge of moisture in their eye when the Captain melted at the sight (and sound) of his children singing (excellent melting from Edward Harrison in the role); the actual sound of music has a symbolic significance in this show, representing freedom, happiness, and love, as opposed to the self-repression that the Captain inflicted on himself and his children, and the oppression that would follow under the Nazis.

Lonely GoatherdThe production follows the original 1959 stage show reasonably faithfully, rather than the more familiar 1965 film, so expect My Favourite Things to come much earlier than you expect, The Lonely Goatherd has no puppet show, I Have Confidence is missing, and the nuns don’t get to scupper the Nazis cars at the end. The only change is that Something Good, originally written for the film, appears in Act Two instead of the lesser known An Ordinary Couple.

EdelweissI always think that you can judge a production of The Sound of Music by how well it reflects the Nazi threat. For the Salzburg Singing Contest scene, Nazi banners unfurl and drop down from the ceiling all around the stage, and SS Officers appear spotlighted standing amongst the audience members, which is a very threatening sight. When the family are hiding at the abbey and the Nazi officers come to hunt them down, lights and shadows add to the tension and anxiety of the scene. I never found it credible that Rolf saw the family but didn’t give the game away; he was a very ambitious young Nazi and he owed nothing to any of the von Trapps apart from Liesl. If he had captured them, he would have been given great preferment. Still; maybe love can defeat a swastika after all.

Maria and GeorgThe production benefited from some terrific performances. Gina Beck is excellent as Maria; her voice is clear and rich, her playfulness with the children (and indeed the Captain) is very nicely done, and her interaction with the other nuns works a treat. Janis Kelly as the Mother Abbess has an amazing voice and puts all her operatic heart and soul into the performance of Climb Ev’ry Mountain. Edward Harrison plays both the gruff and the sensitive sides of the Captain very well; and there are superb supporting performances from Wendy Ferguson and Julia J Nagle as Sisters Berthe and Margaretta, and Emma Williams as Elsa.

Rolf and LieslI wasn’t entirely sure about Ako Mitchell’s performance as Max; he came across as very showbiz and brash, soh doh!rather than shifty and unprincipled. Lauren Conroy looks a tiny bit old for Liesl, but she still has that necessary childish charm; and Dylan Mason’s Rolf is earnest and protective – and a superb dancer. I think we saw the Green Team of children, and they were all terrific.

Powerful, emotional and fantastically musical, this is a very good production that would certainly suit a transfer in due course.


Production photos by Manuel Harlan

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Edinburgh Fringe 2023 – It’s a Wrap!

Edinburgh Fringe 2023We arrived on 1st August and we left on the 29th. During that time we saw 145 shows, which was just six less than I had planned but was thirteen more than last year – so I’m very pleased with that number. According to the step count on the phone, we racked up about 184 miles of walking during the month – no wonder I didn’t put any weight on!

Here’s a quick reminder of the 4 and 5 star shows we saw, by star rating and in date order of when we saw them:


Jesus Jane Mother and Me

In Loyal Company

Glenn Moore


Ben Target – Lorenzo

Diana the Untold and Untrue Story


An Interrogation

Public the Musical


Gertrude Lawrence: A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening

Sophie’s Surprise 29th

Yoga with Jillian

Nuclear Children

The Trials of Galileo

Nobody’s Talking About Jamie

The Quality of Mercy: Life and Times of Harold Shipman

Tarot (Work in Progress)

The Life Sporadic of Jess Wildgoose

I Wish My Life Were Like a Musical

Paved With Gold and Ashes

Why I Stuck a Flare up my Arse for England

Adam Flood Remoulded

Mark Thomas: Gaffa Tapes

The Rite of Spring/Common Ground[s] (EIF)

The Court

A Chorus Line

The Good Dad (A Love Story)


Sooz Kempner: Y2K Woman

Frank Skinner: 30 Years of Dirt

Alvin Ailey Company (EIF)


Chopped Liver and Unions

Robin Grainger: An Audient with Robin Grainger

Ahir Shah: Ends



Spin Cycles

Jon Culshaw: Impostor Syndrome

One Way Out

17 Minutes

Showgirls and Spies

Bill’s 44th

Alan Turing – A Musical Biography

Alison Skilbeck’s Uncommon Ground

Pear but Braver

Ay Up Hitler!

The Academy Trust

Bitter Lemons


Raising Kane

The Way Way Deep

Andrew Frank: Ecstatic Blasphemy


Giving the Gift of Offence with Martin Rowson

In Conversation with Jack Monroe

Olaf Falafel: Look What Fell out of my Head

Letter to Boddah

The Last Flapper

Best Comedy Show at the Edinburgh Fringe (Ben Clover)

Perfect Pairing: A Wine Tasting Dancegustation

The Stall

Frank Sanazi’s Comedy Blitzkrieg

Long Long Long Live

Kevin Precious – The Reluctant Teacher

Joe Wells: King of the Autistics

Darren Walsh: 3rd Rock from the Pun

Mary Bourke – 200% Irish

Rob Auton: The Rob Auton Show

Marlon Solomon: How to be an Antisemite

Shenanigan’s Cabaret

Burning Down the Horse


Do Rhinos Feel Their Horns?


Pressure Cooker

Being Sophie Scholl

Dane Baptiste: Bapsquire



Congratulations to all these great shows. As to working out which of them are the absolute best – you’ll have to wait until the Chrisparkle Awards for 2023 are announced in January!

And thank you, gentle reader, for sticking with me throughout this busy month! My viewing/reading statistics have gone through the roof and are over twice the numbers who checked out my reviews at the 2022 Fringe – so thank you very much for that. Remember – reviews are only what one person thinks, they’re purely a personal reaction. And star ratings are even more unreliable!

Now it’s back to “ordinary” theatre reviewing – although theatre should never be “ordinary”!

Edinburgh Fringe 2023 Reviews (final day) – Appraisal, Groomed, Njambi McGrath: OutKast, William Thompson: The Hand You’re Dealt and 1984.

Appraisal, Assembly George Square Studios.

It’s Nicky’s annual work appraisal, but the boss seems more interested in practising his golf swing than putting in the appropriate preparation. You can tell from her body language that she’s not comfortable with his managerial style, but she goes along with it. Before long it becomes apparent that both characters have their own agenda, but which one will end up holding all the cards? Tim Marriott plays the boss in his own play and it’s a nicely underplayed, quiet, slightly unsettling performance; and Angela Bull plays Nicky, barely able to contain her annoyance and disdain for her manager. It’s an enjoyable play, perhaps slightly unbelievable that an appraisal would actually develop in the way that it does, but I did like the way it exposed how a bad boss can gaslight his employees by denying almost everything he has said – it’s just like the current government! Also, a complete hats-off to Tim Marriott for carrying on whilst suffering from a nosebleed for the first half of the show; that must have been tremendously difficult to manage but he was a super trouper!


Groomed, Pleasance Dome.

GroomedPatrick Sandford’s personal account of a childhood blighted by sexual abuse at the hands of his teacher; a blight that has never really gone away. It’s a very powerful and impressive piece of writing, and a very emotional performance; particularly memorable when he attempts to get into the mind of his own abuser and “justifies” his actions, as well as remembering himself as a boy wondering if it’s his own dirtiness that has somehow caused it. I had no idea that childhood sexual abuse is as prevalent as it is – he tells us it’s estimated that it happens to one in four children in Ireland, and in the UK one in three girls and one in six boys. What is particularly impressive is Mr Sandford’s drive to find a positive solution to the problem, to try to prevent paedophiles from committing their crimes by offering them non-judgemental, thoroughly professional counselling in an attempt to deter them from carrying out their sexual desires. There’s a helpful musical contribution from a saxophonist which both breaks up the tension and punctuates it, as well as revealing how Adolphe Sax also survived his childhood against all the odds. A memorable and important contribution to our understanding of paedophilia and the appalling scars it leaves.

Njambi McGrathNjambi McGrath: OutKast, Gilded Balloon Teviot.

Njambi McGrath was born in Kenya but now lives in London, and she takes us through the perils of colonisation and points out some humorous observations of what the British did to her homeland, whilst never losing sight of the seriousness of the issue. There’s some very good material here – and there’s also quite a lot to make a native Brit feel uncomfortable. She’s a strong storyteller with an excellent stage presence; perhaps the overall effect of the hour is that it’s a little too intense – there’s not a lot of light and shade, or an opportunity to take in and reflect on her observations before moving on to the next one. But it’s an entertaining show and I for one am not going to complain about white western privilege.


William Thompson: The Hand You’re Dealt, Pleasance Courtyard.

William ThompsonWilliam Thompson has cerebral palsy and this show deals with how the condition affects him and the extent to which it affected his upbringing. But it’s not a sorrowful story of having to survive the hand you’re dealt, it’s a positive meander through a Belfast childhood, his caring adopted mum, his belligerent dad and his rough and ready schooldays. He has a terrific attacking style and some excellent original material. The show needs a bit more of a final punch, but he’s a likeable lad and he connects really well with his audience. Lots to laugh at and to recognise!



1984, Assembly Roxy.

1984The appropriately named Proletariat Productions’ 1984 takes Orwell’s novel and specifically concentrates on Winston Smith’s imprisonment and punishment at the hands of the self-styled Ministry of Love, including his treatment in his own Room 101. It certainly serves to disturb and terrify its audience with some ruthless stage-torture, although the excessive amount of the story that’s told on film – that you feel could be even better performed live on stage – outweighs the live action, so that it feels a rather lopsided and unbalanced presentation. The filmed content is also quite low quality (deliberately so, I feel) in order to add to the sense of detachment and unreality. So while it’s fairly successful at conveying some of Orwell’s message, it’s not that successful in providing that buzz that only a live theatrical event can create. Excellent live performances though – there’s no doubting the cast’s commitment to the production.


The Edinburgh Fringe All Month Long – 28th August 2023

And we come to our final day of the Fringe! What have got left in store to see today?

Here’s the schedule for 28th August:

11.35 – Appraisal, Assembly George Square Studios. From the Edinburgh Fringe website:

“An annual work review that goes horribly wrong. Jo needs to appraise Nicky. Nicky just wants to keep working. A power play of manipulation, subtext and subterfuge, ‘a tense relatable thriller’ (, exploring explosive consequences arising out of a seemingly innocent conversation. Written by Tim Marriott (Watson: The Final Problem). Returning after sold-out seasons at Edinburgh Fringe 2022 and Adelaide Fringe 2023. ‘A convoluted maze with humorous, dramatic punch’ ***** ( ‘A terrific play, disturbingly realistic’ ***** ( ‘Intelligent and incisive… utterly captivating’ ***** ( ‘A classically structured two-hander that captures the unjustifiable’ **** (Scotsman).”

A last minute change of plan as our original choice of show has been cancelled due to sickness. Hopefully this will be good!

13.30 – Groomed, Pleasance Dome.

Groomed“How can a truth be told? How can a secret be spoken? Three true stories of survival. A schoolboy is kept back by his teacher, a Japanese soldier won’t surrender and an accident-prone young Belgian invents the saxophone. Fast, powerful, gripping storytelling with live saxophone music. ‘Astonishing… unmissable’ **** (Guardian). ‘Remarkable, brave, inquiring theatre’ **** (Financial Times). ‘One of the most moving pieces I have seen’ (Sandi Toksvig). Winner: three Outstanding Theatre Awards, Brighton Fringe. Finalist: Best Male Performer, Off West End Awards. Written and performed by Patrick Sandford. Directed by Nancy Meckler. Composer Simon Slater.”

This sounds like an unusual combination of themes, but let’s give it a go!

15.00 – Njambi McGrath: OutKast, Gilded Balloon Teviot.

Njambi McGrath“Njambi McGrath is an OutKast. Lured by British colonial PR, Njambi studied prose, poetry, Shakespeare and watched Downtown Abbey in preparation for arrival in the UK. Then she arrived in Staines. The rest is her-story. Product of British colonial kiln unable to fit in. Ridiculed for her accent at boarding school, kicked out of choir at 8 for ruining the harmonies, Njambi’s life should have been a failure. Not even her rejection in modelling for being black or being too short to be an air hostess could quash her enthusiasm. She’s living it large in Staines.”

I’ve never seen Njambi McGrath before, but I like the sound of her story – hope she’s funny!

17.30 – William Thompson: The Hand You’re Dealt, Pleasance Courtyard.

William Thompson“William Thompson (BBC New Comedy Awards finalist 2021, as seen and heard on Dave, Channel 4 and BBC Scotland) is a rising star from Belfast. Growing up disabled on a Northern Irish council estate, where people aren’t known to be sympathetic, William struggled with living with his grandparents, relationships and stereotypes; trying his best to make the most out of the hand he was dealt. Co-host of The Mudblood Podcast, regular guest on Tea With Me, support for Shane Todd and Paddy McDonnell on tour, and has sold-out shows across the UK.”

A late substitution as the show I had originally booked to see cancelled this final day of the Fringe – yes, Luke Kempner, I’m looking at you! But it gives us an opportunity to see someone new and I’ve seen William Thompson on video and he seems excellent – so, fingers crossed!

18.55 – 1984, Assembly Roxy.

1984“A chilling new retelling of George Orwell’s seminal novel. Live action and filmed image combine to reimagine 1984 as a ghost story as the feverish recollections of Comrade 6079 Winston Smith play out after thinking a thought and falling in love. Winston lies alone in a cell in the Ministry of Love, arrested by the Party for thoughtcrime. Imprisoned for weeks, or months, his mind races with feverish recollections of the events leading up to his arrest. Thoughts of the Party, of Big Brother, of Julia, torture him. But the real torture is about to begin.”

I count myself a big Orwell fan although I don’t know 1984 as well as I should, so I shall be very interested to see this adaptation. And that’s an Edinburgh wrap!

Check back later to see how we enjoyed all these shows!

Edinburgh Fringe 2023 Reviews – Chopped Liver and Unions, Alex Something is Missing Again, Lie Low, Robin Grainger: An Audient with Robin Grainger, and Eddy MacKenzie and Liam Farrelly: Little and Large.

Chopped Liver and Unions, The Space on the Mile.

Chopped Liver and UnionsBlue Fire Theatre Company tell the story of Sara Wesker, an early twentieth century union activist, and more of a “bloody difficult woman” than Theresa May could ever aspire to be. She takes us through her experiences leading strikes in the clothing and fabric workshops of the East End, demanding equal rights and equal pay for women doing the same work as men. Her nephew Arnold Wesker was the famous playwright and Sarah Kahn in his play Chicken Soup with Barley is based on his aunt. J J Leppink’s play is beautifully written and structured, and features a fine performance from Lottie Walker as Sarah. Stirring stuff, and thoroughly entertainingly presented. It makes you want to find out more about what Sara Wesker achieved – and also to re-read The Wesker Trilogy to see a fictionalised version. Electrically exciting – and it keeps alive a story that should never be forgotten.

Alex Something Is Missing Again! PBH’s Free Fringe @ Pilgrim.

Alex KouvatasA mixture of magic and therapy from Alex Kouvatas, which includes a few very good tricks, and some clever sleight of hand. The title of the show makes, in my humble opinion, no sense at all! It’s presented in a very gentle, quiet style, and, whilst the show never really soared, there was plenty to be wowed by. The T-shirt trick is the best!


Lie Low, Traverse Theatre.

Lie LowA woman stands alone, bewildered, in her room. Then the wardrobe door opens and a man with a duck’s mask joins her for a Strictly Come Dancing style performance of 42nd Street. We laugh – because it’s a superb moment of theatrical surrealism. But I think it’s safe to say we’re in somebody’s fantasy world at this stage. The trouble is, Ciara Elizabeth Smyth’s play deliberately makes it impossible to tell where the fantasy stops and the reality begins – if, indeed, either of them ever do. Faye tells her doctor she cannot sleep. She says she was attacked a year earlier and sexually assaulted, and he advises her to try exposure therapy. Then her brother Naoise arrives, out of the blue, and she asks him if he will jump out of the wardrobe at her, dressed as a duck. Despite his protestations, he does this three times. But he has his own agenda – he has been accused of sexual misconduct at work and wants his sister to write a character reference for him. All of this – or none of this – or some of this – might be true. I found this ambiguity very tiresome. In my view it never really achieves anything more than a few cheap laughs over someone blackmailing another person to show them their genitals. I absolutely hated this play – but the 70 minutes is redeemed by two superlative performances from Charlotte McCurry and Thomas Finnegan.

Robin Grainger: An Audient with Robin Grainger, The Stand Comedy Club 2.

Robin GraingerI’d never seen Robin Grainger before – but what a find! The title comes from his Edinburgh Fringe gig last year when one person showed up to his first night – Michael from Leicester, radio producer, gluten-intolerant, left-handed. The show refers to that formative experience of last year, but also takes in some brilliant, original material concerning his general awkwardness, his experiences at the gym, and the ins and outs of having to scatter the ashes of his late father. Robin Grainger has a very winning, honest style about him, and delivers his cracking gags with a mixture of sure-fired confidence and disarming charm. You can’t fake this level of likability. A magic hour of comedy.

Eddy MacKenzie and Liam Farrelly: Little and Large, The Stand Comedy Club 2.

MacKenzie and FarrellyYou’ve heard of a game of two halves? If ever this applied to a comedy gig, this was the one. The show opened with Eddy MacKenzie, an enthusiastic, jocular, guffawing presence with a guitar, who promised some Beatles parodies (he did one) and then promised some other comedy songs (he did one, but it wasn’t funny). I don’t think I’ve ever seen a comedian come on stage so completely devoid of material – it was genuinely painful. Then halfway through we switched to Liam Farrelly, a Paisley lad with bags of attitude and brilliant stories, from taking his daughter to baby ballet to acquiring four guinea pigs – and I don’t think I’ve laughed so loudly at a routine as I did to that one for a very long time! A naturally gifted comedian who needs a full hour on his own. * for Eddy MacKenzie and ***** for Liam Farrelly equals:


Edinburgh Fringe 2023 Reviews – Mass Effect, Bacon, Nan Me and Barbara Pravi, Gold, Don Biswas – The Revolution will be Disorganised, and Tarot: Hive Mind.

Mass EffectMass Effect, Summerhall.

Himherandit Productions’ Mass Effect is a bizarre show in many ways. Five performers stand with their backs to us, then one by one turn, smile, and start a gentle swaying dance. Actually, the first part of the show isn’t really dance – it’s more like a running-around workout. As the workout becomes more intense and faster, the performers start calling out numbers – and there’s no significance nor sequence to them, so remembering those numbers whilst moving more and more frenetically must be a huge challenge to their mental coordination as well as stamina. But it also seems pointless; and, about halfway through, there were a few walkouts. However, something clicks and the show changes dramatically; 1) the five performers are joined on stage by at least ten others, suddenly appearing from the back of the stage, the auditorium exit doors, and even the audience – 2) the workout transforms into something more like dancersize and 3) the five performers all take their clothes off – as do some of the other new performers. The music and the action get much more frenzied so that at the end we’re witnessing some kind of exhausting, manic, naked Bacchanale. You can’t fault the performers for their commitment, their energy, their stamina, and the precision of their movements. However, I’m a bit more uncertain about the why rather than the how. I also think this is the first time that I’ve seen a performance that includes nudity where they remain naked for the curtain call and the after-show speeches. Definitely skilful, definitely brave, and definitely bizarre.


Bacon, Summerhall.

BaconMark is working in the cafe when he spots Darren watching him, which brings back all the horrors of their friendship four years ago, when Mark was a rather naive 15-year-old schoolboy and Darren was the streetwise and brash guy, who eventually became his friend. But that friendship takes a terrible turn for the worse when their mutual attraction becomes stronger and neither of them is grown-up enough to know how to deal with it – and Darren reacts in the worst possible way. Sophie Swithinbank’s fantastic play is gripping from the start and has two superb performances from Corey Montague-Sholay as Mark and William Robinson as Darren. Written with just the right blend of humour and sheer ghastliness, and simply, but intriguingly, set on a see-saw, this is one of those productions that will keep coming back again and again.

Nan, Me and Barbara Pravi, Summerhall.

Nan Me and Barbara PraviHannah Maxwell’s one-woman show takes us back to the night in 2021 when Barbara Pravi represented France at Eurovision with the glorious song Voila, which also happened to be the moment when Hannah Maxwell decided she was deeply in love with Barbara Pravi. Two stories sit side by side. Half of the show relates to Hannah supporting her Nan whilst her Grandad was dying – and their general life together during this period and in the future. The other part of the show relates to Hannah stalking La Pravi online and in person at her Cadogan Hall concert. It’s a very charming entertainment, and Hannah has a terrific stage presence – she reminded me a little of the young Victoria Wood – but it does feel a little inconsequential and slight. Nice performance of Voila at the end!


Gold, The Space on the Mile.

GoldIf you were around at the time – 1983 – I’m sure you’ll remember the Brinks-Mat robbery – one of the boldest in history, when £26 million was stolen from a warehouse. Most of the gold has never been recovered; but what if there was a little guy involved in it whom all the big hitters forgot – and who has been sitting on the gold all this time? Stafford Collett’s comedy about a rather grumpy couple, Julie and Dave, takes this as its central idea and it’s quite a good idea. However, the play itself is very disappointing, with lengthy sequences of 80s music padding that don’t contribute to the story at all, and there’s also a sequence of “comedy” domestic violence which is always a personal turn-off for me. If this couple saw The Lavender Hill Mob at the cinema as they claim, they’d be at least 90 years old by now – which they’re palpably not. A great idea, but the execution was wanting in virtually all departments.

Don Biswas – The Revolution Will Be Disorganised, Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose.

Don BiswasThe Revolution Will Be Disorganised because Don Biswas sets himself up as the leader of the revolution – which we the audience are perfectly happy about – but, as he tells us, he has autism, dyspraxia and ADHD so it will be unavoidably something of a disaster. He starts the show by recruiting members of the audience to his revolution, ascertaining what we will bring to the revolution. I offered my project management skills. Don Biswas is a naturally funny guy and very likeable to boot, and he has a lot of excellent and original material. However, I get uneasy when a comedian unexpectedly goes down the route of conspiracy theories without obviously taking the mick out of them – and I fear Mr. Biswas lost the room when he started talking about all the reasons lockdown was wrong – and you sense this was from personal anger rather than comedic material. He’s left-wing but believes there is more that unites us all than divides us – and if he said that once, he said it a dozen times, and that repetition became a bit tough to endure at the end.


Tarot: Hive Mind, Pleasance Courtyard.

Tarot Hive MindLots to appreciate here but as a late-night show with this particular title, it was only partially successful. The basis of the game works well; two teams headed by two guest comedians each have to answer a set of questions. The comedian knows the question but the audience doesn’t; and the comedian has to whittle down the audience members to just one person whom they think will know the answer to the question. They do this by asking roundabout, oblique questions to the audience who keep their paddles in the air until they feel they have been eliminated. It sounds a little confusing, but it isn’t. It’s a good game, and a fun show, but there are two problems. 1) As soon as you, the audience member, are eliminated from the game you lose a degree of interest in the proceedings – it would be much better if all the audience members could still answer the question and some sort of prize or entry to the final round is awarded for anyone who gets the answer 100% correct. 2) Although it’s billed as Tarot – Hive Mind, the Tarot team actually play a very side role in this, they are only operating the microphone, occasionally playing the piano or confirming the answers on the Internet – it’s a terrible waste of their physical comedic talent. The show is actually hosted by Kiri Pritchard-Maclean, who is brilliant, but it actually becomes her show rather than Tarot’s – and if you were hoping for a lot of Tarot-type comedy, you’ll be disppointed.