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london theatre reviews

New Diorama Theatre – Borges and I

Have I read anything by Borges?  I consulted my bookshelf. Given the mauled state of the book I found, yes, I have. “One of the greatest writers of the 20th Century” the cover notes tell me – I probably should have read more. Like a student who hasn’t done his homework I approached the New Diorama Theatre, a pleasant oasis amidst the towering cut glass financial institutions it nestles in the shadows of. “Boor-jey?”, “Boar –ga?”. The programme includes a reading list, oh dear.

The New Diorama is a production company led theatre that tries to give fledgling outfits like Idle Motion, the creators of Borges and I, the infrastructure and resources to make great theatre.

And if Borges and I is anything to go by they are doing an excellent job. The production by Idle Motion was a beautifully thought out ensemble piece. The use of wonderfully choreographed physical theatre, projected imagery and a constantly transmogrifying set combined to produce vivid vignettes of Borges life. These were offset by a contemporary love story built around an everyday British book group that kept the play grounded and accessible.

New Diorama Theatre - Borges and I

Although these two narrative strands worked well together with the action passing seamlessly from one story to another I did sometimes wish we could spend more time in Borges bucolic world than that of the quotidian book group. That being said the company’s clear creative amity did produce many excellent comic moments with Grace Chapman’s performance as Hilary, the authoritarian leader of the reading club, proving to be particularly funny.

New Diorama Theatre - Borges and I

The show received an excellent reception at the Edinburgh fringe this year and not without good reason. This is a company that had put in the hours developing this work and the result is a performance that is a bittersweet homage to the power of the written word, and the quiet solace a book can bring.

I left the theatre and passed beneath the bright banking lights again, itching to pick up a book, and revel in the glorious power of a well turned phrase.

By Nick Rushton

New Diorama Theatre is an 80 seat theatre based just off Regent’s Park in the heart of central London. Unique in the capital for our development and support of emerging and established theatre companies, in our first two years we welcomed close to 30,000 audience members to theatre productions, readings and other events.

Idle Motion creates highly visual theatre that places human stories at the heart of its work. Integrating creative and playful stagecraft with innovative video projection and beautiful physicality, its productions are humorous, evocative and sensitive pieces of theatre.

From small beginnings, having met at school, the company has grown rapidly over the past six years, producing five shows that have toured both nationally and internationally. Its collaborative relationship is at the centre of all that it does, and it is proud to be an Associate Company at The New Diorama, The Lowry and the Oxford Playhouse. Idle Motion is a young company with big ideas, and a huge passion for creating exciting and beautiful new work.

Borges and his legacy

Arcola theatre dalston london

Unexpectedly recognising something is a powerful experience – spotting someone in the street that looks like a friend or accidentally catching your own reflection can be deeply affecting, and this seems to be magnified triggered by a work of art. In the exceptionally well-observed Visitors these moments are frequent but subtle enough not to be overly sentimental, making for an incredibly moving piece of theatre.

London Theatre Review - Visitors at the ArcolaImage  Mark Douet

This begins before the play even starts, with the stage set with the footstools, rug and crossword books that are standard issue for any elderly relative. Arthur and Edie, the elderly couple at the heart of the drama, also reminisce and bicker in a way that provides touchstones for anyone who has spent time with their grandparents, whilst also presenting their individual experience. This opening, with its snatched pieces of memory mixed with current worries accentuated by Edie’s accelerating dementia, echoes Beckett. Here, however, Godot does arrive, in the shape of young home help volunteer Kate. This sets in motion a gradual unravelling of family tensions and a debate about care for the elderly.

Writer Barney Norris has described increasing life expectancy as one of the greatest challenges faced by Middle England, and the questions he poses here – in his first full-length play – feel timely and important. It is a noble undertaking, tainted only by the difficulty posed by his tackling this subject as a young man. Norris writes Arthur and Edie beautifully, but the deep, unquestioned love and easy conversation sometimes feel saccharine. Norris clearly recognises this, and has Arthur address the problem in an early scene by explaining to Kate that the couple don’t often talk that much, and that they are just excited about her arrival. Nevertheless, because we don’t actually see these everyday silences, Visitors, despite its depiction of dementia, can occasionally seem like a rose-tinted view of the old age that we might wish for our relatives and ourselves.

London Theatre Review - Visitors at the Arcola

Image  Mark Douet

This issue is mitigated entirely, however, by breath-taking performances from Linda Bassett as Edie and Robin Soans as Arthur. Their love never feels anything less than genuine, and Edie’s illness is played with great sensitivity. Because of how adoring they are, it is slightly baffling that they have managed to produce such odious offspring as Stephen, played with an uncomfortably tense gawkiness by Simon Muller. It is difficult to feel sympathy for him, even as he delivers a great set piece of a joke that falls completely flat, highlighting the gulf between him an his father, or his increasingly apparent sadness. The only duff note is Muller’s tight-lipped Jimmy Carr-esque delivery of Stephen’s desperate one-liners, which, although clearly meant to grate, do so too successfully.

There is a slither of hope for Stephen, though: in the opening scene Arthur delivers an affectionately sarcastic “ho ho” in response to a comment from his wife; later, his son does the same. This verbal tic, passed down between generations, seems to be the one thing that father and son share, suggesting that if old age presents challenges of isolation and changes to the world that make it difficult to understand, at least we can pass down laughter and affection.

London Theatre Review - Visitors at the Arcola


Ben Rackstraw
London Theatre Reviewer

Catch Visitors till March 29 2014 at the Arcola Theatre

London Theatre Review – Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon

Our resident theatre critic Ben Rackstraw heads for the intimate theatre tucked away above the Drayton Arms pub to review a staging of Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon.

What is happening behind the windows that we walk past every day? What is hidden behind the blank faces of the people we walk by? Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon challenges us with some uncomfortable answers to these questions – so what better setting could there by for a new production than self-satisfied South Kensington?


The Golden Dragon of the title is a takeaway that serves as the springboard for a variety of stories, populated by the customers whose lives play out in and around the building that houses the restaurant. The most striking thing as the play opens, each of the five cast members chopping furiously in the kitchen, is that there are no Asian actors. This initially appears problematic – in a play ostensibly about the oppression of Asian immigrants, there are no Asian voices (Schimmelpfennig is German).

Roland_Schimmelpfennig play - london theatre review

Image Roland Schimmelpfennig. Wikipedia Creative Commons

However, as the play continues, two older actors play a young couple, men play women, women play men, and one male cast member plays a female grasshopper (more on that later). This playing with gender, age and race asks the audience to confront their expectations, and goes some way to excuse the all-white cast. This element of the play is attacked with enthusiasm, with Madlen Meyer’s controlled male aggression and Linus Karp’s uncomfortable female sexuality being played particularly well.

It is around half way through the play that the kaleidoscope of vignettes comes into focus, and it becomes clear that Asian economic migration is merely a device to explore general ideas about the effect of hegemony and power relationships. This is when this production really finds its feet. The first half drags a little, with some characterisation verging on caricature, but as the stories begin to interweave the actors discover a new energy, and this production really finds its feet.

 Roland_Schimmelpfennig play - london theatre review

Roland_Schimmelpfennig play - london theatre review

Images www.thedraytontheatre.co.uk

The failings of the first half are perhaps due to downplaying the play’s more shocking aspects. This work is a confrontational black comedy, but too often the comedy was played up and the drama played down – particularly in a poorly judged tin-foil tooth prop that renders a hilariously dark slapstick sequence just the wrong side of ridiculous. Towards the end the shocks came thick and fast, but they might have been better spaced.

One of the most effective threads is a disturbing twist on the fable of the ant and the grasshopper, which seems to ask how far we use stories to desensitise ourselves to the brutal reality of the world. The strange, long limbed physicality of Karp’s grasshopper communicates a terrible melancholy and shame that grows to fill the whole play. Even the restaurant scenes, played mostly for laughs, take on a sinister hue. Is the play of server and customer also a story? A lie that allows us to ignore cruelty and deprivation? This production poses that question subtly, showing how power imbalance can corrupt both the powerful and the powerless – although there is a hint of saccharine in the ending that feels slightly out of place.

brompton road london

Image The Wolf via Flickr

Walking back out into South Kensington, on to a street of takeaways and minicab firms, the power of The Golden Dragon is such that you can’t avoid thinking about what might be behind those curtained windows, but you worry that if you looked you might just see yourself reflected in the glass.

London Theatre Review -  Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon

Ben Rackstraw
London Theatre Reviewer

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Sweet Bird of Youth Review

You can see what other productions are playing at the Drayton Arms Theatre on Old Brompton Road at www.thedraytontheatre.co.uk

sweet bird of youth review

(Cover image Manuel Harlan) Sweet Bird of Youth – Tennessee Williams, The Old Vic, London.

This summer brings the revival of the tragic American raconteur – a figure hiding his past through the combination of cynical manipulation and wilful self-delusion, enjoying an overblown lifestyle until the edifice crumbles around them. Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby explores the lavish ends to which a character will go to create the illusion, but this production of Tennessee Williams’ 1959 play far better highlights the tragedy at its end.

Instead of West Egg we have St. Cloud, the quintessential Southern town on the outskirts of New Orleans, and instead of Gatsby we have the aptly named Chance Wayne, who – after failing to become an actor, but succeeding in becoming a gigolo to the rich older women passing through Florida – has his last chance at redemption in his return to his hometown.

His aim is to win back the heart of childhood sweetheart Heavenly Finley with the help of one of those Florida women, once successful actress Alexandra Del Lago (the excellently cast Kim Catrell), who travels under the false name Princess Kosmonopolis. She represents his final opportunity to make something of himself through a studio contract he waves in the faces of the skeptical St. Cloud residents.

Alongside chancer Chance, Williams has adopted an almost Dickensian approach to names – played with enthusiastically by the production team. St. Cloud is a dream to Chance, and the set, with towering columns, bleached lighting and flowing drapes, reflects this. Similarly, Louise Dylan as Chance’s impossible Heavenly – first referred to as looking like a dead body as she lies on the beach – floats across the stage, either as merely a silhouette, or a wan, pixie-haired Ophelia. Del Lago, shares her name with Rossinni’s opera ‘La Donna Del Lago’. Williams In this work, the titular lady of the lake – daughter of King James’ sworn enemy, meets the King travelling under a false name, with their love resolving the conflict in the kingdom. Catrell is perfect here, capturing the melodrama of a constantly-performing faded superstar, and the perverse desperation of an addict.

sweet bird of youth reviewsweet bird of youth review

Images Manuel Harlan

It is clear from the wheezing coughs that introduce Del Lago that she is no saviour. This is the first sign of the lingering sense of death that is everywhere in this play – Heavenly’s introduction, a threat hanging over Chance, and Del Lago’s view of her career. In Gatsby was are shown that death can, temporarily at least, be beaten by fast living. Here it cannot. The difference is that Gatsby shows the temporary defeat of class restrictions through the illusion of wealth, whereas The Sweet Bird of Youth shows the impossibility of avoiding the transition into adulthood. If the bright lights and ostentation of Gatsby jarred, this production could be the perfect antidote.

sweet bird of youth review


Ben Rackstraw
London Theatre Reviewer


Sweet Bird of Youth is Showing at the Old Vic till 31 August 2013. Buy tickets from Official London Theatre 


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