Barbara Hughes-Moore

Review Mischief Movie Night, New Theatre Cardiff by Barbara Hughes Moore

Starring the original cast and creators of the critically-acclaimed The Play That Goes Wrong, Mischief Movie Night is yet another improvisational show, which this time involves improvising an entire movie onstage and off the cuff.

The central conceit of the show is that we, the audience, control the performance – it’s our suggestions for genres, titles and locations that dictate what goes on onstage, and the ensemble cast must employ their considerable talents to realise the barrage of random demands yelled at them from the stalls in the moment.

I have to admit that I was rather sceptical and a little scared as I sat down to watch my very first long-form improv stage show. You see, the fear of audience participation has haunted me ever since my first traumatic pantomime experience at age 5. And yet, five minutes in to Mischief Movie Night, I was merrily shouting out genres along with the rest of the raucous audience!

The true joy of the improv show is that every performance is unique – you will quite literally never see it’s like again, because each one depends on the whim and the wants of its particular audience on a particular night. So I can’t comment on the quality of plot or characters, because they are ever-changing – but to give you a little taste of what Mischief Movie Night may entail, last night’s performance ended up being a Disney film set in Pontpandy, which featured chainsaw juggling, police propaganda and an anthropomorphic lasagne who talked like Sylvester Stallone. You know, your standard Disney fare.

It’s no wonder that Mischief Theatre has become so nationally and internationally beloved – the ensemble cast is superb across the board, catering to every silly request and daft diversion that’s demanded of them. Dave Hearn, Henry Shields, Ellie Morris and Charlie Russell were particular standouts, and Harry Kershaw was responsible for one of the show’s most hilarious running gags about not getting above your station. Jonathan Sayer gamely leads proceedings as a Gruff Rhys Jones-esque master of ceremonies in whose vast library is contained, so he says, every film ever made. Sayer guides us through the night’s entertainment, wryly commenting on the increasingly chaotic proceedings and making progressively silly demands of the cast who enthusiastically attempt to comply.

Often, these things don’t go off with the precision of a studio picture – and that’s why they are so much fun to watch. Much like Starkid – purveyors of peppy parodies about everything from Harry Potter to Pangea – the joy of Mischief Movie Night is seeing the performers tackle big ideas equipped not with fancy sets and special effects, but with skill and imagination only.  In many ways, the show possesses the same frenetic, joyful energy, cineliterate references and talented ensemble cast as Horrible Histories, a compliment I wouldn’t give lightly. And even with the random onslaught of events onstage, the team manage to bring things to a surprisingly coherent climax, in which twists are revealed and happy endings are tied up in a neat (if slightly battered) bow.

Mischief Movie Night is yet another feather in Mischief Theatre’s increasingly crowded and critically-acclaimed cap. The same creative team will be bringing The Comedy About a Bank Robbery to the New Theatre on its UK tour in the autumn, and I can’t wait to see what they come up with next! Until that rolls around, do yourself a favour and see Mischief Movie Night – what could go wrong?

Barbara Hughes-Moore

Sherlock Holmes: The Final Curtain, New Theatre Cardiff

We grow up with our heroes, and they grow with us; when we are young, they seem like giants, gods – incomparable, unbeatable, undefeated. But legends fade and heroes grow old. They even die, sometimes. In The Final Curtain (a new play presented by Theatre Royal Bath Productions and Kenny Wax), even the great Sherlock Holmes is fading; slower, frailer, more frayed at the edges, as he faces the phantoms of mystery and mortality – and its one of the best theatre experiences I’ve ever had.

Companionably estranged from his partner in crime/ life, Dr John Watson, a retired Sherlock Holmes (Robert Powell) is living out his twilight years on the South coast of England, with bees to keep, and rheumatism and paranoia to keep at bay. His adventure-less existence is thrown into disarray when a figure from his past re-emerges: Mary Watson (Liza Goddard), the estranged wife of his dear Doctor, who claims to have seen visions of her long-dead son James in 221B Baker Street, and wants Sherlock out of retirement and on the case.

The story is beautifully, intricately crafted by writer Simon Reade; the language is elegant and artful, and Reade captures the heart, soul and style of these iconic characters whilst also holding the audience in delicious suspense right to the very last second. The title, The Final Curtain, evokes another literary sleuth’s final investigation – namely, Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, by Agatha Christie. Both Poirot and Holmes’ final cases are filled with melancholy meditations on their lives and careers, and whether they were right to sacrifice their own potential happiness for the good of Queen and Country. After all, their deeds are history, and their godliness is tarnished by the undeniable proof of their mortality.

Because Holmes isn’t as young and spritely as he used to be; he suffers from rheumatism, so much so that, with a heavy heart, he cannot play his beloved Stradivarius. and this is shown in stark relief by one of the most subtly heart-breaking exchanges of the play. With his iconic self-assured straightforwardness, Holmes informs the Lestrade-like policeman at a crime scene that he is familiar with 140 different types of tobacco; to which the officer replies, ‘Didn’t it use to be 220?’ In one interaction, Holmes is heartbreakingly marked out as being barely half the man he used to be.

The same cannot be said of the sensational Robert Powell, who, after a long and celebrated career, is at the very pinnacle of his acting prowess. His Holmes isn’t a performance as much as it is a complete inhabitation of the character, so natural that you really feel he has lived a whole life in Sherlock’s shoes. From the first moment he appears, in which he mischievously introduces himself as Sherlock Smith, Powell commands the stage with effortless elegance and a strength of purpose that grounds the character even as Holmes fears he is somewhat losing his touch. His interactions with Roy Sampson’s superb, sophisticated Mycroft were particularly touching; they inhabit the classic characters so fully, so intricately, that I quite forgot I was watching a play and felt as though I truly was observing an actual conversation between two real brothers.

As a lifelong fan of Doyle’s detective duo, I am always very particular about how Dr Watson is portrayed; the danger is that he has the potential to fall somewhere on the extreme ends of the scale, being alternately portrayed either as a priggish grump (like Ian Hart in BBC’s 2002 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles) or as a bumbling idiot (like Nigel Bruce in Basil Rathbone’s series of Holmes movies in the 1930s/40s). Happily, then, that Timothy Knightley portrays a wonderfully avuncular, earnest and sweet take on the character that is true to the spirit of Dr Watson, whilst amusingly emphasising his pulpy over-dramatization of his and Holmes’ cases. Seeing Holmes and Watson side by side, in the flesh, was a real treat, and their interactions – and it’s adorable that, even after all this time, Watson is still falling for Holmes’s disguises.

Although Holmes and Watson only infrequently share the stage, their relationships forms a huge part of the tale – as ever it should. No explicit reason is given for the duo’s relative estrangement, though it’s heavily implied that the cracks began to form when Watson got married and started his own family. Although Watson contributes little cerebral value to their investigations that Holmes does not already possess – other than his medical training and military experience – Watson’s primary role is as Holmes’ chronicler and humaniser. And, more than that, Watson is the beating human heart to Holmes’ more clinical mind.

Though there is a Watson who can match Sherlock beat for beat in terms of intellect and eloquence: Mary, wonderfully played by Liza Goddard, who is definitely not a member of the Sherlock Holmes fan club. Goddard, famous for more comedic roles, thrives in the complex, dramatic character of Mary Watson, who isn’t afraid to confront Holmes with his demons and his duty. Mary points out that the only mystery Holmes couldn’t solve was marriage; and although Watson perceived himself as primarily a ‘whetstone for Holmes’ mind’, Mary observes that Holmes’ relationship with Watson – ‘my Watson’, as he refers to him at one point – was more a marriage than hers ever was. The full extent of their affection – fraternal, romantic, spiritual – is left for us to decide.

Deftly and dynamically directed by David Grindley, the drama zips along at a deceptively breakneck pace, and I was genuinely shocked when the curtain fell to signal the end of act 1. As important as the impassioned speeches and melancholy monologues are, Grindley isn’t afraid to let the quiet moments linger – one of the most tense, characterful and gripping parts of the play is the scene in which Powell’s Holmes calmly and methodically puts on a dressing gown and adjusts the chairs in his room. Really. It’s but a microcosm of this production’s talents across the board.

The splendid set was cannily designed by Jonathan Fensom to make the titular curtain central to the story both metaphorically and literally, swathed as it is in dark green drapes and featuring just enough props to suggest such diverse locations as a 1920s BBC recording studio, a lush London park, and Holmes’ private beach. Jason Taylor’s excellent lighting and Gregory Clarke’s evocative sound design really brought the sets to life, making forests and oceans out of the minimalist scenery. Between each scene, the curtains would be drawn across the stage, revealing new locations with the effortless artistry of a magic trick. The first reveal of 221B’s Baker Street’s elegantly ramshackle bachelor pad was, for a Holmes fan, just like stepping into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, and seeing it brought to life on the stage in such a way was profoundly emotional – even more so when Holmes and Watson were reunited in their purgatorial paradise.

The play grapples with heavy themes of legacy, responsibility, and the changing times – how it feels to grow old, when one has lived such a life as Holmes has, and where one fits into the ever-evolving landscape of modern life. 221B Baker Street has been irrevocably changed by the time Holmes finally returns to it, filled with a messy juxtaposition of past (represented by the Renaissance-era paintings Mary hangs on the wall) and the future (represented by the electronic doorbell Miss Hudson recently had installed). A disguised Holmes even poses the question ‘Who needs a god when you have a gadget?’, vocalising our present-day fears about the increasing indispensability of technology in our daily lives. Holmes and Watson are pre-analogue relics in an analogue age, obstinately clinging to the past, mistrustful of the new technologies and mindsets. But, it’s the bringing together of the old and the new that solves the mystery and brings closure. And yet, in a chilling final scene, the play refuses to fully give us that closure we crave; the final mystery, the lingering questions, are ours to ponder as the titular curtains falls for the final time.

And for all you horror fans out there, there are some seriously Gothic undertones that lend an entertainingly unearthly quality to proceedings. The world’s only consulting detective is called onto examine his own demons as well as investigating the possibility that some supernatural shenanigans are afoot. The name of Professor James Moriarty surfaces more than once, a spectre of Sherlock’s greatest adversary, and There’s also a fair bit of doubling, one of the most effective uses of which comes quite early on and which was so well done it really has to be seen in person. Mary Watson visits Holmes’ seaside abode to see him lounging in a sun chair near his bee hives – only to realise it’s not Holmes at all, but a waxwork duplicate. As the scene goes on, the double sits in the chair between Holmes and Mary, eerily present and unmoving. Does it represent Holmes now, stagnating and useless in his retired life? Or perhaps it represents the other Watson, the one Holmes has distanced himself from, but who remains a stalwart presence in Holmes’ mind? Or does it represent James, the Watsons’ dearly departed son, for whose death his parents are locked in a frozen state of perpetual grief? Again, the play entrusts these questions to its audience, for them alone to judge and decide.

The play likewise leaves the question of heroism up to us: does the intent or the action make you heroic? The short term successes, or the long term lessons? Holmes has always been an enigmatic, complex hero, and his incarnation here is no different. Now, more than ever, he is a hero for our times: the kind who, despite personal trauma and sorrow, keeps fighting the good fight against wickedness, and to hell with the odds.

Thrilling, enthralling and insightful, Sherlock Holmes: The Final Curtain is theatre as it should be. If you’re a Holmes fan, you’ll be enraptured by this new play; if you’re not, you’ll be swept along by the remarkably talented cast and crew the dynamic, haunting mystery at its heart.

Depot in the Castle 2018 by Barbara Hughes-Moore

Depot, self-branded as Cardiff’s most exciting original venue, certainly earns their creativity kudos (and then some) with a whole host of events from street food socials to pop-up secrets speakeasys and, since 2017, an annual music festival at Cardiff Castle. After having reviewed the wonderful line-up, but woeful organisation, of my first festival experience (last year’s Burning Lantern Fayre), I was looking forward to seeing how Depot in the Castle (DITC) fared with their sophomore festival – and I’m happy to report that it was a roaring success!

I was incredibly impressed by just how well the event was organised. A plethora of food stalls purveying everything from posh crepes to pizzas – it was dazzling to the eyes and ears, and also the tastebuds. Unlike Burning Lantern – where I only managed to procure a Danish pastry approximately seven hours in – the availability of food on offer here was astounding. After much deliberation, I plumped for curry and chips at That Fish Guy’s stall – I was served immediately, and can only commend their efficiency of service and high quality of food. The only queues in sight were, understandably, lining up to the bar (though with the amount of staff on hand, they were fast-moving and efficient), and at the ice-cream van. Il Gelataio’s artisan ice-cream was a highlight of the day, and the best gelato I’ve ever tasted – the 30 minute queue was in part due to their status as the only ice-cream vendors of the day, and in future I’d suggest they have at least two such stalls to reduce the wait-time.

The free water was also a huge plus – I wrongly assumed that it was available over the counter, so I initially had to shell out £2.50 for bottled water (though I’m not sure why they weren’t allowed to give out lids, leaving me carrying around a precariously un-lidded bottle all day). However, once I found the free water station, it was a life-saver – especially on such a gloriously sunny day – and an idea from which Burning Lantern would have benefited.

Depot also continues my personal trend of finding the penultimate performers to be the best acts of the festival. For Burning Lantern 2017, that was Jack Savoretti; for Depot in the Castle 2018, that honour goes to The Fratellis. Their debut album Costello Music was one of the first albums I ever bought, and hearing it again – live – was a full-on nostalgia trip. Sung by football fans and angsty teens alike, their iconic song Chelsea Dagger has mass appeal in the nifty universality of its one-word chorus – and the raucous refrains of ‘do do do, do do do, do do do do do do do’ (repeat ad infinitum) understandably had the crowd in raptures. Their set was the standout of the night, and every song was a winner – from the pretty little ditty Whistle for the Choir, to the bawdy belting of Henrietta, and the scat-like sound of Flathead’s gleeful gibberish chorus that could just as well be a modern update of The Beatles’ Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da.

Sister Sledge closed the night with an absolutely sensational, stylish set, bringing the house down with iconic tunes like Lost in Music, Thinking of You and He’s the Greatest Dancer (during the latter, they even brought up two people from the crowd to dance on stage, which was a lovely touch). And it was a special treat to see these legends closing out the festival with the incomparable We Are Family.  I have to also shout out their amazing band, who filled the festival with the most amazing music. Their joy in performing was matched only by the joy of the audience.

It was a real privilege to be able to see The Fratellis and Sister Sledge performing live in Cardiff, and a real coup for Depot to have secured them for the festival. However, I must say that they were the only musical acts worth seeing at the event. Hackney Colliery Band, while highly skilled musicians, didn’t fit the tone of the festival for me. And the only other music was pumped, pre-recorded, out of the speakers. Fleetmac Wood’s remixes only lessened the original songs; and Horsemeat Disco had a great playlist, but it didn’t come close to the quality, excitement or atmosphere of live music. Say what you will about Burning Lantern (and, believe me, I have), at least they had live music across the board throughout the entire event, on both the main stage and a separate acoustic stage. Holding the festival in St Fagans also provided Burning Lantern with a bigger, more picturesque location – though setting DITC 2018 in Cardiff Castle was a real treat. Unlike Burning Lantern, DITC’s site was accessible and well-signposted, and it was most helpful of them to release a setlist and site map prior to the event that made navigating the festival easy and enjoyable.

Depot in the Castle 2018 was a huge success, from the wonderful central location to the excellent organisation, delicious food with minimal queueing, and the two stellar headliners. However, the scarcity of live music was a disappointment, and I can only hope that the overall quality of the festival will entice more artists to perform live at Depot in the Castle 2019.

Review Turn of the Screw, New Theatre Cardiff by Barbara Hughes-Moore

Directed by Daniel Buckroyd, this new stage version of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw is a chilling tale of intrigue that keeps you guessing (and shuddering) long after the curtain falls. It follows the story of a young Governess in Victorian England who agrees to look after the niece and nephew of a charming but distant man. At first her new post seems idyllic, but it isn’t long before she discovers that the house is haunted – by secrets and spirits alike.

As I haven’t read the original novella, I can’t speak to the quality of translation from page to stage, but I can say how excellently the play, adapted by Tim Luscombe, was written – the interactions between characters gently but gradually simmering to boiling point, interspersed with the sporadic but scary appearances of disturbing apparitions. After having been underwhelmed by promised but undelivered scares in The Ghost’s Touch, it was refreshing to see a play which actually frightened the living daylights out of me. I generally have a very low threshold for jumpscares and the like (all of which is to say, I jump at the sight of my own shadow) but Turn of the Screw’s frights are earned and eerie, the creeping dread winding a turn at a time until the tension breaks with a bang (or a scream, as the occasion calls for). The opening moments set the scene perfectly – a rocking horse starts moving, seemingly all by itself, its creepy creaking the only sound in a fear-silenced auditorium. Its an image that Susan Hill skilfully incorporated into The Woman in Black, and in both mediums is just about the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen.

As the Governess, Carli Norris capably carries the show as our besieged heroine who finds herself wading through a mystical mire. She portrays a grounded, realistic, complex character who finds herself in a seemingly insurmountable situation. As the supporting characters – flesh and phantasm alike – grow stranger and stranger with each passing scene, Norris keeps the action from descending into caricature whilst also straying into strangeness when the plot demands. You’re completely invested in her character, even – or perhaps especially – as the unexplained oddities begin to pile up around her.

Annabel Smith has the tricky task of playing two polar opposite personalities, characters who could hardly be less alike. The transformation between the two isn’t always smooth, but Smith plays both characters with enthusiasm and verve. Smith’s Mrs Conray is the listener of the tale, demanding the Governess’ confession from a far-flung future; as such, Smith stands silent and still and sombre, a spectral figure who is almost as creepy as the ghosts which besiege the Governess – and the audience – throughout the play. The other character she portrays – well, you’ll just have to see the play to find out for yourself.

Michael Hanratty, credited only as The Man, plays a number of different characters, which between them represent a variety of different forms of masculinity. He plays the charming but apathetic uncle, the unusual nephew, as well as a good few ghosts. Norris and Hanratty are asked the most in terms of conveying complexity of character – in Hanratty’s case, conveying multiple complex characters – and create a fascinating dynamic between the Governess and the myriad male characters she meets through the course of the story. There are a lot of weird, unsettling, and possibly unnatural relationships that the cast craft throughout the drama, which the cast admirably strive (and often succeed) to lend credence to. And Maggie McCarthy channels Jane Eyre’s Grace Poole as Mrs Grose, a canny housekeeper who looks after the house and guards its secrets.

Having concluded that two was too few in terms of cast in The Ghost’s Touch, the four-strong cast here feels like the perfect number for a smaller show – some of the actors take on double or triple roles, others are on stage almost constantly. Given its Gothic nature, the play toys with the idea of doubling, duality, and the juxtaposition between the true self and the self one projects to the world. There are shades of light, darkness and grey in every character, particularly in the Governess herself, whose true character is left for you to decide even once the curtain falls. Of course, there are ghosts a go-go, as one would expect, but their inclusion is intellectual as well as insidious. Perhaps they are revenants of the past; perhaps they are figments of the imagination; perhaps they are a little of both. The action is adequately ambiguous to allow for any conclusion you come to.


The excellent acting across the board is enhanced by a truly spectacular set, wonderfully designed by Sara Perks – in psychoanalytical terms, I often read the location of a story as an external manifestation of the characters’ internal minds. Here, the off-kilter, slanted set evokes the odd, off-centre antics of its inhabitants; just looking at it makes you feel uneasy. Visually and thematically, it called to mind the warped altar during the climactic wedding scene in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, framing the characters in a twisted, unheimlich way. Matt Leventhall’s lighting and John Chambers’ music and sound effects also do a great deal to enhance the eerie quality of the play; the way the light plays on the sheet-covered furniture gives them a ghostly quality; and the windows lent themselves to some spine-chilling silhouettes at the denouement of the play. In addition, there is a fissure running through the boards, which lights up in fiendish orange at certain key points in the play, which not only heralds the arrival of a diabolical presence, but also looks like the gateway to some hellish dimension.

Scary and scintillating, Turn of the Screw proves itself to be just as gripping to modern audiences as it was to those of Henry James’ heyday. If you like your theatre to be thrilling, and you don’t mind sleeping with the lights on, this is a must-see.

Barbara Hughes Moore

Review Son of a Preacher Man, New Theatre Cardiff by Barbara Hughes-Moore

There’s something about the musical as a concept, as an art form, as a melodic thrill ride through convoluted plot and high emotion, that hits me where I live. I have an infamously high tolerance for even the most tentative and trite examples of the form. In the case of Son of Preacher Man, however, my tolerance – and my patience – started to wear thin as the story grew more and more bizarre with every poorly-placed number.

Its first offence of many is that it is a jukebox musical, which are notoriously more miss than hit. This is because the very nature of the jukebox musical – think Mamma Mia! – requires the songs to be wrenched, kicking and screaming, into some semblance of a cohesive narrative. Unfortunately, cohesion is not this production’s strong suit. Neither is narrative. So how, you may ask, does a show get a Dusty Springfield jukebox musical so wrong?

Directed and choreographed by Strictly’s Craig Revel-Horwood, the show starts back in the swinging ‘60s. Apparently the place to be back then was a thriving record shop in Soho, London, run by a guy known only as the Preacher Man. The Preacher Man, as his name suggests, was a semi-spiritual figure, someone who could solve any problem as easily as recommending the perfect EP. Flash forward to the modern day, and we see three troubled people with personal or familial connections to the Preacher Man’s shop who travel to that mythic place for a sense of closure, and solutions to their problems. They strike up an unlikely inter-generational friendship, and subsequently meet the son of the Preacher Man (see what they did there?) who regretfully informs them that his father has passed away; in his absence, the record shop has been – gasp – converted into a chain coffee shop. With the Preacher Man gone, the three strangers turn to his son to solve their divergent dilemmas.

The show’s major failing is a deeply fundamental one: despite being sung well across the board, the songs don’t add anything to the narrative, and vice versa.  The songs should be there to express the depth and nuance of our characters’ emotions, thoughts, and the story as a whole. But the narrative gives the songs no meaning; in fact, the music is often trivialised and hollowed out by their purposeless placement.  A jukebox musical already has to work hard to retrospectively craft a believable narrative around a discography that shoehorns in as many hits per minute as possible. But Son of a Preacher Man’s clumsy inclusion of Dusty’s timeless classics is particularly obvious in its desire to shove in as many Springfield’s songs as possible, narrative relevance be damned – and the show suffers for it.

Take for example Alice Barlow’s Kat, one of our main trio, who holds the dubious honour of possessing the least interesting, and perhaps most unsympathetic, storyline of the lot. Kat falls madly in love with the picture of a random guy on the internet she’s never met and who, incidentally, swiped left on her profile. It’s safe to say, then, he’s just not that into her – but Kat feels she is one Dusty Springfield serenade away from eternally winning his heart. She dreams of seducing the Tinder Guy (other dating apps are available), which we learn through her well-sung rendition of ‘I Only Want to Be with You’, never mind the lyrics of the song require the singer to have actually met the objection of their affections. The song’s inclusion in the show is rendered meaningless, because it does not resonate with Kat’s situation, giving the show a roughshod, random quality. One of the few exceptions to the otherwise purposeless song placement is a moving  rendition of ‘A House is not a Home’, through which the characters reminisce about the loss in their lives. It showcases the full force of the ensemble at its best; unfortunate, then, that most of the time, the nonsensical, strange and awkward plotting often diminished the power of the songs and the performances of them.

From the nonsensical to the uncomfortable: Michelle Gayle, the strongest singer of the ensemble, is saddled with the unfortunate task of portraying a widowed teacher who is passionately in love with one of her pupils. ‘He’s legal, I swear!’ Gayle’s Alison proclaims to the audience, as if that would make us feel less icky about a teacher/ student love affair (spoiler: it doesn’t). Though the relationship has progressed no further than a few longing glances from across a classroom (ew), it is so profoundly uncomfortable to watch unfold that I found myself cringing at every moment of this astoundingly misjudged storyline. It’s to Gayle’s credit that she manages to make the character realistic and sympathetic, but the problematic plot ultimately proves too much to overcome.

It all works out in the end, of course, because there’s a convenient – and age appropriate – love interest just waiting in the wings for lovesick Alison, a twist I guessed approximately ten minutes into the show. I mean, *someone* has to sing the titular song to the son of a Preacher Man, so by all rights it should be sung by Alison, his endgame love interest. It was RIGHT THERE. Only it’s not. The song is in fact led by Kat of all people, whose surprise inheritance restores the Preacher Man’s record shop back to its vintage glory. The fact that Kat sings a song about a sexual awakening to her sort of adopted father figure makes for yet another uncomfortable viewing experience, and I was even more glad when the rest of the ensemble joined in on the chorus.

Michael Howe’s Paul has the best storyline of the three leads by far, and it was wonderful to see an LGBTQ+ love story take centre stage in a mainstream musical such as this. During his youth, Paul fell in love with young man he met at the Preacher Man’s record shop. The relationship lasted a summer before they went their separate ways, and now Paul wants to rekindle the romance they started all those decades ago. In a hauntingly beautiful scene, Paul sings ‘I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten’ as his younger self and his past love dance together. And because I’ve got to get me doubles research in wherever I can, it was a lovely touch to have the older Paul mirror some of the movements of his younger self during the dance as he relives the memory.

Nigel Richards’ put-upon Preacher Man proxy is the most consistently entertaining of the bunch; as Simon, he channels Lee Evans as a harried, hapless everyman who bears the burden of being a ‘60s saint’s scion. Simon’s kooky coffee-shop staff are an odd mix of coffee baristas and metaphysical Muses, if you can believe it. for these ladies, Coyote Ugly isn’t just a movie: it’s a state of mind.

The rest of the ensemble perform with admirable stamina and style, though at times they exaggerate to near-parodic levels. Revel-Horwood’s choreography is enjoyable but rarely inventive – except for the aforementioned spectacular dance between Paul and his past love – and some sequences felt entirely inconsequential or arbitrary. The way in which Kat, aided by the Coyote Ugly baristas, stages her seduction of the Tinder Guy is awkward to the point of embarrassing – and, had the genders been reversed, probably would have resulted in a lawsuit.

The set, designed by Morgan Large, effectively evokes a pop-up book, the walls opening up to a surprisingly adaptable set that smoothly switches between the decades as needed. The live music was wonderful, and the intermittent appearance of musicians (who also doubled as cast members in the show) onstage with the other actors was a really lovely, inventive touch.

Son of a Preacher Man is a strange, shaky and not entirely successful show. Occasionally, it soars; but mostly, its ramshackle, roughshod approach to narrativizing Dusty’s discography reveals how deeply its flaws run. The enthusiastic ensemble alone makes it an enjoyable night out at the theatre, and sang with passion and aplomb, but the production’s problems proved to be insurmountable. Dusty’s damn-near indestructible songs are really put through the ringer in this wildly miscalculated and uncomfortably odd example of a jukebox musical that I wouldn’t care to put another quarter in.

Review Tremor, Sherman Theatre by Barbara Hughes-Moore

Brad Birch’s new play Tremor follows Tom and Sophie, former lovers and trauma survivors, as they reconnect years after the cataclysmic event which split them apart. We watch as the titular tremor of trauma continues to flay and fragment Sophie and Tom’s fractured, dormant relationship, as well as their own psyches, during a straight-through, seventy-minute emotional roller-coaster ride that expertly manipulates our understanding of events, and with whom our sympathies lie.

Being the only two actors onstage, Lisa Diveney and Paul Rattray have the unenviable task of navigating the muddy waters of their supremely complex characters as well as engaging the audience without the use of props, detailed sets, or other actors. Happy, then, that they are more than up to the task. You feel these characters know each other, but how? When? Why did they separate? These questions are all addressed by the end, but our interest in finding the answers is down to the script, and the actors’ skilful interpretation of it.

The audience’s perception of the characters, and their perception of each other, shift constantly throughout the engaging seventy-minute runtime. Lisa’s unexpected arrival at Tom’s new home is the re-opening of a wound, but the exact nature of the laceration is only revealed towards the climax. The meatier role of Tom has the tendency to tip into hyperbole, though Rattray does well not to lapse into megalomania, portraying a very believable kind of badness that permeates the realms of the personal and the political.

Diveney’s performance is perhaps the stronger of the two, partly because she represents the far more reasonable standpoint, and partly because she weaves intrigue and nuance more subtly; mesmerising throughout in a subtly tricky role, Diveney proves herself a captivating stage presence, and certainly one to watch in the future.

Tremor is essentially a power play between two highly unreliable narrators. Its genre shifts from post-break up meet-cute to an acute discussion of trauma, to a legal case dissected long after the fact, to a full-on horror story. But there’s no Freddy Kruegers or Jason Voorhees on the stage; rather, what we are confronted with is a very human brand of evil, the kind by which we are surrounded on all sides in our increasingly fraught political climate. The mystery and intrigue drive most of the early action in particular, and David Mercatali deftly directs the actors into weaving a murky tale of interpersonal strife that carries the play from the tentative awkwardness of a long-separated couple reconnecting, right through to the dark denouement.

The stage, designed by Hayley Grindle, is the barest of settings; a circular plinth which resembles the moon, the earth, the cyclical nature of trauma which plagues the two major, and only, characters who physically appear in the play. There are three props, two of which will be discussed a little later, but they do little to distract from the otherwise spartan stage. The third prop is a painting; a colourful, scrambled scrawl that makes one increasingly anxious the longer one gazes into its tangled depths. The chaos on canvas effectively externalises the tangled web of trauma both within and between our two characters. The sparseness of set is evidently a purposeful choice; no props means no distracting from the drama unfolding between the characters. It also lends the story a metaphysical, almost fantastical quality. As such, the lighting and sound, by Ace McCarron and Sam Jones respectively, has to work overtime to underline and enhance the dialogue-driven dramatic shifts, which both do to subtle, sinister success.

I was privileged to once again be a speaker on the post-show panel, led by Timothy Howe, Sherman’s Communities and Engagement Coordinator, along my co-panellists Matthew Holmquist (Tremor’s Assistant Director) and Dr Alena Drieschova (Lecturer in International Relations, Cardiff School of Law and Politics). The discussion was as intriguing and engaging as always, with some fantastic insight from panellists and audience members alike. One of the audience members spoke about her experiences as a visibly Muslim woman living in the UK, and found the discriminatory realities of her own life being reflected in the events of the play. Despite its expressed focus on the relationship between two traumatised characters, the play’s socio-political dimensions,  channelled and expressed through its protagonists, certainly appears to be its most successful innovation.

As well as portraying examples of post-traumatic stress and interpersonal drama, it is impossible not to read Tom and Sophie as manifestations of two distinct socio-political archetypes. Tom could be read as representing toxic masculinity incarnate; a man who twists his trauma in order to express his latent bigotry. Conversely, Sophie could be read as representing the more liberal left, specifically the kind of person who would have participated in the various global marches against the rising conservatism of recent years. Her entire raison d’être during the latter acts of the play is to act as witness, advocate and legal defender for the voiceless defendant. Sophie rightly points out how the defendant, a Muslim man, was  a victim of institutional racism – but despite this, we still have two white people discussing the case, whilst denying the Muslim character the same opportunity; indirectly refusing him a voice, an opportunity, and a stage on which to defend himself.

And now for a little discussion on duality from your friendly neighbourhood Doubles researcher. Sophie and Tom could be read as fragmented parts of a singular person, separated into the ego and the id, with Tom as the Hyde to Sophie’s Jekyll. Tom can be read as the primal self, the monstrous extreme, who manifests and reflects humanity’s dark side, the kind you find writ large in tabloid newspapers and certain presidential twitter feeds. Sophie, on the other hand, is the rational self, who calls out Tom for his racist views and actions, and who tries to use her privilege to fight for those who aren’t born with such a societal luxury. As such, the play just scratches at the surface of interrogating the shifting landscape of identity, both personal and national, through the characters of Sophie and Tom, although the narrow scope and reduced cast meant that we lost out on a wealth of diverse perspectives on such a broad, knotty topic. And from a Law and Literature perspective, the play gives laypeople the stage, both literally and figuratively, to discuss and dissect legal issues through the medium of literature, foregrounding emotion and empathy over technical legal analysis.

I did promise I’d get to the other two props; the props in question, such as they are (the actors only directly interact with them once), comprise a pair of duelling dinosaurs, children’s toys that face each other confrontationally, poised to strike at any moment. At first, I assumed they represented the children that Sophie and Tom may have lost in the crash, but we later learn that this is not the case. Their trauma stems from their own physical and emotional pain, rather than from the loss of a loved one. And so, over the course of the play, those two seemingly innocuous prehistoric playthings lost their innocent façade and seemed to become more confrontational and more monstrous with each passing moment. Their transformation is certainly reflected in the shifting personas of their human counterparts, certainly in terms of opposing moral viewpoints, though only one character emerges as a true monster.

As the post-show panel came to a close, one thought struck me as I left the room: there can be no justice, only closure. With such a complex legal, personal case, how can it truly be said that justice is done? People died, a man was punished; but he did not receive a fair trial, lies indicted him, and the prosecution expertly manipulated societal prejudice that made him a scapegoat. Though Sophie wants closure for herself and the other victims of the crash (including the man responsible for it), what she truly wants from Tom is a confession, an admission of his guilt in prolonging their trauma and perpetrating prejudice. She gets it, in a way; but Tom transfigures it into a rallying cry for racists. Sophie’s answer to his offer remains a mystery, the abrupt cut to black denying us the closure of her response. But for all of us gathered there in the audience, Tom’s cruel climactic call was unanimously, and cathartically, rejected. Emotionally intriguing and utterly gripping, Tremor wades through the dichotomous mire between a person’s true self and the mask they wear to conceal it.

Review Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre, New Theatre Cardiff By Barbara Hughes-Moore

It’s always a treat when the Northern Ballet comes to Cardiff, and it’s been a privilege to indulge in the artistry of their past productions that include the lovely likes of  CleopatraBeauty and the Beast, and Casanova. But their production of Jane Eyre, currently on its UK tour, is an utterly breath-taking feast for the eyes, ears and emotions that simply must be seen.

Based on the classic novel by Charlotte Brontë, the ballet follows the traumatic, and eventually triumphant tale, of our titular heroine as she navigates a wearying world of romance, mystery, drama and deceit. The story has been retold time and time again across a myriad of mediums, so what could possibly set this version apart?

My question was answered as soon as curtain rose. Cathy Marston has choreographed and conceptualised this show to perfection, delicately maintaining an admirable faithfulness to the source material whilst developing a distinct, innovative edge to the newest telling of this transcendent tale, from imaginative staging to exciting choreography. (The most striking scene for me was when a row of headstones glided into view, from which ghostly figures emerged to taunt a young Jane as she visited her parents’ grave – such Gothic touches had me giddy with glee). Every single dancer – principal, soloist and ensemble alike – brought their A game, from the joyously carefree Adela to the sternly solemn St John and the sadistic Mrs Reed, but I have to shout out to the particular performers who carried the singular burden of portraying their exceptionally complex, flawed and iconic characters with seeming ease and natural elegance.

Our titular heroine is always tricky to adapt from the page to the visual medium due to the fact that she is largely introspective;  though wildly passionate within, Jane’s emotions are often compressed and concealed behind a calm, collected facade. Ayami Miyata is completely heartbreaking as a young Jane, expressing both her overwhelming despair and her iron will in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds and corrupt authority figures. Because of this we understand how Jane became the person she is in adulthood, with each emotional scar and every sorrow-honed trait being beautifully portrayed by Abigail Prudames. As Jane forges her own identity through torment and toil, Prudames encapsulates the character’s growing sense of self, strength and independence with every expressive movement.

Jane’s love, Edward Rochester, is also troublesome to translate because he is, in technical terms, what we literary folk like to refer to as a ‘hot mess’. But Mlindi Kulashe was more than equal to the task, inhabiting both of these elements of Rochester’s personality with effortless grace, and completely embodying the character from the moment he strode onto the stage. Thorny and thoughtful, alluring and angsty, Kulashe’s painstakingly detailed performance conveyed every gamut of Rochester’s being from his swaggering imperiousness to his surprising tenderness, and his chemistry with Prudames is palpable. Every stage of their relationship feels simultaneously real and magical, from tentative interest and aching frustration, to its beautiful fulfilment and the inevitable fallout. Their intricate, instinctive and incredible performances anchor the entire show, and their dances were the standout moments in a production positively brimming with gorgeous choreography.

As ballet is a dialogue-free medium, it’s down a heady mix of the dancers’ expressive movements and the skill of the orchestra to convey the high, complex emotions of the story being told. Live music has no equal in this regard, and Philip Feeney’s sumptuous, near-supernatural score, performed live by the incredible Northern Ballet Sinfonia supplanted the need for dialogue and beautifully complemented the action taking place onstage. Similarly, lighting is largely a thankless task, because it’s only generally noticed if it’s very good or very bad. Thankfully this ballet boasts the former, with the wonderfully expressive lighting enhancing the nuance of emotions at play and complementing the dancing and music in lieu of words.

And because a doubles PhD researcher gotta double, allow me to enthuse about how deftly themes of duality, also inherent in the text, were woven into this production. After the prologue, in which a traumatised, wandering Jane is found and cared for by St John Rivers and his sisters, Jane looks melancholically into the middle distance as her younger self appears on stage; we know it is her because the adult Jane mimics her past self’s movements as if in a mirror, or a memory. Later, when Jane finds herself in the direst of straits, she sees her young self again, a memory that mocks and offers no comfort, merely a reminder of her misfortunes. The scariest, most unsettling moment occurs when Bertha, Jane’s foil and spectral double, duplicates Jane’s movements as if she is indeed her shadow, demonically illuminated behind a curtain as the fire she started burns behind them.

Mariana Rodrigues gives a cunning, characterful performance as the first Mrs Rochester, and she and Mlindi Kulashe wonderfully convey the characters’ strange, spiky history. Happily, then, that Bertha has a more active, present role than her book counterpart, literally haunting the characters as a living spectre, a revenant in a red dress. In a daring, active change from the book, this version of Bertha breaks out of the attic to crash the wedding, giving her more agency and expression than her novel counterpart. At one point, Rochester and Bertha resemble Gone with the Wind’s Rhett and Scarlett down to the clothes and the burning background, though their interpersonal connection is even more tangled and twisted than Margaret Mitchell’s selfish star-crossed lovers.

Themes of mental health, present in the original text, are also deeply entrenched in this version, perhaps most notably through Bertha, who’s often crudely and cruelly referred to as ‘the madwoman in the attic’. Bertha acts as a lens through which to analyse the period’s struggle to understand issues of mental health issues  (something which, along with the postcolonial context, is explored further by Jean Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’). Jane is periodically plagued by physical manifestations of her inner maladies, in the form of grey-clad dancers who pull and poke and prod at her. Are they spectres of Jane’s past, an externalisation of her depression? Perhaps they insidious angels, or vindictive demons? At first I wondered if they personified the windswept moors, the Gothic landscapes that so inspired the Brontë sisters. But above all I viewed them as the cruel hands of fate, dragging Jane inexorably from one unfortunate event to the next in her sorrow-saturated life.

At the end, Jane extricates herself from Rochester’s loving arms, but she isn’t leaving him; her ending the play standing alone and apart embodies the notion that this is Jane’s story. She has found a purposeful, fulfilling life as well as a partner and an equal – possessing both the independence and companionship she has long craved, and proving without doubt that those things are not mutually exclusive. I did miss some iconic scenes from the book, such as Jane and Rochester’s dramatic anti-meet cute in the forest, and the burning of the wedding dress; though both would be tricky to recreate, and also proved unnecessary in an already packed production that fully captured the soul of the story.

Haunting, harrowing yet hopeful, Jane Eyre’s story remains as relevant to us now as it ever did. Northern Ballet’s adaptation weds faithfulness with innovation in an enchanting adaptation of a timeless story that will linger long after the final curtain.

Review: This Is Elvis, New Theatre by Barbara Hughes Moore

It may have been a rainy Monday night in 2018 Cardiff, but for everyone watching This Is Elvis at the New Theatre, it felt as though we had been transported back in time to watch the King shake, rattle and roll in the flesh. This new musical, presented by Bill Kenwright and Laurie Mansfield, adapts, and celebrates, Elvis’ 1968 comeback special and his 1970 Las Vegas show, and five decades later the songs remain indestructible, incredible, and utterly unforgettable.

The first thing we’re greeted with is a striking red screen onto which is emblazoned an image of the King himself; his features are only hinted at, half his face obscured in shadow, but he’s still strikingly recognisable. It’s so bold that when you close your eyes the face remains like a camera flash after-image, like a Rorschach test, like the holy face imprinted on Veronica’s veil. Instantly, the image and its lasting effect on the eyes wordlessly articulates Elvis’ legendary status; that we only get impressions of the man he was, shaped by our own perception, experience and memory.

Having been bombarded with that stunning visual, when the curtain lifts it’s not Elvis we see, but rather other people – his manager, his band mates – talking about him. The spectral presence of Elvis’ image lingers, so that when he does finally arrive on stage he hauls along with him the baggage of everyone’s individual and collective ideas of who Elvis was. But from the moment Steve Michaels swaggered onto the stage in that legendary black leather ensemble, he was Elvis Presley.

We’ve all of us probably risked a ‘thank you very much’ Elvis impression at some point in our lives. But Steve Michaels’ performance was not an evocation, or even an impersonation – it was a complete inhabiting of character from the first moment to the last. His every vocal intonation, every gesture, every step and every sound was Elvis – even his hair, from root to tip, was every bit the King’s! Each and every song was varied and vibrant, capturing the essence of Elvis like lightning in a bottle. It was so spot on it veered into the uncanny valley at times, as if this was some living hologram of the man himself, here to bring a little joy into the lives of us Cardiffians on that rainy night. From his first line – ‘if you’re looking for trouble, you came to the right place’ – to his last – ‘Goodnight everyone, I’ve been Tom Jones’ – Steve Michaels lived every second on stage like a man possessed, and when they announced at the end that Elvis had left the building, it felt as if we truly had lost the King all over again.

The first act portrays Elvis’ ’68 NBC comeback special, the emotional and professional aftermath of Elvis’ revived spirits and career, and his first (reluctant) foray into performing a Vegas show. Most tantalising of all, it humanises the King in a way I’d never seen before – who’d ever have though such an extraordinary man as Elvis Presley would feel anything as ordinary as nerves? Fear? Insecurity? Yet we get to see the legend shaking with anxiety at the thought of getting back on the stage after twelve years away from it. At the start, he seems as monumental as that striking image of him emblazoned on the red screen; but by the end of act 1, we realise that this was but one side of the man, magnified, writ large on history. Despite all the accoutrements of his iconic character, beneath it all he’s just a man; a gifted one, but one plagued with the same emotional turmoil that we mere mortals know only too well.

Though earnest and interesting, the first act felt a tad messy in parts, interspersing Elvis’ onstage performances with his offstage personal drama in a way which felt clumsy at times. But act 1 was rendered both necessary and fulfilling by the absolute beast of its second act, which solely, singularly recreates Elvis’ 1970 Vegas show (feat. the iconic white jumpsuit) from start to finish with nothing else in between. It roars along as both a riotous, self-contained concert experience, and as a personal and professional victory, a success of epic proportions that completes Elvis’ road to reviving his confidence and career.

The audience was responsive, raucous and often rowdy, dancing and singing and affectionately shouting out their love and appreciation for the tireless efforts of the performers. And who could blame us, with such iconic, incredible songs to soak up like ‘That’s All Right Mama’, ‘Viva Las Vegas’, ‘Suspicious Minds’ and ‘It’s Now or Never’ – to name but a very few. One of the highlights of act 1 wasn’t even an Elvis track but a stunning rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. ‘Love Me Tender’ was the only song which I felt fell a little flat, but it was sandwiched by such corkers as ‘All Shook Up’ and ‘Don’t Be Cruel’. As an avid, enthusiastic (if amateur) dancer myself, I was particularly enraptured by the more upbeat songs of the night, jiving away to the riotous tones of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘King Creole’. But even when they slowed it down for ballads like ‘In The Ghetto’,  ‘Always On My Mind’ and ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’, everyone in that theatre was utterly transfixed. ‘Burning Love’ seemed to be a more fitting final song than ‘Jailhouse Rock’, and the crowd reacted to it as such; the latter is a classic, don’t get me wrong, it just felt unsuitable for the finale. Having said that, using it as the climactic piece makes for a moment of pure circularity where the Elvis at the end of his life calls back to the Elvis who was just starting out. Narratively, it makes sense; musically, less so.

I was amazed – and vicariously exhausted – to watch every performer maintain such high levels of energy and quality throughout what looked to be an exhilarating but exhausting set. You can’t beat live music, but I have to commend these performers in particular for being amongst the best I’ve had the privilege of seeing live. I want to shout out especially to Misha Malcolm, Melissa Brown-Taylor, Katrina May and Chevone Stewart who added stunningly beautiful harmonies throughout the show, and enhanced every song by adding a simultaneously contemporary and ethereal quality. Everyone was incredible, from the guitars to the drums, the brass section to the singers, but I have to shout out to two standouts in particular: Niall Kerrigan on the lead guitar, of whom Chuck Berry would have been proud; and Steve Geere, who performed the dual roles of conductor (not an unclear upbeat in sight) and keyboardist – he was shredding them keys something fierce.

Transcendent, resplendent, incandescent. Whether you love Elvis or have never heard of him, this show is a must-see.

Review The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Sherman Theatre by Barbara Hughes-Moore

 

(5 / 5)

 

Having been a fan of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (hereafter Last Days), I was eager to check out his similarly incendiary-of-title follow-up ‘The Motherf**ker with the Hat’ (hereafter That Mo-Fo Show). Directed by Andy Arnold, this collaboration between Sherman Theatre and Tron Theatre, Glasgow is ninety minutes of electric drama, with no interval to slow down the break-neck pace of this magnificent masterpiece unfolding on the stage.

Set in the grimy grit of Hell’s Kitchen NYC, The Mo-Fo Show follows a young man named Jackie, a newly-released ex-con recently home from prison, as he tries to stay clean and out of trouble despite personal revelations that threaten to turn his world upside down. Francois Pandolfo plays Jackie with such roguish, ramshackle appeal that you understand why Veronica, Ralph and Julio still care about him despite his transgressions. He’s a lovable loser; a user in all senses of the word. As Satan tells the lawyer El-Fayoumy in Last Days, ‘you’ll never be loved, because you’re incapable of it’, which sums up one of Jackie’s myriad issues to a tee. Unendingly selfish and mercurial, Jackie cares little about the thoughts and feelings of others as long as they serve his purpose. But by the final curtain, there’s hope – if ambiguously framed – that Jackie may finally have a toe on the path to recovery; though he leaves threats in his wake, a revenant of his presence that lingers uneasily after the curtain falls.

Despite this being ostensibly Jackie’s story, we start and end the play with Veronica, masterfully played by Alexandria Riley, who is fast proving herself as one of the most dynamic actors currently treading the boards. To me, Veronica is the most tragic character of them all, because she learns nothing, and is doomed to re-enter the vicious cycle in which she has imprisoned herself. When the play starts, Veronica is chastising her mother on the phone for dating a deadbeat and taking drugs; and yet she casually snorts coke during the conversation, and then praises her own deadbeat boyfriend for finally getting a job. Veronica is her mother’s double, repeating the same harmful mistakes of the past again and again. We leave her at the end alone in the dark, with little hope for the future.

Veronica projects an image of brutal honesty, but it conceals secrets and lies – though she is far from being the only hypocrite in the play. Jackie protests that he is a good man, but it masks the fact that he is not. Ralph presents an image of being the ideal man, but in reality he is far from perfection. Played with mesmerising charm by Jermaine Dominique, Ralph’s shocking switch from wise everyman to shrewd manipulator is subtly portrayed and all the more sinister for it. Having said that, none of the characters are moustache-twirling villains, although they say and do bad things, making each character’s own personal Dark Passenger frighteningly realistic.

Each character leaves the play with their own long list of regrets – for the life they could have led, for the people they could have been, for the choices they’d have made differently if they had the chance. Regret makes a double of you, leaving an imprint of who you might have been if not for one choice, one moment, one mistake. The character of Victoria – wonderfully, woundedly portrayed by Renee Williams – exemplifies this duality most keenly of all. Her choice to follow love over career has left her hollow and achingly lonely, so much so that she wants to ‘disappear’, if only for a while. She is the least hypocritical character, except perhaps for Jackie’s Cousin Julio.

Julio may just be the most well-adjusted character of the bunch, a guy who both enthusiastically enjoys the minutiae of cooking and also occasionally puts people in the hospital. He even names his violent alter ego, referring to it as Jean-Claude Van Damme. Though perhaps the most dichotomous character of the cast, Julio is engaging precisely because he accepts that he is a bad man – a clear foil for Jackie, who proclaims to be a good man but is, in truth, the oppsite. Kyle Lima frequently treads a fine line between pastiche and plausibility in the role, but wonderfully crafts a performance which feels both fantastical and naturalistic, and the kind of person you would legitimately enjoy hanging out with in real life. Julio is a potent mixture of Pulp Fiction’s Jules Winnfield, The Birdcage’s Agador Spartacus, and Yoda from Star Wars; and if that sentence alone doesn’t convince you to see the play for yourself, I don’t know what will.

In addition to being a rapt audience member, I also had the pleasure of being a speaker on the post-show panel, led by Tim Howe, the Sherman’s Communities and Engagement Coordinator, and my fellow panellists Luke Hereford (the play’s assistant director), and Nick Shepley (addictions therapist at The Living Room). The discussion was lively and engaging as always, with some great insights from the panel and the audience alike.

Every character in the play was, or had been, an addict – to drugs, alcohol, sex, sometimes a combination of those things. But they’re also (quoting Last Days) ‘addicted to tragedy and punishment’, doomed to wallow in a hell of their own making; a vicious circle of self-imprisonment. Secrets and lies have stretched taut to breaking point between the characters; revelations take time to crack open, but once the lid is lifted on that particular Pandora’s Box, a whole swathe of sorrows and deceits come pouring out, with little sign of stopping. Some of the revelations were so shocking that I gasped audibly when reading them for the first time, and still felt the aftershocks of that surprise whilst watching the play live. Each character fails to stave off the throes of their own addiction – often, as Nick observed, just swapping one addiction for another.

The play is so rich and rewarding that there were so many observations, thoughts and ideas that there simply wasn’t time to discuss on the panel. On reading the play for the first time, the appearance of the hat, sans owner, seemed almost to be mystical, even mythic, in nature. It appears without warning, like an omen, and is the MacGuffin which ignites the dramatic spark which burns throughout the rest of the play. And when Jackie goes downstairs to confront who he thinks is its owner, it seemed almost as if he was descending into the pits of hell for an audience with the devil. Much like Godot, the eponymous hatted individual is absent from the proceedings, and yet his spectral presence haunts every scene. Or, rather, the mo-fo with the hat does appear, though not in the guise Jackie first expected. Whether its magical or mundane, the hat acts as a manifestation of mistrust and misdemeanours – Jackie initially likens it to the mark of Zorro, sign of the titular mo-fo marking his territory. He closes the play, and the narrative loop, by leaving his own mark behind – a Commodores CD, a relic of his long-held love for Veronica, now a monument of a bygone era.

This is not a courtroom drama, despite a number of legal elements splintered through the story. I lost count of how many times assault and battery occurred, both with and without a deadly weapon, not to mention the copious references to drug use, convicted and otherwise. Jackie has a very particularly twisted moral code – when he first suspects Veronica of having an affair, with scant evidence to go on, he argues that murder would be ‘f**ked up but understandable’ in the circumstances. Jackie is every person’s judge but his own. The play reinforces Guirgis’ own words from Last Days, in which the lawyer Fabiana Aziza Cunningham proclaims that ‘those who need forgiveness are the ones who don’t deserve it’. But, as Last Days attests to, ‘you have to participate in your own salvation’. Jackie ends up serving time, not for his various assaults, batteries and criminal threats, but for breaking parole. The law is a distant, vaguely drawn entity in the play; but it is an interesting consideration of how a person’s internal self differs from their external persona, and how, as Jackie observes, ‘people can be more than one thing’.

Vibrant, vulgar and viciously insightful, The Motherf**ker with the Hat is an unrelenting, rewarding play that lingers in the mind long after the final curtain. Incendiary, inventive and intoxicating, the play showcases the second-to-none cast and brings the wildly exhilarating worlds of Stephen Adly Guirgis to sharp, relatable relief. Utterly unmissable. And following on from that, I would also highly recommend Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, as a companion piece to this play, as its predecessor, or as a stand-alone study of the prisons we make for ourselves.

Barbara Hughes-Moore

Review Tango Moderno, New Theatre by Barbara Hughes-Moore

You know when you’ve been Tango’d*

Of all the countless dance shows produced by Strictly pros over the years, Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace’s are by far the finest I’ve seen (and I’ve seen quite a few). I even reviewed Natalie Lowe, Jay McGuinness and Louis Smith’s superb 50s spectacular Rip it Up for Get the Chance last year (which you can find here). However, what little the latter show lacked, Tango Moderno possessed in spades.

Vincent and Flavia’s dancefloor magic has captivated Strictly audiences for years, but where they truly shine is incorporating stories through which the dancing is rendered not only enjoyable, but also emotionally rewarding. Ultimately, it’s the evolving and varied stories of the shows – interwoven with the incomparable dancing – which make them stand out, and they never tell the same story twice. This time around, the dance spectacular is framed as a sort of Greek drama, with Tom Parsons’ charismatic narrator acting as Chorus and chanteur as he doles out gems of romantic wisdom like a Shakespearean slam poet. The Shakespearean elements don’t end there – Vincent and Flavia portray ethereal love gurus; supernatural muses who play cupid to the lonely hearts of the modern era, much as Puck meddles with the hearts of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

As the title suggests, the tango in its literal and abstract form is brought into the modern era, juxtaposing the classic with the contemporary, the magic with the mundane. In that way, it makes dance feel accessible even to us mere mortals, even as Vincent, Flavia and co. transcend the bounds of your traditional dance show with bold staging, relatable concepts and beautifully innovative ways of conveying emotional truths through music and movement.

The modern setting started out as intriguing and grew more effective and affecting as the drama and dancing played out; not only is it  beautifully choreographed and lovingly crafted, it also has a lot to say about modern life and specifically modern love, even featuring a sequence entitled the Blah Blah Blah Cha Cha Cha in which modern lovers embrace whilst still being attached to their iPhones (other brands are available), as well as an incredibly amusing online dating number in which the crazy people you swipe left on Tinder were hilariously recreated by the dancers posing inside a massive phone screen prop.

Vincent and Flavia’s unparalleled talents have been better expressed by more eloquent and informed people than me over the years, so what can I add that hasn’t already been said? Only that I’m deeply grateful that Vincent and Flavia continue to grace us with their time, skill and generosity year after year. I was surprised to see them take somewhat of a backseat in their own show, but found it to be an innovative and welcome choice in showcasing the talents of their wonderful co-stars, as much as demonstrating their own transcendent talents.

Every single dancer was sublime, and every number was a winner, but I have to shout out specifically to George Hodson and Mary Lynn Tiep whose dancing – both individually and as a partnership – was by far my favourite in the show; their dance ability, comedic timing and chemistry shone even among an already superb cast. They led one of the outstanding numbers of the night in which Vincent and Flavia’s cupids inspired their bickering couple to get back together and reconcile in let’s say a rather energetic way. Other standouts in the ensemble include Simon Campbell as a lovelorn millennial mourning his lonely nights to the tune of Luther Vandross’ ‘A House is Not a Home’, and Bryony Whitfield and Tom Woollaston who made for a sweet couple as well as sensational solo artists.

I was consistently impressed by the fluidity and ease in which each dance number flowed into the next. Adding to this was the idea of recurring characters – the eight ensemble dancers, despite playing multiple roles, each formed four distinct recurring would-be couples in matching outfits of distinctive shades who appeared regularly in between the group numbers. The presence of a narrative through-line, and recurring characters, really helps to elevate the dancing and give it an emotional impact as well as a visual spectacle.

There are too many incredible sequences to describe, but here are a few highlights. One of the most beautiful segments of the night was an affecting number set to Lukas Graham’s ‘7 Years’, in which the male dancers really captured the melancholy journey from youth to maturity. One of the funniest group dances was a combative Spring Cleaning-off, in which the dancers fought mundane battles in the domestic setting with lawnmowers and wheelbarrows for chariots and kitchen implements for weapons; a laddish soft-shoe to Bruno Mars’ ‘Lazy Song’, and a haunting, spiky Argentine to Rag ‘n’ Bone Man’s ‘Human’. There was also a spotlight for violinist extraordinaire Oliver Lewis whose rendition of Flight of the Bumblebee was so exciting and energetic a rendition that it left the audience simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated. The live band were utterly amazing and gave a vibrant backdrop to the onstage antics.

However I have to note one of the rare troubling aspects I have with mainstream dancing culture, and that’s that it remains deeply heteronormative. Vincent and Flavia’s classy cupids kept matchmaking a veritable conveyor belt of straight couple after straight couple; however, there was an admittedly brief, but very welcome openly queer moment near the end of the show in which two women shared a romantic kiss and decided to start a relationship with each other, much to the surprise and chagrin of their respective male exes. It’s a pretty big leap for the dance community, framed as it was as a celebratory, romantic moment for the two women in question (though it was played as comedic for their shocked exes). But as the only openly queer moment in the show, and a brief one at that, I found it to be comparable to Lefou’s much-discussed ‘explicitly gay moment’ in Disney’s 2017 live-action Beauty and the Beast; a moment which ended up as all-too brief, and though it might have been a huge step for the historically conservative Disney, was not the representation the LGBT community was promised, or the much-needed representation it deserved. However, I was grateful for its inclusion, and hope that it paves the way for more queer representation in the dance community.

Tango Moderno proves once again – if proof was needed – that Vincent and Flavia are unmissable, unbeatable and unforgettable even while affording every member of their tireless yet effortless cast and crew a moment to shine. And of course, the world champions graced us with their incomparable Argentine Tango skill with a truly breath-taking, heart-stopping finale the likes of which I’d never seen. This is truly a show that everyone can enjoy, and if you can make it, I promise you’ll be tango’ing all the way home.

 

*Sorry I couldn’t resist. Dance puns, I’ve got ‘em.