Kevin Johnson

Review Macbeth, National Theatre, Wales Millennium Centre by Kevin Johnson


I’ve always liked the anticipation of seeing a Shakespeare play, especially the tragedies, but what always fills me with foreboding is when they are ‘modernised’. This, to me, often means taking liberties with text and staging, and to a large extent this was true at the Millennium Centre. In a way, the story was downsized, which is a shame given such a large stage. I always try to keep an open mind, which is not easy given some of the versions I’ve seen (Romeo & Juliet where the Montagues and Capulets were humans and aliens) and some work really well, such as Andrew Scott’s Hamlet set in a Sky News, Denmark. Here the witches appeared, covered in what looked like see-through rain ponchos, talked with electronic enhancement, and then climbed poles like a Cirque du Soleil show. I was impressed by the climbing, not so much by the sound effects obscuring their words. Then there’s the weapons problem: set it in modern times and give them guns is fine, set it in historical times and give them swords and axes, fine too, but here the weapons were short machetes and what looked like switchblades, which tends to ‘shrink’ the fighting, especially when, in the hands of the burly Michael Nardone, they look like toys. Macbeth is about power,  it’s seductive and destructive nature, and the violence is often the physical embodiment of such power, so when you diminish the threat, you diminish the effect.

There’s a question that always bothers me when seeing this play: why doesn’t the whole cast have Scottish accents? I’ve never seen a version that does, outside Scotland obviously, which puzzles me. Productions always hedge their bets by having some (here I counted four) but not all. Why? I found that the mix of accents unbalances things, this is 11th century Scotland after all, not 21st century Soho, and yet here we have Scots, Geordie, RP, Yorkshire, etc. When you throw in the gender swapping of some characters, the flip-flopping personalities of others, changes in the lines and a cast which has mixed success dealing with iambic pentameter, it all adds up to a jarring distraction.

On the plus side Nardone is a good Macbeth, gruff, tender and loving, especially in the scene where he cradles his dead wife, although his intent to kill the king seems to have come more from her calling him a wimp than his own will. The conflict within him seen in the line “I dare do all that may become a man;Who dares do more is none”, yet still Kirsty Besterman’s Lady Macbeth wins him over, with a fierce charm. Patrick Robinson as Banquo provides a sweet sadness to their friendship, Lisa Zahra (Lady MacDuff) speaks with great pathos for women everywhere when she says “why then, alas, do I put up that womanly defence, to say I have done no harm?” while facing her death. As her husband, Ross Walton brings a righteousness and guilt to the role, and Deke Walmsley’s Porter adds comedy to lighten the mood. 

Many in the theatre obviously enjoyed the show, I was more ambivalent. The boundaries in Shakespeare must always be pushed, and Rufus Norris the director deserves respect for trying to make it relevant to today’s generation, but not at the expense of losing the things that make it great. This is not a bad production then, more of a worthy failure.        

Review Blue, Chippy Lane Productions, Chapter Arts Centre By Kevin Johnson


‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ – Tolstoy 

Elin, visiting her Carmarthen family from her new life in London, meets Thomas, her old teacher, and there’s a spark between them. Bringing him back to the family home, her intent more carnal than romantic, she expects an empty house. Instead they are almost caught by her mother, Lisa.

(Nia Roberts as Lisa)

Surprised, Thomas blurts out that he was invited back for a meal, much to the daughter’s dismay and her mother’s delight, because Lisa has been looking for a boyfriend for her gay son Huw, and, mistaking Elin’s intentions, she thinks she’s found one.

(Huw, Lisa and Elin)

So begins an evening of misunderstandings, comedy and revelations. The shy Huw blooms, as does the play, from what seems like an Ayckbourn farce into something progressively darker, as old wounds are re-opened and the absent, oft mentioned father casts a pall over everything like the ghost in Hamlet.

(Sophie Melville as Elin and Jordan Bernarde as Thomas) 

What could have been stereotypes – slutty daughter, gay son, lecherous teacher and dragon mother – are, in the hands of these actors, fleshed out into real people. Helped by impressive writing and the subtle direction of Chelsey Gilard. My favourite moment being during the dinner scene, when Huw talks to Thomas, while under the table Elin caresses the teachers thigh possessively.

Writer Rhys Warrington trained as an actor, and perhaps this is why he knows to leave room for the cast to breathe life into their roles. His script is funny, engaging and sad.

Maybe it was first night nerves, the script, or the directors intent, but there was a rawness, echoing the characters on show, a feeling of slightly rough edges that need filing. Whatever the reason, I found that it enhanced the play. 

Sophie Melville gives the lippy Elin the right mix of being grown up yet still lacking maturity, and relishes her lines. In response to her mother’s “Know what we need now?” she replies waspisly “Another drink?”.

Jordan Bernarde gives the fought-over Thomas a steadiness, but hints at unshed grief over his own father’s recent death.

Playing the shy, withdrawn Huw is not easy, and it’s to Gwydion Rhys’ credit that he makes him so human, moving from boring to vulnerable and evoking our sympathy.

Nia Roberts is an actor that loves getting her teeth into a part, and here she takes the role and runs with it. Switching from monster to Mam in a second, she gives us a Lisa that is heartbroken and angry, living in past memories because the present is too painful.

There is a lot to admire in Blue, much of it familiar, especially to Welsh audiences. Rebecca Hammond founded Chippy Lane Productions to promote Welsh theatre and talent beyond Wales, and this is a prime example of it. There’s even a faint trace here of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, possibly due to the presence of Matthew Bulgo as dramaturg, a cast member in the celebrated Sherman Theatre production.

Blue isn’t completely perfect and I’m glad for that, because It means that this is a writer with  space to grow, to improve. That is a very pleasing prospect for the future of Welsh drama.


Wales Millennium Centre until 26th Jan.



A Jukebox Musical is one that takes the songs of famous singers or groups and turns them into a show, the most famous example being Mamma Mia. They’ve been around since 1962, but took off in the 2000’s, this one being written In 2005. 

They normally fall into two types, the first where they tie the songs together using an original story, like Mamma Mia. The second is where the songs are used as signposts in the life story of the artist, and this is what we have here.

Four guys grow up in New Jersey in the 50’s, where the only way out was through the army, crime or music. They got together, took the name of a bowling alley called The Four Seasons and had a string of hits (Walk Like A Man, Bye Bye Baby, Let’s Hang On, Big Girls Don’t Cry) powered by their group harmonies and Frankie Valli’s unique voice. 

The show is divided into four parts (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter) each told separately by one of the four members, symbolising the group’s rise and fall, and also how the truth has more than one side to it. 

Beginning in 1954, we follow Frankie Valliand Tommy DeVito through their ups and downs, time in prison, and the many different bands they go through, before they are joined by guitarist Nick Massi and Bob Gaudio, a singer & songwriter introduced to the others by fellow Jersey Boy and Oscar-winning actorJoe Pesci, which, amazingly, is true.

Produced by Bob Crewe, they were the first white group signed by Vee-Jay Records, and had their first No.1 with Sherry in 1962, and their last with December 1963 thirteen years later. 

Written in 2005, this show gets full marks from me for several reasons: The songs are memorable, the staging is great, the performers are highly talented, and the story is incredible. What’s also impressive is that the band are portrayed realistically, they were no angels and paid the price for it. We see the cost of fame, divorces, debts both financial and spiritual, and personal tragedy, but also that what kept them going through it all was a love of music. 

With a running time of 2 hours 40, the time flies by, my own highlight being “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”, which has a special meaning for Welsh football fans reflected by the Cardiff audience, which gave the show a standing ovation, which it utterly deserved.

Review First Man by Kevin Johnson


This is not what I thought it would be.

A film about the first man to walk on the moon, I expected a sort of ‘successful’ Apollo 13, but what we get instead is a psychological study of Neil Armstrong – test pilot, astronaut, engineer, father and husband- that makes Apollo 13 look ordinary by comparison.

It looks at the kind of man he was, what drove him, the sacrifices that he and others made, how he coped and what it all cost him in the end.

This is a slow-burn film, and at 141 minutes, quite a long one. At one point in the middle I must confess, I almost fell asleep, but I’m so glad I didn’t.

Damian Chazzelle has directed a masterpiece, using all the tricks of the trade, old and new. Handheld cameras, tight close ups, mixed in NASA footage, all give a cinema verite feel, making you experience the claustrophobia of the astronauts.

Right at the start you are taken into the cockpit of an X-15 rocket plane. Flown by Armstrong, it reaches the upper atmosphere and gives him a tantalising glimpse of space. All the flying scenes are done incredibly well, placing you right at the heart of the action.

Ryan Gosling as Neil, and Claire Foy as his wife Jane, make a great couple, and perhaps one of the reasons they were cast is that they act so well with just their eyes. Invaluable when so much is shot in close up.

We start to follow their lives as they go through the death of their two-year old daughter, Karen. Unable to express his grief, Neil applies for the Space Programme and is accepted. Moving to Houston and a fresh start, they befriend other astronauts and their wives, and we are taken through their rigorous training.

Tragedy strikes more than once, and with each friend Neil loses, he becomes more and more withdrawn from Jane and his two sons, and more focused on his work. Eventually he is given command of Apollo 11, the mission to the moon.

The landing itself gave me shivers. Starting slowly, Neil and Buzz Aldrin drift towards the target site only to find it covered in boulders. Taking manual control, the surface drifts closer and closer, the tension mounting with each moment, all aided by the superb musical score, leading to a crescendo as the craft touches down with only thirty seconds of fuel left.

It’s one of the best pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen.

After broadcasting to Earth the historic message “Houston…the Eagle has landed” the two embark on a moon walk, where Chazzelle, possibly using artistic licence, possibly not, creates such a simple, unexpected and emotional ending that it almost made me cry.

Chazelle shows what an incredible talent he is, someone who can subvert conventions with ease. I wouldn’t be surprised if he wins a second Oscar.

This film is an amazing, slow, quiet, shattering experience. The best film of the year so far.

Kevin Johnson


Review The Stick Maker Tales, National Theatre Wales by Kevin Johnson

The Stick Maker Tales by Peter Cox

Pavilion, Llandrindod Wells



You wait ages for a good play, and then two come along at once. Another of National Theatre Wales’ NHS70 plays, this time performed in the Mid-Wales town of Llandrindod Wells, a Victorian spa and market town.

The Stick Maker is Geth Roberts, an old sheep farmer working up the Elan valley, high above the market town of Rhayader. Famous for his hand-made shepherds crooks, and feeling the advances of time, he recounts stories of his family, and the part the NHS played in their lives.

From his grandfather’s death from tetanus, to his nephew’s work accident, and his own failing body, he speaks of his life working the hills and valleys with fondness, honesty, and humour. But now his eyesight is fading, and what good is a shepherd who can’t look after his sheep?

Peter Cox has created a wonderful character in Geth, and written a play full of humour, old-fashioned warmth, and truths. From Geth’s proud declaration that ‘I’ve alway paid my stamp’, to the harshness of losing his stillborn twin, this is no rose-tinted vision of the past, just a simple reminder of the lives of ordinary people before and after the health service was created.

The accent and dialect used are a tribute to the research put in by both actor and writer, and have had a very favourable response from the community portrayed. Sheep are ‘yowes’, a large flock is a ‘hep of sheep’, a shout of pain is a ‘bellock’. A clumsy new shepherd is ‘a young lumper’, while Geth himself is old but can still ‘nettle to it’.

Director Kully Thiarai skilfully marries the script with Llion Williams superb performance. Making the most of the jokes, he soon makes us warm to the gruff, plain-spoken farmer, whose belief that ‘a good shepherd looks after the whole flock, not one or a few’ parallels the underlying principles of the NHS itself.

That may seem like a simple observation, but with the constant attempts at privatisation, it’s one that needs making again and again.

National Theatre Wales have maintained a high standard over the last ten years, and if this play is anything to go by, those standards are actually getting higher.

Kevin B Johnson

Review For All I Care, National Theatre Wales by Kevin Johnson


Last night I saw For All I Care, part of National Theatre Wales’ NHS70 Festival. Written by Alan Harris, it’s a one-woman show about Clara, a girl on the fringes of society, suffering from mental illness, and Nyri, a nurse struggling to keep her life, the NHS and Clara together.

Yet again I was amazed by the talent we have in Wales. Harris has that rare ability as a writer, making a serious point one moment & making you laugh the next. In Clara we have a girl who is slipping through the cracks of the system, in Nyri we have a woman desperate to save her. Both characters are fully fleshed out, but they are brought to life by Alexandra Riley, a young actor who seems to get better with every role. She gives Clara a streetwise innocence, making you warm to her. She then switches to show Nyri, a nurse & Mam, made of steel and love. I’ve seen Alexandra Riley in four different roles now, and she was good in all of them, but always as part of a cast. In this play it was just her going solo, and what a marvellous thing it was to see her stretch her wings and take flight.

Go see for yourself, thank me later.

Venue 1, Georgetown, Tredegar NP22 4LD. Details on NTW website. There is a minibus from Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, to the venue & back. The final two shows are today 5pm & 8pm.

The venue itself is owned by the community and they’ve done an excellent job with it. One woman told me how the kids go there after school for dancing and singing lessons, often doing their homework upstairs.

We are told by the ‘Powers That Be’ that the arts are not essential, and we can’t afford them. Looking at that place last night, the hard work that’s gone into it, and the pride that woman showed me in front of her grandson, you can see what a lie that is.

The arts are essential.

Review Love, Simon by Kevin Johnson


I’ve seen plenty of teen High School movies, and plenty of rom-coms, but this is a first, a GAY teen High School rom-com!

The times they are a-changing.

Before anyone says there have been other films covering the subject, this is the first major studio backed film that has, and it deserves praise for doing so. The fact that it’s actually quite good is a bonus.

Simon is a popular, handsome 17-year-old, with loving, liberal parents, a younger sister he actually likes, and three friends who are always there for him. There’s only one  problem: he’s gay.

Then another boy at school posts anonymously on the web that he’s gay too. ‘Blue’, as he calls himself, strikes a chord with Simon, who, replying as ‘Jacques’, befriends him.

Friendship turns to something deeper, until another student, Martin, discovers their emails and blackmails Simon into helping him win the heart of Abbey, one of his closest friends…

Despite the dark premise, this is a sparkling gem of a film. There are good performances all round, and the writing captures the pain and selfishness of being a teenager. There are some good lines and scenes, such as Simon imagining himself coming out at college as a musical number, or when his John Lennon fancy dress costume is mistaken as ‘Cool Jesus’.

Tony Hale from Veep is also funny as the Principal who is ‘down with the kids’, while still confiscating their mobile phones for texting in the halls.

It’s not without faults though. Simon’s life is just TOO perfect, his family too nice. No gay-bashing or hate-crime here, but to be fair, rom-coms aren’t about reality.

Some of the characters could be developed more, such as his parents, Martin the nerdy blackmailer, and also the Principal, who becomes a little wearing towards the end.

It’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t flinch from making Simon’s actions selfish. He manipulates his friends own blossoming romance so as not to be outed.

The ending is, well, it IS a romantic comedy, so I’m sure you’ll work it out long beforehand. Another plus is the awesome soundtrack, with songs old and new, which totally won my heart with its sublime use of Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks. This film is definitely worth a look in my opinion.

‘As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset, I am in paradise….’

Review The 15:17 To Paris by Kevin Johnson

In 2015 a lone terrorist boarded the train from Paris to Amsterdam carrying an AK-47, a pistol, 300 rounds of ammunition and a knife. Before he could do much damage he was tackled by several passengers, including three American friends on a European tour. This is the film based on that event.

First let me say that the incident itself was an amazing demonstration of the bravery of these passengers in attacking, unarmed, a Jihadist gunman. I am in awe of their courage.

Having said that, this film is incredibly bad.

There are pointers to a bad film: they open in January or early February, they’re usually about 90 mins long due to being edited down, and there are no press reviews before they open.

I knew all that beforehand, but I went in anyway. I’d now add a fourth pointer, if the film is based on a real incident and the characters are played by the ACTUAL people themselves and not actors.

The script is truly terrible, the mother of one of the heroes, upon being told by his teacher he may have ADD, replies ‘My God is bigger than your statistics!’, and that’s not even the worst line.

The narrative is all over the place, the three heroes lives are told in flashbacks that don’t advance the story, and the acting is really bad, apart from Veep’s Tony Hale as a gym teacher who seems to have wandered in from another film. A much better film.

The editing is all over the place, and the direction poor, except in the scenes showing the attack itself. What’s shocking is that the director is Clint Eastwood, who is much better than this.

I have never walked out of a film in my life (except for a Stallone film, but that was just to vomit) but I wanted to walk out of this after 10 minutes.

It’s bad, really bad, worst film not just of this year, but the last decade. I’m posting this review so that you won’t suffer, save yourselves, wait for it to come out on TV or Netflix and then don’t watch it. Trust me. Run away!!!”

Kevin Johnson

Review Incognito, Theatre Through The Telescope, USW by Kevin Johnson

Inspired by the true story of the ‘theft’ of Einstein’s brain by an American pathologist, Incognito weaves together three stories, set in the past and present, involving the workings of the brain it’s effects on people, and the connections it makes, both internally and externally.

Written by Nick Payne, directed by Paul Conway and performed by a cast of ten BA students from the University of South Wales, we veer from the pathologist to a modern neuropsychologist, and a patient with memory problems.

Set in an enclosed space, the actors manage to create an impressive show, with fully fleshed out characters, taking us from London to New Jersey to Kansas. The scenes range from a medical exam of a man with brain damage, to a first date, to a diner, leading us to questions of memory, identity and what makes us who we are.

Henry, the patient, suffers short-term memory loss, yet always remembers his love for Margaret through the years. Evelyn wonders if she’s Einstein’s daughter. Thomas wants to make a scientific breakthrough. Martha wants to start afresh with Patricia. All of them, one way or the other, defined by the workings of the human brain.

All the actors get their chance to shine in a fine ensemble piece. Laura Maggs gives us a sympathetic Margaret who sabotages her own efforts to connect with Patricia, a charming Gabrielle Dunn.

James Lawrence’s Henry is heartbreaking, managing to keep the repetition of ‘Hello my love’ constantly fresh. Kieran McCutcheon keeps Thomas from becoming a cliche mad scientist while clearly showing his desperation, and Charlotte Dolan as his wife Elouise is a fine foil to him.

Hannah Moreno makes Evelyn layered and complex, Lucy Gooding’s Margaret evokes love’s gain and loss, and Shaunie Williams Welsh waitress is earthy and warm. Liam Edmunds is delightfully seedy as the reporter.

Tom Dyer, playing five roles, goes from drama to comedy with ease, and finds the humour in the simplest of lines.

If this young cast is typical of students coming through, then I look forward with great keenness to seeing such quality in the future.

To find out more about BA Theatre and Drama at USW, click here.

Kevin Johnson

Review Mnemonic, Complicité: Theatre Through The Telescope by Kevin Johnson

Part of the Theatre Through The Telescope season, a collection of plays sharing the theme of science, this is a work created by the Complicité theatre company.

It’s central premise is memory, it’s fallibility, how we shape it, how it shapes us, and how it connects us to past generations.

Moving from separated lovers in London to a mummified 5,000 year old corpse in Austria, via travellers, tourists and workers, making observations along the way. How today’s citizen was yesterday’s immigrant, and possibly tomorrow’s refugee?

One line resonated most with me, that ‘the biggest discovery of our present is the immensity of our past’. Using a simple leaf and a blindfold, the cast shows us how all our pasts are irretrievably connected, that it’s a mathematical certainty that we are family, not a theory. Yet violence is also our legacy.

In the end, all we have, like the mummy, are scraps and fragments

The cast of ten excitingly bring to life a vast selection of eclectic characters, some recurring, some not, but all moving the narrative along at a fast pace. That they do all this while at the same time acting as stagehands, setting up props for scenes and re-setting them, is pretty damned impressive.

These are the theatre makers of tomorrow, and based on this example, tomorrow is in good hands.

Kevin Johnson