Mercury Theatre Productions

Oxford University National Tour Production

Written and directed by Alex Blanc
Jack: Henry Waddon
Michael: Joe Woodman
Brianna: Abi Harindra

Rialto Theatre, Brighton (Edinburgh preview)

‘… a lighthearted, honest look at male mental health in the 21st century, and we’re really proud to be working in association with the UK’s leading mental health charity SANE on the production. It aims to show that recovery is possible; in the midst of a crisis in mental health, Numbers’ core message is one of hope.’ (producers)

We think we’ve seen this before – three young actors, three chairs, an Edinburgh-focussed hour on a black box stage. But this goes above and beyond expectations. Writer/director Alex Blanc’s tale of three troubled young people is sharply observed and written in a fluent, natural voice.

A therapy group’s a classic storytelling setting. We’re the other members of the circle, hearing Jack and Michael sharing their stories of who they are and what’s happening to them, with the message that boys too suffer emotional distress and tortured self image.

The writing slips between monologues and conversations, with Jack sometimes commenting on the story and moving the scenes along. On a directorial note, it’s sometimes a little on the nose – characters saying how they feel in an appropriate tone of voice – and a more contradictory reading of the lines might add intrigue and deeper layers, while at times, rapid speaking meant words and meaning were difficult to catch. That great performance energy and a very simple pared down staging kept the pace zipping along, while the few issues with the lighting can be easily polished ready for Edinburgh.

As Brianna, Abi Harindra’s sincere, giving performance is the initially ‘all about me’ girlfriend who gradually comes to a deeper understanding of what’s happening and matures into her new more adult self.

There’s ambiguity too in Michael’s story, Joe Woodman’s tightly-wound portrayal of the all too familiar tale of a gay teen rejected by his parents and seen as a problem to be solved by their church. Is he telling the truth, though?

In the lead role, Henry Waddon’s Jack is a young man struggling to deal with life. Little setbacks, a lost football match, trigger a spiral into depression, anxiety and bulimia. Waddon delivers a physically relaxed and vocally assured exploration of explosive emotional depths engagingly flavoured with a sweet sense of humour. One to watch.

The Numbers tour continues:

Edinburgh Fringe, C Aquila Temple: 1-26th Aug
Oxford, Old Fire Station: 4-6th September

Philippa Hammond

The Merchant of Venice

Sussex Playwrights Reviews

The Merchant of Venice
Brighton Shakespeare Company
BOAT, June 2019

The hottest day of the year slanted through a green amphitheatre lends occasion to comedy lanced with shadows. Brailsford’s Brighton troupe – the Brighton Shakespeare Company – make BOAT the Shakespeare go-to in late June. Last year’s vigorous The Comedy of Errors darkens this year with The Merchant of Venice from 1597.

The title role’s taken by Paul Moriarty (also Duke of Arragon), Shylock by Jules Craig. With Amy Sutton as Portia – a role she rightly claims she’s born to play – Kerren Garner’s raucous Nerissa and Duncan Drury’s ardent Bassanio, it’s a line-up that almost guarantees distinction.

Moriarty’s melancholic voice commands distinction from the first, as gadflies Lorenzo (Andrew Crouch, excellent) and Stewart Barham’s skirling Gratiano float round before the entrance of Bassanio. The initially quiet Crouch livens up when courting Rachel Mullock’s joyous, flirty Jessica.

Drury and Moriarty render the homoeroticism latent and affectionate, the latter fatalistic and weary from the first, his young friend in Drury’s reading. Drury’s not quite the ruthless go-getter, his feeling for Antonio and later Portia is genuine and alter (with the ring scene) conflicted. There’s no sense that Moriarty’s delicate but firm underlining of his feelings are reciprocated or perhaps recognized. Drury’s Bassanio is casually venal, entitled to a degree, an attractive insider-dealer heedless of consequence. But he’s neither cruel not within his limits insincere. As we find.

Barham’s gravelly disdain is venom contained, less sheerly cruel to Shylock than some and winningly raunch for raunch with Garner’s in-your-face lust as Nerissa, the maid to Portia who unlike her mistress can choose and blatantly does in front of her (no matter decorum would forbid, the emotional truth of it is overwhelming). Her desire’s expressed in dance-offs. In this production the constraints of the ardent aristos are underscored by their servants’ licence (Gratiano’s status cemented after wedding Nerissa). Barham too makes a parodic peacock of the Prince of Morocco.

It’s the same with Crouch and Mullock: flirty, passionate (Jessica grabs Lorenzo from the start) less lusty than sexy. Their playful badinage in V I is beautifully pointed, darkening from mythic classics to parries at ‘pretty Jessica’ fully answered but not really portending any fractiousness. Crouch literally dances attendance and their playfulness is balletic. This Jessica casts few shadows save at the end when she realizes how she inherits what she does.

Directed by Mark Brailsford and with costumes designed by Sean Chapman (Shylock and ‘Balthazar’ striking in black, period robes seamed mainly with old reds and saffron) this production is segmented by a music system directed by Brailsford (Strauss waltzes in the interval, Praetorius period dances otherwise), with Associate director Sarah Mann and Assistant director cast-member Kerren Garner. The set’s by ‘Ethel Mermen’. With minimal props – two benches, three caskets and a set of scales – there’s otherwise just a seductive backdrop panel of Venice with gondolas in yellow and black duo-chrome. The BOAT team supply standard facilities and lighting.

The badinage between Sutton and Garner is exquisite, both in their initial scene together when they parody previous suitors with basso and falsetto voices, and when confronting Barham’s preening Morocco and Moriarty’s rickety Arragon, full of frog Franglais.

Sutton’s distinctly terraced voicing and stage command from purr to latter steely judgement is quicksilver contained in dignity. Sutton never overstates the envelope of a rich woman richly left but inured to one constraint; but she’s deliriously playful within that. She manages though a different entitlement to Bassanio: one who knows the use of things for others’ sake, admittedly easy for her.

It’s here when Drury proves his mettle, quick sincere and decisive in his rejection of the gold and silver to Sutton’s quickening excitement, he chooses true. Drury proves here and in the subsequent trial scene his genuine agonizing and worthiness as much as any Bassanio can deserve the depth of a Portia.

There’s different registers for suitors, for Bassanio – where she breaks decorum when demanding to be claimed with a passionate kiss – and her later avatar: all recognizably different but in character. Thus Sutton’s Dr Balthazar really does seem and look different: by turns a paper-fumbling Colombo, pleading, steely, remorseless. Sutton spares some of the anti-Semitism now attributed to Portia. The text has been lightly edited.

Similarly she and Garner run rings round their hapless spouses in the two ring scenes, where Sutton literally rings with consonants. The trial scene where she takes on Craig is notably powerful: keen, spare, rivetingly lucid – which goes for the production but never more so than here.

Brailsford’s major role is Launcelot Gobbo – a role he takes in the spirit of Eric Morecombe judging by his dancing exits. It’s a characterful almost kindly reading, not as nasty as some and without the anti-Semitic point of the original. There’s a sense in which tis production wants to underscore the summery outdoors of its setting and concentrate tragedy in Shylock alone, but for Antonio’s incurable melancholy.

Garner’s Tubal to Craig’s Shylock. It occasions one of Shylock’s great monologues after an earlier one to Gratiano (‘Hath not a Jew…’). Craig’s Shylock is doubly discriminated against as a Jew and a woman. Craig brings out the desperation and revenge Shylock seeks through the only recourse she has: law. Craig’s quiet tread to judgement is riven by first Antonio’s unrepentant hostility even when making the bond – Moriarty spits in fact. And by the later discovery of Jessica’s betrayal.

This is expressed – to Tubal – in the ring (originally ‘had of Leah’) which is substituted ‘husband’ and ‘his’ not ‘my bachelor days’ of the engagement ring casually discarded by Jessica for a monkey, which Craig laments she would not have parted ‘for a wilderness of monkeys’ Rather quite in the first three acts, Craig is notably commanding in the latter two acts, basilisk-eyed and like Sutton, remorseless in front of Brailsford’s Duke of Venice. Her final ‘I am content’ after judgement is taken after a long pause and a visible shrinking into herself. It’s masterly.

There’s fine support from Katy Matthews as Solario and Gaoler as well as stage manager.

The final scenes as suggested are taken at a light lick. There’s no lingering fear from either Portia or Jessica, let alone Nerissa that things will go wrong. They’ve all commanded their respective husbands and as the final dance-off shows ‘put a ring on it’ to Beyoncé’s bouncy send-off. Despite a very occasional energy drop in Acts Two and Three this is a production of real distinction, one of the best I’ve seen outside the Globe and RSC. Sutton matches any Portia and Craig’s Shylock is a revelation.

Directed by Mark Brailsford and with costumes designed by Sean Chapman (supplied by Gladrags) this production is segmented by a music system directed by Brailsford (Strauss waltzes in the interval, Praetorius period dances otherwise), with Associate director Sarah Mann and Assistant director cast-member Kerren Garner. ASM’s Oscar Smart.

The set’s by ‘Ethel Mermen’. With minimal props – two benches, three caskets and a set of scales, there’s otherwise just a seductive backdrop panel of Venice with gondolas in yellow and black duo-chrome.

The BOAT team supply standard facilities and lighting.

Tour dates TBA.

Simon Jenner
Sussex Playwrights

The production will next appear at Lewes Castle

Brighton Shakespeare Company



ritten, directed and performed by Lauren Varnfield
Pretty Villain Productions

‘I was a normal human being for 18 years before I met Ian’

It’s a full house tonight. That peroxide bob and sullen shadowed glare mugshot is already here live on stage, as we walk in, and we reckon we know this story, told in a tight, edgy forty-five minutes.

But Varnfield’s is a seemingly impossible achievement – research, writing and performance altering the way we’ve always seen Myra the monster.

These days we understand more of the lasting effects of physical and emotional abuse on the developing child and adolescent brain. Details of Myra’s grim childhood and teenage infatuation with the mesmerising psychopath Brady suggest that today, coercive control might actually be a credible defence.

A visit from the police, handcuffs, a holding cell – we don’t learn how they were caught, it’s irrelevant and this isn’t the police story.

Time passes via headlines; politics, social history, public events all stream by while Myra is incarcerated. It’s a great use of projection to create a sense of wasted decades.

The play flickers between scenes, backwards and forwards in time, eloquently showing how the past is always with us. Varnfield’s swiftly shifting performance is superb; brittle young girl, constantly on high alert, confusing excitement, arousal and terror til she can’t tell one from the other, contrasts the ageing imprisoned Myra, still, hunched, the voice low, slow and weary.

So was she really the changed, kindly woman Longford portrayed? We’re left with our own conclusions, guided by the letter from a mother begging for the peace that the truth might have offered.

The final moments are chilling; a video journey along the long, lonely road under boiling clouds up onto the Moor.

Rialto Theatre to June 1st
Philippa Hammond

Further Education

Further Education
By Pete Barrett
Directed by Pip O’Neill and Luke Ofield
Unmasked Theatre

New Writing South Best New Play Award 2019 Shortlist

Unmasked Theatre present their second NWS shortlisted show this Fringe; also a 2018 Brighton Scratch Night winner, they delivered a well-received extract at the last Sussex Playwrights event, so we’re well primed for this often very funny slice of recent history.

1985. The miners’ strike is raging, communities are in conflict and the picket lines need manning. Barrett’s play, written a few years after the picketing wars, is only now receiving its first production. Yet it feels so recent, relevant and raw – and how can all those great songs be over thirty years old?

Neil James as Frank is an everyman fish out of water with a Not Going Out vibe, a 40-something striking Liverpudlian miner dossing in a group of right-on young feminist students’ grotty cluttered flat. We’re with him in his distaste for their Mates, bras and disgusting mug-infested squalor – his Superwoman wife would never let THAT happen.

Frank’s the most complex character in the piece, a creature of contrasts – he’s an eloquent exploration of what it might be to be the man of the house, the exhausted life-risking breadwinner in an ultimately doomed job. Staring at middle age and with another kid on the way, this cause – and this fling – might be his last chance to reconnect with his youth and secure a future. And while calling out the casual unthinking sexism of the miners, all set to beat up offending colleagues, he’s still up for launching into a family-betraying affair.

As an unlikely class-hopping friendship develops between Frank and Chris Gates’ hilarious philandering tutor Jake, channelling Hugh Grant as a chap with a habit – it was apparently OK back then – there’s a subtext suggesting that even the nicest guy will fall, faced with a pretty girl young enough to be his daughter, and when the ring comes off, so does fidelity.

Jessica Smith (Emma), Bronte Sandwell (Claire) and Ella Verity (Rachel) are a great trio, delivering fresh, engaging performances as the larky flatmates. The girls don’t quite get away with it though; committed young feminists flip happily into a quick thrill with the thoughtlessness of youth, up for a fantasy bit of fun without consequences – until the reality is suddenly sitting in their house. Now we’re weighing how much we like them all with what two of them are actually up to.

Kim Wright (Melanie) and Karen Antoni (Anne), both playing weeks away from giving birth, drop the heaviness of pregnancy, slow difficult movements, responsibility personified, into this exhilarating mix. It’s a new twist, a new flavour introduced later on by wary seen-it-before Melanie and mistakenly secure Anne. We see potentially ruined lives played for farce, and it’s both funny and uncomfortable, but we never really resolve the betrayal in these relationships. It’s about Frank and his midlife crisis – and how he deals with a terrible event in a way that can only bring more pain to his family.

This show has that essential zippy, pacey feel, with naturalistic dialogue, jags of humour and jolts of surprise in the writing, and real energy and verve in ensemble playing and direction. Ofield and O’Neill’s cast bicker and bitch, blending heartfelt soul searching and an entertaining physicality.

Looking forward to the award announcements.

The Rialto til June 2

Philippa Hammond

The Geminus

… the hypnotic, woozy tempo is shattered in a fabulous bit of final violence

Blue Devil Productions

Written and directed by Ross Dinwiddy

Adapted from The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad

New Writing South Best New Play Award 2019 Shortlist

Sounds of the sea from the start and throughout the play are a constant subtle reminder that we’re aboard a merchant vessel, becalmed somewhere in the East. It’s a hot night and the Captain’s alone on deck as a mysterious fugitive swims out of the darkness …

There’s a working wheel, wreathed in sea mist. While placed at the front it sometimes obscures the actors, it’s a solid thing of wood and brass beauty that together with lit lanterns clearly set the scene. There are sails involved, so we’re probably somewhere in the nineteenth century.

John Black’s cultured young captain Hotson in pristine silk pyjamas is something of a oddity to his crew, staunchly represented by an entertaining double act, Robert Cohen as seasoned old hand Skeres and Ben Baeza as cheeky and presuming young Frizer.

Gareth Wildig is dangerously charming as fugitive Leggatt, whose erudite tale of murder is captivating and enigmatic, and the inexperienced Hotson soon falls under his spell.

Ma Gwen’s a forceful steampunk presence in a great cameo by Christine Kempell, striding on board in pursuit of her murderous escapee as a teetotal Welsh force of nature.

The most minor notes – a few overlong scene changes moving furniture about and the generally measured pace mean the play can feel just a little longer than it needs to be.

A crisis hits in the last moments as the wind picks up and the hypnotic, woozy tempo is shattered in a fabulous bit of final violence. Director and cast deliver some terrific fighting; nasty, desperate punching, wrestling and chucking themselves and each other around, as the stranger slips into the ocean and out of the tale.

The writing’s formal, showcasing its literary origins, an ancient mariner spinning his mesmerising tale, and it works – we’re as intrigued as Hotson, whose finds his true nature and command in the closing moments.

Sensitively portrayed love scenes and fleeting nudity in Blue Devil’s trademark matter of fact style.

The Rialto until the 25th May
The play transfers to London in August

Philippa Hammond

Good Grief

… balance between humour and a profound long-covered-up frozen grief

By Edwin Preece
Swallows Theatre
Directed by Sue Goble

Un-named Mother (Sue Goble) and her two grown children Sam (Sam Standen) and Becky (Gigi Liley) meet for – a celebration? A wake? A long delayed start to the natural grieving process? There’s champagne and an expensive meal out, but two people are missing. Anthony and Dad should be here, but for a long ago accident that froze the family’s emotional growth for years. Today, things will start to change.

The story of that long ago accident is told by the three characters piecing together fragmented memories, sometimes talking to us through inner thoughts and filtered memories, and sometimes to each other.

The staging’s a little static – it’s a small space with little room to manouevre, which is always a directing challenge. We begin with Mum seated, and later the family round the table on a stage at the same level as most of the audience, so it’s difficult to see the actors, which can then reduce that essential audience/actor engagement.

Preece’s writing captures that buttoned-up family habit of keeping everything pleasant, anything to avoid feeling sad. Being messy. The credible result is that the family’s grief has never been journeyed through, never dealt with.

Every word crystal clear, with a uniformly polite, measured delivery, I understood every nuance – yet didn’t quite feel that suspension of disbelief that this was happening in front of me, that the words were igniting in the characters’ minds at that moment. Several ‘breaking down’ moments could be rethought – it’s always more engaging and moving when the character controls and speaks through emotion.

There are laughs here, too – family silliness and little foibles we can all recognise and feel connected with. That balance between humour and a profound long-covered-up frozen grief strikes a chord with this full house, as the thaw begins.

Current run now ended.

Philippa Hammond


Chittenden’s writing delivers a world of unique voices

By Sam Chittenden

Different Theatre

Music by Simon Scardanelli, performed live by the cast, accompanied by Judey Bignell

Co-directed by Sam Chittenden and Katie Turner-Halliday (of Heifer productions)

Design by Delphine Du Barry

New Writing South Best New Play Award 2019 Shortlist

We’re at Sweet@The Mayo, a lush private garden, all little spaces and secret discoveries, the setting for this new piece from Sam Chittenden, her third production at this year’s Brighton Fringe.

It wasn’t always a garden – it’s on the site of the drying fields of the Mayo laundry, where generations of Brighton women lived out their working lives and shared the reality of their private lives, too. True stories of the 1950 smallpox outbreak and the first women’s mental health hospital play out here, interwoven together with songs and fictional tales of lives lived by women in the 1880s, 1900s, 20s, 50s, 70s, 90s and now.

Each actor is clad to her time, and we gradually notice they’re all subtly wearing Suffragette purple and green. This is real, raw, visceral stuff – love and friendship, childbirth and death, brutality and solidarity. Men don’t come off too well here – all drinkers, thumpers, users and controllers. There’s often a lack of love, attraction and fun when it comes to their stories of the men in their lives.

Women are in the majority today, and it’s clear the stories are resonating around the audience – the play touches on realities we may share, regardless of our time or age. Characters each have their unique voices; cultured and precise gender nonconformity (Abi McLoughlin as Doctor Helen Boyle), gutsy 50s matriarch (Jenny Rowe as Dot), committed young Suffragette (Rebecca Jones as Meg), wounded but unbeaten abuse survivor (Cerys Knighton as Ruby), menopause wisdom and humour (Kerri Hedley-Cheney sparking the laughs as Juliet), thoroughly modern explorer revealing these extraordinary ordinary tales (Chelsea Newton Mountney as Tasha) and deep warmth and raw truth (Sharon Drain as Millicent).

Chittenden’s writing delivers a world of unique voices for each actor to bring to life, in Du Barry’s billowing white setting of linen and cotton in the green, effortlessly conjuring up the world the women knew so well.

This is a terrific venue, shared with the local wildlife. It’s a joy to know I can live in a city for decades and still find places and stories new to me. Through the trees to the horizon, it’s so right that you can just see what was once Brighton’s workhouse, the shadow of what could have happened if you didn’t have the fortune to secure this heavy, taxing work. A fascinating experience, and the perfect venue. Come early to explore – be aware that there are twisting paths and different levels to negotiate as you come in, and the piece has a promenade element so you’ll stand, or sit on the grass. And remember to check out the shed, too; an art installation in its own way.

Philippa Hammond

Sweet@TheMayo 25-27 May