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For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy

For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy writer and Director Ryan Calais Cameron’s vision is bold and unapologetic, weaving together a tapestry of vignettes that oscillate between introspection and explosive catharsis. 

Inspired by Ntozake Shange’s 1976 work For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf, Calais Cameron’s play opens with six young men: Tobi King Bakare, Shakeel Haakim making his professional debut, Fela Lufadeju, Albert Magashi, Mohammed Mansaray and Posi Morakinyo. 

This is a memorable piece about Black masculinity and Black life in Britain, the wounds and crises of class conditioned by the background weather of race and identity. The nature of manhood is one of Mr. Calais Cameron’s chief concerns.

It’s an entirely unique vision and wrongfoots us from the start. Exhilarating and emotionally rich exploration of masculinity, mental health and the six men’s relationship with black history. The production’s emotional intensity is all the greater for the fierce restraint that the actors—and the characters—display.

One is passed over by the girls playing kiss-chase. Another is subjected to a “routine check” by police in Hackney. There’s the one who accuses his educated friend of being “whitewashed” as he tries to fit in. This was exciting, unnerving, bristling with youth and volume. 

The crucial thing is that this play – now on its second West End run – is urging people to look hard at these profound issues around human behaviour, and really think about what makes people who they are. 

Here, too, the entire ensemble’s acting is elegant, emotional, and superb in all its impacted pain and ongoing struggles. The combination of artistry and emotional directness in this play is overwhelming to me.

Anna Reid’s fluorescent playground set and costume design is terrific. The music — hip-hop, R&B, astute classical sound design and composition by Nicola T. Chang — is both surprising and perfect. 

Lighting wise, Rory Beaton paints the stage not in the gritty, neorealist tones expected of such streetwise stories, but with the rich textures and saturated colours of a waking dream that uniquely mixes music, movement, storytelling, and verse.

Overall, this is a provocative piece of theatre that delves deep into the complexities of the black male experience. With raw honesty and poetic flair, the production navigates themes of identity, mental health, and systemic oppression with an unflinching gaze. 

Red Pitch, a piece about three Black teenagers first seen at the Bush, is running up the road at the new Soho Place theatre. Watching this at the Garrick Theatre I noticed how racially and socially mixed the audience was compared with nearly every other West End show. 

But we’re starved of these narratives in the West End and Calais Cameron’s raw drama showcases why they are so hugely important.

Considering this started life at the 80-seater New Diorama in 2021, it’s a stunning achievement but also proves theatre can flourish on the small scale, by commissioning fresh, interesting work that doesn’t rely on expensive production.

Late to the party, I know. Alas, I doubt that I will see a better play in the West End this year.

For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy is at the Garrick theatre, London until 4 May

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Faith Healer

Faith Healer at Lyric Hammersmith is a poignant exploration of faith, deception, and the blurred lines between reality and illusion. Rachel O’Riordan’s immaculate production transcends the stage to deliver an emotionally stirring evening, both competently staged and beautifully spoken.

A lost showbusiness world is conjured through stirring monologues, hauntingly delivered by Declan Conlon, Justine Mitchell and Nick Holder

Thematically, Faith Healer grapples with weighty existential questions, exploring the knotty nature of faith, the limits of human empathy, and the search for meaning. Brian Friel’s bleak 1979 play unfolds through four simmering monologues delivered by three characters: Frank, the travelling faith healer; his shellshocked wife (or mistress), Grace; and his chatty manager, Teddy. (The only thing that all three characters agree on is what route they took into Ireland).

What to make of Frank? On good nights, he is a saviour. On bad nights, he’s a fraud.

At the heart of this luminescent production is the exceptional cast, who breathe life into Friel’s richly drawn characters. “As a young man I chanced to flirt with it and it possessed me,” Declan Conlon’s Hardy says, warm, lilting, direct, eyes widening theatrically at that word ‘possessed’. Grace, played with boozy raw emotion by Justine Mitchell, captures the heartache and resilience of a woman grappling with love and loss. And Teddy, brought brilliantly to vaudevillian life with wit by an excellent cockney ‘dear heart’-ing Nick Holder.

It’s all about the story that demands the total attention of the audience and gets the performance of their lives from the actors. Elsewhere, Grace allows herself to let in certain memories of Frank, “like a patient returning to solids”.

Colin Richmond’s smoky cracked earth set and costume design and evocative lighting by Paul Keogan creates an atmosphere of introspection, the non-linear structure of the play is handled with attention to detail, with each overlapping monologue building to create a complex narrative. A test of our faith in what we see and hear.


Through the lens of Frank’s dubious gift and the characters’ fractured relationships, the play invites us to ponder the ways in which we construct our own realities and the lengths we will go to hold onto our beliefs. The riveting play struck me as a masterpiece: one in which Friel wrestles with the artist’s dependence on the unpredictability of inspiration, and at its deepest level the play seems to be exploring the mystery of creativity itself, as if Friel were attempting to come to terms with his own unreliable genius.

While I have your attention, I want to pick up on Kate Kellaway’s Guardian review of Faith Healer

“Nick Holder is a terrific comic turn as Teddy, Frank’s cockney manager. He is a drab, drunk, Humpty Dumpty of a man in a slovenly waistcoat, but never more than a belly laugh away from pathos.”

The thing that really irked me was Kellaway cruelly comparing a performer to ‘Humpty Dumpty’. 

Yeah, wow. I think an apology is in order, Kate. 

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Opening Night

THE joy and the pain of writing about theatre is that, after a while, you realise you’ve seen almost everything theatre has to offer.

Please forgive any sense of over-indulgence, exaggeration or deja-vu that accompanies the following announcement, but I think I may just have watched the best worst musical of all time.

“I’ve been in the theatre all my life and I still don’t know anything about it,” cries one character. Well, quite.

After a few minutes of Opening Night, I began to get that depressed feeling, and, after a half hour, felt rather offended. 

In the West End, cynicism and pessimism are natural bedfellows. Do we really need another piece of musical theatre about sad actresses?

The show includes an immersive segment in which Sheridan Smith’s character, Myrtle, collapses in a drunken state outside the stage door with the scenes projected onto screens inside.

There’s so much going on – flashbacks and crosscutting – that you’re never allowed any peace. Why? To keep you from getting bored. It succeeds in that, but the effect is nerve jangling.

Something odd happened during Opening Night, which is based on the 1977 film of the same name, with music and lyrics by Rufus Wainwright, on Shaftesbury Avenue, London.

One minute the star Smith was quietly contemplating how to ‘make magic out of tragic’.

The next, a dubstep backing track had kicked in and Smith was murdering ghost girl Nancy (Shira Haas), – who doesn’t exist – with a lamp. 

At which point — and I make no apology for this reaction — I exploded, with laughter, not just because the scene itself was unintentionally very funny, but I’d also noticed the entire row in front of me had left during the interval. 

Admittedly, it could’ve been even more mortifying if Cameron Mackintosh had popped out from behind one of the doors and joined in on backing vocals.

You could also describe it as “so bad it’s good”, but that would underestimate the scale of this one massively. 

I hated act 1. I left the Theatre delirious. 

Van Hove sets up promising situations and then the pay offs are out of step. The show is full of bits of dialogue that have lost what they connected with, character relations that have become disjointed, scenes that dribble off, so after the first 30 minutes or so the production loses momentum.

In the story, Myrtle, played by Smith, is having a nervous breakdown after the death of one of her fans, the very image of her younger self.

Various men letch over her. And so, it continues. A visual atrocity with an unnerving use of creepy physical intimacy, and a tired use of video footage. 

And, no, technically it’s not actually a musical, it’s a very po-faced play with jazzy music. Smith’s work doesn’t hold together here, but how could it? 

Opening Night is so epically, wonderfully, bloody awful it’s occasionally brilliant. 

Still, the cast are seriously talented, and they saw it right through to the bitter end and then, like trained psychopaths, carried on the curtain call as if nothing untoward had happened, cheerfully clapping along with no coordination and telling us: “You gotta make magic out of tragic.” 

This is clearly not just my opinion. Because I want to make it clear I am laughing at this show, not with it. One can have a fairly good time laughing at Act 2, but it doesn’t sit too well as a joke because the people on stage are being humiliated and underused. (I didn’t really enjoy seeing Sheridan Smith making a fool of herself)

The 16 credited producers clearly haven’t noticed what they’re doing, though, as they’ve spent the preview period chopping and changing this from an incoherent shambles into a dystopian Funny Girl

Without Smith the piece is extinct.

Someone really should’ve had a word here and said: “Ivo, darling, loved your A Little Life, but Sunset Boulevard did all this with more style.” But they didn’t.

This is not to deny that the actors do a good job. I thought Hadley Fraser tried his best. 

Yet, for all its skill, I found myself admiring Jan Versweyveld’s lighting more than relishing drama.

But look, when Van Hove goes wrong, he goes laboriously, painfully wrong.

Anyway, Opening Night is, at least itself: and has become more like a weird cross between Zorro – The Musical and Merrily We Roll Along — with zero joy or musicality. 2.5 wretched hours of dissonant play-within-the-play madness. 

Opening Night is at the Gielgud theatre, London, until 27 July

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God, Lyonesse

The title of Penelope Skinner’s play refers to a mythical lost kingdom in Cornwall buried under the sea. Yet the themes are wide-ranging: #MeToo, cancel culture, the oppression of women and more.

Lily James

I’d have had a lot less room to moan, though, if it had a couple of 3D characters and just one moment of tension to fill the West End in these bleak winter months. 

The cast look like they’ve been forced into positions by a cattle prod and would welcome the sweet release of a stun gun rather than endure one more second of this.

Speaking to the Guardian, Skinner, who shot to fame in 2011 when The Village Bike opened at the Royal Court, said she began writing Lyonesse in 2019 and ended up with a first script that was four hours long and ‘a little crazy’, in her own words.

‘It was not a play that anyone would want to watch,’ she admitted, before adding she went back to the drawing board to rewrite the whole thing. The only element she retained was Scott-Thomas’s character Elaine.

It’s mostly dreadful, in fact, and lacks even enough skill and subtlety to pace itself. 

The plot? Kate (Lily James) is an ambitious film executive and high achieving north London mother sent to draw Elaine’s life story out of her to re-fashion it for a film. But she is misunderstood by her husband (James Corrigan); considered irrational for abandoning her child; and humiliated; driven to melancholia spending time in the Cornish dump. She breezes through most of this.

Kristin Scott Thomas

Early on, Kristin Scott Thomas delivers a stand-up monologue that culminates in her jumping around to Ultra Nate’s You’re Free with her lesbian poet neighbour Chris (Sara Powell).

I want to be specific about my grounds, because so many people – and male reviewers especially – have been falling back on narrow or simply savage criticisms of virtue signalling. Lyonesse is short on characters, detail, activity, proper dialogue, even music.

Alas, it would be easy to be able to say that Ian Rickson’s 3-hour production of Lyonesse is bad strictly on formal and technical grounds, but that would, I think, be fundamentally a lie. It is very poor technically but that’s not all that makes it bad.

The play is full of bits of dialogue that have lost what they coupled with, character dynamics that have become rambling, scenes that trickle off. And I am certain it would be 20 minutes shorter if Scott Thomas had a grasp of irony and natural timing for comedy.

Despite all the activity, or perhaps because of it, the main characters are rather flat. Like many of us, it tries to be a success and unpack the implications of patriarchy and inevitably fails on both counts. This a play so obviously engineered that you can’t help seeing its form, maybe the writing accounted for the quality as much as the directing did.

Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James

“It is time for me to step into the light,” Elaine (Kristin Scott Thomas) announces, a former star actress who disappeared without trace three decades previously.

In the most ludicrous single sequence, James plays a scene of comic female incompetence; she’s unable to light a house fire – that would be a historical low point on the Harold Pinter stage if the character didn’t later accidentally do it in an out of pace slapstick sequence. 

For me, the real kicker arrives, though, in Act 2, which was rushed, confused, and barely raised a laugh, it is difficult to know why it is so badly structured and edited. 

Elsewhere, alpha female boss Sue (Doon Mackichan) whose company specialises in “female driven narratives”, forgot her lines (it happens) the line was “Do you know what I think?”. 

Mackichan yelled frantically off stage: “Yes, Janine?” as if we were supposed to think her office door had been knocked on. 

The off-stage prompt came “do you know what I think?” this was Doon’s line.

Unfortunately, Doon has had to withdraw from Lyonesse due to a ‘private family matter.’

Doon Mackichan and Lily James

Do you know what I think?

New writing needs development, it needs space and it needs investment. Why is it 3 hours? Why are there stuffed parrots? Why is the set so lame? Why did nobody in dramaturgy intervene? Why demonise the entire male sex? 

This could have been brilliant. 

Still, as far as bold new writing on a West End stage, though? Lyonesse makes for lousy viewing.

Lyonesse plays at the Harold Pinter theatre, London, until 23 December

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Mesmerising Sweeney Todd got me by the throat

Sweeney and Mrs Lovett (image with him sat on chair)

Lots to love about Nick Bagnall’s stripped-back Sweeney Todd in Liverpool, including the cast, acting, and absorbing scenes between Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett and the decision to set it in a time of Brexhaustion. Everything seems fresh minted. 

Bagnall’s wickedly heartfelt production with just four musicians and nine actors is something very special indeed. The marriage of humour and horror is expertly done and never gimmicky. 

Liam Tobin is a grounded Demon Barber of Fleet Street, who “shaved the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard of again.” His ghoulish demeanour is always striking.  

‘Demons are prowling everywhere, nowadays,’ observes young street orphan Tobias, here played brilliantly by Shiv Rabheru, in ‘Not While I’m Around’. This sequence shines through the prism of social poverty, environmental apocalypse and Brexit Britain. 

It’s a lot more earnest, prescient as well.

You can see why Everyman programmed Sondheim’s musical thriller: it’s a genuinely political piece about austerity, the underdog and the lengths that desperate people will go to for survival. 

The thing that’s really been obsessing me though, is everything about the muted design and brilliant cast who prove truly inventive – interacting with the audience with verve and wrapping their brains around Sondheim’s complex score with a knowing wink.

Michael Vale’s design envelopes the stage with simple effects and minimal props – the staging is in the round and the action takes place on a metallic disc that is often lit from below in tones of blood red and spooky green. 

There is real invention: the cast take turns to rotate the central action manually using their hands or a stick. 

The most surprising thing about this Sweeney Todd, however, is Kacey Ainsworth as nonchalant Mrs Lovett – the criminal mastermind behind all this human pie-making; dressed in a white vest and wearing trainers Ainsworth has the audience in the palm of her hands from the start and this Mrs Lovett is a creation of true genius.

Ainsworth is very good throughout, especially in extended dream sequence ‘By The Sea’, which may be the happiest few minutes of regional theatre that you will see all year. 

In short, this is the food of love: get on a train and play on.

Sweeney Todd is at Everyman, Liverpool, until 18 May.

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Standing at The Sky’s Edge

Standing At The Sky’s Edge’s portrayal of high-rise communities in the iconic concrete housing estate could hardly be bettered.

It’s an evocative setting.

Park Hill was built in the 1950’s as a solution to the city’s social housing. This new musical is all about that estate, its residents and is something very special indeed. It celebrates the people, place and  times.

Written by Chris Bush and with songs by Richard Hawley this new musical delicately tells the story of three very different families through generations in the 1960s, 80s, and 2000s on Sheffield’s most notorious estate. 

The songs? 

Well, here, Hawley’s lethargic northern atmospheric music sound like being punched in the face feels, in a good way. As comforting as a premium whiskey. 

The music pulses and then retracts before erupting in emotional outbursts. The results are kind of brilliant: a show of world-beating standard yet still intimate and gentle, a cherishing of the mundane, a blast of the everyday, a love of life. 

The story? Bush’s book cleverly tells the tale of three generations of Park Hill tenants. The words probably read like quirky poetry on the page but they cut through the air with wit & warmth when spoken. 

It is inevitably kaleidoscopic and somewhat beautifully fragmented, leaving the audience to piece together the connections. It’s political too; unpacking the destructive role of class in British society. It feels vital in its portrait of a divided nation.

Technically, Alex Young delivers an all-round emotionally true performance that grips from the start with ‘Lady Solitude’. Nevertheless, a fine cast shine consistently.

In the best possible sense, Standing At The Sky’s Edge is like a 21st Century Blood Brothers: authentic socialist principles intact, a gripping story and frankly sensational songs.

We get the industrial pain, Thatcher despair, Brexit Britain & more, it wears its political heart on its sleeve. It isn’t West End razzle dazzle, it is theatre rooted in its time(s) and place. 

There are some big gloriously unifying moments, too — all the ingredients are here for a massive crossover theatre moment, and it couldn’t happen to a more deserving creative team. 

In Act 1 closing number ‘There’s a Storm A-Comin’ a sofa is lobbed off a balcony, litter bins are emptied across the stage & the current political crisis context lends the audacious choreography  an added intensity. 

Robert Hastie’s production delights in being visceral. Ben Stone’s concrete multi-level design are to be both stunningly simple and enchanting; it all adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts. 

Seriously, this show made grown men around me weep, made me fall deeper in love with Sheffield than I have ever been before, could save as many relationships as it ignites. It touched people around me deeply. 

Act 2 swells the heart completely and invites the audience in with the unavailingly stirring ‘Standing At The Sky’s Edge’ during this storming scene the company takes off; ensemble are startlingly confrontational. 

I mean, bloody hell. 

Later on, intimacy suits: ‘After The Rain’ is so fragile as to nearly come apart at the seams. Importantly, it was a lot of fun.

This is a musical that, in Robert Hastie’s beautifully clear production, left the heart full & the brain buzzing. 

Standing at The Sky’s Edge deserves to transfer to our Royal National Theatre. 

Cheers, Rufus. 

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Young Frankenstein: do we all make our own monsters?

The gender roles in Young Frankenstein raise huge questions around our own collusion as audiences and Mel Brooks’ musical comedy starring Ross Noble, Hadley Fraser, Summer Strallen and Lesley Joseph is ruffling feathers.

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The background is that, in Natasha Tripney’s two-star review for The Stage she makes her case very pertinently about how certain attitudes towards women feed in to a culture that is damaging to women. “You could argue that I’m taking things too seriously, that this show is basically benign and just out to make its audience laugh, but this stuff matters. It adds up. It contributes to a culture in which men in positions of power, movie producers say, can treat women like they exist solely for their titillation and amusement. It’s damaging – and it’s just not funny anymore.

Similarly, Alice Saville wrote a piece for Exeunt (Let’s not forget that Tripney co-founded Exeunt) examining mass culture and sexism within the industry, but misses a trick of weighing the best of the present against the worst of the past. Saville too seems to think that the Guardian’s Chief Theatre critic is conspiring against women: “If the most common way to deal with women who call out sexism and harassment is silence, a close second is this time-honoured strategy of casting people who object to rape jokes and sexism as humourless. Michael Billington’s Guardian review seems to do so, too, albeit in a weird coded way – “This may not be a show for sensitive souls whose idea of a jolly evening is sitting at home reading Walter Pater. For the rest of us, who cherish popular theatre’s roots in laughter and song, it offers two-and-a-half hours of time-suspending pleasure.”

Good grief.

This recurring debate speaks volumes – and prompts this writer’s irony-meter to explode – especially when Young Frankenstein is a musical from a lost vaudevillian universe where the women were leggy and offence was given (and taken) in the spirit it was intended. This all happened in a time pre ‘Trial By Social Media.’

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Can the imagery of gender stereotypes, now so deeply carved on our brains, prevent us from looking beyond the roles assigned to us? I found the elements in question to be a subversive use of entertainment as a means of consciousness-raising. This show is portraying a period, with humour and accuracy.

I felt uncomfortable at times. But isn’t that the point?

Post-Weinstein, I was hyper-aware about my own gaze at the females on stage; but the performances in question here are very funny and subtly ridiculing that.

Even when Hadley Fraser lecherously embraces his fiancé and she pushes his tongue back into his mouth, singing ‘Please Don’t Touch Me’ – I couldn’t but applaud what in other hands might seem tasteless. It could be argued that the show is an inappropriate artefact and should be *at the very least* seriously reconstructed or consigned to the archives. Or, how about not watching it?

Amid the frenzy, we should also pause to remember the Mel Brooks’ heyday as a filmmaker was in the 1960s and 1970s, when sociopath Richard Nixon was in office. Brooks is one of the greatest comedians of the twentieth century whose work is slapstick, irreverent and certainly not polemic.

It’s true that some genres, such as comedy, have thrived on dementedly sexualised and explicitly demeaning imagery of leggy women and ‘funny-sexy’ for decades, but this old-fashioned approach should not represent a line being crossed. I think it’s slightly naïve to beat up the past with the stick of the present.

We know now that sex and sexuality is always going to be part of theatre, and always should be.

But that’s not to say it’s all plain sailing…

After the show I asked ten humans, who identified as female, whether they found anything in Young Frankenstein to be a) offensive or b) misogynistic. Interestingly, they all said no. One woman told me: “I am actually pretty sick and tired of all this right-on idiocy. I have three daughters and I have raised them as independent women. We have loved every minute of it.”

Another woman that I was sat next to told me: “I didn’t want a female Doctor Who – but here we are. I don’t need approval from anybody to enjoy the theatre, I don’t read reviews because the writers often bring their own agenda.”

Nevertheless, just because the ten women did not have a problem with the content of the musical as a misogyny-fest does not mean that no female humans will have a problem with the representation of women on stage.

If a lost British musical was unearthed tomorrow featuring a cartoon monster raping a woman in a cave as a term of abuse, would Cameron Mackintosh commission it, or would he censor it? He’d censor it.

Perhaps there should have been a 2017 sensibility to Young Frankenstein, in much the same way that racist elements are removed from repeats of 1970’s sitcoms on daytime TV. Arguments that “they’ve been playing it uncensored for decades” are irrelevant: society moves on, which is why slavery is a crime, marriage is equal, homosexuality is not a crime and why women are allowed to vote.

Obviously, the history of patriarchy is extensive and entrenched. So, do we remake these stories and tell them differently if we are going to change our own culture and its attitudes towards women? Progress on justice for women is slow, but it’s happening. Young Frankenstein has been directed with aplomb by Broadway’s finest director-choreographer, Susan Stroman. What’s that? A female director, in the West End.

Whether it is cynical, misogynistic, artistic, all three or none, perhaps this will prove a cultural blip, a peculiar aberration like the huge success of the Take That musical: The Band that theatre fans in the future will look back on as nothing more than a snapshot of pop culture in 2017.

But it is hard not to feel that in 2077, people are more likely to look back on the fuss around Young Frankenstein in the way we now regard the reaction, 50 years ago, to the uproar of ‘Springtime for Hitler’ featuring goose-stepping chorus girls and choreographed swastikas: as rather quaint.

I salute Young Frankenstein for sticking a bonfire under good taste and scorching political correctness. Theatre is full of surprises. All we can do, as audiences, is say it how we see it and respond accordingly because there’s nothing more miserable than silence.

We all make our own monsters and I don’t think that anybody associated with Young Frankenstein is one.

Anyway, there is something rotten in the world if you need approval to laugh at a Mel Brooks musical.

Go and see it for yourself.

N.B. I am, though, still upset that there wasn’t a gay bar in Transylvania.

Young Frankenstein runs at the Garrick Theatre until September 2018.