Doctor Faustus – Duke of York’s Theatre

“Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.”
Shakespeare, The Tempest.

Jamie Lloyd’s modern take on Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus  and 21st century excess is certainly pitching high in terms of ambition, but it oozes “director’s theatre” from every filthy crevice. Kit Harington (Game of Thrones) plays the eponymous villain; a man who sells his soul for every pleasure sin has to offer.

The first scene is impenetrable. Christopher Marlowe’s archaic language is delivered with more grandiosity than meaning – a chance for Harington to do some “ACTING”. The ensemble cast creakily drift about the stage (designed by Soutra Gilmour) in ill-fitting once-white underwear, or nothing at all. The nudity isn’t so much gratuitous as inexplicable. With so many foul bodily fluids seeming to leak, ooze and eject from almost every orifice, and a set so squalid that it would cause the How Clean Is Your House? ladies to admit defeat, it’s like watching Dante’s Inferno meets Trainspotting.


Photo by Marc Brenner

Harington is far more magnetic when he transforms into his other persona of a cocksure rockgod, strutting and air-guitaring about the stage, relishing his invincibility, yet all the while being painfully aware of the coven of grimy witnesses who hover ominously throughout. By contrast, slicing through all the sleaze is a beautiful performance by Jade Anouka as Wagner, his demure stage manager (and love interest). Her final scene is uncompromisingly violent – Lloyd has pulled no punches in his direction, and it is thoroughly disturbing to watch.

In spite of the fact that large parts of the show are like wading through treacle, there are some stand out performances, most notably by Jenna Russell as Mephistopheles. She is grotesquely seductive and malevolent, always determined to remind Faustus that he’s made his pact, and should make the most of his immunity from consequence, rather than trying to claw his way back to goodness. She exudes utter vulgarity in her sallow eyes and curl-lipped smiles – the sort that makes you want to go home for a bath. She also treats us late in the interval to some joyfully uninhibited underworld-themed singalongs such as Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell, which help to lift the spirits.

But for all the arduousness, there is some light relief, albeit in the form of some very black humour. Tom Edden as the Good Angel presents some savagely accurate cameos (including the Prime Minister), and a deliciously over-the-top gushy fan, for which he seems to be heavily channelling both the nasal singsong voice of the late Rik Mayall, and the flailing campness of Alan Carr. There’s also some wonderfully macabre dancing (choreographed by Polly Bennett), a few magic illusions, and an amusingly incongruous reference to a Mary Berry cookbook.

Given that the West End is awash with stalwart shows, jukebox musicals, and celebrity castings, it would seem that producers have sold their souls to the mass market and guaranteed bums on seats. Doctor Faustus certainly isn’t ashamed to stand out from the crowd, and there is perhaps an irony in the casting of Harington, in order to pull in the punters for a night of taking a painfully hard look at society and our obsession with fame and fortune.

At it’s heart, it’s shock-theatre – more endured than enjoyed. But if all you really want to see is Kit Harington poncing about in his pants, then providing you don’t mind sitting through 2 hours of Lloyd’s self-indulgent bewilderment, your lust will be more than satisfied.

Thank you to Seat Plan for the tickets!

Doctor Faustus is on until Saturday 25th June 2016 at the Duke of York’s Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London, WC2N 4BG. Contains strong language, nudity, and scenes of sexual violence that some may find distressing. Suitable for ages 17+ (minimum advised age is 14). For tickets and more information, please go to 

How can you do GCSE Drama without theatre?

This article in Standard Issue magazine has recently addressed the issue of GCSE Drama requirements being changed so that seeing live theatre is no longer a requirement for the syllabus.

I can just about understand how this allows schools in remote areas (where they perhaps don’t have easy access to theatres that we have in London and other large towns and cities) to add GCSE Drama to their syllabus. But I am deeply concerned that with funding cuts, it will be all too easy for schools to justify seeing live theatre as a frivolous expense. There is something about the ephemeral quality of theatre, the experience of something being created live in front of you, the acts of teamwork to make it run smoothly, that just don’t translate in quite the same way when watched on screen.

I have very much enjoyed the proliferation of NTLive screenings – they have allowed me to see productions such as The Audience and Frankenstein (which were way beyond my budget and/or sold out) – I can hear the words and sound effects, see the set and movements, but I cannot feel the atmosphere. It is that atmosphere which is so crucial for young minds to fall in love with theatre. To feel a soundtrack pulsate through your body, to have that connection with the performers on stage. By watching this on a screen, you are somewhat dissociated from the action.

It’s painting by numbers, experiencing things second hand; it’s tantamount to watching your chemistry teacher do all the cool stuff with a bunsen burner, it’s seeing someone else’s samples from a geography field trip, it’s regurgitating someone else’s mathematical proof rather than learning to understand it yourself. Sure it helps, but it’s no substitute for doing it yourself.


Here are my list of my favourite theatrical memories which just couldn’t have been achieved by watching it on a screen:

Kenneth Branagh throwing a handful of snow over my head as he walked through the auditorium in The Winter’s Tale. (Having worked for 9 years in retail, I have a hard time getting excited about Christmas until December – and here I was, feeling all twinkly and festive, IN OCTOBER).

Cackling a bit too loudly at theatre joke in The Little Dog Laughed, and Tamsin Grieg making direct eye contact with me and a grin and twitch of the eyebrows that said: “you’ve had this happen, haven’t you?”

Having the bejaysus scared out of me in Ghost Stories and wondering who in the auditorium was screaming (only to realise it was me).

Seeing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in preview, (before the luminous turquoise clunky jerky telephone box was deemed safe for use), with a non-existent invisible Great Glass Elevator, and Willy Wonka and Charlie sat on the floor in the cavernous expanse of a starlit stage. “Come with me, and you’ll see, a world of pure imagination…” was proper spine-tingling stuff, a piece of understated theatrical magic.

The pre-show for Measure For Measure in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, and one of the male actors propping his elbow on my shoulder and asking suggestively: “So… are you working tonight?”

Sitting in the back of a car for This Time Tomorrow at Edinburgh Fringe 2015, in one of the greatest exercises of theatrical intimacy I’ve ever witnessed.

The abundance of theatrical electricity in the auditorium for In The Heights during “Carnaval del Barrio”.

The thundering of tap shoes in Thoroughly Modern Millie rippling through my seat in the tiny Landor Theatre.

The noise and smell of battle in both Titus Andronicus and Henry V at Shakespeare’s Globe.

Getting splashed in a glorious finale of Singin’ In The Rain.

Being addressed directly by both actors in Lampedusa at Soho Theatre.

Having to resist the urge to run onto the stage in War Horse and make them give poor, exhausted Topthorn a break.

Punchdrunk, generally.

People, Places and Things – Wyndham’s Theatre

It’s only April and I think I’ve already found my favourite play of 2016. Technically I found it in March, but it was so good I had to see it a second time. It’s intense, funny, traumatic, beautiful, terrifying, poignant and inspiring – and Denise Gough has more than earned the accolade of Best Actress in the 2016 Olivier Awards.

People, Places and Things takes us into the messy world of rehab, as Emma (Denise Gough), and a selection of other recovering addicts, work through the minefield of physical withdrawl, and the subsequent therapy sessions as they battle the psychological demons which always lead them back to substance abuse: the people, places and things they associate with using.

Denise Gough is absolutely magnetic as Emma: from the minute she ricochets into reception, high as a kite, slurring expletives into her phone, and expecting a quick fix to her problems, she invites us into the unfiltered wreckage of “I can quit anytime I like.” She’s an almost permanent fixture on stage in a role which seems equally draining and exhilarating, and Duncan Macmillan’s perspicacious writing more than passes the Bechdel Test. (Take note, playwrights: THIS is how you write good roles for women).

Bunny Christie has created yet another stunning and versatile set – staged in traverse with some audience seated on the stage, the tiled walls feel very clinical, compounded by the hallucinatory graphics as they start to crack and float away during certain scenes. Backed up by a pounding soundtrack from Matthew Herbert, stunning sound design by Tom Gibbons, and vivid lighting by James Farncombe – this is every bit another success by Headlong, to rival their previous work on 1984 and The Nether.



Photo by Johan Persson

She is backed up by a tight ensemble cast who play roles including medical staff and fellow service users in various stages of recovery (and relapse). The lucid scenes of withdrawl with multiple Emmas staggering, pacing and twitching about the stage are quietly harrowing. Barbara Marten plays a selection of calm and withering professionals who, according to Emma, “look just like my mother”. Her offbeat sense of humour helps to temper some of the seriousness of the situation, offering Emma a ‘stool sample to eat’, before joyfully announcing “it’s FALAFEL!” But her appearance in the final scene adds a real thump of poignancy, showing us the enormity of Emma’s wayward past.

Jeremy Herrin’s directing helps us to navigate through a potentially confusing narrative of the things that Emma perceives, both real and imaginary. The group therapy sessions present snapshots of the lives of other addicts, the familiar patterns of behaviour, and Emma’s reluctance to engage with the process. Gough delivers several monologues with real punch: how exactly are you supposed to live sober when the world around you is so screwed, that drink and drugs are the only things that make it tolerable? But towards the end, we are all rewarded with the fruits of her hard work and honesty, as she practises her apology to her parents – a tender and moving piece of vulnerability.

Theatre is my addiction. And I am craving another hit of People, Places and Things.

A HUGE thank you to Seat Plan for the tickets!

‘People, Places and Things’ is playing until Saturday 18th June 2016 at the Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0DA. Contains strong language, strobe-like lighting effects and short complete blackouts in the auditorium. Suitable for ages 15+. For tickets and more information, please go to 

Cinderella and the Beanstalk – Theatre503

Theatre? Check. Set? Check. Props and costumes? Double check. Lights, sound and music? Triple check. Actors?…. Ah. Josh, John and James have been so busy writing their very silly mash-up panto Cinderella and the Beanstalk that none of them managed to organise anyone to be in it. But don’t worry boys and girls, because they’re going to do their best to play all 40 characters themselves, complete with all the singing and dancing. While larger venues may be trying to pull in the punters with a D-list-celebrity-du-jour and formulaic gags, Theatre503 and Sleeping Trees have gone back to basics and conjured up a family-friendly panto, jam-packed with nonsense and giddy mischief.

It’s refreshing to see a pantomime that doesn’t rely on smut and puerile humour to elicit laughs – instead it thrives on madcap irreverence, physical comedy, silly accents, and the simple concept of men in Christmas onesies valiantly attempting to play several characters at once, often having conversations with themselves in two (or three) different voices. It naturally lends itself to deliberate clumsiness and shoestring-budget props – everything looks very DIY and cobbled together at the last minute, yet the pace tells us that this has been rehearsed to precision to look this inept. They have everything they need to tell an engaging story and poke fun at themselves.


Photo (C) Jack Sain

My ticket was courtesy of Bargain Theatre – to read the review in full, please click here.

I also got to do #FreshOffTheStalls with Grumpy Gay Critic. May include irrelevant Russian accents. (I would’ve worn nicer shoes if I’d known my feet would be in shot).


In The Heights – Kings Cross Theatre

I’ve found it – my favourite musical of 2015.

“Gail, would you like to come and see [insert show here]? I know you don’t like musicals, but…” so begins almost every musical invitation from theatre friends. It’s not that I don’t like musicals, it’s just that I’m very picky on the ones that I do like. This year I’ve really enjoyed Thoroughly Modern Millie, Memphis, The Producers and Once – but they all pale into insignificance in the shadow of In The Heights. I’ve been dancing salsa and bachata for about 9 years, so for me, the music style is very familiar. At the What’s On Stage Awards in February, the original cast did a small showcase which left me half rapt with joy at what I was watching, and half in despair at what I’d missed when it was on at Southwark Playhouse. I have been waiting for this show to return for London ever since, and it didn’t disappoint.

It’s summer in Washington Heights, New York’s latino district. Everyone is just about getting by, but they’re surrounded by poverty and have been hit hard by the economic crisis. With money tight, businesses going under, properties being bulldozed for regeneration and power cuts becoming increasingly regular, low morale is starting to get the better of them. But there is hope, love, passion, flirting, dancing, and a sizeable lottery win: with nothing left to lose, the populace of this tight-knit neighbourhood dare to dream about the future.

Played in traverse at the Kings Cross Theatre (usually home to The Railway Children), it has that feeling of a story far more ancient – similar in staging to Greek theatre. From the lilting salsa soundtrack playing in the bar, I step into the auditorium which has a few bits of set at either end of the stage to suggest a shop, a flat, a taxi rank and a beauty salon, leaving plenty of space in between for flexibility of locations.

By far and away the strongest aspects of this show are the music and dancing. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s cool fusion of latino and hiphop has the audience around me tapping their feet, and is a perfect backdrop for Drew McOnie’s exceptional choreography: salsa, merengue, reggaeton, contemporary, hiphop, and even the bewilderingly complex footwork of Cali-style are all delivered with energy and attitude. Both the solos and large ensemble pieces are jaw-droppingly good and the atmosphere is electric.


Photo by Johan Persson

Sam Mackay reprises his role as Usnavi, oozing a cool demeanour, making light work of the irregular rhythms and colloquial Spanish in his songs, bouncing rhymes off Sonny (Cleve September) with effortless charisma. September matches him beat for beat, and the rapport between them is a real joy to watch. David Bedella (last seen in The Producers) makes for a fiercely proud father as Kevin Rosario who looks to sell his taxi business when his daughter cannot keep up with her college fees. This does incur the wrath of his hotheaded tiger of a wife, Camila (Josie Benson) who is determined to find another way – and heaven help anyone who tries to argue with her!

By contrast, their daughter Nina (Lily Frazer) exudes a real lightness and warmth, but also the complex range of emotions as she finds herself trapped in a vicious circle between ambition and funding. Jade Ewen is a self-assured Vanessa, slowly giving in to Usnavi’s tongue-tied advances. The progression in their love story feels far more real than the typical West End schmaltz, with endless stumbling blocks and hiccups. But the character that we all fall helplessly in love with is Eve Polycarpou as Abuela Claudia. Honorary Grandmother to all, she is brimming with affection, and is the much respected epicentre of their community. It is her trajectory through the show which has the most profound effect on the audience – it has been a long time since a musical moved me to tears.

Musical highlights include the salsatastic In The Heights, the punchy hiphop beats of 96,000, the beautiful harmonies of Blackout, subtle ballad Sunrise, and the explosively defiant Carnaval Del Barrio.  I need to get myself another ticket to see this. It is truly deserving of its extension through until April and a great antidote to the cold miserable weather.

Now if this is the sort of thing pouring out Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical box of tricks, who do I have to harass for them to bring over Hamilton from Broadway?

In The Heights is on until 10th April 2016 at the King’s Cross Theatre, Goods Way, London, N1C 4UR. For tickets and more information, go to

American Idiot – Arts Theatre

Green Day’s 2004 Grammy Award winning album American Idiot is brought to the stage with explosive panache, and is targeted squarely at fans of the band. In the uncertainty of a post-9/11 world, three boyhood friends take very different paths in life, searching for meaning and purpose in their choices – one to drugs, one to the military, and one reluctantly to fatherhood. Although the show is packed with high-energy accomplished performances, the narrative does take a back seat. But that’s not what we’re here for. Give coherence the night off, and sit back for a riff-fuelled, foot tapping musical assault on the senses.

For those familiar with the album, everything about the show feels right: the grimy, divey, graffiti-covered set, the worn dishevelled punk-rock costumes, the battered skate shoes, the Mohawks and grown-out bleached spiky hair, the general “f***-the-world” demeanour of the ensemble, the delivery of the songs, the sound of the live band – all of it brimming with authenticity and anarchy. The creative team have definitely done their homework, and it’s a treat to have a cast on stage who can all play guitar.

Aaron Sidwell in the lead as Johnny is full of swagger, and finds every way possible to press the self-destruct button. His well-observed descent into drug addiction yanks at the heartstrings, with everyone else around him powerless to do anything. The atmosphere is tense and you can hear a pin drop as he staggers about the stage on the verge of collapse. His friend Tunny (Alexis Gerred) becomes a soldier and is injured in the line of duty, travelling from bravado to pitiful vulnerability. Last of the trio is Will (Steve Rushton), a no-hoper who makes a mediocre job of being a new parent.

Photo by Tristram Kenton

My ticket was courtesy of Bargain Theatre – to read the review in full, please click here.

Martyr – Unicorn Theatre

Teenage rebellion manifests itself in many ways: parents are primed for dealing with issues surrounding drink and drugs… but not religion. In Martyr, When Benjamin Sinclair develops an unhealthy obsession for a sacred text and starts making increasingly Puritanical demands on his mother and school, the responsible adults in his life suddenly find themselves out of their depth in the face of his self-imposed indoctrination. Originally written in German by Marius von Mayenburg, this translation by Maja Zade is presented by the Actors Touring Company (a group who use Theatre “to examine the world around us”). Martyr explores the grey area between standing up for your beliefs and dogmatic fixation, but it does feel as if it has tried to tackle too much.

On an open set comprised of various boxy levels and rooms (cleverly designed by director Ramin Gray), the cast are neatly slotted in amongst tables, chairs and benches, remaining on stage the entire time. Whilst it may look a bit jumbled and abstract, it allows quick transitions between the many short scenes and makes the most of the depth of the space in the Unicorn Theatre. Scenes are lightly underscored with the occasional bit of music, including what sounded like a very apt instrumental bit of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit.

Daniel O’Keefe is a thoroughly obstreperous and volatile as Benjamin, his every word punctuated with malevolent bile; He visibly revels in the knowledge that the school is obliged to respect all religious beliefs, even a very medieval approach to the Bible, much to the chagrin of his teachers. Farshid Rokey plays the foil as the impressionable and gawky George Hansen: a prime example of how easily the vulnerable can be influenced by those they idolise. Their scenes together strike a perfect balance between comedy and tragedy, as George so willingly becomes a disciple without a thought for the ramifications of his actions. Jessye Romeo is effortlessly feline as their classmate Lydia, deliberately taunting Benjamin with everything he would deny himself.

Photo by Stephen Cummiskey

My ticket was courtesy of Bargain Theatre – to read the review in full, please click here.