Monday, 31 October 2016

FOUR STAR REVIEW - Side Show, Southwark Playhouse


IN the 1920s and 30s conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton played headline acts in vaudeville and burlesque shows in both America and the UK. Although born in Brighton, they really made a name for themselves in America both on stage and later on screen.
Now a musical inspired by their story, Side Show, has just opened at the Southwark Playhouse and it is powerful stuff.
Our heroines, Daisy played by Louise Dearman and Violet played by Laura Pitt-Pulford, are first seen playing in a seedy side show alongside a bearded lady, tattoed lady, fortune teller, half man half woman, lizard man, a three legged man and dog boy.
They are trapped by an oppressive and nasty ringmaster who makes money from his “freak show”. However when they are spotted by a talent agent and his associate, they are thrust into the spotlight of the 1920s Orpheum Circuit. Their lives and fortunes change as they become highly paid vaudeville acts.
But it’s not all plain sailing. Whilst Daisy loves being in the spotlight, Violet doesn’t and wants a quiet life with a husband and family of her own.
And it almost comes good for them with a proposal of marriage for Violet from Buddy and the blossoming of love between Daisy and Terry. But their being conjoined is always an issue.
It is incredibly touching and moving largely due to the impressive performances by Louise Deadman and Laura Pitt-Pulford who are perfectly cast as the sisters.
Their vocal range is superb and there are moments when the songs and their delivery is breathtaking.
The rest of the cast are equally good with fine performances in particular from Hayden Oakley as Terry and Dominic Hodson as Buddy.
The set it simple with a glittering tower at the back of the stage and the music too is terrific with a variety of styles from slow and poignant to fast paced and upbeat.
And although their story may not be known to many it is one we can all identify with - that of acceptance, love, tolerance and what it is to be a bit different.

Side Show is on at the Southwark Playhouse, Newington Causeway until December 3. Tickets cost £25. Visit or call the box office on 020 7407 0234.

Thursday, 27 October 2016


PETER Shaffer’s masterpiece Amadeus was first staged at the National’s Olivier theatre in 1979. Paul Scofield was court composer Salieri and Simon Callow played Mozart. 
It tells the story of how Salieri, once the undisputed music king of the court, felt threatened and jealous with the arrival of the startlingly brilliant and young Mozart. So much so that he set out to destroy his rival with devastating effect.
Fast forward more than 30 years and this fantastic piece has been revived, playing out once again on the expanse of the Olivier’s stage.
This time it stars Lucian Msamati as Salieri and Adam Gillen as the child prodigy and musical genius Mozart.
Directed by Michael Longhurst this revival is a real feast for the senses - from the glittering and sumptuous 18th century inspired costumes to the treats for the ears thanks to the wonderful writing and beautiful music.
The Southbank Sinfonia provide the music, live, wearing modern day black tops and trousers or skirts and carrying their instruments with them at all times, they are integral to the story and the set and blend seamlessly into it rather than being hidden in the background.
The cast is fine throughout but it is the two central performances that shine out - much like Mozart’s gold breeches. Wearing baby pink DMs and colourful overcoats Adam Gillen’s Mozart is a man who can’t sit still - not even at his harpsichord to compose his music, which he does in the main in his head. 
Shaffer paints him as a genius, a melting pot of someone constantly moving about, punky, vulgar yet vulnerable, childish, irritating and brilliant - and who knows how good he is. 
This is someone with a whiney voice, who won’t conform and who annoyingly can take a piece of dull music and give it the heart and soul and lift it needs to make it sing.
And this is what Salieri, brilliantly played by Lucian Msamati can’t bear. He recognises instantly how mediocre he is compared to the natural brilliance of Mozart.
We see him first as an old man in a wheelchair in the last day of his life. He is full of remorse and anguish, and talk of how he killed Mozart.
But then he transforms himself to his younger self through which he tells the story of how they met and how he plotted his rival’s downfall.
We see how the jealousy and resentment eats away at him, railing against God for allowing Mozart, a man who beds all his female pupils, to be given the talent rather than him, a man who has stayed true to his wife and God.
It is a glorious production, full of wit and drama and reminds us of the stunning music that Mozart wrote in his all too short life.
It is a joy from start to finish, so much so that it is a real shame that Shaffer is no longer here to see it.

Amadeus is on at the National Theatre until Thursday, February 2, 2017. Tickets from £15 as part of the Travelex tickets initiative. Visit or call the box office on 020 7452 3000. Amadeus will be broadcast live to more than 680 cinema screens across the UK on February 2, 2017. Visit for full listings. 

Half term fun at The Globe

DURING the summer The Globe held its first family literary festival Telling Tales. Its aim was to bring people together of all ages to explore storytelling in all its forms.
Such was its success that the Bankside theatre has decided to revisit the festival this week with its October half-term event, Tales for Winter.
Director of Globe Education, Patrick Spottiswoode tells me it’s based on the same principles as the summer festival with authors and illustrators leading a programme of talks, workshops, immersive storytelling and even a winter circus.
“We saw a stunning response from our pilot event, Shakespeare Telling Tales Festival which was wonderful,” he says. 
“We had a fantastic group of authors last time who were very popular but audiences were also drawn to the workshops which was very heartening. It was lovely to see the reactions of those who came along.
“So I was thrilled and its success prompted us to revisit it for this half term.
“And indeed as the nights begin to draw in, there’s no better time to continue to celebrate our best told stories so once again, we’ll be introducing children to Shakespeare’s stories and to living storytellers who, will hopefully inspire them with the various ways in which to tell and listen to a story.”
Among the highlights of the festival which starts today (Tuesday) and runs until Saturday, are illustrator Sav Akyuz who will discuss the mischievous rapping bear at the heart of his book I Am Bear before teaching audience members to draw Bear themselves, and Matt Forbes, associate director in puppetry and movement for the National Theatre’s smash hit War Horse who will show families how to bring inanimate objects to life in his introduction to puppetry inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Elsewhere Tamara Macfarlane, owner of award-winning children’s bookshop Tales on Moon Lane, in Herne Hill will pull characters out of suitcases as she helps those taking part draw a winter circus setting from their wildest imaginations and Alex Bellos, author of much loved Alex’s Adventures in Numberland and Alex Through the Looking Glass will explore everything from Shakespeare and history to biology and maths through the prism of football.
Marcia Williams, author of bestsellers Mr William Shakespeare’s Plays and Bravo, Mr William Shakespeare! returns to the Globe to retell Shakespeare’s tales which have inspired us for four centuries and as well as Macbeth, there will also be retellings of Henry V and A Winter’s Tale.
“We have a lovely mix of events from family workshops to author talks and question and answer sessions so I hope there is something for everyone,” says Patrick.
“I love the fact that children who come can be inspired by the various ways to tell a story - whether it is through listening to someone read, or seeing a puppet show or even drawing something from their imaginations.
“Everyone loves a story and we hope that not only will it introduce Shakespeare and his plays to younger members of the family but it might also inspire their parents too, or get people to see them in a different way. 
“But we must remember that Shakespeare was just one of many storytellers of his day. He wasn’t the only one but his plays have inspired so many since which is why it’s important for us to celebrate contemporary storytellers who will share their ways of telling stories. It’s going to be a lot of fun!”

Tales for Winter is on at The Globe, Bankside from Tuesday, October 21 until Saturday, October 29. Tickets are priced individually for each event, with a discount for multiple bookings. Visit or call the Globe box office on 020 7401 9919 for full listings.


I’M waiting in a rather swanky central London hotel for an interview with one of the world’s most glamorous cabaret performers when I get an email saying she’s been held up.
In rather dramatic style Meow Meow reveals she’s got a “contact lens stuck in my eye issue” and has made an emergency dash to the optometrist.
When she does arrive she is profuse in her apologies.
“I’m so sorry I’m so late!” she says. “My life is full of drama but not like this! Normally it’s about procuring dancing boys for a show or getting a designer to come in from New York - they are all pleasurable big dramas. I’m so sorry.”
Fortunately the optometrist has sorted the issue out and Meow Meow can see once more without irritation.
“I haven’t been wearing contact lenses that long,” she explains. “I’ve always had good eyesight but it was when I was at the Globe this summer I looked out and realised that I couldn’t quite see to the back of the theatre.
“Part of the beauty of the Globe is that you see the audience - so I thought I should maybe do something.
“I got reading glasses but there is one scene where as Titania I am lying down on my flowery bed and then realised I’d twisted them into a ridiculous shape! Then I got some which were the wrong prescription…
“When I finally got the contact lenses I could see properly and it was a revelation in many ways - Oberon said I was on fire!
“So it’s all been quite dramatic.”
Meow Meow has made a career out of drama in the theatrical sense of course. Born in Australia she is the alter ego of Melissa Madden Gray - “although I’ve always been Meow” she purrs - a dancer, chanteuse and cabaret artiste and as well as being a trained ballet dancer and operatic singer, has degrees in Law, German and Fine Art.
She’s performed her own unique brand of “kamikaze cabaret” all over the world. Her shows are characterised by their seemingly chaotic set up but are in fact all carefully orchestrated and choreographed. 
It is all part of her “act” that she staggers in late, not quite dressed or ready for the show, chatting to the audience and asking some to help her sort her dress or shoes out. It helps to bind her with the audience and it does so beautifully.
And when she sings her vocal range and style is superb - funny, sad, fragile, tender and raucous - she can hold an audience in the palm of her hand, entranced and enthralled, such is her command of the stage.
During her career has collaborated with the likes of the Von Trapp family, Pina Bausch, David Bowie, Mikhail Baryshnikov and most recently Barry Humphries with whom she’s just finished touring the Weimar Cabaret show alongside the Australian Chamber Orchestra.
She is ultra glam of course, gesticulating gracefully throughout our interview to make her points, all twinkling green eyes encircled with kohl eyeliner and luscious long black lashes, gazing from underneath that glorious mass of black curls.
I half expected her to arrive at the interview in full glamorous mode in a fabulous ballgown and her trademark killer heels. Sadly she didn’t which is a shame as it might have brought some added glitz and sparkle to the rather stately surroundings.
Nonetheless she arrives breathless but with eyesight intact and flops onto the chair in a rather dramatic fashion, beaming smile and ordering coffee from the waitress who’s been hovering discreetly.
She may have been flustered but without skipping a beat Meow Meow tells me about how she’s just arrived in London from Oxford after having done a show with Pink Martini.
“I opened my suitcase and out pops a pink tutu, an inflatable doll and a smoke machine,” she laughs. “That’s my normal life, it’s pretty hilarious!
“Pink Martini are great. I did a show with them in Oxford and the Royal Albert Hall before that and they are brilliant musicians.”
And then it’s on to talking about the concert that she is performing in on Tuesday of next week.
Aptly entitled Pandemonium it takes place at the Royal Festival Hall, and features Meow Meow alongside the London Philharmonic Orchestra, pianist Thomas Lauderdale and a trio of musicians from Pink Martini.
It’s a venue she’s performed at before and loves and with her green eyes twinkling at full force she tells me it’s going to be almost celebratory in nature because she will be surrounded by some of her “absolute best friends”.
But whether it will live up to its title is anyone’s guess - not least her own as she freely admits that during one of Meow Meow’s shows, anything can and does happen.
And this includes crowd surfing in which she launches herself - gracefully of course - into the audience still singing and in all her finery, and hopes that someone will catch her.
“I’m not sure about that,” she muses. “I don’t want to give too much away but it could happen - anything could happen of course, even at the Royal Festival Hall, so I might be compelled! 
“When I started doing the crowd surfing I wanted to see what peoples’ reactions would be, would they hold me up or let me fall? 
“It was a ridiculous, joyful and comic thing to do particularly in a ballgown, the thought of who would catch me.
“It seemed to work and people were quick to support me. Sometimes I do get stranded but it does force people to be active. 
“But now, although I would prefer that they don’t video during the concert, people do and so it’s a question of whether they will watch me fall through their iPads or whether they put them down to support me.
“I find it very interesting that whole idea of living through your screen, and watching a concert through a screen even if you are right there in the audience. I understand wanting to remember it forever but I do find it an alienating experience. I’m real, not on TV!
“The show on Tuesday will be completely ridiculous and beautiful,” she adds. “It will be joyful but I can never dictate what happens and anything could. 
“There will be a real mix of music, from the sublime to the satirical. All my shows feature a variety of song styles. I’m drawn very much to foreign music and love Brecht and Weil so there will be some of that. There will be tangos and boss and chansons. But I’ve also written some new material too which I’m very excited about.
“Some of the songs will be full of passion, some funny or tragic and some political but all the songs will have their own mini journeys.
“The LPO is exquisite and I’m with some super duper musicians which is really special. In fact this show is a real celebration because I’m with some dear friends.
“Thomas Lauderdale is so special to me and we have been friends for about 10 years. A mutual friend introduced us and told me I would ‘fall in art love’ with him and I did, as soon as I met him. It’s a real friendship. We start writing together and it’s magical.”
As well as Thomas, she’s brought in her designer, the Pink Martinis and Iain Grandage who will be conducting and says it promises to be a wonderful occasion.
She is delightful company and throughout our long chat regales me with stories about her career, how you never know what’s round the corner or what relationships you can make with people, her collaborations, the deconstruction of sexuality in her work and tells me about her passion for music and how it “feeds the soul”.
“I do think if we could get children excited about music and dance we would be in a much better situation,” she says. 
“We need to get their passion early. There is so much going on in the world at the moment and yet music has the power to bring joy.
“I love touring and travelling, it’s what I’ve done for so long and it’s me. My concerts are always super fun but I do worry about the world especially at a time of Trump and lurching towards conservatism and shutting down of diversity. 
“So I’m obsessed with live music where people come together and have an ecstatic experience.”
And this year has been a busy year for her too. She has just completed her Weimar songbook tour with Barry Humphries - another dear friend - and has spent most of the summer as Titania in Emma Rice’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe.
And it is clear during our chat that not only does she hold Emma in the highest regard but she absolutely loved her time at the Globe and was thrilled to be part of Emma’s first season there.
“Working with Emma was a joy. She’s amazing and I feel very honoured to have been asked to be part of the opening show.
“I would love to come back to play at the Globe - it’s a very special place and Emma a special person. She makes rehearsing such a joy. It’s hard work of course but she has such passion and was absolutely the right choice to take over the Globe.
“It’s such an amazing space and when I first went out on to the stage I burst into tears.”
But it is on stage, whether in a theatre or in a concert hall, that she feels at home.
“I absolutely love it,” she says simply. “The stage is where I’m happiest, most at home, and where I am me.”

Meow Meow’s Pandemonium with the London Philharmonic Orchestra will be at the Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday, November 1. Tickets from £25. Visit or for full listings.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

FOUR STAR REVIEW for A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer


A musical about cancer may not have you running for the box office to nab some tickets but with a new and sensational production just opened at the National, I urge you give it a try.
A Pacifist’s Guide To The War On Cancer, just opened at the National’s Dorfman stage has been co-written by Bryony Kimmings. Best known for her autobiographical solo and two person shows, this is new territory for her. But in true Kimmings style she has attacked it with gusto and has given a show which takes the audience on a rollercoaster of emotions - that will leave you teary eyed at the end.
She was commissioned to write the piece by theatre company Complicite and with a cast of 12 plus a five-piece band has set it in a hospital in a 24-hour period.
We follow the day in the lives of some ordinary people - a man with testicular cancer who is encouraged to bank his sperm, a woman for whom all forms of treatment has failed and is now in denial about having to live out the rest of her days in a hospice, a man who despite his lung cancer insists on smoking and a teenage girl, pregnant, waiting to see if she has passed on the cancer gene to her unborn child.
In the midst of all this we follow Emma and her baby son Owen who have arrived so he can have tests to see if he too is about to enter the Kingdom of the Sick as it’s called.
The whole piece is relentless. We see them waiting for appointments, be given diagnoses, the despair, anger, denial and rage when the outlook is bleak and jubilation when something goes right.
Intermixed with the narrative is of course the music which provides not just light relief but laugh out loud moments too as well as the cancer cells which are represented by some of the cast who follow the patients around and the giant inflatables that push their way onto the stage and into our lives.
Some of it is in your face - but in a way that’s the point. Kimmings says in the programme notes she wrote it because we don’t talk about cancer enough and in ways that mean something to the people it affects - about the horrors, the highs, the lows and the day to day reality of it.
What she has done is beautiful, tender, emotional and at times hard to watch. But watch you must because it is amazing, executed brilliantly by a strong cast and by the end the emotion in the air was tangible with many in the audience in tears.

A Pacifist’s Guide To The War On Cancer is on at the National Theatre until Tuesday, November 29. Tickets from £15. Visit or call the box office on 020 7452 3000.

INTERVIEW Priscilla Presley

BY any stretch of the imagination, Priscilla Presley has led an extraordinary life. She was of course wife to the King of Rock n Roll, Elvis Presley, moving in to his Graceland home in her teens and marrying him at 21, and has been responsible for maintaining, developing and promoting his legacy ever since.
That in itself is quite something but she was also Michael Jackson’s mother in law, is a charity ambassador and in her professional life she is both a businesswoman and an actress - most notable for her roles in the Naked Gun films and as Jenna Wade in Dallas - and has even conquered the British tradition of panto, not once but twice.
Her life is clearly the stuff of legend.
But it’s as being the wife of Elvis that she is most well known for and it is about the great man himself that I find myself chatting to her last week.
She is in London to promote his new album The Wonder Of You: Elvis Presley With The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and an arena tour that goes with it and which takes in the 02 on Wednesday, November 23.
This album follows on from the hugely successful If I Can Dream: Elvis Presley With The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which was released last year for the anniversary of what would have been his 80th birthday.
It topped the charts both in the UK and across the world selling more than 1.5million copies.
Like its predecessor, this new album takes 14 of his songs and gives them an orchestral twist thanks to the wizardry of the Abbey Road studios and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO).
It spans a variety of musical styles that Elvis embraced during his career including rock, gospel, country and ballads and features classics such as Let It Be, The Wonder Of You and Suspicious Minds. It is a stunner and it’s clear when I tell Priscilla that she’s delighted.
“I’m so glad you like it,” she says warmly in her soft American voice. “I’m very pleased with it. I was shocked but pleased and just absolutely thrilled with the response to the first album. It was almost hard to believe. 
“Dan the producer of this album asked me three years ago about making the first one. I was stunned because Elvis always wanted to sing with an orchestra to give that full blown effect to the songs but was never able to - back in the day it just wasn’t the thing to do, it wasn’t rock n roll! 
“But that was him, always wanting to push himself and do different things rather than stay in one style.
“He did have a small orchestra with him on the Vegas shows but it was only a 23 piece as there wasn’t room for more what with his equipment and his band and so on.
“However he always said there were certain songs that would have really suited having an orchestral arrangement, so after I agreed to do it we chose those that he loved, songs such as American Trilogy and Bridge Over Troubled Water. They were the personal songs that he loved and ones he would have loved to have put with an orchestra.
“When we put the album out it went triple platinum - I was really proud of what we’d achieved, but never in my wildest dreams did I think it would be so accepted and yet here we are again by popular demand!” she adds warmly.
Indeed this second album came about as a result of the success of the first - the validation that his fans wanted more - and even though it’s only been out a week, Priscilla tells me it’s already had a “wonderful response”.
“It’s just amazing and rewarding to have this accepted,” she tells me. “This country has always been so supportive of him in so many ways - I wish he was here to see it and to entertain people still.
“What I love is that it really makes a statement and shows off his music right from the early days with songs like Don’t and Big Hunk O’ Love through to songs from later on in his career and from just before he passed.
“There is also such a mix of styles to show how diverse his musical range was.
“And the RPO was amazing - they took his lead and made it all come alive. It was as if he was there …. it was stunning to listen to them enhance his songs. It’s like hearing a new song in many ways.
“I’m so proud of this record and I know Elvis would have been ecstatic about it. He would have loved putting it all together.”
Although Priscilla loves them all, her personal favourites she says are Don’t and Kentucky Rain.
“With Don’t he was only 21 years old when he sang it and when you hear his voice it’s as if he’s talking just to this one person. 
“I hadn’t listened to it in so long and when I heard it I was like ‘oh my God how did he do it’. There is such heart and feeling, it’s such an intimate song and to have done it at such a young age, he really pulled it off.
“Kentucky Rain was always one of my favourites and with the orchestra it comes alive so well.”
And she says that their daughter Lisa Marie is equally supportive and proud of the result of both this and the last album. 
‘At first she didn’t know that he had wanted to play alongside a big orchestra,” says Priscilla. “So she didn’t quite know if she would like it but she thought it was just beautiful.”
Throughout our chat Priscilla is both charming and friendly and speaks warmly of the man who was her husband for six years until they split and got divorced in 1973. 
But rather than talk about their life together - which she admits in her autobiography was not all roses - she much prefers to dwell on his music and introducing it to new and younger audiences.
And to this end she hopes the six-date tour which accompanies the launch of the album will not only appeal to die hard fans but also encourage younger people to come and find out about the man who wowed the world.
“We have a 73-piece orchestra that will fill the stage for each venue, it’s so exciting!” she says. “There will be visuals of him above the stage singing the songs from both albums, videos of him as well as a few other surprises - the audiences are in for a real treat and I hope they will enjoy it.
“What I love is that I am meeting young kids that have this whole interest in him. It’s wonderful.”
She then tells me about the first time she herself saw him play live - perhaps surprisingly it was in 1969 at his show in Vegas just after she had had their daughter Lisa Marie.
“I had never seen him play before as at the time he was doing three movies a year so it wasn’t until he was in Vegas that I actually saw him,” she says.
“I went into the audience and then it hit me. I was like, ‘oh my God!’ I had no idea it was like this,” she laughs at the memory. 
“He was wearing a black leather suit and I was like, so this is what they are all talking about! 
“I remember watching him on stage after that - he was like a tiger, a panther, prowling around the stage back and forth. 
“Everyone was captivated - you couldn’t not be. It was the magnetism, electricity, charisma and energy. It was incredible.
“It’s that that attracts people to him then and still. His story and the diversity of his music, the good looks, the charisma - he seemed to be the ideal vision - he also had the vocal chords to deliver the songs. It was the complete package,” she laughs.
“Being with him was incredible, an amazing time. He was quite something!”

Elvis With The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – The Wonder Of You is available from October 21 on Sony. Elvis In Concert with The RPO at The O2 Arena is on Wednesday, November 23. Visit or for full listings.


THIS year marks the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Taking place between 1936 and 1939 it was fought between the Republicans on the side of the Second Spanish Republic and the Nationalists led by General Francisco Franco.
Among those who fought in the war were the International Brigades (IB), a group of mostly men from across Europe, volunteers who came together in a bid to defeat fascism.
To mark the anniversary a new play has been commissioned looking at the role of the IB and in particular two men within its ranks - Clem Beckett, a Lancashire blacksmith and star of the speedway track and Christopher Caudwell, a self taught and renowned writer, poet and philosopher.
Written by and starring Neil Gore, and staged by Townsend Productions, Dare Devil Rides To Jarama mixes theatricality, drama and humour with song, poetry, movement and dance to trace the lives and the friendship of these two extraordinary men who were killed together at Jarama in February 1937.
Through their stories, the play will also shed light on the political and social world of the 1930s and all that inspired and confronted the IB volunteers on their journeys to Spain as well as the raw passions and emotions of idealism, hope, anger, determination and fear they had.
As part of a nationwide tour it comes to the Bussey Building in Peckham on Tuesday, October 25 for six nights.
“We are known for our political work and were looking for a story that had plenty of resonance for our times now,” Neil tells me.
“The Spanish Civil War happened at a pretty critical time and all the events leading up to it have resonance with what is happening in the world today so it appealed to me to do something about it.
“Then the International Brigades Memorial Trust (IBMT) got in touch with me and said as it was the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the war whether they could commission me to write a piece about it.
“I had an idea about following the lives of a couple of members for the story as a way of telling the story of all of those who fought with the IB.
“The IBMT suggested Clem Beckett as a central focus of the story so that’s how it came about.”
Not knowing anything about him, Neil began researching Clem and his story and found he had an extraordinary life. He was a star of the motorcycle speedway circuit, a blacksmith by trade and a fighter for the rights of riders in his sport.
He was eventually kicked out of the sport for trying to unionise the riders and so set up a touring company with his Wall Of Death act. He travelled extensively, most notably to the then Soviet Union before joining up with the IB and fighting in the Spanish Civil War.
“Clem was a fascinating character and so interesting,” says Neil.
“He was a political person from early on - it was a time when the Labour Party was in dire straits, much like it is at the moment, and he got involved with the Young Communist League.
“His principle concern as he was growing up was an ambition to make his sport as true as possible, without the influence of money and commercialisation that tends to ruin sport. 
“Touring his Wall Of Death act he went all over Europe and saw the rise of Hitler and Mussolini not to mention other political systems.
“He was extremely well travelled for a man in his 20s at that time.”
As well as Clem the other focus of the play is Christopher Caudwell who Neil says was another “extraordinary man with a brilliant brain”. 
“He didn’t go to university but rather was self taught,” says Neil. “He was an expert in science, maths and physic, writing articles on aeronautics, thrillers and other stories. 
“Later on in his late 20s he discovered Marxism and interpreted literary works from the Marxist perspective. 
“Even now he is still held up as having written some of the finest critiques of literature and poetry.
“But he ended up fighting with the IB and met and formed a friendship with Clem. They died together at Jarama covering a retreat. In total 600 British and Irish fought in that battle and only 200 came out alive. It was a tragedy.
“So the play is about them and their friendship as well as the background to it all, the story of the IB and how its members came from all over Europe.”
In true Townsend Production style, music and song forms an integral part of the story and together with a healthy dose of theatricality, helps bring out the humour and emotion of the piece.
Although Neil says he hopes the play will entertain audiences he says he hopes in the cloud of post-Brexit Britain, people who come and see it will learn something about our recent history and feel hopeful for our future.
“I do think that the Spanish Civil War is not well known enough,” he says. “I find it incompressible that we are taught about the First and Second World Wars but not enough about the Spanish Civil War. It’s vital we know about it.
“Those who went to fight were mostly working class for example from the pits and shipyards but there were academics from Oxford University and Westminster School as well as famous poets and other bright young writers and actors such as James Robertson Justice.
“I think this play offers hope because these people got together and fought for themselves and their class to make a difference to the world.
“And it shows that the modern world we live in isn’t quite so modern - there are so many parallels.
“So I hope those who come and see it at the Bussey Building - which is a superb place to stage such a show and suits our work perfectly - will be inspired and be hopeful,” he adds.
“It’s been fascinating to research and write it so I hope audiences will be entertained and informed by what they see and hear.”

Dare Devil Rides To Jarama is at the Bussey Building, Peckham from tonight until Saturday October 29. Visit for tickets and full listings.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016


THRILLERS always seem to start on a dark and stormy night David Hare’s adaptation of Georges Simenon’s Le Main is no exception.
The Red Barn, just opened at the National’s Lyttelton stage, is set in Connecticut, America in the late 60s. It concerns primarily two couples - Donald and Ingrid and Ray and Mona. The former couple have been invited to a friend’s house for a party and invite the other couple along. 
But as they leave for home, a fierce storm whips up and separates Ray from the group. As they arrive back at Donald and Ingrid’s house they realise Ray is missing. Donald goes out to try and find him but returns alone and days later Ray’s body is found.
His death has a dramatic effect on all the characters, particularly Donald whose life starts to unravel, and it sets in motion a chain of events that ultimately have devastating consequences.
Donald begins to compare his life to every man he knows. He is the Iain Duncan Smith of the play - the quiet man - and begins to realise how dull he is and how dull and boring his life has become. 
In particular he compares his life to that of Ray - the man who is charismatic, has the legal career Donald craves, not to mention the animal magnetism that sees him have any girl he wants.
He becomes consumed by envy and jealousy - seeing all men as having the things he wants - and in a bid to get some excitement back in his life he takes the opportunity to embark on an affair with Mona.
Sadly for him even this doesn’t end well and the ending is perhaps inevitable.
It is an intense and gripping production, with a good deal of suspense, beautifully staged and well acted.
Mark Strong is brilliant as Donald, letting anger, jealously and resentment build up inside him until he explodes. He is ably supported by Hope Davis as his wife Ingrid who wants nothing more than to live in her quiet town and Elizabeth Debicki (fresh from The Night Manager) as Mona who floats seductively across the stage bewitching Donald as she goes.

The Red Barn is at the National Theatre until January 17, 2017. Tickets from £15. Visit or call the box office on 020 7452 3000.

My Mother Medea at the Unicorn Theatre

MOST people who’ve done the myths and stories of Ancient Greece will have come across that of Medea and Jason and the tragedy that unfolded in their lives.
However a retelling of their story is now being played out in a completely different way - from the perspective of their children Eriopis and Polyxenos in a new play My Mother Medea.
Set in the modern day it is being staged at the Unicorn Theatre and directed by rising star Justin Audibert.
It is the first time the 35-year-old has put on a play for young people and the first time he has worked at the Tooley Street theatre and he says he’s loving both experiences.
“It is the most unbelievable and fabulous place to work,” he enthuses. “It is so open and inclusive, a wonderful building and everyone is so passionate and enthusiastic about the work they produce here that you can’t help but get carried along with it! 
“The ethos is very much about making the best work you possibly can. It’s a brilliant atmosphere in which to work and I feel very lucky to be able to do so.
“The play too is fabulous - really contemporary and so it’s been great fun to work on it. It’s strange because I’ve done a lot of work with young people, directing them and so on, but never done a play before which is for young people - I’m really enjoying it.”
Written by Austrian playwright Holger Schooner, My Mother Medea is aimed at those aged from about 13 and up and set in a school classroom. 
Audiences will be seated at school desks as the two protagonists, Eriopis and Polyxenos, take to the stage as the new kids at school.
They have just moved to the area, and, like refugees, have escaped from another country far away to a country where they are not sure they are wanted.  
And on top of that their parents are incredibly famous and possibly not the best parents in the world. They sit at the front of the class and tell their story of how it feels to be on the run and not know what home means anymore.
“It is wonderfully written, dark but funny and takes the epicness of their story and makes it domestic, contemporary and accessible to a young audience,” says Justin. 
“Setting it in a school is genius - we all know that thing about being the new kid at school, the anxieties, insecurities and frustrations of been a teenager and how brash they can be and you get to see that up close.
“It’s also an immersive experience with the audience very much part of the action - they sit in the classroom setting with the two characters who interact with them, hurl insults at them and each other, bicker and discuss their situation. 
“The audience is with them throughout and those moments when they really tear into each other you are part of that experience.
“In so doing they bring to life not only that it’s really tough being a teenager with all those hormones racing round your body and all the social pressures they have to deal with, but also to be a refugee, someone who has been uprooted from their home, gone from pillar to post and into a place and a school they don’t know. It is a crucial stage in a child’s life and they have all this to deal with.
“Not only that they have a dysfunctional family life - audiences will see two teenagers who have been neglected by their parents, where all they’ve ever known is cruelty, and the audience can see what that does to them - so there is so much going on and for people to relate to.
“Any teens who come and see the show will definitely see elements of themselves in those two characters - but I think ultimately it has heart and a touch of hope in it and I don’t think the audience is under any impression they are not normal people in an extraordinary situation. 
“So while they may have flaws they also have a wit and intelligence and deep down they are both incredibly vulnerable and live for each other. And you do see their humanity and that they are motivated by affection and love for each other.”
Justin says he was keen to direct the play because of his love of history and particularly this period as well as the quality of the writing.
“Purni [Morell, artistic director at the Unicorn] sent me the script and I loved it,” says Justin. “I did classical civilisation at A Level and am drawn to epic stories - and this is epic!
“The writing is terrific and it’s also thrilling and there is a visceral excitement as well as a terror like being on a rollercoaster. It appealed on so many levels.
“And to be able to work here, at the Unicorn, has been an amazing experience. They understand so well the power of theatre on a young audience.
“I hope audiences who come and see it get as much out of it - so far we’ve had a great response!”

My Mother Medea runs at the Unicorn Theatre until November 25. Tickets cost £10 for children and £16 for adults.

FOUR STAR REVIEW The Railway Children


THE Railway Children is one of the classics of British literature. Written by E Nesbit it is full of adventure as it tells the story of how three children, Bobbie, Phyllis and Peter have to move up to the country after their father mysteriously disappears and how their lives change as a result.
Their story is currently being played out at the King’s Cross Theatre in a stage version of the book and it works a treat.
The staging is clever and imaginative with the audience sitting either side of a set and parallel to the railway track which runs right through the middle of the theatre. The set moves up and down the track to denote travel and changes in set or surroundings and there are plenty of special effects, toots, whistles and smoke.
The children, played by adults and who converse with the audience throughout as they narrate the story of how they became the Railway Children, run up and down, climb onto the gates to wave at the trains rushing past and run up and over the bridge at one end of the theatre.
As well as the brilliant staging this production boasts a stellar cast among whom is Justin Fletcher of CBeebies fame who is brilliant as Mr Perks the station master who befriends the three children.
Caroline Harker is delightful as Mother and Felicity Houlbrooke, Jack Hardwick and Louise Calf as Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis respectively are terrific as the children, each bringing out the different characteristics superbly.
However the real and undoubted star of the show is the very real steam engine which makes a grand entrance at the end of act one.
As it rolls gently into the theatre with steam billowing out and whistles tooting, it is a real sight and not just for the train spotters in the audience.
This is a definite feel good show for all ages. It is utterly magical, full of emotion, drama and humour - and by the end of it I’m sure there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

The Railway Children is on at the King’s Cross Theatre until January 8, 2017. Tickets cost from £25. Visit or call the box office on 0844 815 7121.

INTERVIEW Justin Fletcher

THERE’S no mistaking the genuine warm smile of Justin Fletcher. Known to millions of kids, and their parents as his alter egos, Mr Tumble the loveable clown who signs, Arthur Sleep the newsreader who can’t help dozing mid broadcast and Anna Conda the bespectacled reptile fanatic to name but a few, Justin is as cheerful in real life as he is on the box.
The BAFTA- winning actor, presenter and entertainer has been a fixture on out TV screens for more than 20 years - mostly on the BBC TV channel CBeebies - bringing his own unique brand of humour, bonne viveur and slapstick to children.
However, for the next few weeks Justin has left CBeebies behind to take on the role of Mr Perks the stationmaster in the stage production of The Railway Children.
The show transferred to the King’s Cross Theatre via a stop at the former Eurostar terminal in Waterloo after a phenomenally successful run at the York Theatre Royal where it originally started life in 2008. With its ingenious and superb staging and featuring a real live steam engine, it is a fabulous production and rightly won acclaim from critics and audiences alike.
I meet Justin in the station ticket office at the King’s Cross Theatre for a chat about the show and how he got involved.
Greeting me warmly, he arrives after having done two performances that afternoon but if he is exhausted he certainly doesn’t show it.
Instead, together with a pair of jeans, trainers and blue hoody, he wears that radiating smile that has endeared him to millions of kids across the country.
“It’s magical and I’m having the best time,” he beams when I ask what it’s like being part of what has now become such an iconic show.
“I was asked to take on the role of Mr Perks about two years ago but couldn’t because I was too busy. 
“I came to see the show and thought ‘wow’ and I knew I wanted to play Mr Perks but at that time there never seemed to be a window of opportunity which was such a shame. I talked to a friend of mine who was in it when it was at Waterloo and he said if I got the chance I should do it as I would love it.
“Then in August this year I was asked again and I jumped at the chance!”
And being Mr Perks is more than living up to expectations not least as Justin was given encouragement by Bernard Cribbins who played the role in the original production.
“Mr Perks is a great character to play and in many ways he goes on just as much of a journey as the children do,” says Justin. 
“He adores the village and grows to love the family that moves in to it from London. But he’s a very private person and very proud so when he sees the presents the children and the villagers have given him on his birthday he can’t handle it. 
“He’s not used to that level of attention so initially he doesn’t react in a great way but then realises that it’s been made with the very best of intentions. 
“So it’s very emotional for him but it’s a story that is packed with emotion and feeling - especially at the end. I think everyone has a tear in their eyes by the end of the show - even the cast.
“What makes it is the atmosphere,” he adds. “The staging here has been done so well - the effects are terrific and it goes along at quite a pace.
“Then of course there is the train which of course is the real star of the show. 
“It’s brilliant isn’t it!” This rhetorical question directed at my two children who are sitting not too far away and who, having seen the show, nod fiercely in agreement.
Although for many, being in the show may seem like a complete departure for Justin, he tells me that it’s far from the case. He actually he started out as an actor after drama school and says he feels it’s more like going back to his roots.
However he acknowledges that the youngsters in the audience will know him mostly from his escapades on CBeebies.
“When I come out on stage at the beginning in my Mr Perks costume, they still see me as Mr Tumble,” he says. 
“So they call out ‘hello Mr Tumble!’ but when I come out again after the interval they’ve completely engaged with what’s going on and have got me as Mr Perks so their reactions are totally different. 
“It’s lovely.”
Justin decided whilst at drama school that he wanted to be an entertainer having grown up on a diet of Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.
So while he was at Guildhall School of Acting he began devising and creating characters which would, years later, become part of his hit TV show Gigglebiz.
“When I was growing up I played with voices like the Muppets and I realised I had a real ear for it,” he remembers. 
“I also loved watching Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton with their slapstick humour - they were all big heroes of mine. Then there were Ronnie Barker and David Jason and their brilliant characterisations. Their timing was beautiful - remember the way David as Del Boy fell through the bar in that famous scene in Only Fools And Horses? It was delivered so well,” he smiles. 
“When I was at drama school I decided I wanted to write a show for children that was a bit slapstick and rather like the Fast Show was so I began writing all these characters.
“I came up with a whole bunch of characters including Arthur Sleep and Gail Force. Then my sister got me in a studio to do a show reel called Justin Time which I sent off to various people and that was it.”
His show reel paid off and he was snapped up by the likes of the BBC working on shows such as the Tweenies and Higgledy House.
But it was perhaps his character Mr Tumble - and the spin offs he has since created including Aunt Polly and Grandad Tumble - for his show Something Special, for which he had to learn Makaton sign language that he became best known for.
And it is this programme, which is aimed at children with delayed learning or communication difficulties, that he is most proud of.
“It’s been the highlight of my career,” he smiles. “The BBC approached me as I had been doing a show called Tikabilla. They had a very small budget to make a programme about Makaton and asked me if I wanted to do it. I learned how to sign, did a pilot and it went from there, giving me the character of Mr Tumble in the process.
“I love it because it’s so inclusive and the impact it has, and the way it has helped so many children is incredible. It’s what I’m most proud of in my career. 
“We have another series of the show coming out next year - it’ll be 15 years old. I’ll never stop making it,” he adds proudly.
And as well as Something Special, he provides some of the voices for Aardman Animation’s Timmy Time and Shaun the Sheep, he’s just finished filming Gigglebiz and there will soon be a new series of Justin’s House. 
And when his stint at Mr Perks ends in mid November he will swap his station master attire for that of Buttons when he appears in Snow White at the Hexagon Theatre in Reading.
He laughs genially when I ask if he’s planning a holiday.
“I don’t sit still and am constantly on the go, thinking about new characters and shows,” he laughs. “Believe it or not I actually get most of my inspiration from film music. I listen to a lot of it - especially from the 1940s and 50s!
“People used to say that children’s TV was a stepping stone to ‘better and bigger things’ but it was never like that for me,” he adds. 
“My first love is creating children’s TV. I’ve been doing it for 20 years and I’m passionate about it. I get a huge amount of pleasure and enjoyment out of making kids laugh - it makes me laugh too!
“In fact, there is nothing better than making people laugh!”

Justin Fletcher is in The Railway Children at at the King’s Cross Theatre until November 19. The show continues until January 9, 2017. Tickets cost from £25. Visit or call the box office on 0844 815 7121.