Fredo's Theatre Group 
An archive of our reviews 2019 (Part Four) 
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Pinter 5: The Room, Victoria Station and Family Voices by Harold Pinter, 
at the Harold Pinter Theatre 
What's it about?  You expect me to answer that question! This is Pinter where abiguity and atmosphere is all. 
What did it have going for it? A Pinter trio of two major short plays and a playlet, plus a great cast including Rupert Graves, Jane Horrocks and Nicholas Woodeson  
Did we enjoy it? Like a ballet triple bill (and sometimes just as perplexing), there are one or two piecesin this trio guaranteed to please. Everyone would have their favourite(s) here. First was The Room (from 1957) which could not have been more Pinteresque - mundane chit-chat across a bleak breakfast table in a drab bedsit, unknown visitors, tension, menace, then sudden violence when least expected - just my cup of Pinter tea! Jane Horrocks was at her best ever as the downtrodden housewife. 
After the Intverval came Victoria Station (1982) with a dazed taxi-driver in his cab and the frustrated controller at his switchboard - unexpectedly hilarious and played with perfect timing by Rupert Graves, tousled and monosylabic, and Colin McFarlaine at his wits end. 
Finally we heard Family Voices (1981), monologues from mother, son and father, disillusioned and disjointed turns spoken to the audience, and certainly another disfunctional family. Jane Horrocks became the middle class mum with clipped vowels and Rupert Graves was the Brylcreemed father. But the stand-out performance came from Luke Thallon as the fragile son, isolated in another bedsit with troubling memories of his past and demons in his head. We had previously seen this young actor in The Inheritance at the Young Vic last year, and it's now good to see him come from the ensemble of one play to a stand-out role in another. 
Our Rating:  4/5 
Would the Group have booked?. The cast would attracted some and 'collectible Pinter' some more, so a group visit may have been viable if only prices and availability allowed it. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Mixed blessings. 
Group Appeal: 3.5/5 
Ramin Karimloo in Concert at Cadogan Hall 
What's it about? It was a concert performance, with the star attraction and  three support acts. We were guests of our friends Jan and Michael. 
What did it have going for it? It had Ramin Karimloo, who has played the Phantom and Jean Valjean in London and other parts of the world.  We had seen him in Love Never Dies, but this was the first time we’d seen him in concert. There were plenty of musical theatre students in the audience, to learn and appreciate. 
Did we enjoy it? The first 30 minutes were the support – or rather, 3 different acts with vocalist musicians of varying ability at the start of their careers. It was good experience for them, if not especially good for us. 
Ramin Karimloo was the main event, and worth the wait. What a performer! He has it all - the voice, the looks, the personality, the relaxed confidence and the good taste to choose the right material. He was backed by a 5-strong band, with a slight blue-grass accent, which made for some interesting and fresh arrangements. We had a song from The Bridges of Madison County, and then one from Love Never Dies, which brought the audience to their feet with cheers. His rendering of Music of the Night was sensational: he sensuously caressed every word of Charles Hart’s lyric, making the song new again. It wasn't all show tunes; he sang some new material, some that he'd written himself. Ninety minutes later, by the time he led the audience in a sing-along Do You Hear the People Sing?, they would have stormed the barricades if he’d told them to. 
Our Rating:  4/5 
Would the Group have booked? They still can: he’s at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff on 30 January. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Definitely 
Group Appeal:  4/5 
Pinter Six Party Time! + Celebration by Harold Pinter 
at the Harold Pinter Theatre 
What's it about? It's a pair of Pinters at the Pinter!  
What did it have going for it? The Pinter season has established a reputation for quality performances and this programme has a particularly distinguished cast with both plays directed by Jamie Lloyd; this was possibly the best reviewed of the Pinter season. 
Did we enjoy it?  Expectations were high – it's party time, time to celebrate, and we could not have been given a better matched pair of pure Pinter perfection. Or should that be confection – a recipe made to entertain, perplex, make us laugh but leave us with a chilling note at the end. The two short plays, Party Time and Celebration, have interchangeable titles, both have a line-up (literally) of party guests behaving badly, revealing more of their manners and mind-set than they should in mixed company. They are the nouveau riche, spending, boasting, verbally jousting, out to impress and, from our viewpoint, being embarrassingly hilarious. In the first, Party Time, black dresses and black suits are the uniform, keeping up with their peers is the aim. In the second play, Celebration, colourful party-wear, big hair and big spending rule the day, with alcohol flowing to loosen tongues. In both, aggressive and confrontational language is the style. But there's a sting in both tales, and it comes from Abraham Popoola, a huge black actor with a commanding stage presence – in one he appears bruised and bloodied, representing our repressive colonial past; in the other he brings an endearing simplicity and a sharp change of tone to the bawdy proceedings. An excellent cast (John Simm, Phil Davis,  Ron Cook, Celia Imrie, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Gary Kemp, Eleanor Matsuura, and particularly Katherine Kingsley) embody these crass horrors to perfection. 
Our Rating:  4.5/5 
Would the Group have booked? Pinter + Cast = Irresistable. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? It was a party! 
Group Appeal:  4/5 
The Cane by Mark Ravenhill at the Royal Court, Jerwood Theatre 
What’s it about? Anna, the daughter, goes to visit her parents, Edward and Maureen, whom she hasn’t seen for some years. Relations are strained and there’s disturbing activities going on outside the house. Her school-teacher father is due to retire in a few days after 45 years in the job but news of his role as the long-ago wielder of the cane has surfaced. Increasing numbers of children, and adults, are gathering outside the house to protest. Anna is herself involved in the education system and tries to defuse the situation. However, other  unresolved tensions are revealed between members of this small family.  
What did it have going for it? A usually reliable and interesting cast of Alun Armstrong, Maggie Steed and Nicola Walker, all directed by the theatre’s artistic director Vicky Featherstone.  
Did we enjoy it? From the outset, it was clear that this wasn’t going to be an easy ride. A sparse, distressed and deconstructed set is used throughout and although there is some humour, the dialogue is mainly confrontational and accusatory in nature. Despite Edward’s slight suggestion that he wasn’t always happy to use the cane, he clearly feels that it was his duty and, thus, the right thing to do. This look at actions that were accepted in the past but are now held to be so abhorrent is a thought-provoking exercise and, mostly, we found it worthwhile and well executed. (Fredo was not in agreement!)  
Our rating: 3.5/5 
Would the Group have booked? Possibly. The cast might have been an attraction. 
Would the Group have enjoyed it? The majority of reviews have also been positive but the style may not sit well with everyone.    
Group Appeal: 3/5 
The Cost of Living by Martyna Majok at the Hampstead Theatre 
What's it about? What this unusual, heartfelt and often amusing play is not about, perhaps surprisingly given its title, is supermarket prices and where our wages go. It focuses on the lifestyle and emotional price paid when living with a disability and caring for a person living with a disability. 
What did it have going for it? Adrian Lester in the cast, and Edward Hall directing his last play as Hampstead's Artistic Director. The playwright won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama  in 2018 for this play. 
Did we enjoy it?  Knowing of the play’s disability factor and knowing it had two disabled cast members, I was bracing myself for being got at, for being sent on a guilt trip. Shame on me - this was no plea, no sermon; this was an unblinkered facing of facts about how the disabled and their helpers cope with the physical and emotional pressures, not of being different but of being just as nice and nasty as the rest of us, with the same hope and desperation, the same capacity for love and disappointment. No blind eye was turned to the inherent difficulties of a wheelchair life, and with two disabled actors in the cast, we could not turn away. The play’s great achievement was that not for a moment did we want to turn away. The relationships, able with disabled, were moving and enlightening, and the players made us care and empathise with the conflicted characters. Such was our involvement that at one unexpected moment (or was it two?) the whole audience gasped in shock because we cared so much. This was quite a learning curve for theatre-goers who seldom concern ourselves with the physical and emotional challenges shown here. It would be unfair to single out any of the four equally impressive actors so I will mention all their names – Emily Barber, Jack Hunter, Adrian Lester and Katy Sullivan* - each one of them reached into our hearts. Recommended. 
* "Katy Sullivan is an American actress and Paralympic track and fielder and US record holder. She is an actress, producer, writer, athlete and bilateral above knee amputee" (Wikipedia) who took part in the London Paralympics in 2012. 
Our Rating: 4/5 
Would the Group have booked? Not an obvious choice. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? I'm sure they would be as involved and concerned as we were. 
Group Appeal:   4/5 
When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other – 12 variations on Samuel Richardson's Pamela, 
by Martin Crimp, at the National's Dorfman Theatre 
What's it about? Referring back to those 12 variations, in 1740 it was about a landowner who exploits and abuses a maidservant who then marries him. Brought up to date by Martin Crimp, it's now about sex-games in a garage. 
What did it have going for it? Cate Blanchett and Stephen Dillane and, perhaps or perhaps not, director Katie Mitchell. 
Did we enjoy it?This was always going to be Marmite, loved or loathed, with a resented booking system that required entering a ballot to have even a chance of applying for tickets. And then mostly bad reviews followed. I was lucky in the ballot and then lucky again in buying tickets, but were we lucky in actually being in the presence of Blanchett and Dillane? They must certainly be admired for their devotion to the text. It required two uninterrupted hours of uninhibited chit-chat, explicit and mundane, plus much sexual writhing, humiliation, flexing of power, multiple changing of costumes and wigs, and both gender and master/servant role reversals. But no nudity. The realistic double garage set housed a real car (giving us a voyeuristic dogging vibe), a sound and light system, tools, laptops, a fridge, and four extra 'servants' to assist with the fantasy sex games. Of course sex fantasies are very much a personal taste, and other people's tastes are unlikely to be as tasty as one's own. And so we all watched, hoping to be gripped but mostly being bored (too strong a word?) or certainly uninvolved. The 12 variations - aggressive, submissive, instructive, defensive, then repeated (not so very surprisingly) - proceeded through to a mock-wedding climax. Somewhere towards the end some real feeling crept in – by then we had an understanding with this desperate pair and hoped for a resolution for them and for us, but so much sex'n'power talk and earnest application just ended limply in the levity of a strap-on device. The very mixed audience seemed appreciative of all the effort, and no-one fainted. Did we enjoy it? 'We woz there' is the best I can say.  
Our Rating:  1.5/5 
Would the Group have booked? Of course not. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? There is always one....they say. 
Group Appeal:  0/5 
Akhnaten by Philip Glass, at the London Colisseum  
What's it about? The life of the Pharaoh Akhnaten, from the first year of his reign to his death. 
What did it have going for it? This was a dress rehearsal at the ENO, and a revival of the stunning production that we had seen three years ago. Previously it had received rave reviews, and we were eager to see it again. 
Did we enjoy it? It was sublime. It’s one of those rare occasions where the direction (Phelim McDermott) perfectly complements the visual with the mesmerising music by Philip Glass -  the sets, lighting and costumes add to the impact of the unique sound. Despite the astonishing singing by counter-tenore Anthony Roth Costanzo, the show was almost stolen by the ceaseless activity of the Gandini Juggling group (honestly: you had to be there). It was a spectacle that filled the eyes and the ears. 
Our Rating: 5/5 
Would the Group have booked? It might have been a hard sell. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Anyone interested in opera and music would have been enthralled. 
Group Appeal: 3/5 
Ian McKellen on Stage at Hampstead Theatre  
What's it about?  The actor/national treasure is celebrating his 80th birthday by touring to 80 theatres in the UK, and raising money for them by presenting his one-man show. 
What did it have going for it?  It’s Ian McKellen, who has had a long and illustrious career, as an actor on stage and who has latterly had great fame and popularity on screen. He has worked in all sorts of drama – Shakespeare, classics, contemporary drama, pantomime, soap opera, sit-com and epics. And he seems to have worked with everybody so, as a noted raconteur, there would be lots of tales to tell. The tour has been selling out rapidly, and by accident (don’t ask) I booked what I thought were two cheap tickets at Hampstead. How much did I pay? Again, don’t ask; the money went to a good cause. 
Did we enjoy it?  It was a delight. Sir Ian was in fine, relaxed form, and made us feel as though we were guests in his living-room. He opened with Gandalf, and invited a young man on stage to wield the sword, and took a selfie and signed a programme. Then he launched into a retrospective of his career, his knighthood, coming out as gay to his much-loved step-mother, and recalling his short period at the National Theatre with Laurence Olivier. He recalled his contemporaries: Albert Finney, Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, Ronald Pickup, and got briefly lost in paying tribute to Finney, who had died two days previously. The second half was devoted to Shakespeare, again with anecdotes about the plays interspersed with speeches: it was a master-class. And worth every penny. 
Our Rating:   5/5 
Would the Group have booked?  They would. But would they have wanted to pay the price? 
Would the group have enjoyed it?   Without a doubt. 
Group Appeal:   5/5 
Pinter 7 (A Slight Ache & The Dumb Waiter) by Harold Pinter 
at the Harold Pinter Theatre 
What’s it about? 
A Slight Ache: A husband and wife live a seemingly idyllic life in the country with a grand house and swimming pool in the grounds. However, at the end of the garden, where the gate opens onto a small and little-used lane, there appears a match-seller. An odd character in an even odder location. He is eventually invited in to the house and there follows a number of one-sided conversations with each of the couple – the match-seller has no lines – and it gets increasingly intense. Originally performed as a radio play before being staged, it was presented to us as a radio play with the use of microphones and attendant sound effect tools. 
The Dumb Waiter: In a windowless basement room, two men are waiting for instructions and have already been there for some hours. They are hit-men who have worked together for many years and talk of football matches, strange headlines and mundane gossip. They nit-pick at some length and generally get on each other’s nerves. At the back of the room is a dumb waiter hatch and it springs to life with orders for food, and ultimately unexpected orders... 
What did it have going for it? Another day, another Pinter play in Jamie Lloyd’s season. Unlike some in the season, the house was full for this one which is testament to the quality of the cast and/or the appeal of the plays. John Heffernan and Gemma Whelan were our couple in the country with Martin Freeman and Danny Dyer hanging out in the basement. 
Did we enjoy it? Both were strong in subject matter and performance. The rather unconventional style of 
A Slight Ache was exposed on occasion when they moved outside the parameters of a radio play style of delivery, but overall it was well worth seeing. Possibly because the dialogue in the second play was particularly rich, or because they had a great chemistry, Martin Freeman and Danny Dyer gave us the most enjoyable experience. Evidently, The Dumb Waiter is one of Pinter’s most highly regarded plays and it was easy to see why, especially in the particularly capable hands of Jamie Lloyd and this cast. Soutra Gilmour’s set deserves an accolade too. 
Our rating:  A slightly uneven allocation between the two, but 4/5 overall. 
Would the Group have booked? Most probably, given a good group offer (which there wasn't!) 
Would the Group have enjoyed it?  Pinter isn’t to everyone’s liking but those who would have come would have enjoyed it. (it’s on until 23 February, so there’s still a chance) 
Group Appeal: 3.5/5 
Follies Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by James Goldman 
at the National: Olivier Theatre 
What's it about? It’s a reunion of Weismann girls from the Follies. They look back on their former selves, as two couples, Phyllis and Ben and Sally and Buddy examine their unhappy marriages to devastating effect. It’s about growing older and disillusioned and seeing all your dreams disappear. 
What did it have going for it? It’s my favourite show, because it has Stephen Sondheim’s most glorious music and wittiest lyrics, and the book is sharp and spare. It appeals to the dormant romantic in me, as I can identify with those heart-stopping moments when the characters glimpse their lost opportunities. 
Did we enjoy it? As this was a revival of Dominic Cooke’s brilliant production, we approached it with confidence; it surely couldn’t get any better. But oh yes, it could! Mike finds the opening of the show (in any production) a bit slow, but I’m in tears from the moment the first of the Beautiful Girls appears, and then I’m cheering (inwardly) at so many other moments: the Beautiful Girls descending the staircase, as the ghosts of their younger selves replicate their movements in Follies costumes; the chorus line celebrating Who’s That Woman? And the sheer terror on Stella’s (Dawn Hope) face as the song ends; Claire Moore punching home Hattie’s anthem Broadway Baby: Carlotta (Tracie Bennett) unleashing fury and yet triumphant as she declares I’m Still Here; Felicity Lott and Alison Langer duetting on the ecstatic One More Kiss. 
Jane Dee still brings out all the mordant wit and pain of Phyllis’s dialogue and songs, and Peter Forbes is even sadder as Buddy – and more manic in an improved staging of Buddy’s Blues. Alexander Hanson, new to the cast, brings his own effortless elegance and charm to Ben – and proves he has all the notes in the rapturous duet Too Many Mornings
From the moment Joanna Riding set foot on the vast Olivier stage, it was clear that she had command of the fragile, unstable Sally, and watching her gradual disintegration had us on the edge of our seats right up to and beyond her astounding interpretation of Losing My Mind. We know every note of this song, but Ms Riding took it in a perilous and successful new direction. This was a performance beyond expectation, and thrilling to observe. 
Our Rating: 5/5 
Would the Group have booked? We’d already done a visit in 2017, but I’m sure some would book again. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Yes, of course! 
Group Appeal: 4/5 
True West by Sam Shepard at the Vaudeville Theatre 
What’s it about? One brother, Austin, is house- and plant-sitting his mother’s house in Southern California, when his older brother Lee (not seen for 5 years) turns up. Austin is a successful screenwriter and has a wife and children at home. Lee drifts through life, often on the wrong side of the law. Through their very different characters there’s plenty of resentment and recrimination about what each has done with their life. Austin’s producer from Hollywood appears with unexpected results. In an attempt to keep the peace, rather perhaps than sibling affection, concessions are made and gradually lines become blurred. There is fallout. 
What did it have going for it? Sam Shepard’s plays are usually worth seeing and this play, written in 1980, was nominated for a Pulitzer prize in 1983. It is a useful vehicle for 2 strong leads and we had Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn as Austin and Lee respectively.  
Did we enjoy it? Whilst not as much as the numerous Game of Thrones fans in the audience (for the uninitiated, Kit Harington plays a leading role) who were readily whooping and on their feet at the end, we did enjoy watching these 2 actors sparring and dancing round each other, eager to see who gets the upper hand. They were clearly relishing the demands of their roles with Sam Shepard’s dialogue, witty at times, spurring them on.  
Our rating:  3.5/5 
Would the Group have booked? The casting may have brought in the punters, but Sam Shepherd is not so popular these days (and Fredo did not want to see this play!). 
Would the Group have enjoyed it?  The fans would have liked it. 
Group Appeal: 4/5 
Waitress, Book by Jessie Nelson, Songs by Sara Bareilles, 
at the Adelphi Theatre 
What's it about? Jenna works in Joe’s Diner, and bakes pies like she’s the love-child of Mary Berry and Heston Blumenthal (blueberry and bacon, anyone?). Everyone loves her, except her abusive husband Earl. But Jenna's pregnacy test shows there's more than a pie in the oven, so she has an affair with her gynaecologist. It’s a lot less interesting than it sounds.  
What did it have going for it? This show has been running on Broadway to sold-out business for over two years, The song-writer Sara Bareilles has been nominated for a Grammy six times. And we were guests of Delfont Mackintosh. 
Did we enjoy it? No, we really didn’t. It tries too hard to make you like it, but it’s formulaic and predictable and charmless. And this is despite the central performance of Katherine McPhee, who has a strong voice and great warmth and talent. She is ably supported by David Hunter and Peter Hannah, but all the other supporting and clichéd roles are too broadly written and played even more broadly. The songs are totally forgettable, and though there was a choreographer listed in the programme, I don’t recall any dancing that involved more than swaying in time to the on-stage musicians. Just when I thought I couldn’t like it any less, Jack McBrayer arrives to play the camp geeky boyfriend of a timid bespecacled waitress. We’re meant to find him funny and adorable, but I detested him. And her. 
The best line in the show is “I'm leaving before I die of oestrogen asphyxiation!”. I know how he felt, and I wanted a big slice of Get-Me-Out-Of-Here-Quick pie. I have to admit that the rest of the audience loved it. The broader the joke, the more they laughed. The higher the note (and the more inaudible the words) the more they cheered. A show as contrived as this one, aimed squarely at a middle class, Middle American audience, its comfort-zone to be tweaked but ultimately unchallenged, ticks more populist boxes than you can pop pies into. You could say the show suffered in comparison with recently seen quality productions of Fiddler on the Roof and Follies, both distinctive high-water marks in the history of the musical. But it didn't suffer as much as I did.  
Our Rating: 2/5 
Would the Group have booked? They may well, if given the chance.. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Some would. Others would hate me forever. 
Group Appeal:   3/5 
Gently Down The Stream by Martin Sherman, 
at the Park Theatre, Finsbury Park 
What's it About?  A gay American man (Beau) in his mid-sixties, meets a much younger man (Rufus) in his twenties. Beau assumes it will be short-lived but is suspicious, then charmed, by Rufus's genuine interest in him and his career as a pianist who accompanied cabaret performers in earlier years.  The play follows their relationship. 
What did it have going for it?  It was written by Martin Sherman, who has form.  His most famous play was Bent, in 1979, set in a concentration camp and which originally starred Ian McKellen and Tom Bell.  This play was nicely written and examines the issues faced by a couple who differ widely in age.  But Rufus is genuinely in love and it is touching to witness Beau's initial caution turning to trust and devotion.  Beau's most celebrated artist was Mabel Mercer who was still singing in her early eighties, and whose voice we heard during scene breaks. As the story develops, Beau's past, encompassing gay persecution, wild parties in New Orleans, New York, San Francisco and Paris, Stonewall, and AIDS (yes the play ticks all the boxes), segues into the current sweep of gay history to encompass Civil Partnerships, Gay Marriage and even gay Parenthood.  The two younger men are well played by Ben Allen and Harry Lawtey  Jonathan Hyde was especially touching as Beau, never quite believing that Rufus will leave him for a younger man.  Does he? 
Did we enjoy it?   Yes we did.  The Park Theatre was packed on a Thursday matinee, to a largely older gay audience so you got that feeling of all-togetherness which doesn't always happen at these sorts of shows.  I am glad the Park has a success but cannot see it transferring. 
Our rating: 3.5 
Would the Group have booked?   Not as a whole, and doubt individuals would have travelled up to Finsbury Park for it. 
Would the Group have enjoyed it?  Some of them, yes. 
Group Appeal: 2 
John R
Where Oscar Meets Stephen... 
at the Crazy Coqs cabaret room 
What's it about? That’s Oscar as in Hammerstein, and Stephen as in Sondheim. 
What did it have going for it? What better way to spend Sunday evening than to listen to songs by two of the greatest songwriters of the past century? I grew up playing the movie soundtracks of Oklahoma!,Carousel and South Pacific, and I’ve been a devoted Sondheimite for the past 50 years. This cabaret show was tailor-made for me.  
Did we enjoy it? I was in heaven. The singers, Matthew Seadon-Young, his brother David, and Connor Sheridan were accompanied enthusiastically by Gareth Valentine, doyen of West End musical directors. Matthew is currently appearing in Company. They were all secure vocally, and as well as choosing the inevitable songs from Hammerstein’s and Sondheim’s respective songbooks, they included some lesser known pieces as well. It was interesting to hear Loving You and The Gentleman is a Dope sung by men for a change. They welcomed, but sadly did not introduce, several guests, so I missed the name of the young man who sang Ol’ Man River so powerfully. We recognised Carly Bawden, who sang What’s the Use of Wond’rin’ and George Blagden and Laura Pitt-Pulford singing Move On. By the time the trio blended their voices on Sunday, I was in pieces. 
Our Rating: 4/5 
Would the Group have booked? It’s a small cabaret room, but yes, I think they would. If they repeat this performance – and they should – it would be an ideal entertainment for our group. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Of course they would! 
Group Appeal: 4/5 
Shipwreck by Anne Washburn; 
at the Almeida Theatre 
What's it about? Democrats searching their souls and regretting the Triumph of Trump. 
What did it have going for it? Anne Washburn is a highly regarded if controversial non-main-stream American playwright whose play Mr Burns (The Simpsons play) was presented at the Almeida in 2014. Rupert Goold directs. The cast includes some of our favourites – Fisayo Akinade, Raquel Cassidy, Elliot Cowan, Tara Fitzgerald, Adam James, Justin Mitchell 
Did we enjoy it?  We tried to focus attention but the going was not rewarding. I was tempted to mutter “navel-gazing Democratic crap' at intervals, but then a scene, a monologue, a spark of humour, tweaked my guilt. This is for and about US liberals taking themselves very seriously, asking where everything went so wrong, and at the same time thinking a little self-effacement is good for the conscience. A group of friends gather for the weekend, chat about getting back to their roots, then take turns at cornering us with their tales of political and social strife, interspersed with a little satire. Trump is caricatured as various populist US heroes (eg John Wayne,a mythical god, etc.) and occasionally a spat or guilty revelation raises the temperature. But its earnestness earns little more than a shrug from me. Presented as tableaux on a revolve, it tries to be about the current liberal US psyche, yet is unfocused and oh so overlong – rumour says it has already been cut down from four hours to a still fatiguing three. I can see how it wants to tick all the boxes currently relevant to the Democrat demographic, but it never quite banished that knee-jerk thought of 'navel-gazing crap' from my mind. 
Our Rating:   2.5/5 
Would the Group have booked? The names may lure some as they did us. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Diehard Democrats may find it worthwhile, but others....?  
Group Appeal:   2/5 
The American Clock by Arthur Miller, 
at the Old Vic 
What's it about? A formerly financially comfortable Jewish family struggle through the Depression, with vignettes from around the country showing the impact of the Wall St Crash. 
What did it have going for it? It’s an unusual play from Arthur Miller, incorporating vaudeville presentations of song and dance to provide an almost documentary perspective on a traumatic era. It hadn’t been produced in Londonfor over 30 years. 
Did we enjoy it? I liked it a lot, but Mike was slightly less enthusiastic, and our two companions were considerably less impressed. The subject interests me, and I find the style of presentation, with the short scenes punctuated by contemporary song and some dance, very dynamic. However, it was less focused than the earlier production, and that wasn’t the fault of the hard-working cast. Director Rachel Chavkin’s decisions to set the play in the round wasn’t always helpful, and employing three sets of actors to play one family was 21st century conceit that detracted from the play. Unfortunately, two scenes in the second act were badly staged, and the play lost some energy as a result. 
Even so, I thought it showed up well. The Great Depression wasn’t too long ago to be forgotten, and the suffering that people endured deserves respect. Who better than Arthur Miller to acknowledge that? 
Our Rating: The consensus was 3/5 
Would the Group have booked? We’ve already seen one Arthur Miller play this year, and have two more booked. With no name actors, this might have been a harder sell. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? I think the triple casting of the family reduced the power of the play, so possibly our group wouldn’t have enjoyed it quite as much as I would have hoped. 
Group Appeal: 3/5 
A Song at Twilight by Noel Coward, 
at the Rose Theatre Kingston 
What's it about? An author in his twilight years is reminded of his younger self when a female lover from his past turns up with love letters he wrote to a man many years earlier. Truth? Blackmail? Or a time for forgiveness? 
What did it have going for it? A rarely seen Coward  which was his final play, perhaps autobiographical although he said it was based on Somerset Maugham. Well, he would, wouldn't he? A good cast with Simon Callow and Jane Asher in the lead. 
Did I enjoy it? I did it alone as it was presented at my local theatre which I like to support when something promising turns up. This promised well and, given the boundaries of its age, it stood up well – old fashioned in nature, old fashioned in presentation, but well written and given strength by its cast. Its main interest lies in its subject – being gay back in 'those days' – and how it was treated to suit audiences back in 1960 when attitudes to being gay were just beginning to change. When did you last hear on stage “queer as a coot”? - gasps from today's audience, but maybe gasps back then for a different reason. The love that dared not speak its name was ever so respectfully presented on stage by Coward for audiences who would be lured by his name and then left to think about matters that may not otherwise have concerned them. I raise a glass of 'pink champagne' (featured) to him. There was a well furnished hotel suite with windows overlooking a lake, in-room dining, and plenty of drinking going on to make audiences feel comfortably at home. It worked. Simon Callow channelled John Bercow's bombastic irritability and waspish remarks to good effect, with Jane Asher presenting her usual cool and haughty demeanour. I also want to mention Jessica Turner as the supportive German wife, who stood up well to the other two in both her role and as fellow actor. Ash Rizi was the young and handsome room waiter, there to serve – there always has to be one as Coward knew so well. 
My Rating:   3.5/5 
Would the Group have booked? Oh yes, and the play is on tour so you may catch it somewhere. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Yes, for both its nostalgia and expected qualities. 
Group Appeal: 4/5 
Emilia by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, 
at the Vaudeville Theatre.We were invited by NIMAX Theatre    
What's it about? Emilia Bassano was (possibly) the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. She was a poet in her own right, but has been overlooked by history. The play represents her as an early feminist, and traces the course of her (for the time) long life.  
What did it have going for it?  This production started at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe, where it was highly praised. The cast was led by Clare Perkins, who’d impressed us in Sweat at the Donmar recently. And the story of Emilia Bassano sounds interesting. 
Did we enjoy it? The play tried to work in two ways. The more interesting one was the straight-forward account of Emilia’s life: her education, marriage and struggles as a writer. This was mixed up uneasily with knowing references to male attitudes and contemporary events, and the two elements really didn’t blend. Emilia was played by three actresses at different ages, and I was frustrated that Clare Perkins (the oldest Emilia) was largely wasted, standing around observing the action for most of the play. The other 15 actresses played multiple roles including the male roles, and yes, Shakespeare was among  the men. 
This play made me wish I was a woman, so I could say that I didn’t think it was an overall success without being accused of being anti-feminist. But frankly, some scenes were a mess. It was also long, and in some places as broad as it was long. I enjoyed parts of it, but I don’t think it earned the enthusiastic applause from a mainly young audience. 
Our Rating:  3/5 
Would the Group have booked? No, I don’t think they would have. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? I think it would get a mixed response, rather like my own. 
Group Appeal:  2/5 
Downstate by Bruce Norris, 
at the National: Dorman Theatre. 
What's it about? It presents us with a group of post-prison paedofiles now living together, in the  community, tagged, and under strictly licensed authority control as part of their rehabilitation. 
(NO, DO NOT STOP READING HERE – This was a most exceptional play.) 
What did it have going for it? Written by Bruce Norris, never one to avoid controversy (author of the excellent but controversial Clybourne Park about racism), he now encourages more debate with a subject we don't like to talk about. We had heard of people leaving at the Interval so obviously we needed to see it and find out for ourselves, following 4 and 5-star reviews from the critics. 
Did we enjoy it?  As a play, Yes we most certainly did enjoy it. As a subject, it held much interest, and in its writing, performance and dramatic power, it was riveting. The angle of approach, carefully devised, was scrupulously fair, balanced, and coldly shocking. How could it be otherwise? It was direct, descriptive and humane - maybe this is the reason some people object to it, wanting their sensitive feelings to be protected. Through conversations we gradually get to know these people and their visitors, we learn of their crimes and served sentences, and now they are in the limbo of pre-release (or not) while society and the law decides what happens to them next. 'Lock 'em up and throw away the key' or capital punishment may be the popular choice, but as neither option is lawful, the situation here is very worthy of attention. It is a powerful subject for a graphic play which takes us to a place we never thought we would go. 
At this shared home provided by the authorities, a child victim (now an adult with his wife) confronts his elderly abuser (confined to a wheelchair following a prison assault, admitting everything but still not genuinely concerned).  Will this lead to closure or retribution? A probation officer  (authentically played by Cecilia Noble) pays her regular visit to interview another resident who may or may not have broken his terms for release. Will this scupper his plans for returning to normality? Both these major scenes and other duologues are fist-clenchingly tense, emotionally wrought, written with a knife-edge precision and performed with award-worthy detail to character and situation. 
As the play progresses some dramatic license creeps in, some surprises are too obviously signalled but these are minor quibbles about a challenging and absorbing play. A vein of humour sometimes lightens the tone...momentarily and thankfully...because this very serious drama needs to draw its audience in and not scare them away. For most, I'm sure it succeeds. For me it most certainly succeeds. I hope it receives the awards it deserves. 
Our Rating:   4.5/5 
Would the Group have booked? Definitely not, though a few of our members would certainly be interested. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Those who choose to see it and note the content warnings from the National Theatre have to be impressed. 
Group Appeal:   2/5 
Jack the Ripper – The Women of Whitechapel 
an opera by Iain Bell, libretto by Emma Jenkins, at the London Coliseum 
What's it about? Well it's not, actually Jack at all, but the women who were his victims, hence the subtitle 
What did it have going for it? It's a new opera by Iain Bell, whose CV is impressive but who was not familiar to me.   But a cast of ENO stalwarts and the intriguing subject matter gives it particular interest. 
Did we enjoy it?  Indeed we were impressed.   We had come out of Downstate at 10.00pm the previous night (see Mike's review above) and it was rather demanding to attend another challenging show only 12 hours later! (We were at the public dress rehearsal).   It's a large scale work, showing us the degrading and dangerous world of a group of poverty-stricken women living in a flophouse, who get shooed out at daybreak to fend for themselves in the dirty, foggy streets, and where some of them inevitably resort to prostitution.   As little is actually known about the five women who died at Jack's hand the composer's aim is to give them three dimensional personalities so when we hear of their deaths we are shocked and saddened.   No murders are actually shown onstage, though one or two  male characters who have at some stage come under suspicion of being Jack are depicted (especially  an artist who reminds one of Sickert and  his paintings of the Camden Town Murders).   The mutual support of the women is movingly conveyed by the score, which ranges from heartfelt  solos to full blooded choruses.   The librettist, Emma Jenkins, has worked at the  Colly for ages and knows the individual timbres of the soloists so could, with Iain Bell, create the right music for them.    An additional aim was to provide meaty roles for more mature singers, who are often reduced to playing grannies, maidservants, ladies-in-waiting etc.    Main roles are sung by Janis Kelly, Marie McLaughln, Susan Bullock, Leslie Garrett and Josephine Barstow, all superb.   It was exciting to discover that Barstow still  has a powerful voice and dramatic presence, and that being allocated a  more gentle  aria in Follies was not due to diminished resources.   All the men were excellent too -  Alan  Opie, Nicky Spence, and James Cleverton in particular.   Nobody need be  nervous of seeing this opera as the music, though modern, is very accessible, with  dramatic power and elegiac climaxes.   Conductor: Martyn Brabbins.   Excellent programme too. 
Our rating: 4/5 
Would the Group have Booked: Some members of our Group would be interested, but not enough to fill a coach. 
Would the Group have enjoyed it? Those who book would find it of interest 
Group Appeal: 3/5  
John R (Cecilia's deputy) 
Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov in a version by Cordelia Lynn 
at the Almeida Theatre 
What's it about?  It explores (inconclusively) the experiences of three sisters marooned in a provincial garrison town who are beset by their own dissatisfactions and by a set of ineffective admirers. 
What did it have going for it? Chekhov’s play (1900)  directed by Rebecca Frecknall with minimalist designs by Hildegard Bechtler. It’s a work that has long been in the theatrical canon and like other classics it offers plenty of scope for the manipulative attentions of directors keen to give an old warhorse a fresh look. Sure enough, or maybe unsure enough, here was middle class Islingtonian angst mixed with a dash of irony. That is not to say that I came with any preconceptions as to how the piece should be done. 
Did we enjoy it? In the theatre I found the production and performances rather annoying – see below -  but on reflection felt them surprisingly effective – see below.  
  There were many contrarian signals. From the off, the mood was pretty downbeat, yet some raucous music suggested anything but the stylised funeral scene it accompanied. (A parallel overemphatic disjunction occurred when the setting was later moved plank by plank from indoors to an earthy out of doors). Lowish lighting, a bare stage, a silent piano, costumes mostly black or drab. Fair enough – you could read all of this as a sort of middle-class squat, folk endlessly drifting in and out. And you could defend the directorial decision to minimise overt indicators of location and period by referring to the universality of the play’s themes and temper. The resulting amorphousness brought with it assorted anachronisms, some trivial (portable radio, angle-poise lamps, very modish language), others less so: playing down the period Russian context left us with a samovar, put-upon servants, self-aware aristocrats, duelling, and of course the yearning to relocate to Moscow. What’s to stop three educated young women flitting off to the city lights? – well, very little and I guess that’s part of the comedy (or do I mean tragedy?) both for Chekhov and for this production.  
  The sisters’ repeated assertions of boredom, exhaustion and nostalgia take a lot of their energy; they are never far from the hysteric edge.  All three, differences in maturity and experience aside, are played as rather (forgive me)  “girly”, prone to exaggerated emotional wallowing.  Despite this, they are (faute de mieux in the dull town) magnets for the droopy collection of young military men equally given to discontent, not-very-profound philosophising and short tempers. Before them are examples of mismatches in marriage that do nothing for anyone’s sense of despair. All of this – a sort of deceptive inconsequentiality – is well caught by the young cast even if the characterisation of minor figures was on the sketchy side. Greater weight is provided by the disillusioned old sot of a doctor whose speculative and sceptical cast of mind forms a kind of hub of indifference around which the younger characters turn. 
  The play has sometimes been read as indirectly predicting the turbulence and breakdown in Russian society that began a few years after its premiere and ran through to culmination in 1917. In this production, we certainly got some sense of things falling apart –  the instability in personal relationships, the vacuous ambition of the top crust of society (just what “work” does the young baron really think he could or would do?), the uncertainty about what is “real”, the empty assertions about the future. But was there any message here for our own generation, especially those whose agenda includes #MeToo? 
Our rating: 3.5/5 
Would the Group have booked?: Yes – famous play at an interesting theatre of good repute. 
Would the Group have enjoyed it?: The play might have tested their patience with its fragmented character but the second half made sense of the first. 
Group appeal: 3.5/5 
Edmond de Bergerac by Alexis Michalik, translated by Jeremy Sams, 
at Richmond Theatre  
What's it about? It tells how the play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand supposedly came to be written, but with extra theatrical frills. 
What did it have going for it? A stellar cast of 14 including  Freddie Fox, Henry Goodman and Josie Lawrence, plus an intriguing subject. 
Did we enjoy it?  Well, I did - I went alone, taking advantage of a sudden email offer of £20 for best seats (plus an exorbitant £6.45 in on-line booking/admin fees!). Surprisingly, this production which originated in Birmingham, was not selling well in Richmond, and for my matinee it was barely a half full house. The play has been very popular in Paris, with its writer being young and talented like his contemporary Florian Zeller. 
  A  showman announces the year and the place and tells us of Cyrano and Edmond, then with a flourish of velvet curtains and twinkling bulbs we are in a Feydeau-esque world of plays, players and playwrights in arty Paris. One actor (a flamboyant David Langham) manages to be Feydeau, Melies, Ravel and Tchekhov, not quite all at the same time. But centre stage is a tussled and moustached Freddie Fox, franc-less, jaded, with a skill for rhyming couplets, and searching inspiration for a hit play. He is Edmond, and we all now know who Cyrano is, and indeed was, thanks to Edmond Rostand's play. But the play's conceit is to bring them together so the life of Edmond (the playwright) becomes the plot of Cyrano (the play). History may have been tweaked, Cyrano's real life fictionalised, but it fills the stage with larger-than-life characters and weaves its tale with love and deception, thwarted romance and sweet rhyming words, plus a desperation to stage a hit play. And of course there's that nose, factually true or maybe not, worn by Henry Goodman as Constant Coquelin, the leading actor who first played Cyrano. Josie Laurence impersonates  Sarah Bernhardt who once played Roxanne, and was a favourite actress of Rostand. It's a lively entertainment with extravagant multi-role performances, full of humour, with touches of sadness - it's a touch too long too, but most importantly it revels in its joyful theatricality. I hope it comes to the West End, with cast intact and a light trim. 
Our Rating:   4/5 
Would the Group have booked? With this tempting cast, of course. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? It's for anyone who loves The Theatre. 
Group Appeal:   4/5 
Melissa Errico: Sondheim Sublime, at the Crazy Coqs 
What's it about?  She’s a Broadway star: she’s played Cosette in Les Miserables, Eliza in My Fair Lady and Tracy in High Society, and she was Tony-nominated for Amour. She’s a seasoned cabaret performer, and has just released an album of Sondheim songs. 
What did it have going for it?  See above! And we were invited by our friends Jan and Michael. 
Did we enjoy it?  It was sublime.“You’re a great audience!” Melissa told us. “I know I always say that, but I don’t always mean it.” We’d already succumbed to her charm, from the moment she wafted on stage and seduced us with Sooner or Later from Dick Tracy. Another 14 Sondheim songs followed, each delivered flawlessly in a vocally secure performance with a warm and intimate tone. Highlights? Oh, all of them, but if I have to choose – inevitably, a fragile Losing My Mind, a vibrant The Miller’s Son, a tearful Move On and Children and Art. At the end – had 90 minutes really gone by? - the relaxed Ms Errico smiled and said, “I know it’s a convention that I leave and come back – well, just imagine I’ve done that, and I’ll sing one more song.” We could have stayed for more. 
We had a bonus: later when we were leaving, we met Ms Errico having a drink with her friends. We thanked her for her performance, and she asked anxiously if her introduction to her idea of the sublime in Sondheim’s work had been too long or too much (she’s a graduate from Yale in art and philosophy, and had explained how she agreed with a rabbi's definition of sublime as being a combination of duty and desire). Well, it may have been too long for some, but for me, cabaret is about what the performer brings to the music, and if I don’t get that personal touch, I feel slightly short-changed. There was a generosity in Ms Errico’s performance that elevated her tremendous talent; I wouldn’t have changed a thing. 
Our Rating:  5/5 
Would the Group have booked?  Sadly, it’s a small venue. One of these days…. 
Would the group have enjoyed it?  Without a doubt 
Group Appeal:  5/5 
Here are links to some songs from the album 'Sondheim:Sublime' - 
Captain Corelli's Mandolin adapted by Rona Munro from the novel by Louis de Berniéres, 
at the Rose Theatre, Kingston 
What's it about? War and Romance in Greece with a  touch of mandolin music for originality. 
What did it have going for it? The novel, the film, their popularity and some 4-star reviews of the play. 
Did I enjoy it? I took myself to the Rose in Kingston to see if this mandolin charmed its silver-senior matinee audience as the book and film had evidently done. It began with a bleating woman on all-fours playing a mischievous male goat. Amusing, irritating or demeaning? It was that sort of ensemble production, with mixed gender casting, multiple role playing, animal impersonation, and a lot of Playground Pretending to get us through the epic tale. I have not read the book so I was probably harder to win over than the rest of the audience. It took time, and when Captain Corelli finally appeared at the end of Act One and began to strum, this am-dramish production finally began to grip. There was war, executions, conflicted love, and an earthquake still to come, but the hard working cast (with a dashing Alex Mugnaioni as the Captain and a rather lightweight Madison Clare as Pelagia) took us to the extremes of the plot with invention, exertion, imagination, loud sound effects and just a few props. By the finale, our tear-ducts responded, and some fans stood to cheer. They approved but I wonder if it won over many more. That goat was eventually killed and eaten by the Germans (boo!) and I permitted myself a little smile. 
My Rating:   3.5/5 
Would the Group have booked? Oh yes, this Mandolin is a seducer. Music (but not much) by Harry Blake. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? It's a page turner of a play that eventually satisfies. 
Group Appeal: 4/5 
Billy Budd, an opera adapted from the story by Herman Melville, 
Music by Benjamin Britten, Libretto by E.M.Forster and Eric Brozier, 
at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden 
Photographs by Catherine Ashmore 
What's it about? A memory of jealousy, victimisation and injustice, among the all-male crew on board the warship HMS Domitable. 
What did it have going for it? Its reputation as a masterpiece (despite strong feelings in some quarters against this 'modern' opera); it's a new production at Covent Garden directed by Deborah Warner with a huge cast including Toby Spence, Brindley Sherratt, and Jacques Imbrailo as Billy; and it received 4 and 5 star reviews from the critics. 
Did we enjoy it? Move over Mimi, it's time to weep for Billy. I may think I know something about Theatre but when it comes to Opera of this magnitude I feel totally inadequate to do it justice here. The question asks if I enjoyed it? Yes, hugely...and who could not be impressed by this huge production with its huge male chorus, and leading voices to wring every tension and emotion from the simple yet powerful story? The big scenes and the big sounds commanded attention, but so too did those quiet poetic moments of reflection when the House held its breath, totally engrossed, trying not to shed a tear, and recognising perfection. In a stylised production with ropes and ladders, and rising and lowering 'decks', the image set a timeless scene, appropriate for this confrontation between human good and evil. This was the Last Night – the curtain calls went on and on. We were all wrung out by the emotional journey we had been on, as had the multitude on stage (I counted 75 men on stage in one scene) and in the orchestra pit.  This was more than impressive – one of Covent Garden's towering achievements.  
Our rating: 5/5 
Would the Group have booked? A small group, Yes, given the chance...but no chance. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? If you choose to see a Britten opera, this could not please more. 
Group Appeal:   4/5 
Jude by Howard Brenton, at the Hampstead Theatre 
What’s it about? Not entirely dissimilar to Thomas Hardy’s premise, our lead character, in a disadvantaged position, is self-taught in Ancient Greek and Latin and yearns to study at Christminster College, Oxford. But this Jude is a young Syrian refugee, Judith Nasrani, initially working as a cleaner for a post-graduate classicist, Sally, who offers to give Judith some tuition. Despite Judith’s undoubted intelligence and drive, her journey to achieve her ultimate goal is not straightforward and there’s a boyfriend (pig-farmer), a baby, a Syrian cousin, an aunt, a university professor, MI5 and Euripdes all playing their parts and weaving in and out of her life. 
What did it have going for it? Howard Brenton has a long and impressive list of plays to his credit and those seen have been much enjoyed. It is directed by Hampstead’s Artistic Director Edward Hall, in his last production in that capacity. The cast didn’t include any big names but, overall, it sounded worth seeing. 
Did we enjoy it? The story, the dialogue and the cast had their moments but, unfortunately, it failed to satisfy as much as it might have done. As can be seen above, there were many characters and strands to deal with and yet there was a lack of substance and impetus. It was set in the present and it felt as though there was as much of a tick list for the viewer as there was for why Oxford would gain diversity points if Judith were admitted to their hallowed halls. The staging was also not best done, with a thrust stage, as lines were inevitably delivered with backs turned on occasion.  
Our rating:  3/5 
Would the Group have booked? Probably not – it was perhaps a little obscure! 
Would the Group have enjoyed it?  Anyone familiar with Hardy’s novel might have found it an interesting exercise in comparing the different approaches but, in general, unlikely. 
Group Appeal: 3/5 
Rosmersholm by Henrik Ibsen, at the Duke of York’s Theatre  
Click on above picture to see a selection on the Evening Standard website 
What's it about? Pastor John Rosmer has renounced his faith following the suicide of his wife. A year later, her free-thinking companion Rebecca West is still living with him in the gloomy ancestral home of the stern Rosmer family. There are unfounded rumours about their relationship. Meanwhile, the community is riven by the conflict between reactionary and radical forces during an election – all of which forces a crisis in Rosmersholm.  
What did it have going for it? I was a guest of our friend Elizabeth. This is a highly-regarded play by Ibsen, but performed less frequently than Hedda Gabler or Ghosts. The production, by Ian Rickson, had good reviews, and the cast was led by Tom Burke and Hayley Atwell. 
Did we enjoy it? Very much. It’s a difficult play, even more densely written and prolix than Ibsen’s other work. The ideas come thick and fast, and the play, like the house, can seem a bit airless. It’s difficult to keep up with the sudden reversals of character and decisions, especially in the second act. Although I missed a necessary sexual tension between Tom Burke and Hayley Atwell, they both give strong performances, and they are given very powerful support by Giles Terrara, Peter Wight and Jake Fairbrother. Lucy Briers is drily humorous as a more benevolent Mrs Danvers-type house-keeper. In Duncan Macmillan’s translation, there were significant parallels between the play’s election and our own interesting times. 
Our Rating:  4/5 
Would the Group have booked? Yes – but I’m afraid not in sufficient numbers to cover the cost of the coach.. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Yes – but it wouldn’t be to everybody’s taste. It’s a play of ideas, and none of the characters elicit sympathy, as they normally do in Ibsen’s plays. 
Group Appeal: 3/5 
Tosca, Music by Giacomo Puccini, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden 
What's it about? Cavaradossi, a painter and Republican, loves Tosca, a celebrated singer. Scarpia the chief of police is jealous... 
What did it have going for it? Kristine Opolais, Vittorio Grigolo and Bryn Terfel, in this eternally favourite opera. 
Did we enjoy it?  I don’t collect opera singers or opera roles like I might collect Hamlets or Noras, but given the opportunity to visit Covent Garden for a tried, tested and applauded Tosca production with an opera loving friend, I was keen and grateful for the offer. As I said only a couple of weeks ago about Billy Budd, I know not enough about opera to criticise it from experience, and I guess few of us are in that privileged position, but here was Kristine Opolais and Vittorio Grigolo raising the roof with their passion and Bryn Terfel being nasty enough to give us something to fret about and perhaps even shed a tear over – much to impress. The scene was as sumptuous as only Covent Garden can afford and the sound in the Amphitheatre just a joy. A conveniently timed matinee house packed with out-of-towners erupted with enthusiasm at all the right moments, and  Vittorio Grigolo's boundless joy at the euphoric curtain-call gave us all something to smile at on the way home. 
Our Rating:   4/5 
Would the Group have booked? Every time, if a group booking had been possible. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Every time 
Group Appeal:  5/5 
Anna by Ella Hickson at the National: Dorfman Theatre 
What's it about? It's a “tense new thriller set in 1968 East Berlin”. Hans has been promoted at work and his wife Anna is throwing a party for a few associates and the mysterious new boss. I'm not allowed to give spoilers away, of course, but you can guess spying is involved. 
What did it have going for it? What attracted me was the gimmick (sorry, I have to call it that) created by sound designers Ben and Max Ringham who make us watch the play through a glass screen and listen through headsets to all the dialogue and sound effects supposedly coming from a hidden mic in the room. 
Did I enjoy it?  This was another OnMyOwn for me, where the gimmick lured me but held no interest for my friends. The theatrical situation was well set up - the build-up of tension through blackouts, the eavesdropping, the voyeuristic peeping into an apartment filled with celebrating guests - and we are soon doubting if anyone is quite who they say they are. Surprises followed, with squabbles, accusations, red-herrings, double-crossings, mistaken-identities and intrigue. But at a mere 60 minutes in length, it felt like a curtain-raiser with sound- designs above its station; there was too much going on, too rushed, but not enough to satisfy. The question soon arose of why the headphones? Yes, we the audience were spying, out-manoeuvring the Stasi perhaps, but what we were seeing seemed of little importance compared with what we were hearing, so why was this not just a radio play? Or a Le Carre type of novel? The sound gimmick never really paid off, nor proved to be any worthwhile technological achievement. At curtain-call the audience were pleased and the cast, in their glass box, looked pleased with themselves, holding up signs saying NO SPOILERS, so I was Mr Party-Pooper. But I'll give credit for a neat pay-off reveal. 
My Rating:   2.5/5 
Would the Group have booked? I doubt it 
Would the group have enjoyed it? The Dorfman audience were enthusiastic and the reviews were good. 
Group Appeal: 3/5 
Bitter Wheat by David Mamet, at the Garrick Theatre 
What's it about? It’s obviously based on Harvey Weinstein and his notorious bullying and his career as a sexual predator. Film producer Barney Fein is a monster of egotism and pathetic in his limited view of his power and dealings with the people around him. In the course of the play, he brings about his own destruction. No, wait – it’s a comedy! 
What did it have going for it? The audience was there to see John Malkovich, making his first appearance on the West End stage in over 30 years, and it's a new play from David Mamet. 
Did we enjoy it? I’m an admirer of writer/director David Mamet, and I was hoping for another Oleanna, Glengarry Glen Ross or Edmond. This play is a satire, with farcical elements, and the audience laughed a lot at some very funny lines. 
 And that was the problem I had with it. Is it too soon to have a comedy about people like Harvey Weinstein? Did Mamet get the tone right? Barney is grotesque, but in Malkovich’s funny and accomplished performance, he verges on being The Man who Came to Dinner. I wanted the satire to be more savage, more biting, as Mamet has shown himself capable of this in the past. We were given echoes of the more contentious Oleanna, but there wasn’t enough grist in this wheat. 
 Nevertheless, for the most part, it’s entertaining. Mamet is a master of dialogue, even if some passages could do with a rewrite and polish. There’s unnecessary repetition in the second and third scenes, and some of the plot developments are signalled very obviously. Malkovich is given excellent support by Doon MacKichan, and Ioanna Kimbrook impresses in her West Enddebut; the other actors are largely wasted, and the role of Roberto is seriously under-developed. It looks good on Christopher Oram’s handsome set. 
 In recent years, Mamet says that he had gradually rejected political correctness and progressivism and embraced conservatism. I prefer the earlier, angrier, more exciting Mamet. It’s not fair to judge this play on those terms. It is what it is: a deft, but lightweight, entertainment. (This was a preview and changes may still be made. We were invited to see this performance by Delfont Macintosh.) 
Our Rating:  3/5 
Would the Group have booked? John Malkovich would have been a draw. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Mike felt as I did, but another friend wanted to leave at the interval. I persuaded him to stay, by suggesting that the second act would get better. “You were wrong,” he told me at the end. On balance, I think our group might have found it a bit uncomfortable – and not in a good way. 
Group Appeal:   2/5 
A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare, at the Bridge Theatre 
What's it about? Lovers' trysts and tiffs, magic and know it well, I'm sure. 
What did it have going for it? A new interpretation, an immersive promenade production, the Bridge's reputation with its previous prom version of Julius Caesar, all designed to bring in the punters. 
Did we enjoy it? Years ago Peter Brook gave us his AMN'sD with characters on trapezes. Now Nick Hynter goes further, setting his Dream among the audience, with overhead acrobatics and flying bedsteads, with improv inserts to the comedy, and with gender swap and role reversal with hints of LGBTQ too – something for everyone and comedy tonight - perhaps not for the purists but they've had it their way for centuries. We sat in Gallery Two, level with trapeze contortionists (choreography by Arlene Phillips) and overlooking the crowd below – a grand view if removed (thankfully?) from the enthralled, participating and carefully ushered promenaders. This was Shakespeare meets Cirque de Soleil, sometimes solemn but mostly as hilarious as the spectators could wish for. I was reminded of the huge enthusiasm for Alternative Comedy and from our vantage point we could see the pure delight and almost-worship on the faces closest to the actors. The Rude Mechanicals with their groan-making Wall-play (which makes me want to run screaming from the theatre) here received whooping enthusiasm and rapturous applause from those nearest the players. I was less enthusiastic than the younger audience but it was great to see so many having such a fun a Shakespeare play. My own enthusiasm was reserved for the agility and control of everyone who created such a mostly magical and certainly original interpretation of a play which possibly gets more airings than it deserves. Gwendoline Christie (from Game of Thrones) used her tv popularity to advantage and Oliver Chris combined dignity and playfulness to good effect. But my main admiration goes to David Moorst as a tattooed and Mancunian accented Puck, as lively in the air as on his feet, and to Hammed Animashaum as an oversized black Bottom who charmed and amused the audience through his every scene. I'm sure Shakespeare would have loved it all.  
Our Rating:   4/5 
Would the Group have booked? Those open to non-standard Shakespeare would book, given the opportunity, but The Bridge Theatre gives no group discounts and the best seats in Gallery One are £97.00. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? It's the best party in town, so why not? But Quentin Letts (ex-Daily Mail now Sunday Times) was not amused only rating it 2 stars, but that's what I would expect from a DM hack. 
Group Appeal:   4/5 
Wife by Samuel Adamson, at the Kiln Theatre 
What's it about?  It sounds heavy - set over four time periods, the play examines emotional and social pressures within marriage (both straight and gay), and how to balance equality with personal freedom. No, don’t go away – it’s inventive and absorbing and constantly entertaining. 
What did it have going for it?  Although playwright Samuel Adamson can be a bit hit-and-miss, this sounded promising. Also, it was directed by the gifted Indhu Rubasingham, and had opened to very good reviews. The clincher was that our friend Jan recommended it. 
Did we enjoy it? Very much. The play takes Ibsen’s A Doll’s House as a unifying motif, and we glimpse various interpretations of the play over a time span of nearly 100 years. The characters are all connected by being linked or related to someone appearing in that play.  Through the decades and generations, shifting social and sexual mores are revealed in each scene. Unexpected family connections are explored dramatically, movingly and at times humorously - what could have been dry and preachy is in fact made lively and amusing by the changing period attitudes to sexual orientation. A couple of scenes go on too long, but it’s deftly performed by the cast, and especially by Karen Fishwick and Joshua James. Attention must be paid, but keep up and the result is very worthwhile 
Our Rating:   4/5 
Would the Group have booked?  There were no star names to promote this play, and it was an unknown quantity, so I suspect not. 
Would the group have enjoyed it?  I think everybody would have found something to identify with in this play, though some may have found a couple of scenes challenging. 
Group Appeal: 3/5 
Toast, by Henry Filloux-Bennett, based on the book by Nigel Slater 
What's it about? Famous chef Nigel Slater's life from schoolboy to his first job at The Savoy. 
What did it have going for it? We had enjoyed the tv adaptation of the same book and our friend Andrew had recommended this stage version to us. 
Did we enjoy it? I'm tempted to say it was delicious, and in so many ways it whets and ultimately satisfies an appetite for a light dish of foodie entertainment. Beginning when Nigel was a kid, he tells us the story of his delight in his loving mum's basic cooking, of how he joined her in the kitchen making jam tarts, and of the general nostalgia of a Wolverhampton family life where pasta was an exotic experiment. When Mum died, strict but naïve Dad took a second more tarty wife and Nigel competed with her in the kitchen using his own just-learned baking skills. We learned some tasty tricks too - the secret of adding an ounce of lard for the best mince-pie pastry; the gender stereotyping of confectionery (boiled sweets for boys, Parma Violets for girls, but Rolos were gender neutral); and then there was the more grown-up delight of discovering the erotic potential of tonguing a Walnut Whip! The audience were encouraged with taste-along participation – we helped ourselves to proffered sweets, sampled mini lemon meringue tarts, and (joy-of-joys) felt very adult and a bit gay as we all bit off the top of our Walnut Whips and discovered the goo inside. At our matinee performance, the audience was at first slow to respond to the oh-so-period comedy, but joined in the mood of the play with enthusiasm as the baking defined the progress of the plot.  A cast of five, lead by a personable Giles Cooper as Nigel, played all the characters and played around energetically with moveable cabinets for every kitchen set-up - it was slick, involving, and a ready-mix of emotions. When Nigel finally prepared a simple something for himself on toast, there were many moist eyes watching him. And it wasn't just the onions. 
Our Rating:  4/5 
Would the Group have booked? No big names on stage, but lots of foodie nostalgia would have its attractions. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? They would offer their own recipes! 
Group Appeal:  4/5 
The Hunt  by Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm, at the Almeida Theatre 
What's it about? An accusation of child abuse is made against an infant teacher in a small town forest community. 
What did it have going for it? We had liked the Swedish film on which it's based a while back and here was the drama  again, now on stage with Tobias Menzies as the accused teacher. 
Did we enjoy it? You either turn away from child abuse stories, or embrace them as indeed this Islington audience is doing. Preaching to the liberal, perhaps? I would like to see the play performed in a village hall with a more conservative (Conservative?) audience, but the plot stands up well to scrutiny by any community. The accusation drops like a brick in a small pond and makes waves which affect everyone. With a population of macho men with bizarre hunting rituals and over-protective women ready to support any suspicion, a quiet and lonely teacher is an easy victim of gossip. With elements of The Crucible and even Equus, the production creates a troubling atmosphere of tension and believable suspicion within the community. It's set on a bare stage with just a revolving glass shack to snare us with the plausibility of evil. Tobias Menzies' credible performance, (quiet, withdrawn and subdued) is the perfect contrast to the uncomprehending community and the increasingly aggressive Justin Salinger as the father. The two totally natural small children impress hugely in demanding roles - I am continually amazed at child actors these days who manage to be unphased with no hint of any precocious mannerisms, and cope with veiled talk of sexual matters with refreshing innocence. It is no spoiler to say we know almost from the start that the accusation is false, but how will this nightmare end? This is a riveting drama, too often in our headlines, one whose resolution, with a mystical touch, may not satisfy everyone, but it leaves us with much to discuss.  
Our Rating:  4/5 
Would the Group have booked? Given the subject, maybe not, and that is unfortunate. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? It's an engrossing drama so I believe they would. However, Fredo was less enthusiastic than me, and so....? 
Group Appeal:   3/5 
Merrily We Roll Along Music & Lyrics by Stephen by Stephen Sondhem, Book by George Furth, 
at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama 
What's it about? Three young friends follow their dreams and see their ideals disappear as they make compromises. Except we meet them when the dreams have soured and travel back in time to the point where they meet and believed that it was their time to be the movers and shapers. How did they get there from here? 
What did it have going for it? You mean, besides the fact that it’s a Sondheim show? It strikes a chord: old friends who go their separate ways, situations that turned into turning points, growing up, taking charge, seeing things as they are. Inevitably, it brings a lump to the throat and tears to the eyes. 
Did we enjoy it? It’s hard to resist it. We had to make a few allowances: the cast was very young, and in some cases, the inexperience showed. It’s a difficult show to cast, as the characters move from disillusion to innocence, and really it works better with older performers. Still, it was very well sung and the staging was good, and I cried copiously – so I’d had a good time. 
Our Rating: 4/5 
Would the Group have booked? It’s a drama school - group bookings aren’t possible. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Yes – we’ve enjoyed other productions at the Donmar and the Menier. 
Group Appeal: 4/5 
Equus by Peter Shaffer at the Trafalgar Studios 
What’s it about? A Child Psychiatrist, Dr Martin Dysart, is asked to take on and treat a 17-year old, Alan Strang, who has blinded 6 horses. Despite his initial reluctance, Dr Dysart admits Alan to the mental hospital and over a number of sessions we learn more about both characters and the events that led up to this horrific act. A key element emerges in the way religion has been used, or abused, to drive home strong messages for and against by Alan’s parents, who sit at each end of the spectrum. 
What did it have going for it? The play, first performed here in 1973 to great acclaim with Alec McCowan and Peter Firth in the principal roles and a year later on Broadway, has been revived periodically and attracted actors including Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton and Anthony Perkins in the US, and most recently here with Richard Griffiths and Daniel Radcliffe in 2007. Another revival was due although this one has a less well-known cast, including Zubin Varla and Ethan Kai.  
Did we enjoy it? With rather surreal, and at times downright odd, moments, much depends on the strength of the relationship that builds between the doctor and Alan. The emotions that are roused and displayed need to be as naked as Alan by the end and although there were some fine performances, we didn’t feel that the doctor was quite as convincing as was required. The set comprised billowing curtains and just a bed for the odd scene so the actors had to work extra hard to frame the action as well. There was a musical accompaniment, although that became rather intrusive at times. The horses are played by actors, and are very effective in their roles. 
Our rating: 3/5 
Would the Group have booked? Possibly – it’s a well-known play by a well-known playwright 
Would the Group have enjoyed it? The critics have been divided and that may well have been the reaction by the Group too 
Group Appeal: 3/5 
Afterglow  by S. Asher Gelman at the Southwark Playhouse. 
What's it About?  A relationship drama between three young gay men in Manhattan. Josh and Alex are a married couple but have an open relationship and are mutually in lust with Darius. They also have a baby on the way thanks to a donor of some sort, though the specifics of this were shadowy. The rules of the game are that although relationships outside the marriage are permissible, falling in love is not. Of course these barriers are tested severely when emotions prove more volatile and the margins supposedly agreed upon grow hazy. 
What did it have going for it? We didn't quite know. Neither the author (S.Asher Gelman) nor the cast were known to us, but the play ran for 14 months Off-Broadway. The publicity pictures of the three handsome fellas, dressed in nothing at all, wasn't a turn-off either. 
Did we Enjoy it?  More than we expected. I had only seen one (bad) review in the Evening Standard. The other 4 and 5 star reviews displayed in the publicity were from fringe publications or the Net. (5 stars from WhatsOnStage) The theatre seemed to be full of the play's intended audience - gay men, but a few accompanying women too.  Most were in their 20s and 30s but we were not quite the oldest people there - we spotted Gilbert (or was it George?) dressed in a tweedy-looking suit in which he must have sweltered. The acting was rather good and perhaps made the play seem better than it was. There were several scenes involving total nudity and at least three occasions when they were in the shower - sometimes with their clothes on! We learned little about the boys' jobs and careers, and there were too many unnecessary shifting of rudimentary props to the accompaniment of very loud  disco music. But the genuine emotional involvement of the cast won us over in the end.  Interesting thoughts on relationships come up for air, and apply just as much to people other than gay men. 
Our Rating:  3.5/5 
Would the Group have booked?  Some might. 
Would the Group have enjoyed it?  Those who book would. 
Group Appeal?   3/5 
John R
Songs of Bernadette 
Compiled and performed by Bernadette Robinson, at Crazy Coqs 
What's it about? Australian singer Bernadette Robinson trained as an opera singer, but has made her name for her precision-cut impersonations of show-biz divas. This was a show-case of her range and talent. 
What did it have going for it? We hadn’t seen her show Songs for Nobodies, but our friends Jan and Michael had, and they invited us to see this performance. We weren’t the only starry table who’d come to the cabaret: Maureen Lipman, Kathy Lette and Sandi Toksvig were at the next table. Jan invited a lady who was on her own to join us, and it was the charming and friendly Phyllis Logan! 
Did we enjoy it? The accuracy of her impersonations, the power of her voice and her wicked sense of humour made Bernadette Robinson irresistible. Her take-offs of Maria Callas, Shirley Bassey and Billie Holiday verged on being cruel, and I will always laugh when I remember her take on Barbra Streisand singing I Could Have Danced All Night. Even more hilarious was her Julie Andrews adapting to the disco beat and dance moves of I Love the Nightlife. But I wondered if Ms Robinson ever longed to pack away the divas and let us hear her own interpretations of the wonderful songs made famous by Edith Piaf, Patsy Cline and others. 
Our Rating: 4/5 
Would the Group have booked? It’s a cabaret, so not really suitable for groups. And at the moment, Bernadette Robinson is an unknown quantity over here (but not for much longer). 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Definitely! 
Group Appeal: 3/5 
Later Opinions can be found HERE