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)