An archive of our reviews 2017 (Part One) 
The Kite Runner adapted by Matthew Spangler from the novel by Khaled Hosseini, 
at the Noel Coward Theatre. We were the guests of Delfont Mackintosh. 
What's it about? Growing up in Kabul, Amir betrays his friend and servant Hassan. This results in tragedy for them all as the revolution takes place and the Taliban come to power. Can there be any resolution between the long-time friends? 
What did it have going for it? The novel is an international best-seller, and is much-loved. It has also been made into a film, and this adaptation is aimed essentially at existing fans of the story. 
Did we enjoy it? There were problems: both of us have difficulty buying into the idea of adults playing children, and the writer relied too heavily on using Amir as boy, man and Narrator instead of dramatising the conflict. The passage of many years requires much story-telling but the simple staging guides us through the book's pages with careful editing. Ben Turner gives a heroic performance in the lead with other actors doubling up roles, and the projections for the background were suitably evocative. It proved to be an audience pleaser - I wonder how many knew the story already. 
Our Rating:  3/5 
Would the Group have booked? Perhaps a small number. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? If you enjoyed the book, you will enjoy the play. 
Group Appeal: 3/5 
Dead Funny by Terry Johnson, at the Vaudeville Theatre 
What’s it about? Eleanor wants a child; her husband would oblige if he could but he's too busy running the Dead Funny Society, a club for fans of iconic British comedians. 
What did it have going for it? A revival of a classic Terry Johnson play with an excellent cast including Katherine Parkinson, Steve Pemberton and Ralf Little. 
Did we enjoy it? I reviewed this play back in 1994 when it premièred and I gave it 5 stars. Back then I said “No playwright can be both as dead funny and as dead serious as Terry Johnson. He proved it with Hysteria (1993) and now he excels himself again with this truly original dissection of a failing marriage combined with a comic-capers checklist of Great British Humour. Not since Comedians (1974) have so many jokes been turned around to reveal such an unexpectedly disturbing theme. It's the day Benny Hill dies and his fans get together to celebrate his humour and remember their favourite jokes and funnymen. But behind every innuendo and traditional guffaw is a human tragedy; one person's snigger is another's pain.” This time it's Katherine Parkinson (instead of Zoe Wanamaker) playing the wife “whose marriage to a joker is no fun; yearning for motherhood, rejected and bitter, she's the play's pivot,” and no one these days does pain and disdain like Katherine Parkinson. “A well matched supporting cast prove that, to be most effective, comedy roles need the best acting performances,” and this cast gives us the necessary laughter, embarrassment and heartbreak.“Terry Johnson directs his own script ensuring that every laugh is in the right place and every truth is honestly exposed.”  Twenty two years on, Dead Funny still looks like an original. 
Our rating: 4/5 
Would the Group have booked? The names should attract bookings, but the subject...? 
Would the Group have enjoyed it? Perhaps a mixed response given the unexpected mixed tone of the piece. 
Group Appeal? : 3½/5 
Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare, at the Haymarket Theatre 
What's it about? It’s a rom-com, Shakespeare-style: Beatrice and Benedick are made for each other, but they don’t know it. Complications are resolved, and it ends happily. 
What did it have going for it? It’s a Christmas treat from the RSC, with a cast led by Lisa Dillon, and directed by Christopher Luscombe. And my sister couldn’t use her tickets. 
Did we enjoy it? There is a serious side to this play, but Christopher Luscome was determined that it was going to be a feel-good Christmas show. There were some gains, and it got a fair number of laughs. I thought that some of the cast laboured the humour a bit, and I missed the essential chemistry between Beatrice and Benedick. 
Our Rating: 3/5 
Would the Group have booked? Possibly.  
Would the group have enjoyed it? Possibly 
Group Appeal: 3/5 
Mike adds: Fredo is too kind. The setting was picturesque 'National Trust does Christmas' complete with tree and snow, all delightful and aimed at grandparents taking the grandkids for a Will Shakespeare seasonal treat. We were rather counting the minutes but everyone else seemed to be having a better time than we were. Edward Bennett, totally charisma-free and devoid of romance as only a Frankie Howard lookalike could be, was miscast as Benedick but Lisa Dillon's Beatrice was excellent, adding class to a pretty but pedestrian production. This was love's labour's laboured.  Unsurprisingly, Dogberry did the most irritating of blustery Dad's Army comedy routines, bumping into furniture etc. The audience lapped it up and had a great time. We preferred to remember Tamsin Greig and Joseph Millson as a sexy and hilarious B&B a few years ago - this one will not be remembered
The Pitchfork Disney by Philip Ridley at Shoreditch Town Hall (basement) 
What's it about? Brother and sister, Presley and Haley, together live a dystopian existence in a shabby room. There are recurring stories and themes, with references to nuclear bombs and other horrors. Presley sees someone outside the window, possibly injured, and they are joined by Cosmo Disney, a showman, whose speciality is eating live insects and small animals. His partner, Pitchfork, appears later who has his own disturbing act.  
What did it have going for it?  Directed by the acclaimed Jamie Lloyd, he has drawn together a small but exciting cast of George Blagden (as seen by us at Hampstead in Platinum on 31.12.16 and who alerted us to this next project when we chatted with him), Hayley Squires (BAFTA-nominated for I, Daniel Blake), with Tom Rhys Harries and Seun Shote. This is the first of Philip Ridley’s plays and is renowned for its “in-yer-face” experience.  
Did we enjoy it? The truly immersive nature of the play, with the dangerous-to-know characters erupting and raging among us, created a frisson of nervous anticipation. The direction, acting, and site-specific set were impressive although, never sure about what might come next, it was an exciting white-knuckle ride and not one you’d want to do too often! 
Our rating:  4/5 
Would the Group have booked?  Staged in the small basement room, a group visit was not viable and the extreme nature of the play wouldn’t appeal to many. 
Would the Group have enjoyed it?  Unlikely 
Group Appeal?:  2/5 
Adriana Lecouvreur by Francesco Cilea, at the Royal Opera House 
What's it about? Count Maurizio casts off his mistress the Princesse de Bouillon when he falls in love with the actress Adriana. 
What did it have going for it? This is Cilea’s only successful opera, and had almost fallen out of the repertoire in recent years. Now it is being reassessed, and its reputation is growing. We didn’t know even one note of music from it, but we decided to take a chance. 
Did we enjoy it? It’s everything you want grand opera to be: big voices and big gestures to fit a plot that leans towards melodrama. The Royal Opera gave it the full treatment with a sumptuous production, mostly set backstage at the Comedie Francaise, with a towering revolving stage set to show off the intense passions in stunning style. And the costumes were wonderful as well. Though it was three and a half hours long, our interest didn’t flag, and the audience gave Bravos to the very impressive second cast of Hrachuhi Bassenz as Adriana, Ksenia Dudnikova as the Princesse, and Brian Jagde as Maurizio. 
Our Rating: 4/5 
Would the Group have booked? I had to choose between Adriana and Il Trovatore to offer to the group, and I’m afraid I made the wrong choice. Verdi definitely has the edge musically and is usually popular, but this was a better production, and more in line with most people’s expectations of a night at the opera.  
Would the group have enjoyed it? Most definitely. 
Group Appeal: 4/
The Wild Party Music & Lyrics By Michael John La Chiusa, Book by George C Wolfe 
What's it about? Queenie and Burrs are washed-up vaudeville artistes locked in a destructive relationship. They throw a party to console themselves - bring on the gin, skin and sin. 
What did it have going for it? It’s based on an infamous poem by Joseph Moncure March, which was adapted as two different musicals. We hadn’t seen this version before. Director/choreographer Drew McOnie has impressed us in the past, and the cast list was a roll-call of veterans of other shows. 
Did we enjoy it? Frances Ruffelle, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt, Donna McKechnie, Tiffany Graves, Ako Mitchell, John Owen-Johns, plus some convincing cross-dressers – with all that talent on stage, why didn’t we enjoy it more? Everybody worked up a sweat, and maybe that was the problem. It was frenetic (relentlessly) and it wasn’t possible to focus on any one character for long enough. The music and the pace were unvaried, and it was exhausting to watch. The explosive tragic finale crept up on us without making much impression, except perhaps relief for all involved. Frances Ruffelle was a compelling Queenie, but almost everyone else got lost in the crowd. 
Our Rating: 3/5 
Would the Group have booked? I had high expectations, so I would have promoted it. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? I don’t think they would have. 
Group Appeal: 2/5 
The Winter’s Tale, English National Opera, at The London Coliseum  
A new opera by Ryan Wigglesworth (composer and librettist). This was a dress rehearsal. 
What’s it about? King Leontes mistakenly condemns his wife Hermione to death for infidelity with his friend Polixenes who flees the court with Hermione’s new-born daughter. Years later, Leontes repents and his long-lost child Perdita returns with her lover Florizel, son of Polixenes. Hermione,  through these troubled years, has in fact been sheltered by Paulina, Polixenes’ wife. Hermione is now revealed to the repentant Leontes as a statue which miraculously comes to life, permitting a reconciliation with her husband.  
(Who said cryontology was a novelty?) 
What did it have going for it? This is yet another initiative by the enterprising ENO, a new work in English by a distinguished composer/conductor, and direction by well-known actor Rory Kinnear. 
As told by the Bard, the rather mysterious TheWinter’sTaleis full of themes and tropes that have the power to inspire artists working in other media. Is it beyond possibility that, say, Verdi (or one of his librettists) who found so much stimulus in other Shakespeare plays might have plundered this one? What might he have made of (e.g.) the exploration of jealous and deluded authority, cruelty and forgiveness, loss and reconciliation, the father/daughter relationship, to name but a few? 
These are deep and difficult issues, capable of generating dramatic conflict, externalisation of interior feelings, catharsis and what not, all open to intensification in the hands of the opera creator through the combination of words and music. An opera libretto will probably not be able to match the play’s nuanced psychic delving but for the audience, the unique multi-dimensionality of opera can often evoke even greater responses. Of course, Wigglesworth’s opera must be judged on its own merits, not weighed against either Shakespeare’s play or a mythical Verdian music drama.  
Did we enjoy it? Regrettably, this new work lacks dramatic depth, heft and intensity and provides less than it should for the high-powered principals to get really stuck into vocally. The story is told clearly enough, though with little variation in pace and with too many scenes that feel perfunctory at best. The rotunda-ish set (Vicki Mortimer) serves many purposes neatly. But can there have been a less jolly bucolic knees-up than that in Act 2? We aren’t given enough about the characters of the protagonists to enable us to identify or empathise with them. 
The problem seems to be that an etiolated libretto has been laid on to the orchestral score rather than absorbed into it or given greater articulation by it. Would it have worked better if presented as a masque or reimagined in a more symbolist manner?   That said, what flows under the composer’s baton from the pit is truly wonderful, full of variety and sensitive atmospherics and yielding a strength of colour and feeling not found on stage. Particularly effective are the Brittenesque interludes, one of which leads beautifully into the first entry of the chorus; the moment of remorseful reflection by Leontes as he contemplates the stars; and the all-too-brief episode of reconciliation at the close. 
The evening was somewhat disappointing but far from unenjoyable – and it was the dress rehearsal. 
Our rating: 3/5 
Would the Group have booked for it? Quite likely – a not unfamiliar story, sung in English - but with all that dangerous contemporary music….? 
Would the Group have enjoyed it? Quitepossibly; quite possibly not. 
Group appeal: 3/5 – temperature rather low. 
Hamlet by William Shakespeare, at the Almeida Theatre 
What’s it about? Hamlet is perhaps Shakespeare's most famous play, with more well known lines in one act than many playwrights manage in a lifetime, not to mention those endlessly quotable soliloquies.  The interest lies in seeing a classic reinterpreted by an interesting director and one of our brightest stars of stage and TV.   
What did it have going for it? Andrew Scott, who is perhaps best known for playing Moriarty in the BBC's Sherlock, and Robert Icke, a director whose work is always worth watching.   
Did we enjoy it? A modern dress production with the now apparently ubiquitous video screens showing us the actors on screen rather than on stage didn't necessarily excite.  However, the spare set with glass screens, gauze curtains, corridors and stairways, which appeared to have been inspired by the latest Scandi noir drama, created a sense of surveillance activity and covert happenings just out of sight, adding to the sense of menace and dread.  
Andrew Scott's standout performance, in which he seemed to be speaking the lines naturally, for the first time, and providing us with  fresh insights, was mesmerising.  Scott was ably supported by Juliet Stephenson as Gertrude (is she old enough to be his mother??) but some of the cast seemed overwhelmed by the verse or to have been instructed by the director not to invest their characters with any spark. or charisma.  Surely Claudius must have had something going for him to attract the recently widowed Gertrude?  Not in this interpretation.... 
The full text production ran to nearly four hours, so we needed the charismatic leading man to hold our interest. 
Our rating:  5 stars for Andrew Scott and 4 for the production and remaining cast.  Luckily, the use of Bob Dylan's songs was not too extensive, or another star would have been lost.  4½/5 
Would the Group have booked?  Yes, although the length of the production could have been off-putting to all but those with the most resilience.  It was difficult enough to buy our own tickets without trying for the Group.   
Would the Group have enjoyed it? They would have enjoyed Andrew Scott's performance, which will surely rank with the greats.   
Group Appeal? : 4/5 
A Dark Night in Dalston by Stewart Purmutt, at the Park Theatre, Finsbury Park This was a preview. 
What’s it about? On a dark Friday night, yes, in Dalston, Gina rescues a young Jewish man from a street assault and brings him indoors to recover. For him, he must observe the Sabbath, but for her it's a chance for company, chat, discovery, and maybe more. 
What did it have going for it? Actress Michelle Collins, "an award winning writer", and the Park's reputation for finding interesting new plays. 
Did we enjoy it? This could be 'Rattle of a Simple Jew', a re-tread of Charles Dyer's comedy 'Rattle of a Simple Man' from 1963. (Michelle Collins appeared in a 2004 revival of that too.) People as old as me may remember the original play and subsequent film but that's not to say there's no new audience ready for a similar two-hander – worldly older woman and innocent younger man. This time around the emphasis is on his orthodox Jewishness and her need for a little excitement to detract from the troubles in her domestic life. It's all played with total conviction and some warm humour along the way, which coaxes not only us into submission but also the young Jewish guy discovering a need he never knew he had to escape the stifling trap of his impending marriage. So far so good, but there's a surprise on the horizon and when it comes we rather regret the change of gear from character focus to unlikely plot twist. The always reliable Michelle Collins relaunches her EastEnders persona and Joe Coen carries his character's shyness and orthodox habits with a winning naturalness. It's a touching pleasure to be in their company but at about 95 minutes with no interval, it feels a little thin on content...until that twist. 
Our rating: 3/5 
Would the Group have booked? A new play with no obvious selling point - probably not. 
Would the Group have enjoyed it? If in an undemanding mood, maybe. 
Group Appeal?: 2/5 
Partenope by G.F.Handel - An English National Opera production 
at the Coliseum (This was a Dress Rehearsal) 
What is it? An opera by G.F.Handel (based on an Italian libretto by Silvio Stampiglia) first performed in 1730 in London. ENO’s staging uses a translation by Amanda Holden. 
What’s it about? Queen Partenope of Naples is courted by three princely hopefuls; one of these, Arsace, has dumped his fiancée, Princess Rosmira, who shows up in sketchy male disguise as Eurimene, aiming to win back Arsace. The opera follows the convolutions of love and its varying fortunes, ending happily with two prospective weddings, those of Partenope and Armindo and of the reconciled Alsace and Rosmira. 
What did it have going for it? The prospect of some three hours of Handel was a tad daunting, especially for those of us for whom the da capo aria in bulk has not in the past been the best thing in the operatic firmament. But in the event those hours did not hang heavy. Here was a sparky revival of the 2008 witty and elegant production by Christopher Alden, with the six singers (no chorus) clearly relishing their roles and displaying absolute confidence with the demands of the score. In the pit, Christian Curnyn drew crisp, energetic and sensitive playing from the ever-resourceful ENO orchestra. The mise-en-scene was far removed from a royal court in ancient Naples – set (Andrew Lieberman) and costumes (Jon Morrell) evoked the 1920s or thereabouts – one almost expected Hercule Poirot to waddle on to sort out the conflicting relationships – and skilful lighting (Adam Silverman) played an important part in creating visual pleasure. 
Did we enjoy it? Enjoy it we did. All elements – vocal, orchestral, dramatic, scenic - worked admirably together and the “updating” to the post-war “flapper” period had an internal coherence. The rather louche and indulgent mood of a country weekend – drinkies, cards, amours - gave a credibility of sorts to the labyrinthine story line. (The possibility of a duel with broadswords did not seem anachronistic, simply rather good fun, especially as it was conditional on the participants going bare-chested – a demand that obliges Rosmira to come clean). Handel’s score displayed great variety of pace and mood, from pulsing energy to woeful lament and back again and in the absence of a chorus, the occasional ensembles were impactful.  As Partenope, Sarah Tynan both in voice and demeanour exuded leadership and appetite and her silvery soprano conquered all the ferocious above-the-stave notes. James Laing (Armindo) deployed his particularly robust counter-tenor to great effect. Patricia Bardon (Alsace) and Stephanie Windsor-Lewis (Rosmira) also displayed impressive command of their roles. The menfolk’s singing and acting were equally engaging and, like the others, they carried out with panache a variety of “business” as demanded by the director in his efforts to avoid the outmoded “stand and deliver”  format for baroque arias. There were some excellent visual gags, even though a few seemed de trop, doing little to illustrate or comment on what was being sung. These moments in no serious way detracted from a delightful and memorable performance. 
Our rating: 4/5 
Would the Group have booked for this? Opera seria, even if essentially comic in this case, may be off-putting but Handel has, almost understandably, a special place in the British public’s hearts. So, yes, possibly. 
Would the Group have enjoyed it? What was there not to enjoy? (Handel, of course, if you have an aversion!) 
Group appeal: 3½/5 
Project Polunin at Sadler's Wells Theatre 
What’s it about?  Sergei Polunin launches his 'project' for dancers and choreographers – works to showcase new talent.  
What did it have going for it? The 'bad boy of ballet' himself dancing in two works with his on and off stage partner Natalia Osipova. 
Did we enjoy it? Three separate works and a chance to see two of the top ballet dancers of today – certainly enjoyable but not quite the evening of excitement we hoped for. First there was a classical pas de deux from Vladimir Vasiliev's Icarus, with the two top stars, beautifully danced, fluid, satisfying, which certainly whetted our appetites for more fireworks from the infamous duo. But then came a change of gear, four different dancers in a piece called Tea or Coffee by Andrey Kaydanovskiy, but reminiscent of choreographer Hofesh Schechter – much tumbling and aggression in overalls, gymnastically impressive but apparently it was meant to be funny and it wasn't. Finally came the full scale Narcissus and Echo, by several choreographers, a world premiere which may or may not surface again. It looked like something from the imagination of Pierre et Gilles, all camp glitter and French self admiration, maybe appropriate for Narcissus but disappointing in its limited  presentation of the two stars. At the finish the audience erupted with enthusiasm for the dancers, but it seemed more deserved for past glories than this less than impressive programme. 
Our rating: 3/5 
Would the Group have booked? P&O have fans but, like us, it would only be them who would have booked. 
Would the Group have enjoyed it? Hmmmm.... 
Group Appeal? : 2½/5 
The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov, in an English version by Trevor Griffiths, 
from a translation by Helen Rappaport, at the Arcola Theatre, Dalston. 
What’s it about? Madam Ranevskaya returns to her old family estate (with the vast cherry orchard) after spending 5 years in Paris after the death of her young son.  She has spent much money on a feckless lover and is persuaded back to Russia by her family. The cherry orchard will shortly be auctioned off to pay the family debts.  Several other relationships representing hope, or the loss of same, are shown. 
What did it have going for it?  For Chekhov fans that's enough, but in this case it had Sian Thomas playing Madame R (and I must confess she is a friend of ours!) 
Did we enjoy it? From time to time, yes.  However, it is unevenly cast and the pacing of the direction was sometimes turgid.  The important role of Lopakhin, the man from a long family of serfs, is played by a black actor (Jude Akuwudike) which emphasises his outsider status, but he did not succeed in conveying his complex character, determined in business but too shy in love. There is an eternal student figure, Peter Trofimov, who lives for work and hope, without doing much about it;  Anya (Pernille Broch), Madam R's daughter, is in love with him and together they look forward to a brighter future.  Both these roles were very well played.  Above all is Sian Thomas' Ranevskaya who has properly delved into the contradictions of her character - skittish, romantic, compassionate, humorous and foolish.  Her stunned stillness as the axes begin their work, is most moving. One or two other actors were embarrassing, and some of the actors have been allowed to just do their thing with no recourse to relating to the other characters.  And unfortunately the space at the Arcola is not conducive to the creation of the necessary Chekhovian atmosphere  
Our rating: 3/5 overall;  4 for Sian Thomas, though, who kept the layers of her role vividly clear. 
Would the Group have booked? Probably not due to the awkward location of the theatre 
Would the Group have enjoyed it? Some would, I am sure.  It's still a great play. 
Group Appeal? :  3/5 
John R
My Brilliant Friend, Parts 1 and 2 adapted by April De Angelis from the books by Elena Ferrante, 
at the Rose Theatre, Kingston 
What's it about? An intense friendship and rivalry develops between two gifted young women in Naples as they struggle to free themselves from the constraints of post-war Italian society.  
What did it have going for it? Elena Ferrante's novels combine the epic sweep of history with a forensically detailed analysis of the volatile relationship between Lenu and Lila, their families and the men in their lives. This ambitious adaptation was in two parts, and lasts 5 and a half-hours in total.   The director Melly Still did the hugely successful Coram Boy at the National Theatre. We saw this play at a well-attended matinee and evening performance, with an enthusiastic audience. 
Did we enjoy it? Overall, yes - but it is very uneven in bringing the story from page to stage. The books have over 50 characters, and cover 50 years, so 10 of the actors had to play multiple characters, and frequently were inappropriately cast in age, gender and appearance. (I loathe it when children are played by adults or rag-doll puppets!)  
The adaptation faltered in the second play, which seemed to conflate the final two novels: the narrative was hurried, so that significant events were given insufficient weight. There were other decisions that I thought were ill-considered: all the actors use their own accents, which is probably better than everyone trying to assume an Italian accent, but it fought against the idea that this was a close community. And the scene changes on an open stage with balconies and steps were overloaded with pop music, which traced the passing of the years but jolted us out of the location of the play. 
Even so, there were many powerful scenes in the play, and the two central performances were everything the enigmatic Signora Ferrante could have hoped for. Catherine McCormack projected both the vitality and fatalism of Lila, and Niamh Cusack conveyed the unending struggles of Lenu as daughter, wife, mistress and mother.  
Our Rating: 3/5 - and one of those stars are for the leading actresses. 
Would the group have enjoyed it?: I think the first play might have pleased them, but the second play may have lost them. 
Group appeal: 2/5 
The Frogs, a musical "freely adapted" by Stephen Sondheim and Burt Shevelove 
from The Frogs, an Ancient Greek comedy by Aristophanes. 
The book was later revised by Nathan Lane. 
What’s it about? The slim but tortuous plot involves actors/gods/slaves on an adventurous boat journey to Hades and climaxes (please don't ask) with a duel of words between George Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare. And frogs are involved somewhere (again, please don't ask). 
What did it have going for it? Sondheim's The Frogs famously had its first performance in the swimming pool at Yale University back in 1974. The acoustics were bad, few could understand it, but certainly it had novelty value. It is seldom performed anywhere but we first saw it in the Old Brentford Baths, London, back in 1990 and caught up with it again in 1991, in another pool, this time in Coventry. It reached dry land in New York at the Lincoln Center Theater in 2004, in a revised expanded version by Nathan Lane, and of course we were there. This is the version now at Jermyn Street Theatre, reduced in size to nine actors and a four piece band. How times have changed. 
Did we enjoy it? The songs, along the way to Hades and back, have both charm and humour, including the often-sung-out-of-context 'Invocation and Instructions to the Audience', telling us "Please don't cough, It tends to throw the actors off", and other gems as apt now as in the time of Aristophanes. But it's not the plot, it's the 'collectible Sondheim' nature of the show which brings in the fans, including us. This little group of thesps made a creditable stab at it, all rather 'university footlights' but appealing nevertheless. Good voices and much enthusiasm carried the evening. 
Our rating: 3/5 
Would the Group have booked? I doubt it, but this tiny theatre would not have had the capacity.  
Would the Group have enjoyed it? I doubt it, but who knows - it has novelty value. 
Group Appeal? 2/5 
The Kid Stays in the Picture at the Royal Court, in Association with Complicité, 
directed by Simon McBurney.  
What’s it about?  The life and times and rise and fall of Robert Evans, Hollywood producer of such classics as Love Story, The Godfather and Chinatown (and lesser films such as The Cotton Club), based on his autobiography, The Kid Stays in the Picture.   
What did it have going for it?  This production, like all by Complicité, of which Simon McBurney is the driving force, are an acquired taste:  immersive, multi media (video and film are used extensively), kaleidoscopic, they require patience and attention from the audience.  In this instance, the format was well suited to Evans' story, which is steeped in Hollywood folklore and name dropping (he calls on Henry Kissinger to come to The Godfather premiere) and, perhaps surprisingly, an appreciation of cinema as an art form.   The small cast play multiple parts, illustrating different aspects of Evans' character.  And the wonderful Danny Huston (son of John Huston, who turned down the offer to direct Love Story) is the narrator.  
Did we enjoy it?  Yes, although confusing and hard to follow at times, Evans' story is  fascinating and brings a particular period in Hollywood vividly to life.   It helps to have some familiarity with the key characters in the story including Roman Polanski, Ali MacGraw (who left Evans for Steve McQueen) and Ava Gardner.  Evans might not be particularly likeable (even in his own autobiography) but he's a compelling storyteller and who wouldn't relish knowing that the then unknown Al Pacino had to audition three times for his part in The Godfather?   
Our rating:  3½/5. It would have been 4 stars if we'd seen more of the wonderful Danny Huston who, inexplicably, was hidden behind a screen for most of the production.    
Would the Group have booked?  Maybe.  The subject matter, and the production, are a niche interest.   
Would the Group have enjoyed it?  Maybe.  See above.   
Group Appeal? :2½/5 
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? By Edward Albee, at the Harold Pinter Theatre 
What's it about? It’s the most famous marital brawl in drama, but there’s more to this play than meets the eye. The protagonists are named after George and Martha Washington, the first president and his wife, and Albee adds allusions to dead civilisations to their vitriolic dialogue - Carthage, the Punic Wars. Late in the play, George picks up Spengler’s The Decline of the West and quotes from it. (Spoiler alert) When we discover that the idealised son doesn’t exist, and that George and Martha couldn’t have children, we can take this as Albee’s comment on the decline and probable future of the current American empire. However, there is some hope and consolation at the end, as the couple find solace together. 
What did it have going for it? It’s a great play, it’s Albee’s Long Night’s Journey Into Day. Imelda Staunton is at that stage of her career where everything she does demands to be seen. Conleth Hill has been stealthily edging into the foreground of leading actors for some years; now he has arrived. 
Did we enjoy it? I’ve seen at least one production where the actors had neither the temperament nor stature to fill their demanding roles, but this wasn’t a problem for Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill. They took the play by storm, revelling in the barbed dialogue and emotional outbursts. As the younger couple and not quite innocent bystanders, Luke Treadaway and Imogen Potts brought real dynamism to roles that often seem pallid in comparison to the leads. We were at a matinee performance: the cast looked exhausted at the end, but had to face it all again two hours later. 
Our Rating: 4/5 
Would the Group have booked? We didn’t offer it to the group because producer Sonia Friedman didn’t offer a discounted group rate. I’m sure we would have had a good response. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Our group has enjoyed earlier productions of this play, and this is one of the best. 
Group Appeal: 4/5 
Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare, at the Olivier, National Theatre 
What's it about? Viola survives a shipwreck, and joins the court of Orsino. She falls in love with him, but he’s in love with Olivia, whose household consists of an ill-assorted group, including an ambitious steward, Malvolio. Despite some cross-dressing, mistaken gender, and much confusion Shakespeare style, it all comes right in the end (more or less). 
What did it have going for it? Lots of things: I think this is Shakespeare’s best comedy, and director Simon Godwin has form at the National (Man and Superman). And what a cast: Tamsin Greig, Oliver Chris, Tim McMullan, Phoebe Fox and Doon McKichan. What could go wrong? 
Did we enjoy it? What could go wrong? They’d pulled out all the stops for this. It looked fantastic, and designer Soutra Gilmour had gone to town with a towering, revolving set, part pyramid, part conservatory. Yet somehow all the confusions and jests seemed overworked, and consequently unfocused. The underlying melancholy and romance of Shakespeare’s play got lost in the high jinks. Tamsin Greig got a lot of laughs in the transgendered (for this production) role of Malvolia, but what did it gain from this character being a woman? There’s often a thorn at the end of Shakespeare’s comedies to prick us into the realisation that all is not entirely well with the world, and on this occasion, the final scene was particularly cruel. 
Our Rating: 3/5 
Would the Group have booked? Shakespeare hasn’t been hugely popular with our group of late, but I think this cast might have attracted them. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? The audience gave it a good reception, so I think our group would have enjoyed it as well. 
Group Appeal: 3/5 
Mike adds: The show's ad (see top of page) showed Tamsin Grieg wearing attractive lesbian chic attire, and yet in the production she was dressed drably with a terrible Max Wall wig - why oh why? Disappointing. 
Filthy Business by Ryan Craig at the Hampstead Theatre 
What’s it about? We meet the Solomon family and their rubber business in East London during the period 1963-82 and the lengths taken by Yetta, the matriarch of the family, to keep both together and successful in the face of adversity, sometimes from within.  
What did it have going for it? Under the helm of artistic director Edward Hall plays at Hampstead seldom disappoint. He directs this play and we have the much-admired Sara Kestelman as Yetta. 
Did we enjoy it? The elaborate set (the old shop interior shelved high with rubber) and the cast were all put to good use to move the storyline along and there were some excellent moments. Sara Kestelman’s powerful and dominating character was impressively portrayed and she was well supported, albeit never matched, by the other 12 members of the cast. Yetta was an archetype ‘yiddishe mama’ and whilst she was awash with Yiddish sayings there were very few references to Jewish observance, or requirement thereof, in the rest of the family and thus ended up seeming incidental. Generally, although there were several strands to each character’s story, the whole felt more akin to a soap opera and we had a lot of story but not enough depth to be completely satisfying.  
Our rating: 3/5 
Would the Group have booked? Visits to Hampstead are well supported, so probably. 
Would the Group have enjoyed it? Comments heard post-show were generally positive, although we know of one acquaintance who left at the interval. 
Group Appeal: 3/5 
Consent by Nina Raine, at he National's Dorfman Theatre 
What’s it about? Rape or consent: that is the question. A quartet of barristers specialise in getting an answer within the letter of the law, but the answer does not come easily when their own relationships are involved. 
What did it have going for it? The cast (including Ben Chaplin, Anna Maxwell Martin, Pip Carter and Adam James) and a controversial subject straight from the headlines and court reports almost guarantee lively discussions across dinner tables throughout the chattering suburbs. 
Did we enjoy it? Rape victim and accused, about to appear in court, with barristers discussing the wiles used to win their case, prosecution or defence, was a good beginning to grab our attention and exercise our minds. With two married couples, friends on opposite sides of the case, it didn't take long for that question of consent to overspill into their own marriages, affairs, and family lives. Staged in traverse with props rising smoothly from beneath, this was smart, slick, and written with a humour for the dispassionate legal thinking and concern for the pain of emotional trauma. If the play began by raising our interest in the evident rights and wrongs of legal process and manipulating witnesses, it changed focus and rather loosened its original grip when the court case thread was overtaken by more  familiar plot lines of sexual infidelity, rape within marriage, and gender attitudes. It was certainly a valid attempt to turn from theory to practice, and become personal, but on familiar fictional territory it lost some of its power. However, the characters were always watchable, credible and affecting, and the play should be the incentive for lively after-play arguments and foreplay banter. 
Our rating: 4/5 
Would the Group have booked? With this cast and subject, I would hope so. 
Would the Group have enjoyed it? It would surely cause much discussion on the coach home. 
Group Appeal? : 3/5  
46 Beacon by Bill Rosenfield, at the Trafalgar Studio 2 
What's it about? Robert, a gay English actor working in Boston in 1970, and staying at a Hotel in Beacon St, has brought a younger man, Alan, back to his room. It’s post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS. Intimacy, every definition, takes place. 
What did it have going for it? Chiefly, what it had going for it was that we’d taken our group to An American in Paris (2nd visit) and we needed somewhere to go instead. This play started at 7:45 and ended at 9:10, so the timing was ideal. In addition, the gay storyline was probably something we could relate to – reviews varied between 2 and 4 stars. We remembered Oliver Coopersmith as a child-actor at the Donmar. 
Did we enjoy it? Very much. Bill Rosenfield maintained the sense of period consistently throughout the play, pinpointing that transition period when queer was becoming gay, and before AIDS overshadowed everything. The actors negotiated the difficult path in distinguishing between love, desire, sexuality and commitment. As the more experienced older man, Jay Taylor maintained a façade of control that disguised his own insecurity, while Oliver Coopersmith showed a startling understanding of Alan’s uncertainities.  
Our Rating: 3.5/5 
Would the Group have booked? Gay plays find a niche audience, and I doubt that enough people would have booked to make a group viable. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Yes, and I think they would have been surprised at how much they could relate to in the play. 
Group Appeal: 3/5 
The Life Music by Cy Coleman, Lyrics by Ira Gasman, at Southwark Playhouse 
What's it about? Life is tough for the hookers on Times Square: the pimps treat them mean, and the tricks are bums. Queen’s man is on drugs, Sonja don’t feel good, and when Mary gets off the bus, she’s soon drawn into their world. And Mary is a quick learner. 
What did it have going for it? It’s a musical! And the music is by Cy Coleman, who gave us Sweet Charity and City of Angels. It’s directed by theatre veteran Michael Blakemore, who first staged it on Broadway 20 years ago. The cast is led by the big-voiced Sharon D Clarke. 
Did we enjoy it? There’s a lot to enjoy. It’s a slick production, and the cast matched Sharon D Clarke in size and range of vocal ability. The songs are good, with nods to shows like Guys and Dolls, Sweet Charity and even Annie. It’s amazing what a talented cast and director can do on a small stage and a smaller budget. It has Life in abundance, perhaps a twist too many at the finale, but enough good heartedness to raise cheers. 
Our Rating: 4/5 
Would the Group have booked? Yes, I think they would have, but it’s been a busy month (all those Americans in Paris, and visits to the Royal Opera House) and we simply couldn’t fit in another group outing. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Yes, I’m sure they would have
Group Appeal: 3½/5 
The Treatment by Martin Crimp, at the Almeida Theatre 
What's it about? Anne has been abused by her husband, and tells her story to Jennifer and Andrew, who want to adapt it and use it as material for a play. As their treatment of it develops and it is passed to a playwright, an actor and the secretary, the details are altered to suit each person’s interpretation of events – and it even appears that Anne has adjusted the facts to suit her own version of events. The treatment is not just a version of Anne’s story: is it therapy or abuse or misrepresentation? 
What did it have going for it? Plays at the Almeida are usually worth the detour to Islington, and this was a rare opportunity to catch a play we didn’t know by the revered Martin Crimp. Director Lynsey Turner is an astute judge of a play, and the cast, which included Indira Varma, Julian Ovendon, Aisling Loftus and Ian Gelder, all promised a great performance, and didn’t disappoint. 
Did we enjoy it? Be careful with the surface gloss of this production; just underneath there are jagged fragments that don’t seem to fit together – but when they snap into place, the picture they create is unexpected and unsettling. There’s a general unease over questions of identity and personal experience appropriated vicariously, of the further victimisation of victims, and the exploitation of the lives of others. Add in allusions to Othello, King Lear and All About Eve, with echoes of Albee and Mamet. There’s a directionless sense of the blind leading the blind. It’s a tense journey. At the end of the play, we reach a destination, but not necessarily one that feels comfortable when we get there.  
Our Rating: 4/5 
Would the Group have booked? Not enough to make a visit viable. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? It’s not to everybody’s taste. 
Group Appeal: 3/5 
The Exterminating Angel at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 
the latest opera by Thomas Adès, premiered last year in Salzburg. 
What’s it about? A dozen members of the haute-bourgeoisie gathering for a post-opera dinner party find themselves not only abandoned by the servants but unable to leave the house. Trapped – for an indeterminate period of time - by a mysterious force or maybe by a failure of will, their isolation and disorientation gnaw at their relationships. Thirst and hunger further undermine their accustomed poise. Some die or kill themselves. Eventually, buoyed by a lucky supply of roast mutton and tap water, they find their escape comes through music, to be reunited with anxious friends and families, The work ends with the possibility that they will be trapped again. 
That is what is enacted on stage. But what is it actually about? (Maybe one should not ask that question). What is going on in our minds and souls as we watch and listen? And what were those sheep and that bear up to? 
What did it have going for it? The composer and his librettist, Tom Cairns, were inspired by the 1962 surrealist film of the same name directed by Luis Buñuel. They have stuck quite closely to the film script with its bizarre inconsequentiality (and jokes). Adès, a musical phenomenon, has created a gripping protean score, rich with brass, timpani and the atmospheric ondes martenot, (he conducts) while Cairns as director brings wit, intelligence, intense feeling and great beauty to the stage. The designs by Hildegard Bechtler – a huge square open arch revolves and shifts slowly to define the room from which the characters cannot escape – and the lighting by Jon Clark are striking elements in the production. 
And to render all these features the more magical, there was a cast of superb quality whose wonderful vocal resources are plundered by the demanding score and whose clarity of articulation is….er….music to the ear. Among many lyrical highlights, one relished the dark trombone resonance of John Tomlinson as the slightly unsettling doctor, counterbalanced by the stunning coloratura gymnastics of Audrey Luna as Leticia, an opera singer 
Did we enjoy it? We did.  
There was so much to enjoy and every aspect of the work seemed just right – truly a Gesamtkunstwerk. And use of that term leads one to note that while the score is distinctive and  original, creating moments of intense emotion, of quiet stillness, of isolation, of passion, it is flecked with many artful allusions to others’ music – Strauss J and R, Wagner, Britten and others. Dramatically too there is much that prompts one’s mind to roam over episodes from elsewhere – the early droll scene where Lucia, the hostess, scolds the fleeing servants made one think of Aunt Dahlia rampaging through a Wodehouse country weekend party. Rather less frivolous, the deterioration of relationships and conduct as the captivity grinds on brought Lord of the Flies to mind – but Adès himself reminds us in the programme book that every opera is about getting out of a particular situation. Even less frivolous is the very poignant moment when the surviving characters at last walk through the arch to freedom, a wrenching reminder of, say, the prisoners in Fidelio emerging in to the light. Is it too much also to reflect on the opening of Belsen, Dachau and other desperate camps? 
Rather paradoxically, you do need to follow the words of the libretto closely, even though in a surrealist work, you can’t always quite keep up with the swerves and leaps of illogicality. As noted earlier, the singers (and the surtitles) make the task easy enough and permit full appreciation of the imaginative texture of the work. 
It is not often that on exiting the House one comes across no fewer than three key performers being escorted to their vehicle in Floral Street – but there they were: Sheila, Rosemary and Thyme, the stout Romney sheep who had played a vital if not vocal role in every sense. 
Our rating: 4½/5 
Would the Group have booked? Possibly – a not wholly unfamiliar story, sung in English - but with all that dangerous contemporary music….? 
Would the Group have enjoyed it? Oh surely! 
Group appeal: 3/5 – quite demanding. 
Madame Rubinstein by John Misto at the Park Theatre 
What’s it about? As suggested by the title, we will be spending the next 2½ hours in the company of that doyenne of the cosmetics’ world, Helena Rubinstein from 1954 until her death in 1965. Sharing the stage, we have her rival Elizabeth Arden plus a young male character, an Irishman called Frank, who became Madame Rubinstein’s bodyguard and more (not in a romantic way) as the years go by. It is a comedy but there are very touching scenes which brought a tear to some. The setting of the rivalry between the principal characters, plus the man behind Revlon, Charles Revson, who we never see, is a corollary to the associated story about feminism and whether the development and availability of cosmetics helped or hindered female emancipation.  
What did it have going for it? Primarily, we were drawn by the casting of Miriam Margoyles and Frances Barber in the main roles plus it was directed by Jez Bond, the Park Theatre’s co-founder and Artistic Director. Frank was deftly played by Jonathan Forbes. 
Did we enjoy it?  Very much and Miriam Margolyes captured our attention completely and convincingly by her portrayal of the ups and downs in her character’s life. Frances Barber, who gets to wear some beautiful clothes, is also a joy in her role and the hard-working stage hands ensured we knew where we were as the story developed.  
Our rating: 4/5 
Would the Group have booked? Probably, although this run comes in the middle of a busy period for group visits and it was felt this would be hard to fit in to the diary. 
Would the Group have enjoyed it? Yes 
Group Appeal: 4/5 
Ballroom Music by Billy Goldenberg, Lyrics by Alan & Marilyn Bergman, 
Book by Jerome Allan Kass, at the Waterloo East Theatre 
What's it about? Bea was widowed a year ago, and her friend Pauline encourages her to come to the Stardust Ballroom, where there’s a terrific band and a real nice crowd. When Bea meets Al, she becomes a ballroom regular, Guess what happens? 
What did it have going for it? Honestly? We’d taken the group to see 42nd Street and we were looking for a show we hadn’t seen that ended before 10pm. We spotted a review of Ballroom on whatsonstage, and it fitted the bill: 7:30 start, two hours running time, and a short bus-ride over Waterloo Bridge. And we’d never visited Waterloo East Theatre before. 
But we wanted to see it anyway. It was once a Broadway musical (adapted from a television musical Queen of the Stardust Ballroom) directed by Michael Bennett in the afterglow of A Chorus Line. And Bea was played by Jessica Martin, who is always good value 
Did we enjoy it? Yes, we did. It was charming, and quite touching. Jessica Martin lived up to expectations – in truth, she was head and shoulders above the rest of the cast. But they were game, given the advanced age of some of them. One or two were in Irma La Douce, or appeared with Danny La Rue at the Saville Theatre, but they still were light on their feet in the foxtrot, the Lindy Hop, the tango and the Hustle! The dialogue scenes were a bit flat, and there a slightly amateurish air about the production; if it was produced on a shoestring budget, then the shoestring had snapped in half. It was collectible for those in an undemanding mood. 
The theatre was interesting: it’s tiny. There are 80 seats (of which about two dozen were occupied) and tickets cost £20. There were 14 in the cast, plus the terrific band. 
Our Rating: 3/5 
Would the Group have booked? It would have had some appeal. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? They would have made allowances, and indulged it. 
Group Appeal: 3/5 
Occupational Hazards by Stephen Brown, based on the memoir by Rory Stewart,  
at Hampstead Theatre 
What’s it about? In 2003, when he was only 30, former British diplomat Rory Stewart, was posted to serve as governor of a province in newly-liberated Iraq. The play explores his well-intentioned attempts to bring stability to the region, and the reasons for his failure. 
What did it have going for it? Hampstead has a  a good track-record in plays based on fact. Director Simon Godwin has directed successful productions of difficult plays (Man and Superman, Strange Interlude)at the National, and the cast was led by the charismatic Henry Lloyd-Hughes. 
Did we enjoy it? The background narrative was sketched in very quickly, and then it all became confusing – an accurate reflection of the political situation in Iraq. There was a lot of striding about and waving of arms and shouting, appearing to lead to the conclusion that the imposition of rational imperialist values doesn't work for tribal cultures. For all the impassioned acting, it was uninvolving. As a precis of a complex situation, it didn't really add to our understanding. 
Our rating: 2/3 
Would the Group have booked?  I don't think so. 
Would the Group have enjoyed it? No more than we did. 
Group Appeal?: 1/5 
Woyzeck by Georg Buchner,  in a new version by Jack Thorne, 
at the Old Vic Theatre 
What’s it about? Woyzeck is a working class tragedy dealing with the dehumanising effects of doctors and the military on a young man's life. Written in the mid-19th century, it was never completed then, but has been finished and performed in many versions over the years. Jack Thorne has updated it to occupied Berlin in 1981 with the effects of drugs and poverty the central theme - it's still a tough life in the army. 
What did it have going for it? Often performed in Germany but seldom here, this was a chance to see John Boyega, latest Star Wars star on stage, in the lead, in a new version by the Harry Potter plays writer, Jack Thorne. Too grim to bare or too good to miss? 
Did we enjoy it? The humour was a surprise, the sexual explicitness also, but grim it remained in a gripping and affecting way. In a superbly impressive yet simple production, with sliding and decending monoliths creating the oppressive atmosphere, the actors shone in their hard and damaged roles, fighting for their dignity. Both Nancy Caroll and Sarah Greene brought a strength and undertanding to the contrasting female roles. As a tough squaddie, Ben Batt added an up-front macho charge, but in the title role John Boyega will surely be up for awards for a commanding stage presence and his quite devastating decent into paranoia. 
Our rating: 4/5 
Would the Group have booked? This promised to be a tough one, not for the fainthearted, 
Would the Group have enjoyed it? Enjoy would not be the word, although there was much to impress. 
Group Appeal? 2/5 
Salome, a new play written and directed by Yael Farber at the National: OlivierTheatre  
What's it about? A revisionist, feminist (according to the reviews) re-working of the Salome biblical story.  In the Gospels, Salome is not named but in this version she has a name, and a purpose  - to bring about the martyrdom of the prophet John the Baptist (by performing the infamous dance of the seven veils for Herod) and, by so doing, to incite the oppressed people of Judea to revolt against their Roman occupiers.  Salome's story is narrated by "Nameless", apparently her older self, while the young Salome mimes what happens to her.   
What did it have going for it? Not much.  The staging was muddled, and with cast members speaking turgid and at times toe curling prose, in English and Arabic, while wearing cast off costumes from the Life of Brian, we struggled to engage with the production. At times, dry ice swirled about and sand was rubbed on the actors' bodies, with no obvious point.  Two female singers sang Arabic laments throughout which occasionally added poignancy.  Some clever stage effects with a ladder leading to heaven and to hell during Salome's meeting with the Prophet briefly piqued our interest.   
Did we enjoy it?  Sadly, not much. The attempt to re-visit the story of Salome was an interesting idea, but the execution was overwhelmed by the writer/director's striving for effect and supposed authenticity rather than trying to tell us the story. Cecil B de Mille did it better!   
Our Rating: 1½/5 
Would the Group have booked? Not if they'd seen the reviews 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Unlikely .  
Group Appeal: 1/5 
Annie, Music by Charles Strouse with lyrics by Martin Charnin. Book by Thomas Meehan. 
We were invited by the Delfont Mackintosh Group 
What’s it about? Set in 1930s New York, Little Orphan Annie, escapes the clutches of the infamous Miss Hannigan at the orphanage and eventually, after many catchy and heart-warming songs, is adopted by a billionaire. It's the “beloved Broadway musical”. 
What did it have going for it? Annie has a lot going for it - 4 star reviews aplenty, Miranda Hart, a National Treasure, top of the bill, a cast of cute orphans (or raucous brats, depending on one's child tolerance), and copious helpings of laughter and tears on the menu. 
Did we enjoy it? What's not to enjoy? Well, our joy was well contained. We love Miranda as much as the ovating fans, but she wore her mask of villainess uncomfortably - her zany warmth kept getting in the way of  any hiss-worthy  barbs. The kids, including Annie herself, were less impressive than most  moppets on West End stages, and the  production needed to raise itself a notch or two to rise above a feeling of 'touring company' on autopilot. It looked attractive and the dance numbers were spirited. But is the musical itself worthy of another revival? It's a show of average quality and certainly is not up there with the West End's other big shows. But it aimed to please and the paying audience seemed to be happy with their money's worth.  
Our rating: 3/5 
Would the Group have booked? Yes, of course. 
Would the Group have enjoyed it? Yes, of course. 
Group Appeal? : 4/5 
Common, a new play by D C Moore 
What’s it about? Superficially there's mention of the enclosure of the common land. We're back at about 1780 but that seems irrelevant as does much else. The countryfolk are getting threateningly pagan and Everywoman Mary (prostitute, lesbian, activist, etc.) eggs them on with additional irritating asides to us. 
What did it have going for it?  Anne Marie Duff in the lead (always a good watch, though looking back perhaps not such a good chooser of roles) with Jeremy Herrin directing. 
Did we enjoy it? Having read some damning one star and zero star reviews plus a couple of three star ones too, our expectations were low. Two friends had returned their tickets to the NT in advance in an uncharacteristic surrender. But we remained game to test it out for ourselves. Let's begin with the pluses - some impressive visuals, a bare earth covered stage, a vast sky backdrop with a miniature silhouetted village, and superb lighting. Superb performances too, alive, vital, convincingly bucolic despite the words they had to utter. Ah those words - a cod olde English which made only approximate sense, with some current expletives thrown in to help the audience connect. And where did it lead? Nowhere discernible, no narrative logic, no pay-off. At the end Mary just said goodbye to us, and even with (an arbitrary?) 30 minutes cut from the published running time, that seemed none too soon unless you wanted to get some satisfaction. After a ritual disembowelling, suggestions of incest, shootings, a fight, a burying alive (Spoiler: she escaped - Mary just kept popping back), and various ominous Wicker Man gatherings, a conclusion was perhaps too much to expect. And, oh yes, in Act Two there was an animatronic talking crow! The 60% matinee audience seemed to be entertained and we noticed no additional vacant seats after the interval. Sometimes an oddity appeals to some.  
Our rating: 1½/5 (and that's for effort and staging, not for the writing) 
Would the Group have booked? I doubt it given the subject, and certainly not after the reviews. 
Would the Group have enjoyed it? It had its moments, but most likely not. 
Group Appeal? : 1/5 
Alligators by Andrew Keatley. At Hampstead Theatre Downstairs 
What's it about?  A teacher is accused of having taken advantage of a pupil some years earlier. As he tries to clear his name, the allegations have an increasing impact on his family. 
What did it have going for it? This play was a success at the same theatre last year, and was recommended by Kathie. It was directed by the talented Simon Evans (ex Donmar RAD), whose Arturo Ui had impressed recently. The compelling Alec Newman played the leading role.  
Did we enjoy it?  We were totally involved. The play is brilliantly constructed, with the relationships established quickly before the allegations (misheard by the daughter as “alligators”) tear them apart. In this traverse production we sat like a jury listening intently as evidence and doubt crept like dark shadows across the living-room.  The entire cast brought conviction to their roles, but it was the edgy Alec Newman who carried the play, always keeping us guessing about the degree of complicity. Historical sexual abuse is today's most emotive subject and every aspect was explored here. We could feel the audience’s attention, and sense the tensions rise as the outcome became more uncertain. 
Our Rating:   4/5 
Would the Group have booked?  I think it’s a subject that would have drawn quite a lot of interest. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? I feel sure they would have. 
Group Appeal:   3/5 
Angels in America, A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, 
Part 1 Millennium Approaches (13 July) Part 2 Perestroika (15 July) 
by Tony Kushner, at the National's Lyttelton Theatre 
What's it about?: What is it not about? The play follows the interwoven experience,  real and surreal - of seven principal characters, or eight, if you count the visiting angel,  in Reaganite America whose fortunes and misfortunes revolve around the AIDS epidemic and the social, political, psychological, ethical and existential ramifications thereof. The drama pursues the personal agony of AIDS, the terror and incomprehension it induces, in a context of personal and public oppression, hypocrisy and betrayal, and ultimately of a prospective hopeful all-embracing future. 
What did it have going for it?: It's a big, big play - an iconic play - it's one big play in two big parts - given a big production and directed by none other than Marianne Elliott. All NT stops fully out for staging, lighting and casting and for music. And its big themes, so pertinent when it was written in the 1980s, have a powerful continuing, if subtly shifting, resonance in our world. Oh, you might say, so many of Kushner's targets are now the stuff of history: Reaganism, Communism, Perestroika (soviet reconstruction), the Rosenbergs, Roy Cohn, all these seem infinitely remote, AIDS has become manageable, Mormons are nowadays hoofing it in a musical. But Kushner embeds his raw material in the lives and relationships of his characters.  The fate of those abused as outsiders and the challenges to reconstructing human integrity and values do not become stale with the lapse of time.  Today we are witnessing resurgent prejudices, the renewed tyrannies of religious and political dogmas and  threats to liberal democracy in the US and elsewhere. Tying so much together is Kushner's arch-bogeyman, Roy M Cohn, a character who for all his brash clout, is haunted by Ethel Rosenberg whose execution in 1953 he ensured, an AIDS victim in denial (and not a million miles from an erstwhile legal adviser and fixer to Donald Trump). 
Did we enjoy it? When Kushner married his partner, his "I do" was, a friend said, the only time his answer to a question was ever limited to two words. Such terseness was not in evidence over the plays' almost 8 hours but the skilful interlacing and balancing of scenes (and the technical magic of the production) take us on an absorbing epic journey, exploring depths, heights and distances. Ambitious certainly, serious of course, but not portentous, plenty of excellent jokes. The production echoes this tone with its cod-grandiose musical score (Adrian Sutton) and a miraculous ability to infuse the acres of the Lyttelton stage with not just spaciousness  - e.g. a marital Antarctica for Harper (Denise Gough) - but at times a striking intimacy  e.g. those dialogues between Prior (Andrew Garfield in a protean role) and Lou (James McArdle) or between Cohn (Nathan Lane) now bereft of his clout and the pathetic Mormon Joe (Russell Tovey). 
Beyond the traumas and tensions of earthly existence, mitigated by Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett in a well-judged performance), there lies a field of delusion, nightmare, surreal reckoning, the advent of the Angel (Amanda Lawrence) as terrifying to the audience as to Prior as he fears his end has come at the close of Part 1. This surreal dimension dominates in Part 2 and is powerfully conjured up (lighting design by Paule Constable) as Prior wrestles with the assertive Angel and ascends a sugar-pink ladder into an intimidating cosmos (well, this is not called a Fantasia for nothing). The closing scene is one of tentative optimism, with Prior as a survivor looking to a great future for all.  
The production is one of great imagination and effectiveness. One of its many strengths springs from the heavy demands on its super cast who, alongside their huge principal roles, all double-up as other characters, small and not so small, angelic and not so angelic. Susan Brown for example figures potently as Joe's redeeming mother, as the  rabbi, as the doctor, as the soviet apparatchik, and as the ghostly Ethel.  
All in all, an exhilarating and enlightening experience, layer upon layer of allusion and illusion. 
Our rating:4/5 
Would the Group have booked? It's a big ask, but not a chance to offer it - the total run is sold out, returns only. 
Would the Group have enjoyed it? Some would be mightily impressed if they did not wilt under the extreme length, but really this is not a 'group' type of play. 
Group appeal: 3/5 
Kathie adds: I offer a small addendum to Garth’s excellent summation of the plays. Personally, I was most affected by the recurring elements of compassion and redemption, often from the most unlikely to the least deserving, for example when the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg helped Louis with the kaddish prayer on Roy Cohn’s death. Each key character was given the opportunity to rise above the, often, heart-breaking situation in which they were placed - Prior, with his stairway to heaven, more than most.
Yank! A new musical - music by Joseph Zellnik; book & lyrics by David Zellnik  
at the Charing Cross Theatre 
What’s it about? Described as a WW2 love story, this is the musical that South Pacific was not, not about racial discrimination or interracial love but instead it looks at the love that dared not speak its was illegal to be gay in the armed forces. 
What did it have going for it? It was a hit Off Broadway back in 2010 and highly praised last year when it reappeared at a fringe theatre in Manchester. It's subject fits the current Queer Britain focus of exhibitions and media attention celebrating the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in the UK. This is gay history in song and dance. 
Did we enjoy it? Those were the days of Don't Tell, should anyone Ask. The lovers are gay Stu and bi Mitch with all the other servicemen on pansy alert or aggressively homophobic. They can sing the in-period songs (acceptable without being R&H) with enthusiasm and dance their manoeuvres energetically on the tiny stage. The overly camp male typists set the tone for what was ok to laugh at back then. Meanwhile the lovers hide away to kiss sweetly and all looks set for a standard off-Broadway gay musical. Fortunately act two raises the bar a notch or two, the lovers are discovered, then parted when their company is sent to war, and we wonder if there can ever be a happy ending even in this pastiche 40s musical romance. Don't ask as I'm not telling, just saying that the show manages to be honest, entertaining and feel-good even as it fights for gay rights against the odds. It gains a fourth star for ultimately facing up to reality even in a song and dance show. The leads Scot Hunter and Andy Coxon charm and seduce us, and Sarah Louise Young as all the female characters represents her gender with style. The Charing Cross Theatre has once again kept up its reputation for finding unusual musicals and proving them well worth reviving. 
Our rating: 4/5 
Would the Group have booked? All fans of musicals and friends of Dorothy should storm the box office! 
Would the Group have enjoyed it? Yes indeed. 
Group Appeal?: 4/5 
Ink by James Graham at the Almeida 
Whats it about? At its core, the re-creation of the Sun newspaper, as we now know it, which was bought by Rupert Murdoch in 1969 from the International Publishing Corporation, also publishers of the Daily Mirror. At the time of purchase the Sun, as a broadsheet, had a distribution of 800,000 and was losing £2m a year. Rupert Murdoch appointed Larry Lamb as Editor (formerly Northern Editor of the Daily Mail) who was charged with the mission of outselling the Daily Mirror within a year. The play explores how he went about changing the face of tabloid reporting in pursuit of this goal. 
What did it have going for it? The plot might sound rather dry but in the hands of the ever-reliable James Graham (This House, Privacy, The Vote) it was bound to be imaginatively, entertainingly and thought-provokingly presented. Rupert Goold as Director and a strong cast, including Bertie Carvel and Richard Coyle in the key roles of Murdoch and Lamb respectively, added to the appeal. 
Did we enjoy it?   We certainly did and Richard Coyle, at the centre of virtually every scene, deserves all the praise that the critics have sent his way. We dont see so much of Bertie Carvel but he is convincing in the role of the power-hungry tycoon. Also, full credit to all involved in making such a busy set, complex choreography and frequent character change look so seemless.  
Our rating: 4/5 
Would the Group have booked? With a transfer to the Duke of York's theatre announced, this question may well be answered. 
Would the Group have enjoyed it? Yes 
Group Appeal: 4/5 
Queers at the Old Vic 
What's it about?  This was the first of two programmes consisting of 8 twenty-minute monologues to mark the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. The 4 we saw were: 
1917    The Man on the Platform by Mark Gatiss, performed by Jack Derges 
1929    The Perfect Gentleman by Jackie Clune, performed by Gemma Whelan 
1967    I Miss the War  by Matthew Baldwin, performed by Ian Gelder 
2016    Something Borrowed by Gareth McLean, peformed by Mark Bonnar 
What did it have going for it?  It was an interesting way to mark the anniversary, with good writers and appealing actors. 
Did we enjoy it?  Very much. Each of the plays was convincingly set and costumed in its period, and performed impeccably by each of the actors in turn, on a bare round platform with just a chair. Jack Derges, as a uniformed soldier from the Great War, was immediately engaging, as was Gemma Whelan as an evening suited male impersonator from the 20s. Ian Gelder, a Duke Street tailor in a red suit, bounded on stage to the strains of Dedicated Follower of Fashion, and had the audience in the palm of his hand at once. Mark Bonnar (overcoming some technical difficulties with the sound) was very touching as he prepared his speech for his wedding to another man. Stories unfolded, funny, touching, characterful, points were made but not laboured. Think shorter – and queerer – versions of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. 
Our Rating:  5/5 
Would the Group have booked?  It was only one sold-out performance (so it was a privilege to be there). However, the 8 monologues are being broadcast on BBC4 over 4 nights, Monday 31 July – Thursday 3 August. You can catch up on Catch-up. 
Would the group have enjoyed it?  Anyone who enjoys good writing and acting would get a lot out of it. 
Group Appeal:  3/5 
by Lucy Kirkwood, at the National: Dorfman Theatre 
What's it about? Two sisters – one a brilliant academic, the other emotionally needy and creator of her own misfortunes – clash with the force of colliding mosquitoes, which could be greater than particles clashing in the Large Hadron Collider. Their mother, a retired scientist, maintains that love is not the strongest force: Nuclear Strong Force is greater. But is it? It would seem at the end of the play, despite personal havoc and threatened global disaster, that for better or worse, love has binding power. 
What did it have going for it? We’d enjoyed Lucy Kirkwood’s previous plays NSFW, Chimerica and The Children, and this had an irresistible cast – Olivia Colman and Olivia Williams, strongly supported by Amanda Boxer and Joseph Quinn. This team could have filled the Lyttelton - bizarrely, director Rufus Norris chose to stage it in the Dorfman, where it sold out before opening. 
Did we enjoy it? It’s a three-generation family drama, and though it’s very funny, there are some painful confrontations between the four family members and especially between the two sisters. Olivia Colman gets the more showy opportunities, but Olivia Williams demonstrates that she too can go ballistic when the need arises. Joseph Quinn is the believably stroppy teenager and Amanda Boxer adds a gentle dementia to the mix. The world of science is represented by Paul Hilton's boffin in the midst of some impressive immersive explosions of light and sound. The metaphor of the Higgs Boson and the Hadron Collider has greater resonance depending on your expertise in particle physics and, although you can get by without following the science, I wondered if the author’s message could have been conveyed more simply. And indeed more audibly if not staged in the round. Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining and engaging play, and the leading actresses strike sparks. 
Our Rating:   4/5 
Would the Group have booked? In the Dorfman? We’d be lucky to get a booking. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Yes (in spite of the particle physics). 
Group Appeal: 4/5 
Twilight Song 
by Kevin Elyot at the Park Theatre 
What’s it about? The story focuses mainly on a mother and her son, comparing their family lives in 1964 and 2014 and highlighting a strong sense of disappointment and loss for both of them.  
What did it have going for it? This was an engaging and melancholy final play from Kevin Elyot (My Night With Reg) who died in 2014. 
Did we enjoy it? I enjoyed this play for its focus on the details of everyday family life with its emotional struggles. Bryonny Hannah (Call the Midwife) was compelling as the mother, Isabella, in younger days, outwardly optimistic but already showing signs of using alcohol to subdue her underlying unhappiness. Hannah was less convincing as the bitter, hating, blaming character that Isabella became in her old age. In contrast Paul Higgins, playing first Isabella’s passionless husband and later her middle-aged son, gave a consistently nuanced and moving performance. I was left with a feeling that the odds had been stacked against him since he was in his mother’s womb and that his life was blighted from the start. 
Secrecy and hypocrisy permeated the sexual (gay and straight) themes of the play.  Isabella, stuck in a rather dull marriage, had a life-changing affair with the passionate gardener played by Adam Garcia who also doubled as a sleazy estate agent/male prostitute hired by Isabellas son, Barry. Philip Bretherton as Harry and Hugh Ross as Charles sensitively played older, outwardly socially conservative men, in the 1960s scenes. Their gay affair ended in tears for both as Harry ultimately rejected Charles in order to conform to social norms of the time. 
But the plot line and time shifts lacked credibility and needed to be more smoothly integrated and fleshed out, suggesting perhaps that this was an early draft rather than a completed play. That said, overall I would recommend it, especially as the Park Theatre is such a pleasant  venue and worth supporting. 
Our rating: 3/5 
Would the Group have booked? The cast and theme might appeal but it’s short, at 75 minutes, and might be too far to travel for that length of play.: 
Would the Group have enjoyed it? Only moderately I suspect. 
Group Appeal? 2/5 
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 
by Tennessee Williams at the Apollo Theatre 
What's it about? Big Daddy’s 65th birthday celebration held at the family home on their cotton plantation in the Mississippi Delta, with the prodigal son Brick, his wife Maggie (Maggie the Cat!), Brick’s brother Gooper, his wife Mae and their kids (5 ‘no necks’, with another on the way), Big Mama, the family doctor and Reverend.  
Act I: mainly focusses on interplay between Brick and Maggie; there are several revelations including the fact that Big Daddy is seriously ill. 
Act II: the key exchange is between Big Daddy and Brick where Big Daddy tries to establish the true cause of Brick’s heavy drinking and spiraling depression. There are stark revelations, harsh dialogue and no holding back on the language of the day. 
Act III: Gooper and Mae reveal to Big Mama the true extent of Big Daddy’s illness and inadvisably try to discuss inheritance matters. Maggie makes a shocking announcement.  
What did it have going for it? Good provenance – the play won the Pulitzer prize for drama in 1955. A well respected Australian director Benedict Andrews, who has ‘previous’ with A Streetcar Named Desire (Gillian Anderson). Don’t expect Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor and Burl Ives but this modern interpretation of a Mississippi family drowning in a cesspool of lies and greed stars Jack O’Connell (whisky fueled Brick), Sienna Miller (frustrated, yet sexually charged Maggie) and Colm Meaney (Big Daddy) with great support. The staging takes place in Maggie and Brick’s bedroom, no scene changes, but in a way the stage becomes an additional character. 
Did we enjoy it? Dialogue was sometimes challenging and the actors handled the Southern drawl with varying degrees of success. Deals with some difficult subjects and definitely not for the prudish. Many of the characters are drawn to the eye by the use of glimmering costumes to emphasise their grotesqueness against a background of stark reality. Brick’s main item of clothing (brown towel) was subject to several wardrobe malfunctions during the performance – some may consider this a bonus! The performance simmers and gradually draws the audience in towards an absorbing conclusion. 
Our Rating: 4/5  
Would the Group have booked? If you are offended by nudity, don’t like awkward issues being discussed and prefer the Queen’s English spoken then why not take yourself out of that comfort zone and see this play? 
Would the Group have enjoyed it? Theatre is meant to be uncomfortable – of course the Theatre Group would want to see it, but whether they would enjoy it....? 
Group Appeal: 3/5  
by J K Orton at the Park Theatr, ,Finsbury Park 
What’s it about? Crime and its consequences. And death. And money. And morality. And religion. And avarice. And the hollowness of authority. Two young villains have robbed a bank. Having brought the loot to the next-door funeral parlour where one of them, Dennis, works, they now have to get the cash out of the building. Concealing the dosh in the coffin of the recently-deceased mother of the other (Hal) offers a possibility - until Inspector Truscott turns up. 
What did it have going for it? It’s a ferociously clever and remorseless farce with a 52-year performance history, staged (director Michael Fentiman) to mark the 50th anniversary of its author’s death. Over the years, it has attracted many of Britain’s best-known actors. In 1984, Leonard Rossiter as Truscott died (and not in the actorly sense) in mid-performance. The play is like a savagely-faceted diamond – with situations, characters and dialogue that are glittering, hard and sharp enough to cut you. If some of its power to shock has dimmed as our society has taken on so many of the play’s features, its shafts at police corruption and brutality, at ecclesiastical hypocrisy, at personal greed and at human double standards remain as acute as ever. 
Did we enjoy it? Both the play and the performances offered so much to relish. Orton contrives a tightly-knitted plot, endlessly twisting and turning absurdly. The characters, like so many onions, reveal layer by layer that no ethical principle need be retained for their purposes. The dialogue is a treat, beautifully crafted, witty, elegant and disturbingly combining (as has been said) “genteel utterance” with startling paradoxical or amoral content.  The players all rose pretty well to the challenge of sustaining this strange level of formality and unreality, alongside sudden bouts of romping around the constricted stage space.  This tension is a key part of the play’s strength and hilarity, and for my taste any drift into too naturalistic a playing style needs to be resisted. The run is at a very early stage and maybe things will tighten up appropriately as time goes on. (We attended a preview.) 
As Truscott, the infinitely devious policeman-cum-water board official who dominates the drama, Christopher Fulford delivers a vocally athletic and resourceful characterisation.  Never trust a man who smokes a pipe. Ian Redford achieves a greater degree of nuance as the widower Mr McLeavy whose teddy-bear gentleness belies a determination to secure his grasp on his dead wife’s legacy. For all her signal uniforms of respectability (nurse and mourning weeds), Sinéad Matthews as Fay McMahon is a dynamo of ruthless, not to say murderous, self-interest. Calvin Demba (Dennis) and Sam Frenchum (Hal) both evince a bemused mix of stupidity and amorality – and a corresponding fluidity in their sexual tastes and intentions. Amidst this basket of deplorables, can we expect Constable Meadows (Raphael Bar) to be a beacon of integrity? – probably not. And as the much-put-upon corpse of Mrs McLeavy, in or out of her coffin and in or out of her WVS uniform, Anah Ruddin understandably received the warmest round of applause at the curtain. 
Altogether, an afternoon of guilty pleasure – how much of ourselves did we recognise? 
Our rating: 4/5 
Would the Group have booked? Quite likely. 
Would the Group have enjoyed it? They are surely unshockable. 
Group appeal: 3.5/5 
Sunday in the Park with George 
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by James Lapine, at The Other Palace 
What's it about? Pointillist painter Georges Seurat struggles to paint his masterpiece Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte while his lover Dot struggles to get him to show his love for her. A hundred years later, his fictional grandson George faces the same difficulties in fulfilling his artistic ambitions. Only his grandmother Marie (Dot’s daughter) gives him solace. Visiting the island of La Grande Jatte, the ghosts of Dot and the people in Georges’s painting give him hope and inspiration. 
What did it have going for it? This is one of Sondheim’s most ambitious, challenging and uncompromising works, and is performed less often than some of his other shows. It has grown in stature and popularity since its first appearance, due to the richness of its score as well as to the unexpected and overwhelming emotion that it generates at the end of both acts. Whenever it appears, it’s an absolute must for us. 
On this occasion, we were guests of our friends June and Eddy Lee, whose friend Laura Barnard was playing Dot/Marie in the production from the National Youth Music Theatre. 
Did we enjoy it? We know and love this show so much that there’s always a tension that a new production isn’t going to live up to our memories and expectations. We were prepared to make allowances for the youthfulness and inexperience of the cast (“Dot” is 21, “Georges” is 19). In the event, none of this was necessary: the production was imaginative (and if director Hannah Chissick couldn’t disguise a slight jerkiness in Act One, she isn’t the only director to have found that a problem) and the musicians and cast were excellent. 
Sunday makes great demands on its principal actors (there’s a lot of ensemble work, but only one character other than George and Dot has a solo) and they rose to the occasion. Thomas Josling conveyed both the aloofness of Georges and the nervous uncertainty of George, and was in fine voice. Laura Barnard was an absolute gift to the difficult role of Dot. She navigated the complex songs with assurance, and her natural warmth broke down any resistance the audience might have had to the music. She brought real passion to We Do Not Belong Together (I can’t have been the only one blinking away tears) and she infused Marie’s scenes in Act Two with humour.  From the moment she sang Children and Art until the reprise of Sunday, this production was no less than heart-breaking – there was a lot of sniffling in the audience (and it wasn’t just me). 
Our Rating: 4/5 Given more resources and rehearsal time, this could easily have been a 5 
Would the Group have booked? This was a limited run, and it would have been difficult to organise a group. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? It’s been a hit with groups in the past.
Girl from the North Country 
written and directed by Connor McPherson, Music & Lyrics by Bob Dylan, at the Old Vic 
What’s it about? Set in a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota, in the Depression's early 1930s, we meet the mixed bunch of inhabitants wanting somewhere to live, somewhere to hide, someone to cheat, someone to love. 
What did it have going for it? Written by Ireland's supreme story teller, Connor McPherson, with music from America's master of folk songs, Bob Dylan, this was a match, or even a mismatch, which had to be seen to be believed.  
Did we enjoy it? My hopes were not high. I remember Blowing in the Wind and Mr Tambourine Man from way back, but these were not in the 'show', I associate few other songs with him, and it was unlikely to be another Mamma Mia compendium. I was unprepared for the blank black box staging with instruments scattered around, unprepared for the transformation created by simple monochrome backdrops, and unprepared for the emotion given life up there among a few simple props. It's all in the characters – see them as cliches or archetypes, left-overs from Tennessee Williams or Eugene O'Neil, drop-outs from thirties movies like Grapes of Wrath, but they come alive when wrapped in this most evocative collection of songs – Sign on the Window, Like A Rolling Stone, I Want You, Jokerman, a total of 20 including of course Girl from the North Country. Hopes are grasped, built upon and lost, hard times wreck lives. A rich melancholy suffuses the place, and it lingers on in a way that is both touching and uplifting. The actors breathe the time and place, they sing and play their instruments to make every Dylan song their very own, and we just succumb to this unexpected mix of classic Americana with an Irish gift for the telling of tales. The voices are amazing, surprising, heartfelt and so perfectly amplified I wonder why some other shows cannot get it so right.  
Yes, we enjoyed it so much we have booked to see it again – not easy as the run has already been extended by a month and is very heavily booked. Before Follies, this is the musical of the year so far – it could remain so. 
Our rating: 5/5 
Would the Group have booked? The Dylan / McPherson fans would and everyone else should. 
Would the Group have enjoyed it? Someone wouldn't but everyone else would. 
Group Appeal? 4/5 
Salad Days 
Music by Julian Slade, Lyrics by Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds, at the Union Theatre 
What's it about? If I try to explain it to you, you won’t believe me, and you’ll think I’ve gone mad. It involves two graduates, a tramp, a magic piano that makes everybody dance, a policeman, an MP, a dress-designer. And a space-ship. Yes, a space-ship. And did I mention the magic piano? 
What did it have going for it? We were invited by our friend Jan. It was in the formerly-shabby Union Theatre’s smart new premises. And we’d never seen the show before, despite several revivals of the original production that ran for 2,283 performances at the Vaudeville Theatre in 1954. This is obviously a milestone of British musical theatre. 
Did we enjoy it? The writers were hoping that critics would use the words “charming” and “innocent” and “gay” in their reviews, and indeed those qualities were present in the spirited performances of the mostly young cast. But there was a sense of trying too hard, understandably given the fanciful nature of the piece, and occasionally I felt that I was having to try too hard to enjoy it. The characters, with their gay (tick!) costumes, winsome smiles and quirky natures, made it all reasonably enjoyable. But then the daftness took over and it became slightly irritating and overstretched, with the arrival of a space-ship being more than this souffle could stand. I think Salad Days is to the British musical what The Mousetrap is to British drama. Nevertheless, it made a pleasant afternoon with friends 
Our Rating:  3/5 
Would the Group have booked? I’m not sure - over the years, no-one has ever told me that they love Salad Days. 
Would the Group have enjoyed it? I don’t think they’d beg for more. 
Group Appeal: 2/5 
by Christopher Shinn, directed by Ian Rickson, at the Almeida Theatre  
What’s it about? Luke, a billionaire tech entrepreneur (rockets, Artificial Intelligence) much in the mould of Elon Musk of Tesla fame, hears the voice of God telling him to "go where there's violence".  He sets aside his business interests and embarks on a journey around the US to connect with people who have experienced violence.  This journey, which the cynical might call victim tourism, brings him into contact with the parents of a school boy who went on a killing spree, a rape survivor on a university campus, and a drug addict with visions of a future on Mars.  All these encounters are, of course, recorded on Luke's website by his faithful assistant and potential love interest, played by the excellent Amanda Hale. There is a sub-plot involving John, the owner of Equator, a thinly disguised version of Amazon, who is a friend of Luke, and the production line workers at Equator's "Fulfilment Center".  
What did it have going for it? Ben Whishaw, one of the most interesting actors of his generation, and a play exploring some of the key issues of the day staged at a theatre with a reputation for high quality work. 
Did we enjoy it? The title of the play is never explained, but the playwright rails against many, many things: violence against schoolchildren; political correctness in the American educational establishment (which was also explored in his play Teddy Ferrara, seen by the Group at the Donmar in 2015); the conditions in which prisoners are held in US prisons; the treatment of workers by large corporations; etc.  The breadth of the issues covered meant that, at times, the purpose of the play seemed muddled and incoherent. Ben Whishaw is convincing and charismatic as the man on a mission but, as the play rambled on (it is nearly three hours long) we began to wonder what was the point of his journey.  Amongst the muddle, there was some clever skewering of the way we live now (a plan for "recreational shopping" by the Equator boss sticks in the mind) but no attempt to discuss any of the complex issues raised by the violence, such as gun control.  
Our rating: 3/5, with one star for Ben Whishaw's performance. 
Would the Group have booked? Possibly, with Ben Whishaw in the lead but tickets were in short supply at the small Almeida theatre.   
Would the Group have enjoyed it? They are likely to have been as confused as we were.   
Group Appeal? 2/5 
Mike adds - For me there was an extra element to Wishaw's character and performance - the innocent Christ-like figure of Luke on a mission (speaking oddly in a Fargo accent). This was Jesus-lite, one might say. His word was spread appropriately on the web picking up Likes by the multitude (Jesus would approve), and then there was the additional idea floated of telling all your friends what you were buying on-line, a marriage of Amazon and Facebook made in a mammon heaven. On-line Likes also attract hatred and hostility so, following the theme, (SPOILER ALERT) Luke was unlikely to survive. Maybe the biblical tale would live forever on line to save us all? If only the play had been as single minded and narrative driven as the New Testament.
Roald Dahl's Matilda 
Book by Dennis Kelly, music and lyrics by Tim Minchin.  
What's it about? Matilda likes to read and tell stories. At home her uncaring parents call her 'boy' and think she should watch TV like other kids. At school she is victimised by horrendous Miss Trunchball, the headmistress. Is salvation hiding somewhere in this Roald Dahl bizzare tale? Kids love Roald Dahl's bizarre tales. 
What did it have going for it?  We had previously seen it soon after it opened. It's now a long-running hit and we were invited to see it by Delfont Mackintosh Groups 
Did we enjoy it?  I was interested to see this show again as when I first saw it I felt I hadn't really got it. The little boy next to us was restless and noisy during act one but the second act is stronger than the first (more story-telling, less comedy), and it was noticeable that a lot of restless kids settled down quickly after the interval, when the show really held their attention. The first act was too long and I thought the story needed tightening up. It was very well performed, especially by a cast that have been with it for a long time, and the children in the cast were incredible. However, I didn't think the songs were outstanding, and the lyrics were often indecipherable. But it's been running 6 years and pleasing audiences so, hey, what do I know? 
Our Rating:  3/5 
Would the Group have booked?  Given it's reputation, Yes. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? I guess so, if their mood was right. 
Group Appeal: 4/5 
by J T Rogers, at the National Theatre, Lyttelton Theatre 
No production photos available yet 
What's it about?  The Oslo Peace Accords in the early 1990s were pivotal in bringing about some resolution between Israel and Palestine. Oslo tells how the secret negotiations were arranged, and what took place, and particularly the role played by Mona Juul and her husband Terje Rod-Larsen. 
What did it have going for it?  Many things: the play won a great number of awards in New York, including a TONY for Best Play; the National Theatte has engaged the esteemed Broadway director Bartlett Sher and have mounted this new play in the Lyttelton Theatre – and a West End transfer has been arranged before the play opens.  
Did we enjoy it?  We saw a preview, and no doubt there will be minor changes before the press night on 12 September. It’s clearly a weighty subject, and the conflict at its centre may never be resolved. Writer J T Rogers makes a brave attempt at explaining what happened, but I felt that it was being made easy for me without clarifying the situation. The audience responded to the humour – and there are some funny scenes especially in the second act – but this added to my sense that the play was trivialising the subject. And it ran at over 3 hours – I couldn’t keep the thought “O-slow!” out of my head. The performances were lively especially Philip Arditti, and Toby Stephens made me understand why some of the other characters found him irritating. 
Our Rating:  3/5 
Would the Group have booked?  The play has a good pedigree, and sounds like a good proposition on paper, so probably they would. 
Would the group have enjoyed it?  Depends how committed you are to understanding the Israel/Palestine conflict. 
Group Appeal:  3/5 
Mike adds - "O-slow!" - that says it all! I agree with three stars as it has quality without achieving the result I would like to have seen. Stephens performance seems to sum up the play - enough mannerisms to attract attention without overdoing the camp, but insufficient gravitas to satisfy those who would like the subject treated as more than an entertainment for Broadway's and London's chattering class. I feel the ovation was more for the subject people came to the theatre for, rather than what the play gave them to take away. 
05/09/17; 14/09/17; 18/10/17 and 03/11/17 
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by James Goldman 
at the National: Olivier Theatre 
Photos: Johan Persson. 
What's it about? A group of ex-showgirls attend a reunion party in an old theatre about to be demolished; it's a chance to try out the old routines, reminisce, and “lie to ourselves a little.”   
What did it have going for it? It's Follies, for goodness sake! It's Sondheim's greatest musical, and it's having it's first London revival in thirty years. And what a superb cast. 
Did we enjoy it? What a question! 
Fredo's FOLLIES - “Some try to be profound” -  
  "We haven't had a conversation since 1941," snarls Phyllis to her husband Ben. "Do you think the Japs will win the war?" 
  Suddenly we're snapped back to reality from the nostalgic dreamland that Follies has bathed us in, and we're reminded that this show is both  time-specific and politically aware. In the opening moments, Dimitri Weismann has told us it's 1971, and as the beautiful girls arrive, they're given a sash emblazoned with the year of their former glory. Ben has written a book about Woodrow Wilson, and Carlotta invokes both Herbert Hoover and Roosevelt's New Deal in her song I'm Still Here. Audiences entering the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway in 1972 would have known who was the current resident in the White House and may feel, with Carlotta, that they've seen all their dreams disappear. 
  Yes, it's a show about theatre, but theatre is a metaphor for the dreams and aspirations of the guests - their youthful follies contrasted with the glamorous Follies they took part in. And the actual building is a metaphor, already derelict and crumbling as it awaits the wrecker's ball. 
  The  pastiche Follies numbers are charming, but become increasingly dislocated, veering from the joyful innocence of The Rain on the Roof to the exaggerated worldliness of Ah, Paris and the thwarted ambition of Broadway Baby. There's a hint of schizophrenia in Who's That Woman? that foreshadows Phyllis's split personality in The Ballad of Lucy and Jessie, where she identifies the conflicting aspects of her personality. They're fun, but you can feel a chill running over them. 
  They're survivors - mostly - these formerly beautiful girls. They've left the Follies behind and carried on with their lives: they've opened a dancing school, they own a store, they've gone into cosmetics: "Magic! By Solange!" declares Solange, producing a lipstick out of thin air. 
  Only Carlotta eschews a follies routine. Her anthem I'm Still Here is no victory parade, but an index of obstacles that she has lived through (some personal, some with her fellow Americans) and she has paid the price for her survival. No wonder her name - Campion - is only a typing error away from "champion". She's beaten and bowed as she stumbles from the stage, but she can still proudly tell Ben "I don't cheat." 
  Carlotta has seen all her dreams disappear. So have Sally and Buddy and Phyllis and Ben, and they're in a state of denial. But, as Heidi tells us in a chillingly romantic waltz, "All dreamers must awake/ Never look back/ Or your heart will break." This quartet is at the centre of the stage, and in this production their delusions and disappointments are mercilessly explored. Watch the misery spread over Imela Staunton's features as she ends In Buddy's Eyes; see the fury that she and Janie Dee display as Ben and Buddy conclude The Girls Upstairs with "Thank you, but never again."  
  It's the richness, the lushness, the heady romance that cause audiences to lose their minds to Follies, but it's the practical and emotional truth and reality that give it substance.  I think for Americans it should have a special resonance. For the rest of us, it's a reminder of "the roads we didn't take, of the best we ever thought we'd be", and the cost of compromise. 
  It's a heartbreaker. It's a masterpiece.
Our Rating: 5/5 
Would the Group have booked? They did! 
Would the group have enjoyed it? They will! They better! 
Group Appeal:  4/5