Wednesday, 18 January 2017

FIVE STAR REVIEW Promises Promises, Southwark Playhouse


IT may be cold and gloomy outside but I guarantee a show now on at the Southwark Playhouse will warm the cockles of your heart and leave you with a glow.
Based on the screenplay The Apartment, Promises Promises features the wonderful and uplifting music by Burt Bacharach.
It tells the story of Chuck Baxter, a junior executive at a New York insurance firm, who is invisible to all around him, in particular the lovely Fran Kubelik.
Despite his best endeavours to impress his boss, JD Sheldrake, Chuck never seems to get noticed. However, a visit to a bar after work one night alters his fortunes. On hearing that he has a mid-town apartment, he suddenly becomes not just noticed by the executive bosses but extremely popular.
And so begins the lending out of his apartment to the various men who use it to entertain their lady friends, in a bid to gain promotion.
To begin with things run smoothly and Chuck eventually is summoned to Sheldrake’s office. It seems Chuck will get the promotion he wants if he allows Sheldrake the exclusive use of his apartment. Little does he know that Sheldrake is using it to woo Fran, with whom he has been having an on off affair for a while.
Of course Chuck finds out about the affair and seeks solace in a bar where he comes across Marge. The two have a hilarious scene where they flirt with each other and get drunk to ease the pain before heading back to Chuck’s apartment.
Fran meanwhile has had just about enough of Sheldrake and his broken promises and takes drastic action to escape.
It is a lovely, bitter sweet romantic comedy with fabulous lyrics by Hal David and of course the gorgeous music by Bacharach and the production here is a toe tapping, joy.
Beautifully directed by Branagh Lagan, it has a top notch cast with Gabriel Vick as Chuck Baxter, who displays more than a passing resemblance to Jack Lemmon who played the character in the film version, and Daisy Maywood as Fran.
It is a delightful pairing and their rendition of I’ll Never Fall In Love Again was heart meltingly good.
Other stand outs include John Guerrasio as Dr Dreyfuss and Alex Young who puts in a scene stealing performance as Marge, the lush with whom Chuck meets in the bar.
Promises Promises is a real treat and will leave you with a warm and fuzzy glow for days to come.

Promises Promises is on at the Southwark Playhouse, Newington Causeway until February 18. Tickets cost £25. Visit  or call the box office on 020 7407 0234.

INTERVIEW - Gary Barlow and Tim Firth talk about The Girls

Tim Firth and Gary Barlow. Pic credit Matt Crockett

IN 1999 a group of women from Rylstone WI in Yorkshire stripped off to create a nude calendar which they hoped would raise enough money to buy their local hospital a sofa to be used by patients’ relatives
They had been inspired to do so by the death of their friend Angela Baker’s husband John of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma the year before.
However, nothing could have prepared them for the way it took off. In fact, the 2000 calendar featuring the women, and with the eventual blessing of the WI, was an instant hit selling out in the first week. Thousands more were ordered and printed, all of which sold out raising much more money than they had ever hoped for. 
To date the ladies have been instrumental in raising almost £5million for charity Bloodwise, and they are still actively fundraising.
Their story captured not only the imagination of the country at large, but also that of the film industry. And in true fairytale style it was eventually adapted for the big screen in 2003 by Tim Firth, with a stellar cast including Julie Walters, Helen Mirren and Celia Imrie.
The award-winning Calendar Girls then inspired a stage version of the story in 2008, again written by Tim, which was also received with critical acclaim.
But Tim wasn’t done yet and five years ago he approached good friend and Take That singer songwriter Gary Barlow to see if he wanted to join forces and turn the story into a musical.
Since then the pair have been writing, re-writing and workshopping it as well as staging performances at the Lowry and in Leeds, not to mention in the village hall in Burnsall, Yorkshire, where the idea for the calendar was born.
Re-writes and revisions have followed each stage, all with the feedback of the original ladies. It has changed quite a bit in the five years since its inception and Gary and Tim now feel the time is right to bring to audiences and so it will be heading to the Phoenix Theatre in London where it opens for a three month run on January 28.
The cast, which includes Joanna Riding as Annie and Claire Moore as Chris, are busy rehearsing and it is during one such rehearsal that I meet up with Gary, Tim and some of the cast to find out more about The Girls. 
“We have known each other for so many years and always flirted with the idea of working together,” Tim tells me when I ask what inspired a further exploration of the story.
“When the idea came up to do it as a musical I resisted initially because musicals can be the best and worst kind of theatre. They can be really good or they can be awful and they are a tricky beast to get right.
“However I took Gary to see the stage version of the show to see what he thought and if there was room for song in it as it struck me it was a story we should be writing. Fortunately he was keen.”
Gary says he was in no doubt about the idea.
“I could hear the music straight away,” he smiles. “It was brilliant and I went home and immediately started thinking about songs that would complement the words and played about with melodies.
“It’s been fantastic as it’s a completely different process to writing a pop song so it’s also been a chance for me to learn new skills, be part of the rehearsal process, working with this amazing company and I’ve absolutely loved it.”
We chat in the studios where the cast has been gathered to do four of the numbers to select audience which includes journalists as well as the original calendar girls themselves. 
And not only can you sense the obvious passion everyone involved has for the project, not least Gary and Tim who have invested the last five years working on it, it is also a very moving experience. Some of the songs are extremely emotional, reducing many of us to tears.
“It’s one thing writing the songs but when these amazing actors put the emotion in it it’s incredibly moving,” agrees Gary, nodding.
“In fact it moves me every time and I look around and see that we are all touched by it. But the story is incredible and true and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to be part of this. What these ladies did and continue to do is absolutely at the heart of everything and touches you on so may levels.
“What’s fantastic is that here we are surrounded by the ladies who started it all off, and the incredible actors and actresses, it’s a gorgeous company.
“Another reason I wanted to be involved was that after having seen the stage version I fell in love with theatre.
“As a songwriter to be offered this opportunity is fantastic and for me and it has been a real honour to be involved.”
However with the film and the stage play both having been hugely successful, both Gary and Tim were keen that the musical should be distinctly different, and not just by the addition of music.
As a result, The Girls delves deeper into the lives of the women, bringing their families and the effect it had on them all, to the fore as well as showing how it all happened and how the women achieved something extraordinary.
“This is a completely different beast,” smiles Tim. “This has been a chance to write what I’d call a village green musical.
“You create a small group of characters in a village where nothing really changes or happens and then this extraordinary thing happens.
“It’s a quality time you have with these characters. You are allowed to spend time with them, their husbands and kids, where you hear the fathers talking to their kids, about their work and so on - these are the new elements that weren’t in the play or film. It adds another layer.”
But for those who are fans of the story, Gary and Tim say the central part of it, that of the ladies making the calendar, is all still there.
“In creating the calendar these ordinary women did something that had never been done before and it was such an extraordinary endeavour,” says Tim. 
“I think it’s that that captured peoples’ imaginations. And it’s now been copied by other groups all over the world - but these ladies were the first.”
Perhaps because of the provenance it has taken a long time - five years, countless corrections and 112 songs in fact, to get it where it is today.
“It’s changed a lot since we started out five years ago,” laughs Tim. “In fact it’s about 25 per cent changed as we workshopped it and took it to Burnsall to get opinion from the people who matter - the community in which the story began.”
“It was really special to do that,” adds Gary smiling. “We have gained so much from these wonderful women and yes it’s been a long time to get this far but we had to get it right, to do the story justice and be faithful to their astonishing achievement.
“I’d also never done anything like this before, never written a musical, so Tim said to me ‘don’t go and watch anything in the West End’. He was right of course. 
“So I just sat down and put the music to the words and made a mini album of songs for him. He then took them away and moved some of the songs, the words or the sections around before sending them back to me. It became a patchwork quilt of songs and we built it all like that. It was really clever and a wonderful way of working.
“So now, when we sit down and hear that it’s right, it’s wonderful.”
And Tim agrees.
“Sometimes for example the songs came in quite up tempo and I would put them in but then I remembered the story and realised that although it’s a fast song, something in it is crying out for it to be slower,” he explains. “So things got changed quite a bit.” 
“It was and is an emotional journey,” admits Gary. “It’s inspired by a true and incredible story so writing about something that has happened was a big responsibility.
“And while it’s obviously quite sad and emotional in places it’s also very funny. As a musician, to be able to write about the strength of these women in the face of adversity is incredibly uplifting - and then watch your graft translate on to the stage, it’s brilliant.
“We can’t wait now for it to get to the theatre and just hope audiences love it just as much!”

The Girls is on at the Phoenix Theatre, Charing Cross Road, between Saturday January 28 and Saturday, April 22. Tickets from £29.50. Visit or call the box office on 0844 871 7629 for full listings.

PREVIEW - Vault Festival

It may be cold and miserable outside but venture underground this winter and a warm, artistic glow awaits thanks to an annual arts festival.
Yes, the VAULT festival is back for a fifth year in its regular home in the tunnels under Waterloo station from next week and it promises a wealth of cultural and artistic talent.
Starting on Wednesday, January 25 and running for six weeks until March 5, the venue will once again play host to this ever popular event which features a myriad of pleasures - from comedy to theatre, dance to film, including weekend events for the youngsters in the family that feature storytelling and mini raves.
As in previous years there are also DJs, bars and food and a series of late night parties to ensure there is something for everyone.
Put together by Mat Burt and his team, this year VAULT has also expanded to include satellite venues of the Network Theatre and Morley College.  
It is, he tells me, partly as a result of demand for more events and an increase in applications by individuals and groups to perform.
“The Network Theatre is such a lovely space that many people don’t know about, but should, so they have very kindly allowed us to be there which is fantastic,” he says. “As well as encourage people to get to know them better, it also means we have been able to programme more into the festival.
“We’ve also got access to Morley College so it feels more of a community event.
“The festival itself seems to keep growing and this time we had about 700 applicants wanting to perform which is incredible.
“Our goal is to give everyone an opportunity so we have a mix of groups and individuals - some of whom we have worked with before and are perhaps well known, but others who are here for the first time, and who we believe will be the big names of tomorrow. Some have come back but are doing something different this time so it’s really exciting.
“We have also expanded it to six weeks and feel we have a really cool mix in the programme which will appeal to a wide range of people - whether they have been before or are new to the festival. 
“With a total of 200 performers, it’s shaping up to be a fantastic six weeks.”
This year Mat says the underlying theme to it all is the future in general and sci fi and space in particular, in part due to what emerged from the submissions by the applicants.
“We’ve made PROXIMA V - a carefully selected strand of sci-fi and space experiences designed to make you think about where we’re all headed, what’s happening next culturally and in a cosmic sense and if we really are all in it together,” he says.
“Everyone had a bit of a bummer of a year last year and so some of the events look at what we can do to rectify things and how we do that as well as what we can achieve, especially culturally.
“Some of it will be very silly and funny such as with Superbly Theatre who are coming back to VAULT with Mars Actually, but some of it will be really reflective. It will feature film, theatre, comedy and astronomy and it looks really exciting.
“Of course there is also plenty about what’s happening today with social issues including feminism and equality. We are really pleased with what we’ve got on offer this year.”
Although Mat is coy when it comes to choosing his highlights, he does allude to award-winning company The Flanagan Collective who will immerse audiences in decadence and excess with their production of The Great Gatsby.
It will be performed across multiple spaces within the venue’s complex giving people a unique theatrical experience.
He’s also excited about Ventoux, a restaging of the epic rivalry between Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani on the fearsome Mont Ventoux in the 2000 Tour de France as well as the MMORPG Show from the makers of Knightmare Live, which he describes as an epic, sprawling show entirely of the audience’s devising comprising improv and table top gaming.
“I spend my free time playing board games so this is right up my street,” he laughs. 
He also points to comedy from Adele Is Younger Than Us and the VAULT Comedy Festival which promises a fresh line-up stepping up to the mic.
And then there is the weekly VAULT Film Festival which premiers numerous shorts and features, including dark_net staring Johnny Vegas and Love Comes Later, a London premiere staring Sarita Choudhury.
Elsewhere he says he’s excited about verbatim show Carry on Jaywick about a seaside gem of the Essex coast which has fallen on hard times. Four cast members tackle 30 characters in the show which is full of dark comedy.
Written by Tim Foley, Astronauts of Hartlepool tackles Brexit Britain, the North/South divide and immigration when two strangers meet on the headland and Summer Nights in Space is a one act musical that follows an Astronaut responding to an attractive astro-nette distress call, with a reluctant crew in tow. Produced by Hannah Elsy it is a heartfelt look at the meaning of modern life in space.
A collaboration between Subtle Paws and The Cockpit, AgRave Tale features dancers alongside a live DJ, real news and documentary footage which take the audience back to 1989 and the second summer of love, and set against the backdrop of Cornwall’s many second homes, writer Marietta Kirkbride stages The Long Trick, a new play about one man’s private protest against gentrification.
And if that’s not enough, when the curtain comes down the band starts up offering a chance to dance the night away every weekend at huge themed parties including the Valentine’s Ball and Mardi Gras party.
“The breadth of work we have on offer this year is huge so it’s really hard to pick favourites,” says Mat diplomatically.
“As in previous years, much of it is work that you may not see anywhere else - something that we feel has contributed to the success of the festival in general.
“What’s heartening for us is that the festival itself has really captured peoples’ imaginations, making it a popular and a real cultural and fun event in the heart of London. 
“Last year we had 40,000 visitors, the year before it was 32,000 so it feels like a real endorsement of what we are doing.
“It has allowed us to grow it year on year, expanding the programme each time as well as adding to the number of performers and incorporating the food and bars. 
‘It’s been a real journey for us but one we are really proud of.”
Mat and the team are also aware of how expensive it is to stage work especially for those just starting out on their creative and artistic career.
To that end they help not only with advice and support in marketing and staging but also by offering an increased percentage from the box office sales.
“We want VAULT to be as socially inclusive as possible,” he says. “There is so much talent out there from all backgrounds that it’s important to us to be able to show it. 
“It’s very expensive to stage work in London so we try and help out where we can - it’s especially beneficial for those just emerging from drama or art school and who want to try things out.
“There has to be a balance obviously but if the festival was just for our mates or those who are already established it wouldn’t work.
“There is tonnes to see and do and as we try and keep our ticket prices as low as possible, we feel people can come along and try something out that they may not have thought about before.
“And with great food, the bars and late night entertainment people can also come in for free and just enjoy the atmosphere.
“Ultimately though we are really proud of this year’s event and feel it’s going to be a fun and really cool place to be for the next six weeks.”

VAULT is on between January 25 and March 5. Visit for full listings.

Friday, 13 January 2017

INTERVIEW Michele Dotrice

Michele Dotrice, next to Gary Barlow and with the rest of the cast of The Girls.

SHE is perhaps best known for playing Frank Spencer’s long suffering wife Betty in the hit 1970s BBC TV show Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. But now Michele Dotrice is about to take on a role which she admits has taken her on a new adventure.
The role in question is Jessie, one of the ladies in Tim Firth and Gary Barlow’s musical version of the Calendar Girls story.
The Girls is inspired by the true story of a group of ladies from the Rhylstone Women’s Institute who decided to raise money to buy a sofa for a hospital in memory of one of their husbands after he died of non-Hodgkins Lymphona. 
To do so they appeared nude in a calendar with only a selection of jam, buns, knitting and a piano to hide their modesty. 
Their story inspired an award-winning film starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters as well as a stage play.
Five years in the making, the musical shows life in the ladies’ Yorkshire village, how it all happened, the effect on their families and how they achieved something extraordinary. To date they have raised almost £5million for charity Bloodwise and they are still actively fundraising.
But in a chat during rehearsals at a West London studio, Michele tells me it’s not the inevitable stripping off that worries her, rather the singing.
“I do feel I’m stepping out of my comfort zone in a way,” she smiles. “I’ve no idea why I was asked to be part of this as I’m not a natural singer, so I’m more nervous about that than anything else - even the going naked bit!
“I’m also surrounded by all these amazing actresses and their lovely voices and who have done lots of musical theatre before, something that I’ve never done, so it is a bit nerve-wracking. I feel as though I’m on the starting blocks with this.”
Despite this Michele says she leapt at the chance to be in the production which opens at the Phoenix Theatre on January 28.
It is a co-production by Take That’s Gary Barlow and writer and director Tim Firth who have spent the past five years working on it.
And during the rehearsal period that I was invited to attend, it’s clear they are still honing and refining it.
“I’ve been involved in this for the past three years and it’s been a lot of fun,” says Michele. “I did a read through initially and then took part in a series of workshops with different casts over the following year.
“Then we went to Burnsall in Yorkshire where it all began for these wonderful women and where we put on a version in the village hall - it was packed out and such a wonderful experience.
“It was so valuable for me to know the root of the show, the place it all happened - it was inspiring and moving.
“I couldn’t then do the stage versions that were staged at the Lowry and in Leeds as I was doing other things so I am delighted to have been asked back now, for the London show.”
Michele is no stranger to the heartache of losing a loved one, having lost her husband Edward Woodward in 2009. She says it is this that gives her an emotional attachment to the show and the story, and one of the reasons she wanted to be part of it.
“I lost my husband and it’s a terribly difficult time to lose someone you love,” she says. “The show and the songs Gary has created are deeply moving and emotional and I cry every time - in fact it affects every single one of us - but it’s not depressing.
“In fact this show is passionate and full of energy and it has been beautifully written by Tim. The characters are so beautifully observed, they are not just carbon copies of the original ladies, although I do look a bit like Beryl who my character is based on,” she laughs.
“The music roots it in Yorkshire - you can feel that completely with what Gary has done. It’s not just light poppy stuff, there is a real range to it and despite the sadness it is the most wonderful and liberating feel good show. It’s also terribly funny and there is a lot of laughter.
“It’s a real privilege because we take the audience on the most incredible journey. I think we have all been touched in some way so there is a sense of solidarity. 
“Cancer is such a cruel disease and I think everyone appreciates what those women did and continue to do - it’s quite incredible and the amount of money they have raised is just astonishing. It’s really quite inspiring and I’m in awe of their determination and courage.
“That’s why I’m doing the show really. 
“As for the stripping off, there is no point in worrying with this body,” she chuckles. “But they are going to need considerably bigger buns!”

The Girls is on at the Phoenix Theatre, Charing Cross Road, between Saturday January 28 and Saturday, April 22. Tickets from £29.50. Visit or call the box office on 0844 871 7629 for full listings.

FIVE STAR REVIEW Adventures in Moominland at Southbank Centre

Five stars

There is something truly magical about the Southbank Centre’s latest immersive exhibition. Adventures in Moominland takes visitors on a relaxing, calm and wonderful journey through forests, woodland, lakes and mountains to explore and find out more about the world of Tove Jansson’s famous creation, Family Moomintroll.
It starts by visitors entering through a giant page in a book, a doorway that takes you into what feels like an underground cave. This cave leads to another room or area which leads on to another scene, and so on.
In small groups you go through each area with a guide who is on hand to answer questions, as well as listening to an audio narrative by Sandi Toksvig and written by children’s author Laura Dockrill.
Sandi’s voice is particularly soothing though you can hear the cheekiness and humour come through as she describes the places you visit, some of the artefacts and the tales themselves.
Each room or scene you go into is different and they focus on different aspects of the Moomins, these rather curious looking creatures, and of Tove herself, but all feature original drawings, paints, books and other artefacts from Tove’s studio in Helsinki and her family island of Klovharu.
More than half of the objects in the exhibition are being shown in the UK for the first time including some of the very earliest Moomintroll dolls, Tove’s painting palette and flower headdress.
There are also sketches and magazine articles as well as furniture from her studio. The drawings are particularly beautiful.
Throughout the tour, you get to know the Moomins, how they were created and began life, first as a character to be feared but then as a character that inspires peace and understanding. It’s also a chance to find out more about Tove’s inspiration for these delightful characters, and their development through her stories. 
But there is also a chance to find out more about Tove herself, what inspired her, the relationship she had with family, friends and lovers not to mention the social, economic, political and cultural backdrop of the time which defined the narrative of the stories.
The stories were written during the Second World War and Moominvalley offered a refuge from the hardship and terror of what was happening in the world at that time. 
The exhibition is interactive and immersive and has been richly observed and lovingly created. It is utterly delightful and entertaining as well as educational and there is so much to enjoy and explore during the hour long tour. It also doesn’t feel rushed so there is plenty of time in each setting to explore and get to know the Moomins better.
And it doesn’t matter if you are a Moomin fan or have never met them before, this exhibition is designed for everyone - and will delight anyone, young or old - and comes highly recommended.

Adventures in Moominland is on at Southbank Centre until April 23. It is part of Nordic Matters, a year long exploration of Nordic art and culture at Southbank Centre. Tickets from £12. Visit for full listings.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

INTERVIEW - Steve Lambert of BADAC theatre company

SEVENTEEN years ago writer and actor Steve Lambert set up his theatre company Badac to shine a light on human rights violations around the world.
Badac has since established a reputation for being one of the country’s most controversial and confrontational theatre companies with a series of plays that highlight general or specific human rights violations.
Its latest play, their 12th original production, is about the use and effects of solitary confinement. Taking a no holds barred look at the consequences on the prisoner of prolonged isolation, The Box features a man, alone in a cage and shows what his incarceration does to him. It is currently on a small tour and makes its London debut at Draper Hall in Southwark on January 13 and 14.
In a chat ahead of the show’s dates in the capital, Steve tells me it follows the journey of one prisoner struggling to survive the punishment of segregation as well as the effects it has on him of being so confined such as suffering from hallucinations, paranoia and psychosis.
A parallel story, giving an insight into an abusive background, gives the audience an understanding of the torment of a previous life, experiences that combined with the plunge into the physical, psychological and emotional consequences of isolation, can only lead to an intensely violent and destructive conclusion.  
“When I set up the company about 17 years ago I wanted to do stuff about human rights,” he says.
“Choosing the subject matter of the plays we stage is always a bit random. I generally read something in a book or in a paper, watch something on TV such as a documentary or read something on a website and it sets something off in my mind.
“This project happened after I came across a documentary about solitary confinement in Maine in America where a prison governor was trying to reduce the use of it because he felt it didn’t work as a punishment.
“It got me thinking about how one person could be so cruel as to lock another up to spend hours, days, weeks or months on end on their own, the effect of being imprisoned in isolation and what it must do to a person’s mental health.”
The seed of the idea having been formed, Steve says he then set about researching the issue. To help him he read books and articles and met, talked to many people including an assistant governor of a prison in the West Midlands as well as drawing on the testimonies of prisoners.
He also consulted world-renowned expert on the effects of solitary confinement, Doctor Sharon Shalev, and drew on the experiences of Palestinian poet Ghazi Hussein, now living in exile in Scotland. As a political prisoner in Syria, Ghazi says he experienced the inhumanity and physical and mental effects of segregation with three months in a room with no light.
“It all developed from these conversations and the more I delved into the issue the more I wanted people to know about how it effects prisoners, specifically in terms of their mental health and how it doesn’t work,” says Steve.
“It took about five months or so to write once I’d done all the research and then to get it to the stage and the tour took a bit longer. I didn’t want to make it country specific because this happens in prisons all over the world - although obviously we hear more about places such as Guantanamo Bay and stories of prisoners here in the UK.
“Researching it was a fascinating process though. It showed up so many interesting aspects of solitary confinement. European countries use it as a tool to punish prisoners quite a lot - I found that Holland for example doesn’t have the same level of regulation as we do here which was a surprise.
“Some prisoners are just kept in a cell with no human contact for hours on end but some are in darkened or windowless rooms and then of course there are instances of sexual abuse and the length of time people are kept in solitary confinement. I thought maybe it would only be for a week but the reality is that it can be months or years. 
“I also found that despite the justifications for the practice - such as reducing levels of crime, violence, attacks on guards and gang activity in prisons, it doesn’t work as a punishment. In fact it can make things worse because when prisoners come out they are more likely to re-offend.
“But wherever it happens and for however long, the effects are the same - the dehumanising of an individual - and so I wanted to give audiences an understanding of the cruelty and dangers of solitary confinement as a tool to punish someone. The use of it is wrong and the effect it has on an individual is wrong.
“Essentially, it’s a cry for help for all the many prisoners who have and continue to suffer the inhumanity, torture and despair of solitary confinement.”
And Steve is unapologetic when it comes to the staging of the show, in which he plays the prisoner, and that audiences may very well feel uncomfortable watching it unfold.
“The shows we put on are always visceral and immersive and this will be the same,” he says. “I want audiences to see and understand the level of suffering that happens. And when they’ve seen the show I want them to think about what they’ve seen and heard, to talk about the story and the themes within it afterwards in the bar or when they get home. 
“I don’t want to make it comfortable for them and the concept of staging a show in a traditional setting or manner doesn’t appeal to me.
“The subject matter in The Box demands that you do something different though. I’m giving people an insight into the daily realities for those prisoners and a sense of what happens to them and what they go through and it’s uncomfortable.
“So the audience stands around a cage which I’m in so it’s very close and there is nowhere to hide.   It’s all about a shared experience. It’s full on and in your face stuff!
“However the only person who really knows what the prisoner has gone through is someone who’s lived through that experience.
“Ultimately I hope that it may spark an idea in those who come and see it. It’s about engaging with people rather than asking them to change the world. 
“We do a lot of work with schools and universities where we go in and talk to the young people about helping others, getting involved in politics or local campaigns and not believing everything you read and see.
“I do see more interest in this - there is less apathy now which is great and people are more willing to challenge things rather than be spoon fed ideas.”
The London dates will take place at Draper Hall which Steve says is the perfect location to stage the show as it’s small and intimate.
“When we are staging shows we always look for places which fit the piece and Draper Hall is perfect,” he says.
“But we also wanted people to come who don’t go to the theatre that often or at all - so being right in the middle of an estate is perfect as you you have an audience on your doorstep. 
“Draper Hall is a great little space that does lots of artistic stuff for people on the estate generally so I’m looking forward to it.”

The Box is on at Draper Hall, Elephant and Castle, on January 13 and 14. Tickets cost £12. visit  for full listings.

FIVE STAR REVIEW - Why The Whales Came


To hold the attention of young children for anything longer than about 20 minutes is a real skill but Danyah Miller has it down to a fine art.
Indeed her current show, an hour long adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s Why The Whales Came, had her mostly young audience rapt from the off.
The story is set in the Scilly Isles right at the beginning of the First World War and features two children who defy their parents’ wishes and visit the Birdman, an elderly man who the islanders believe has put a curse on the island of Samson.
However the children realise that far from being a mad man and someone to be afraid of, he is actually nothing of the kind, and is in fact someone that cares very much about the environment in which he lives. And it eventually falls to the children to stand up to their parents when a whale is washed up on the beach - the islanders want to kill it but the children, inspired by the Birdman, urge them to help get the whale back into the sea.
Danyah tells the story by means of a few props which are ingeniously hidden in her simple but effective wooden set which transforms itself from a jetty to a home to a bed and to a boat.
And all the while she skips, jumps and climbs in and around the set and even wades and paddles in the water that appears when one part of the set exposes itself to  become a beach. There is also an element of puppetry which is rather beautiful.
It is a wonderful story brilliantly told that kept the audience entranced from start to finish.

Why The Whales Came is on at the Ovalhouse Theatre, until January 31 and then on tour including the Lyric Hammersmith on January 28 and The Southbank Centre on February 17. Tickets cost £11. Visit or call the box office on 020 7582 7680 for full listings.

Interview Michael Morpurgo

About 30 years ago author Michael Morpurgo was on holiday in the Isles of Scilly. The former children’s laureate was also trying to write a book, but lacking peace and quiet he asked a friend to take him to Samson, one of the uninhabited outlying islands.
When he arrived he found himself alone save for derelict houses, gulls and rabbits. It began to rain so he took shelter in one of the ruined houses and tried to think about what to write. However, he began to hear noises and wondered if he really was alone.
Indeed, Michael tells me he felt so uneasy he felt “spooked” and when his friend picked him up later he told him what had happened.
The friend told him about the ghosts many people said were on the island and then relayed a story about a great tragedy that had befallen the community way back in the 1800s. It transpired that many fishermen from the island drowned after they hit a rock whilst travelling in a boat to Plymouth. The tragedy led to the island becoming deserted and the story of a curse.
It was this experience and his friend’s story that led to Michael researching and writing his children’s book Why The Whales Came. 
Set during the First World War it tells the story of 10-year-old Gracie and her friend Daniel. They live on Bryher, one of the islands in the Scillies. Their parents warn then to keep away from the Birdman, an elderly gentleman who lives alone in a cottage on the southern side of the island. 
The islanders tell stories about the Birdman and Samson, the island he used to live on and which it is said he put a curse on. They tell the children not to set foot on Samson otherwise the curse will fall on them.
However one day whilst out playing, they find themselves near the Birdman’s cottage. It is the beginning of the biggest adventure of their lives which culminates in helping a stranded narwhal whale.
It is a story full of mystery, intrigue and excitement as well as one that teaches about compassion, kindness and friendship and over the years has been adapted for stage and radio. It has now been turned into a stage show by Dani Parr and Danyah Miller and is is currently on at the Ovalhouse Theatre as part of a small tour which also takes in the Southbank Centre in February.
Danyah Miller enacts the story in the hour long show and Michael tells me she’s the perfect person to do so.
“Danyah’s amazing and is one of the great storytellers in this country and I’m certain she has done a fantastic job with this,” he says warmly.
“She approached me to do the adaptation and as I’m very keen on theatre and as she brings stories to life in the most enchanting way I knew she would do a great job and tell it brilliantly.
“There is something about the simplicity of one person telling stories in a theatre and the audience being able to use their imaginations - it’s the purest form of storytelling.
“She’s terribly engaging and it’s ingenious the way she brings in props and aids to tell the tale.
“Children don’t have huge concentration spans so it’s a real skill to keep their attention for an hour and get them to lose themselves in the story but Danyah is fantastic at it.
“I’m really excited about the fact that she has chosen Why The Whales Came,” he adds. “It is one I wrote a long time ago about an isolated community on the island of Bryher. 
“It features a strange man who lives on the island and the children who were told to keep away from him because people think he’s mad and has put a curse on the neighbouring island of Samson which now is full only of empty houses.
“However, two children don’t keep away from him and they find out that instead of being mad, he’s actually an extremely sweet natured old man who lives in harmony with nature around him. He lives simply and keeps himself to himself. 
“So it’s a story about why the Birdman lives there, how he became different, how he’s managed to live amongst the creatures around him and how we all need each other.”
Michael says it was his experience whilst on holiday in the Scilly Isles all those years ago that prompted him to find out more about the story of what happened to the islanders and which led to the book. It is this approach, bringing in an element of a true story into his own, that is characteristic of many of his books.
“I always like to bring an element of historical fact to my stories and when I heard the story about the men who drowned and the curse of the island of Samson I felt it was so powerful that I wanted to investigate it,” he says.
“I did a lot of research and visited the island again as I needed to find out more about what happened to these men, where they dropped their lobster pots and what life was like at the beginning of the First World War on the islands. It was fascinating and I realised it had the basis of a great story - which turned out to be Why The Whales Came.”
The book is the latest of Michael’s many stories that has been adapted for the stage - the most famous of course being War Horse - and he’s delighted that it is coming to Ovalhouse.
“It’s an intimate space which suits the story so I’m delighted it will be shown there,” he says. “Danyah is an extraordinary lady and I’m sure this production will be amazing.”

Why The Whales Came is on at the Ovalhouse Theatre, until January 31 and then on tour including the Lyric Hammersmith on January 28 and The Southbank Centre on February 17. Tickets cost £11. Visit or call the box office on 020 7582 7680 for full listings.

FOUR STAR REVIEW - Hedda Gabler at the National


Acclaimed Belgian director Ivo van Hove, who captivated audiences with his stunning revival of A View From The Bridge at the Young Vic last year, has done it again. This time making his debut at the National Theatre with a new version of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler.
Written by Patrick Marber it is a mesmerising production, and stars Ruth Wilson in the title role, a performance that is achingly brilliant.
She sits right in the centre of the stage with her back to the audience sprawled over and playing on a piano. It sets the tone immediately - this is a woman who has practically given up on everything and doesn’t know what to do with herself.
The set is a cavernous sitting room that could do with a lick of paint. It is sparse, with merely the piano, a couple of sofas and initially rows of tubs of flowers - rather like those seen in a florist.
And throughout Berte the maid sits quietly at the side as though she is waiting for something to happen.
Patrick Marber has updated Ibsen’s original, making it feel very modern. And refreshingly instead of portraying Hedda’s academic husband Tesman as an old fuddy duddy, he’s the same age, quirky and eccentric for sure, but in American Kyle Soller, he’s also at times a bit Tiggerish, bouncy, energetic and excited - though clearly not in a way that does anything but irritate his wife.
She in turn is exasperated at her turn of circumstance - bored to death, desperate for some excitement and picking away at those who she comes into contact with just to get some reaction and for something to do - whether it’s Brack the judge, her former lover Lovborg, who now teetotal, she encourages back on the sauce, or her old schoolfriend Mrs Elvsted who is now in love with Lovborg.
When she’s on her own, she paces about the room, full of rage and despair, fiddling with the blinds at the window or hurling tubs of flowers all over the stage, some winging their way into the front rows of the audience, and then stapling the flowers to the walls. And in between scenes we hear the haunting song of Joni Mitchell’s Blue playing in the background.
Throughout the performance we almost don’t know what she’s going to do next - she’s volatile and unpredictable and you almost don’t want to look.
The end when it comes is pretty horrific not least the scene in which she is destroyed and humiliated by Rafe Spall’s evil and calculating Brack, in my view unnecessary.
However despite this, it is a fabulous and utterly gripping production with an exceptionally strong cast.

Hedda Gabler is on at the National Theatre until Tuesday, March 21. Tickets from £15. Visit uk for full listings.

FIVE STAR REVIEW - Amadeus at the National


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

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