Tag Archives: theatre

Great Gothics

A fascinating article on NPR about why we (definitely I) love the gothic genre.

“Though their definition is fluid, Gothic novels (and movies) generally offer equal parts delighted horror and breathless sentiment. And regardless of plot twists or historical pastiches, they’re preoccupied with contemporary problems; the essential horror of the irreconcilable world. For early Gothics, this meant the Industrial Revolution, eulogizing the natural in the face of modernity (Anne Radcliffe’s 1794 The Mysteries of Udolpho equated love of nature with virtue until it was practically a superpower). Udolpho — and countless other crumbling castles — reflected both worry and rebellious glee about the fate of traditional social structures in the modern order; estates declined alongside their nefarious masters.”

Penny DreadfulI love gothic – books, TV series.. I love the melodrama and ugly beauty of it all. Three things I’ve enjoyed in recent years:

  • The Shadow of the Wind series by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. The second book in particular, Angel’s Game – is delightfully OTT.
  • Penny Dreadful – Sky Atlantic’s original series is eminently watchable for the hypnotic Eva Green who really….commits to her part. But I also love how it references and remixes all the classic tales: Frankenstein, Dorian Gray.. all the characters are in there. It’s atmospheric and sometimes ridiculous, but then that’s part of the fun. Another of my favourite actresses, Helen McRory was wisely retained for the second series as the main villain after making a few great cameos in the first series.
  • I want to add Sherlock Holmes – the new books by Anthony Horowitz – or Ripper Street, the excellent TV series that went from BBC to Amazon and is now back on BBC2 again. They’re not quite full-on gothic, though. But maybe half and half makes a whole? Highly recommend Ripper Street at any rate, especially the first series.
  • Not sure if I’m creating a new genre here but The House that Will Not Stand, by Marcus Gardley at the Tricycle Theatre, was a thrilling play set in the American South, during slavery, focusing on a family of Creole women who are reeling from the death of their (illegitimate) white patriarch, and a diverse community coming to terms with laws on slavery and freedom. It was haunting and lyrical, rhythmic and a little creepy. I am going to file that under gothic too.


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6540-fitandcrop-495x330Tonight I visited Hampstead Theatre for the first time, to see Wildefire by Roy Williams. The last play of his I saw was Sucker Punch at the Royal Court, which was far better. However, Wildefire, which looked at the how an enthusiastic new recruit to the Met became cynical and broken, had its striking moments. It was 90 minutes without an interval, which kept the tension building. The cast was strong. My favourite scenes were group ones set on council estates – which were often menacing, but very well choreographed. The final scene is truly breathtaking – the whole cast on stage, witnessing and reacting to the main character’s breakdown. It’s a scene  full of drama and so physical that it’s almost like a dance. Williams doesn’t really weave scenes together so much as juxtapose them, like a film. I am not sure I like that aspect of his style, but having seen about four of his plays, that’s one of his trademarks. I am not an expert, but I thought it did a good job of showing the challenges and frustrations of policing in modern-day Britian, and the people behind the uniforms.

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When I book Theatre Tickets

…for myself*

Inside I’m like:

*like, really, just for me. To go by myself.

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I am currently squirrelled away, writing a number of things, including a dreaded research proposal, but seeing as I haven’t updated the blog for a while, I thought I would highlight some great upcoming events that I’m looking forward to:

One The new play by Roy Williams, one of my favourite playwrights, called Kingston 14. It’s at one of my favourite London theatres, Theatre Royal Stratford East.

Two Hopelessly Devoted at the Tricycle. I’m not familiar with the playwright, but it’s about women, love, prison and music. I’ll give it a whirl.

Three In May, the Hot 8 Brass Band are in London. Here they are playing Steamin’ Blues.

Four I have written elsewhere on this blog about my bitterness of missing the Scottsboro Boys when it was at the Young Vic. It’s making the jump to the West End! It’s going to be one of the best things about autumn. *contented sigh*

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The Play’s the Thing

The year is young, but there are already a few things I think I’ll be following or seeing this year.

Apart from 12 Years a Slave, I’ll be looking forward to watching Belle, the story of Dido Elizabeth Bell, the mixed-race daughter of a slave who was raised by her uncle the Earl of Mansfield, who was then Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales and who made a landmark ruling that paved the way for the abolition of slavery. I’ll also be following the blog of UCL’s project into the British legacy of slavery, which taps a rich seam of history that we don’t often look into in this country.

I usually despair of the lack of plays that I want to see in January, then find myself whisked away by a spoil of theatre across the city from February onwards.

Last year I was gutted to miss The Scottsboro Boys at the Young Vic. I heard it was fantastic and I can only hope it will return one day. I did have the pleasure of seeing A Season in the Congo and have just (literally, my credit card is still steaming) bought tickets to Sizwe Banzi is Dead, which starts on 6 February:


It’s 1972 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa and Sizwe Banzi’s passbook gives him just three days to find work. No work and he’ll be deported. That was four days ago.

So when Sizwe stumbles across a dead body with a passbook, he asks himself – does his identity card really define who he is? Could he give up his family and his name in order to survive?

I can’t wait to find out.

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Crowning Glory

“Dearest Future Queen, you are enough.”

I had the pleasure of catching Crowning Glory, the debut play by actress Somalia Seaton, the day before it ended at Theatre Royal Stratford East.

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TRSE is one of my favourite theatres in London, particularly for unexpected, edifying plays, and Crowning Glory didn’t disappoint. I was struck by the set when I first walked in – it was jagged and at an angle, with a couple of movable screens which were later used for projections of video. It felt pared back and minimalist, which really suited the content. The dialogue was poetic – a series of monologues blending performance art, poetry and dance to uncover the complicated relationship between black women and their hair.

There were all sorts of perspectives – tomboys, mixed race women, women wearing weaves, one who cut her hair off, the Black Panther – the list goes on. There were also memories of growing up in African and Caribbean households and a humorous but searing take on the relationship between generations of black women, their daughters and their hair.



What struck me about this multifaceted play was that there was something for everyone to identify with, regardless of where you find yourself on the spectrum of natural-relaxed-weave-braided hair. The play threw down a challenge to the European paradigm of beauty and urged Black Women to see that they are beautiful too – and this is important for us to remember because our little girls need to hear the message too.

And the message was this: You are enough.

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Production Values


 I haven’t seen the new series of Top Boy on Channel 4 yet, but the reviews are asking if it could be Britain’s version of The Wire. I really enjoyed the first series so this has definitely whet my appetite. Among the legion publicity interviews, I came across one in which Ashley Walters chides black actors for leaving the UK for the US. Even though I’m sure this was probably overstated for a juicy headline, he did say:

“It’s obvious that it’s more difficult for black actors than it is for white actors over here. So you can run away to the States or you can stay here and try to change things.”

He has a point. And yet, I wonder if it’s that simple. So many actors have crossed the pond and returned to the pick of roles, in TV – Idris Elba, David Harewood, Chiwetel Ejiofor spring to mind – or in theatre – Marianne Jean Baptiste who was recently in The Amen Corner at the National Theatre. Film roles continue to be scarce, but then British film is under the cosh at the moment and this affects film roles for actors of all colours. The path to the US is well-trodden. However, I wonder if Walter’s is overlooking the importance of what goes on behind the screen?

Earlier this year I went to panel talk at the National Theatre featuring Paterson Joseph and other black actors on the state of Black British theatre. We discussed the Black Audience (does it exist?) and the shortage of roles for black actors. One of the problems identified was the dearth of black writers, producers and directors. They are there, of course, but it is clear that until you have more people of colour behind the scenes  in positions to commission and produce content, we won’t see any tangible change. And this isn’t to say they would only create “black” productions – though there’s nothing wrong with that – progress will be when we have those productions but we also have black actors in roles that aren’t “the black character” – in other words,  they’d pass the Shukla Test.

Just a thought.

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The Epic Adventure of Nhamo the Manyika Warrior and His Sexy Wife Chipo

Back to the Tricycle, my favourite theatre in London. (Theatre Royal Stratford East is a close second). When I was at high school in Zimbabwe, my love of theatre was first stoked by a hilarious, witty theatre troupe called Over the Edge. One of their alumni, Lucian Msamati, who has gone on to have a glittering TV career (Game of Thrones, Luther, No 1 Ladies Detective Agency), directed this sharp, funny debut by Zimbabwean playwright Denton Chikura.

The play centres around an unassuming goat herder called Nhamo who might just be the guy to star in an epic African adventure. It’s clever, fast and just so much fun. The cast are members of Tiata Fahodzi, the British African theatre company, and this is Msamati’s directing debut as their new  artistic director.

It’s something of a play within a play – and the adventure is constructed in front of the audience, rather than simply unpacked. It’s a classic story (young man becomes hero, survives perils to get the girl) imaginatively told. It’s expansive, giving room for the cast to weave a tale in the best storytelling tradition but also demolish familiar tropes about Africa.

Ery Nzaramba  captures Nhamo’s naivete and deadpan wit,  which is balanced by Nyasha Hatendi’s thoroughly epic villain, a comic figure that’s more of a thrwarted hero with delusions of grandeur than a criminal mastermind. If the hero is rather unassuming, his future wife is anything but a passive damsel waiting to be saved. Tanya Fear plays Chipo, who is imperious yet endearing, rather vain, smart, tough and mistress of the withering put-down. Weaving the tale for both cast and audience is Don Gilet’s narrator, who blurs the line between showman and conman, but always keeps the audience engaged and amused.

Although there are only four cast members they tear up the stage. It’s pacy, hilarious, tongue-in-cheek and surprisingly moving at times. One thing I loved about it was that the play accessible for the British audience, but with a lot of little in-jokes for the Zimbabwean audience too. It’s a witty play that demands belly laughs. Just go and see it. You won’t regret it.

Five tomatoes out of Five.

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A Season in the Congo

congo lift

The first thing you notice is the set. You don’t so much step inside the theatre as jump into the story. It’s spectacular – multi-level, sprawling, drawing you in – particularly those in the first few seats in the stalls, which are set up as tables in a Congolese bar.

The classic play, by Aime Cesaire, charts the rise and fall of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected president of post-colonial Congo. Chiwetel Ejiofor does a star turn as Lumumba, capturing his journey from trader to politician.  But it’s not the Chiwetel show. He’s well supported and the cast frames the story beautifully with song, dance and puppetry.

Daniel Kaluuya’s Mobutu grows in stature as the play progresses and by the end I was struck by the juxtaposition of the two characters and how both men had changed as their friendship soured. The last time I saw Kaluuya was in Sucker Punch at the Royal Court and then, as now, I was drawn in by his subtlety. His Mobutu moved gradually from a loyal, young man to an army man whose star starts to rise as his (former) friend’s begins to fade.

It’s an energetic, sharp production that doesn’t pull any punches. The depiction of the colonial powers, business interests, Russia and the US is witty and critical – the puppets are used to devastating effect. In this way, the play captures both the immediacy of Lumumba’s situation and the external machinations that conspired against him. It’s an imaginative and dynamic portrait of a man, a country, a period of Africa’s post-colonial history and an expose of real politik.

Five tomatoes out of five.


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A Winning Team


I was pleased to read today that Adrian Lester and his wife, Lolita Chakrabarti, won Critic’s Circle  Awards for their play Red Velvet, which was performed for the first time last year at my favourite off-West End theatre in London, The Tricycle. She wrote it, he starred

The play is about Ira Aldridge, a forgotten stage star from the 1830s who was an accomplished Shakespearan actor, especially popular in Prussia and Russia. Oh, and he was black. Lester captured Aldridge’s theatricality, vanity and vulnerability, alternating between an increasingly frail but fractious old man and a proud performer at the height of his popularity.

One of the things that struck me was that it appeared that to play the Shakespearan Kings, Aldridge whited up: at the end he prepares to go “on stage”, slowly donning his wig, white makeup and white gloves. I was instantly reminded of a similar scene from Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman at the National Theatre in 2009. There, the whiting up was subversive, mocking; here it was a majestic mask; but the imagery was striking in both plays.

From time to time, London life being what it is, I just can’t seem to organise an outing to the theatre with friends; no matter, I am perfectly happy to go by myself. The only drawback is, there’s no one to talk about it with afterwards! I went to see Red Velvet one chilly evening in November, unwilling to let the £10 early bird ticket offer pass me by. It was worth every penny.

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