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Laugh yer bastards: The Grinning Man @TrafStudios

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The Grinning Man bursts on stage at the Trafalgar Studios. And even if you’re not sure if it’s meant to be a comedy or an emotional love story, it’s determined to show you a good time.Although the good time is a little on the dark side. As one character comments in this show, “prepare to shit kittens.” If you like that sort of thing then it’s a welcome break from the relentless cheery musical fare around Christmas. The show, based on a story by Victor Hugo throws in puppetry and style. You enter the theatre as if you’re going to see a fairground freak show. Designer Jon Bausor has framed the stage with a giant disfigured mouth. It’s grim, but its the perfect setting for a story about a boy who’s mutilated, saves a baby, makes a living as a freak and then wins over a kingdom. Louis Maskell as the heroic Grinpayne the disfigured boy conveys emotion and excitement of the character. He’s on stage most of the time and is either controlling his younger puppet self or jumping about as the gro…

Sweet smells: Cyril’s Success @Finborough

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The Finborough Theatre, celebrating its 150th year in 2018, is presenting a series of plays also first produced in 1868. This time around it’s Cyril’s Success by H.J. Byron. It’s a funny semi-autobiographical take on marriage and life at the theatre from a resident playwright. Well, resident in nearby Brompton Cemetery. Byron may be largely forgotten today, but he was big in the mid-Victorian era. Here the fun in this piece comes from making much out of a simple premise of mistaken identity and the vagaries of marriage. Cyril (Tim Gibson) is at the peak of his fame and power as a playwright, novelist and newspaper writer, when his wife (Isabella Marshall) leaves him. She read a letter sent to one of Cyril’s friends thinking it was for her husband. It all ends well of course. But not before Cyril has a string of flops, falls ill and briefly ends up living a life of bohemian squalor.  Stirring up the insanity are two supporting characters. Susan Tracy as the husband-hating Miss Grannet i…

Once more without feeling: Again @Trafstudios

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The nuclear family seems to be a little unstable in Again. Presented by Mongrel Thumb, Stephanie Jacob’s intriguing new play explores the underbelly and soft belly of family relationships. Just as you think everyone’s coming together they explode into rage. Or crack a bad joke. And then they do it all over again. But with less rage, more rage or acceptance. It’s currently running at Trafalgar Studios.Presented as a family reunion after a period of estrangement, nothing is what it seems to be. Scenes start and then restart as multiple perspectives play out. Is it the mother’s wish, the son’s wish, the father or the daughter? In the end you can’t be sure any of it happened. But slowly it pieces together a story of fractured family determined to get things right. Or get their own way.  Tom (Chris Larkin) has deserted his wife Louise (Natasha Little) for a younger woman. Their son (Charles Reston) spends most of his life in the library and studies poetry. Their daughter (Rosie Day) is a fr…

Bleak house: The Moor @ORLTheatre

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The scene is set for a moody mystery when you enter the Old Red Lion Theatre to see The Moor. It’s almost as if you can feel the peat bog as you take your seat. A girl is bent over a chair as you enter the theatre. Is she crying? Has there been a crime?Bronagh (Jill McAusland) and her boyfriend Graeme (Oliver Britten) go out for a party across the moor. The next day they discover a man they met that night is missing. From the outset you understand that Bronagh is terrified of her possessive and abusive partner. But she is also grieving over the recent death of her mother, and suffering post-natal depression.  Did a man disappear and did her boyfriend have anything to do with it? McAusland is engaging as the trapped and confused Bronagh. Amongst all her dreams and mad stories about elves, is something sinister really at play?As her account of events becomes confused and contradictory, you’re not sure if she saw or took part in a potential crime. Unfortunately attempts to get to the bott…

The happening: Ken @BunkerTheatreUK #Ken

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How do you make a play out of the life of theatre maverick Ken Campbell? Turn it into Ken, which is more like a happening than a straight play. A writer comes on stage as if to give a lecture and then things get weird.Terry Johnson has crafted a fitting tribute with his mostly true stories about his life. The focus is on Terry’s encounters with Campbell. But over the course of the piece you get a sense of the man and his contribution to British Theatre. It’s currently playing at The Bunker following a previous run at the Hampstead Theatre.The Bunker is a quirky and intriguing space at the best of times with its different seating options. Old seats from the Chocolate Factory and comfy lounge chairs and tables. Thanks to designer Tim Shortall, for Ken it’s been overrun with a fabulous orange shag pile, throws, divans and cane lounges. Get in early if you want the best seats, but be aware that Ken might kick you off them for a bit if the drama requires it. With incense burning and a range…

Giving a toss: East @KingsHeadThtr

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Dirty, smutty and just a little bit Shakespearean. East takes you back to the rough and tumble of the good ol’ days of London. A time when fascists roamed the streets, baked beans on toast was considered cuisine and street brawls were just for laughs. Some time between the 1950s and the 1970s in East End London. It’s playing at the Kings Head Theatre.But in the forty or so years since it premiered something seems amiss with this piece. It feels desperate to shock rather than the genuine article. Every c-bomb and mother-son jerk off seemed telegraphed in advance rather than something new, fresh and gross.Perhaps nothing surprises us anymore in the city where the horrors are real. Modern day enslavement, sexual harassment, acid attacks and the Grenfell disaster. A punch up in a bar and a wank in the cinema are cute by comparison. Still it’s energy is fascinating. If a tad exhausting to watch. A series of scenes and monologues explode in front of you before disappearing. Leaving you to pi…

Sexual depravity in Norfolk: Imaginationship @Finborough

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Mum’s a nymphomaniac. The daughter’s learning Greek at night school. There’s a Hungarian with an erection problem and a tired old Lesbian who wants to live the quiet life in a bungalow. It could be anywhere but it’s what goes down for fun in Great Yarmouth. Apparently.The piece by Sue Healy is having a short run at the Finborough Theatre. It was first seen as part of the Vibrant 2017 festival as a staged reading. Now in its full form, the town that voted overwhelmingly for Brexit seems like a cesspit of debauchery. Never mind the migrants taking jobs, it’s the migrants with the big nobs you need to watch out for. As a piece of post-Brexit theatre you leave the theatre knowing even less about Great Yarmouth than you did going in.
If you didn’t read the programme notes or wasn’t familiar with the area already, you’d be none the wiser about the place and its history. This includes that it was a seaside resort and fishing port. It also services the North Shore oil rig industry. Most of t…

Drifting on edge: Heartbreak House @theuniontheatre

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Heartbreak House, currently playing at the Union Theatre, is a glorious production with a strong cast. Funny, a little bit bonkers and intriguing. But too bad George Bernard attempts to layer everything with meaning and substance. Afterall underneath various subplots there are sharp observations about British indifference. These seem as relevant now as it was when the piece premiered in 1919. It opens with Hesione (Helen Anker), a bohemian Edwardian hostess inviting her friend and protégé Ellie (Leanne Harvey) to a weekend at her father’s house. She wants to prevent Ellie from marrying an older industrialist, Boss Mangan (JP Turner). And so she’s arranged a gathering of friends to prevent it from happening. Hesione’s father is the eccentric and cantankerous Captain Shotover (James Horne). He made his money in munitions and is trying to invent a weapon to explode enemy dynamite. They need a new invention as the money’s running out. Complications arise when Shotover’s estranged daughter…