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The Stage Critic Search 2015 – finalists’ reviews

The Stage Critic Search 2016 Photo: Shutterstock
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IThe Stage Critic Search 2015n April, The Stage launched a nationwide competition to find the UK’s best undiscovered theatre critics, with an open call-out to any aspiring critics based in the UK and aged 18 or over.

From hundreds of entries, we whittled down our reviewers to 11 regional finalists. Working alongside mentors, they were then commissioned to write a full review according to the standard brief used by The Stage critics.

Here, we publish their second-round submissions currently under consideration by our judging panel. Three finalists will be announced on July 23.


Name Pauline Flannery
From Putney
Age 58
Mentor Andrzej Lukowski
Review Constellations
Venue: Richmond Theatre

If every possible future exists, then the decisions we make or don’t make determine the future we end up with, outlines cosmologist Marianne. This is the idea behind Nick Payne’s groundbreaking play Constellations, on tour after a knockout run at the Royal Court and on Broadway, before a West End transfer.

Science is sexy, according to urban beekeeper Roland. Yet is there an equation for Free Will? Are we just particles? Structured by an ingenious series of co-existencies, the scenes show the workings of choice and probability as the couple’s relationship waxes and wanes. Sliding Doors meets string theory.

Joe Armstrong (Happy Valley) as Roland and Louise Brealey (Sherlock) as Marianne are stellar. A drop of a shoulder a level neatly alters the dynamic or mood as they run the gamut of human emotion with warmth and humour. They have real chemistry.

Each production element, orchestrated by Michael Longhurst’s incisive direction, complements the play’s notion of a multiverse. Tom Scutt’s honeycomb design with balloon backdrop frames the action, while Lee Curran’s atmospheric lighting and David McSeveney’s ‘white noise’ sound score punctuate it.

References to Photoshop and forums might date, but Constellations is timeless. The sum of its parts is an engrossing 70-minute exploration into honey, hot sub-dwarf stars, our inability to lick elbows and the stuff of relationships; the theory of everything. If every possible future exists, then Constellations will be around for a very long time, wowing and fascinating audiences by turn with tender strokes of art.

Verdict: Scattered stardust in Nick Payne’s two-hander, Constellations, about love and the universe [4 stars]

Rachel-Elderkin,East Midlands

Name Rachel Elderkin
From Nottingham
Age 26
Mentor Neil Norman
Review Ballet Black – Triple Bill (Second Coming, To Fetch a Pail of Water, Depouillement)
Venue Nottingham Playhouse

Tales of lost innocence and gothic masquerades sit alongside the purity of classical dance in the latest triple bill from Ballet Black, which, in a move characteristic of this forward-thinking company, includes a new work by award-winning choreographer Mark Bruce.

A dark mix of comedy and nightmarish oddity, Bruce’s Second Coming invites the audience into a seductively sinister faery world, where trysts and revels play out to an eclectic soundtrack combining Tom Waits and Debussy with Bruce’s own compositions. The blend of deep pulsating beats and classical strains offer the perfect backing to Bruce’s surreal narrative ballet, with its circus-inspired costumes and Kanika Carr’s sultry, hula-hoop spinning angel. It’s like stepping uninvited into a hidden glade and, despite the simmering danger, you can’t help but watch. Bruce has a brilliant skill of making dance and narrative fuse seamlessly together and, if anything, it ended much too soon.

Kit Holden’s To Fetch a Pail of Water, a short and sweet pas de deux danced by senior artists Damien Johnson and Cira Robinson, abounds in youthful charm, but its disjointed structure, created by a jarring lullaby refrain, restrains the emotions of the narrative it attempts to portray.

It was Will Tuckett’s 2009 work, Depouillement, which made the strongest return and the dancers indulged in its technically challenging movement, skipping through the rapid final section with joyful lightness.

A triple bill may allow Ballet Black to continue its tradition of commissioning works by both established and emerging choreographers, but Bruce has proved that this company could relish the challenge of touring a full-length piece.

Verdict: Delightfully dramatic, Mark Bruce’s Second Coming leads the way in a variable triple bill from Ballet Black [4 Stars]

Lee-Anderson,East of England

Name Lee Anderson
From Waltham Cross
Age 26
Mentor Henry Hitchings
Review Care
Venue Watford Palace Theatre

The National Health Service’s job is to care for us, but whose job is it to care for the NHS? In Tangled Feet’s ambitious new production, the audience is invited to step into the beating heart of a modern-day hospital ward to take the temperature of our nation’s health service.

The prognosis for Care is strong. We’re ushered backstage, guided through the arteries of a makeshift hospital and led into the nerve centre of a bustling medical ward; trolleys zoom past, curtains snap shut and cleaning staff mumble apologies as they mop the floor under our feet. You can practically smell the disinfectant.

Yet despite Tangled Feet’s physical dynamism – with airborne doctors battling reams of paperwork and surgeons operating mid-air – the ensemble buckles under the weight of good intentions and finds itself tangled up in stodgy dialogue, wooden characterisation and hectoring melodrama.

The problem isn’t the drug, but the method of delivery. Care has urgent things to say, but the execution often lacks teeth; the ensemble’s over-reliance on a barrage of heavy exposition and glib sound bites feels leaden in comparison with the visual imagination on display.

There are vital signs: the inclusion of a colossal hawk – an omen of predatory commercialisation – is a surreally destabilising moment that provides a booster shot of theatrical adrenaline. What’s more, the moment when patient Rita (Fiona Watson) is surrounded by the robotised voices of an out-of-hours service machine is acutely chilling.

In the final diagnosis, Care feels more like a routine check-up than an in-depth surgical intervention.

Verdict: Tangled Feet’s aerial-acrobatic journey through the NHS prescribes visually memorable moments, but often struggles to sustain an effective dramatic pulse [3 Stars]

Imelda-Says,North East

Name Imelda Says
From Hartlepool
Age 43
Mentor Sarah Hemming
Review Red is the New Blue
Venue Live Theatre, Newcastle

A one-way mission to colonise Mars, funded as a reality TV show? It’s happening, according to www.mars-one.com. And it’s the inspiration for this new work, written and devised by a trio of emerging poet-performers, the first crop of Live Lab associate artists.

It’s a locked-room drama. Three astronauts, undertrained and psychologically incompatible, are struggling to cope under the pressure of their mission. They kill time falling apart for the entertainment of the folks back home, giving us glimpses into their motivations – escaping a painful past, seeking an idealised future. Jean-Paul Sartre it ain’t, but it’s true enough, especially the way they all lie to each other and themselves about why they really buckled up for the ride.

Impressively for young writers, the creative team manages linguistic registers from naturalistic dialogue and perfect TV interview attack-and-spin, to Gogglebox-voxpops and poetic soliloquies. Emotionally repressed Jane (Matilda Neill) speaks in beautiful facts, while Rhino, the affable end-rhyming buffoon (Louis Roberts), and Baz, the sarcastic, slouching nihilist (Rowan McCabe), provoke both laughter and sympathy.

However, adventurous writing deserves more than safe direction. The current staging goes little further than ‘dialogue equals action, poetry equals front-facing’. A lateral-thinking dramaturg could have them literally running in circles, showing the deadly repetition and claustrophobia, rather than relying on quite so much telling.

In the end, they opt for something more uplifting than the dear old existentialists would condone, I suspect because the geeky heart of this show beats a love song for the Red Planet, the mysteries of space and final frontiers everywhere.

Verdict: Debut collaboration mixes drama and poetry to deliver an entertaining flight of fancy, but could they have gone more boldly… ? [4 Stars]

Nigel-Smith,North West

Name Nigel Smith
From Bootle
Age 52
Mentor Roger Foss
Review The Hook
Venue Everyman Theatre, Liverpool

For Arthur Miller’s centenary, where his celebrated plays are safer bets, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse with Royal and Derngate have taken a calculated risk presenting a previously unproduced 1951 screenplay, withdrawn following pressure from Columbia Studios and the FBI.

Patrick Connellan and James Dacre have long sought to rekindle this ‘play for the screen’. Ron Hutchinson created their stage version using Miller’s text and notes. It aptly appears in Liverpool 20 years since the city’s dock dispute began, in a week when dockworkers are again balloting for action. Here are bales and ropes, not containers and cranes, but the themes of conditions, pay and social unrest still have currency.

Distinct from the domestic focus of much of Miller’s work, The Hook is about an entire community. Dacre’s production fills the space with a large, augmented cast, enveloped in Connellan’s louring set, shrouded in atmosphere. The result is an immersive sense of volatility. The first act is over-intense and episodic, but the narrative becomes more focused in Act II.

Jamie Sives has a weighty presence as Marty Ferrara, a martyr to his stand against injustice and corruption, although some of his first-act dialogue is difficult to decipher in rapid-fire Brooklynese. Joe Alessi’s conniving union boss Louis is impeccable, while Susie Trayling is outstanding as Marty’s wife Therese, her line “When we begin to live like human beings, we’ll be human beings” becoming an emotional turning point.

The production received mixed critical reception at its opening on Northampton’s proscenium stage, but in the intimacy of the Everyman’s thrust it finds a crucible for Miller’s smouldering drama.

Verdict: What The Hook initially lacks in narrative focus is amply compensated for in James Dacre’s powerfully theatrical, prescient production [4 Stars]


Name Christine Irvine
From Glasgow
Age 29
Mentor Thom Dibdin
Review The Driver’s Seat
Venue Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Murder by overproduction occasionally threatens in the National Theatre of Scotland’s adaptation of Muriel Spark’s metaphysical thriller. However, a hypnotic central performance from Morven Christie steers this blackly ironic whydunnit through its disjointed moments to produce a quietly seething dissection of the absurdities of rape culture.

The Driver’s Seat reconstructs the erratic last hours of a young woman, Lise, as she flees her humdrum office job for a mysterious rendezvous in southern Europe. Propelled by the hunt for her illusory boyfriend, she strays, Schrodinger’s Cat-like, through lives, streets and hotel rooms, both victim and perpetrator of her own brutal fate.

Perfectly embodying Spark’s divisive anti-heroine, Christie elevates Lise’s enigmatic personality to almost psychopathic elasticity. She turns many heads, including Ryan Fletcher’s discomforting macrobiotics convert and Michael Thomson’s grotesquely sympathetic Richard. Ivan Castiglione provides a burst of hilarity as a horrifyingly blase cab driver, while the endearingly clueless women (Sheila Reid and Gabriel Quigley) are a stark contrast to Lise’s skittishness.

Designer Ana Ines Jabares Pita’s augmenting of Lise’s doomed journey with projected CCTV footage and real-time police interviews is a neat visual shorthand for a character created primarily from collective osmosis. Overreliance on this technical pizzazz, however, occasionally threatens to overwhelm the play’s delicate wireframe of a plot. More effectively, Pita’s eerie abandoned warehouse set chillingly mirrors Lise’s increasing alienation, haunted by Philip Pinsky’s insidious music-box soundtrack.

Unsettlingly relevant in a culture finally equating the apparent innocence of everyday misogyny with the ubiquity of sexual violence in our city centres, Laurie Sansom’s resonant production is a bold examination of the place of female sexuality in the passenger’s seat – or otherwise – of male-female relationships.

Verdict: A magnetic Morven Christie takes the wheel in the National Theatre of Scotland’s ambitious stage premiere of Muriel Spark’s perplexing thriller [4 Stars]

Dave-Fargnoli,South East

Name Dave Fargnoli
From Brighton
Age 31
Mentor Matt Trueman
Review Constellations
Venue Theatre Royal, Brighton

It might seem unlikely that an offbeat rom-com about quantum physics should have the appeal to sustain a national tour, let alone successful West End and Broadway runs. However, in a universe of infinite possibilities, a strong creative team and several years’ justified cultivation by the Royal Court have resulted in a winning formula.

Constellations charts a rocky romance between anxious cosmologist Marianne and awkward beekeeper Roland, following their inextricably linked lives across multiple parallel realities. We’re given glimpses of chance encounters, brain tumours, ballroom dancing and theoretical science as pillow talk, as each of their potential timelines is explored.

The premise of a relationship viewed through this kind of compound lens might not be original (cropping up everywhere from All in the Timing to Sliding Doors), but it’s elevated here by incisive writing which strikes a balance between intricate and intimate. Admittedly, it wobbles through some moments of honey-sweet sentimentality, but it’s kept on course by director Michael Longhurst’s punchy pacing and stripped-back staging.

Beneath a dramatic cloud of balloons which flicker like a thunderhead or a brain full of firing neurons, there’s nothing to distract from the two characters at the fulcrum of events. Though freshly cast, Joe Armstrong and Louise Brealey are impeccable, ably handling sudden resets and hairpin emotional shifts, investing their characters with warmth, humour and vulnerability.

Ultimately, it’s this recognisable heart that keeps the play from becoming an overly cerebral exercise in celestial navigation. Instead, it’s engaging, heartfelt and deeply rooted in reality – whatever that may be.

Verdict: Bittersweet and infinitely likeable, this production fully merits its current tour [4 Stars]

Philly-ByrdeSouth West

Name Philly Byrde
From Camborne
Age 28
Mentors Jake Orr, Maddy Costa
Review The Magnificent Three
Venue Penrose Stables, Helston

A Cornish director once said that audiences will follow you through hell-winds and hailstones if you create fire, blow something up or make some serious noise. There’s room for subtlety, but when contending with the elements – or a more diverting sunset – you must grab the focus and refuse to let go. Then there’s the other type of outdoor theatre: the pleasant but unchallenging picnic condiment.

Miracle Theatre’s latest show sits somewhere between the two. It’s part light, polite quiche-accompaniment, part gut-busting belly laugh.

There are flames and ricocheting gunshots to upset the most well-balanced whisky glass, but Bill Scott’s wild westcapade – about a homecoming son turned bad – needs more trust in its performers’ ability to tell the story. Explanatory dialogue leaves the pace wilting, and homey backstory solos start to cloy after the raw, soulful assurance of the chain-gang song.

It’s a rough diamond of a show, where sparks of potential itch to be tested further. Ben Kernow’s Jed, a gentle, pigeon-toed innocent, creates a sweet pathos beyond the stock simpleton role. Hannah Stephens plays a deliciously possessed mystic, gurning and strutting just shy of overcooking it.

The company is strongest in these moments of freewheeling, anarchic comedy, switching characters at whip-crack speed. Face-bending, slowmotion fight scenes dodge the pitfalls of clunky stage combat. And the fiendishly simple transformation of one character, using buffalo horns and two saddles, points to Miracle’s playful devising process.

In Penrose’s focused courtyard, The Magnificent Three was easily at home, but it might feel lost at the expansive Minack. With tighter dialogue and free rein to the visual and physical elements, the show could be a sure firecracker.

Verdict: Miracle’s summer caper is packed with western promise, but slack pacing lands it just wide of the mark [3 Stars]


Name Jafar Iqbal
From Cardiff
Age 27
Mentor Lyn Gardner
Review {150}
Venue Royal Opera House Stores, Aberdare

To preserve their language and culture, 150 Welsh migrants set sail in 1865 to find a new home. Hostile Patagonia is where they settled after a tiresome and perilous journey. Mistakes were made along the way but with help from local Patagonians, these naive but determined travellers built homes and communities which still exist to this day.

Epic stories like this one require epic retellings. Converting the Royal Opera House Stores in Aberdare into a multiplatform theatre space, director Marc Rees populates his trilingual promenade production with an exquisite blend of live performance and video installations. Technicians become part of the show, bringing sets to life in front of the audience; key moments are recounted in beautifully constructed montages; and tiring legs are shepherded around the large space in a clever homage to that voyage of discovery.

Aesthetically Rees has it spot-on, but the style lacks substance. It’s assumed that the audience already has historical knowledge, and not enough is done to guide them along the narrative journey. The lack of guidance leads to a lack of understanding, so exceptional performances are undone by uninvolving material. {150} is a very good show, but naivety stops it being a great one.

The finished piece just doesn’t quite match up with the intent. Ironically, that is perhaps the greatest similarity fact and fiction share. Like the courageous pioneers that it deservedly applauds, this is a play bursting with ambition and grand ideas, but fraught with failings.

Verdict: Though high on ambition, Marc Rees’ promenade piece lacks the coherent storytelling to match it [3 Stars]

Katharine-Kavanagh,West Midlands

Name Katharine Kavanagh
From Dudley
Age 34
Mentor Clare Brennan
Review Be Festival
Venue Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Democracy is the theme of the fifth annual Be Festival – hosted, like last year, by Birmingham Repertory Theatre – and this ideal of equality and shared power, reflected in the curated work, also echoes across the whole festival form.

In backstage areas of the theatre, to which audiences are rarely privy, four 30-minute bites of eclectic European theatre sandwich an extended interval, with dinner served to performers, crew and audience alike at long tables lining the main stage. Audience polls will be tallied across the five days of unique programming to determine an overall favourite.

This informal atmosphere casts aside barriers of language and experience, stimulating discussion and unabashedly courting feedback. The relaxed attitudes to timekeeping may be more familiar to audiences of music festivals than the Rep (not helped by this evening’s hour-long fire alarm evacuation), but the kindled feelings of camaraderie downsize the inconvenience.

Technical issues prompt an amended running order, opening with French Theatre du Baleti’s 12-strong ensemble Devoration – a disturbing flow of tableaux vivants against a textual litany of atrocities. Contrastingly, Italian duo C and C then explore the absurdities of life and death through accessible, clowning-lite choreography in Tristissimo.

I understand some presentations have been adapted to the half-hour slots rather than conceived this way, although which is not always clear. The creeping pace of choreographer Riccardo Buscarini’s Place prize-winning Athletes arcs towards intensity, compelling attention, before Tortured Mind, from German circus-theatre makers InPulse, effectively wraps schizophrenic delusion and paranoia inside physical storytelling, Chinese pole acrobatics and unorthodox live sound – with splendid comic timing. Tonight, quite literally, they get my vote.

Verdict: Exciting international contemporary theatre showcase draws artists and audiences into critical conversations, despite being slowed by production hiccups [3 Stars]

Henry-MalbrookYorkshire and the Humber

Name Henry Malbrook
From Pontefract
Age 30
Mentor Andrew Haydon
Review The Effect
Venue Crucible Studio, Sheffield

The themes, feel and principal dialectics of Lucy Prebble’s pacy, chasteningly well-researched play are pitched somewhere between Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Radiohead’s OK Computer. Think Fitter Happier. Think “…to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature”. What are the true forces at work behind the proud dramas of our lives? What is the biochemical constitution of love? Just what are memories: a tender, glittering confectionary of all that makes you who you are, or merely a complex constellation of fossilised chemicals?

“In the end, everything is physical,” the Crucible’s audience is told in this preview of the 2012 National Theatre hit. This during one of several cataracts of supercharged amoral arguments between the administrators – clinical doctors, ex-lovers, mood-tyrants – of a medical trial for an unlicensed new antidepressant (“a Viagra for the heart”).

Sounds good, no? Boy, I bet you’re thinking, could I use a little of that. Yes, but this sin is biological, a sin against the commonplace, and artistic reckoning must have its pound of flesh. This is brought about in the form of the alchemist’s nightmare: when the gold of love turns to the lead metals of depression, despondency, degradation… the annihilation of sense of self.

With a mesmeric, at times heartbreaking, standout performance by Priyanga Burford (The Thick of It), the lighting, sound and space too are excellently envisaged – you feel certain that given the requisite budget they’d have thrown up one-way observation mirrors everywhere and piped the audio into us through speakers.

Members of an audience, or medical students quietly taking voyeuristic exam notes on a risky new pharmaceutical enterprise? Go see for yourself.

Verdict: An intimate, often powerfully performed, thought-provoking production of Lucy Prebble’s 2012 National Theatre clinical hit [4 Stars]


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