Tag Archives: David Leopold

The Brief Life

The Brief Life & Mysterious Death Of Boris III, King Of Bulgaria


Arcola Theatre



The Brief Life

“The small but mighty cast of this show present impassioned performances leaving nothing more to be desired”

The Brief Life and Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria doesn’t just pack a lot into its title. In just under an hour and half, Joseph Cullen and Sasha Wilson’s narrative questions the stories we tell ourselves about allied heroism during World War II, introduces other non-allied, versions of events and argues that some of the axis powers may not have been purely evil but nuanced and messy and maybe even trying to do their best in a bad situation. That may seem like heavy content for a musical comedy but it’s tactfully done, sending up the Third Reich whilst being sensitive to the horrors of the holocaust.

Boris III, deals with the reign of the eponymous monarch of Bulgaria during World War II, where 50,000 jews were saved from being sent to concentration camps outside the country. As the tale is told, the King didn’t have many options and was backed into a corner to ally with the Germans under pressure to regain lands his father had lost in the previous war. Whilst Boris wants what’s best for all his people, his Cabinet work in collaboration with Hitler to arrange the deportation of jews from Bulgaria and these newly acquired lands to camps elsewhere in the Reich. Cullen, who also plays Boris, portrays the King as a slightly pathetic character, albeit with a dutiful initiative to serve, trying his best to stop the murder of his people with the help of a few ordinary citizens and the church.

The small but mighty cast of this show present impassioned performances leaving nothing more to be desired. The most interesting portrayals are not evil without nuance, and director and dramaturg Hannah Hauer-King’s choices in switching each performer from one character to another adds comedy to what is already a razor-sharp script. Take David Leopold’s portrayal of Belev, the ruthless commissar of Jewish Affairs responsible for the rounding up and deportation of Jewish people. He is accused of being Jewish himself, a rumour he furiously denies, and you can see in just a brief exchange what might motivate his actions. And then, like the spin of dime, Leopold is the head of the Bulgarian church singing a country-inspired, Jesus-loving tune as jewish people flock to be christened in a plot to avoid deportation. Lawrence Boothman’s high-camp Prime Minister Filov is spine-tingling sinister and brings to mind Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil as he gets excited about the pen he will buy as a reward for skilfully manipulating Boris to implement the Fuhrer’s wishes.

“this show has all the makings of a sell-out with transfers to come”

An unashamedly revisionist or modern take on events, the female characters are forthright and pivotal in the plot. The King’s wife, played by co-writer Sasha Wilson amongst other more chilling roles, lends a consoling ear and is deft at providing a supportive proverb or three. The co-conspirators who infiltrate the government bureaucracy and uncover the plans to deport the jews are also women. It’s clearly intended that Clare Fraenkel as a Jewish musician represents the role ordinary people played in creating a popular uprising that influenced the government and king to stop the deportations.

Set and lighting (Sorcha Corcoran and Will Alder respectively) are simple and modern. Filament bulbs hang over the stage and King Boris’ throne remains on stage throughout leaving us in doubt who this show is about. The costumes by Helen Stewart in contrast are typical 1940s garb – pinstripe suits, heavy wool coats and military medals galore.

Music is used throughout to enhance the drama and create atmosphere, rather than drive the plot. Above all it’s unbelievable how talented each of the performers is. Not only playing multiple roles, but singing and playing flutes, guitars and fiddles too.

Despite a rather abrupt ending that doesn’t really explain what led to 50,000 Bulgarian Jews being saved, this show has all the makings of a sell-out with transfers to come – don’t hesitate and get over to the Arcola to be tickled silly and enlightened on alternative histories before it’s too late!


Reviewed on 27th September 2023

by Amber Woodward

Photography by Will Alder



Previously reviewed at this venue:

The Wetsuitman | ★★★ | August 2023
Union | ★★★ | July 2023
Duck | ★★★★ | June 2023
Possession | ★★★★★ | June 2023
Under The Black Rock | ★★★ | March 2023
The Mistake | ★★★★ | January 2023
The Poltergeist | ★★½ | October 2022
The Apology | ★★★★ | September 2022
L’Incoronazione Di Poppea | ★★★★ | July 2022
Rainer | ★★★★★ | October 2021

The Brief Life

The Brief Life

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Arundel and Ladbroke Gardens

A Midsummer Nights Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Arundel and Ladbroke Gardens

Reviewed – 25th June 2019



“this setting could have been made for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Tatty Hennessy born to direct”


Stepping into a normally locked, private garden a few long days after the Summer Solstice is the perfect entry to Shakespeare’s fantastic interplay of human passions and fairy spells. Arundel and Ladbroke Gardens supplies a cluster of trees and shrubs, to be adorned with bunting and soft lighting and it’s not long before this Shakespeare in the Squares production transports you sufficiently to block out the Notting Hill noise beyond the hedge.

This is Tatty Hennessy’s third production with the company, her last being a 1970s Music Festival setting for As you Like It, an interpretation that played better than most because it followed the cultural, fashion and musical spirit of the work rather than indulging a historical theory. Indeed, the idea of a 1920s Midsummer Night’s Dream initially suggests some convoluted connection being made, between two eras of post-war fallout. Thankfully, it is again the decade’s cultural resonances that are reflected, with costume (Emma Lindsey) and music (Richard Baker) bringing out the play’s themes of attraction, love, magic and bacchanalia with effortless aptness. The aesthetics of burlesque and 1920s Music Hall are a fine fit for the lusts and jealousies of Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius and Helena, just as suited to the Mechanicals’ ham-fisted style of entertainment and afford the fairy characters a louche, decadent manner whether carelessly casting spells or settling back with popcorn to enjoy the emotional carnage they’ve caused.

The casting for this troupe of players, most of whom must double up as musicians and singers as well as other characters, is a triumph of talent logistics. Paul Giddings trisects Theseus, Oberon and Quince, bringing a quizzical authority that plays differently but superbly to each. Gemma Barnett’s combination of delicacy and bravery works as well to fair Hermia as to the Fairy as to Snug’s hilariously pathetic lion. Yet the versatility comes with no loss of individual stamp as Hannah Sinclair Robinson elevates Helena to a point where she competes for notional title of Comedy Lead with James Tobin’s left eyebrow, which cocks winningly as it brings some drag queen insouciance to Puck.

Ensemble playing is hearty and energetic with the cast’s movement (Yarit Dor) reaching into and around the audience, enhanced by the cast’s ad libs and some witty design details (Emily Stuart with Eleanor Tipler). If sometimes laughs are pursued too ardently it’s an understandable side-effect of the show’s mission to help even a child in the back row enjoy Shakespeare.

Finding new ways to access Shakespeare never grows old and, aside from the Portaloos and sirens, this setting could have been made for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Tatty Hennessy born to direct.


Reviewed by Dominic Gettins

Photography by James Miller


A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Various London Squares and Gardens until 11th July


Last ten shows covered by this reviewer:
Fool Britannia | ★★★ | The Vaults | January 2019
Cheating Death | ★★ | Cockpit Theatre | February 2019
The South Afreakins | ★★★★★ | The Space | February 2019
Tobacco Road | ★★★★ | Network Theatre | February 2019
How Eva Von Schnippisch Won WWII | ★★★★ | The Vaults | March 2019
Butterfly Powder: A Very Modern Play | ★★★★ | Rosemary Branch Theatre | April 2019
The Fatal Eggs | ★★★★★ | Barons Court Theatre | April 2019
Tony’s Last Tape | ★★★★ | Omnibus Theatre | April 2019
Fuck You Pay Me | ★★★★ | The Bunker | May 2019
Much Ado About Not(h)Ing | ★★★ | Cockpit Theatre | June 2019


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