Tag Archives: Lawrence Boothman

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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Incident at Vichy

King’s Head Theatre

Opening Night – 9th June 2017




“An intensely moving drama with powerful cast performances”


Arthur Miller was an American playwright known for writing amongst others, The Crucible, Death of a Salesman and A View from the Bridge as well for being married to Marilyn Monroe. A lesser known work written in 1964 entitled Incident at Vichy is now playing at the Kings Head Theatre following a successful run at The Finborough earlier this year.

From 1940 to 1942, whilst Germany occupied northern France, Vichy France represented the unoccupied “Free Zone” that governed the southern part of the country. Vichy agreed to reduce its military forces and give gold, food, and supplies to Germany. French police were ordered to round up Jews and other “undesirables” such as communists, gypsies and political refugees.



This play looks at how a group of men react having been pulled off the streets for interrogation purposes during the early days of the alliance between the Vichy government and the Nazis. They sit squashed together on a white narrow bench in a white otherwise unremarkable room.

The characters are generally given basic names such as Gypsy, Boy, Old Jew, Waiter but represent a cross section of people affected by the changes in the country in which they live and now feel vulnerable. 

All struggle to understand why they are there even though they quickly realise other than the Gypsy and an Austrian Prince, the other detainees are Jewish who fled to Vichy from the northern half of France. None are keen to enter any kind of conversation. However an artist chatters nervously in panic of what possibly lies ahead. This slowly forces others to engage with or to avoid him. His worries over the validity of his identity papers cause others to reveal the uncertainty of their own fate.

The atmosphere becomes increasingly bleak as rumours begin to be exchanged including that people are being transported to camps with furnaces in particular to burn Jews. It is hard for some to believe such an abhorrent act to be possible.

The collective hope that this identity check is just a routine one becomes harder to accept when an elderly, bearded Jew comes in. He speaks no words yet his obvious terror is clear to see. What isn’t apparently obvious is what he is clutching. It transpires to be a feather pillow which features strongly in Jewish folklore – each feather represents a rumour or secret that once left a mouth you do not know where it ends up and you can never get it back.

The tension mounts as the men share information, fears and ways to convince their interrogator or indeed to escape the room. The group gets smaller as few return from being interrogated. It is revealed that a decision about their fate is based whether they have been circumcised.

The whole play makes for uncomfortable watching for even if the viewer doesn’t have much knowledge of Vichy history they will understand the implications of marginalisation and The Holocaust.

Each actor, whether they have much or nothing to say, portrays their part with powerful credibility. It forces the audience to consider how awful it would have been to be in that time and place.

It is exceptionally well written and today resonates with events we are currently experiencing. Donald Trump recently said he was open to the idea for Muslims in the US to register on a database. How different then from Jews having to register in Nazi Germany?

Phil Willmott’s direction drives the tension and Theo Holloway’s sound brings an added menace to the work in particular with the slamming of the interrogation room door.

The only disappointment of the evening was that the theatre was oppressively hot and it did slightly distract from an otherwise excellent night out.

Incident at Vichy is at the King’s Head Theatre, 115 Upper St, London N1 1QN until June 25th