Tag Archives: Matthew Bugg

The Rubenstein Kiss

The Rubenstein Kiss
★★★★★

Southwark Playhouse

The Rubenstein Kiss

The Rubenstein Kiss

Southwark Playhouse

Reviewed – 18th March 2019

★★★★★

 

“The urgency of the writing is matched by an outstanding cast across the board”

 

Just before sundown on Friday 19th June 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sent to the electric chair in New York’s Sing Sing prison, accused of passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Proclaiming themselves innocent, to the point of martyrdom, right up to their deaths, the couple were the first American citizens to be executed for espionage. That they were sacrificial lambs to McCarthyism is generally undisputed, but a further twist to the case was that it rested on the testimony of Ethel’s brother, who decades later told reporters that he lied to protect his own family.

With name changes for dramatic licence, their haunting true story is the basis of James Phillips’ “The Rubenstein Kiss”, which takes its title from the famous photograph of the Rosenberg’s kiss in the back of the prison van before their execution. The fictionalised version of the photograph hangs in an art gallery in the mid-seventies; where young law student Matthew (Dario Coates) meets, seemingly by chance, history teacher, Anna (Katie Eldred). From this, again seemingly, light-hearted vignette of the courting couple we are suddenly swept back to Esther and Jakob Rubenstein’s starkly furnished New York apartment in 1942.

What follows is an utterly compelling and thought provoking two hours of theatre. The essential beauty of Phillips’ play is that it perfectly combines the brutal political and social impact of the historical facts with a profound and deeply moving study of two connected families across two generations. The dialogue shoots straight to the heart of the characters’ innermost concerns, showering us with the impossible questions about morality, loyalty, betrayal, truth and patriotism at such a divisive time in America’s history.

The urgency of the writing is matched by an outstanding cast across the board. Henry Proffit and Ruby Bentall, as Jakob and Esther Rubenstein, both capture the unwavering passion and blind resolve of the doomed ideological couple; Bentall quite simply riveting in her final scenes under interrogation by Stephen Billington’s cool, chilling yet ambivalently sympathetic FBI agent, Paul Cranmer. Sean Rigby’s sensitive portrayal of the traitorous brother saves him from villainy and, like his fiancé, Rachel Lieberman (Eva-Jane Willis) shows that the choices we are forced to make are never clear cut. In fact, collectively the entire cast allow the audience the freedom to make their own conclusions.

Under Joe Harmston’s vital direction, the interlocking strands of the narrative, aided by Matthew Bugg’s swooping sound design, seamlessly cut between the forties and the seventies. Dario Coates and Katie Eldred as the young lovers brilliantly depict their struggle to find their own identity, frantically looking for a truth that can help explain the past.

This production grips throughout, and while being a truly enthralling history lesson, it is essentially a haunting, poignant, sublimely crafted and superbly acted piece of theatre.

 

Reviewed by Jonathan Evans

Photography by Scott Rylander

 


The Rubenstein Kiss

Southwark Playhouse until 13th April

 

Previously reviewed at this venue:

<!—previous shows insert –>

 

Click here to see more of our latest reviews on thespyinthestalls.com

 

Miss Nightingale – 4 Stars

Nightingale

Miss Nightingale

Hippodrome Casino

Reviewed – 23rd March 2018

★★★★

“any shortfalls in the book are compensated for by the score and the sweeping enthusiasm of the actor musicians”

 

It is 1942 and life in London is a daily ordeal. Blackouts, bombs and The Blitz. Although Matthew Bugg’s musical, “Miss Nightingale”, is set among the hail of enemy bombs it actually concentrates more on the ‘enemy within’; a phrase coined to describe the plight of homosexuality at the time. In an atmospheric, and perhaps overpromising opening scene, two men share a cigarette and exchange sexual promises in the shadows. They, rather than the bombers overhead, are the target of the searchlights, and in a similar way Bugg has narrowed the focus to create a very human story in the heart of our war-torn capital.

Maggie Brown is a nurse and aspiring singer sharing a flat with George, her song writer and a Jewish refugee who still pines for the uninhibited world of 1920s Berlin. With unlikely swiftness they secure a gig at the newest nightclub in town, owned by the socialite Sir Frank Worthington-Blythe. Maggie’s beau Tom re-christens her ‘Miss Nightingale’ and the musical duo become a West End hit. But their success and happiness are threatened by secrets, blackmail, betrayal and forbidden love.

The programme cites Bugg as the writer, director, producer and he is also in the cast and plays piano, saxophone, violin, clarinet and double bass. Clearly it is a labour of love and with that comes the inevitable label of ‘vanity project’. It clearly isn’t, though, yet it could benefit from an outside eye, particularly as it has been doing the rounds for quite some time now. The story is thoroughly engaging but the dialogue frequently touches on cliché, and complexities of character are often lost in innuendo. But any shortfalls in the book are compensated for by the score and the sweeping enthusiasm of the actor musicians. Lauren Chinery, as the eponymous Miss Nightingale, is the show stealer; acting, singing, dancing and playing saxophone and clarinet in a blaze of a performance; all with a twinkle in her eye that tells the audience she is loving every minute. She is in great company too, with a close-knit quality to the cast that make this production a joy to watch. Matthew Floyd Jones, as her gay best friend George, gives a moving portrayal of a man struggling with illicit love, effortlessly slipping into song, particularly during solo numbers; ‘I’ll Sing For No One But Myself’ and ‘Mein Liebe Berlin’ which puts us right in the heart of the world of ‘Cabaret’.

Where the first act lacks any real sense of danger, the second act comes into its own and the slapstick gives way to the drama we have been waiting for, poignantly reminding us too of what it was like to be a gay man before the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Bugg excels at bringing these characters together with a cast that re-defines ‘triple threat’. When not in character each multi-instrumentalist cast member becomes part of the mini-orchestra.

This is ultimately an uplifting piece of musical theatre that boosts morale in the spirit of the time it is set. The underlying sub thread of the war-time narrative is that there’s nothing like the threat of death to make people determined to get the most out of life. Likewise, this show, that has supreme potential, still needs to navigate some of the obstacles that lie in the way of the long life it deserves. But I have little doubt that this particular cast, whose own morale needs little boosting, can help break the barriers.

Reviewed by Jonathan Evans

Photography by Darren Bell

 


Miss Nightingale

Hippodrome Casino until 6th May

 

Related
Interview with Tamar Broadbent

 

Click here to see more of our latest reviews on thespyinthestalls.com