Tag Archives: Theatre Royal Stratford East



Cambridge Arts Theatre & UK Tour



Cambridge Arts Theatre

Reviewed – 26th March 2019



“Ira Mandela Siobhan’s physical work is outstanding; it is the best kind of theatrical alchemy to watch him embody this elegant, muscular, powerful animal”


Moments into Equus, we discover that the seventeen year old Alan Strang has blinded six horses with a spike, in the stable in which he works. As the play unfolds, we journey with Martin Dysart, Alan’s psychiatrist, into the depths of the boy’s psyche, and come to understand what has led him to commit this atrocious act. In the process of treating Alan, Dysart’s psyche too comes under the microscope, and he examines himself, his marriage, and his profession, and finds himself wanting. Dysart is enraptured by the art and culture of Ancient Greece, and Alan has created his own magnificent pagan religion, headed by the horse-god Equus; the play thus also deals with the theme of spiritual need and desire in the modern world.

The modern world in this play is that of England in the 1970s; so, not so modern any more. And Equus, though still a finely wrought piece of dramatic writing, has not aged well. The prime reason for this is the clear undercurrent of misogyny that runs through the play. Women do not fare well in this piece, whether it be Dysart’s unseen wife knitting for the children she will never have or Alan’s obsessive and frigid Christian mother Dora. Even the lively, open young woman who works with Alan – Jill Mason – is seen to be part of the same underlying problem: these women are ultimately mired in the prosaic, literal, domestic world, and as such can only drag men down, and away from their pure, mythic inheritance. This is an old trope, it is writ large here, and as such begs the question, why is Ned Bennett choosing to tell this story now? In 21st century Britain, we are not short of male myth-makers in love with the classical past – Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson spring to mind for starters.

That said, there are some extraordinary moments in this production, and Shelley Maxwell’s exceptional movement direction certainly deserves every award going. The play opens with a movement sequence between Alan (Ethan Kai) and the horse Nugget (Ira Mandela Siobhan) which sets the tone for the strength and erotic beauty of these scenes throughout. Ira Mandela Siobhan’s physical work is outstanding; it is the best kind of theatrical alchemy to watch him embody this elegant, muscular, powerful animal. Keith Gilmore brings Trojan to life in a similar way, and the world of the horses in this production will definitely be remembered in the annals of theatrical history. Alan’s central nightmare sequence was also extraordinarily powerful; the ideal marriage of physical work, a strong directorial eye and excellent sound and lighting design – special credit here to Giles Thomas for his perfectly judged original score.

Ned Bennett’s direction is not understated. It is an assault. When it works it is breathtaking, but when it doesn’t, the crunch of bone on bone is simply excruciating, as here, in the ill-judged scene in the blue cinema, in which all nuance was lost. He is a force to be reckoned with for sure, and is clearly attracting some fine actors to his projects. Zubin Varla was tremendous as Dysart, holding the stage with every tic and nicotine-stained breath, and Ethan Kai too was compelling – tense with the pressure of so much repressed love and pain until the dam finally burst. The stylisation of the satellite characters was a directorial choice that didn’t work for this reviewer, but it did serve firmly to keep them out of Dysart and Alan’s central planetary dance, which still holds a certain fascination.


Reviewed for thespyinthestalls.com

Photography by The Other Richard



Cambridge Arts Theatre until 30th March then UK Tour continues


Previously reviewed at this venue:
A Song At Twilight | ★★★★ | March 2019
Cambridge Footlights | ★★★★ | March 2019


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Café Society Swing – 5 Stars


Café Society Swing

Theatre Royal Stratford East

Reviewed – 6th June 2018


“Each of the female performers were spectacular”


Over the last couple of years, British jazz has been having a welcome renaissance. Fuelled by a young group of experimental musicians fluidly assimilating hip hop, afrobeat and electronic dance music into their sound, the jazz coming out of Britain today feels a world away from the form whose origins can be traced back to black musicians in New Orleans a century ago.

Café Society Swing tells the true story of New York’s first integrated club, where black and white audiences alike could appreciate some of the finest jazz musicians of their, if not all, time. This was a time when Jim Crow laws were still rife and prominent artists like Duke Ellington had to come through the kitchens to get into all white venues.

A narrator, in slightly different guises (played by Peter Gerald), guides us through the story of the club, run by son of immigrants, Barney Josephson, which was successful in gaining recognition for many musicians, most notably Billie Holiday. Café Society acted as the venue for Holiday’s first performance of lynching protest song, Strange Fruit. However, Josephson’s brother’s federal investigation into his supposed communist ties affected business at the club, meaning that it was forced to close in the early 1950s.

An eight piece band, lead by pianist, musical director and the show’s creator, Alex Webb, plays live on stage throughout the show. Down lighting and plenty of dry ice evoke the atmosphere of a smoky nightclub, which fits in well with the regal yet intimate glamour of the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Each of the female performers were spectacular, striking a balance between imitation of the iconic vocal stylings of Billie Holiday (Vimala Rowe), Lena Horne (Judi Jackson) and Sarah Vaughan (China Moses), whilst giving their own interpretation of the music. As accomplished jazz singers in their own rights, each vocalist blew me away with their soulful quality – not forgetting Ciyo Brown whose mellow and smooth voice was only one of his talents, also playing the guitar in the band.

Having (perhaps wrongly) expected a fully developed piece of musical theatre, I initially felt slightly disappointed with the words-and-music format of the show, finding the narration of the rise and fall of the club and its proprietor repetitive. However, if you take the mindset of being a guest in the cabaret environment of the club, being spoken to by the M.C., the piece becomes much more enjoyable.

After the fun and frivolity of a night at the club, the performance ends, as it should and as Josephson always insisted, with Vimala Rowe as the ineffable Billie Holiday under a single spotlight singing Strange Fruit. The music and lyrics evoking a time in the not too distant past too haunting for anything else to follow. Whilst the jazz of today may be taking new and exciting forms, it’s a genre that will unequivocally be associated with the struggle for freedom and whose power and poignancy should never be forgotten.


Reviewed by Amber Woodward

Photography by Craig Brough


Café Society Swing

Theatre Royal Stratford East until 16th June


Previously reviewed at this venue
Pyar Actually | ★★★★ | May 2018


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