Genre: Drama

Venue: Arcola Theatre 24 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London E8 3DL


Low Down



When I walked into the Arcola Theatre’s studio space to view Freedom, the stage seemed unusually disjointed from the hemisphere-shaped auditorium seating arrangement. The back wall of the set seemed very detailed yet at least half the seats faced a side-on view. As I wasn’t quick enough to get a seat facing the stage front-on, I missed eighty per cent of the action: for instance, Indranyl Singharay’s portrayal of Fariad, the son, in the first fifteen to twenty minutes of dialogue with Rian Perle (playing his father Benham) was totally lost to me as Fariad was totally masked from view. Consequently, I could not appreciate one expression or gesture, which accompanied the strong clear voice with whom I was desperately attempting to engage. Every element of the production’s design worked to prevent my clear view of Fariad: specifically, the fact that Benham sat or stood on a raised platform in traditional flowing robes of a Tajikistan man while Fariad mostly crouched at floor level.




For a fleet moment at the very beginning of the play, the drama gripped me with its image of Fariad, looking every bit like a fighting guerrilla soldier encountering his father’s comment that he could stop playing the part as ‘the danger’ was over. While at this point, the audience does not know the nature of the threat, the overt links to ‘Middle East Terrorists’ is plain to see. This fleeting promise, however, is followed by twenty minutes of frustration.


The frustrations sums up the production for me: even while I came to value Rick Limentini writing and direction and Rebeca Cobos’, Indranyl Singharay’s and Rian Perle’s acting. I also came to appreciate Rebeca Cobos’ courage as a producer prepared to stage such a difficult and testing story.


Nonetheless, I believe that the company did not pay sufficient enough attention to how the audience might be expected to view their important story.  My side-on seat view of the stage, for instance, provoked me desperately enough to wonder if anyone in the production crew had checked out for ‘blind spots’ around the house. Had anyone looked at how Jennifer’s imprisonment in the barn might be literally viewed from where I sat?


So absolute was the masking of stage action for me that at one stage I began to entertain the view that perhaps the creative team had deliberately set up such sight linesHowever, there were too many other indicators that ‘did not add’ up dramaturgically. Primarily, how the play seemed to ambitiously characterise Fariad as a young man straight off a farm in Tajikistan who, in extraordinary leaps of fortune and coincidence, ends up composing ballads for a London-based rock band.  Here I claim some personal knowledge as I know was it takes for migrant ‘kids’ like me who are the first of their generation to go to university and straddle the vast divide between their family’s cultural beliefs and those in their academic and working lives.


As it is an enormous distance to cover, I wondered if a ‘less is more’ approach might not serve the narrative better: that is, that the drama should go into moredepth in dealing with the father and son’s relationship and Fariad and Jennifer’s cultural dilemmas. In this way, the tensions which living between Tajikistan and London brings for Fariad and his opium-growing family should be considered in considerable more detail.  Arthur Miller reminded readers in an interview for The Independent in 1995 that his rule in playwrighting was the principle that

“Generalisation is the death of art. It’s in the details where God resides. If I could pray for anything, it would be to get more details.”


The story framed in Freedom is sufficiently interesting and original to engage a contemporary audience.  In particular, it is the story of the persistent dilemma faced by many, many first and second-generation ‘kids’ who know only too well how their family histories are full of compromised ethical questions due to desperate economic circumstances and war. But children remain truly helpless in the face of their parents’ and family’s legacy: what previous generations have done ‘for a living’ can set, as it did for Fariad, the course for the quality of their lives through no fault of their own. In contemporary terms, as education and technology allow us to grow more aware of how cross-cultural and gender issues impact on the day-to-day happenings of our everyday lives, the present generation rightly questions how it might have family relationships free from the destructive histories of past and be free to find their own place in the world.


I fully applaud the staging of Freedom and I hope that its producer and artists receive the support from audiences that that reflects their interesting dramatic narrative.


Reviewed by Josey De Rossi 30 January 2012

Website :

King John

King John 


Genre: Classical and Shakespeare

Venue:  Union Theatre 204 Union St, SE1 0LX


Low Down



Invariably, the choice of whether a play is rarely or often staged both make the claim that the play is relevant for ‘our times’. Of course, that’s the point. As the audience lives in the here and now, Phil Willmott’s realisation of Shakespeare’sKing John clearly how Shakespeare remains our contemporary. I saw this particularly in way that the production engaged the audience in its psychological depiction of warfare and its exposition of how spiritual and temporal claims live in the figure of the king.




Nonetheless, the fact that the theatre poster pointed out it was 10 years sinceKing John had been produced by the RSC in 2001 very much of interest. Pointing out any production’s novelty is good marketing, and in this case calls on audiences to engage in fathoming why or why not the play might have been overlooked: what view of kingship and political leadership might it reveal? What contemporary view of politics might be layered over its 400 year old drama showing a society grappling with a belief in the divine right of kings?

On the night I viewed the production, it seemed to me that the strength of Phil Wilmott’s realisation of this infrequently staged Shakespearean classic came through its war-mongering matriarchs, King John’s (and Richard the Lionhart’s) mother Queen Eleanor,  played by Maggie Daniels, and his sister-in-law, Lady Constance, played by Samantha Lawson. Both portrayals were superb: their physical presence, movement and commanding voices engendered the tensions of Amazonian warrior figures trying to eek out of themselves the tenderer and more domestic image of ‘mother’.

Another subplot brought vividly to the audience’s attention is that of the conflict between warring brothers, epitomised through Phillip the Bastard and Robert Faulconbridge, portrayed by Rikki Lawton and Leonard Sillevis respectively.  The partnership seemed to me a precursor of Edmund and Edgar in King Lear, and while legitimacy vs. illegitimacy is taken through particularly dark ironic twists in Lear, which was written 11 years after King John, the importance of the theme is absolutely established through Lawton and Sillevis. Rikki Lawton’s creation of a buffoon-like manipulator is very strong. His dubious moral intentions throughout the play makes the final lines he speaks in the play an ironic statement on the ironic foundation of ‘englishness’ itself.

Two more aspects of the production seem to engage the audience further. One was the role played of the ‘young royals’ seen through the characters of Louis, the Dauphin, young Henry III, Blanche and Arthur. Phil Willmott’s direction ensured that these never looked like ‘small parts’: on the contrary, their dramatic importance was set through his detailed reading of the play by ‘actioning’ (as he explains in the theatre programme) and through the talents of the young actors themselves.

The other aspect that was most engaging was the play’s exploration of friendship and blind obedience.  The Dauphin’s friendship to King John, Blanche’s and Louis’s love and marriage, Hubert’s loyal obedience and consequent disobedience to King John and, even more poignantly, young Arthur’s love of Hubert, his jailor-turned-protector. Each of these relationships held surprises through their turning away from conventional (and obvious) enmities and enforced loyalties: instead, the acting out of the relationships were themselves the reasons for falling in and out of war or securing fleeting moments of peace. By contrast, the only really tyrannical portrayal of authority presented in the play came through the character of the gluttonous Cardinal Pandulph, who, as the Pope’s representative, commanded excommunications at will. Through this, the audience encounters the political devastation of religious-based wars, then the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and now the War on Terror.

At the centre of the wars, relationships, filial competition and matriarchal belligerence stands King John and his counterpart the French Dauphin. In both cases, the two actors playing these roles portrayed their characters’ weaknesses and vulnerabilities. If King John stood for anything, he represented the impossibility of fulfilling the role of monarch.  It seems just too big a part for him. It seems to me that Nicholas Osmond achieves his part by focussing on anachronistic contemporary gestures and vocalisations to emphasise King John’s disjunction with his own time and place. I enjoyed the levity and insecurity it caused in the audience around me.  Are we really supposed to laugh at such a monster? How could such an ineffectual man survive in ordinary circumstances, let alone as King of England?

Technically the production I is also impressive: Emma Tompkins imaginative designs deserve applause. The lighting design created the atmospherics of stately rooms, battlefields, tall fortresses and dark prisons in King John’s world.

Such an effective realisation, however, leaves me wondering why Phil Willmott, his talented cast and creative team did not further edit the scenes of the second half of the play, particularly those in the seven scenes of Act 5.  To my mind, it desperately needs to be reimagined to prevent the unravelling of the tensions so carefully set up in the first half of the show. I would further suggest that not even the clever use of a macabre waltz dispelled the feeling that the scenes with the English rebels just lacked the vitality of earlier scenes between the English and French.

Still, there are so many brilliant moments in King John that I have no problems recommending it to anyone, familiar or not with Shakespeare’s more frequently staged histories.

Reviewed by Josey De Rossi 25th January, 2012

Website :

Show runs to February 11.  I just looked at the Union website and the tickets are selling fast!


Little Women

SPECIAL REPORT – UK’s Premiere Musical Production of Little Women

Many achievements surround the staging of Little Women as a musical at the Lost Theatre from 12 December to 7 January.  This report summarises the production’s critical reception and draws together what theatre reviewers suggest are the strengths and weakness of Little Women: The Musical.

The story of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, around a mother and her four daughters who fend for themselves while the man of the house goes off to the American Civil War, is built on an epic theme at least as old as Aeschylus’s Oresteia, a trilogy showing the effects of the Trojan War on the Greeks.  The consequence of war on whole families and communities is something which immediately resonates with the families of those presently serving in Afghanistan. It also lives as part of the memory of millions of families throughout the world thanks to WW1, WW2 and any number of smaller skirmishes in Asia, Africa and the Middle East since 1945.

Ironically, there is overwhelming evidence that the absence of men through war also works in favour of women’s political and social emancipation. Jo March’s desire to live independently and achieve recognition as a novelist parallels other stories of imaginative and gifted 19th and 20th century writers such as Jane Austen, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, Miles Franklin, Virginia Woolf. Similarly, the ‘sisters’ of these writers sought the vote, a right to an education and equal pay when they refused to go back to the kitchen after working in factories and taking on other male responsibilities during war time.

Viewing Peter Layton’s and Lionel Segal’s adaptation of Alcott’s novel near the end of its run on Thursday night (5th January) still managed to evoke for me a sense of how these strong women fought against being confined to a domestic sphere. I found myself believing in Jo’s struggle as that of everyman or woman aspiring to live a productive life.

The production’s press release sets an optimistic tone by declaring that Alcott’s novel, and by implication the new musical’s adaptation of it, as a “celebration of women breaking the mould and achieving success both in work and life. Such optimism ocaught the attention reviewers: with some judging the work as a little too “saccharine sweetness” (What’sOnStage) while others viewed the positive nature of the story as a key feature of the strength and resilience of the ‘little women’. For instance, Amy Yorstan of the British Theatre Guide noted that “It would be easy to criticise the show for its sentimentality, but the overarching themes of hard work and love are wonderfully optimistic and this is a solid adaptation of a classic.”

In due course, Layton’s & Segal’s adaptation is analysed by critics in terms of how uneasily the original story lends itself to the musical genre (Nina Caplan TimeOut and Paul Vale The Stage) and what style of musical might have more effectively realized a fresh interpretation of story.  Perhaps the most critical in this respect is Russell Lucas’s review in remotegoat when he declares:

I felt like I had seen it all before as nothing new was brought to the table. In short, I wasn’t engaged as a modern theatre goer. As it is no longer a road to success by putting ‘The Musical’ on the end of a famous story it is also no longer acceptable to have dream sequences to shoehorn in a ‘showstopper’ or sing ‘wiping the clouds away’ to cheer up a character. Let us also move on from light changes signalling a song and finally when a character dies let us not walk off into a smoke filled door representing ‘Heaven’ anymore. The techniques are old fashioned. The jig is up.

From my viewpoint, I believe the techniques used by Layton and Segal are perfectly appropriate in themselves.  Dream sequences and death scenes work dramatically! The power of musicals is that they are the perfect form to enable the story to be felt as, for instance, Les Miserables allows audiences to feel Victor Hugo’s story. It would be fairer to say of the development of a musical version of a complex story like Little Women, so entrenched in an American historical context of one of the bitterest civil wars of all time, that it should have made more of the musical genre.

As all critics agree, there is much to praise about the production: they particularly single out Nicola Samer’s direction; Charlotte Newton John’s portrayal of Jo March;  the clear characterisation of each of the four sisters; the clever songs;  the comic antics of Aunt Marsh and other cameo roles. Furthermore, the design concept works very well, though the scene changes need some rethinking.  Also, from where I sat, I know that the size of the bench on which Beth has her dying scene made her look stressed and uneasy for all the wrong reasons as she precariously attempted to stay on the furniture long enough to breathe her last breath.

A simple Google search reveals just how universally appealing the story of Little Women has remained with audiences since 1868, firstly as a novel (Project Gutenberg has it free to download), through at least three significant film adaptations in 1933, 1949 and 1994 and numerous play versions (including current productions in Ann Arbor Michigan and at the Gate Theatre Dublin). A ‘great’ musical of Alcott’s story, however, is yet to be achieved.  The production I viewed at the Lost Theatre holds enough integrity for its producers, cast and creative team to hopefully aspire for that accolade with Little Women.,%20director%20of%20Little%20Women