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The Revlon Girl

Bonded in Grief

The Revlon Girl

by Neil Anthony Docking

Teddington Theatre Club at Hampton Hill Theatre, until 29th February

Review by Melissa Syversen

On 21st October 1966, at 9.15 in the morning, 150 000 tonnes of mining slurry came down from the mountain and crashed into Pantglas Junior School and the surrounding buildings. 144 people lost their lives. The Aberfan disaster is still well known in Britain. Recently the incident was depicted on an episode of the Netflix series The Crown renewing awareness of the tragedy amongst a younger and larger international audience. The disaster remains a stark reminder of the importance of health and safety regulations and the dangers of putting profit above human beings. Aberfan wasn’t the first tragedy caused by corporate ineptitude, greed and systemic negligence and unfortunately has not been the last. It is important to continue to tell these stories through media such as The Crown and The Revlon Girl, and to hold those responsible to account so that we can minimize the chance of future disasters.

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The effects that that terrible day had in the Aberfan and the surrounding areas cannot be understated. It effectively robbed a close-knitted community of an entire generation. Of the 144 killed that day, 116 were children aged three to fourteen years. How does anyone manage to go on after trauma of that magnitude? In the months following the tragedy, a group of bereaved mothers organised to meet once a week, to talk, grieve and support each other in a private environment, away from prying eyes, the media and dare I say it, tourists. The Revlon Girl imagines one of these meetings eight months after the event. Inspired by a true story, the title refers to a Revlon representative whom the women secretly invite to one of their meetings to give them some beauty tips. Through this narrative lens, Welsh playwright Neil Anthony Docking has found a beautiful opportunity to not only tell the story of the Aberfan disaster, and the immediate aftermath but also the long term effects of trauma and grief.

In a room above a pub, with a leaking skylight, we meet four of the mothers who have lost one or several of their children. There is the good-natured Sian (Lara Parker), the brash Rona (Hannah Lobley), the vicar’s wife Jean (Jenna Powell) and the quiet Marilyn (Julie Thomas). They have all suffered great losses, and each carries their pain in a different way, be it through faith, mediums or indignant rage. Though they are still struggling to cope, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t moments of normality, of laughter and even of cruelty between the women. Having grown up together, they know exactly what buttons to push when they want to hurt, they bicker and fight viciously. But within that, there is also aching vulnerability and affection towards another that only comes from lifelong friendships. And most importantly, they are there for each other, week after week. Having volunteered for the assignment, Charlotte, the titular Revlon Girl (Rachel Burnham) does her best to navigate in this dynamic. Akin to a deer trapped in headlights, she is acutely aware of what these women have been through, and genuinely wants to help in whatever way she can.

It is clear that the cast and crew of The Revlon Girl care deeply about the material at hand and they treat it with great respect and sensitivity. Rising to the challenge of the Welsh accent, the performers are all on pointe and portray these women with empathy and heart, but also do justice to the humour and anger present in the text. What the writing, the cast and director Kelly Wood are so successful at capturing in The Revlon Girl is the everyday, almost humdrum quality of grief. Yes, there is pain and anger, but there is also laughter and comfort. These women have lost, and yet they carry on as best they can. The Revlon Girl is a moving, heartfelt piece of theatre and I’ll admit I shed a tear more than once.

Melissa Syversen
February 2020

Photography by Jojo Leppink, Handwritten Photography

Dream (a younger critic’s viewpoint)

A Message from Midsummer

Dream

by Katie Abbott, based on William Shakespeare

RSS Young Actors’ Company at the Mary Wallace Theatre, Twickenham until 23rd February

Review by Milly Stephens, one of our younger reviewers (aged 14)

Dream is performed by an outstanding cast of twenty-three talented young actors from Richmond Shakespeare Society’s (RSS) Young Actors Company. Dream is an adapted version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed and reworked with an environmental message by Katie Abbott.

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The set design by Jo Moles was very innovative with four green hammocks, giving lots of levels to the stage, where the on-looking fairies could perch. This made the audience feel more included in the play as you almost felt like you were one of the fairies watching over the world. I also thought that the costumes and makeup by Miriam King and Izzy Timpson were very creative and made the show feel even more magical and mysterious. I also was impressed by the lighting and sound designed by Paul Nicholson and John Pyle as it gave the effect of a mystical forest and was used to reflect the intention of the script very efficiently.

The young actors all had very strong performances and engaged the audience very well. I would like to give a special mention to Jake Neill-Knight, who played Oberon, as he could always capture the audiences’ attention with his presence, and was very engaging to watch as he was a very convincing Oberon. I also RSSDream_tshore_Rehearsal02_19thought that Krishnan Miller-Pullen did an outstanding performance as Theseus, and even though he had a minor speaking role, he sung five beautiful and angelic solos with his guitar and he was always invested in his role, which is what I think makes a great actor. Nicole Kasumu and Charlie Lacey-Harrison added loads of emotion iRSSDream_tshore_Rehearsal02_10nto the play. Nicole, as First Fairy managed to leave the audience feeling moved and motivated to change the way we live, after everything she said. Also, on the other hand Charlie, as Quince, added humour into the scenes, especially when Bottom, Kieran Judd, annoyed him. I think that they both added a good balance to the show as it had a moral message, but wasn’t too down hearted.

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Overall, it was an excellent show and I would highly recommend it to anyone who would like to have a light-hearted evening with an environment slant.

Milly Stephens
February 2020

Photography by Tom Shore

Dream

Other-Worldly Visual Delight

Dream

by Katie Abbott, based on William Shakespeare

RSS Young Actors’ Company at the Mary Wallace Theatre, Twickenham until 23rd February

Review by Eleanor Marsh

There have been many adaptations and interpretations of most of Shakespeare’s plays. I have seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in World War II, in a travelling fairground (think My Big Fat Gypsy Dream) and more times than I can count in a more traditional setting. The BBC’s Shakespeare Retold series took us to a holiday resort where Lennie James and Sharon Small battled it out as Oberon and Titania – fairies living in the surrounding woods – and Johnny Vegas played Bottom the security guard hoping to make it onto the entertainments staff. I remember watching the entire Shakespeare Retold series and finding this particular episode the least convincing. Despite the all-star cast and the fact that it is possibly Shakespeare’s most accessible play, trying to update the plot itself, rather than playing with settings of time and place, just did not work. The crossover of “real” and “fairy” worlds in the 21st century was taking suspension of disbelief a little too far. I felt a similar problem at the Mary Wallace Theatre this week.

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Dream is a mix of Shakespearean dialogue, modern dialogue (including some expletives that did not sit quite right in context, but must have been a treat for the performers to play with!) and music that attempts to weave the plotline into a climate change themed morality tale. It is an ambitious, big ask that on paper works beautifully. It is also evident that the entire cast are passionate about what they are doing and the message they are conveying. However, a mix of poor diction and voice projection, and a lot of the dialogue being directed upstage made it very difficult to follow the storyline. This audibility problem was compounded by an extremely loud musical underscore to much of the dialogue, which totally drowned out the young voices. Only the mechanicals managed to avoid this fate as they were fortunate to be performing their “play” downstage, facing the audience and with no musical accompaniment. They were very funny.

The design element of this production was excellent – it is a visual delight of both wardrobe and set design that immediately gives the impression that the audience are going to experience something other-worldly. Video projections are used throughout the piece and are very clever but a little distracting at times, although effective at others. My preference would have been for more burning planet and less Greta Thunberg, although in the context of switching a lot of the focus of the play to Shakespeare’s Changeling Child it did make sense to feature her. Despite the soundtrack being overly loud the use of music is excellent and it was particularly good to see under twenty year olds giving their all to songs by David Bowie and Elvis Presley, which were well chosen and quite poignant.

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As well as directing the play, Katie Abbott is also responsible for choreography, which includes working on aerial silks. This is such a difficult thing to do that it deserves special mention; several of the cast spent time in and on the “hammocks” and made it look so easy –impressive indeed!

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Dream is a nicely constructed ensemble piece with each person on stage being given a moment in the spotlight and every one of them giving their all. And it was good to see that RSS have given so much practical support to the youth group, which is their future. The performances were uniformly of good quality visually. Congratulations to all concerned on such a stunning looking production. I just wish I could have heard more of it!

Eleanor Marsh
February 2020

Photography by Tom Shore

Sky in the Pie

Circus Pentameters

Sky in the Pie

by The Feathers of Daedalus, based on poems by Roger McGough

The Feathers of Daedalus at OSO Arts Centre, Barnes until 22nd February

Review by Heather Moulson

Seated in an open set of sophisticated hangings of moons and stars, plus atmospheric lighting and a dry ice effect, this clever children’s production gets off to a promising start.

The Feathers of Daedalus is a flexible and skilled circus company consisting of young performers. Four men and two women interpret Roger McGough’s children’s collection, Pie in the Sky, plus later works, with elegance and insight, accompanied by keyboard and drums.

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A fairly simple plot beginning with a young girl reluctant to get out of bed for the day ahead; then, amidst a backdrop of juggling stools, the company prepares for a typical school day.

What makes this production such a joy are the entertaining actions and witty poetic lines spoken by the pupils as they struggle with self-doubt.

The use of the props by performers is very slick, and we are treated to a headmaster with a cushion for a head, signifying an inability to observe what is going on in his school. On an autobiographical note, Roger was the ‘star’ pupil, entrusted to look after Raymond, a sickly new boy. However, Roger finds himself joining in the taunting of this troubled boy, who does not return to school.

The remorse Roger feels afterwards, perhaps strikes a chord of shame in all of us. Haven’t we as children all behaved in that brutal way?

Besides taking text from Sky in the Pie, there are also readings from Mr McGough’s other collection, Poetry Pie. In the improvised classroom, the question of should poetry rhyme stirred an interesting reaction from the young (and not so young) audience.
In this sequence we are treated to a unicycle performer with a bugle, while at the same time the subject of crotchets and keyboards is raised. Further skilful juggling follows during the reading of other poems, namely The Sound Collector, The Lollipop Man, and Tofu Eating Tiger, poems full of wit.

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Then a succession of quick witted poems follows sung at a memorable pace, Does a Babysitter Really Sit on Little Tots, Wouldn’t It Be Funny If You Didn’t Have a Nose (put over in an hilarious sequence), Here Come The Dinner Ladies, and then lastly the title poem of this slick production, Sky in the Pie.

The climax of the show is The Midnight Skaters, which creates the impression of knives and forks coming alive. This involves a cast member practising an amazing balancing sequence on a golden circle, representing a beautiful plate.

The wonderful poem I Wanted a Puppy is followed by The Girl Who Became A Book, accompanied by a number of authentic props that adds to the magic of this company’s presentation.

The time sequence goes from morning to night. While we follow our heroine to bed, we have talking pillows accompanied by some edgy acrobatics, and a misunderstood scarecrow.

The poem, Tomorrow Has Your Name on It, received a great reception and ovation for the performers, with a nod to the sound and lighting operator. Then applause for the creative director sitting in the audience, who plans to tour this highly imaginative and carefully crafted show.

We were united in hoping it will be shared and loved by children nationwide.

Heather Moulson
February 2020

Photography courtesy of The Feathers of Daedalus Circus

Blithe Spirit

A Shot of Spirits

Blithe Spirit

by Noël Coward

Theatre Royal Bath at Richmond Theatre until 22nd February, then on tour until 11th April

Review by Melissa Syversen

The first thing that strikes you as the curtain rises on Theatre Royal Bath’s production of Noël Cowards classic Blithe Spirit is the sumptuous set designed by Anthony Ward. It is clear that this is not your standard touring production, where allowances have been made for easy transport. A hat must be tipped to the stage crew who do the weekly get ins and get outs as the production moves around the country.

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A favourite of the stage, Blithe Spirit has been produced multiple times in the West End and on Broadway since its premiere and attracts some of the best loved performers such as Margaret Rutherford, Angela Lansbury and Joanna Lumley. And though it is almost eighty years old, Cowards play remains a refreshingly flippant comedy about death, loss and the supernatural. Written at the height of the Second World War and The Blitz, you can appreciate how 1941 audiences must have relished in the dark humour and elements of the spiritualist movement still fresh in their minds during a time when death must have felt much more immediate.

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The plot of the play is deceptively simple: Charles Condomine, wishing to gain some insight into the work of mediums for his new book, arrange a séance with the unconventional medium Madame Arcati. After a seemingly unsuccessful evening, Charles and his second wife Ruth discover that Madame Arcati have accidentally summoned and manifested Elvira, Charles deceased first wife. Thus, as with any classic Noël Coward comedy, chaos and wit ensues. Geoffrey Streatfield is satisfactory as Charles Condomine, but doesn’t quite manage the fine line delivery as he did with his turn in Congreve’s Blithe Spirit-085The Way of the World at The Donmar Warehouse last year. Lisa Dillon, as Charles second wife Ruth, is much more successful finding the comic nuance within the given circumstances, jumping from vulnerability to perfectly executed domestic antagonism when faced with the glamorous ghost of her husband’s first wife.

Jennifer Saunders though, a certified living comedy legend in her own right, was made to plaBlithe Spirit-146y the psychic Madame Arcati. In Saunders’ capable hands, Madame Arcati is a surprisingly homely and earthy woman, played as well intentioned village eccentric, who is serious about carrying on the family business. That said, I think everyone in the audience at Richmond Theatre yesterday would agree that the show well and truly belonged to Rose Wardlaw as Edith, a twitchy parlour maid with unexpected gifts. Rare is the gift to make an audience laugh by just walking passed an open door, but Wardlaw has it in spades.

There is nothing especially wrong with director Richard Eyre’s take on Blithe Spirit , but it never quite reaches the comic heights and belly laughs of say, the Old Vic production of Present Laughter last year. That said, it is game and a sturdy take on a classic, made all the more enjoyable thanks to Saunders and Wardlaw’s excellent comic turns.

Melissa Syversen
February 2020

Photography by Nobby Clark

Luisa Miller

Provocative Physical Experience of Music

Luisa Miller

by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Salvadore Cammarano

English National Opera at the London Coliseum until 6th March

Review by Suzanne Frost

With the ambition of showing more new productions than ever before, ENO has invited Czech director Barbora Horáková, winner of the Newcomer Award at the International Opera Awards 2018, to interpret Luisa Miller, one of the lesser known of the twenty-six operatic work by Giuseppe Verdi, the “daddy of opera”, as he is introduced in the programme notes. A huge shout out to ENO’s editorial team for producing fantastic texts and truly delivering on the promise of making opera accessible to everyone. My ten minutes studying the programme were possibly my favourite bit all night.

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Horáková’s Luisa is a highly sophisticated bit of Regietheater and went down a storm in Wuppertal last year – but in the UK, things are just not quite so, and audiences are often rather resistant to a directorial concept. Usually I am all up for productions that are more “out there” but in this case I tend to disagree. Horáková’s opera as psychological study is clinically precise, yet oddly lacking in drama. It looks slick and sophisticated in its white cube and neon lights aesthetic but leaves me feeling very little.

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For Verdi, adapting Schiller’s drama Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love) marked a change from epic stories towards the domestic, the power structures within the family. Horáková sharpens the focus even more and zooms in solely on fathers. Terrible fathers. Miller, a retired soldier loves his only child Luisa obsessively. Mostly though, he loves the idea of Luisa as a child. Constantly looking through a handful of Polaroids of his baby girl, the stage is swarmed by a bunch of creepy clowns and balloons as for a kid’s birthday party, while the grown-up Luisa (Elizabeth Llewellyn) is carried in like a corpse in a funeral procession – the fact she has become a woman is apparently already a loss to this father. The fact that she is in love with another man is unbearable to him and so he jumps at the chance to ruin her blossoming relationship with childhood sweetheart Rodolfo.

Luisa-Miller-2504Rodolfo’s own father Count Walter is a villain of an altogether different calibre. When we meet him, dressed like an oil tycoon, foot nonchalantly placed on a barrel, he seems to get a delivery of a twitching naked human being in a plastic bag. The abuse he then lays on this helpless boy is harrowing to watch, though it involves nothing more than black gloopy paint. And once that can of paint has been opened there is literally no stopping it! Absolutely everything and everyone gets smirched in the stuff. As symbolism goes it is fairly simplistic. The sweet and silly white clowns are being infiltrated by some bad clowns in black, a well-used group of dancers (choreography James Rosental) that have a mild S&M – naughty-sexual-awakening vibe about them. All the clowns are pretty creepy and maybe that’s the first thing we tend to always get wrong about children and childhood: it is not all sugar and spice and glorifying it and holding on to it past its sell by date is never healthy.

Luisa-Miller-1786The aptly named Wurm, the plotting scheming super villain, is lurking in the corner like a black spider casually smoking Marlboros waiting for the perfect moment to strike. He is literally the personification of sin. He is also hot as hell, thanks to Salomon Howard’s six-foot something presence and sleazy raised eyebrows. An interesting twist to have the unpleasant Wurm look so fine in his shiny boots. What a horrible personality he must have that he has to resort to intrigue and blackmail to get the girl…

Luisa-Miller-1386Rodolfo may be the one who made Luisa fall in love, but he is also far from the cute little kid we saw in the overture. His father is obviously a sadist who keeps little boys in plastic bags, enjoys slicing cuts into his prisoner Miller, encourages the fiancée of choice, the countess Federica, to shoot arrows into the heart of an upside-down crucified straw puppet and takes bets on his son proving his masculinity in the boxing ring. But Rodolfo has the capacity to be just as manipulative, dramatic, impulsive and cruel. Yes, he is damaged, but he is also damaging. Full of mistrust and self-pity, he immediately jumps to the conclusion that Luisa must be a “treacherous harlot” who deceived him. “You must show compassion” he demands of the woman he just wilfully poisoned, the very personification of the jealous stalker ex, and goes on to curse absolutely everyone but himself.

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Luisa, literally driven mad by the demands of men, sings some fabulous coloratura with a blank face shocked by trauma in a nice Ophelia-like mad scene. Watching her die, her father bemoans “you were supposed to be my comfort as I grow old”. Wow. It is quite tricky to root for anyone in this production and very hard to care as well. Funny enough it is the silly old Miller who for all his flaws at least provokes some pity. Olafur Sigurdarson makes his character seems the most human, not just a vignette of good-bad or white-black. I found all the paint splotching a bit heavy on the symbolism. However, the bare staging and lack of colour allow for the music and the voices to take centre stage and the daddy of opera really knows how to let a choir have maximum impact. When they are allowed, the singers’ combined voices literally push like an invisible weight right against the chest and as we sit there in our little velvet chairs in the dark it’s a completely physical experience of music. And boy, does he know how to write a melody. My seat neighbour, a giant of a man, was swaying his head to the overture obviously knowing every single note. While obviously a fan of the music, he later nodded off – all the highly dramatic developments on stage somehow didn’t cross this time.

Suzanne Frost
February 2020

Photogrpahy by Tristram Kenton

Blood Brothers

Just a Sign of the Times

Blood Brothers

by Willy Russell

Bill Kenwright at Richmond Theatre until 15th February, then on tour until 31st October

Review by Andrew Lawston

Blood Brothers has been described by writer, lyricist, and composer Willy Russell himself as “the musical that’s loved by people who hate musicals”, and this would seem as good an explanation as any for the near-capacity audience at Richmond Theatre on a cold Tuesday night in February. It’s a show full of much-loved songs, but more than enough spoken drama that it feels like a play with music rather than a full-blown musical.

The story – a struggling working class mother can’t afford to raise the twin boys she’s expecting, so promises one to her affluent employer – is timeless in its simplicity, but is infused throughout with commentary on Britain’s class structure which is as relevant today, entering the third decade of the 21st Century, as it was back in the 1980s when the musical premiered.

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Andy Walmsley’s simple but effective set has stood the test of time: a run-down street with a backdrop that switches between the Royal Liver Building and a pastoral scene, with various other set items flown in as required. The gantry and the balconies provide an effective multi-level playing area for the cast, under the tight direction of Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright.

The eponymous brothers may dominate most of the play’s action, but Mrs Johnstone is the character who carries her bat throughout this two and a half hour section, and she gets most of the best songs. As such she’s usually viewed as the lead character and this cast is no exception, with Lyn Paul showing a great range both in her acting performance and in songs that range from the haunting Easy Terms to the (initially) playful Marilyn Monroe.

Robbie Scotcher takes on the Shakespearean role of the Narrator, cutting an imposing and often intimidating figure on the stage. My wife named him “the bouncer of death” due to both his physical presence and his sober dark suit. He is an almost constant figure somewhere on stage, watching the action unfold, and only occasionally interacting. It’s something of a surprise to read the programme notes and realise that he only really has one song – although he gets to reprise it on several occasions, becoming ever more ominous as the story develops.

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There’s a frantic pace to this production, and the audience only has to blink for the twins to be seven (but nearly eight) years old. Mickey (Alexander Patmore, the roguish beating heart of the play) and Eddie (Joel Benedict, playing the golden-haired Eddie with distinct cheeky relish) reunite, and spend the rest of the first half having carefree childish adventures. In an otherwise blistering chronology, this part of the story seems to have the most time to breathe, and rightly so. Quite apart from the comedy opportunities provided by adult actors depicting a gang of boisterous eight year olds, these scenes develop the audience’s sympathy for these characters, and throwaway elements become motifs throughout the rest of the show.

It may be opening night glitches on the mixing desk, or the actors straining the younger voices they’re using at this point, but these scenes do run into occasional problems distinguishing dialogue when all the “children” are on stage, and in parts of the lively number Kids Game the vocals become somewhat buried under Scott Alder’s small but impressively versatile band. Parts of Miss Jones suffer the same fate, as redundancy and economic uncertainty are intercut with and overshadow the celebration of Mickey and Linda’s wedding. However, the lyrics certainly shine through on the big ensemble numbers like Bright New Day and Tell Me It’s Not True.

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In the second half, with the twins in their teenage years and beyond, the tone darkens quickly, and characters like Linda (Danielle Corlass in a wide-ranging performance) come into their own. Conversely, Mickey’s delinquent older brother Sammy becomes less interesting as he ages from the cocky leader of the childhood gang into a walking plot device to get the other characters in trouble. Paula Tappenden’s immaculate Mrs Lyons is credible as she deteriorates from friendly middle class housewife to a neurotic and vindictive mess. Her final act in the show defies logic, but Tappenden’s performance is strong enough to suggest that it’s motivated purely by spite.

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The rest of the cast bring a brisk pace and bright energy to the whole show, but while this is very much the same production of Blood Brothers that I’ve seen on a couple of occasions over the years, I felt the overall tone was a bit darker. There’s underlying menace even to the carefree scenes from the characters’ childhood, and the Johnstone children’s legs are slathered with streaks of dark make-up to suggest a certain level of mud and squalor. Their childish jokes and insults seem pointed and hurtful, and even the delivery of Eddie’s first swear word to his mother seems to have a certain weight to it. Hints of the show’s tragic finale are never far away with this powerful current cast, even at the lightest moments.

But however the production has evolved over the years, it heads inexorably to the same conclusion, and if there is a dry eye in the house at the end of the soaring climactic rendition of Tell Me It’s Not True, it certainly doesn’t belong in our section of the audience, or indeed to any of the front of house staff that we pass on our way out of the building.

Andrew Lawston
February 2020

Photography courtesy of Bill Kenwright Productions