Pressure at the Park Theatre review ***

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Pressure

Park Theatre, 26th April 2018

I had high hopes for Pressure. I have said before that the Park Theatre has a knack of mounting a wide array of productions, which, on paper at least, sound interesting, though execution can be variable. If I am honest Pressure, initially, wasn’t one of them. But the reviews from previous performances in Edinburgh and Chichester and the presence as writer, and performer, of David Haig, and the Park’s always jolly atmosphere, reeled me in. When it transpired that the production was transferring to the West End, (the Ambassador’s Theatre from, in a nod to its content, the 6th June), I confess to feeling inwardly smug that I had got in early, along with the full houses which the Park has secured.

Talking of smug, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, there is a faint air of the self-satisfied about Mr Haig’s performances. Most recently I have seen him play the arrogant, borderline racist Dr Robert Smith in the Young Vic’s revival of Joe Penhall’s marvellous play Blue/Orange alongside some blokes called Daniel Kaluuya and Luke Norris who you might know. Let us hope Mr Penhall’s latest offering, Mood Music, at the Old Vic matches this. He also played the enigmatic Player in the said Old Vic’s recent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In both cases, and in some of his telly roles, he nails down the patronising pomposity of a certain type of middle-aged Brit expert, whilst revealing any vulnerability or desperation that might lie behind the surface.

I am sure that, outside work, he could not be more different, though his writing, the text of Pressure is intimidatingly exact in terms of directions, suggests otherwise. Regardless, what I can say is that when he gets his teeth into a character there are few more stirring sights than Mr Haig in full flow. So if I tell you that he has written a dramatic account of the real life contribution of meteorologist, Group Captain James Stagg, to the D Day invasion on June 6th 1944, it will likely not come as too much of a surprise. GC Stagg, on this account, was a dour, uncompromising Scot, who staked his reputation on convincing the Supreme Allied Commander General Eisenhower, here played by Malcolm Sinclair, to first hold off, and then go ahead with the invasion plans, despite apparently overwhelming evidence to the contrary and the opinion of his breezy American counterpart Colonel Irving P Krick (Philip Cairns).

It would have made a gripping black and white film in the 1950s or even a one off TV drama today. And that, in part, is something of its problem. It is a powerful story, but, once the die is cast, it is theatrically predictable and Mr Haig presents it that way. The pressure on GC Stagg is, compounded by his wife’s troubled pregnancy. The isobars on the charts measure pressure. We see the pressure mount on Eisenhower as he makes his fateful decisions. There are no real surprises in what the characters do or say and there are times when they verge on cliche.

On the other hand Mr Haig has wisely introduced a major female role in the form of Kay Summersby, the aide-de-camp to Eisenhower. She is played with clip-vowelled exactitude by Laura Rodgers, who I admired in Rules for Living at the Rose Kingston and Winter Solstice at the Orange Tree, (a play that continues to linger long in the mind). Malcolm Sinclair as Eisenhower is also impressive though I have no idea what the man himself was like, and the rest of the cast lend solid support. Director John Dove has collaborated with Mr Haig before on his most famous play (and film) My Boy Jack, based on the relationship between Rudyard Kipling and his son, so doesn’t mess about with Mr Haig’s story.

I appreciate that I am sounding a bit sniffy about Pressure. I don’t mean to be. It is, in its own conventional way, very effective and David Haig turns in an exemplary performance. If this sounds like your sort of thing then don’t hesitate to get down to the Ambassador’s.

 

Vincent River at the Park Theatre review ****

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Vincent River

Park Theatre, 29th March 2018

I wonder if the 2070s equivalents of the Finborough Theatre or the Orange Tree Theatre, will be lauded for their Philip Ridley revivals. Mr Ridley’s subject matter and idiom means he is a nailed on certainty to get multiple airings in today’s theatrical world. His art, his novels particularly for young adults, his screenplays, his songs and his plays, again especially those aimed at the youth and away from old fellas like me, have a vitality and urgency, and attention grabbing narrative invention, which is hard to resist.

On paper his first play The Pitchfork Disney takes your breathe away. In the flesh, as it were, it is even more extraordinary. Remember this “in yer face” work was the first of its kind and budding young playwrights everywhere still likely harbour ambitions, knowingly or unknowingly, to capture some of its essence. The Fastest Clock in the Universe, in its dissection of self-image, and Ghost From a Perfect Place, loaded up with more graphic violence, built on its foundations. The ugly themes the plays explore, and our complicity with those themes as observers, remain compelling over two decades later.

And yet there is a bit of me that thinks they might be utter sh*te even as I am watching them, the shock tactics, and their torture porn narratives, pleading with us to see meaning in all this misery. Usual conundrum: are we in some way thrilled by this transgressive violence or are we chin-stroking at what is wrong in the human condition. Compounded by the fact that Mr Ridley is soooo imaginative a writer that you can’t take your eyes off his plays, even as you clock the dissonances.

I don’t know any of the plays which followed these debuts, the Brothers Trilogy, Tender Napalm, Shivered and the later adult plays. I saw the recent staging of the six monologues that make up Angry at the Southwark Playhouse. Not good I am afraid, like a student attempt at sketching out some short “Philip Ridley” style plays and a couple of limp jokes.

So I wasn’t sure what to expect from this revival of Vincent River, Mr Ridley’s fourth adult play, written in 2000, which followed the breakthrough trilogy. Well I can concur with those criterati who say this might just be his best play. There is a violent act which lies at the heart of the play, the theme is clear and vitally important, the behaviour if the characters unpredictable, the story is in real time, there are a couple of lightly shocking interactions and, yes, some drink, drugs and swearing. Yet, importantly, we get to see and feel the impact of real life horror on two real life people uncluttered by Mr Ridley’s fantasy.

Whilst the “twist”, such as it is, is unlikely to surprise I will spare you the detail. A middle aged woman Anita is moving into a threadbare flat in Dagenham having moved from LB Hackney, (Mr Ridley’s cabbie like enthusiasm for London’s geography is on show as usual though Shoreditch has moved on a bit since then). Her son Vincent has been murdered in what transpires was a brutal homophobic attack at a disused railway station. Davey arrives. He clams to have discovered Vincent’s body whilst walking his girlfriend home. The play then explores, across a compact 80 minutes, the connection between the two.

We are reliant on our two actors to let go in this highly charged scenario and, fortunately, they do. Moods change in an instance. I do not think I have ever seen Louise Jameson on stage before though she has had an illustrious theatre career with the RSC and the National Theatre. You will know her best from the telly. Sounds like she is taking on more work in the theatre. Thank goodness. This is not an easy role but you wouldn’t know it from this performance. Anita is grieving for sure, but she is also angry, with her son’s killers yes, with the authorities of course, but also with herself. She still hasn’t yet quite come to terms with her dead son’s sexuality. Tricky to convey. I hope she won’t mind me saying though that debutante, (just about), Thomas Mahy, might have have outshone her. He is a real talent. When the going gets tough and emotional, as it does with his monologue near the end, he is shatteringly convincing. He is more vulnerable than menacing at the start but that worked for me. These characters agree to be honest with each other to seek truth and maybe some absolution. This pair of actors need to be similarly honest. They are.

Robert Chevara is a new director to me though now I see what he can do, and has done, in the world of opera specifically, I see I have been the loser. The play doesn’t require complication. Nicolai Hart Hansen’s set and Martin’s Langthorne’s lighting oblige. The Park 90 space fits the bill. This needs to be seen up close. Mind you I don’t suppose this is the product placement Tanqueray and FeverTree, Anita’s chosen tipple, were looking for,

I see that, for once even allowing for how far I have got behind in documenting my cultural adventures, (trust me you learn a lot by having to write about what you see), this production is still on for a few more performances. Go see it. Obviously if you a big fan of blockbuster musicals this may not be your bag but if you want to see what Philip Ridley is about, without the overt savagery, then this is for you.

So I think this at least will be a play that will be revived at the other end of the century. Hopefully as a warning about the dark times when people were attacked and even killed for their sexuality. Though given that has been true for many centuries I wouldn’t bet on it. Yet another thing to curse organised religion for. The well from which much intolerance springs.

I note that there was indeed another production of this very play in Manchester contiguous with this. As for Mr Ridley’s other plays. Of course they will appear, if only because there is a long line in the history of drama, back to the beginning, which seeks to shock its audience both for noble and ignoble purposes. And Mr Ridley, for all his narrative innovation, (and the gifts he serves up to designers), does have the words to back up his conceits of character and location.

Mind you at the pace with which society, and the art that reflects it, is changing who knows what will be de jour in 50 years time. Maybe there will be no live theatre – just a virtual reality experience you conjure up yourself. Like dreams and imagination. Whatever you do don’t click “I accept” and hand those over to the tech corporatocracy.

 

 

Daisy Pulls It Off at the Park Theatre review ***

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Daisy Pulls It Off

Park Theatre 200, 16th December 2017

Funny thing the memory. Even more curious is consciousness itself. It used to be that clever folk conceptualised consciousness as a kind of “theatre of the mind”. Apparently now the cutting edge of neuroscience, psychology and philosophy says this dualism is claptrap and tends towards a more functionalist explanation. As the bard said “there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. A very clever man, and great admirer of Mr Shakespeare, a certain Mr Tom Stoppard even had a crack at writing a play about The Hard Problem.

Anyway the point is that I distinctly remember really enjoying Denise Deegan’s play Daisy Pulls It Off at the Globe Theatre, (now the Gielgud), when it was such a smash hit in the mid 1980s. As did the SO. It was very funny. Or so I thought.

This latest revival at the Park Theatre was OK. Occasionally funny, but quite often a bit of a chore. Daisy Drags It Out. Now as I understand it this production, directed by Paulette Randall, presents pretty much the original script. It reverts to the original seven strong cast, which means some doubling or trebling up for all but two of them. Which, in my view, led to some of the more amusing moments in the play. Ms Randall and her creative colleagues have chosen to cast the production in a largely age, colour and gender blind way. Anna Shaffer, who debuts as Daisy, was most age appropriate. In contrast, Freddie Hutchins doubled up as Belinda alongside his Mr Scoblowski, Pauline McLynn was a plucky Trixie and Claire Perkins revelled in her roles as Monica, Mr Thompson and Mademoiselle. The rest of the cast, Lucy Eaton, Melanie Fulbrook, Shobna Gulati, are all excellent actors, based on other stage and TV performances I have seen, and it was hard to fault their industry or execution here. The production was played moreorless “straight”, as intended, with any hamming up emerging largely from character or costume changes and not from an overly arch, or slapstick, delivery. Libby Watson’s set and costumes were on the money and, in the hockey match and the rescue scene on the cliff-top, the cast conjured up some fine visual drama from inventive movement, using only minimal props.

So why was this such a disappointment, for me, and for LD, who gamely agreed to come along, despite being somewhat suspicious about Dad’s big build up. Well, as I say, I don’t think it was the production, or the cast. I see that some, though by no means all, other proper reviewers got a real buzz out of this. Three possible explanations then. Either it wasn’t as good as I though it was first time around, (though, with the magnificent Lia Williams, alongside Samantha Bond and Kate Buffery, this production did launch some extraordinary acting talent). Or I, and the world around me, has moved on, such that reverent spoofs such as this are no longer novel. Finally it may be that my memory has, to coin the vernacular, “played tricks on me”. This third explanation is likely scientific fact, and not just doddery middle age, the second explanation probably has a great deal to do with it, but I worry that the first may actually bear the bulk of the responsibility. It just may not be as good a play as I thought it was.

I wouldn’t put you off from seeing this if you are new it. There are laughs, (though apparently, to my surprise, there is nothing amusing about the words “frightful muff”), some spirited performances and some fine stagecraft. It does warm up in the second half but never really takes off. The underlying message, snobbery can and will be routed, is so gentle as to be barely perceptible and, it turns out, the whole thing is just a little too in thrall to its sources.  An A for effort, a C for achievement, I am afraid to say.

The Retreat at the Park Theatre review ***

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The Retreat

Park Theatre, 30th November 2017

So here is another offering from the Park which, whilst offering a very entertaining night out, didn’t quite deliver a whole commensurate with the sum of its parts. And very fine parts they were too. Sam Bain, with writing partner Jesse Armstrong, is the comic mind behind Peep Show, Fresh Meat and Babylon and the inexplicably “only a pilot, never commissioned” Bad Sugar, which was co-conceived with Julia Davis, Sharon Horgan and Olivia Colman. I’ll say that again for anyone whose job it is to get this stuff on the telly and who is reading this. Bad Sugar is a very funny comedy with three of our greatest comic actresses which has not been turned into a series. Why?

Mr Bain was also involved in Chris Morris’s Four Lions. So we know he can write comedy. And Kathy Burke has a string of lauded directorial credits, (next up she will be taking on Lady Windermere’s Fan at the Vaudeville Theatre), to match her acting roles. She is also clearly a fabulous person. Designer Paul Wills has come up with a convincing set that reflects the details of the setting, a one roomed hut in the Scottish Highlands. And the cast, Samuel Anderson as sanctimonious, hypocrite Luke, Adam Deacon as boisterous, brother Tony and Yasmine Akram as Tara all put in spirited performances.

Luke is some sort of financial whizz-kid, (with very rare exceptions most playwrights have a very vague idea of how the world of finance works), who is burnt out and, having been pushed out of the firm he founded, and dumped by his wife, goes to find himself, and detox, in a Buddhist retreat. This is run by Tara, who begins as a green painted, wide eyed space cadet but gradually comes back to earth, (observe her Hunter wellies), as the reality of her financial predicament is revealed. In fairly short order Tony turns up. He lives with Luke in London, is estranged from partner and child, has a dead end delivery job, likes his drugs and relies on Luke to keep him afloat. He wants Luke back. Luke wants to sell the London flat and support the retreat. Tony is understandably dead set against this course of action. Cue some gentle prodding of the dichotomy between spiritualism and materialism and a very believable, and funny, account of fraternal interdependence.

For it is, in parts, very funny. Adam Deacon in particular, is gifted with a whole string of one liners as the foil to the more serious, uptight Samuel Anderson. The problem is these gags end up taking over much of the drama. The “Tony as an arse” joke tail ends up wagging the “modern life is unfulfilling” plot dog as it were. Which is a bit of a shame because the ideas that sit behind the play are actually quite interesting and it does manage to seriously engage with Buddhist ideas, whilst satirising the narcissism that underpins the contemporary quest for “mindfulness”. Sam Bain’s day job as a sit-com writer is clearly visible in The Retreat, for both good and bad. I also felt that Yasmine Akram’s Tara was a little underwritten, which left her having to rely too much on arch expressions and eye rolling astonishment to react to the male characters and to reveal her true motives.

Still, if you just relax and stop playing the amateur theatre critic, there was much to enjoy here. I am not sure there was much that Kathy Burke could do to divert the one-liner torrent even if she had wanted to. The SO, BUD and KCK all came along and, once again, we all agreed that the evening was a success and that the Park continues to exude a special, friendly atmosphere. So relax, don’t moan, don’t expect too much, live in the moment and stop fretting about what might have been.

What Shadows at the Park Theatre review ****

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What Shadows

Park Theatre, 19th October 2005

The Park Theatre has pulled off a bit of a coup in bringing the Birmingham Rep’s production of What Shadows to London. It has been a deserved sell out. I have some misgivings, there were times when the didactisism verged on the patronising, shared by the SO who I dragged up to North London, but these were more than compensated by the brisk plot and a very fine performance from Ian McDiarmid.

Pretty much everything Mr McDiarmid touches turns to dramatic gold whether as director, (The Almeida bloomed under his joint stewardship with Jonathan Kent), or as actor on stage, large or small screen. He inhabits every character he plays. Let’s be honest he is by some margin the best actor in Star Wars.

What Shadows was no exception. He is Enoch Powell. Worth seeing for the way he captures Powell’s voice and gait alone. In the performance we went to, in the scene where his erstwhile friend, journalist Clem Jones, throws the script of the infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech to the floor in disgust, most of the pages landed on Ian McDiarmid’s shoe. The way he slowly withdrew his foot, as if he relished the content but at the same time knew the sh*tstorm he would create, was masterly. I can’t believe this was deliberately staged. It just happened but he was able to take this serendipitous accident and turn it into a telling detail. Or maybe i just imagined. Either way he was very, very real.

Chris Hannan’s script takes Enoch Powell’s 1968 speech to the General Assembly of the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre, which led to his sacking by Ted Heath, as its subject. Powell’s scholarly brilliance, his skills as a rhetorician, his significant contribution in WWII, his trenchant views on the European Union and on free market economics, only appear in passing.  I pretty much disagree with everything he stands for politically but his influence on Conservative, and broader right wing politics, in this country has been undeniably profound (despite, or perhaps because of, the amount of time he spent criticising his own party).

But it is his views on race that turned him into a bogeyman and this is where Chris Hannan is focussed. He cleverly weaves the friendship that Powell and his briskly entitled wife Pamela (Joanne Pearce) had with Clem Jones (Nicholas Le Prevost, last seen by me in the excellent Winter Solstice at the Orange Tree which was a similarly uncomfortable watch) and Quaker wife Grace (Paula Wilcox) into the story. Similarly he takes the character of Marjorie Jones (Paula Wilcox again), the “only white woman” on a street in Birmingham, and the subject of another of Powell’s speeches, and charts her relationship with black woman, Joyce Cruikshank, and her daughter Rose Cruikshank, (both played by Amelia Donkor) as well as second husband Bobby (Waleed Akhtar). Rose herself has become an academic specialising in black history who is looking to probe the now retired Powell as part of her research. We see that she has both suffered and been the cause of past racism. She recruits Sofia (Joanne Pearce again), an older ex-colleague who career was cut short, in part by Rose’s actions, as a result of her own unpalatable opinions on race.

Whilst this set-up looks a bit awkward on paper it just about works in practice, thanks to the actors and to Roxana Silbert’s forthright direction. Having created this web of relationships to explore the politics of race and difference, Mr Hannan is then occasionally guilty of asking his characters to ram the points home which I think would naturally have emerged from the story, particularly in the case of Rose and Sofia.

Having said that though this is still a very fine play with a magnetic central performance. Powell’s own peculiar “otherness” which played a part in the thwarting of his own ambition, and his monumental self-belief, are brilliantly captured by script and actor. In my view this was no prophet but a dangerous demagogue. In his mind though prophet is exactly what he wanted to be. Our society has moved a long way since his heyday, though we seem no closer to bridging the divide between those he look out to the rest of the world and those who think we can close in, cut ourselves off and blame others for our plight.

 

Loot at the Park Theatre review ****

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Loot

Park Theatre, 14th September 2017

There has been a lot of progress in the last 50 years in this country. Good people are more tolerant and accepting of the identity of others (though there are still plenty of bigoted d*ckheads to be found polluting the discourse), The fairy tales of religions are losing their grip on peoples’ thoughts, (though some still get fired up by this tosh and just will not leave us unbelievers alone). The police will always have unconscionable biases and corruptions but great strides have been made in remedying institutional failings.

Oh and the idea of shoving a dead body around a set for comedic effect in the theatre is unlikely to outrage any but the most conservative of Mail readers. All this means that the dark satire of Joe Orton’s famous play Loot is now muted, and the outrage which greeted its first performances seems quaint to this observer. BUT it is still, when performed well, a very funny, subversive play and its targets are still worth taking aim at. Taking the piss intelligently out of the institutions which create the superstructure is still a vital artistic imperative. And an antidote to all those digital crusaders who get wound up for nanoseconds about ephemera.

And be assured this production, directed by Michael Fentiman, at the Park is very good indeed, and it would be a shame if the remaining sold out performances are the last we see of it. The set and costumes from Gabriella Slade are exemplary – the action cleverly all takes place in an all-black funeral parlour with a hefty dose of religious iconography. The costumes put us slap bang in the middle of the 1960s, not the flower power generation but the more mundane, tired, conservative world which was the reality. The production kicks off with a speech from that tiresome crone Mary Whitehouse. And we have an actor as corpse rather than a dummy which adds a new and funny dimension.

The excellent cast take a great delight in playing up the characters faults and rapidly firing off the lines in the faux sincere way that they require (and largely avoiding the Carry On-esque trap that bedevils amateur interpretations). Everyone here is on the take in some way. Following a “bank job” lovers Dennis (Calvin Demba) and Hal (Sam Frenchum) need somewhere to store the loot. Hal’s Mum has just passed away but her murderous nurse Fay (Sinead Matthews) has designs on his Dad, McCleary (Ian Redford), or, more exactly, his money. Truscott (Christopher Fulford) is the copper investigating the bank robbery but poses as an inspector from the Water Board to grill the others. Cue the acid humour and farcical form and a conclusion where everyone gains financially though loses morally, not that they give a sh*t.

Sam Frenchum show’s up Hal’s jealously in the face of Dennis’s bisexuality and avarice. This is where the restoration of the cuts demanded by the Lord Chamberlain (yes kids we had a bloke in a wig telling us what we could watch until the 1960s) is most welcome, sharpening the ambivalent relationship between the two lads. Shades of Orton and Halliwell’s own relationship? Ian Redford’s McLeary feigns, but cannot entirely claim, innocence. Sinead Matthews is outstanding as the hypocritical Irish nurse and her comic timing is flawless. And Christopher Fulford as Truscott defines splenetic as our bent copper whose twisting of judicial logic ends up with, for example, the priceless concept of Christ’s crucifixion as a put up job. Oh and Anah Ruddin as Mrs McLeavy almost steals the show despite not uttering a word.

So no longer a shocking black satire: more a clever parody with astute commentary on “that old whore society” as Orton observed.  I am guessing it helps if you have a feel for the period but the stereotypes and absurdities are recognisable and the laughs abundant. Like Ben Johnson but without the need for a degree in Ben Johnson studies to understand it. If the production pops up somewhere else (beyond Newbury where it is off to next) take a look. It is perfectly possible to make a sh*tshow of Loot which entirely misses the points in the pursuit of forced laughs and overplayed farce. Indeed, by all accounts, the first productions failed until Orton rewrote and licked it into shape and the 1970 film version is weak.

If you are interested get along to the Queer British Art exhibition at Tate Britain (Queer British Art at Tate Britain review ***). Not a treasure trove of great art but a fascinating journey through gay history in Britain in the century or so proceeding the Sexual Offences Act 1967 which partially decriminalised homosexuality. Orton’s play premiered a couple of years before the Act. The exhibition shows some of the library books that Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell “defaced” and for which they were unbelievably imprisoned for 6 months.

 

Rabbits at the Park Theatre review ***

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Rabbits

Park Theatre, 17th August 2017

Even after seeing Rabbits I am scratching my head somewhat as to why I did. Others have remarked on the slightly wayward output of the Park Theatre under Jez Bond’s tutelage but you can’t fault the breadth of the offers and it is all delivered in such a friendly package that it doesn’t seem to matter. Rabbits was another play which, if I am honest didn’t scale any theatrical heights, but did offer a diverting 90 minutes or so and did have a few interesting things to say.

This is writer Joe Hampson’s stage debut, having previously focussed on TV and radio. It sort of shows, as the interaction between the fairly minimal set ,and the three strong cast, across the three acts, was somewhat laboured despite the good ideas. Subversive black comedy with an undertone of menace and disorientating plot twists, underpinning a plea for sexual tolerance, was the vibe that Mr Hampson was striving for – think contemporary Orton – and by and large he succeeded, especially through the second act. It still felt though, that the play that he, and young director Sadie Spencer, saw in their minds and wrote on the page, might have been more acerbic and layered than that which was actually served up. Even so it was hard not to warm to the whole affair.

Frank (David Schaal) and Susan (Karen Ascoe) are a couple with a penchant for spicing up their relationship. Alex Ferns tripled up to play the various foils to the couple’s explorations, Kevin, a Glaswegian low-life with questionable hygiene and career choice, Andrew, a mildly condescending pyschoanalyst and Pete, a friend on a shared holiday. Karen Ascoe looked the most comfortable of the three in her role, with Alex Ferns, off the telly, prone to overdoing it a bit to get the laughs and David Schaal a little stilted albeit in the trickiest part on the small Park 90 stage. You know from the off that all is not what it seems in the couple’s relationship and the way Mr Hampson describes the sexual games that hold them together is sometimes inventive if not always entirely satisfying (no double entendre intended).

So there is enough here to suggest our writer was on to something and it will be interesting to see where he goes next. And I continue to believe that the Park will deliver an absolute belter of a play with wide appeal sometime soon.