Ava: The Secret Conversations – review: ‘McGovern is glorious but the text lacks emotional heft’

Ava: The Secret Conversations, starring Elizabeth McGovern and Anatol Yusef. Photo: Marc Brenner 


Elizabeth McGovern has adapted the book Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations by journalist Peter Evans for the stage. Published posthumously, the book takes the format of reported conversations between Evans and Gardner in the final years of her life, after she’d endured a stroke. The stage version follows this format, with McGovern first appearing in drab grey jogging bottoms, her speech slurred, sitting by the window of her Hyde Park penthouse, where Gardner spent the final years of her life until she died aged 67. 

McGovern plays Ava as mercurial and crotchety, yet self-deprecating. She clutches one arm and sucks at cigarettes, toying with Evans (Anatol Yusef) as he tries desperately to extract kiss-and-tell stories about her husbands: Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra. McGovern gives a spectacular performance and it’s astonishing to watch the metamorphosis as she shifts between the post-stroke Ava and the young ingenue, fresh from ‘dustbowl California’ aged 18 on her first day at MGM studios, all sweet and wide-eyed. 

AVA The Secret Conversations, Photo: Marc Brenner

The motif is the loss, not just of Gardner’s faded star, but of the golden age of cinema itself. When you can binge-watch an entire season of Succession on your commute, there’s no LaLa land magic to it. The stage and set do a lot of the work in conveying this idea. 59 Productions have made a set that is both Ava’s London flat and her LA apartment, a New York skyline and Artie Shaw’s library room. Lighting conveys a sunset in Hollywood, a rainy day in Hyde Park and late moonlit nights. It comprises several black boxes, dissecting the action into smaller and larger views, like a movie theatre or through a camera lens and the scenes are interspersed with projected clips of Ava, Artie, Sinatra et al, conjuring a fluid dreamscape, in which we are reminded of the romance of those old Hollywood pictures. 

This is counterpointed by Gardner’s reality – of being beaten up, coerced and diminished by the men who said they loved her. Ava’s accent was considered so rough that she was dubbed over for most of her career and for the first few years she was signed with MGM she didn’t even get to act. But, like Ava forgetting her dog’s name, any clear message about how Hollywood did and does view women disappears, to be replaced by a cringey dance sequence between McGovern and Yusef, who, while both are great performers, lack any chemistry together. Through Ava’s retelling, Evans transforms into each of her former husbands and maybe with a different actor, this conceit would have swept us up, but instead, it felt rather flat as Yusef was unconvincing, particularly as the blue-eyed charmer Sinatra.

Direction by Gaby Dellal is clear and intentional, but often diminishes the jokes McGovern has worked into the text. A comment from Evans about this book making his career that could be played for laughs is hidden in a plea for Gardner to push on with her story-telling –and an innuendo from Gardner about Marlon Brando telling her his brain wasn’t the only part of him that had gone soft was given a mumbled punchline. The Downton fans who are likely to see this show might appreciate it being played more for laughs than it is at the moment.

Ava: The Secret Conversations. Photo: Marc Brenner

I read the book, Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations as preparation for interviewing McGovern for The Telegraph, ahead of the show and if the play has one major failing, it’s that it follows the source text far too closely. Watching the play was as close to the experience of reading Evans’ biography as a play could be. Ava’s famous quotes, such as: “You can sum up my life in a sentence, honey: She made movies, she made out, and she made a fucking mess of her life. But she never made jam,” lose their potency and feel they’ve been forced into the script. If this run at Riverside Studios is intended as an elaborate pitch for a movie adaptation, McGovern may well have pulled it off, but as a play in its own right, it doesn’t quite offer enough emotional heft to really captivate audiences beyond Downton Fans and lovers of 1950s black and white films. That said, McGovern’s performance shone throughout.

Thu 27th Jan – Sat 16th April 2022


Written by: Elizabeth McGovern

Based on the book The Secret Conversations

Directed by Gaby Dellal

Design by 59 Productions

Humane at the Pleasance London: An effective look back at a significant moment in the animal rights movement

(c) Ali Wright

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others‘ George Orwell.

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Humane, written by Polly Creed and directed by Imy Wyatt Corner, is about the real protests against live animal exports from British ports in the town of Brightlingsea, Essex in 1995, in which a cross-section of the population took to the main road where a lorry regularly transported live animals in inhumane conditions.

Colette Zacca plays Alice and Francesca Isherwood plays Linda, two protesters who bond. Alice is, according to the script, a mixed-race schoolteacher and Linda is a white stay-at-home mum. The first half shows their friendship slowly grow, mostly through sharing their worries about their children. The characters speak on landline phones, facing the audience, about Alice’s older teen son Michael and Linda’s young baby. Both women are somewhat isolated, with Alice living alone and Linda’s husband on a tour of Bosnia. There’s nice attention to detail in the 90s costumes (I’m pretty sure I used to own the pink and turquoise shell jacket worn by Linda) and nostalgic 90s-style soundtrack, designed by Anna Short. While it lacked momentum, there was a compelling sweetness to their mutual nervousness about making a new friend.

Video footage, news reports and interviews with protestors are intercut with the action, successfully reminding us this was a real part of our recent history and foreshadowing further environmental protests that have taken place over the last couple of years. Only one section jars – when the actors speak over the ‘news reports’ – also voiced by actors – and it’s impossible to decipher the separate lines of speech.

Police brutality is hinted at, along with the idea that no-one is wholly good or moral. The central premise, that activism should be intersectional and that you can’t support one ‘good’ cause but not another, seems somewhat flawed – we pin our flag to different causes and people are complex – a racist can be a great animal rights campaigner, as was the case in this story. There’s an interesting flick over racism and allyship that feels as though it should be seeded or foreshadowed earlier; it could have been alluded to in the first half but it’s interesting and effective when we see it destroy the friendship in the second half.

It’s sometimes hard to work out what specifically ties this moment in history to modern-day themes, or to a larger picture beyond that specific event in 1995.

Colette Zacca (aka viral twerking sensation “Dancing Granny“) seems unconfident in her performance and fumbles over quite a few lines, until the final moments on the theme of racism when she seems to get into her stride. The program notes additional writing by her, so possibly these are the parts she wrote and they are very powerful.

This went out as a very successful audio drama during lockdown, with a different cast and crew, and I’ve given it a listen. The audio story is more detailed and features more characters and voices in the movement. It feels richer, with an easier flow between archive footage and drama. It is also only mentioned late on that Alice is mixed-race – thereby subtly leading listeners to question their own biases, whereas the impact of this is obviously lost when you can see the actor from the beginning in the stage version. Writer Polly Creed addresses issues of race and racism with sensitivity in both forms, I just wish she had been bolder in exploring this essential question about how strong friendships forged through a common passion can be.

Mediocre White Male – Edinburgh review: ‘A clever dissection of the mindset of an abuser’

Assembly Roxy

4-15 August

About £13

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Will Close and Joe von Malachowski co-wrote this one-man-show which delves into the mindset of an abuser. Close plays a 30-year-old man in a dead-end job; unpleasant, yet sympathetic at times – all his school friends have moved on with their lives, leaving him in the same town he grew up in, in the same job, performing as a living statue at a castle – a relic in many senses of the word.

The piece starts with the man (deliberately unnamed, I assume because disturbingly, he represents so many of his type) winning us over with jokes and anecdotes about not understanding gen Z’s proclivities for personal pronouns and having to go on a gender awareness training course. He’s a harmless dinosaur, we think at first – but why is he so fixated on this girlfriend he had in his mid-twenties? And is that vodka he’s pouring into his water bottle?

The monologue is interspersed with his set performance as a living statue, playing a problematic historical figure who he appears to sympathise with and whose story foreshadows his own.

In terms of whether this show should exist – focusing so much as it does on the abuser and silencing his victim – is an ethical question worth thinking about. Did the writers have the idea that predatory men will see this play and think, oh, crap, that’s me? I doubt it, somehow.

The script is clever – creating sympathy for this sad character, then slowly revealing his ignorance of the crime and mental torture for which he was responsible. The protagonist seems highly plausible – the perpetrators of abuse will often believe they are ‘good guys’ and this exploration of that peculiarly narcissistic mindset is chilling. There’s no moment of redemption for him – no sudden revelation, no pathos, and that’s what makes this piece so disturbing. This is a man who could and might get away with it again and again, because he never believed he’d done anything wrong in the first place.

How does theatre in lockdown measure up to theatre IRL?

I’ve been rehearsing a play in lockdown. Or rather, I’ve been organising and sitting in on rehearsals for a play I wrote. I wrote it a while ago and then I didn’t have enough time to put it on. But since I’ve not been filling my evenings with going to review plays, I thought, if not now, when? So #DoingWellPlay, a comedy about the effect of social media on a YouTube star’s mental health, has now enjoyed its first public rehearsed reading.

Except, it wasn’t very public at all, it was all a bit indoorsy; a bit zoom-y. The amazing actors from the Manchester Performing Arts group were totally brilliant, and the joy of hearing and seeing the words I’d written given new depth and meaning by such talent was undimmed by the fact I was watching it all on zoom. It was all easier in many ways – easier to record, easier to fit in rehearsals, easier to get the play’s central theme – that too much screen time is not great for us – across. Now, as we teeter on the brink of a second lockdown, I’ll be looking at ways of leaning into the digital environment, to make it a totally zoom-friendly, COVID-safe production.

But … it’s not really the same, it’s not as thrilling as the floodlights and the collective awe and the connective togetherness of an actual, live ephemeral performance, is it?

If it were, theatre would have died out as soon as television were invented.

Lockdown has brought with it a wonderful outpouring of creativity and connection and access. I loved the chance to have Rosamund Pike and Paapa Essiedu fill my laptop screen with endless close-ups in the political, stirring My White Best Friend (And Other Letters Left Unsaid) at The Royal Court and watch the enterprising range of films made as part of HOMEmakers commission. all projects made at home for viewers at home. But the best theatre I’ve watched on screen has not really been plays at all – its the stuff that’s found another way, that’s worked with the restrictions, not against them, and come up with plyful, multimedia art.

This period has been hard, economically, mentally, for everyone involved in live performance, but it has also been a great reminder that creativity can flow from constraint and great work is often made under pressure, because it gives people something to rally against.

A couple of weeks ago I went to see the Virtual Collaborators Festival, a hybrid digital and live festival created during lockdown but then performed in real life in a churchyard in Leyton. There were over 100 different theatrical projects created. The founder, Danusia Samal, paired up writers with actors, so everyone who wanted to keep creating was able to do so and it attracted the likes of Naomi Ackie, Clare Perkins , Bayo Gbadamosi and Sarah Kosar.

First of all, just being at a live theatre festival, in open-air with people and laughter and strangers felt utterly thrilling. You could have shown me Punch and Judy and I’d be delighted. But, better than that, there was touching beauty in the form of Sway, developed as a radio play but performed here with delicate puppets by Angelina Chudi, telling an environmental and feminist parable about mermaids.

Another, with a feminist motif was Brick, created by Jessica Bickel-Barlow and Olivia Munk from Part of the Main. It explores the stifling confinement of those early lockdown weeks through the lens of a 14th century woman who voluntarily puts herself in solitary confinement to contemplate God. Her good friend is imprisoned next door and they debate her choices. First performed online with two faces talking to each other through an imagined crack in the wall, the staging didn’t change too much in real life – it worked just as well in both formats. Maybe, with our Government’s constantly changing Covid rules, this is something we’ll see more of.

There was something special about the collegiate nature of it all that I haven’t seen since going to drama club aged 16. It was as though the virus had blown away any presumption of status and plonked everyone in the industry in the same egalitarian boat – and everyone realised the only way to survive was to paddle together.

Now that theatres are reopening, I hope that feeling isn’t forgotten; it makes for very exciting work.

The Dog Walker, Jermyn Street Theatre review: ‘

The Dog Walker - Paul Minx - Jermyn Street Theatre - 12th February 2020 Director - Harry Burton, Designer - Isabella Van Braeckel, Sound Designer - Fergus O’Hare, Lighting Designer - Tom Turner, Keri - Victoria Yeates, Doakes - Andrew Dennis
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

What the last few years as a country – and indeed the last few weeks – have taught us is that we live in a world that is disconnected. We live in isolated bubbles, blaming other people in other isolated bubbles for anything wrong in our lives. Isolation and loneliness are the costs we pay for convenience culture, our mental health is impacted by disconnection. What if by some miracle, two people from very different bubbles were able to pierce their respective albumens and start talking? How better to achieve that than through a mutual liking of dogs?

This is where The Dog Walker sets off. 

It brings together white, middle-class New Yorker Keri and Jamaican poet, Janitor and dog walker Herbert Winston Doakes. Neither of them is as straightforward as they initially seem. God-fearing Doakes (Andrew Dennis) professes to be 17 years sober and Keri claims she doesn’t need any friends apart from her beloved Pekinese dog and emphasises the point by getting on all fours and barking at Doakes.

Mercurial and volatile Keri is one of the most fascinating characters to emerge from the stage in recent years. She lives within the confines of her tawdry 5th-floor apartment on West 49th Street, which designer Isabella Van Braeckel has managed to make look cramped but somehow more spacious than the actual confines of the tiny Jermyn Street stage, by giving the impression the alcove to the theatre toilets leads to Keri’s kitchen and creating a window with a ladder outside, where Keri spends much time sitting and gazing out, at the edge of her set, searching for a ghost of a girl that haunts her. The floor is a depository for takeaway bags and the shelves house photos of past lovers and dead pets. Empty bottles of booze litter every surface. It’s a carefully crafted insight into its occupant’s mind. Keri is clearly not well. But what is the cause? She claims to have all the answers in her self-published self-help E-books whose target readership are ‘bottom-feeders’.

Playwright Paul Minx’s writing teeters on the edge of melodrama, with the characters veering from anger to affection and back in a matter of seconds. There are more ups and downs than that Eastenders episode last week about Linda’s foot. It’s testament to the strength of the actors that they are able to seem like convincing, whole characters, especially Keri, whose mood can turn on a pin. Yeates plays her as both vulnerable and bitter. In one particularly cruel scene, she lets Doakes intimately stroke her face and then humiliates him with terrified relish. Dennis’ unabashedly ashamed reaction is painful to watch, his pride is well and truly pierced. 

Harry Burton, the director, is known for directing Pinter and his input gives rise to the comedy that occurs when the two characters clash but, perhaps in an effort to make their larger-than-life personas appear believable, opportunities for heightened drama and emphasis are ignored in favour of a more naturalistic delivery. When Keri reveals the wellspring of her agony, it is rushed past and could have been a bigger moment, likewise when Doakes comes clean about the lies he’s told Keri to protect his own sense of superiority, it’s delivered skittishly and there’s barely a beat before the dialogue hurtles on to another argument. 

There’s much to unpick in this richly layered production, with heavy themes of grief, depression, and domestic abuse mixed in with surreal humour. It’s a lot – and if I could change one thing, it would be to let the text breathe a little rather than getting the performers to hurtle on past crucial moments. 

The Dog Walker is at Jermyn Street Theatre, 12 February to 7 March.

On Bear Ridge, Royal Court, Jerwood Downstairs: ‘Masterful production on language, memory and selfhood’

On Bear Ridge by the NTW and Royal Court Theatre Photo by Mark Douet
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

The curtain opens to show Rhys Ifans as John Daniel, dressed in butcher’s apron and body warmer, in slumber on the floorboards of a decrepit building, spitting out half-remembered staccato syllables of a strange language, smiling and wild. The language, referred to simply as The Old Language, is dying out, along with the community that spoke them – and John Daniel’s memories are fading with them.

This dreamlike new play co-produced by the National Theatre Wales and the Royal Court, London, by playwright and TV producer Ed Thomas, was first staged at the Sherman Theatre in Wales. It explores themes of loss of community, identity and language and would make a rather a nice companion piece to the current production of Translations at the National.

We are not in Friel’s Ireland of 1833 however but at a more recent time in some high, remote area in Wales. The four walls of the butcher’s shop set by designer Cal Dyfan slowly lift away to reveal more of the high misty mountain terrain, the sound of planes flying ominously overhead. A new asphalt road has created an easy path to the city, which all but steadfast John Daniel and Noni his partner have followed, leaving their once-busy butcher’s shop to rack and ruin.

Thomas’s script pulls together ideas about existence and belonging, memory. loss and selfhood in a fresh new way, with characters, vanishing set and haunting sound by Mike Beer, which weaves choral Welsh song with old gramophone music to insinuate that nothing is real here – not even the characters themselves.

Thomas and Vicky Featherstone have co-directed this piece with a perfect sense of when to flip between humour and poignancy, sometimes pulling at multiple threads at once, to the point where we don’t know whether laughing is disrespectful or kind. They never let the story fizzle out, but keep amping up the tension again and again.

Ifans is masterful as John Daniel, never missing an opportunity for comedy, he can make just one word ripe and bursting with meaning and he carries the pace along with grandiose, roaring speeches arms outstretched, with wheedling, searching fingers that poke and point through his fingerless gloves.

Rakie Ayola as Noni offers self-contained stillness in counterpoint to his ranting speeches. When a conflicted captain (Jason Hughes) comes to their home through the snowstorm her frosty speech to him is all the more chilling for her minimal gestures and fierce expression.

At a time when the Welsh language is being eroded and, more globally, when sounding or looking different from the norm is perceived as a threat, this production couldn’t be more timely or resonant.

I’d rather go blind, Omnibus Theatre review: ‘Motherhood and the criminal justice system’

I'd rather Go Blind by Somalia Seaton
3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Futures Theatre is a small company that’s been quietly whirring away since 1992, under the auspices of founder and AD Caroline Bryant, producing incisive, important stories, made with women and about marginalised women.

I’d Rather Go Blind playwright Somalia Seaton has written a compassionate narrative about a mother, Michelle and her daughter Ruby. They play, dance, sing, like every mother and daughter, except they are not like every mother and daughter; Michelle gave Ruby up for adoption. The narrative doesn’t focus on why and how that adoption occurred, instead focusing on Michelle’s mental torture at the loss of Ruby. 

Toyin Ayedun-Alase plays Michelle with expressive physicality, one moment she is robust; dancing joyfully, arms wide, buttocks wiggling merrily and at other moment shrunk to half her former size, a small lethargic lump, sheltering from the world under her duvet covers. Her ability to cope with the world is impaired. Somalia Seston’s text can be skillfully precise, with Michelle rapping out her hatred of the long-nailed neighbour who rummages around the bins and her dismissive feelings about Notting Hill carnival but Michelle’s background is roughly sketched, details are scarce – perhaps to maintain the audience’s non-judgemental sympathy – though a more interesting if difficult choice might have been to see all of Michelle, warts and all. A caseworker visits and suggests, she is doing very well after a spell we assume was spent in prion, learning new skills and getting a new job has been a struggle. 

Ruby, a mercurial sprite played by Leona Allen, appears at birth, fully formed, she is 13, then 15 and as her 18th birthday approaches she becomes erratic and strange, yearning to break out of the confines of Michelle’s flat and also from Michelle’s imagination; this is not the real Ruby but Michelle’s imagined version of Ruby.

Scenes melt between naturalistic exchanges with empathetic caseworker Chrissy, played with subtle humour by Anna-Maria Everett to surreal and haunting wordplay between Michelle and her daughter. Maybe it’s just me, but it took me until about the midpoint of the show to realise Ruby was a figment of Michelle’s mind, which was probably a deliberate choice by director Caroline Bryant to create a sense of unsettling mystery – it worked but I would have liked to have had that clarity at a slightly earlier point and had more of the back-story about Michelle’s motivations for giving Ruby up. 

This is an early, short run of the show and it deserves a transfer to let it breathe and speak to a wider audience. 

Gastronomic, Shoreditch Town Hall review: ‘Brilliant take on asylum seeker narrative’

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Theatre that also includes food often falls short on both fronts. It’s logistically very difficult to serve mass catering with courses arriving at tightly-timed intervals, add movement and acting to the mix and it’s nearly impossible. 

So Curious Directive have made a sensible choice for this show – audience seated, food on trays, delivered on a smooth track so servers don’t have to move from table to table and cooking done by young trainee chefs with a  menu devised by Norwich restaurants Benedicts, Shiki, The Assembly House, Namaste Village and Bread Source.

The show itself is a beautiful meditation on the links between food, tradition and place interwoven with a story about a refugee, smuggled aboard an airplane. The conceit is we are all travelling first class on a flight, the head chef addresses us directly – announcing each incoming dish with delicate tales that speak to both the characters’ stories and more universal narratives. A fish and chip dish is a walk on a British seaside pier, but also an ice-cream, dropped by the chef in a moment of sudden shock – the dish is a monstrous hybrid of the two – an ice cream cone with an ice-cream textured fish puree. Oof.

Nora is played with wide-eyed wonder by Georgina Strawson, she is a chef passionate about the meeting of science and art that is food gastronomy and its hard not to succumb to her romanticised descriptions of the food we eat. She works on a tiny two-metre square kitchen at the centre of the space ‘on board’ our Airbus A380 flight. She is joined by Luca, (Craig Hamilton) a stowaway she met in Beirut and her sous chef and former lover Agat (Ani Nelson). Camera positioned in the on-board kitchen show close-up views of dishes as they are prepped and headphones offer crisp sound quality. There are also ipads at regular intervals on our tables, but the show makes scarce use of them.

This dish is called ‘The End of Brighton Pier’

The story is rather brilliant, it distills the story of a refugee in an engaging and novel way, while subtly drawing attention to the priviledge and separateness of us, the audience, from the journeys of the characters they portray.

Still, don’t go for the food. It’s tiny and somewhat flaccid. Vegetable crisps are chewy, a coley fish sauce is salty and claggy. A prosecco and grapefruit foam is delightful and the final dish, a cherry Bakewell is a tasty though meagre portion. The rest is forgettable. For five-course tasting menu standards, this is very bad but by immersive theatre standards, it’s pretty good.


Monday 23 September – Saturday 12 October


7pm, 7.30pm & 9pm


£27.50 – £35 (includes a seven-course tasting menu)

Running time

70 mins

World’s End, King’s Head Review: ‘A beautiful love story World’s End. Set to a backdrop of Legend of Zelda and the war in Kosovo’

World's End: an LGBT love story Photo: Bettina Adela
3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Closing the popular queer season at the King’s Head theatre in Islington is LGBT love story set to a backdrop of Legend of Zelda and the war in Kosovo, this debut play from actor James Corley skillfully balances world politics alongside domestic drama as the lives of four people living on a council estate become increasingly enmeshed.

Set in 1998-99, at the height of the Kosovan conflict, a well-to-do mother, Viv and her highly-strung 19-year-old son Ben move into the World’s End estate in Chelsea. Next door, they meet Besnik and his father Ylli, who fled Kosovo when Besnik was very young.

Harry Mackrill, who is currently Associate on David Hare’s adaptation of Peer Gynt at the National Theatre, directs the gay love story at the heart of the play with tenderness but the scenes exploring cultural tensions between the two parents feel underpowered.

What is lovely about this story is that this is not the coming-of-age, coming out play you’ve seen a thousand times before; both the young men are certain in their sexuality, even if they are uncertain about everything else in their world.

Tom Milligan plays anxious teen Ben with hyperactive nervousness, which made me wonder at first if he was meant to be an autistic character – new situations scared him, he stuttered and he was neurotic about the slightest change. This was revealed to be a strong reaction against an itinerant childhood where he wasn’t allowed to set down roots, but the actor’s overemphasis of this nervous trait from the start left him little wriggle room as tension mounted later on.

Conversely, Nikolaos Brahimllari’s performance of Ylli, feels underwhelming. His country is being destroyed and he feels compelled to go and fight for it, even though it means certain death, yet when he expresses this to Viv and his son, it lacks the passion and anguish one might expect.

All of the action is set on a tiny triangle of stage which economically represents both flats and the hallway between them. Joined with subtle lighting by Jai Morjaria, Rachel Stone’s set comprises two wooden doors with gold numbers 11 and 13 indicate how crammed together the two residences are and cardboard moving boxes serve to indicate the transience of Ben and Viv’s life.

Ylli and his son Besnik do not see eye-to-eye Photo: Bettina Adela

It is lovely to see a Kosovan actor playing a Kosovan role in Mirlind Bega, who grew up in Wakefield where he first discovered acting aged 9. His Besnik’s easy-going charm and resilience contrasts well with Ben’s unease.

The romance between the young men is a slow burner, built around a friendship and mutual love of video games, specifically Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Their love is at the burning heart of the play and are wonderful to watch but in other moments the staging feels a little stilted and awkward. Particularly between Ylli and Besnik, where Ylli is often stood rigidly, not reacting as his father berates him for being gay.

Current political tensions over immigrants are played out in Ylli’s living room between Ylli and Ben’s mother Viv, played beautifully with upper-middle-class condescension by Patricia Potter and with some of the best lines in the play. Upon discovering how cheap the rent is on Ylli’s two-bed council flat, Viv whispers to Ben: ‘It’s not fair.’ ‘

Mum, they’ve lost everything’ says Ben,

‘Well so have we!’ says Viv.

It concisely hits to the heart of much of the nation’s fears around refugees and immigrants and it’s done with humour and a light touch – this isn’t a polemic – in fact it feels very firmly rooted in the period of 1998-99.

The two boys come out as the more sympathetic characters, righting the wrongs their parents have made and their romance is a constant in a world of chaos. It’s a beautiful conclusion to the King’s Head’s successful season.

Until 21 September kingsheadtheatre/website

EDINBURGH EDITION – Day five (24 August)

The Claim

The Claim, Summerhall – Roundabout

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

As part of the British Council Showcase 2019, Tim Cowbury has written a piece that is deliberately fraught with frustration for the audience as the claimant’s story is ignored, manipulated and suppressed by the other characters.

Serge (affable Ery Nzaramba) is here because… Why? He wants to tell his story because he doesn’t want to be deported – but will the interpreter and case worker listen? Will they heck. They are more concerned with chatting about their upcoming holiday than letting Serge tell his story – and when they do start listening, their own prejudices get in the way of the truth.

When Serge manages to get a word in, it is misinterpreted by the interpreter, and then the answer is warped even further by the case worker.

Ask him where he lives, asks the case worker.

‘where do you live?’ says the interpreter.


‘No, before?’

‘Were there elephants there?’

‘In Streatham?’

According to the UK government, there were 29,380 asylum applications in 2018. Sixty-seven per cent of which were refused asylum.

Asylum decisions in the UK take place behind closed doors, and over the last couple of decades, asserts the show, they have become increasingly kafkaesque. Through the journey of one claim, Cowbury shines a light on the bureaucratic, misleading, pressurised and unfair ways that claimants are asked to give testimony.

As Serge’s story is twisted beyond all recognition he is painted into a perpetrator and criminal when he is in fact a victim. Directed by Mark Maughan, it’s incredibly difficult and frustrating to watch as he is ignored, cajoled and accused, as he tries repeatedly to get the truth across.

This work has wider ramifications about what the UK is and how it wants to be seen in the modern world and this performance paints a picture of a land full of petty prejudices and xenophobia.

Not an easy viewing experience, but a necessary one.

Your sexts are shit, Summerhall

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

It’s 11.30 in the morning and we are listening to performer Rachel Mars reading a letter sent from James Joyce to his lover Nora Barnacle in 1909:

“You had an arse full of farts that night, darling, and I fucked them out of you, big fat  fellows, long windy ones, quick little merry cracks and a lot of tiny little naughty farties, ending in a long gush from your hole.”

It’s surprisingly explicit and instantly banishes any preconceptions that talking dirty is a modern preoccupation. James Joyce, or ‘Jim’ as he signed off those letters, was very dirty indeed. He loved to do it ‘arseways’ and wrote eloquently and at length on the subject.

Mars feels we have lost the fine art of writing about our sexual desires, as demonstrated by the series of modern lacklustre sexts displayed on the screen behind her.

Texts like ‘I wanna get underneath the table and make it hard for you to talk’ are contrasted with letters like this from Frida Kahlo to her husband Diego Rivera:

“Everything was surrounded by the green miracle of the landscape of your body. Upon your form, the lashes of the flowers responded to my touch, the murmur of streams. There was all manner of fruits in the juice of your lips, the blood of the pomegranate, the horizon of the mammee and the purified pineapple.”

Letters from Eleanor Roosevelt to her lesbian lover, Charles Bukowski to his girlfriend Linda King, Proust to his grandfather begging for money to purchase a prostitute – these letters are lush and bitter and carnal and profane.

We are living in an age of instant, thoughtless charmless communication. We’ve swapped illicit love notes for dick pics. But have our emotions dulled as much as the missives we thoughtlessly shoot to our partners on tiny screens?

Mars’s presentation is simple and not particularly theatrical; letters are read out, sexts are displayed, repeat. But a more subtle message is being conveyed. As Mars shares mundane poetry from her ex-lovers as well as her own, far better descriptions of her sexuality and the sexual identity she wants to present, the show presents an image of how modern love has changed from that of just a century ago; the picture of sexuality in the modern age is one of instant gratification, but also of quiet, comfortable cohabitation. We don’t need to write letters to cross the oceans separating us when we have Skype. And maybe that text saying don’t forget to buy milk is just another coded, pleading message, asking someone to remember your needs.

Who Cares, Summerhall

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Nicole (Lizzie Mounter) started caring for her mum when she was only four. Jade (Jessica Temple) has always cared for her brother, who has learning difficulties and uses sign language but one day she becomes the carer for her dad too after he is consigned to a wheelchair. Connor (Luke Grant) cares for his mum, she struggles to get out of bed sometimes after her family died all within a few months of each other and then Connor’s dad left him to help her on his own.

Theatre makers LUNG are Associate Artists at The Lowry, making work for communities in and around Manchester. Director and writer Matt Woodhead took two years of interviews with young carers living in Salford to form this profound work highlighting the hidden young carers aged 18 and under who are propping up the NHS by working for free to care for a parent or sibling.

One in 12 young people care for someone. They save the country £132 billion a year in the unpaid caring they do. As this work highlights, they get little or no support and no relief from this work.

The authenticity of the real-life interviews is preserved by the three actors who bear out the optimism and resilience of their real-life counterparts.

As the stories of the three carers interweave and unfold, the characters remind us that this could happen to any of us – all it takes is a parent to turn left instead of right crossing the street.

The effect of benefits cuts is particularly hard to listen to and verbatim interviews with child support services show how their funding has been stripped down to virtually nothing at all. the most shocking aspect of the show is that many of these kids are hidden – they are not known by the authorities and so no help can be put in place to assist them.

While the stories are grim – and the prospects for these young people’s futures are poorer than their non-carer counterparts (they will attain poorer grades at GCSE and their households will earn less) their is great hope and courage that bouys them up – moments of happiness and joy are snatched and cherished, whether it be a parent learning to speak again after a stroke, or a great song they love played out a full volume on their headphones, these children have been forced to have almost more responsibility than they can bear, but they’ve also leant to grasp at joy, and remain unbeaten by their circumstances.