Aleks Sierz

Aleks Sierz
regional managing editor - United Kingdom

Aleks Sierz is a British theatre critic. He is the author of In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today (Faber, 2001), The Theatre of Martin Crimp (Methuen, 2006), John Osborne's Look Back in Anger (Continuum, 2008), Rewriting the Nation: British Theatre Today (Methuen, 2011). His latest book, co-authored with Lia Ghilardi, is The Time Traveller’s Guide to British Theatre: The First Four Hundred Years (Oberon Books, 2015). Sierz has written for publications including Tribune, The Arts Desk and The Stage, as well as newspapers such as The Independent. He co-edits Theatre Voice.

“Nightfall” at The Bridge Theatre

Playwright Barney Norris is as prolific as he is talented. Barely out of his twenties, he has written a series of excellent plays—the award-winning Visitors, follow-ups Eventide and While We’re Here—as well as a couple of novels and lots of poetry. After collaborating in setting up a theatre company, Up In Arms, he now works as a prestigious resident playwright at Keble College, Oxford, and has still found time to write a study of the dramas of veteran playwright Peter Gill. Named as one of the 1000 most influential Londoners by the Evening Standard, his latest play, Nightfall, has just opened at the very high-profile...

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“Mood Music” at The Old Vic

Playwright Joe Penhall and the music biz? Well, they have history. When he was writing the book for Sunny Afternoon, his 2014 hit musical about the Kinks, he had a few run-ins with Ray Davies, the band’s lead singer. A couple of years ago The Stage newspaper quoted Penhall as saying that his initial “bromance” with Davies had “rotted into a cancerous feud,” and that the singer had wanted a writing credit for Penhall’s work. The pair have since patched up their differences, but I am sure that the emotional fuel of this conflict powers Penhall’s latest play, whose production at the...

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“Masterpieces” at The Finborough Theatre

Neil McPherson, the long-serving head of this London fringe theatre, has a brilliant record of succeeding where many other venues have failed—namely in reviving both modern postwar classics and restaging the forgotten plays of recent decades. And all on a shoestring. His current revival of Sarah Daniels’s 1983 feminist classic, Masterpieces, is his latest good idea. It’s a play that is often seen, in textbooks, as typical of a militant femintern style of theatre-making so, in the #MeToo moment, it now acquires a renewed relevance. But is it really such a good play? The first professional London production in 35 years, Masterpieces tells...

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Ella Hickson’s “The Writer” at The Almeida Theatre

Is there such a thing as female writing? In the 1980s, a group of women writers emerged who expressed their sense of lived experience through plays that challenged the tradition of linear drama by fracturing the time sequences of their stories. Examples include Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls and Charlotte Keatley’s My Mother Said I Never Should. In the past two decades, women playwrights have mainly stuck to linear narratives and social realism. But this may be changing: the recent work of Alice Birch or Elinor Cook or Nina Segal or Adura Onashile or Sophie Wu shows a willingness to experiment with form,...

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“Nine Night” at The National Theatre: The Play About Grief

The good news about so-called black drama on British stages is that it has broken out of its gangland violence ghetto and now talks about a whole variety of other subjects. Like loss. Like death. Like mourning. So London-born actress Natasha Gordon’s warmhearted play, Nine Night, now making its first appearance at the National Theatre, is as much about family, music, and mourning as it is about ethnicity or migration. Inspired by the ritual of Jamaican funerals, in which the final ninth night of a wake is the time that the deceased’s spirit must finally leave this world, the play looks...

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“Absolute Hell” at The National Theatre

Rodney Ackland must be the most well-known forgotten man in postwar British theatre. His legend goes like this: Absolute Hell was originally titled The Pink Room, and first staged in 1952 at the Lyric Hammersmith, where it got a critical mauling. The Sunday Times’s Harold Hobson said that the audience “had the impression of being present, if not at the death of talent, at least at its very serious illness.” Hurt by such criticism, Ackland fell silent for almost four decades. Then, as he struggled against leukemia in the 1980s, he rewrote the play. Produced by the Orange Tree Theatre in 1988, it...

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“Mayfly” at The Orange Tree Theatre

The Orange Tree Theatre is a champion of new writing. Under artistic director Paul Miller, the venue has put on plays by excellent new writers such as Alice Birch, Alistair McDowall, Elinor Cook, Brad Birch, Zoe Cooper, Deborah Bruce and Adam Barnard. Key to the encouraging of new voices is the Orange Tree Writers Collective, which helps playwrights develop their talents. One of its graduates is Joe White, whose debut, Mayfly, is a family play that although marketed as “ethereal” is actually much more rooted than that. It also expresses a deep sense of loss. And, with its title in mind, shows how some things can change in...

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“Instructions For Correct Assembly” at The Royal Court: New British Sci-Fi Theatre

There’s a whole universe which British theatre has yet to explore properly—it’s called the sci-fi imagination. Although this place is familiar from countless films and television series, it is more or less a stranger to our stages. With notable exceptions such as Alistair McDowall’s X and Philip Ridley’s Karagula, the imaginary worlds of humanoid robots and space travel and parallel universes are rare delights so it’s great to welcome Thomas Eccleshare’s new Royal Court play, Instructions For Correct Assembly, which in its satire at first offers an intriguing mix of Westworld and Stepford Wives. And stars Jane Horrocks. Harry and his wife Max (Horrocks) live...

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“Quiz” at Noël Coward Theatre: Towards Participatory Theatre

It’s been a golden week for James Graham, British theatre’s wonder boy. After winning an Olivier award for his comedy, Labour Of Love, he now has another show in the West End, this time a transfer from the Chichester Theatre, where it premiered last November. Always interested in historical stories that say something about our present preoccupations, this time his subject is the “coughing major” scandal that in 2001 affected ITV’s hit show, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?. And, like some of his other plays, Privacy and The Vote, this new one has an element of audience participation. Its subject, after all, is...

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“Pressure” at The Park Theatre: New Play on D-Day

There are few things more British than talking about the weather. What makes this play about a meteorologist interesting, however, is its historical setting: the eve of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe. Although stories from the Second World War are hardly a rarity in contemporary British culture, this one is fascinatingly original and arrives at the Park Theatre after a national tour, having originally been seen at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum and Chichester in 2014. Already on its way to the West End, it is a huge personal triumph for actor and writer David Haig, who stars in...

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“The Way Of The World” at The Donmar Warehouse

Let us have a quick moan about repertoire. You know, the types of plays that most of our theatres put on. It says something about contemporary society when certain kinds of plays are no longer staged. For example, it is now very rare to see postwar verse drama, maybe because we now find it too artificial, and perhaps because there are too few actors who are good enough to deliver it. Likewise Restoration drama: plays from the years following the return of Charles II from exile in 1660. These include major works of theatrical merit by superb writers such...

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“Plastic” at the Old Red Lion Theatre: On Teenage Love and Tragedy

Many years ago, your time at school might even have been some of the happiest days of your life—now the playground is a battlefield. It’s full of weapons: the taunts, the insults, the threats, the secrets, the shit. On one side are the bullies, the strong and the beautiful; on the other the rest, the ordinary, the misfits and the outsiders. As well as tactics, there are bigger strategies: building a support base, hanging out with the right people, becoming a local hero through sporting prowess. In Kenneth Emson’s superbly crafted new play, Plastic, a small town along the Thames...

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King’s Head Theatre’s “Victim”: One-Woman Show About Life in Prison

Last night, I went to the King’s Head Theatre to see Martin Murphy’s hugely enjoyable Victim, a one-woman show about life in prison. It has already had a successful outing in Edinburgh last year and concerns two females on opposite sides of the law. Tracey works as a prison officer and the powerful 60-minute drama unlocks her relationship with one particular prisoner, Siobhan, an Irishwoman who has committed a domestic murder and shares a cell with Marcia, a notorious child killer. The conscientious Tracey gradually gets manipulated by the highly devious Siobhan. For a while Tracey knows all about the...

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“Vincent River” at The Park Theatre: In-yer-Face Theatre at Its Cruel Best

Every great playwright has to have both an identifiable style and the ability to innovate and change. When genius polymath Philip Ridley first staged Vincent River at the Hampstead Theatre in 2000, his fans noted that this two-hander was more naturalistic than his previous surreal and gothic East End trilogy—The Pitchfork Disney, The Fastest Clock In The Universe, and Ghost From A Perfect Place—and more political too. From leftfield to the mainstream. Watching it today it is clear that this brilliant drama, which was also revived in the West End with Lynda Bellingham in 2007, has all the hallmarks of Ridley’s best work...

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“Love Me Now” at The Tristan Bates Theatre: Love in the Time of Tinder

Love may well be the strongest four-letter word, but what is the latest news from the front line of the sex war? Who better to ask than Michelle Barnette, whose play, Love Me Now, has casual relationships and today’s hook-up culture as its central theme. She’s a young, female professional who should be able to take the erotic pulse of her generation. Having trained as an actor, she first worked as a producer and now makes her debut as a playwright. It’s the first play I’ve ever seen to include in its credits a “fight and intimacy director” (Enric Ortuno), so...

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“The Great Wave” at The National Theatre: True Stories of Japanese People Abducted by the North Korean Regime

Until very recently British theatre has been pretty poor at representing the stories of Chinese and East Asian people, and even of British East Asians. In 2016, Andrew Lloyd Webber called British theatre “hideously white” and, despite the sterling work of groups such as Yellow Earth theatre company, there have been more than one casting controversies where white actors have played Chinese and East Asian characters. So the first thing to say about Japanese-Northern Irish writer Francis Turnly’s epic The Great Wave, staged by the National Theatre in a co-production with the Tricycle Theatre, is that it’s great to see such...

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“Black Men Walking” at The Royal Court: Ordinary Folk Doing Ordinary Thing

In the same week that Arinzé Kene’s Misty, a play that passionately questions the clichés of stories about black Britons (you know, gun crime, knife crime, and domestic abuse), Black Men Walking opens at the Royal Court. Having already had a successful outing in Manchester, and toured the nation, this play about a black men’s walking group is a triumphant vindication of Kene’s point that most of the stories of black Britons have nothing to do with gangs or drugs. They are about ordinary folk doing ordinary things—like going for walks. And talking about themselves. And about what home really means for...

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“Humble Boy” at The Orange Tree Theatre: The Tragi-Comedy of Generational Conflict

Good programming is an art, and Paul Miller—artistic director at this venue—is clearly on a continuous roll with his inspired mixing of the old and the new, forgotten classics and new voices, revivals and premieres. And he loves to take risks. With this revival of Charlotte Jones’s Humble Boy he breaks one of the unwritten rules of programming: never revive a play first put on by a major theatre until at least 30 years have passed. Humble Boy was a massive hit when first staged by the National Theatre in 2001. Then, for a decade, it was often revived in theatres outside London,...

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“Buggy Baby” at The Yard Theatre: How Can You Represent Trauma in The Theatre?

How can you represent trauma in the theatre? Let’s count the ways: the naturalistic way tells a realistic story that is accessible and explanatory; the documentary way shows you the medical and psychological impact of the condition; the symbolic way teases out the implications of the events; and the absurdist way makes the horrific funny as well as disorienting. Then there is the experiential way, a theatrical method that puts you right in the middle of the feelings being felt by the story’s protagonists—and conveys the horror of trauma instinctively and directly. This is the path chosen by Josh...

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Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man” at The Playhouse Theatre: Is It Possible to Get Too Much of American Politics?

Is it possible to get too much of American politics? With Donald Trump’s daily tweets invading our digital space, a new Kevin-Spacey-free House Of Cards on the, well, cards, and new films set in Watergate times, it might be that few will have any appetite for this revival of Gore Vidal’s 1960 play, The Best Man, which is set during a Democratic Party convention, and now makes its West End debut. But to dismiss it completely would be a pity because, for all the creaks of its plotting, this is quite a watchable account of political in-fighting. After all, any show...

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