Abdul Salis

Present Laughter: NT Live


Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s hard to believe that National Theatre Live is already celebrating its 10th anniversary. This brilliant initiative, which makes the very best theatrical productions accessible to a much wider audience than they could ever reach on the stage, has been a resounding success. Like many people, we usually view them at the cinema – but there’s something very fitting about seeing this West End winner on the big screen at the Festival Theatre.

The play invites us to witness a few turbulent days in the life of highly successful actor, Garry Essendine (Andrew Scott). Recently turned forty and about to embark on a prestigious tour of Africa, Gary is suffering something of a mid-life crisis and, at the play’s opening, wakes up after a night of drunken debauchery to discover that he has slept with ingenue Daphne Stillington (Kitty Archer). Unfortunately, she is still hanging around his swish apartment, hoping for breakfast and that meaningful relationship he promised her last night.

Her presence is tolerated with little more than a raised eyebrow by Garry’s long-suffering assistant, Monica (Sophie Thompson), and by his ex wife, Liz (Indira Varma), who has long ago abandoned her personal feelings in favour of managing and protecting the Garry Essendine ‘brand.’ Both women know that such indiscretions are parr for the course.

But further complications rear their heads when Garry’s married business associate, Morris (Abdul Salis) confesses to having an affair with Joe (Enzo Cilenti), and it isn’t long before the self-same Joe has arrived at the apartment and is making flirtatious advances to Garry.

Coward fans will know that in the original play, Joe was Joanna, but this gender-swap is an astute move on the part of director, Matthew Warchus, reminding us that Coward was a closeted gay man at a time when such inclinations could never be expressed onstage. As the tempo steadily rises, and the play careers like an out-of-control vehicle from one frenetic scene to the next, it’s no surprise to hear the complaint, ‘I feel like a character in a French farce.’

The actors are all pretty much note-perfect: Luke Thallon is particularly assured as a sycophantic fan prepared to move heaven and earth to be near his idol, while Sophie Thompson is an absolute delight as Monica, enmeshed in a love-hate relationship with her employer and sometimes in danger of veering towards the former. But make no mistake, this show belongs to Scott and his undeniable talent. His embodiment of the vain, childish and self-obsessed Garry Essendine is an absolute comic tour de force. I’ve seen plenty of Noel Coward plays over the years but I’ve never laughed as uproariously as I do at this one.

I think he’d be thoroughly delighted by this version, though, which is fresh and vivacious enough to make me think that I’d like to see more of The Master’s plays reimagined for our times.

There are more top flight theatrical productions scheduled to view at the Festival Theatre. Why not treat yourself?

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney


The Human Ear



Roundabout@Summerhall, Edinburgh

Sian Reese-Williams and Abdul Salis must surely be the hardest working actors at this year’s fringe. Starring in no less than three duologues at Roundabout (Our Teacher’s a Troll, Lungs and The Human Ear), the number of lines they’ve managed to learn is impressive in itself; that their performances are consistently first-rate is nothing short of amazing.

All three pieces are directed by George Perrin, and there’s a distinctive style to his work. There’s no set, no props, no fancy costumes. Instead, there’s a blank stage, two actors – both casually but anonymously clothed – and a lot of clever lighting (designed by Emma Chapman). There’s no attempt at naturalism here, no attempt to physically create a space. Where the characters are (on the doorstep, at home, in bed, in IKEA) is told us through the dialogue; the actors’ movements represent instead the characters’ emotional distance – they circle each other, move close together, far apart – and it’s done so well we never question it.

In The Human Ear, Reese-Williams plays Lucy, a recently bereaved young woman, whose estranged brother turns up unexpectedly. Salis plays both the brother, Jason, and Lucy’s policeman boyfriend, Ed. He switches effortlessly between roles, without relying on any of the usual techniques: there’s no obvious change of stance, no particular mannerism added, no vocal tic or new accent. He just is, somehow, a different man.

Time-shifts are similarly deftly shown. There are no pauses in the dialogue – the flashbacks are unbidden thoughts within conversations – but the lighting (a masterclass in precision) makes clear exactly where we are.

There is a lot to admire about this play. The premise is exciting and it’s beautifully performed. If, in the end, the pay-off isn’t quite as satisfying as what’s gone before, it’s still a production well-worth seeing.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Our Teacher’s A Troll



 Roundabout@Summerhall, Edinburgh

Edinburgh has a fantastic new festival venue in Paines Plough, Summerhall. From the outside, it looks fairly unprepossessing and you think, ‘Oh, it’s a tent.’ But once you step inside, all preconceptions are swept aside. This is a fabulous theatre-in-the-round, complete with state-of-the-art programmable LED lights and a crystal clear sound system – but, even more remarkably, it can be dismantled piece-by-piece and packed into a single lorry, to be taken anywhere in the world. Roundabout are justifiably proud of their new baby and offered a pre-festival sneak peek at one of their upcoming plays – Our Teacher’s A Troll by Dennis Kelly.

Kelly must be one of the most eclectic writers in the business. It’s hard to link this chirpy slice of children’s theatre with DNA or Utopia or his TV sitcom, Pulling, but they are all the work of an accomplished and creative mind. OTAT tells the story of two ‘terrible’ twins at an inner-city school, who, having driven their head teacher to a nervous breakdown (she’s found eating sand in the sandpit), discover that her replacement is something that they could never have expected – a gigantic flesh-eating troll with a hard line on troublemakers. The children at the school are made to dig up the playground and work in the resulting goldmine, while the troll takes action against anyone who is unruly (pupils and teachers alike) by biting off their heads.

This is a two-hander: the twins (and everyone else in an extensive selection of characters) are portrayed by Sian Reese-Williams and Abdul Salis, who effortlessly switch from character to character, occasionally using a voice-transforming microphone to embody the unseen but terrifying troll. The duo’s command of the circular stage is total and there’s plenty of lively interaction with members of the audience. The play is suitable for children aged 7 and up, but there’s plenty here to entertain the grown-ups also, and only the grumpiest audience members will fail to be enthralled as the tale unfolds. So parents of young children, take note. This is too good a treat to miss and it’s on until the 23rd August, with the hardworking actors (who are also appearing in other productions at the same venue) taking only an occasional day off throughout the run.

4.3 stars

Philip Caveney