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FringeReview UK 2024

Low Down

Wendy Beckett’s Sappho opens at the Southwark Playhouse’s Elephant stage, directed by Beckett too (co-director Adam Fitzgerald), in Greek mode with a chorus and thus 14 actors on stage.

A bit of theatrical democracy invoking pre-democracy crafts an exquisite irony for a rainy afternoon. Do see it.


Writer and Director Wendy Beckett, Co-Director Adam Fitzgerald, Choreographer Fotis Diamantopolous, Set Designer Halcyon Pratt, Costume Designer Pavlos Thanopolous, Lighting Designer Adam King, Sound Designer and Composer Mehdi Bourayou,

Casting Nicholas Hockaday, Assistant Choreographer Tasmin January, Costume Supervisor Cecilja Berg, Intimacy Co-Ordinator Rosie Fletcher

Producer Pascal Productions. Marketing Cup of Ambition

Production Manager James Anderton, CSM Daisy On, DSM Katy Ross, ASM Lizzie Hodge

Design Assistant Pollyanna Elston, Casting Assistant Paris Hoxton, PR Kate Morley PR, Artwork Design Halcyon Pratt, Programme Design Laura Whitehouse, Artwork Photography Rich Lakos, Production Photography Mark Senior, Videography Ben Hewis

“Oh the Ladies” Lyrics by Wendy Beckett, Music by Mehdi Bourayou, performed by Caroline Devismes, Arrangements by Laurant Guillet Performed by Adam Fitzgerald

Till May 25th


How do you tell a trendy green-clad Momentum-invoking couple that maybe the convention of arranged marriage for your daughter sucks? It’s so sixth century. Trouble is, it is the sixth century. BCE that is.

Wendy Beckett’s 85-minute Sappho opens at the Southwark Playhouse’s Elephant stage till May 25th, directed by Beckett too (co-director Adam Fitzgerald), in Greek mode with a chorus and thus 14 actors on stage. The Greeks made do with about three.

This is the play’s UK premiere, but it premiered appropriately in Greece and enjoys a strong Greek presence in cast and creatives. How Pascal Productions managed this scale too is a dea ex machina in itself: when as we know Southwark mounted Joy Wilkinson’s ten-strong debut The Sweet Science of Bruising in 2018 after it languished for over a decade. Sappho’s a great spectacle, with dedicated dancers and chorus leaders.

Set in period with a touch of Alma-Tadema, Adam King’s lighting plays over a sparkling, sparse set (Halcyon Pratt, also art designer) and actors in Pavlos Thanopolous’s gorgeous costumes with lightning-quick changes (credit to costume supervisor Cecilja Berg) as the ensemble sashay snappily to Fotis Diamantopolous’s choreography and Mehdi Bourayou’s music: which sways between invocations of the aulos and Zorba the Greek.

This is light comedy. Not quite Carry on Sappho but playfully invoking contemporary politics in its division of Sappho’s right-on family (bar that weird arranged-marriage glitch) and the maritally-bent Obstinatums, sixth-century BCE aristocrats who have the Minister of the 18th Century living rent-free in their heads. More Moggmentum than Momentum. They’re confusingly in red by the way which probably doesn’t mean Starmer’s Labour Party, just that they’re very cross. Though then again…

Despite the poet’s reputation as the first lyric poet of western civilisation whose influence is incalculable (despite only surviving in 650 fragments of 10,000 works), as well as defining the notion of lesbianism, were given just a few lyrics. Only four poems survive complete (a fourth only joined together 25 years ago).

Sappho (Georgie Fellows) invokes several, and is onstage most of the time. Poised, naturally comedic, Fellows makes an appeal to serious issues and feelings behind her frustrated comic persona. There’s a truth to this lighter Sappho struck with lyricism and a stillness that morphs slowly into erotic languor or hopeless thwartedness.

Happily Narrator (Emmanuel Akwafo) is outrageously on hand to exhort, encourage, roll his eyes and generally serve as MC to Sappho the Musical Mope as he flits between gods and men and makes gloriously camp side-salads of others making a meal of their woes.

That’s quite easy given a couple of role-swappings anyway. He does tell Aphrodite his preference is for men in short skirts when she comes onto him, but otherwise he’s pretty solidly in favour.

Sappho’s mother Cleis (Jumoké Fashola) is more regally censorious of Sapho’s scribblings than indulgent dad Pittacus (Famos Xenofos), and they form a sensual double-act of not being married and thus enjoying each other far more.

Fashola’s pragmatic scheming and Xenofos’ anxious stratagems lose it though when they just can’t keep their opinions to themselves in front of their social betters. They keep invoking this bonkers notion of “Demokratis” as does Narrator. Five centuries too early he says (well no, about 130 years in fact, sort of).

Mrs Obstinatus (Velile Tshabalala also, more importantly a regally sexy, gnomic and poised Aphrodite) is quite explosive. Privilege has its privileges, and even huffy Mr Obstinatus (Adrian Banyard, also Aphrodite’s loser-husband Hephaestus)  seems slightly in awe. They’re a formidable poetry-suppressing pair and it’s only their son the diminutive Hercules languishing for Sappho that persuades them to bother.

Meanwhile Sappho’s encountered the ethereal and touching Adore (Eleanor Kane) who does what it says on the role-call and they ravel up a quietly erotic ballet, never consummated until… And the deal-breaker to marriage is, world-influencer Sappho must give up poetry!

Beckett’s written a glorious romp, rather than solemn play, which has probably been doured to death. Here Beckett celebrates queer love so much and so poignantly despite all the fun you cheer with everyone else at the unravelling; which is more than just falling out of a few veils and shawls, used here to delicate effect. There’s magical costumary and choreography in this relatively modest space (think Donmar with more steel bars).

There’s songs too. “Oh the Ladies” has lyrics by Wendy Beckett, and music by Mehdi Bourayou, performed by Caroline Devismes.

There’s a delicious extravagance here and maybe a richer work might have involved more speaking roles. Though Dancers Aaron Bladen, Lucy Mackay and Kostas Tekkis, and Chorus Leaders Andrew Franklin and Roann Hassani McCloskey certainly speak in dance and song, active throughout.

In an uncertain spring with an uncertain polity hanging over this country, Greece and the wider world, a bit of theatrical democracy invoking pre-democracy crafts an exquisite irony for a rainy afternoon. Do see it.