I Will Miss You When You’re Gone, Starbound Theatre @ Hen & Chickens Theatre

Written by Jessica Moss
Directed by Yuqun Fan
Produced by Rebecca Dilg
Performed by Paulina Brahm, Marta da Silva, Sharon Drain, and Tammie Rhee
18 – 29 September 2018

Petra Eujane Photography - Marta da Silva, Tammie Rhee, Paulina Brahm (1)

Rehearsal image by Petra Eujane

I Will Miss You When You’re Gone is a new play written by Canadian playwright Jessica Moss. Starring four women and a roomba, this 75-minute piece follows two living characters, Robin and Celeste, who are being haunted by their erstwhile colleague Evelyn and Celeste’s mother Theresa – but not necessarily in that order. A comedy which is alternately dark and sweet, this play explores such heavy topics as suicide, grief, depression, anxiety, isolation, and workplace bullying.

As is usual in pub theatre, the set was small and simple, which worked well for this intimate and personal story, and increased the effectiveness of artistic touches such as the costuming of living characters in sterile white but dead ones in vibrant colours. The soft Canadian accents and quips about Toronto made for a refreshing change of setting. However, the heavily 60s-styled costumes contrasting with references to BuzzFeed and Game of Thrones threw me somewhat. Similarly distracting were the frequent scene changes – often abrupt, awkward, and graceless, with very little in the way of transition. This could have easily been alleviated by simple use of sound, lighting, and/or movement, and is something that director Yuqun Fan should remedy for future productions.

The highlight of this show is definitely its excellent cast. Marta da Silva as Evelyn was the standout performance, channeling a fierce Gina Linetti vibe and juggling both pathos and comedic snark. Tammie Rhee was also excellent as the bureaucratic boss Robin, and Sharon Drain brought a wonderfully warm presence to the stage as mother Theresa. Although not as strong as her castmates, Paulina Brahm provided a relatable character for a millennial audience in the form of Celeste, an underachieving, under-confident intern struggling to cope with adult life. I was, however, confused by whether this character was supposed to be developmentally delayed or not; her ineptitude, naivete, and lack of social abilities was regularly the butt of jokes, but Celeste herself angrily protests at one point that she’s “not retarded”. This casual throwaway use of a slur seemed at odds with a story about treating others with empathy, and being sensitive to issues of mental illness.

Petra Eujane Photography - Sharon Drain, Paulina Brahm

Rehearsal image by Petra Eujane

Overall, I Will Miss You When You’re Gone felt like a 75-minute riff on an interesting concept which wasn’t really developed enough to carry the length of the show. As a result, too many complex themes were introduced superficially as filler material, while plot holes and questions of world-building were left unanswered. However, this and the weak characterisation of the play’s central character were leavened somewhat by the excellent performances and compelling arcs of its supporting figures, as well as a number of clever gags. With some rewriting, condensing, and slicker directing, this show could be a very effective and enjoyable Fringe-sized piece.

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Build A Rocket, Stephen Joseph Theatre @ The Pleasance, London

Written by Christopher York
Directed by Paul Robinson
Starring Serena Manteghi
18th September – 23rd September 2018

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This explosive one-woman performance, Build a Rocket by Stephen Joseph Theatre certainly brought life and laughter to my Thursday evening. Upon entering the wide main stage of The Pleasance I suppressed the urge to dance to the urban beats playing loud and proud through the speakers. The stage, with minimal set of a mock-up kids’ roundabout, was lit by bright lights above like a scatter of orange stars, or the lighting in a edgy indie cafe.

The story was not necessarily new to our ears: teenage girl Yasmin comes from a troubled family life, gets mixed up with a dodgy lad, and ends up pregnant and struggling for cash. HOWEVER (capitals for effect) it was the execution by Serena Manteghi that was incredibly unpredictable and had you utterly transfixed.

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We followed the ballsy protagonist Yasmin’s life through underage nights out, tough GCSE’s, falling in and out of love, struggling through pregnancy, giving birth, and the tough task of parenting. Although this may sound mundane, the style in which these events were portrayed were creative and often hilarious. One of my favourite artistic choices was the use of a stereotypical game show to portray the stress of her GCSE’s; another was when blue lighting swamped the stage and she moved as though walking on the moon… (I could carry on, but to list all my highlights would be to describe the whole piece!) The direction by Paul Robinson was superb; the stage always felt full, and the clarity when Manteghi was multi-rolling proved he certainly has an eye for detail.

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Drip-fed beautiful moments of spoken word within the constant storytelling flow allowed the audience to take a breath and truly appreciate the text. YET (I’m not sure why I’m a big fan of capitals today…) I cannot stress enough: although this was definitely text heavy performance the physicality was equality as outstanding. As Manteghi jumped from character to character with ability and precision, we were taken through a whirlwind of emotions alongside her most protagonist Yasmin. From the moment Manteghi entered, the stage was alive, and from there the ball never stopped rolling. Thanks to her commitment and energy I happily suspended my disbelief and was immersed in the story.

If you want to liven up your week with an exceptional performer, a storm of emotions, and a lot of laughter then book your ticket to Build a Rocket and get yourself to The Pleasance… I promise you won’t regret it!

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An Execution (by invitation only) @ Camden People’s Theatre

Camden People’s Theatre, 11th-29th September 2018
Directed by Gemma Brockis
Devised by the company, based on Vladimir Nabokov’s writing.

Shamira Turner, Tom Lyall, Simon Kane and Greg McLaren, Photo by Tristram Kenton

 

This is an absurdist, bleak and hilarious exploration of a man waiting for his execution.

We’re herded into the black box of the theatre, where there is a smaller, white box which we’re herded into in turn. As the audience files in, we find an awkward lawyer trying to see out of a window not designed to be seen out of, and an exhausted gaoler blaring music from a transistor radio.

The last person enters – the door swings shut and the gaoler locks it. The audience shares the cell and the concomitant decent into madness with the prisoner.

What did the prisoner do? Never discussed. Unimportant. Greg McLaren presents a resigned prisoner whose flashes of despair, passion, and humour make him consistently engaging, despite or perhaps because of his long silences. He scrawls messages and drawings on the floor of the cell, which we all crane to see.

What is he drawing with? A pencil, presented to him and regularly sharpened by his gaoler, Tom Lyall, an aspiring poet who has a scene-stealing romance with a spider in the corner of the cell. This gaoler is not an authority figure as much as a cellmate – he is trapped by his repeated actions, where the prisoner is only limited by the walls of his cell and, of course, time.

When is his beheading? Um – the lawyer can’t seem to tell him. The lawyer, Simon Kane, is possibly the funniest figure in an incredibly funny play – shabby, meandering, vaguely optimistic and utterly useless. He pops in at inopportune times to say almost nothing – including when the prisoner was preparing for a visit.

Who visits this condemned man? His wife – though they can find nothing to say to each other, nothing to provide closure for whatever they had before he was confined. Shamira Turner does so much with very little – her physicality does most of the work, even in tiny apertures.

The set by Zekan Cemal is claustrophobic but playful and surprising – supported by really clever lighting, designed by Richard Williamson. The sound design by Elanor Isherwood (Ben Ringham consulting) carries the audience into the madness of an impending execution.

The show was conceived and directed by Gemma Brockis, a co-founder of Shunt, who may be remembered for their creative site-based performances through the early 2000’s. She’s created a really excellent experience that leaves the audience shaken. It’s an unpredictable, enjoyable but brutal show, that I highly recommend to those looking for properly good weird theatre.

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Square Rounds, Proud Haddock @ Finborough Theatre

Written by Tony Harrison

Directed by Jimmy Walters

Set and Costume Design by Daisy Blower

Lighting Design by Arnim Friess

Music by Jeremy Warmsley

Musical Direction by Adam Gerber

Sound Design by Dinah Mullen

Movement Direction by Depi Gorgogianni

Cast: Eva Feiler, Gracy Goldman, Rujenne Green, Amy Marchant, Philippa Quinn, Letty Thomas

4 September – Saturday, 29 September 2018

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Photo by Samuel Taylor

Proud Haddock presents Tony Harrison’s all-female war drama Square Rounds at the Finborough Theatre, re- staged for the first time in 30 years to mark the 100-year anniversary of the First World War.

Proud Haddock’s emphatic work explores the ethical duality of scientific progress and how the best human intentions are behind some of the most horrific atrocities.

The play is a lyrical, lilting, odd work that jumps across time, employing magician stage craft, movement and live songs to deliver a message on repeated folly and hubris.

Daisy Blower’s set draws on the work’s thematic concerns, with a white box outlined on the black floor and multi-purpose white and black boxes with squares movable between scenes. The centrepiece is a large black box that is alternately used as a toilet cubicle, magician’s box, display case, blackboard, gas chamber, and more. A canny piece of design well incorporated into the action and reinvented in use by the cast. War time and historical footage are projected over the set, only registering as subtle movement on the black, visible in its white.

The ensemble cast was energetic and charming, hurtling through the verse, offering a contrast between the earnestness of the characters with their historical tragedy. While this dramatic irony was successfully fulfilled, I found myself wanting a more detailed irony and humour grounded in the language and characterisation: some of the ideas might have been more expressly served if tied to human motivation or relationships, as exemplified in the stand-out, rousing performances of Gracy Goldman and Philippa Quinn arguing as German-Jewish chemists and spouses Fritz Haber and Clara Immerwahr, Quinn as Haber defending her invention of chlorine gas. The actors as a whole did artful, attentive work within the production.

This re-staging of Square Rounds felt intellectually relevant, but because of this detached, historical quality did not offer a deeper connection with our present time or an understanding of its related but unique set of concerns.

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Tickets

Oliver With a Twist, Shit-Faced Showtime @ Leicester Square Theatre

 Leicester Square Theatre- 5th-8th September 2018
Magnificent Bastard Productions
Directed by Katy Baker

Image of Shit-faced Showtime: Oliver with a Twist

Shit-Faced Showtime returns to the Leicester Square Theatre after a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe 2018. The sister company of the famous and outrageous Shit Faced Shakespeare (whose Merchant of Venice we reviewed last year) make their way through a slick one-hour version of Oliver, with some songs that may be dated ever so slightly out of the Victorian era thrown in on the way. As always, the show features one fabulously drunk (and quite brave) cast member.

This show is really really fun. As to be expected the show is a bit of a lottery as a different performer gets drunk every night. The night I went was the turn of Oliver to be drunk. She was a charming drunk despite throwing half eaten food into the audience which had the audience gasping and in stitches… apart from the man sitting beside me who seemed ever so slightly annoyed to have a half-eaten sausage land on his head but hey, that feeling that anything could happen adds to the magic of piece.

Another great thing about this show is that the singing is very, very good which surprised some audience members. A famous musical theatre song is sung beautifully by one character (I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing the song). It may be less beautiful if that certain character is drunk! Another standout moment was when Oliver claimed he was a descendant of Dame Maggie Smith, to great comedic effect. My only criticism is that Shit-Faced Showtime tends to overuse sexual innuendos as a cheap comedic fallback, and I feel bolder choices could be made from this talented cast.

Overall, a very entertaining show which the audience greatly enjoyed; it’s a long time since I’ve heard that many people in hysterics at the theatre! Don’t bring your granny, but Oliver With A Twist is a fun night out with friends.

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Dance Nation @ Almeida Theatre

27th August – 6th October 2018
Dance Nation  @ The Almeida Theatre
Written by Clare Barron
Directed by Bijan Sheibani

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Oh. My. God.

How AMAZING is it to see a female-dominated stage?

(Precursor: This will not be a rant review about this subject)

But genuinely, how unbelievably amazing, and surprising at this present time in the world, is it, to see a show on a main London theatre stage with the seesaw of gender balance teetering towards women? It’s shocking, really.

It is a more common thread now that I research as little as possible about shows before I see them.

Upon arriving at the Almeida, I picked up my ticket and programme and read through. An amazing forward written by Lyn Gardner (bless her reviewing socks) talking about women ‘taking up space’. I want to quote directly from this to set up what I witnessed on the Almeida stage.

‘In the very act of being performed, Dance Nation makes a stand by occupying space on stages which have historically been given over for the most part to male playwrights and male experience…… The young women in Dance Nation cannot be silenced. They fill up space and demand to be seen. You can shut your eyes, but they will still be there. They are not going away.’

Bloody hell, eh?

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The story of Dance Nation is reminiscent of any time you may have accidentally or not so accidentally watched ‘Dance Moms’. That trashy and brilliant tv show about preteens and their pushy mums in dance competitions.

Except this is told differently.

The story of pre-adolescence and growing up under the pressure of a dance world.

These young women’s stories are told in adult bodies. Which was an utterly brilliant choice as it made the story translatable, understandable and easier to connect to.

We have all been young children, confused and unsure and because these young girls were played by adult women, we could connect so much more deeply with the story.

The youth was genuine and not overemphasised. It was entirely believable.

All dance and movement was very basic but done exquisitely. We were not watching a West End musical. It wasn’t necessary. The expression and clarity in the movement and dance was all that was needed.

This is the beauty of simplicity in storytelling. You don’t need lots of costume changes and backdrops.

You don’t need bells and whistles when the human condition is performed and written so exquisitely.

The individual monologues (that were transitioned into so easily) were breathtaking. The one that stood out for me was Ashlee’s (performed by Kayla Meikle). A young girl afraid of her power. Afraid of her beauty. Afraid of her intelligence. Heartfelt and full of passion and fire. This performance was a punch to the gut and a slap across the face. How often as young girls were we made to feel like we had to make ourselves small or silence our fire under the male gaze?

I would be interested to have seen this show with a man, as I felt such a deep connection to this show having had the experience of being a young girl.

I loved this show on the whole. Simple, beautiful and completely challenging conceptions of being a young woman and facing life, sexuality and growing up.

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Tickets

Caterpillar, Alison Carr @ Theatre503

29 August – 22 September 2018

Writer: Alison Carr
Director: Yasmeen Arden
Producer: Michelle Barnette
Design: Holly Pigott
Lighting: Ben Jacobs
Sound: Jac Cooper
Cast: Judith Amsenga as Claire, Alan Mahon as Simon and Tricia Kelly as Maeve

Caterpillar promotional image Theatre503 September 2018.jpg

Small Truth Theatre premieres Alison Carr’s Caterpillar at Theatre503, a finalist of their 2016 Playwriting Award, with a continued run at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.

Caterpillar takes place at a closed seaside B&B run by grandmother Maevis who is recovering from a recent stroke that’s paralysed the left side of her body. Her daughter Claire has been living in to help look after her and seems unwilling to leave to return to her own life as a mother. Unexpectedly, guest Simon arrives late one night, to participate in a Red Bull style hang-gliding event taking over the town, the last request of his now dead girlfriend.

Set in Maeve’s living room, Holly Pigott’s naturalistic design is characterised by welcoming, coastal themed décor, all seemingly sourced from the local seaside gift shop, giving it a cosy but identifiably curated feel.

Alison Carr has an ear for natural dialogue and a knack for embedding comedy in her characters’ voices, offering up engaging, complex portraits of humanity. Yasmeen Arden’s quietly confident direction lets the charm and warmth of the text shine.

The production is a slow-burn, taking its time to introduce us to the world and unfurl the secrets at the heart of its characters. However, some of the darker reveals and decisions later in the piece feel unseeded in earlier action, especially stacked as they were in the second act.

The actors gave striking, well-drawn performances; credible and nuanced. Tricia Kelly as Maeve is a commanding combination of saucy humour and iron pragmatism, a vitality offset by the vulnerability of the character’s age and health issues. Alan Mahon disarms with a warm (later creepy) earnestness and Judith Amsenga assuredly balances tenderness, aggression and a biting wit.

Alison Carr’s writing finds fresh vision in familiar themes. I found the mother-daughter dynamic to be the strength of the piece: a mixture of loyalty, kind-cruelty, blindness and unmet expectations, and wish there had been greater attention given to this relationship as the linchpin of the play’s concerns, which sometimes felt unfocused. Caterpillar has interesting things to say about performative caring and reflects on constrictive roles both in and out of family structures.

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Tickets @ Theatre503

Additional performances:
27 – 29 September 2018                 Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

Shift, Barely Methodical Troupe @ Underbelly Circus Hub

Directed and devised by Melissa Ellberger, Ella Robson Guilfoyle and the Cast
Performed by Louis Gift, Esmeralda Nikolajeff, Elihu Vazquez, and Charlie Wheeller​
Produced by ​​Di Robson​
4 – 25 August at Underbelly Circus Hub, Edinburgh

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Shift – courtesy of Gregory Batardon

Shift by Barely Methodical Troupe is categorised on the Edinburgh Fringe website as “dance/physical theatre/circus”, which I initially thought must have meant that all shows of those genres were being lumped together – however, as it turns out, Shift really did deserve equal claim to all those descriptors!

The four performers bounded around the stage with an energy of absolute exuberance, interacting like playful siblings, completely comfortable with their own bodies and each others’. There was only a minimal amount of dialogue, mainly in the form of light banter with the audience, in an informal style which added to the intimate atmosphere. Moments when the playful, comedic mood was dropped included a beautiful routine accompanied by haunting singing from Esmeralda Nikolajeff in her native Swedish (I assume), and a dream-like sequence with the gigantic (and distractingly handsome) Louis Gift delivering a hypnotising spoken-word parable whilst his castmates clambered over his body. Lighting and reverberant soudscapes accentuated performances without distracting from them, and the few tools involved – mainly rubber resistance bands and a Cyr Wheel – were similarly woven into the show in a way that felt like they were just accessories to the central feature: the performers’ astounding athletic, acrobatic skills.

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Shift – courtesy of Gregory Batardon

Each cast member showed off their own particular skill set to great effect: Elihu Vazquez performed break dancing as if he had electric currents running through his veins, and Charlie Wheeller effortlessly handled the Cyr Wheel like it was a perfectly-trained circus animal. However, the most compelling acts were certainly those featuring the partnership of Nikolajeff and Gift; their big-brother-little-sister chemistry and gentle physical comedy were absolutely charming, as they performed breathtaking feats and subverted expectations of their respective roles (Nikolajeff may be petite, but it turns out she’s probably stronger than most burly men twice her size!).

My only minor criticism would be that the various components of the piece didn’t always tie in with each other intuitively, or segue smoothly from one to the next. Unfortunately, it was these ragged tonal shifts which were the weak point of Shift, and the only times when it lost momentum. However, overall this was a beautiful, magical performance which I am positive held every audience member spellbound for its duration, from the little girls in pigtails in the front row to the elderly couple sitting beside me. I hope I can catch the next performance from Barely Methodical Troupe, as whatever it might be, I am confident I will love it too.

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Feed by Theatre Témoin @ Pleasance Dome

Devising Cast: Jonathan Peck, Louise Lee, Nina Cassells, Yasmine Yagchi
Director: Ailin Conant
Creative Producer: Fiona Mason
Contributing Playwrights: Eve Leigh, Erin Judge
Produced by Theatre Témoin in co-production with The Lowry and Everyman Cheltenham
August 1-27 at Pleasance King Dome, Edinburgh

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Photo by Nathan Chandler

Feed is a devised show about a bunch of things which are at risk of becoming meaningless buzzwords: social media, fake news, the Internet, the post-truth era, integrity in journalism, etc. But where Feed has its point of difference from other devised shows on these topics is how it explores them through the microcosm of four characters: Lucy, a “feminist lesbian progressive” journalist; Simon, her creepy, manipulative, possibly sociopathic, SEO (search engine optimisation) specialist brother; Clem, Lucy’s Palestinian photographer girlfriend; and Mia, a school-aged beauty vlogger. The story unfolds on the morning of Lucy and Clem’s anniversary. Over breakfast, the two enjoy some cute banter about romance and foie gras, before the moment is punctured – not, judging by Clem’s expression, for the first time in their relationship – by Lucy’s ringtone. A story she wrote about a murdered young boy in Gaza is going viral, but there’s only problem: its sudden fame is built on a lie.

As the story progresses, it and its characters spiral further and further into madness, losing their grip on reality and humanity as they disappear into the clutches of the Internet. Jonathan Peck is wonderfully demonic as Simon, who becomes less and less a real character and more an impish embodiment of all the worst temptations offered by online culture; this is visually accentuated by his gradual removal of costume pieces to reveal a full-body Lycra morph suit in green-screen green. The modern offspring of Puck and Iago, he whispers in Mia and Lucy’s ears, urging them to do whatever it takes to chase online fame and power, past all morality or reason. The only one to resist his influence is Clem, and eventually, she seems to be the only real human left in the story, and we are trapped with her in a splintered nightmare of garbled dialogue and conceptual images. This, I gather, was intended to reflect an online feed which has been twisted and fractured by algorithms until only the most shocking and bizarre content remains… and boy, was it effective.

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Photo by Nathan Chandler

Leaving the theatre was like waking from a fever dream of colliding hashtags and rampant digital capitalism. As I emerged, dazed and blinking in the watery Scottish sunlight, with a suddenly-grotesque nursery rhyme echoing through my brain, I tweeted “this one’s going to need some digesting before writing the review!” Three days later, I think I can finally deliver a verdict: Feed is a sharp, incisive, and very disturbing portrayal of the state of online communication in 2018, for all that its themes are nothing new, and despite a slight tendency to get sidetracked by its own cleverness. Whereas anti-digital artistic content is usually produced by baby boomers and born of mistrusting fear, Feed was created by and with young people, “Digital Natives” adept at navigating the online world and with a good understanding of its workings, and this is what makes it so effective. We all know that today’s society operates largely on an “attention economy” born of digital over-exposure and emotional desensitisation, but Feed brings it home in a way that is visceral and affecting. Just don’t go if you’re squeamish about force-feeding or finger removal.

Feed will play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until the end of this week, and tour regionally in Spring 2019.

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Trump’d by Cambridge Footlights @ C Venues

Written and directed by Joshua Peters, Adam Woolf and Aron Carr

At C Venues, Edinburgh Fringe,  Aug 23-27

This pastiche parody is one of three musicals about Trump playing at the Edinburgh Fringe – perhaps because the absurd American political reality demands the outrageous silliness of an over-the-top panto.

This Cambridge Footlights production, with a Wizard of Oz framing device, dueting Isis members, and fourth wall breaking Mexicans, really leans into this. There’s no detailed political analysis to be found – but plenty of the broad jokes are going to land with an audience who love to hate America. The writers have slipped a few pertinent points into the script: that’s it’s not too late to dump Trump, and there’s always hope.

The backing music for the songs has been borrowed from all your favourite musicals, provided on stage by Ted Mackey and Anthony Gray on keyboards. They’re well chosen – catchy and familiar, they bring a lot of energy to the small cast, making it seem like a bigger budget show.

All the performers are having a great deal of fun – though some are stronger singers than others, all put a lot of heart and personality into their roles and were hilariously engaging. Annabel Bolton’s rapping Hilary is delightful, as was Amaya Holman’s ingenue and Stanley Thomas’ grizzled ‘escort’. The members of the Mexican Resistance, played by Carine Valarche, Capucine May and Henry Eaton-Mercer, got to show off good comedic chops and great dance moves. Dan Allum-Gruselle did a lot with a stiff Austrian accent and several pairs of sunglasses. Jack Bolton, who plays Trump, brings to the obvious long tie, orange face and blond wig a disconcertingly perfect impersonation of the shitty President’s shitty voice.

There’s a lot of laugh out loud moments. There’s also a few disconcertingly dark spots in the play – a reminder that the writers and cast know that the reality is much more serious than they’re presenting to you now, which they’ve decided not to address – which is reasonable. A musical isn’t the place to sensitively portray internment camps or rampant xenophobia.

If you’re looking for an hour where you get to laugh at the most laughable parts of America, this is the show for you.

Tickets

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