REVIEW! GEORGE @ Camden People’s Theatre

Presented by Contingency Theatre
Camden People’s Theatre
Part of Sprint Festival
12 March

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GEORGE is happy at home, in his village, but when an opportunity comes up to meet the wealthy and powerful J in the big city, how can he refuse? He doesn’t want to get left behind, does he?

This creepy and kinetic piece is about losing ourselves to the rat race – not the most original sentiment, but still relevant, and presented in such an original and exciting way. Contingency Theatre have, in their first full-length show, combined scathing social satire and original choreography to make a show like no other I’ve ever seen.

Barbara Blanka is exceptional as GEORGE – active, engaging and emotional through his struggle with how to fit in and retain a sense of self. Max Percy and Igor Smith, along with no costume changes and almost no props, become a range of people and places, pushing or pulling GEORGE into his new role. They are, by turns, vulnerable, intimidating, jocular or inane. There is scripted dialogue, but more interesting is the physical theatre, which is stunning and well executed.

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The live music and lighting design support the performances, bringing the audience into GEORGE’s increasingly claustrophobic world.

This show is about being a young person in a time that might not be now, but may as well be. We’re in a precarious place, economically and environmentally, and we’re in a constant state of panic. GEORGE brings this to life in a fun and funny way. Contingency Theatre is going to be one to watch out for – because if their first show is this strong, I look forward to their future developments.

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Previous review: Church of the Sturdy Virgin @ Vault

REVIEW! Church of the Sturdy Virgin @ Vault

Presented by Dank Parish
Unit 9, the Vault Festival
Part of Let’s Talk @ VAULT Festival
6 – 7 March

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I don’t know why there’s something funny about the word “sturdy” – there just is. Combine it with the concept of divinity and even virginity, and you have a ready-made aesthetic for your interactive theatre show. This flavour of mock seriousness mixed with absurdity, religious satire, and just plain silliness typifies the Church of the Sturdy Virgin which is currently taking place at the Vault Festival as I type.

The piece started with an irreverent funeral procession along the grungy Leake Street, led by gothicky black-clad actors, the audience standing in for mourners. Upon entering Unit 9 – which with its high ceilings, shadowy spaces, and air that distinctly tastes of damp, really does feel like a ‘dank parish’ – we stepped into a wacky and slightly sinister hallowed ground. A winding path into the church proper took us past various nooks and rooms, half-hidden from view, populated by actors being weird and creepy in various ways. The best way to describe the aesthetic of the set design is that it reminded me strongly and favourably of the recent Sabrina reboot: mixed skulls and flowers, leather-bound books, old chalices, sinister-looking curiosities, tattered scrolls… there was even a graveyard section, complete with mounds of dirt, from which bones shone dirty white. I really have to hand it to the set designer, they really impressed me with their creative touches, sourcing of props, and commitment to detail. Despite being small-scale production with, no doubt, an even smaller budget, the set designer created a high-quality backdrop for the show’s action which perfectly supported and enhanced the experience.

Unfortunately, the contents of the play didn’t quite measure up to its set design. In fairness, I did go on a very early night in the run, and with interactive theatre the nature of the beast is that you can’t properly improve and perfect it until you have an audience, so no doubt it is running more smoothly and tightly now than when I saw it, but… there was definitely a fair bit of room for improvement.

Perhaps the biggest problem was that they had a clear structure for the beginning and ending of the piece (ie, introduction to the church and a funeral, respectively), but the momentum of the show got lost somewhere in the middle. We were rushed through the various scenes and activities in a way that felt both frenetic and time-stressed, but also like improvised filler material. Audience interaction was rife, but only ever in a limited or truncated fashion. Despite the fact that we were given secret missions in the past – for example, to discredit the recently deceased, or eke out some scandalous secrets from the disciples/actors – there was never really time or opportunity to act on these. At times there was a tinge of desperation to the actors’ performances, like they were in uncharted territory – which makes sense, if the show was still in the process of being reworked. This meant that often there was a lot of rambling improvisation. Unfortunately, genuinely interesting ruminations on society’s relationship with death, or satirisations of the same, were often lost amongst seas of quirkiness for quirkiness’ sake. 

Criticism aside, there were moments where the show really did work. Three stood out to me in particular, and each made me feel a different way:

  • Mass sing-alongs of classic pop hits as ‘hymns’, the congregation clapping and singing, as the church’s disciples led the performance with perfect poker faces and expression of religious exultation. This sense of incongruity, absurdity, subversion, and hilarity was exactly what Dank Parish was trying to achieve throughout the show.
  • A ritual to exorcise a room (and a woman) of a disturbing spiritual presence. For this rite, four of us (our “family”, which we were allocated at the beginning) needed to take a corner of the room each, in which a small stool displayed a number of items each representing a different “element”. We were told to conjure a memory of connection to our particular element, and to hold onto that as we chanted lines of power and used these elements to purify the space. I honestly did feel like I was connecting to magical forces in that moment! A genuinely mystic episode amongst all the absurdity.
  • The opportunity to write some words of wisdom in the congregational tome. I chose the last words said to me by a loved one right before I died, which I genuinely do try to keep with me and live my life by. Writing them in the book, I saw others’ contributions – most of which were incredibly silly, hamburger hamburger hamburger ha for example – and this juxtaposition made me smile and reflect on the myriad ways that we, as humans, cope with the senselessness of our world.

Overall, I feel that Church of the Sturdy Virgin has the potential to be a really interesting piece of immersive theatre, with some workshopping, tweaking, and tightening of structure. The aesthetic design is already top-notch, the actors were clearly enthusiastic about the project, and some of the concepts were very effective. After a bit of work, this piece could truly become sturdy, and stay sturdy.

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Previous review: A Hundred Words for Snow @ Trafalgar Studios

REVIEW! A Hundred Words for Snow @ Trafalgar Studios

Writer: Tatty Hennessy
Director: Lucy Jane Atkinson
Performed by Gemma Barnett
5th March-30th March

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Photo credit: Nick Rutter

A Hundred Words for Snow is one of the best solo shows I have ever seen, masterfully directed by Lucy Jane Atkinson. The piece was beautifully written by Tatty Hennessy. Without a shadow of a doubt, it is a fantastic five star show.

The Show follows the story of Rory, a likeable and funny 15 year old girl, who sadly has just lost her dad. Rory’s dad was a geography teacher and would-be explorer. He planned an exciting and almost impossible trip to take Rory to the North Pole, but never had the chance. Rory begins a journey all the way from England to the North Pole, carrying her dad’s ashes in her backpack which she plans to scatter at the North Pole. It is so fantastic to see an empowering story about a strong, courageous but also perfectly normal teenage girl. A very refreshing change!

Gemma Barnett is a fantastic performer and a perfect casting for Rory! She has the audience in stitches throughout the piece and is a lovely but also painfully relatable portrayal of a young teenage girl. Gemma played all the characters in this piece, including her mum and the people she met along the way. I was so engaged in every single one of them that I felt like there were two people on stage. It was clear the audience absolutely loved Rory and were supporting her every step of the way.
The design of the show was great. Christianna Mason created a space which was beautiful and the audience believed for every second they were on Rory’s journey with her. There were several effects in the show which were a wonderful part of the storytelling, for example a fan blowing and suddenly the audience were transported into a helicopter in the north pole. I was completely magicked away from London and placed thousands of miles away, which is precisely the reason I adore theatre.

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Photo credit: Nick Rutter

A Hundred Words For Snow is a beautiful piece of theatre which I would highly recommend to everyone, with a faultless performance from Gemma Barnett. It’s fantastic to see this story being put on front of an audience and it is very important to show these stories of young girls. The story really was like nothing I have ever seen on a stage before and I loved it. I cried tears both of sadness and joy. This show will inspire you to go on an adventure, pick up a book or call your loved ones. Personally it reminded me of my childhood where I was desperate to go on adventures around the world like my parents had done. I have since become nervous and scared about doing this, but this show has inspired me to get out there and do it.
Unmissable.

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Previous review: It’s Not A Sprint Novae Theatre @ Vault Festival

REVIEW! It’s Not A Sprint Novae Theatre @ Vault Festival

Writer and performer: Grace Chapman
Director and Producer: Ellie Simpson
Presented by Novae Theatre with Idle Motion
27 Feb – 3 March 2019

Maddy is turning 30, and about to run a marathon. She’s in it alone, with only a balloon and the voice of her insecurities for company. Her best friend is conspicuously absent, her mum is sending texts that are both supportive and worrying, and her boyfriend is waiting at the finish line with a big question. It becomes increasingly clear that Maddy is in denial about a lot of things, ranging from her lack of fitness to where she’s going with her life, but perhaps this marathon will be a chance to work through all these issues and, as a 30-year-old, hit the ground running…

Look, let’s be honest: a one-person show about being a millennial in which the writer is also the performer is likely to be… well, indulgent and mediocre. It’s Not A Sprint bucks that trend. From starting gun to finish line, this piece is compelling, relatable, self-aware, quirky, clever, insightful, and above all funny. Chapman has impeccable comic timing (and just normal timing – it’s tough having an onstage conversation where the other half of the dialogue is recorded, but she nailed it. I’m sure sound tech deserves credit for that too) and a wonderfully expressive face. It absolutely speaks to her skills as a writer and performer that she can take so many everyday and universal experiences and make them into a captivating hour-long performance. There’s not even anything on stage with her except that balloon and a number of sound effects – the magnetism is all her own.

It’s worth mentioning too that, as the piece’s action takes place during a marathon, Chapman spends almost the whole time jogging in place. I, a self-confessed slob, cannot fathom being fit enough to do that – whilst also pouring my heart and soul into a performance which must be mentally and emotionally taxing – but she manages it with only a light sweat. The ebb and flow of this piece loosely matches the demands of the marathon, as Maddy goes through alternating mindsets of nervousness, optimism, determination, despair, self-doubt, and tentative hope. The mix of tension and release is perfect to keep the audience invested without becoming as fatigued as Maddy. My only criticism of the show would be that the ending felt very abrupt, though of course given the nature of the thing, it couldn’t exactly have been wrapped up with a nice ribbon and a neat ending. Sometimes in theatre, as in life, the ending is messy, with glitter all over the floor.

If you’re a millennial going through a mid-(or quarter-, third-, whatever)life crisis and you feel like time is running out and you’re NOT prepared for the future – go and see this piece. And if you’re a baby boomer thinking that our generation is overly fragile and entitled – go and see this piece, and maybe you’ll come out with a better understanding of what it’s like to become an “adult” in a time of such social, political, and economic upheaval. And if you’re just looking for some quality theatre, or a laugh and a think – see this piece. It’s not a sprint, it’s definitely not a slog, and you absolutely must catch it before Maddy ends her run.

 

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Previous review: Smack That (a conversation) @ Ovalhouse

REVIEW! Smack That (a conversation) @ Ovalhouse

Creator & Choreographer: Rhiannon Faith
Producer: Maddy Morgan
Run: 27th February – 16th March @ Ovalhouse

Smack That (a conversation) spoke volumes last night at Ovalhouse – addressing the serious matter of domestic abuse and sharing honest accounts through party games, audience interaction and dynamic choreography.

A close cast of six women, a mixture of non-performers and experienced dancers – all having experienced domestic abuse – welcomed us, the audience, in to Beverly’s party. They were all wearing the same sparkly dress and had the same silver hair; it was obvious they were all Beverly, and as I was passed a name sticker with ‘Tree Bev’ on it (because I had a tree of life necklace on) I realised we were all Beverly too. This persona (a similar setup to the play Abigail’s Party by Mike Leigh) was used to narrate a collection of real life experiences through several methods – choral speaking, energetic movement sequences, and individual monologues (to name a few!).

Rhiannon Faith, Smack That (a conversation), Production photos

Rhiannon Faith, the creator of this powerful piece of theatre, has not only directed captivating and emotional material but she has also simultaneously created a safe space for the audience to wordlessly share their own experiences if they wanted to. This was accomplished through the use of well known party games such as ‘What would you rather…’ with an effective arms up or down method, and ‘Never have I ever’ (a interactive game in which you stand if you have done/experienced what is being said) which started off as “Never have I ever been sick at a party”, for which over half the audience stood up. Then, as the audience became more confident, the statements gradually became more personal; for instance; “Never have I ever been humiliated in front of people I care about” and “Never have I ever had a knife held to my throat.” With this change the atmosphere was tense and emotional as people around the theatre stood.

There are a number of measures in place for the audience’s well-being, for example: a chill out area for anyone needing a break from the show for personal reasons; a qualified therapist at the ready; information available about receiving help from services such as Woman Said. This is one of the first performances I have watched where the audience members are supported and cared for in such a humane and positive way, and this of course provides a comfort to those who did find themselves opening up throughout the performance.

Rhiannon Faith, Smack That (a conversation), Production photos

Stories told verbally and stories that were embodied were equally as moving and raw, and all performers had their own strengths and weaknesses. Some slightly improvised transitions between games, interactions and dances were slightly lacking momentum but this is likely to improve further into the run. Overall the group was clearly connected and acted as a true ensemble. However, one cast member in particular – Valerie Ebuwa – deserves a mention, as she blew me away by being extremely talented both vocally and physically.

You can see the time, research and care gone into this project and its outcome is a shockingly emotional, yet powerfully factual one. Rhiannon Faith has opened the audience’s eyes wide as well as their hearts – this dance theatre piece is like no other, and certainly not to be missed.

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Previous review: Cacophony, Almeida Theatre @ The Yard

REVIEW! Cacophony, Almeida Theatre @ The Yard

By Molly Taylor and The Almeida Young Company
Directed by Michael Bryher
Presented by Almeida at The Yard Theatre
19th – 22nd February

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Image credit: Bronwen Sharp

Cacophony is a new play from upcoming writer Molly Taylor. Set in modern Britain, it tells the story of a group of young people whose lives are rocked by a tragic incident at a protest. In its aftermath, central figure Abbie (played by Annie Hawkins) pens a moving blog post about her experience at the protest, and is unexpectedly catapulted into the spotlight as a prominent feminist activist. Articulate, passionate, intelligent, and pretty, she becomes a Twitter celebrity in short order, finding herself featured on talk show panels and invited to speak at conferences. However, Abbie has a secret that she’s not telling, and it threatens to bring her tumbling down from her new heights of fame, with disastrous consequences.

There is a phenomenal energy to this production, thanks to the powerhouse cast of 17 young actors who play their (often multiple) roles with precision and punch. The story is told as conceptualised flashbacks, a desperate investigation into the past to find how events led to the cliffhanger on which the play ends. I always appreciate theatre with ambiguous endings, and it is especially effective here.

Taylor’s writing is witty and razor-sharp, crackling with humour and social commentary. Michael Bryher has achieved the feat of directing a large cast on a minimalist stage in such a way that it never feels crowded or sloppy – the movement of myriad characters around and over the space is done with exactitude and grace, and the audience’s attention is always focused just where it is supposed to be. Cacophony hums with tension throughout its 80 minutes. Sound, lighting, and visual effects complement and enhance the drama without ever distracting from it. And, again, I must come back to the superb performances from the entire cast, who bring these characters to messy, beautiful, flawed, and vibrant life.

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Image credit: Bronwen Sharp

As is often the case with my reviews, my only criticisms here are more about the social politics of the writing rather than the staging of this production. Although there is a powerful scene in which one of Abbie’s (black) friends points out that Abbie is riding on fame only available to her due to her image as a pretty, young, educated white girl, this doesn’t change the fact that this is a story in which a white girl is placed front and centre while her black friends orbit her – often incapacitated, unwilling to speak, or awed by her. Abbie is a complex, flawed character and this is wonderful, but the final monologue from her (also black) best friend seems to whitewash all her sins and paint her as the character for whom we should have the most admiration and sympathy in this story, despite the fact that… it’s not her, but a black character who is almost killed for her beliefs, and then sidelined for most of the play. Feminist art is almost always dominated by the stories of white women, and this phenomenon is almost painfully obvious in Cacophony. 

That said, this is an awesomely slick, hard-hitting piece of theatre with a lot to say. I am reminded in story and themes of Feed by Theatre Témoin @ Pleasance Dome, which I reviewed during last year’s Edinburgh Fringe – the subject of online activism and the meteoric rises and falls of its darlings is certainly very topical, as is that of the effects of social media on identity and mental health. I hope this production and cast has more performances still to come, and would highly recommend Cacophony to anyone who wants to see some excellent theatre.

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Previous: REVIEW! Hotel Paradiso, Lost in Translation Circus @ Jacksons Lane Theatre

REVIEW! Hotel Paradiso, Lost in Translation Circus @ Jacksons Lane Theatre

Devised by Massimiliano Rossetti and Annabel Carberry
20th – 24th Feb 2019

Relative newcomer to London that I am, I had never been to Highgate in North London before this evening. I didn’t expect, on exiting the tube station, to enter such a beautifully leafy, quiet, almost quaint community! The Jacksons Lane Art Centre is located in a former Methodist church, built in the Gothic style, and the decor inside mixes cosy charm with old church pews. On settling down in the theatre to watch the show (and I think I was about the only adult without a small child in tow), I began to suspect that this was going to be old-style family fun circus, matching its venue. I was right: Hotel Paradiso was exactly the mix of acrobatics, slapstick clowning, pantomime, and melodrama which has been entertaining families for centuries. The plot – about the ragtag staff of a once noble hotel, banding together to fight the evil Banker – was absolutely paint-by-numbers, often made very little sense (as acknowledged by its narrator), and mainly existed as a framing device around the various circus acts.

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These acts included a fair amount of tightly choreographed group acrobatics, as well as aerial performance, juggling, balancing, and hula hoop work. Three of the six performers tended to be the ones doing most of the show’s acts, with the other three seeming underutilised in supporting roles. One performer in particular seemed to be having a rough night, with a fair few fumbles and trips, though these were carried well in-character with an oafish “oops” and goofy grin.

Although the three male performers in Hotel Paradiso did bear the responsibility for all the acrobatic base work, it was really the women who carried this show. Natasha Rushbrooke as chambermaid Talia was elfinly lovely in all her acts, and I found myself especially on tenterhooks watching her twist her limbs into impossible positions as she balanced on a precarious stack of chairs. Her character had virtually no lines, and existed as very little beyond a wide-eyed, beautiful, coquettish young girl, but she played this role with as much sweetness and humour as possible. The character of her mother – the Madame of the hotel – was played by Annabel Carberry, a company director at Lost in Translation. Carberry’s hula hooping skit (featuring more hoops than is compatible with drinking a glass of wine) was definitely the main highlight of the show, combining finely-tuned acrobatic skill with excellent comedy. Some light googling on my way home on the tube revealed that this routine is a staple of Carberry’s, usually performed as a solo act called “A Glass of Red”. It had been lifted wholesale, inserted into Hotel Paradiso, and tweaked slightly to be more or less plot-adjacent…  and I loved it!

However, other than in these two women’s acts, the rest of the show did have a tendency to drag and feel repetitive. I am the least flexible and coordinated person I know, so it feels a bit rich to judge these performers, but I’ve seen a lot of excellent circus in the past year and this company couldn’t really compete. That said, this show wasn’t really for the circus connoisseur – it was for the children in the crowd, who I often observed at the edge of their seat, gaze transfixed, mouth agape, sometimes letting slip loud gasps or exclamations of “she’s going to fall!!” Anything that can keep the enraptured attention of an audience full of four-year-olds must have some spark of magic to it, and so on consideration, I think Hotel Paradiso can best be described as an excellent alternative to the cinema or local playground for anyone with small children.

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Previous review: A Wake in Progress, Fine Mess Theatre @ Vault Festival Cage

REVIEW! A Wake in Progress, Fine Mess Theatre @ Vault Festival Cage

Writer: Joel Samuels
Director: Liz Bacon
Producer: Leila Sykes with Fine Mess Theatre
Wednesday 7th – Sunday 10th Feb

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Stella Taylor and Amy Fleming in A Wake in Progress

The Cage theatre at the Vault festival is a dank and dingy cellar space, where trains rattle overhead at regular intervals and the air is surprisingly hot and muggy for such a subterranean place. It’s somewhere you could imagine stumbling across long-forgotten dead bodies, but that’s about as close as it comes to being funeral-adjacent, let alone a location for a wake party whose subject is still very much alive. And yet, Fine Mess Theatre manage to live up to their name, and transform the Cage into a space for pathos, humour, joy, and a shindig which leaves it strewn with party hats and, brightly coloured decorations, and empty plastic cups of prosecco.

At just over 45 minutes long, A Wake in Progress is both short and (bitter)sweet. It tells the story of a young person diagnosed with a terminal illness, and how they and the people closest to them come to terms with the fact that their time left with them is limited. The five actors play various roles from the protagonist’s life, including lover, sibling, best friend, and funerary celebrant/amateur therapist/narrator (who, played by Stella Taylor, was the standout talent in a talented cast). The audience plays a role in decision-making at several junctures, from naming new characters as they’re introduced, to deciding whether our story’s protagonist decides to buy a dog or go skydiving. On the night I was there I didn’t feel like the cast did the best job of incorporating the audience suggestions in any way deeper than the odd throwaway line, but this was still enough to instill in the audience a sense that we were part of events.

As a result, towards the end (when the titular wake takes place), it felt relatively natural for us to play the role of assorted family and friends – assisting to hand out party hats, pour drinks, pass around sweets, and generally get up and moving and schmoozing. The resultant atmosphere really did feel like a somewhat awkward but overall pleasant soiree – just as it was supposed to be. After all the characters had finished their speeches, we came together to sing In My Life to ukulele accompaniment, sharing pre-printed lyric sheets with the person next to us. With my eyes on the paper in front of me, and my whole concentration on trying to sing along, I didn’t notice a subtle change taking place on stage; when I looked up and noticed what was different, it really did hit me in the guts. This final moment – of loss mingling with a feeling of community and connectedness – was the one which best encapsulated what grief truly feels like, and it stayed with me as I left the theatre.

A Wake in Progress is nicely done little play about life, death, and relationships; yet despite these heavy themes, it manages to stay light and warm-hearted. It is hardly an ambitious project, but with it the artistic team at Fine Mess has achieved a playful, earnest, and amusing piece of theatre which fits snugly with the feeling of the Vault festival.

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Previous: REVIEW! Dracula, Creation Theatre @ The London Library

REVIEW! Dracula, Creation Theatre @ The London Library

Director: Helen Tennison
Writer: Kate Kerrow
Cast: Sophie Greenham & Bart Lambert
2 February – 3 March 2019

Reviewer: Peter Hoekstra-Bass

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Photo credit: Richard Budd

In the aftermath of Anne Rice, True Blood and Twilight it’s easy to forget the original bloodsucker to make us fear the dark, but Creation Theatre’s production Dracula is here to remind us in an evocative fashion.

The twist here is that Dracula takes place in the London Library, amongst the very books that, over a century ago, Bram Stoker used to research his seminal work of vampiric fiction. This is a fact only recently discovered by the library itself, a charming institution that seems itself torn from the pages of a romantic Victorian novel.

Creation Theatre is no stranger to site-specific productions, and has been staging them for over two decades, including last year’s original run of Dracula in Blackwell’s Bookshop, Oxford.

The play itself is a two-hander starring Sophie Greenham and Bart Lambert as Mina and Jonathan Harker, as well as several other secondary characters. In the aftermath of Jonathan’s encounter with Dracula on the continent and the death of Mina’s friend Lucy, we meet the Harkers as they grapple with grief, a new and flawed marriage, and a growing darkness neither of them wishes to address.

Though still firmly Victorian in themes and1950s in setting, Creation Theatre’s production makes great strides in adapting Stoker’s text for the twenty-first century, making it more palatable for a contemporary audience than the at times stilted pace and style of the original (I confess I have tried but never succeeded in reading the book myself).

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Photo credit: Richard Budd

Greenham and Lambert juggle their multiple characters well, but I often found myself longing for them to return to the central imperilled couple, where their chemistry was most keenly felt, rather than lingering on the secondary characters as the script did for large parts of the second act.

And speaking of the second act, the text itself is somewhat bloated, and saw me wishing it has been edited to a tight seventy-five minutes rather than the two hours with interval it stretched for.

As always with horror, whether on screen or stage, the monster is best when left unseen, and in the case of a figure as well known as Dracula, he can work his dark magic best when even left unmentioned. The strongest parts of the play were when the Count’s influence was felt but never mentioned, and despite cunning and eerie use of projected special effects and soundscapes, the monsters were always at their worst when they were at their most palpable.

The audio and visual design by Matt Eaton and Eva Auster respectively was mostly excellent and evocative, with the notable exception of a particularly egregious animated bat that looked straight out of Microsoft Word clipart circa 1998.

For a piece of site-specific horror theatre in as apt a site as you are likely to find, fans of all things vampiric are advised to catch Dracula at the London Library while they still can, as the season is expected to sell out.

Tickets

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Previous: REVIEW! Fight Night by Exit Productions @ the Vaults

REVIEW! Fight Night by Exit Productions @ the Vaults

Produced by Exit Productions, with help from Nadezhda Zhelyazkova at Full Sail Productions
Directors: Joe Ball & Chris Neels
Fight choreography: Jonathan Holby
Cast: Ben Lydon, Brendan O’Rourke, Edward Linard, Hannah Samuels, Jessica Jeffries, Pete Grimwood & Simon Pothecary
30th January – 17th February 2019

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Not everyone is a fan of boxing – the sweet science is not as sportsmanlike as some other popular sports, not as theatrical as some of the other martial arts.

I love boxing – I think it’s like extremely literal chess – but I understand the criticisms levelled against it. Many fighters are injured, some in life altering ways, there’s a lot of corruption, a lot of unsavoury personalities. I find it beautiful because, not in spite, of these flaws – and they’re all on display in this ninety minute show.

Exit Productions have made an ambitious, immersive show that takes you through all the stages of the eponymous night – we see the weigh in, go into the locker rooms, hear the pep talks, cruise the merch table, chat to the bookies and officials – and our contributions impact the outcome of the fight, which is thrilling and beautifully staged.

Dev J. Danzig’s set design uses the curious, stony space of the Vaults well – from the luxurious ringside VIP section to the dodgy blackjack table to the cramped lockers, the place feels authentically like an underground boxing show. The cast immediately establish themselves as clear, distinctive characters, all with motivations, secrets and means.

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The whole audience can get as involved as they like – some people are picked to have specific roles, such as medical assistant or valet, but we all get stacks of chips with which to bet, bribe or purchase merchandise. The actors were engaged and engaging – I spent a lot of time with a slimy promoter, an indebted doctor and an impassioned trainer, who each gave me information and opportunities to alter the outcome of the fight. We discussed head injuries, performance enhancing drugs, female boxers and risking your life for the chance of a pay off. As a judge, chosen on the basis of literally nothing, I then got to sit down and call the outcome of each round – though I and the other judges had been bribed to ensure a certain outcome.

Every audience member might have a particular favourite fighter they want to win – both the insecure loud mouth show-boater Joe Williams and the polite professional with a temper Bam Bam Bradshaw were very likable, though they hated each other. What makes the show so fascinating it that it’s impossible to tell who will be victorious until the final bell. And what does it mean to be victorious? Is it better to take a second round fall, survive to live another day or to fight through the pain and likely concussion? No two punters will have the same experience and no two performances will be the same. In that way, it is exactly like a boxing match.

Like real boxing, I loved it, but I know it may not be for everyone. If you prefer a theatre experience that lets you sit down and not make any choices, Exit Productions probably isn’t for you. If you like to get involved and do some exploring, if you enjoy some uncertainty and anticipation, this is the perfect show.

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