GUY, Leoe&Hyde @ The Bunker

Music, Production by Stephen Hyde

Book, Lyrics by Leoe Mercer

Directed by Sam Ward

16 June – 7 July

GUY is a fun, fresh musical about friendship, love and Grindr. The music was slick, catchy computer pop – think SOPHIE and Sam Smith – and the lyrics were packed with word play and nerd references. It’s a minimalist show, with four actors, an almost empty set and a pre-recorded score but it does so much with this. Each actor displayed a polished, engaging performance – singing, dancing, deploying excellent comedic timing and dramatic chops. I couldn’t identify a stand out performer, since all four were strong talents who were a joy to watch.

It speaks to the the paucity of media by and for queer people, but it was relieving to see a story with no straight people in it. It’s not a story about homophobia or coming out or finding your identity, or even AIDS – all worthy stories to be sure, but it’s nice to see what’s essentially a gay rom-com. Which is not to say the story takes place in a queer utopia – Grindr, the story’s framing device, is famous for distilling racism, sexism and body dismorphia into the callous dismissal: “No fats, no femmes, no asians”. All these issues are identified and addressed in the show – there are shades of Cyrano De Bergerac in that so many characters feel they have to hide themselves from those they love due to perceived prejudice.

The show has the breezy positivity you want from a musical about falling in love, and the exceptional cast keep you engaged throughout an hour and a half run with very little lag. I recommend this show.

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Kiss Chase, Second Circle @ The Bunker

Written and directed by Hannah Samuels

Devised by the company 

11 June – 7 July

Kiss Chase is an interesting piece of interactive devised theatre which combines short monologues and audience participation to present varied and unique perspectives on romance and relationships.

At first glance, the theatre seems like it’s set up for an ice breaking, team building activity that corporate insists will be good for sales. It’s like speed dating, but less fraught by sexual tension. Audience are given numbered labels which correspond to a clip board that waits for them on a chair. Everyone starts the night with a partner, though we’re warned that we’ll be swapping throughout – the point is not to find true love, but just connection. There’s an emphasis, as the show progresses, on secrets: what kind are kept, and for what reasons.

Our “hosts” Ben and Ruth (well played by Topher Collins and Rayyah McCaul) are warm, if a little tense, and talk us through a series of activities designed to get you to spill your guts. There’s some kind of undercurrent between them throughout the show – not exactly romance, but something they need to talk about. Some of the guests are also playing roles – spotlighted and speaking their thoughts to the whole audience. Each of the actors were talented in their moment, and I expect fairly good at improvisation – one of my partners from early in the show turned out later to be a character, which made our conversation about our jobs both weird and impressive. Some audience members volunteered to share their own thoughts on relationships, and I would have enjoyed if this happened a little more. The show would benefit if there was more time and encouragement, because all the actual audience participation was fascinating.

There’s no particular plot or resolution to the show, which accurately reflects the real world – brief connections, half glimpsed secrets, unanswered questions.

It was an interesting, creative and fun show that felt at times a little underdeveloped.

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The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, The Elufowoju jr Ensemble @ Arcola Theatre

7 June–21 July 2018
Directed by Femi Elufowoju, jr

Text (novel) by Lola Shoneyin
Adapted for the stage by Rotimi Babatunde

Credit: Idil Sukan

I am so, so glad that I went to see this play. It was so different to everything else I’ve seen in London – like a bowl of spicy Nigerian yam after a steady diet of bland bubble and squeak. Right from the moment I joined the queue for the (sold-out) Saturday matinee session, I could sense a different atmosphere to that usually found in an off-West End theatre, and I was very conscious that for once in my life, I possessed some of the palest skin in the room. The audience seemed to be comprised of many large groups – families, groups of girlfriends, whole communities crammed into Arcola Theatre’s many-tiered seating. They were quite possibly the most responsive audience I’ve ever seen, laughing uproariously at all the jokes, drawing shocked gasps at revelations, sighing and groaning at characters’ misfortunes, and often (seemingly involuntarily) answering characters’ rhetorical yes/no questions as they soliloquised. It was a pleasure to be drawn along by their energy, which echoed and amplified that of the performers.

Not that the performers were in any way lacking in energy: in fact, they crackled with it. This ensemble troupe is comprised of ten actors, seven women and three men, and each of them plays multiple roles, sings, dances, plays instruments, performs as a chorus-like ensemble, and often sits amongst the first row of the audience, reacting along to the anecdotes and events on stage. Through them, we are introduced to the scandalous story of a household in Nigeria, and its four main characters: Baba Segi and his four wives, Iya Segi, Iya Tope, Iya Femi, and Bolanle. We get to know Baba Segi and each wife in turn, learning about their origins, trials and tribulations, and the decisions and fates which led them to this household. Once we’re all caught up with the local history, we follow the family as it investigates the mystery of youngest, most educated wife Bolanle’s seeming inability to fall pregnant.

Credit: Idil Sukan

This play is belly-achingly funny. Every actor has impeccable comic timing and is able to transform any line into a punchline through playful use of voice, body, and face. Sometimes, this propensity towards comedy can border on the uncomfortable: it is not often that heavy topics such as marital rape and what is effectively female enslavement are played for laughs. (Upon skimming though the script provided with the programme, it is worth noting that a number of relationships and sexual encounters were originally written as unpleasant or non-consensual, but were changed for the positive for the final version. I am very grateful for this!) However, perhaps disguising these topics as jokes was a way of sneaking criticism and condemnation of them into the play without moralising. Or perhaps my discomfort was simply due to my status as a cultural outsider. In any case, such moments were certainly confronting and provocative, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, is it? I do wish, though, that the ending had provided a clearer judgement on the moral(s) of the story, as Baba Segi’s and Bolanle’s final addresses to the audience provided a strange mixture of unrepentant misogyny and enlightened feminist empowerment.

This mix of old and new, tradition and progression, superstition and science, sexual liberation and sexual oppression, form a constant motif of the play and reflects the type of isolated yet rapidly modernising community in which it is set. This divide is explored both in caricature and in nuance, and we see a sympathetic side to every character portrayed, even if they are would-be murders or abusive husbands. There is one notable exception in the form of an unnamed rapist: it is no coincidence that this is also the most Westernised character in the play, and the only one who speaks English without an African accent. This play, for all its mockery of antiquated gender roles and superstitious/religious clap-trap, thrums with pride in West African culture. Sexual courtship is portrayed through dance, grief through ululating wails, and all manner of things from celebration to mourning to everyday cheerfulness through song. The entire play thrums with rhythm, even when drums are not present on stage, and the actors never miss a beat. They don’t need any setting other than a few armchairs and occasional props (a birthday present, a sinister jar, a fetish whip, etc): the performers’ bodies form the foreground and backdrop, their simple yet vibrant costumes providing all the colour needed.

Credit: Idil Sukan

Although the entire cast was outstandingly strong, I feel it fair to say that the standout performers were Patrice Naiambana as Baba Segi and Jumoké Fashola as Iya Segi. Both wove complex characters who were sympathetic despite their chauvinism and nastiness, showing us the festering wounds which caused these defects: loss of innocence and freedom, bitterness, vulnerability, gullibility, fear, insecurity, jealousy. And despite having many of the play’s most poignant moments, these actors were also the ones most likely to have us clutching at our sides with laughter!

Look: if you don’t see this play before its run ends on July 21st, you will be sorely missing out. This is theatre with a difference, with a spirit, which will open your eyes and worldview. We need more like it, but it seems unlikely that anything of a similar style and calibre will pop up on the London theatre scene any time soon, so catch it while you can!

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Cassandra, Found in Translation @ Blue Elephant Theatre

Directed by Ollie Harrington
Written and Produced by Rose Goodbody
12th-16th June, 2018

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Photo credit: Caitlin MacNamara

Cassandra has always been one of my favourite figures in Ancient Greek myth. A prophetic priestess who spurned Apollo and was cursed forever to see tragedy before it unfolded, but never to be believed – the romance and pathos of her story is incredibly affecting. I have always felt that she was definitely the most compelling and underutilised character in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, so I strongly approve of Found in Translation Theatre Company’s decision to refocus the story on her and rename it accordingly.

 

Today, two and a half thousand years after Aeschylus wrote Agamemnon, the concept of a highly gifted woman being punished for refusing to give herself to a man is still sadly relevant in our society. Found in Translation chose a timely moment to produce this play in the wake of #metoo and #timesup, and capitalised on it with not-so-subtle allusions to modern figures (at one point, Paul Irwin’s Agamemnon announces directly to the audience “Make Mycenae great again!”). I loved the reworking of Cassandra’s backstory with Apollo: he may be a god, but his treatment of Cassandra, with all its jealousy, manipulation, and power play, is textbook abusive behaviour and all too human. Hayden Tyler’s Apollo, with his golden good looks and booming deep voice (seriously, I could barely believe at first that it wasn’t digitally augmented), stood in as the archetype of bruised masculine ego, both fearsome in his power and pathetic in his pettiness.

The play’s set design in Blue Elephant’s small space is minimal, and the empty space allowed for some wonderful stage combat/dance choreography. Hanging curtains by the sides of the stage serve both to conceal exits and also to evoke a Grecian feeling, and other than that, the only things on stage are a couple of wine goblets on a small stand, and a long red cloth which is variously and creatively used as a symbol of seduction, victory, holiness, captivity, violence, and pride (most translations of Agamemnon refer to a “purple” cloth, but since there is historical dispute over ancient names for colours, and red works better symbolically today, I think this was an excellent design choice). Costumes were mainly modern, but draped toga-like for the women characters (the Advisor and Watcher were played by women, but effectively served as sexless characters in terms of the play’s gender politics). Other than said costumes, and the Advisor’s clipboard, the play remained very firmly Ancient Greek, which is a shame – I feel that writer Rose Goodbody could have gone a step further in fully transforming this piece and placing it within a modern setting, and cutting even more of the dialogue, which tended Greek-style towards telling not showing. As it is, it sits somewhat awkwardly between being a modern translation and a true adaptation; perhaps “reinterpretation” is the best word.

As mentioned above, I have a long-standing love of Ancient Greek myth and theatre, and was already quite familiar with Agamemnon before entering the theatre last night. This was lucky, as there was a fair amount of assumed knowledge about the mythology, particularly the legend of Troy. I’m not sure if a newcomer to the genre would have followed the plot as well, or caught a number of the relatively oblique references to offstage events and characters. This is perhaps something that needs to be worked on, considering Found in Translation’s mission statement is to “produce work that promotes education in the arts and Classical subjects to those that don’t have easy access.” It’s also a shame that the piece’s complex and sensitive commentary on abusive relationship dynamics and gendered discrimination was obscured by the melodramatic treatment of the play’s plot. The King and Queen, and to a lesser extent the Advisor, were almost cartoonish villains, both in dialogue and acting. Agamemnon’s stupid smirk and Clytemnestra’s rage-filled, twitching eyes did not allow for any exploration of character complexity, and the constant use of shouting to convey anger is always exhausting for both actor and audience. Director Ollie Harrington should have spent more time with these actors, developing layers of subtlety for their characters.

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Photo credit: Caitlin MacNamara

Jade Clulee’s role as the Watcher – the only commoner in the play, and often comic relief – allowed for some more compelling characterisation, and despite some stilted dialogue Clulee managed not only to make the audience chuckle, but also to create a relatable and endearing character. I was always sad to see her leave the stage. However, the standout in this performance was, of course, its lead. Lyna Dubarry as Cassandra was absolutely captivating every moment she spent on stage, in which time she was often addressing the audience directly. She showed us Cassandra’s memories of courtship with Apollo, told stories from her time in Troy, lamented her current situation, prophesied the doom to come, and often simply mused on the helplessness of voiceless, powerless women. Despite Cassandra’s constant apathetic sorrow, Dubarry managed to create a compelling character, pitiful without being pathetic. The soft lilt of her accent (Dubarry is French-Moroccan) serves wonderfully to remind us that Cassandra is a foreigner in Mycenae, isolated from the other characters. Only the Watcher attempts to truly connect with her, in a touching scene which adds a much-needed sense of sweetness and hope to the play.

Overall, Found in Translation’s Cassandra is an ambitious play with some excellent concepts and design, and has great potential to be an engaging and relevant Classics-based text for a modern audience. I would strongly urge the creative team to consider workshopping the dialogue and characterisations further, and to play up the script’s and cast’s strengths: giving voices to the voiceless, and showing us the flawed yet beautiful humanity which drives all tragedy.

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Machinal @ The Almedia Theatre

4th June-21 July 2018

by Sophie Treadwell

Directed by Natalie Abrahami

One of the best plays I’ve seen in a long time. 

Love!- What does it amount to! Will it clothe you? Will it feed you? Will it pay the bills?”

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Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 play ‘Machinal’ is set in modern day New York City and at times it is scarily relevant to the climate today. The directorial decision to set this play in the modern world makes for a very interesting and eye-opening evening.

Machinal is inspired by the true story of Ruth Snyder who was executed for murdering her abusive husband. The play is spilt into nine episodes which each give a different insight into the main character’s life e.g business, home and family life. These short bursts of action are intimate and explosive making the play very gripping throughout the entire piece.

The performances by the whole company are very captivating. The ensemble represent a machine in several scenes which is done flawlessly. The leads Emily Berrington and Jonathon Livingston are both excellent. There were times I felt hate for Jones (played by Jonathon Livingston) and both empathy and fear for Emily Berrington’s character. The characters are fascinating and it was very easy for me to connect with them.

The set design by Miriam Buether is stunning. A cleverly placed mirror gives another view of the stage which I found myself watching at times and this portrayed some beautiful imagery.

Every aspect of the theatre process comes together beautifully in this play and the whole piece feels like a machine, which perfectly represents life in a busy city. Emily Berrington’s portrayal of the main character leaves the audience to decide whether they believe she is a victim of circumstance and abuse or a mentally ill person. The eerie play finished on the line of ‘I will not submit’ which feels like a woman rebelling.

I would thoroughly recommend seeing this play for its interesting portrayal of the 1928 feminist play and the incredible set design.

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A Fortunate Man, New Perspective @ Camden People’s Theatre

Written and directed by Michael Pinchbeck

Thursday 14th June- Saturday 16th June- Camden People’s Theatre

Friday 22nd June- The Pound Arts Centre

Sunday 24th June- Blackfriars Theatre and Arts Centre, Boston, Lincolnshire

Wednesday 1st August- Sunday 26th August- Summerhall, Edinburgh Fringe Festival

An intellectual look into a Country Doctor’s life

A Fortunate Man Matthew Brown credit Julian Hughes

New Perspectives Theatre Company have developed this play based on the book ‘A Fortunate Man’ by John Berger. The play follows the story of the day-to-day life of a country doctor, John Sassell. John Berger and Swiss photographer Jean Mohr created this book which is still widely read by medical professionals. Sadly, the doctor John Sassell killed himself after the book was published. The play also explores the doctor’s personal life and his mental heath.

The storyline of this play is interesting and the script is very good, some lines are direct quotes from John Berger’s book, and the quotes are very touching. However, it did feel like the audience were given a lot of information at once which made it hard to connect. The information was delivered through a microphone and read as if we were attending a conference. This style was clever but I feel the play would be more engaging if there had been more action on stage.

Both actors Matthew Brown and Hayley Doherty are strong and have a fantastic and energetic relationship on stage together. The performers and storyline make it easy for the audience to empathise with the doctor and also to feel involved in the community in which he lived in.

The set was quite plain and simple which worked nicely and fitted the piece. There are projections of both the life of Sassell but also of the NHS today. These pictures were interesting but the current ones of the NHS didn’t have much effect on the audience.

A very interesting play and an important story to be told.

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Two, Clueless Theatre @ Drayton Arms Theatre

Written by Jim Cartwright
Directed by Kyle Cluett
Performed by Debbie Griffiths & Piers Newman
At Drayton Arms Theatre 10th – 11th June, 2018

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This was some of the best pub theatre I’ve seen in a while! This minimalistic production of Cartwright’s classic, two-person, quintessentially English play hits all the right notes. The intimate theatre space is perfect to help the audience feel like the denizens of a cosy Northern pub, and as the play progresses various characters talk to and banter with us, as if we were sat around the room on bar stools rather than theatre seats.

Two may only feature two actors, but through the course of the performance we encounter fourteen different characters, comprising:

  • a jealously abusive man and his clearly traumatised partner;
  • a lost young boy;
  • a woman with a lust for macho men and her partner who is…not;
  • a conflicted Other Woman;
  • an old man dealing with the loss of his wife;
  • an old woman dealing with the ageing presence of her husband;
  • a sleazy would-be Casanova and his long-suffering would-be fiance;
  • the most adorable elderly couple wearing matching beanies and sweaters; and
  • the landlord and landlady.

These last pair are our hosts, commentators, protagonists, framing devices, and also form the through-thread which keeps the play from pointless meandering. Right from the beginning, their banter has a bite to it, an edge of bitterness which hints at more under the surface. Piece by piece, interspersed between encounters with other bargoers, the ugly wound at the heart of their marriage is revealed to us.

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Both Debbie Griffiths and Piers Newman reveal themselves to be consummate artists and talented character actors throughout their many roles in this piece. Griffiths in particular has an excellent sense for comic timing, and Newman almost brought me to heartache tears during his monologue as the lonely old widower. Both actors have an excellent feel for all of their roles, creating a wide range of strongly characterised yet nuanced personalities, all while keeping the rough honesty of working-class Northern culture. It is clear that both actors, and director Kyle Cluett, understand the play completely on all its levels, and I got the feeling that their artistic choices only improved on the value of the script (which did occasionally show hints of contrivance and cliche, as well as being slightly dated by its 80s provenance, and sometimes suffered from an ambition to touch on so many complex topics that it was unable to properly explore them).

My only criticism of the production is entirely superficial: the stage setting included a high school gym-esque basketball court, with big cutout letters strewn over the floor and walls. I gathered eventually that these were incidental, possibly belonging to a previous or subsequent production, but I did waste a certain amount of brainspace trying to figure out the significance of this apparent set design! (EDIT: I have since been informed that Two is sharing the space with a concurrent run of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. This checks out.)

Clueless Theatre’s Two is on tour and will be performing at both the Camden and Edinburgh Fringe festivals in August; for more information, see here. This production may not be groundbreaking in terms of content or style, but it is one of the few pieces of theatre which manage to capture a glimpse of what it means to be human – both the good, and the bad. I definitely recommend it.

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I am of Ireland @ The Old Red Lion Theatre

5 -30 June, 2018

by Seamus Finnegan
Directed by Ken McClymont

Shenagh Govan and Euan Macnaughton in I AM OF IRELAND, credit of Michael Robinson

As I enter The Red Lions Pub Theatre on a busy Friday evening ready to watch the exciting new play ‘I AM OF IRELAND’ by Seamus Finnegan, I realise I have little knowledge of the history of the Troubles in Ireland. But, I’m telling you now, I was certainly about to be told.

The dimly lit black box theatre was creatively designed with rope, chairs, paintings and wooden crosses all hanging (as though frozen in the middle of an earthquake) against two walls; a busy backdrop to the large wooden square outlining the stage. Music was playing, not particularly emotional, just light hearted and (of course) Irish related. The show began with the patriotic song Ireland’s Call sung acapella as the cast filtered into the space one by one, dressed (some of them comically) as well known Irish stereotypes. All singing with equal enthusiasm. The atmosphere created was one of unity and pride, you couldn’t help but smile and wish you knew the words to sing along.

The beginning certainly transported us to Ireland and gave us an insight into the contemporary issues (and well, the play carried on to give us a lot more than just an insight). Not long into Act 1 I began to feel overwhelmed with information, as though I was sitting through the last revision session before an exam and trying to cram in as much as possible. About racism, the Troubles, faith and religion (both Protestantism and Catholicism), the IRA, the loyalists and the ex-patriots (and everything in between it seemed). These were obviously topics which Finnegan has a rooted passion for (and rightly so), however the ambitious dream to address them all equally and theatrically; all of these character’s each with a story to tell, involved in all of these topics, and giving us all of this information at once… it was just overbearing, and instead of keeping us in this Irish bubble it gradually alienated the audience.

Although the context was jam packed, Finnegan’s writing is exceptional in bringing out the understated truthful emotion of the characters. It was the perfect cast; all of them effortlessly changing between roles and displaying each character with integrity, humour and understanding. The likeable Euan Macnaughton, with his honest blue eyes and rich Irish tone told many a story through (lengthy, yet well executed) monologues. Shenagh Goven was a force to be reckoned with, her powerful voice and strong demeanour (and not to mention her brilliant comic timing). Every time she entered she brought the stage alive.

Sean Stewart, Shenagh Govan and Angus Castle-Doughty in I AM OF IRELAND, credit of Michael Robinson

‘I AM OF IRELAND’ was full of short snappy scene’s which were cleverly directed by the capable Ken McClymont. The overload of information is forgivable due to the believable cast and enjoyable, relevant soundtrack. I certainly left that warm little pub with an education, and grateful I witnessed such talent.

 

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Review by Lauren Russell

Brain Rinse @ Blue Elephant Theatre

Created and performed by Mike Raffone
Directed by John Whelan
Rinse Productions
Friday 1 June – Saturday 2 June

 

Mike Raffone in Brain Rinse

I like the vibe of Blue Elephant Theatre. Tucked away in a Camberwell back in the middle of a council housing estate, this theatre feels cheery and cosy. The volunteer staff are friendly and chatty, and the armchairs in the upstairs bar/foyer are just the right type of comfy. This is a theatre company which prides itself on bringing performances to a community which may not have much experience of theatre, and I gather that most of my (dozen-odd) fellow audience members fell into that category. This was fortunate, as they were just the right type of demographic for this show.

Mike Raffone (yep) is an experienced street performer and entertainer, with Brain Rinse being his first full-length one man show. The (fairly thin) premise is that he, a Northern ninja, is going to train us, the audience, to discover our inner ninjas also, via a journey through our minds: not a brain wash, you understand, just a light rinse. The whole “ninja” thing – the costume, the faux martial arts, the faux Japanesey war cries – was extremely cringey, in more ways than perhaps intended, but thankfully he wasn’t the only character: we also encountered an Army sergeant, a mountaineer, and a sex cult guru, thanks to some comically awkward costume changes behind a screen.

This is a show which relies heavily on asking the audience to come onstage and embarrass themselves in a range of ways. These include, but are not limited to: star jumps, pushups, pulling an “orgasm face”, being a “man mountain” which Raffone would then “mount” and conquer, “tantric French kissing” (no touching but lots of tongue), reciting Shakespeare, and much much more. The comedy is that old classic – laugh at a man doing silly things, then laugh at him making your unprepared friends do other silly things in front of an audience. And at time, it absolutely works! Some audience participants were terrified, others were good-natured and goofy, some even return some light fire, and one even discovered within herself an unexpected flair for performance (shout-out to Dawn!!). The hardest laugh for me was not at any of Raffone’s jokes, or even any of the victims’ actual stunts, but at the soft and helpless “oh, no” uttered by a hapless audience member as he realised that he was the next to be picked on.

This is entry-level theatre, entry-level interactive comedy, designed – much like street theatre – for your average Joe Bloggs who will be reliably intimidated by audience interaction, not too bothered by political correctness, and likely to dissolve into nervous laughter. I would not recommend this show to seasoned comedy or cabaret punters, as they may run the risk of undercutting some of Raffone’s jokes by being too comfortable taking part, and nor would I recommend it to those who may be made seriously uncomfortable by innuendo-laden personal space invasion (I can’t say I overly enjoyed having to have “tantric intercourse” with an older, male, audience member… even though there was no actual touching, we were instructed to go at it with thrusting motions towards the crotch accompanied by loud grunts, not something everyone wants to do with a complete stranger). However, if you’ve never strayed much into the cabaret/interactive theatre/comedy genre and fancy some silly fun with your friends (and yes, you can dob them in to be picked on), this show could be a good place to start.

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Don’t Panic! It’s Challenge Anneka, on the button @ The Bunker

29 May – 9 June 2018
Devised and performed by Sophie Winter
Directed and co-devised by Ben Hadley

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Sophie Winter as Anneka Rice (photo courtesy of Paul Aitchison)

I am a woman with anxiety on my way to see a show about a woman with anxiety, when I realise that I have put the coordinates for the wrong theatre into Citymapper and now have to power walk one kilometre to the correct one. Not a great start. I arrive sweaty and red, puffing and panting, five minutes after the performance has begun, trying to kid myself that arriving to this show in a state of high anxiety is basically just a Stanislavski-esque reviewing technique.

However, as soon as I am calmly and forgivingly ushered into the dark subterranean space of the Bunker Theatre, my heartbeat starts to return to normal. The performer is wearing a bright blonde wig, a terrible 80s puffer jacket, a bum bag, and a welcoming smile. The stage is empty except for a large cartoonish old-style TV, a big rug with rainbow stripes reminiscent of TV colours bars, and a mound of cushions in cheerful colours. There is a nice comfy cushion on my seat. This feels like a safe space – I am reminded strongly of my kindergarten teacher’s classroom.

I have done some basic googling on my way to the theatre, so I know that Challenge Anneka was a TV series from 1989-95 (with a brief 2006-7 reboot) starring Anneka Rice, who completed – on camera – charitable projects in a very short timeframe. This woman in front of me looks like an approximation of that blonde, confident, almost manically capable woman. Her challenge today? To cure the anxiety of one of her biggest fans, Holly. Over the course of this challenge, we meet a wide variety of characters (all portrayed by versatile comedian Sophie Winters), both onscreen and onstage (I loved the various dialogues between a character onstage and another onscreen, which must have been tricky to memorise and get to the point where they were natural, well-timed, and comedic!). A number of methods for tackling anxiety are floated by various characters encountered – from yoga to facing your fears to having sex to Zoloft – and Anneka and Holly delve into her experience of anxiety, its symptoms, causes, and effects. There is light audience interaction, and I am required to give up my cushion in order to help Holly move house, but I don’t mind. A man offers Holly gummy bears while she’s having a panic attack, and I am strongly reminded of Tom Baker’s Doctor. But that’s not really relevant to this review.

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Sophie Winter as Holly (photo courtesy of Paul Aitchison)

For the most part, Don’t Panic! It’s Challenge Anneka is light, playful, and feels like an educational children’s show, with just enough of a wink-wink self-awareness to make its silly premise work. The audience is never the butt of any jokes, and when Holly is, it’s clear that we are laughing with her and not at her, or her anxiety, which is important. However, there are times when it strays into more serious territory: the moments when Holly has a panic attack on the Tube, and another while a UCL scientist gives us a lecture on neuroscience, for example. The blurred vision, multiple conflicting intrusive thoughts, heavy breathing, and descriptions of claustrophobia and nausea hit a little too close to home for me, but thankfully weren’t taken too far for my limits. It helped that throughout, Winters was (in character) only ever kind, empathetic, and understanding to her audience and any sufferers of anxiety. The final resolution was, as admitted by the temporarily character-less narrator, not very dramatically satisfying, but it was realistically, cautiously optimistic about life with anxiety. A special video cameo at the end hit the perfect final note and left the show feeling balanced and well concluded.

My only criticisms of this performance would be the following: 1) It sometimes meandered a little, and could have done with more narrative tension or structure – perhaps something as simple as a checklist of “tasks” Anneka would complete? Or a countdown, to mimic the original TV series? 2) For sufferers of stronger anxiety than mine, some of the themes and staging decisions could be somewhat confronting and/or triggering – if a warning to that effect was in place, I might have missed it in my late rush, but one was probably necessary. 3) The descriptions of anxiety were very basic-level and at times reductive; I realise that this show was intended as Learning About Anxiety 101, but some discussions about the different types of anxieties, the history of the disorder, and social causes (rather than just neurological) would have been welcome to make the show a little more interesting and thought-provoking for those more familiar with the topic.

On balance, this show was a well-researched, sensitively crafted, gently humorous, and simply a kind exploration of what it’s like to live with anxiety. I would especially recommend it for older children and young adults, those who are just starting to wonder if they might have anxiety, and anyone who has a friend or loved one with anxiety and who wants to learn more about their experiences. Tackling anxiety is certainly a challenge, but just like Anneka, you don’t have to do it alone.

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