The Bekkrell Effect, Groupe Bekkrell @ Roundhouse

Images courtesy of Massao Mascaro

When I saw the description of this show – French riot-grrrl feminist circus with an all-female cast, inspired by punk and nuclear physics – I had already decided that I was going to love it. Further cementing my confidence that this would be a wonderful night was the fact that I greatly enjoyed the last Circus Fest show I saw at the Roundhouse, RUHM. However, as much as I wanted to love this show, I ultimately left feeling underwhelmed.

The first act was slow to warm up, and consisted mainly of the four performers marching around the stage in stuffy tweed business suits. Parody of masculinity was quickly established as a running theme for the show, with the performers acting out displays of machismo, violence, and dominance with props such as swinging pulleys for genitals (pictured below) and mouthguards to transform their speech into ape-like grunting. The second act was the most interesting, as it contained the most of the show’s actual circussy, acrobatic elements, making creative and often slapstick use of a teeterboard, pole, tightrope, and simple yet effective pulley rope system. The small child in the row behind me giggled his way through this act, which is exactly the delighted response such clowning ought to elicit. However, he was very silent in the third act, which was much more abstract and conceptual, and included moments such as all four performers gathered around a hanging noose-like rope, asking it apparently nonsensical existential questions. The disjointed chaos of this act meant that it tended to drag, and I could feel my own attention wavering at around the same time that the child behind started getting restless and fidgety.

Images courtesy of Massao Mascaro

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the feminist theory behind this show. Circus is one of the performing arts in which roles for women are still sadly limited and one-note, usually centred around graceful, beautiful feats of aerial acrobatics, and featuring petite, pretty women in tight if not outright provocative costume, whereas their male counterparts get the lion’s share of clowning and comedic roles. Seeing Groupe Bekkrell take a stand against this was wonderful. When one performer had a very no-nonsense costume change onstage (no sensual stripping, just completely utilitarian clothes removal and replacement), a male audience member in the front row had the gall to wolf-whistle her; she and her stagemates whipped their heads around to glare at the offender and if looks could kill… In any case, he didn’t do it twice. The acrobatic feats the performers engaged in were similarly desexualised, and it was refreshing to see the women displaying their impressive physical skills without any veneer of performance for the male gaze.

However, the problem was that the show needed to do more than just challenge gender roles to be entertaining, and unfortunately it just didn’t have the substance necessary. We caught glimpses of the performers’ formidable acrobatic skills, but I couldn’t help but feel that they were holding back from properly exhibiting these talents or challenging themselves (and us) in any way except perhaps intellectually. It was too niche and conceptually obscure for a huge, classic circus venue such as the Roundhouse. And I didn’t see much evidence of the promised punk or radioactivity.

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For King and Country @ The Colab Factory

8th April – 10th June 2018

Directed by Owen Kingston

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It’s December 1940 and a German invasion force has landed on the south coast of England.

For several weeks the invaders have been building up their forces on the coast, while the mighty Luftwaffe have pounded the RAF into submission. As the invasion force prepares to strike north and capture London, King Edward VIII refuses the resignation of British Prime Minister Lord Halifax, triggering a constitutional crisis. It is Britain’s darkest hour.

Parliament is recalled, and with all the members of both houses meeting in Westminster, a small group of backbench MPs and their families – designated survivors – are taken to a secure location south of the river Thames. They are completely unaware of the imminent events that will thrust them into the limelight and put the fate of the nation in their hands.

You are among those designated survivors. Your decisions will shape the course of history. Can you save the British people from the invading forces, or will the war be over by Christmas?

 

 

‘Another WW2 Immersive Experience?’ I hear you ask.

Why yes indeed and ENTIRELY different.

For the tacticians or secret logistic experts or people who just love a jolly good debate, this show will be entirely for you.

On arrival, myself and my companion were greeted by Douglas Remington-Hobbs and handed identity cards stating our position or whether we were ‘just’ a plus one’. Mr Remington-Hobbs would be running the evenings events and guiding us as group.

We were walked down into the space and asked whether we wanted to exchange our new-fangled modern money for shillings in order to spend said shillings at the bar.

I really liked this element as it gave us as audience members a chance to shed off our modern identities and step into a new space and the world of the piece.

We were then briefed on the situation in a type of war cabinet style space and the plus ones (myself being one of them) were escorted out of the ‘war cabinet’ as we would not be participating. Rather ironically, we were both women. We discussed with the female character who had escorted us about our right to vote and she encouraged that we speak up for ourselves.

Which we did. The first call of debate however was whether we should.

This got the ball rolling and connected us as a group participating in the further and more increasingly difficult choices at hand.

As a group we had to vote for a prime minister, deputy prime minister, foreign secretary, war minister and propaganda minister.

We then had the chance to go into different parts of the space getting involved in different activities, projects, and further choices, then coming back together again for renewed debate based on what we’d done.

I made the choice to wander round overhearing pockets of conversation, different interactions with characters and the various war missions. You could however devote yourself to one or many depending on your role or general temperament.

Without giving too much away as I really encourage this as a show to be experienced blindly, various things are revealed, and you can invest and investigate as much as your heart should desire.

Each show will be entirely different based on your choices as audience members and the way the show is constructed.

Each character is entirely engaging and interesting and a lot of time and devotion has been put into making them real, believable and people that you want to connect with.

I loved that the group I was a part of was a real eclectic mix of people, not just artsy theatre types. A group of ladies, a few young couples and an older pair dressed like they were from WW2.

For my taste, and it was possibly because I chose to actively stand back and watch others rather than entirely engage, there wasn’t enough variety in activities in the show and the stakes didn’t nearly feel high enough until the last moment. I discussed this with my companion and he entirely disagreed which I feel is important to state.

A very engaging and lively evening and another success for Colab Theatre.

More immersive experiences please and thank you.

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Bismillah! (An ISIS Tragicomedy), Wound Up Theatre @ Pleasance Theatre

24th Apr – 13th May 2018
By Matthew Greenhough
Directed by Jonny Kelly

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The Downstairs theatre space at Pleasance Theatre is a temporary structure, and walking into it feels like entering a shipping container, or perhaps a bunker, which sets the mood well for this play which takes place in an ISIS interrogation cell. The thrust stage is mainly empty (vaguely wartime-looking debris littered around the edges) except for a man in ripped and stained Army-ish attire, handcuffed to a pole, with a black bag over his head. He is dancing along to Queen.

The audience settles in, chattering over the blaring music, only watching the pathetically dancing figure from the corners of our eyes. We cycle through a few tracks, and when the opening chords to I Wanna Break Free play, my friend chortles, “appropriate!” Then the actor starts to manically sing along. We discover there is a reason he’s in comedic theatre rather than musical.

The music is dramatically cut short, and the other actor enters: a glowering Middle Eastern man in guerilla combatwear, brandishing a pistol and some basic rations. The play proper begins, and the next 75 minutes are the best of my week, as I am expertly guided between laughter, sombre socio-political reflection, fear, tension, and emotional investment in the characters and their fates.

Before entering, I had some reservations about Bismillah! (An ISIS Tragicomedy). Making light of topics such as extremism, Islam, the war in Iraq, and West vs East is a risky business, and when written by and starring a white Englishman, I was concerned that the perspectives could be reductive and one-sided, punching down rather than up. These concerns proved to be completely unfounded. The play’s two characters laugh at each other and themselves in equal measure, and while both are clearly pining for home in England, at no point is the West held up as being inherently superior to the East. The distinction between radical Islam and actual, everyday Islam is made subtly but firmly. “Danny’s” experiences of racism and disenfranchisement in the UK are realistic and affecting, as are Dean’s feelings of economic insecurity and individual powerlessness in the 21st century world. A number of complex socio-political debates are touched upon with sensitivity and nuance, even between the dick jokes and pop culture references, and this play does not profess to hold all the answers, but it examines various perspectives with honesty and nuance. I had brought along a Northener friend as my plus one/cultural guide, who afterwards explained to me a number of the local references and insults which had gone over my Aussie head. In the end, my friend and I agreed that our only criticism of the show would be of the quality of its sound effects, but even that was very minor.

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Both actors shone in this production, especially writer-performer Matthew Greenhough. Ricocheting between comedy and tragedy, bants and terror, compassion and anger, the portrait he painted of an unrefined but good-hearted English lad was compelling and believable. At first I wasn’t totally convinced by Elliot Liburd’s portrayal of Danny – I thought his acting was somewhat overdone, and his constant frenetic energy came off as nervous – but as the play progressed and we learnt more about his character, I realised that these were probably conscious choices which meant that later when Danny’s mask began to drop, his vulnerability was all the more affecting. Liburd’s comedic skills, especially his facial acting, were excellent, veering just close enough to ridiculousness without being too absurd for the genre.

Watching Bismillah, I was forcibly reminded of a classic Australian play from the 60s called Norm and Ahmed, by New Wave playwright Alex Buzo. I think Buzo would agree with me that Bismillah is the 21st-century, English version of this same play, in terms of genre and format (back-and-forth between two men who are cultural and political opposites, but who find shared ground in common human experiences), a shocking ending (no spoilers!), and racial and political commentary. The main ideological difference is that Bismillah is about two young men: they are of the generation with the chance to define the future. The strains of terror, humanity, violence, anger, compassion, insecurity, and hilarity all intertwine with one of hope. Hope, for Dean’s survival and escape, Danny’s redemption, and for the future of the Earth and its warring inhabitants. Is this hope ill-placed? Is it too late for Dean, Danny, and for us? You’ll have to make your way to the Pleasance Theatre before Bismillah’s run is over to find out.

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The Nature of Forgetting, Theatre Re @ Shoreditch Town Hall

Review by Lauren Russell

24 – 28 April, 2018

by Theatre Re
Conceived & directed by Guillaume Pigé

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Photography by Danilo Moroni

Tonight, at Shoreditch Town Hall, I watched one of the most tremendously moving pieces of theatre I have ever seen. ‘Theatre Re’ has hit the nail on the head with this physically astounding show ‘The nature of forgetting’.

A likeable, agile, committed cast of 4 performers, one of which conceived and directed this phenomenon; Guillaume Pigé, took the stage by storm and filled the space with contagious energy. They explored the raw essence of what it is to be human by delving into the mind of 55 year old Tom who has dementia. His memories vividly played out before us, from his mother prepping him for school, to his first kiss, his first love, his first loss.

Due to the play being utterly captivating throughout it is difficult to pin point the highlights as the energy never once dropped. However I particularly like the use of the bicycle, which comes when Tom remembers riding to school, and the way he and Isabelle (whom was played by the amiable Louise Wilcox), as school children, innocently play with one another. Their pure enjoyment on stage was certainly mirrored by the audience.

It has to be said, ‘The Nature of Forgetting’ had one of the greatest live soundtracks I have heard accompany such talented performers, composed by Alex Judd it was satisfyingly brilliant, and without such music the piece would not hold the same weight. Complicité was achieved through the perfectly organic connections from actors to the choreography to props to music to lighting. The complex mime sequences throughout were clear enough to understand regarding the storyline, yet were also wonderfully open to an individuals emotional interpretation (So glad there was no spoon-feeding malarkey).

Ultimately, this is not to be missed. I could have watched this show a thousand times over and still noticed something new. The whole audience was inspired; the young were motivated to create the greatest of memories, the old were reminded of their fondest moments. An incredible achievement to create something so physically intricate yet simply beautiful. ‘Theatre Re’ are certainly worth watching, and ‘The Nature of Forgetting’ is absolutely unforgettable.

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Citizen, Suitcase Civilians @ The Space

April 24 – May 5, 2018
Written by Sepy Baghaei & The Company
Directed by Sepy Baghaei

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The 25th of March is ANZAC Day, when Australia commemorates its fallen Defense members in past and present wars. This was my first ANZAC Day in London, and I spent the evening watching a documentary about Austrian Jewish children who escaped the Holocaust by fleeing to London and Australia. Their stories were harrowing, and the film ended with these survivors entreating future generations never to let similar atrocities occur. Fast forward to the following night, and I am sitting in the audience at The Space, about to watch a play about dual citizenship and the real, ongoing experiences of persecuted Iranians, including one being held in an Australian detention centre for no reason other than (legally) seeking asylum.

It was the story of this man, Behrouz Boochani’s, which resonated most with me, in this play which weaves between the experiences of a number of Iranian immigrants interviewed by the playwright, the suffering of unjustly incarcerated Iranians such as Boochani and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and more abstract scenes including a social scene between two Iranian women which the third actor commentated David Attenborough-style, as though it were a wildlife documentary about exotic wild animals. This was not verbatim theatre for the main part, however it seemed to draw quite directly at times from real people’s experiences, and was dedicated to telling their stories. As such, there was no real plot to follow, and at times the action onstage lost momentum somewhat, but overall the various segments flowed together well. This was because they were united by a common theme: the Iranian immigrant experience, with all its grief, humour, passion, and fear on display.

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It was a pleasure to go on this journey with the three actors, whose magnetic appeal and versatility of talent guided us in the audience through laughter, tears, anger, shame, and political/ethical quandaries. I was particularly bowled over by Nalân Burgess and her grace and poise, flawless accent work (I thought at first that she genuinely was Australian, then English, then Iranian, then American, then I gave up trying to guess), nightingale singing voice, perfectly nuanced comedic acting, and the sheer amount of stage presence which emanated from her small frame.  David Djemal was almost equally impressive, both in comedic scenes such as the “how to make an Iranian” cooking show segment, and when delivering the sombre, powerful words of Boochani. During these segments I couldn’t help but hear echoes of another man’s story: that of Freddie Knoller, who as a child barely survived Auschwitz and had been interviewed for the documentary I’d seen the previous night. Hunger, humiliation, dehumanisation, and physical and psychological torture – is this going to be Australia’s legacy in the 21st century, as was Austria’s in the 20th?

Many of the perspectives related in this play were those which have been explored countless times before in art about displaced peoples, diasporic culture, and immigrant ethnic identity. However, the way it presents them, interspersed throughout personal stories, comedic skits, political commentary, and beautiful celebrations of Iranian culture and tradition (beautiful and delicious – shoutout to David for rescuing my cup of tea when I nearly dropped it, fumbling after the dates he was offering around the audience) felt fresh and unique. The choice of venue – in a converted church – was also the perfect setting for a play about Islamic people seeking sanctuary in Western countries and having to sacrifice a portion of their cultural identity in exchange. (However, the impressive old building clearly has its drawbacks as a theatre space – technical issues with lighting meant that the show got off to a false start, and needed to reset and begin again from the top about ten minutes in.)

This piece was a wonderfully moving, intelligent, fascinating, confronting, entertaining, and overall multifaceted piece of art. Upon leaving it, I was galvanised into action, emailing and calling my MP in Australia, signing online petitions, and sharing articles about some of the issues referenced in the play. This, to me, is what theatre is at its best: a way to better understand our fellow humans, and also a powerful call to action. Please, make sure you catch it before it ends its run in a week’s time.

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Free Solo @ The Drayton Arms Theatre

17 April – 3 May, 2018

by Jack Godfrey & Celine Snippe
Produced by Alice Greening

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Free Solo is a fantastic new musical written by Jack Godfrey and Celine Snippe, directed by Nick Leos and musically directed by Flora Leo. It follows the story of the Robinson Family in the lead up to John Robinson’s daredevil Free Solo Rick climb. Based on the true story we watch as, eleven years on, Robinson’s daughter Hazel reflects on the events that led up to her father’s climb.

Set to a folk-rock score, this new musical is sensitive, with fantastic movement and really human moments. Cecily Redmann was delightful as Hazel Robinson. Her voice was strong, and she safely navigated the changes between young and old Hazel. Simone Leonardi was an absolute stand out as the infamous John Robinson. His voice beautifully conveyed the sensitivity behind the music and gave a fantastic, human approach to the character.

Despite a few technical hitches, this musical was a thoroughly enjoyable watch, highlighting the importance of family and raising questions about responsibility and identity.

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Merchant of Venice, Sh*t-faced Shakespeare @ Leicester Square Theatre

21 April – 2 June, 2018
Directed by Lewis Ironside
Magnificent Bastard Productions

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Image credit: Rah Petherbridge

Look, Sh!t-faced Shakespeare basically does what it says on the tin: a production of one of the Bard’s plays, in which one (classically trained) actor is horrendously drunk. A liver-protecting schedule means that it’s a different actor each night – on Thursday, for Press Release night, it was Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Louise Lee). I honestly don’t know how someone her size managed to down the alleged eight bottles of lager and double vodka & orange without becoming catatonic, but actors are well known for their alcohol tolerance, I suppose!

We were welcomed to the show by Saul Marron in a ridiculous outfit introducing the rules of the drinking game artistic conceit of the production and disparaging an audience member’s inability to blow a bugle. (Two audience members were given noise-making devices to use if they wished to make the actor take another drink; a third had the less fun task of… holding a bucket.)

Then the play proper began, and with it, the suspicion that any and every character might be the hammered one – but when she stepped on stage it was instantly obvious that she was the one. The Merchant of Venice is not one of my favourite Shakespeares and I don’t know it intimately, but I’m fairly sure the original doesn’t have any Monty Python references, incest, calls to the Yorkshire cops, cabbage-related murders, or intermittent squawks of “aaaaaaaaaaargh” when a line went missing (which was… often). It was difficult to tell whether Lee’s level of intoxication was genuine or played up, but either way, she was certainly embracing it, and the audience was in fits of laughter as she stumbled and babbled her way through the play. The other actors’ reactions to her improvisations – and subsequent references to them throughout the play – were almost as comedic; it was clear that everyone in the cast was having an absolute ball, and taking the audience along with them.

Merchant of Venice is, of course, a tricky play to stage as a comedy in modern times due to its anti-Semitic nature and extremely problematic ending; the last production I saw of it, at the Globe, tackled this by having the tone take a dramatic turn at the end, flipping from comedy to tragedy. Needless to say, Sh!t-faced Shakespeare’s version was a far cry from the Globe, but I actually preferred their revisionist change to the ending, which entirely circumvented the grotesque tragicomedy of the original script (as I’m not sure how much was improvised and how much planned, I won’t spoil how this was achieved). However, this whole-hearted commitment to silly, crude comedy did mean that some of the play’s most affecting moments – if you prick us, do we not bleed? – felt cheapened and flat.

The question that kept running through my mind as I sat in the audience was, What would Will think if he were here watching this? I suspect the answer would be a) he wouldn’t understand a word of the improvisations because language has changed so much, but also b) if he did understand it all, Shakespeare would love it. The high school English curriculum can be blamed for drying out Shakespeare’s plays to the point of desiccation, and the resulting impression that his work is stuffy, serious, highbrow stuff, but I suspect that what I saw on Thursday night was probably closer in spirit to what Shakespeare’s troupe would have performed in his time. I am all for a return to accessible Bard.

All that said, there’s really not much to Sh!t-faced Shakespeare’s production of Merchant other than its titular gimmick, and having to cram a condensed script as well as improvised drunken shenanigans into 70 minutes took its toll on the material. If you’re after a belly laugh, and are already a few drinks the worse/better for wear yourself, this production will make for a fun evening with a few mates; but don’t expect much more than that.

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Mountains: The Dreams if Lily Kwok, Yellow Earth @ Stratford Circus Arts Centre

22 March – 2 June, 2018 (Tour)

by In-Sook Chappell
Directed by Jennifer Tang.

Full dates and locations of the tour can be found here

Mountains is a beautiful new play by In-Sook Chappell that highlights the importance of identity and asks important questions about choice.

As we open, the scenery design immediately invokes a true sense of the hustle, bustle and grit of Hong Kong. From the off we are spun a tale of three generations of women, with Grandmother Lily Kwok, taking Helen on a retelling of her life, and how she ended up living in Manchester.

Even just watching this play, you could feel the energy of something truly new and exciting being performed. The play insightfully and sensitively navigated the topic of colonialism and classism in British Hong Kong and Manchester at the time. Taboo ideas, such as Chinese problem-gambling, were highlighted in a stark but meaningful way. Director Jennifer Tang has done a fantastic job in highlighting these issues while never loosing sight of the story of family at the play’s core.

Sui-See Hung and Tina Chiang delight as the colourful Grandmother and Daughter and deserve the success this play is having. Their performances are insightful and evocative. Ruth Gibson also deserves a mention for her portrayal of Mrs Woodman. Her depiction of a colonial Brit in Hong Kong shows great humanity and subtlety to a role which could so easily have been used to lambaste a generation.

This play was a stand out from start to finish. If you are London-based, there are performances in Bury-St-Edmunds and Watford, and I strongly urge that you catch this play before it’s close.

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Reared, Bold & Saucy @ Theatre503

4 – 28 April, 2018
by John Fitzpatrick
Directed by Sarah Davey-Hull

Bold & Saucy Theatre Company

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Photography courtesy of The Other Richard

BAFTA nominated writer John Fitzpatrick has delivered a moving and marvellously engaging fly-on-the-wall family drama. It’s a character-driven piece full of surprises, dark comedy and heartfelt moments held together by a terrifically talented cast as three generations of women clash and struggle in a too-small house.

Shelley Atkinson is pitch-perfect in the role of strained wife Eileen, vainly trying to keep her household from falling apart as tensions mount. Paddy Glynn is wonderful as Nora, the acerbic and increasingly senile mother-in-law whose performance pendulums from hilarious to heart-breaking. Danielle Phillips’ rebellious teenage Caitlin too is a joy to watch, unexpectedly delivering my favourite rendition of a Lady Macbeth speech that I’ve ever seen, along with bitter sarcasm and vulnerable moments of confession as she tries to find her way. Adding to the chaos and comedy are Daniel Crossley as the avoidant and ineffectual father, and Rohan Nedd who is side-splitting as a clueless teenage love interest. They are all an absolute pleasure to watch.

In addition, Sammy Dowson has designed a set that feels like it’s been moved wholesale from someone’s actual house. It’s incredibly detailed, reeling you in from the moment you enter the space. A half empty bottle of washing-up liquid and drying dishes sit by the sink, empty wine bottles stand by the recycling bin, childhood memorabilia hang from the walls, and innumerable other pieces of family detritus clutter every available surface.

The play leaves some unanswered questions, but I was glued to my seat from beginning to end. With dynamic direction and intelligent writing, this is not a show to be easily missed.

 

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Plastic, Poleroid Theatre @ The Old Red Lion

3 – 21 April, 2018

by Kenneth Emson
Directed by Josh Roche

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Images courtesy of Mathew Foster

Heading up the stairs from the pub to see Plastic at the Old Red Lion builds the right kind of excitement. Plastic takes us to a quintessential Essex school football pitch as we follow the lives of three students. Lisa, jack and Ben, as well as Lisa’s older boyfriend, Kev. We open on a football field, reliving the past. This is perfect, as the seating is somewhat bleacher-like and we are all able to take drinks in with us – it already felt like a football match. Kev is scoring in the Essex cup final, before we are introduced to all the characters, hearing their hopes and dreams in Kenneth Emson’s beautifully lyrical writing. In fact, if there is one reason to go and see this play – it is the writing. Lines intersect each other and seamlessly carry the story, using everyday language in an elevated, poetic way. It’s like Shakespeare, only fully accessible.

Director Josh Roche, and Lighting designer Peter Small and Sound designer Kieran Lucas have brilliantly designed and realised this play. This is a play where all the elements in design and visual direction helped bring this story to light. It was as thought through and well-crafted as the writing. The stage was simply pained up with white lines, creating a football pitch. It was only after the play that I noticed that in particularly tense moments, the cast neared the goal. The soundscape served to heighten the mood and parts from one strongly and somehow misplaced piece of classical music, was noticeably effective. The lighting was cool and was used perfectly to segment moments, change days and create atmosphere.

Look, it’s difficult to find any fault with this play. It was sublimely acted. All four actors skilfully handed rhyming verse, making it seem as though they thought in pattern naturally. Madison Clare was a standout as Lisa, skilfully walking the line of innocence and mischievousness. Louis Greatorex was fantastic, pulling all the right heartstrings. His performance was the most nuanced and alive – even when his character was simply watching what was happening on stage. Thomas Coomes served a suitably volatile Ben. His job was the hardest, his character the most outwardly charged and turbulent and he pulled this off solidly. I think he had us all worried with his violent mantra repeated throughout. Mark Weinman gave a fantastic performance as Lisa’s boyfriend. He created a performance that carried the play through it’s narrative. I can’t gush enough about the acting here – it was incredible.

I think I should mention that the themes of this play are bold and daring and horribly close to home. We deal with sex, playground politics and a nobody whose mantra is a list of school shootings. The cast navigates these beautifully. There are laughs in amongst the general electric foreboding. I don’t think anyone left the theatre in the same mood they came in. Thought provoking and tense throughout, I strongly recommend you get a ticket before it closes on the 21st.

 

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