Bluebird @ The Space  

24 July – 4 August, 2018

by Simon Stephens
Directed by Adam Hemming
Presented by Space Productions

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I ventured to The Space in East London on a warm Wednesday evening to watch Bluebird by Olivier award-winning playwright Simon Stephens, and I have no regrets. Upon entering the square black box theatre I was surprised by the dynamic staging of a raised platform shaped as a cross with seating in each corner. As I sat listening to ‘All Saints’ singing ‘Never ever have I ever felt so low…’ (on hindsight, a perfect choice) nothing could prepare me for the stories I was about to be told (and how brilliantly they were told!).

We followed the working day of taxi driver Jimmy Macneill, played by the incredibly talented John Kearne, as he drives a diverse range of people down the streets of London. Within the scene’s each ‘fare’ (the person getting the taxi) opens up to Jimmy, sharing secrets, experiences and opinions. This text-based show could have been a lengthy nightmare. However, it was successfully put together by the director Adam Hemming who obviously had an eye for detail, which is incredibly important in such an intimate space. Each scene was given the space to breathe yet kept its pace, and the text was certainly the focus (as it should be with Simon Stephen’s words!). The naturalistic style was on point, especially the driving by John Kearne, and it allowed us to be completely immersed in the characters and their stories.

Subtle, yet effective transitions lead our eyes to different points of the stage and were an essential break between the emotional storytelling. Similarly the props and set were minimal and always relevant. It is important for the space to not be overcrowded when the focus is on the actors, especially when you have a cast like this one! I was blown away by the talent on stage; one of the first ‘fares’ in Jimmy’s taxi was Robert Greenwood, played by the captivating Mike Duran who delivered his monologue with such honesty and emotion that I could not hold help but hang off his every word. Similarly, Anna Dolan, who played the role of Jimmy’s wife Clare Macneill, was a force to be reckoned with. She is the type of actress I could watch perform every night for a year and still be amazed.

Space productions drove me to reflect on my own life, and consider the hopes and regrets people live with each day. An incredible piece of writing matched with an incredible cast… you would be crazy not to go see it!

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Lamplighters, Rogue Productions @ The Old Red Lion Theatre

24 July – 18 August 2018

Created by Neil Connolly and Dean Rodgers
Rogue Productions

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Winner of the London’s VAULT Festival 2018’s People’s Choice Award, Lamplighters is a hard-to-forget night out. Neil Connolly plays host in a part spy-thriller, part improv-comedy farse that sees it’s audience moonlight as secret agents with hysterical results.

The show takes you through a very familiar spy adventure plot with clandestine meetings and high-pressure heists. The catch is that Connoly himself only hosts, every shady character, corpse, location, mission objective and piece of musical score, is plucked from the audience.

It’s just a ton of fun. No other way to put it. Even if you don’t want to participate, this show will have you in stitches.

Connoly is a magnetic and very charismatic host. the mechanics of the show’s gameplay is very clever, the lights and props and staging work wonderfully to enhance and create all sorts of comedic effects, which are entirely participatory in the shows descending chaos.

As with all improv comedy, I imagine it’s very dependant on the audience on the night. I was lucky enough to be in a group who revelled in the experience as much as Neil himself did, and who happened to be hilarious in their own right. It was a big bonus for me, but I can guess that even on a bad night this will be a show that leaves you grinning from ear-to-ear.

If you are looking for a good night out with a mate, look no further.

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Weird, Some Riot Theatre @ Theatre503

21st-22nd July @ Theatre503

1st-27th August @ Bunker Two – Pleasance Courtyard

Written by Lucy Burke

Directed by Peter Taylor

Performed by Amy Doyle

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WEIRD is Some Riot’s Theatre current production travelling up to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer. Prior to this, they have produced an array of work including Glitter Punch which was awarded the People’s Choice Award at this year’s Vault festival.

WEIRD is a production about one woman’s battle with mental health issues, primarily, OCD and depression.

This piece is timely.

Mental health is a hot topic at the moment.

More conversations are being had.

And it is a theme being thoroughly explored in the creative industry at present, with productions like Milly Thomas’ Dust now getting it’s transfer to Trafalgar Studios.

In WEIRD, a young girl called Yasmin has had to defer her final year of university due to her OCD and depression.

Amy Doyle brought youth and dashings of humour to a character who could have been unrelentlessly sad.

Lucy Burke’s writing veered more towards humour which was refreshing. It is all to easy to allow a piece like this, to wallow in it’s sadness but the humour of the script and versatility of Amy Doyle’s performance gave the audience the chance to explore fully the ins and outs of OCD sufferers whilst also being able to laugh at the sheer madness and oddness of the condition itself.

This is how the stigma of mental health needs to be broken. With productions like WEIRD examining the condition without taking themselves too seriously.

Amy Doyle’s clear transitions in physicality explored Yasmin’s interactions with friends and family. This was seamless and done without pantomime. I must admit, there were a few glitches when the tempo increased in conversations with Yasmin and her sister and the definition became slightly messy but this was an Edinburgh preview, so I’m sure it will be something that is worked out.

Lighting and sound transitions worked really well allowing us breathing space between each interlude of Yasmin’s present life.

For me, the ending didn’t work. There was not enough clarity in the ending and I was unsure as to what had actually just happened and it didn’t make a clear enough statement.

This was a well conceived and performed production exploring mental health in a humorous and refreshing way.

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Where the Hell is Bernard, Haste Theatre @ Blue Elephant Theatre

10th July, 2018
Haste Theatre
Featuring: Elly Beaman Brinklow, Jesse Dupré, Valeria Ross, and Sophie Taylor

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Image credit: Rarar Su

Haste Theatre’s current work in progress, Where the Hell is Bernard?, is an exploration of a dystopian future in which people live dreary, monotonous lives devoid of any pleasure or individuality, controlled by an authoritarian power known as the Vine. The story follows Pod 17, a unit of four women who dress in matching platinum blonde wigs and shapeless khaki jumpsuits and move, work, and live in unison and silence. When citizens are “evaporated” at age 50, it is Pod 17’s job to sort through their possessions and assign them to new pods for reuse. However, one day a citizen named Bernard does the unthinkable: rather than proudly stepping up for the honour of this death, he defies the social conditioning and ends up on the run. Pod 17, left holding a box of his posessions and clothes, finds cryptic and poetic instructions hidden within them, encouraging them too to break free from the Vine and embark on an adventure to discover themselves and the humanity denied to them.

This performance is a creative mix of mime, live song, movement, clowning, and abstract dystopian drama. With only six characters including the disembodied voice of the Vine and Bernard’s spiritual presence, portrayed by the four onstage actors through puppetry and mime, we see the futuristic society solely through the Pod’s experiences. The set, designed by Georgia de Grey, is flexible enough to stand in for a number of settings, from factory-style office to nursery to nightclub to forest, and is reminiscent of classic 70s-era sci-fi: white, glowing, and minimalistic.

In fact, much of the atmosphere of the piece is very much like twentieth-century sci-fi, with its anxiety about totalitarianism, the future, state surveillance, technology, and loss of connection to nature and maternity – it was impossible not to think of Fahrenheit 451 as the pod members explored an outlawed library. This re-emergence of narratives from the Cold War is a trend which reflects the current sociopolitical climate, most obvious in the success of the recent TV serialisation of The Handmaid’s Tale; however, in this new era of dystopic “speculative fiction”, the centre of the thematic anxiety tends no longer to be technology, but rather humanity, and this is also true of Where the Hell is Bernard. Although the core of the Vine seems to be a giant glittering server, and its maternal/authoritarian disembodied voice has hints of AI about it, an exceedingly clever twist on the ending suggested that instead, the villain of this story is an inherent part of the human condition. Can the new generation tear down a broken and oppressive system in order to create a newer, fairer, freer society? Or are we doomed to repeat the mistakes of our parents? Is all social struggle pointless if the powerless are always corrupted by power as soon as they attain it? Even if none of the concepts in this show were exactly innovative, their presentation through this type of performance art was ambitious, and the ending helped create the payoff which the piece had lacked up until that point.

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Image credit: Rarar Su

This is not a finished work, evidenced by some discrepancies between the events onstage and the plot description online, as well as a number of plot holes and issues with the fictional world’s lore (if pod members are all totally uniforms and identity-less, why do the “evaporated” citizens seem to have been allowed such unique costumes and possessions, and why are they being recycled on an individual scale? Why are the pod members literate if reading is banned and not necessary for their work? If the Vine is so omniscient and omnipotent, why do they struggle so to catch the four pod members on the run? Why was there a forbidden rave club apparently up and running for the women to experience alcohol and flirtation, and who was there with them?). However, the abstract, surreal nature of the shows was such that I was able to mostly suspend my disbelief and enjoy the beautiful synchronicity and dissonance of the performance before me, and contemplate its questions and themes without examining too closely the vehicles used to take me there. I expect, too, that many of the flaws will be ironed out in further development, and that when I drop by Assembly George Square to see them during their Edinburgh run, the show will be of even higher quality. So, taking into account the in-development of this piece, its ambition, the skill of the performers and devisers, and the way it made me turn it over and over in my mind afterwards, I am satisfied that Where the Hell is Bernard? is deserving of four stars.

 

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Apologies to Blue Elephant and Haste Theatre for the tardiness of this review.

Pigspurt’s Daughter, Daisy Campbell @ Hampstead Theatre

11th – 14th July 2018
Written and Performed by Daisy Campbell

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In Pigspurt’s Daughter, Daisy Campbell marks the 10-year anniversary of her father cult theatre figure Ken Campbell’s death.

At the beginning of the show, Daisy Campbell tells us that she has been putting off sorting through the artefacts of her father’s theatrical legacy for the decade since.

The stage reflects this, boxed shelves display comedy props such as Ken’s joke-shop dick nose and laughing mirror (his cure for depression), posters from his many shows, media quotes, close-ups of his buttocks shaped nose, his notebooks, The Illuminatus Trilogy that he famously adapted, and other texts that have informed his work; a shrine-cum-studio-cum-storage unit amongst which Daisy performs her first one-woman show.

Daisy invokes her father’s legacy as a comedic genius and experimental theatre-maker, telling his stories; performing a nasally Ken Campbell instantly recognisable to the audience. Daisy’s childhood was spent watching her father’s one-man shows, hanging out in the Hackney Marshes where they lived on their boat The Snark, and attending Robert Mckee’s Story Structure Course. Daisy has used this education to architect a memoir fitting of a master storyteller.

Daisy Campbell is a spell-binding performer – confident, charismatic and enticing as she weaves together seemingly disparate events and ideas into a swirling tapestry of meaning (and mycelium). Early in the show Daisy relates the findings of the split-self experiments of neuroscientist Gazzaniga, the contents of which she encountered in an old documentary narrated by her father. Daisy explains that there is a gap where the self should be and what in fact inhabits that gap, according to Gazzaniga, is our interpreter, or as Daisy prefers to put it, her storyteller. The storyteller’s job is to make sense of the world, creating the illusion of meaning and purpose, only masquerading as the Self. As Robert Mckee puts it, the story exists in The Gap between expectation and what’s really happening. Incidentally, Mckee thought Ken Campbell was the greatest storyteller he ever met.

Daisy becomes suspect of her own storyteller and its “soap-opera sensibilities”, and decides to feed it a glut of story set-ups, mystifying it by handing out tarot cards to friends without explanation or the possibility of pay-off, challenging the storyteller’s ability to produce meaning, and so in over-drive, it finds meaning in everything. Daisy reports how things get weird when you mess with your storyteller, but this is just the beginning as Daisy begins to see and find Gaps everywhere.

Through a series of semi-serendipitous events, threaded together like the hyphae of the recurring image of the mycelium, Daisy is possessed by her father’s demonic character Pigspurt, (from his Evening Standard Critic’s Choice Best Comedy awarded show at the National Theatre of the same name) through an accident of gastromancy, a rectal invocation of dead spirits. (In the original NT production of Pigspurt, the demon is finally exorcised when Ken finds the female buttocks that matches the shape of his nose.)

Her father as Pigspurt takes over the voice of her storyteller, making a deal with Daisy that she can use Ken’s old stories if she promises to drive the story to the end of the line, to find Robert Mckee’s Negation of the Negation, and so to go farther than her father. So naturally, Daisy begins seeking the solution to exorcise Pigspurt, to get her father out of her arse so she can then figuratively get out from inside his arse and locate her missing Self. Daisy references the disappointment she was to Ken for not becoming a Russian gymnast or someone who whazzes particles together at CERN in Switzerland.

If the ideas in the show seem dense, complex and the allusions sometimes lofty, they are. But Daisy Campbell is a compelling, warm guide through these entwined ideas, inventing the perfect theatrical vessel to honour her father, and the worldview and stories she inherited from him. And she’s just so outrageously funny doing it, her charm, irresistible; on the knife-edge between child-like and preternaturally canny.

The play crept up on themes of grief, loss and love without a hint of the performative pain that sometimes rides shotgun to these topics, addressing instead the feeling that is revealed by these experiences, of a collapsing narrative; and the sensation of a Gap where your Self should be.

And while you might be tempted to reduce the piece to its thematic jus like I have just done, the strength of the work lies in its refusal to be simplified. The power of the story is in its swirling associations and circuitous exploration of the Gap and the Self, complicating the need for definition with its form, artfully hijacking narrative to ultimately discredit it.

Daisy both questions the compulsion to create meaning and fill “the Gap” while also enriching the autobiographical show with the many fictions that were the foundation of Ken and Daisy’s relationship. While it’s very clever, it’s also just full of really entertaining, outlandish micro-stories and robust comedy.

Daisy does provide Act 3 pay-offs, the Negation of the Negation turns out to be something hilarious and disturbing, performed in Ken’s old fat-suit. The subsequent resolution is so Hollywood and comparatively clichéd within the overall show, that fresh surprise is found in the obviousness of its revelation; a tongue-in-cheek ending provided after Daisy has spent the last 2 hours challenging our desire for a recognisable narrative arc (re:protuberance). As Daisy confirms in conversation with her dead father, she made narrative the antagonist. Her way of seeing the world, a hallucinogenic.

The structure may at some points feel convoluted, but I think this show is comedic, meticulously crafted genius and a joyful ride from start to finish. You don’t need to be familiar with Ken Campbell’s work, Daisy does a fantastic job of bringing the man to life in front of you, and produces a show that services the idea of him as a beloved public figure while still illuminating a relationship, if peculiar, between a child and parent who was larger than life, and the need to live up to and beyond them.

As Ken Campbell used to say, “Critics never tell the truth, namely that in actual fact it’s all bollocks”. As I couldn’t resist such an easy feed, this show is hilarious, human, esoteric, relatable, dizzying, exceptional bollocks.

31 August        The British Library, London

9 September   Slung Low’s The Hub, Leeds

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The Family Blimp, Klump Company @ Blue Elephant Theatre

21 – 23 June 2018
Klump Company
Chloe Young, Megan Vaughan-Thomas, Ulima Ortiz, and Arthur Dumas

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The Blimp family has moved to the UK, and mother Evelyn and father Phillip struggle with opening the door to their new house, let alone controlling daughter Emily and baby Dioxyne! The beginning of this show seemed innocuous enough – straightforward slapstick clowning and buffoonery, with the support of a few novelty props and classic white facepaint. For these first five or ten minutes, dialogue was minimal and/or in exaggerated French, but then the character of community leader Jocelyn Price was introduced in the form of a booming voice emanating from a picnic hamper… and things started to really get interesting!

These four recent graduates of Ecole Jaques Lecoq, Paris’ internationally famous physical theatre school, devise and perform as a collective without any director. According to the theatre manager, they were a pleasure to host at Blue Elephant, and almost manically cheery throughout their time there, though this may have had something to do with the gallons of coffee they powered through every day… And honestly, I can see why they needed it, as this performance was chock-full of creative and physical energy. This was both a strength and a weakness: sometimes the action onstage seemed to hurry through conceits and plot points which would have been more effective if explored at greater length, and as a result the story sometimes felt quite disjointed and oddly paced (for example, I loved the family game show section, however it began and ended so suddenly that I couldn’t really get into it as I’d have liked to). I also felt that the ending of the narrative was a little abrupt and not particularly satisfying; personally, I’d have closed it off with the family coming full circle, and appearing on a new neighbour’s doorstep to sinisterly welcome them to the community…

Really though, the fact is that this show had far too much to offer for it to all cram into 45 minutes. The Blimp family’s trials and tribulations may have been grotesquely, cartoonishly comic, but they did also provide some very astute commentaries on the experience of new migrants to the UK navigating the unspoken expectations of British social life and its concepts of respectability. I particularly enjoyed the exploration of the disconnect between British attitudes of welcome to our neighbourhood, we value multiculturalism and we expect you to assimilate and learn to play by our rules. We were provided with a unique viewpoint on all of this by the positioning of the audience as both within the Blimps’ home, witnessing private scenes, and also as part of the wider community looking in from the outside and judging. The periodic breaking of the fourth wall kept us on our toes, particularly when the creepy, malevolent baby Dioxyne started taking an interest in audience members! Speaking of Dioxyne, she and her sister Emily really stole the show from their onstage parents; I don’t feel that this was a reflection on any of the actors’ abilities, as they all seemed very evenly matched, but rather that the two children were given the wilder roles, while the parents were often stuck playing the straight man.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable short performance which left me wanting more, and even thinking about the meat of its subject matter afterwards – unusual for a clowning show! The Klump Company artists certainly have a bright future ahead of them, and I hope they keep developing The Family Blimp to best showcase their obvious comic, creative, and sociopolitical talents. I’ll be looking out for them at the Edinburgh Fringe, and beyond!

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Finally: my deepest apologies to the Klump Company and Blue Elephant Theatre for the extreme tardiness of this review. This is a reflection on developments in my personal life, and not in any way on my enjoyment of the show.

Peepshow, Circa @ Underbelly

27th June – 18th August 2018
Directed by Yaron Lifschitz
Devised and Presented by Circa Contemporary Theatre
Performed at Underbelly Festival’s Spiegeltent

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Images courtesy of Kurt Petersen

This was, quite simply, phenomenal cabaret circus. I sat transfixed in Underbelly’s Spiegeltent for 60 minutes and forgot the world outside existed, as the six performers – four women and two men – moved fluidly and gracefully through a series of acts encompassing dance, hoops, physical comedy, aerial silks, and superb displays of acrobatics. Unfortunately on the night I was there, the trapeze artist pictured in promotional materials was not performing, but he was barely missed amongst the rest of the extremely talented cast.

According to director Yaron Lifschitz, Peepshow explores the concept of “looking and being seen”; the performers navigate through light and darkness, visual effects and illusions, and the states of observer and observed. Classic cabaret tropes and techniques are twisted and subverted – I was pleasantly surprised to see that two of the acrobatic bases were women, and it was wonderful to see a break from the usual convention that only male acrobats must be strong and muscular while their female counterparts are small, lithe, and sexy. (Side note: one of the performers looked for all the world like a fourth Hemsworth brother and the most attractive, not to mention the most physically talented!) Which is not to say that the women in this show weren’t sexy – at times they were, but they were not confined to this. And although there were some classic displays of performative masculinity, including a gracefully choreographed dance fight, there was also a feeling of gender and sexual fluidity, not to mention homoeroticism. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that the objectification of the performers was equal, deliberate, and self-aware, all of which only made it more devastatingly effective. The style flirted with the seediness of a burlesque peepshow, but poked gentle fun at it as well. And the music was phenomenal!

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Images courtesy of Kurt Petersen

My only criticisms of this production are mild, and are actually focused on some of the more traditional acts in the show: the miming and juggling were not quite as seamless and engrossing as the more innovative acts. In addition, the lack of any stronger through-thread, plot, or theme, meant that in the very few weaker moments, the show lost momentum somewhat. However for the most part, this production was absolutely exquisite and breath-taking. I would highly recommend making your way down to the Southbank in time to see Peepshow before its run there ends in August!

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