Truth, Helen Chadwick Theatre @Southbank Centre

Created by Helen Chadwick
Directed by Stephen Hoggett
Performed by Victoria Couper, Krystian Godlewski, Liz Kettle, Helen Chadwick
Presented by Helen Chadwick Song Theatre and November Productions
Co-commissioned by Birmingham Repertory Theatre
Touring the UK until March 2019

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Image by Toby Farrow

Truth is a devised musical performance. Four performers deliver an exquisite hour-length choral performance of intricate and ever-shifting melody. The ensemble is reminiscent of a Greek chorus that gather to share the ‘testimonials’ collected by researcher and creator Helen Chadwick. It’s a little bit like an evening of short stories. Each scene unfolds a little world where a character shares their experience of deceit, dishonesty or delusion.

The stories are told through a creative combination of melody, lyric and gesture. Occasionally the highly-choreographed movement and inclusion of lights as props compete with the narrative at hand, but for the most part, it’s an absorbing and affective spectacle.

Unfortunately, while the nuance given to the technical execution of the production is impeccable, this highly conceptual show fails to deliver a coherent message.

“Truth” is a challenging topic, and the impulse to explore a big idea through the microcosm of personal stories makes sense at first glance, but the attempt to tie a collection of disparate human stories together with the common thread of ‘deceit’ is a tenuous strategy.

I felt particularly uneasy about the conflation of highly contextual human experiences, several of which involved trauma, being bundled into the same framework. For instance, an account from a victim of sexual abuse, a petty disagreement over a recipe between a couple, a worker lying on their resume and an individual experiencing gender dysphoria are all described by the chorus as ‘lying to oneself.’

007-Truth.Image©TobyFarrow

Image by Toby Farrow

Generalisations about the truth itself also felt problematic. A recurrent lyric was “never be afraid to raise your voice for truth”, delivering the sweeping conclusion that the truth (whatever that topic may be) should always be voiced regardless of the context of the situation.

Do we not lie for the ones we love? To protect ourselves? Because we have no other choice? The truth is not always beautiful, safe to tell, nor does confronting it necessarily set one free. Truth tells stories that demonstrate all these complexities, but the intricacies become lost and the core message incoherent.

I was left feeling unsure as to whether the ensemble was aware that the truth is so simple it can be reduced to platitudes, or whether they hoped to convey that it is so complex and highly contextual that we can’t pin it down. For what it’s worth, I think it is the latter.

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The Lesson @ The Hope Theatre, London

Written by Eugene Ionesco
Directed by Matthew Parker
25th September – 13th October 2018

Written in 1951, set in the near future, Ionesco’s savagely absurd play about language and power is fresh and thrilling in this small theatre.

Bright white chairs and a table are being scrubbed clean by a harried Maid – Joan Potter, who embodies a voice of reason and an emotional heart in the unfolding horror of the story. She works for the Professor, an elderly intellectual who takes on students for prepare them for their exams – Roger Alborough uses a sonorous voice and tactical silences to create a character both hilarious and intimidating. The show is a little stolen by the young, eager, doomed Pupil – Sheetal Kapoor, whose mobile face and quivering physical presence were absolutely magnetic. The entire cast provide exceptional, fascinating performances.

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This production is expertly directed by The Hope’s artistic director, Matthew Parker, who clearly delights in the curious language of the play – it’s easy for Ionesco’s work to be boring on the stage, and this show never was.

The entire space has been utilised by Rachel Ryan, the designer – the walls are chalked with equations, nonsense sentences in French and some kind of odd symbol which will certainly never become relevant. The soaring and slurring music, provided by sound designer Simon Arrowsmith, creates humour and horror throughout the seventy minute run.

I strongly recommend this eternally relevant play to everyone – though perhaps not for the faint of heart.

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Fagin’s Twist, Avant Garde Dance @ The Place

Director / Choreographer: Tony Adigun
Assistant Director: Lisa Hood
Dramaturg: Adam Peck
Text: Maxwell Golden
Designer: Yann Seabra
Lighting: Jackie Shemesh
Specially commissioned music: Seymour Milton, Benji Bower

Touring nationally, 28th September – 12 November 2018 

Photos by Rachel Cherry

With break beats, hip hop inspired moves, minimal dialogue and a complex moral, Fagin’s Twist is a creative contemporary dance transformation of Dickens’ classic story.

The choreography is slick and impressive, filling the space with motion and emotion, representing our characters’ desperate struggle to reach their dreams. Our hero, Fagin (Arran Green), has always wanted a pocket watch – a simple goal, but complicated along the way by his connections to the volatile Bill Sykes (Stefano A. Addae), the vulnerable Nancy (Ellis Saul), the Artful Dodger, our narrator, and Oliver (Sia Gbamoi) – here a female character, and a conniving villain.

This shifting set is well set off by creative lighting and bold costuming. The ensemble are engaging and talented, communicating complex social situations with verve. The narrative of the production was well constructed in the first acts, but felt abruptly finished – raising more questions than it answered, which may have been Adigun’s goal.

With a pulsing soundtrack, clever design and brilliant dance, the show is inventive and innovative. This is an excellent production for students exploring Dickens, dancers looking for new modes of expression or those seeking an original theatrical experience.

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La Tragedie de Carmen, Pop Up Opera @ The Asylum, Peckham

Written by Georges Bizet
Arranged and Adapted by Peter Brook, Marius Constant and Jean-Claude Carriere
Stage Direction by John Wilkie
Musical Direction by Berrak Dyer
20th September – 23 October 2018

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Carmen by Pop Up Opera is a streamlined and impressive show. Running at one hour twenty, boasting a cast of only four singers and a pianist, this adaptation has trimmed the fat of Bizet’s tragedy, to its credit.

Each singer is classically trained and fills the old chapel with clear, strong and occasionally heart wrenching voices. It is exceptional to experience a performance of such vocal strength in a room so perfectly designed for carrying song – and the first act was lit by the sunset through stained glass windows.

The space isn’t always to their benefit though – sight lines for those behind the second row were impaired and fight choreography was hampered by the small, raised stage, coming across as awkward whenever there were more than two bodies on it. The staging was assisted by back projections providing historical context and silhouetted dumbshows, which was clever if a little overused.

The updating of the setting to the Spanish Civil War, along with the stripping of the libretto, really focuses of the emotional devastation of each character – they are all so clearly seeking connection in a cruel world.

Despite the fact that opera isn’t really about the acting, it was clear that the soldiers, tenor Satriya Krisna and baritone James Corrigan, were stronger actors than their female colleagues, conveying rage, despair and love more convincingly than Carmen (Chloe Latchmore, mezzo soprano) and Micaela (Alice Privett, soprano) – though again, each vocal performance was impeccable. The pianist imbued the simplified arrangement with a great deal of emotion – together with the cast carrying the weight of the huge, famous score.

This is a beautiful production of Bizet’s famous opera, appropriate for opera aficionados and first timers alike.

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

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

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

Rehearsal image by Petra Eujane

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

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

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

Petra Eujane Photography - Sharon Drain, Paulina Brahm

Rehearsal image by Petra Eujane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Square Rounds, Proud Haddock @ Finborough Theatre

Written by Tony Harrison
Directed by Jimmy Walters
Set and Costume Design by Daisy Blower
Lighting Design by Arnim Friess
Music by Jeremy Warmsley
Musical Direction by Adam Gerber
Sound Design by Dinah Mullen
Movement Direction by Depi Gorgogianni
Cast: Eva Feiler, Gracy Goldman, Rujenne Green, Amy Marchant, Philippa Quinn, Letty Thomas

4 September – Saturday, 29 September 2018

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Photo by Samuel Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image of Shit-faced Showtime: Oliver with a Twist

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

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

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

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

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Dance Nation @ Almeida Theatre

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

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Oh. My. God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bloody hell, eh?

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

Except this is told differently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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