Frankenstein, Tea Break Theatre @ Sutton House

Read the interview with writer/director Katharine Armitage.

Written and Directed by Katharine Armitage
Featuring Jeff Scott, Molly Small, Jennifer Tyler, Chris Dobson, Katy Helps. 
17 October – 3 November 2018

Frankenstein, Sutton House - Courtesy of John Wilson (4)200 years after it was first published by a teenage girl writing under a pseudonym, Frankenstein finally gets the women it deserves.

The show in many ways feels like what Peter Jackson is going for with his recent project of colourising and dubbing WW1 footage. Mary Shelley’s novel finds new life, colour and dimension in this innovative immersive, in-situ production.

The gothic tale begins with pop-rock streaming from a tinny cassette player, welcoming us to the world of the real-life squatters who occupied Sutton House during the 1980s. Clever scripting weaves together the three layers of stories – that of the squatters, of Mary Shelley, and of Frankenstein – and before you know it you’re in the story.

By ‘in the story’, I do mean in the story. The immersive elements embed the audience not just in the house, but within the home of the Frankensteins. Never allowed to become too comfortable, each audience group follows different actors around the house, and like the characters themselves we only see windows into the world. Despite some ‘dead time’ (forgive the pun) created by this, it felt like an orchestra in which you get to know the flute player as a human rather than just an instrument.

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The biggest ‘pop’ of reality, however, comes from what director Katharine Armitage calls “finding the women”. Commendations must go to Katy Helps (Justine) and Jennifer Tyler (Elizabeth) for rescuing the female characters from the constraints of the 19th century, and to Molly Small (The Creature) for a performance that carried the extra burden of a gender layer to the questions raised about monstrosity, creation and destruction.

Although occasionally unsubtle in its delivery, this production of Frankenstein is nonetheless a wonderful and innovative adaptation that is recommended to everyone from the life-long Frankenstein fans to those whose only pre-existing image is of a green man with a bolt through his neck.

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Interview with writer/director Katharine Armitage – Frankenstein @ Sutton House

Please note – This interview racked up to almost 4,000 words. It has been heavily edited for brevity.

Read our review of Frankenstein HERE.

Frankenstein has been adapted many times since it was published 200 years ago. Why did you choose Frankenstein and what different take are you hoping to bring to it?

Well actually, I didn’t know about the 200 year anniversary when I had the idea. The idea to do Frankenstein came from [Sutton] House, came from learning about the 1980s when the house was derelict and taken over by a group of squatters who turned it into an arts venue. First, we just loved the feel of the eighties, because it’s actually quite 1818. They recycled a lot of regency looks in there dress and style, and you get the invention of steam punk. The eighties was also a big time for science fiction, and Frankenstein is arguably the first to codify the genre. The other lovely thing is that the characters live there but it feels like he house wasn’t made for them. There’s an idea of the ‘outsider’ in inverted commas, people who are in a system and a place that is not designed for them. They try to make it homely but it’s cavernous, then they try put science in it and it’s old and creaky. We were interested in that tension. Thinking about the squatters, and the outsider identity led us to thinking about Frankenstein…

I love Frankenstein. I studied it at school and since then I’ve been quietly obsessed with it. The origin story of a 19 year old writing this book, seemingly out of nowhere is a little mindboggling. The things that really interested me about this is that she’s this incredible woman – Mary Shelley – the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft who is in some ways the mother of modern feminism, and yet there are almost no women in Frankenstein. Elizabeth is there to die, she’s a victim. So is Justine. It’s interesting to think about why Mary Shelley would be diminishing women. When re-reading the book, I started to think ‘well, in one way it makes sense’. You couldn’t write about that. You have to be clever. But the more you read it, the more you think that the whole thing is about women, even though the women themselves are diminished, the whole thing is about being a thing that’s created by a man and then rejected, a thing that doesn’t live up to expectations. It’s all about motherhood and it’s all about the demands of society. I call it ‘finding the women’, where we’re trying to stay true to the text she could have written if there no pressures of getting it published or making men read it.

Your company performed Dracula last year, which also used immersive theatre. How does having the audience in the performance itself effect storytelling?

For me, the joy of immersive is that you’re there in the room with people. You don’t have a fourth wall, but at the same time, you don’t audiences are still aware that they’re an audience. What I want to do is a story that you’re so close to that you can smell it, and you’re scared it might touch you. When we had a vampire on stage [in last year’s production of Dracula], for example, and it would come near the audience members they would shrink back, and completely forget that it’s a five foot five female actor. For Frankenstein we’re doing something kind of different because we’re letting the audience become a little more invisible… It’s partly because of the intimacy of the story, and you’re seeing these really intimate moments between characters and start thinking ‘I really shouldn’t be’. That’s the joy of doing something immersive and yet ignoring the audience. They begin to feel that they’re spying on something. It creates this really lovely tension.

That jumps nicely into the question of monsters, and who the monster is in the room. I thought it would be interesting to define first what ‘monster’ and ‘monstrous’ mean in the context of Frankenstein.

I love that question actually. On a basic level, it’s distorted nature. Natural but unnatural. If you think about images of monsters, a really obvious one like Godzilla,  it’s something natural – a lizard – but expanded up into something monstrous… It’s always this heightened distorted version of nature. But the other definition is one of destruction. A monster destroys. And that’s what makes them different from a villain who plots, or an evil person who is usually bent on acquisition, mostly of power. A monster doesn’t have that, they just destroy, seemingly for no reason. That’s why they’re so scary because you can’t reason with them…

It’s an interesting question when you look at Victor. Is he a creator or is a destroyer? And The Creature – are they creating their new life or are they a destroyer? If you create something that then becomes destructive, who really is the monster? And then when you do bring the women out of the shadows in the story, then there’s other elements of destruction or creation that come from the characters. Again I think that’s why this story is really about women, because it’s so much about the arrogance of man and the potential monstrosity within human kind and particularly within men… The other element is mutability. You can become monstrous. The question becomes, ‘is that their fault?’ and ‘is it justified?’. Don’t we all have that slight bit inside us that wants to just tear stuff up?

You’ve paralleled the impossible expectations The Creature faces with those faced by women. How would you say those have changed since 50, 100 or even 200 years ago?

I’m not sure they’re that different. Obviously the situation has changed hugely, for the better, but sometimes it feels like the expectations are not too dissimilar. It feels like they’ve just expanded. I think kids now might give you a different answer, but I grew up with the Disney fairy stories and I love them but the expectations in all of that is about marriage. Even for queer women, the way that society has dealt with it is by saying ‘okay, fine, fine, but we still want you to get married and have a family!’… I’ve been to a lot of weddings this year, and it’s great, but there’s still the same expectations. The bride is expected, demanded to be the most beautiful she’s ever been, to be elegant. These days it’s added that she’s expected to push the boundaries a little, maybe to make a small speech, but not too much. It’s complicated because people say ‘I want to be beautiful’ and that’s totally fine, but I wonder if we didn’t have those expectations if people would still want that…

You can be strong but you still have to be docile. I have quite a loud voice and I get told to be quite by men quite a lot. I’m allowed to be strong, but not loud. And not angry. Anger is not allowed for women, in the same way that anger is not allowed for men, which is a huge, huge problem that I would love to write about, but that’s for another play.

The other thing is that women are expected to be good. You have to be the safe space for children, and yes there’s a biological aspect to that but you’re not allowed to go off the track too much. You can be strong but you have to be good, and you have to behave, even if I don’t give you any reason to behave. And that’s the interesting thing with Victor and The Creature. It’s difficult because if you’re not good, you’re very quickly labelled unreasonable, or destructive, and you can’t be trusted. Even Mary Shelley, who in many ways was such a rebel, wanted most of all to marry and have babies. Despite shaking things up so much, she still wanted to be good, because that’s how you get accepted. Again, that’s what Frankenstein is all about. Acceptance, and wanting to be accepted… And then of course there’s the other interesting issue of the parents failing expectations as well. Babies very quickly develop expectations of the parents, and that is a process of constant disappointment as neither fully matches the others expectations.

Before we finish, is there any question you wish I’d ask you? Anything we’ve missed?

The only thing I’d like to highlight is the process of adaptation. I do mess with things, but what I’m aiming for is that you mess with things and people kind of feel like you haven’t. The best adaptations are when they’ve changed something and you see it and think ‘oh but I think that was in the book’. People coming to the show who know the book, what I’m hoping they’ll get is the sense of the spirit of the book, but also feel like this is a story that was hiding in the book. Adaptations should be part of a dialogue that takes you back to the original text, and makes you say ‘oh I can see now why they would say that’. I want people to see it as a conversation with the book.

Read our review of Frankenstein HERE.

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Elephant and Castle, Tom Adams and Lillian Henley @ Camden People’s Theatre

9th – 20th October 2018

Presented by Tom Adams and Lillian Henley

Elephant and Castle is a haunting, experimental piece of gig-theatre presented by husband and wife Tom Adams and Lillian Henley exploring the science and romantic impact of Adam’s parasomnia – sleep talking/walking.

A mattress propped up at the back of the stage begins to shake before creeping forward towards the audience – we hear a recording of someone whimpering, crying out layered with sounds of electrocution. It’s unsettling, to say the least. But then the mattress flips down and Henley and Adams bounce onto the bed in match-clash paisley pyjamas, find us with their eyes, and begin to sing their story, regaling us with when they first met and their later struggles with Adam’s parasomnia.

Henley’s hauntingly beautiful voice heightens the domestic tragedy of the songs, indicative of the show’s off-beat, quirky humour. This is a show that is not afraid to sit in its authored awkwardness. Elephant and Castle is equally generous and odd – cocooned by a Lynchian atmosphere. Recordings made over 3 years sample the strangeness of Adam’s night time ramblings, and are played in the darkness between transitions.

Henley plays her own long-sufferance to the cheek of Adam’s parasomnia – luminous, still, her voice transcendent, both eerie and beautiful. Adam’s mischief offers an appealing counterpoint, and they have a distinct chemistry that makes the spirit of this work unique. It delves into some darker territory, questioning what parasomnia can reveal, the threat it offers, never losing its idiosyncratic charm.

I especially enjoyed the use of a hand-held projector, projecting what looked like go-pro sleepwalk footage onto the back of the again upturned bed. It was immersive, lulling me into the logic of a dream-like state. The show’s composition and design converged in a fully realised atmosphere. As I sat, trying to grasp at shapes in the figurative footage, slipping out of definition, I happily gave myself over to its flow.

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A Clown Show About Rain @ The Pleasance, London

Downstairs at The Pleasance I was lucky to watch a gem of theatre ‘A Clown Show About Rain’ by Silent Faces… my mundane Monday was marvellously uplifted by this comical yet meaningful performance.

‘A Clown Show About Rain’ was story of fishermen; three busy at sea, and another two on land with a hook in their hands. Although the two groups never do meet, the dynamic provided a quick switch in narrative which kept the audience’s attention throughout. From sandwich wars, to lip syncing solo’s, to many many cups of tea… there isn’t much missing from this unique clowning show. The trio of clowns on the stormy ship; Josie Underwood, Cara Withers and Stella Kailides kept me smiling with their bright yellow raincoats, perfect comic timing, and likable personalities. I was immersed in the relationships between them and their individual mini (yet funny) hurdles. Cordelia Stevenson and Jack Wakely also took the stage with their kahki fishing outfits and packed lunches, the mismatch pair bounced off one another and although not as physical as the yellow trio their personalities were just as clear.

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The way the ensemble seamlessly worked together to gradually overlap the two worlds was brilliant; at one point the yellow raincoat clowns were midway through their jolly mop-dance (yes, I made that name up but I think it should be a thing) whilst the other two scout-like clowns weaved through them following their compass in a hurry. At these high energy peaks the stage was alive, and the physicality of the characters was fully appreciated.

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Overall, it was the facial expressions of every performer which made you laugh out loud, particularly Wakely eyeing up Stevenson’s sandwich and the dead pan gaze from Withers is comedy gold (She is certainly one of my favourite characters I’ve watched this year). Towards the end you begin to realise the message of the piece surrounding mental health, and once I’d caught on I immediately wished I had known sooner so I could have appreciated the links throughout. However, the delivery of this poignant moment was beautifully gentle, and the simplicity made it even more touching.

I would certainly recommend joining Silent Faces on their boat of laughs and following their compass to a place of humanity and understanding… (In other words; go watch and have a giggle!)

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit…* @ Finborough Theatre

Written by Halley Feiffer
Directed by Bethany Pitts
Featuring Cara Chase, Robert Crouch, Cariad Lloyd, and Kristin Milward.
Presented by Arsalan Sattari Productions in association with Neil McPherson
Tuesday, 2 October – Saturday, 27 October 2018

*Okay, so the full title of this piece was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City, but that made this post title far too long!
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Set design by Isabella Van Braeckel. Photo by James O Jenkins

My experience of the pub theatre scene in London has spanned an eclectic mix of plays, from tried-and-true classics to material still in the rough work-in-progress stages, from the clever to the dumb, high calibre to low. A Funny Thing… was easily the highest quality piece of theatre I’ve seen in this range.

From the moment the plasticky pastel green divider curtains are pulled aside to reveal an excellently-executed hospital ward, complete with two patients who remain slumbering in their identical beds throughout the majority of the play. Isabella Van Braeckel is to be commended on her flawless set design, which is not only hyper-convincing but also features wonderfully sardonic touches such as the winkingly vaginal abstract artworks on the walls.

As the play starts to develop, however, the dialogue is quickly revealed to be less convincing and realistic than the set. Characters Karla and Don meet in the gynecologic oncology unit where they are both visiting their (probably) dying mothers; she is a young, foul-mouthed millenial who works as a stand-up comedian, and he is an awkward middle-aged slob with an unstable temperament. Their initial interaction is explosively confrontational, and the following 180-pivot of their their relationship also beggars belief, particularly since a lack of onstage chemistry makes it feel somewhat forced. As the characters rush to bare the crevices of their minds in all their filth and generosity, I couldn’t help feeling a slight British distaste for what seemed like a very American type of candid emotional display, with all the subtlety and hidden meaning of a sledgehammer.

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Kristin Milward as Marcie. Photo by James O Jenkins

That said, as the play progressed and it became clear that it was to be a sustained artistic and thematic choice, this brutal honesty and unflinching examination of its characters’ psyches grew on me. The three individuals of Don, Karla, and her mother Marcie are revealed to be riddled with flaws, yet each has their own vulnerability, inner strength, and moments of shining kindness. Each grows as a person during the course of the play, and learns to form stronger, healthier connections with those around them. And along the way, they are harshly hilarious – particularly Kristin Milward as Marcie, who managed to steal scenes despite being confined to a bed and drip and, largely, unconscious. For every snarky burn or crass joke, there is a witty observation, a crackle of deliciously dark humour, or a burst of shared joy, and it is in these moments that the play is at its strongest.

My enjoyment of this clever comedy was only slightly marred by a sprinkling of unnecessary shock-value jokes; for the most part, the play was “edgy” in a good way, but it did occasionally cross the line into ableism or homophobia which didn’t add anything to the value of the play. Although these cracks detracted slightly from the moral weight of the play, they can at least be partially justified by the fact that none of its characters are, especially at the beginning, particularly good people.

Overall, A Funny Thing is an excellent, funny, poignant new piece of dark comedy and social commentary from American playwright Halley Feiffer. I felt buoyed by every shameless celebration of female sexuality and masculine vulnerability, and touched by the emotional rawness of these complicated relationships. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart… but in the end, for a show that is largely about death, disease, and dissatisfaction with life, there is a remarkable amount of cautious optimism and love woven in.

Tickets.

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Cariad Lloyd and Robert Crouch as Karla and Don. Photo by James O Jenkins

Rallying Cry, Apples and Snakes @ Battersea Arts Centre

Presented by Apples and Snakes
Directed by Rob Watt
4 – 6 October

Apples and Snakes create spaces for unheard voices to be heard and champion poets and poetry. Rallying Cry is a immersive performance exploring Battersea Arts Centre as part of Apples and Snakes 35 year anniversary celebrations.

The space was alive when I stepped into the venue. The previous audience who had the 7.30 slot were all gathered on the stairs of the grand space with a choir performing in front of them. The atmosphere was fantastic and I was excited for my slot to begin.

However, when the performance began it was very chaotic and felt disorganised. The audience were split into groups with a title (mine was Campaigner) yet there was no context to this grouping, it felt like a convenient way to split the audience. Our Leader was pleasant yet failed to rally up the audience therefore it did not feel at all like a protest and the atmosphere was very flat.

There were four spoken word performances that I saw as part of my journey, all of which were very interesting and had captivating moments. Two of these pieces were exceptional, the audience were engaged and the pieces were very moving. However, the other two pieces were interesting but lacked passion and power behind the words therefore it was difficult for the audience to engage or relate.

An excellent element of this performance was that the show had a great community feel to it. There was a performance from the BAC Beatbox Academy and a local choir. Both of these performances were fun and filled with energy.

This show has lots of potential and is a great night out to enjoy some poetry, music and the more quirky elements such as the Beatbox group. It doesn’t feel very powerful which was disappointing considering the content of the speeches.

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