REVIEW! A Wake in Progress, Fine Mess Theatre @ Vault Festival Cage

Writer: Joel Samuels
Director: Liz Bacon
Producer: Leila Sykes with Fine Mess Theatre
Wednesday 7th – Sunday 10th Feb

A Wake in Progress, VAULT Festival (Courtesy of Ali Ward) (7) Stella Taylor and Amy Fleming.jpg

Stella Taylor and Amy Fleming in A Wake in Progress

The Cage theatre at the Vault festival is a dank and dingy cellar space, where trains rattle overhead at regular intervals and the air is surprisingly hot and muggy for such a subterranean place. It’s somewhere you could imagine stumbling across long-forgotten dead bodies, but that’s about as close as it comes to being funeral-adjacent, let alone a location for a wake party whose subject is still very much alive. And yet, Fine Mess Theatre manage to live up to their name, and transform the Cage into a space for pathos, humour, joy, and a shindig which leaves it strewn with party hats and, brightly coloured decorations, and empty plastic cups of prosecco.

At just over 45 minutes long, A Wake in Progress is both short and (bitter)sweet. It tells the story of a young person diagnosed with a terminal illness, and how they and the people closest to them come to terms with the fact that their time left with them is limited. The five actors play various roles from the protagonist’s life, including lover, sibling, best friend, and funerary celebrant/amateur therapist/narrator (who, played by Stella Taylor, was the standout talent in a talented cast). The audience plays a role in decision-making at several junctures, from naming new characters as they’re introduced, to deciding whether our story’s protagonist decides to buy a dog or go skydiving. On the night I was there I didn’t feel like the cast did the best job of incorporating the audience suggestions in any way deeper than the odd throwaway line, but this was still enough to instill in the audience a sense that we were part of events.

As a result, towards the end (when the titular wake takes place), it felt relatively natural for us to play the role of assorted family and friends – assisting to hand out party hats, pour drinks, pass around sweets, and generally get up and moving and schmoozing. The resultant atmosphere really did feel like a somewhat awkward but overall pleasant soiree – just as it was supposed to be. After all the characters had finished their speeches, we came together to sing In My Life to ukulele accompaniment, sharing pre-printed lyric sheets with the person next to us. With my eyes on the paper in front of me, and my whole concentration on trying to sing along, I didn’t notice a subtle change taking place on stage; when I looked up and noticed what was different, it really did hit me in the guts. This final moment – of loss mingling with a feeling of community and connectedness – was the one which best encapsulated what grief truly feels like, and it stayed with me as I left the theatre.

A Wake in Progress is nicely done little play about life, death, and relationships; yet despite these heavy themes, it manages to stay light and warm-hearted. It is hardly an ambitious project, but with it the artistic team at Fine Mess has achieved a playful, earnest, and amusing piece of theatre which fits snugly with the feeling of the Vault festival.

Gold_Star.svg (1)  Gold_Star.svg (1) Gold_Star.svg (1)  Gold_Star.svg (1)

Previous: REVIEW! Dracula, Creation Theatre @ The London Library

REVIEW! Dracula, Creation Theatre @ The London Library

Director: Helen Tennison
Writer: Kate Kerrow
Cast: Sophie Greenham & Bart Lambert
2 February – 3 March 2019

Reviewer: Peter Hoekstra-Bass

Dracula 4 Sophie Greenham and Bart Lambert .jpg

Photo credit: Richard Budd

In the aftermath of Anne Rice, True Blood and Twilight it’s easy to forget the original bloodsucker to make us fear the dark, but Creation Theatre’s production Dracula is here to remind us in an evocative fashion.

The twist here is that Dracula takes place in the London Library, amongst the very books that, over a century ago, Bram Stoker used to research his seminal work of vampiric fiction. This is a fact only recently discovered by the library itself, a charming institution that seems itself torn from the pages of a romantic Victorian novel.

Creation Theatre is no stranger to site-specific productions, and has been staging them for over two decades, including last year’s original run of Dracula in Blackwell’s Bookshop, Oxford.

The play itself is a two-hander starring Sophie Greenham and Bart Lambert as Mina and Jonathan Harker, as well as several other secondary characters. In the aftermath of Jonathan’s encounter with Dracula on the continent and the death of Mina’s friend Lucy, we meet the Harkers as they grapple with grief, a new and flawed marriage, and a growing darkness neither of them wishes to address.

Though still firmly Victorian in themes and1950s in setting, Creation Theatre’s production makes great strides in adapting Stoker’s text for the twenty-first century, making it more palatable for a contemporary audience than the at times stilted pace and style of the original (I confess I have tried but never succeeded in reading the book myself).

Dracula 2 Sophie Greenham and Bart Lambert (Mina and Jonathan Harker).jpg

Photo credit: Richard Budd

Greenham and Lambert juggle their multiple characters well, but I often found myself longing for them to return to the central imperilled couple, where their chemistry was most keenly felt, rather than lingering on the secondary characters as the script did for large parts of the second act.

And speaking of the second act, the text itself is somewhat bloated, and saw me wishing it has been edited to a tight seventy-five minutes rather than the two hours with interval it stretched for.

As always with horror, whether on screen or stage, the monster is best when left unseen, and in the case of a figure as well known as Dracula, he can work his dark magic best when even left unmentioned. The strongest parts of the play were when the Count’s influence was felt but never mentioned, and despite cunning and eerie use of projected special effects and soundscapes, the monsters were always at their worst when they were at their most palpable.

The audio and visual design by Matt Eaton and Eva Auster respectively was mostly excellent and evocative, with the notable exception of a particularly egregious animated bat that looked straight out of Microsoft Word clipart circa 1998.

For a piece of site-specific horror theatre in as apt a site as you are likely to find, fans of all things vampiric are advised to catch Dracula at the London Library while they still can, as the season is expected to sell out.

Tickets

Gold_Star.svg (1)  Gold_Star.svg (1) Gold_Star.svg (1)  Gold_Star.svg (1)

 

Previous: REVIEW! Fight Night by Exit Productions @ the Vaults

REVIEW! Fight Night by Exit Productions @ the Vaults

Produced by Exit Productions, with help from Nadezhda Zhelyazkova at Full Sail Productions
Directors: Joe Ball & Chris Neels
Fight choreography: Jonathan Holby
Cast: Ben Lydon, Brendan O’Rourke, Edward Linard, Hannah Samuels, Jessica Jeffries, Pete Grimwood & Simon Pothecary
30th January – 17th February 2019

fn

Not everyone is a fan of boxing – the sweet science is not as sportsmanlike as some other popular sports, not as theatrical as some of the other martial arts.

I love boxing – I think it’s like extremely literal chess – but I understand the criticisms levelled against it. Many fighters are injured, some in life altering ways, there’s a lot of corruption, a lot of unsavoury personalities. I find it beautiful because, not in spite, of these flaws – and they’re all on display in this ninety minute show.

Exit Productions have made an ambitious, immersive show that takes you through all the stages of the eponymous night – we see the weigh in, go into the locker rooms, hear the pep talks, cruise the merch table, chat to the bookies and officials – and our contributions impact the outcome of the fight, which is thrilling and beautifully staged.

Dev J. Danzig’s set design uses the curious, stony space of the Vaults well – from the luxurious ringside VIP section to the dodgy blackjack table to the cramped lockers, the place feels authentically like an underground boxing show. The cast immediately establish themselves as clear, distinctive characters, all with motivations, secrets and means.

HfLcOlk2

The whole audience can get as involved as they like – some people are picked to have specific roles, such as medical assistant or valet, but we all get stacks of chips with which to bet, bribe or purchase merchandise. The actors were engaged and engaging – I spent a lot of time with a slimy promoter, an indebted doctor and an impassioned trainer, who each gave me information and opportunities to alter the outcome of the fight. We discussed head injuries, performance enhancing drugs, female boxers and risking your life for the chance of a pay off. As a judge, chosen on the basis of literally nothing, I then got to sit down and call the outcome of each round – though I and the other judges had been bribed to ensure a certain outcome.

Every audience member might have a particular favourite fighter they want to win – both the insecure loud mouth show-boater Joe Williams and the polite professional with a temper Bam Bam Bradshaw were very likable, though they hated each other. What makes the show so fascinating it that it’s impossible to tell who will be victorious until the final bell. And what does it mean to be victorious? Is it better to take a second round fall, survive to live another day or to fight through the pain and likely concussion? No two punters will have the same experience and no two performances will be the same. In that way, it is exactly like a boxing match.

Like real boxing, I loved it, but I know it may not be for everyone. If you prefer a theatre experience that lets you sit down and not make any choices, Exit Productions probably isn’t for you. If you like to get involved and do some exploring, if you enjoy some uncertainty and anticipation, this is the perfect show.

Gold_Star.svg (1)  Gold_Star.svg (1)  Gold_Star.svg (1) Gold_Star.svg (1)  Gold_Star.svg (1)

Tickets

Previous: REVIEW! Cuzco by Víctor Sánchez Rodríguez @ Theatre503

REVIEW! Cuzco by Víctor Sánchez Rodríguez @ Theatre503

Directed by Kate O’Connor
Translated by William Gregory
Produced by Daisy Hale
Featuring Dilek Rose and Gareth Kieran Jones
23rd January – Saturday 16th February 2019

Cuzco, Theatre503 (Dilek Rose and Gareth Kieran Jones) Courtesy of Holly Lucas (1).jpg

Images courtesy of Holly Lucas

Many of us in the Western world have, at one stage or another in our lives, fallen into the trap of thinking that we can escape our troubles by travelling to a distant corner of the world. Sometimes, this even works, if just temporarily – but often we find instead that our problems have followed us on the journey.

This is the case with the unnamed Spanish couple in Cuzco. As soon as they arrive in their hotel room in Peru, the cracks in their relationship begin to show. She is afflicted by altitude sickness – or so she claims – and while he is keen to explore the city with newfound friends (another Spanish couple on the same Inca Trail tour), she refuses to leave the hotel. When she does, she is quickly overwhelmed by the city’s culture, so familiar and yet alien to her own, as well as the locals’ aggressive pursuit of Western tourist cash. The echoes of colonialism and the pervasive poverty of Latin America repulse her, but somehow attract her too, and as she is drawn deeper into the mysticism and injustice of the country, her relationship with her partner crumbles into irreparable ruins.

This is the first time Cuzco has been staged in English rather than its native Spanish, and I can honestly say that it is the best translation of a foreign language play that I have ever seen. Of course, this is despite the fact that I don’t speak a word of Spanish, and so have no way of knowing how faithful it was to the original – but often, translators become almost like secondary playwrights, moulding a text in their own creative image as they translate, and I suspect this was the case here. Chatting with a cast member afterwards, I was told that translator William Gregory was very present throughout the rehearsal process, and the result is poetic dialogue which flows beautifully in its friction, humour, tension, pathos, and conflict.

The performances from Dilek Rose and Gareth Kieran Jones are excellent. Rose is compelling throughout, even when utterly dislikeable, and while Jones’ performance is less consistently strong, his final monologue (“see, I can speak your language”) is gut-punchingly powerful. Another reviewer I spoke to was of the opinion that the two lacked onstage chemistry, but I feel this was absolutely an intentional and effective choice – this is a couple who don’t connect anymore, who haven’t slept together in a year, who almost never even look at each other as they talk. Instead, they largely face out towards the audience when speaking, or sit in silence, face turned away and emotions inscrutable. This partial view into their relationship is echoed by the staging; we see them in three different hotel rooms, each time from a different angle, and never outside these rooms. We come to feel that it is the only place their paths really cross as they have two very different and incompatible travel experiences.

Cuzco, Theatre503 (Dilek Rose and Gareth Kieran Jones) Courtesy of Holly Lucas (4).jpg

Images courtesy of Holly Lucas

This production is both slick and cuttingly sharp, modern and timelessly relevant, and I can only applaud the acting, translating, directing, and lighting, stage, and sound design. The only way in which it is let down is through its writing. Sánchez Rodríguez tries to include so many meaty topics – tourism, sexism, racism, mental illness, gender roles, colonialism, cultural imperialism, class privilege, child abuse, and more – that none of them are truly unpicked to the extent needed. Indeed, at times these topics are dealt with so shallowly and stereotypically as to be distasteful and disrespectful. This also means that the play is constantly running at high tension and drama that verges on melodrama, without the lulls and comic relief needed to provide emotional pacing for the audience (with the exception of a couple of truly witty anecdotes, such as one about a run-in with another, Dutch, tourist). I felt drained by the time we reached the play’s final climax, and found it difficult to care about the inevitable breakdown of the couple’s relationship, or her surreal existential journey. I do wonder if this can be attributed to cultural differences – perhaps Spanish theatre is simply turned up to a higher intensity than is normal in Britain.

That said, it took a couple of days of mulling over for me to come to the conclusion that the underlying writing of Cuzco wasn’t for me. Walking out of the theatre, I was incredibly impressed by what was an excellent production, and which I would certainly recommend for those who like their theatre at full emotional saturation.

Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)

 

Previous review: Romeo and Juliet: Mad Blood Stirring by China Plate @ Albany Theatre

REVIEW! Romeo and Juliet: Mad Blood Stirring by China Plate @ Albany Theatre

Written by William Shakespeare and Nick Waller
Directed by Paul Warwick and Ben Walden
Presented by China Plate Theatre and Contender Charlie
Touring the UK 1st Feb – 23rd March 2019

With immersive staging, modern language and a lot of flash, this Romeo and Juliet is well targeted to primary school children. It’s a great introduction to the narrative at exactly the age when students are starting to study it.

The Friar (Nathan Medina). Photo credit: The Other Richard

 

China Plate’s production of the classic text places the Friar center stage, as a narrator and Greek chorus, explaining to the audience the tragedy as it unfolds. While the dialogue remains Shakespeare’s original, it’s been streamlined to just the key plot points and characters – Mercutio and Benvolio have been rolled together, Juliet’s parents reduced to hectoring projections, and the Friar has the Prince’s lines. All this has been done to make the play accessible to children from the age of nine – and they made up most of the audience.

The immersive staging puts all the action on a cracked street, and the use of concealed knives as weapons makes the modern relevance of the story particularly clear.

The sound and lighting design use the space extremely well, with a few live original pieces performed by our Juliet. The cast are largely competent, with the Friar and Tybalt as standout stars, bringing deeply felt emotion and complexity to their roles.

This is a good production for children to experience both a classic Shakespearean tragedy and theatre for the first time.

Tickets

Gold_Star.svg (1)  Gold_Star.svg (1)  Gold_Star.svg (1)   Gold_Star.svg (1)

Previous review: Welcome to the UK by PSYCHEdelight @ The Bunker

REVIEW! Welcome to the UK by PSYCHEdelight @ The Bunker

Director and Lighting Design: Sophie NL Besse
Assistant Director: Gareth Watkins
Music and Songs: Tamara Astor
Movement director: Peter Pearson
Running Dates: 22nd January – 16th February 2019

Welcome to the UK is a carnival comedy with a heart of gold. Created and performed by PSYCHEdelight – a company dedicated to giving asylum seekers a voice – whom are well known for their successful 2016 satire comedy Borderline. Welcome to the UK is the next chapter after Borderline, with a cast from 13 different countries all sharing moments of their personal journey through epic theatre techniques.

Borderline 1.jpeg

Welcome to the UK Cast on stage at The Bunker. Photo: Jose Farinha

The fun circus style and patriotic set design of union jack coloured bunting and flags gave us a warm welcome as we entered the space. Opening with burst from the energetic compère, played by Reuben Williams, we are immediately asked to think of a dream and blow it into the balloon left on our seats. After direction we all threw our airy dreams (pardon the pun) onto the stage… only to realise the balloons were for the rifle range at this warped carnival and it was perhaps not going to be all fun and games after all.

The next 70 minutes was a whirlwind of fun fair activities masking the challenges refugees face when trying to claim asylum and build a future in the UK; menacing pigs in the haunted house portraying the fear in an arranged marriage, a home office interview displayed as a series of ridiculous questions from a mystical gypsy, a refugee’s struggle to meet tight deadlines reworked as a UV video game. Each scene was imaginative and comedy fuelled, however the show lacked slick transitions and the energy on stage regularly fluctuated.

Aesthetically the piece was very strong; the diverse ensemble using physical storytelling (such as a literal emotional roller-coaster, which certainly made me giggle), the bright (and sometimes sparkling) costumes, and most of all the intricate lighting design which was effectively utilised to change the atmosphere throughout.

borderline 3

A scary Teresa May (Left) controlling the hamster whirl effect. Photo: Jose Farinha

The hostile environment created for the asylum seekers was a reflection of the UK’s decisions and policies, and this was clearly conveyed. There is no denying the importance of the show and the extremely current issues surrounding the topic. Watching the talented asylum seekers perform with such enthusiasm (particularly Mohand Hasb Alrsol Badr, who made me chuckle constantly) and listening to their experiences in a way that we can all learn and laugh was brilliant.

Borderline 2

An overly sympathetic ‘Mary Poppins’-esque character. Photo: Jose Farinha

PSYCHEdelight has again produced a platform for expression, and whilst making us giggle they provoke us to think, to consider, to empathise. During this wacky performance there was one particularly powerful and unsettling image; Abdulrahman Salama (a Syrian refugee) sat alone on the top of a ladder throughout with a single orange balloon, holding his phone and waiting in distress for news of his family. A constant reminder of the harsh reality between the laughs.

Gold_Star.svg (1)  Gold_Star.svg (1)  Gold_Star.svg (1)   Gold_Star.svg (1)

 

Previous review: Outlying Islands, Atticist @ King’s Head Pub Theatre