REVIEW! Sick @ Kings Head Theatre

Written and Performed by Shey Hargreaves
Directed by Molly Naylor
Supported by Norwich Arts Centre, the Norfolk Arts Project, and Arts Council England
24 – 25 May

For people whose primary impression of a hospital is the backdrop of a steamy drama, Sick is going to come as a rude but necessary shock. For people familiar with the reality of day to day on the front line (or front desk) of an emergency care unit, the stories here will be achingly familiar – both a comfort and a concern.

Writer and performed by Shey Hargreaves, based on her own real experiences of working as a clerk in the NHS for five years, this play balances personal and social reflections. There are many bleak moments in the play – we’ve all heard about NHS cuts but it’s another thing to hear about lines of bleeding patients waiting for treatment – but it was also funny, and touching. Hargreaves has great comic timing and is never boring or preachy in her presentation – she’s telling a story she cares deeply about.

Images by Mark Hannant

The play covers a range of incidents and secondary characters, brought to life in our minds’ eye by Hargreaves’ skillful voice. They, and she, develop over the course of an hour – get promoted, quit, break up, come out, form new relationships, create new life, watch people die. While we follow all these people, we never lose sight of the  unfolding crisis of the NHS. It’s incredibly scathing about the senseless and sometimes harmful austerity measures imposed by politicians who will never use the public hospital system.

Hargreaves spoke absolute truth about a broken system and made it an entertaining night out, without ever undercutting the severity of the situation. I highly recommend this show to anyone who has ever or will ever use a hospital (hint: it’s all of you).

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Find out more about the show at Hargreaves’ site.

Previous review: REVIEW! We Know Now Snowmen Exist @ The Space

REVIEW! We Know Now Snowmen Exist @ The Space

Written by Michael Spencer
Directed by Lexie Ward
Presented by Highly Suspect Theatre
19-23 March

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Image credit: Stuart Walker

Combining quick-paced, raucous dialogue with a seething sense of dread, the script of this play – the first original play script from a company known for their interactive murder mysteries – is very strong. Tension is built gradually over ninety minutes, between casual comments and unexplained incidents.

Conversation topics between this small group of women who’ve been trekking up a Scottish mountain for eleven days range from orgies to exes to religion to TV to conspiracy theories to friendship. The voices of these characters ring true, as do their problems, which unfold gradually, along with the reason they’re there – to raise awareness and money for suicide prevention. Caustic and hilarious, Hayley has been hurting herself. Mouthy and shameless, Rachel is undergoing a crisis of faith. Sensible nerd Lisa finds things sliding out of her control. Adorable and fun Chloe feels the pressure of being an emotional lynch pin. Zoe, quiet and sweet, feels on the outside of everything.

The actors, who originated their roles, winning a Cumbria Fringe award for the play, embody the characters well. They feel like any of the groups of girls you might have sat around a uni pub with, hanging shit on boys and playing word association games to pass the time. It’s fun to watch, until the strange horror of the play impinges on the small, safe world of the tent.

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Image credit: Stuart Walker

The story is based on the real unsolved mystery of Dyatolov Pass. In 1959, a group of 9 experienced Russian hikers died in bizarre circumstances – their tent torn open from the inside, bodies found kilometers from their camp, dressed inadequately, some wearing each other’s clothes. Most died of hypothermia, others of injuries from unknown sources. It is reported that a piece of paper with the phrase “We now know that snowmen exist” was found in the remains of the tent. Some kind of similar fate awaits our characters, in present-day Scotland. We are told at the beginning of the action, and reminded at the end there are no survivors.

The play is in the round, which means here that half the casts’ backs are to you at any given moment, which made some of the dialogue hard to follow. The sparse set – a cramped space surrounded by emptiness – works well enough when all the characters are in one scene, but the actors simply stand behind the audience when they’re not performing, which can be a little distracting. Overall though, staging aside, it’s a thrilling and tight play that’s well worth your time, especially if you like women sounding like women and a mystery that leaves you questioning what you’ve seen.

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Tickets

Previous review: GEORGE @ Camden People’s Theatre

REVIEW! GEORGE @ Camden People’s Theatre

Presented by Contingency Theatre
Camden People’s Theatre
Part of Sprint Festival
12 March

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GEORGE is happy at home, in his village, but when an opportunity comes up to meet the wealthy and powerful J in the big city, how can he refuse? He doesn’t want to get left behind, does he?

This creepy and kinetic piece is about losing ourselves to the rat race – not the most original sentiment, but still relevant, and presented in such an original and exciting way. Contingency Theatre have, in their first full-length show, combined scathing social satire and original choreography to make a show like no other I’ve ever seen.

Barbara Blanka is exceptional as GEORGE – active, engaging and emotional through his struggle with how to fit in and retain a sense of self. Max Percy and Igor Smith, along with no costume changes and almost no props, become a range of people and places, pushing or pulling GEORGE into his new role. They are, by turns, vulnerable, intimidating, jocular or inane. There is scripted dialogue, but more interesting is the physical theatre, which is stunning and well executed.

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The live music and lighting design support the performances, bringing the audience into GEORGE’s increasingly claustrophobic world.

This show is about being a young person in a time that might not be now, but may as well be. We’re in a precarious place, economically and environmentally, and we’re in a constant state of panic. GEORGE brings this to life in a fun and funny way. Contingency Theatre is going to be one to watch out for – because if their first show is this strong, I look forward to their future developments.

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Previous review: Church of the Sturdy Virgin @ Vault

REVIEW! Church of the Sturdy Virgin @ Vault

Presented by Dank Parish
Unit 9, the Vault Festival
Part of Let’s Talk @ VAULT Festival
6 – 7 March

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I don’t know why there’s something funny about the word “sturdy” – there just is. Combine it with the concept of divinity and even virginity, and you have a ready-made aesthetic for your interactive theatre show. This flavour of mock seriousness mixed with absurdity, religious satire, and just plain silliness typifies the Church of the Sturdy Virgin which is currently taking place at the Vault Festival as I type.

The piece started with an irreverent funeral procession along the grungy Leake Street, led by gothicky black-clad actors, the audience standing in for mourners. Upon entering Unit 9 – which with its high ceilings, shadowy spaces, and air that distinctly tastes of damp, really does feel like a ‘dank parish’ – we stepped into a wacky and slightly sinister hallowed ground. A winding path into the church proper took us past various nooks and rooms, half-hidden from view, populated by actors being weird and creepy in various ways. The best way to describe the aesthetic of the set design is that it reminded me strongly and favourably of the recent Sabrina reboot: mixed skulls and flowers, leather-bound books, old chalices, sinister-looking curiosities, tattered scrolls… there was even a graveyard section, complete with mounds of dirt, from which bones shone dirty white. I really have to hand it to the set designer, they really impressed me with their creative touches, sourcing of props, and commitment to detail. Despite being small-scale production with, no doubt, an even smaller budget, the set designer created a high-quality backdrop for the show’s action which perfectly supported and enhanced the experience.

Unfortunately, the contents of the play didn’t quite measure up to its set design. In fairness, I did go on a very early night in the run, and with interactive theatre the nature of the beast is that you can’t properly improve and perfect it until you have an audience, so no doubt it is running more smoothly and tightly now than when I saw it, but… there was definitely a fair bit of room for improvement.

Perhaps the biggest problem was that they had a clear structure for the beginning and ending of the piece (ie, introduction to the church and a funeral, respectively), but the momentum of the show got lost somewhere in the middle. We were rushed through the various scenes and activities in a way that felt both frenetic and time-stressed, but also like improvised filler material. Audience interaction was rife, but only ever in a limited or truncated fashion. Despite the fact that we were given secret missions in the past – for example, to discredit the recently deceased, or eke out some scandalous secrets from the disciples/actors – there was never really time or opportunity to act on these. At times there was a tinge of desperation to the actors’ performances, like they were in uncharted territory – which makes sense, if the show was still in the process of being reworked. This meant that often there was a lot of rambling improvisation. Unfortunately, genuinely interesting ruminations on society’s relationship with death, or satirisations of the same, were often lost amongst seas of quirkiness for quirkiness’ sake. 

Criticism aside, there were moments where the show really did work. Three stood out to me in particular, and each made me feel a different way:

  • Mass sing-alongs of classic pop hits as ‘hymns’, the congregation clapping and singing, as the church’s disciples led the performance with perfect poker faces and expression of religious exultation. This sense of incongruity, absurdity, subversion, and hilarity was exactly what Dank Parish was trying to achieve throughout the show.
  • A ritual to exorcise a room (and a woman) of a disturbing spiritual presence. For this rite, four of us (our “family”, which we were allocated at the beginning) needed to take a corner of the room each, in which a small stool displayed a number of items each representing a different “element”. We were told to conjure a memory of connection to our particular element, and to hold onto that as we chanted lines of power and used these elements to purify the space. I honestly did feel like I was connecting to magical forces in that moment! A genuinely mystic episode amongst all the absurdity.
  • The opportunity to write some words of wisdom in the congregational tome. I chose the last words said to me by a loved one right before I died, which I genuinely do try to keep with me and live my life by. Writing them in the book, I saw others’ contributions – most of which were incredibly silly, hamburger hamburger hamburger ha for example – and this juxtaposition made me smile and reflect on the myriad ways that we, as humans, cope with the senselessness of our world.

Overall, I feel that Church of the Sturdy Virgin has the potential to be a really interesting piece of immersive theatre, with some workshopping, tweaking, and tightening of structure. The aesthetic design is already top-notch, the actors were clearly enthusiastic about the project, and some of the concepts were very effective. After a bit of work, this piece could truly become sturdy, and stay sturdy.

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Previous review: A Hundred Words for Snow @ Trafalgar Studios

REVIEW! A Hundred Words for Snow @ Trafalgar Studios

Writer: Tatty Hennessy
Director: Lucy Jane Atkinson
Performed by Gemma Barnett
5th March-30th March

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Photo credit: Nick Rutter

A Hundred Words for Snow is one of the best solo shows I have ever seen, masterfully directed by Lucy Jane Atkinson. The piece was beautifully written by Tatty Hennessy. Without a shadow of a doubt, it is a fantastic five star show.

The Show follows the story of Rory, a likeable and funny 15 year old girl, who sadly has just lost her dad. Rory’s dad was a geography teacher and would-be explorer. He planned an exciting and almost impossible trip to take Rory to the North Pole, but never had the chance. Rory begins a journey all the way from England to the North Pole, carrying her dad’s ashes in her backpack which she plans to scatter at the North Pole. It is so fantastic to see an empowering story about a strong, courageous but also perfectly normal teenage girl. A very refreshing change!

Gemma Barnett is a fantastic performer and a perfect casting for Rory! She has the audience in stitches throughout the piece and is a lovely but also painfully relatable portrayal of a young teenage girl. Gemma played all the characters in this piece, including her mum and the people she met along the way. I was so engaged in every single one of them that I felt like there were two people on stage. It was clear the audience absolutely loved Rory and were supporting her every step of the way.
The design of the show was great. Christianna Mason created a space which was beautiful and the audience believed for every second they were on Rory’s journey with her. There were several effects in the show which were a wonderful part of the storytelling, for example a fan blowing and suddenly the audience were transported into a helicopter in the north pole. I was completely magicked away from London and placed thousands of miles away, which is precisely the reason I adore theatre.

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Photo credit: Nick Rutter

A Hundred Words For Snow is a beautiful piece of theatre which I would highly recommend to everyone, with a faultless performance from Gemma Barnett. It’s fantastic to see this story being put on front of an audience and it is very important to show these stories of young girls. The story really was like nothing I have ever seen on a stage before and I loved it. I cried tears both of sadness and joy. This show will inspire you to go on an adventure, pick up a book or call your loved ones. Personally it reminded me of my childhood where I was desperate to go on adventures around the world like my parents had done. I have since become nervous and scared about doing this, but this show has inspired me to get out there and do it.
Unmissable.

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Previous review: It’s Not A Sprint Novae Theatre @ Vault Festival

REVIEW! It’s Not A Sprint Novae Theatre @ Vault Festival

Writer and performer: Grace Chapman
Director and Producer: Ellie Simpson
Presented by Novae Theatre with Idle Motion
27 Feb – 3 March 2019

Maddy is turning 30, and about to run a marathon. She’s in it alone, with only a balloon and the voice of her insecurities for company. Her best friend is conspicuously absent, her mum is sending texts that are both supportive and worrying, and her boyfriend is waiting at the finish line with a big question. It becomes increasingly clear that Maddy is in denial about a lot of things, ranging from her lack of fitness to where she’s going with her life, but perhaps this marathon will be a chance to work through all these issues and, as a 30-year-old, hit the ground running…

Look, let’s be honest: a one-person show about being a millennial in which the writer is also the performer is likely to be… well, indulgent and mediocre. It’s Not A Sprint bucks that trend. From starting gun to finish line, this piece is compelling, relatable, self-aware, quirky, clever, insightful, and above all funny. Chapman has impeccable comic timing (and just normal timing – it’s tough having an onstage conversation where the other half of the dialogue is recorded, but she nailed it. I’m sure sound tech deserves credit for that too) and a wonderfully expressive face. It absolutely speaks to her skills as a writer and performer that she can take so many everyday and universal experiences and make them into a captivating hour-long performance. There’s not even anything on stage with her except that balloon and a number of sound effects – the magnetism is all her own.

It’s worth mentioning too that, as the piece’s action takes place during a marathon, Chapman spends almost the whole time jogging in place. I, a self-confessed slob, cannot fathom being fit enough to do that – whilst also pouring my heart and soul into a performance which must be mentally and emotionally taxing – but she manages it with only a light sweat. The ebb and flow of this piece loosely matches the demands of the marathon, as Maddy goes through alternating mindsets of nervousness, optimism, determination, despair, self-doubt, and tentative hope. The mix of tension and release is perfect to keep the audience invested without becoming as fatigued as Maddy. My only criticism of the show would be that the ending felt very abrupt, though of course given the nature of the thing, it couldn’t exactly have been wrapped up with a nice ribbon and a neat ending. Sometimes in theatre, as in life, the ending is messy, with glitter all over the floor.

If you’re a millennial going through a mid-(or quarter-, third-, whatever)life crisis and you feel like time is running out and you’re NOT prepared for the future – go and see this piece. And if you’re a baby boomer thinking that our generation is overly fragile and entitled – go and see this piece, and maybe you’ll come out with a better understanding of what it’s like to become an “adult” in a time of such social, political, and economic upheaval. And if you’re just looking for some quality theatre, or a laugh and a think – see this piece. It’s not a sprint, it’s definitely not a slog, and you absolutely must catch it before Maddy ends her run.

 

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Previous review: Smack That (a conversation) @ Ovalhouse