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! 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

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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.

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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.

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Previous: REVIEW! Cuzco by Víctor Sánchez Rodríguez @ Theatre503

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.

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

REVIEW! A Dog’s Heart, Xameleon Theatre @ Theatre 21

Based on the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov
Director: Konstantin Kamensky
Producer: Vlada Lemeshevska
Cast: Oleg Sidorchik, Sergey Kotukh, Alexey Averkin, Eimas Minkelis, Vlada Lemeshevska
22 – 24 November 2018

Bulgakov’s satirical novel was, like much of his work, banned in Soviet Russia for over sixty years. The plot, somewhere between Frankenstein and Animal Farm, centers around a successful surgeon experimenting with eugenics by transplanting animal organs into humans, to create a peak human at peak health.

The opening of the book and the play is a far cry from these lofty ideals: an injured, desperate dog foraging through trash in the middle of winter. The dog is played with exceptional empathy and physicality by Sergey Kotukh. He’s not wearing any particular make up or costume but did make me forget, at times, that he was not a dog. He makes such a good dog, it’s even more painful to watch his slow transition into a terrible man.

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He is adopted, from the street, by the successful Professor Preobrazhensky (a name derived from the Russian word for transformation), who brings him back to his apartment and starts spoiling him. He gets a collar and is named Sharik – the Russian equivalent of Rex or Rover. He’s just becoming comfortable in his role as a gentleman’s dog when he’s sedated and operated on – the new subject of an experiment to see what happens when the pituitary gland and testicles of a man are transplanted into a dog.

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The Professor, Oleg Sidorchik, is as much a parody of the anti-communist bourgeois as the uncouth Sharik is a parody of the proletariat – there are no ethically sound characters or decisions in this show, only an uncomfortable black humour and dissection of class struggle. Is the issue with Sharik, who never asked for this? With the Professor, a stubborn, snobby nepotist who uses his connections to protect himself? With the fact that Sharik’s donor organs came from a criminal (who’s name may or may not have been a punning reference to Stalin)? How can we ask anyone to change their heart?

It’s a small, highly talented cast with excellent timing, performing in Russian. There are English surtitles, as you’ll often find in operas. It can be a little distracting to look back and forth – the action of the play moves faster, with more jokes than an opera. There are also multiple, mobile screens which partition the stage and have videos projected onto them. This worked extremely well in the first act, as a clever combination of live and recorded black and white video helped us understand the perspective of Sharik as he is adopted. These many projections became increasingly difficult to follow and focus on as the play progressed – I got the impression that the show had been designed for a differently shaped theatre entirely.

Despite the overuse of technology, the strength of the play is its cast. It’s a bleak story, distressingly relevant nearly one hundred years after it was written. It’s a funny, moving, thought-provoking play that’s well worth watching.

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Previous Review: How To Catch A Krampus by Sink the Pink @ Pleasance Theatre

REVIEW! vessel, Sue MacLaine Company @ Battersea Arts Center

Writer/Director: Tess Agus
Performer/Assistant Director: Sue MacLaine
Performers/Collaborators: Angela Clerkin, Kailing Fu, Karline Grace Paseda
6 – 24 November

vessel is an experimental piece inspired by the writing of Judith Butler and the ancient practice of anchorage, where a member of clergy would voluntarily enter a cell for the remainder of their life. The anchoress – often a nun – would contemplate God and spirituality. The production tells us she has only three small windows which are all the communication she with the world until she dies and is buried in the grave she has dug for herself in the cell. 

Reflecting this, our four performers are isolated and static for much of the show – anchored in circles, seated, though they move their chairs in synchronised movement at moments, signifying a change in theme.

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If you’re with me so far, you know that this is a heavy show.

There’s no plot or character – simply four overlapping, almost identical monologues, presented in concert, the actor’s voices moving in and out of phase as they ask the audience to think about language, power, capitalism, sexuality, domesticity, violence – the personal and political.

The echoing voices, repeating and talking over each other, combined with low light projections of the text they read slipping across the backdrop, as well as a gentle, vivid ambient soundtrack designed by Owen Crouch, have a hypnotic quality – abstract art inviting abstracted thinking.

The text is dense – imagine two hundred thesis statements and a tone poem by Steve Reich – and only raises questions, answering them solely with increasing abstraction. It’s an unsatisfying piece, but this seems intentional – all good philosophy and poetry is semiotically open.

The actors, costumed by Holly Murray in outfits that suggest without directly referencing ecclesiastical clothes of different religions, express themselves almost entirely through voice and limited, ritualised gestures. We get the sense of these images, actions and questions recurring over and over throughout history.

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It’s a difficult show to talk about – I wouldn’t call it an enjoyable night out, but I may call it an important one.

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Previous review: Chutney @ The Bunker Theatre

 

The Wider Earth, Dead Puppets Society @ The Natural History Museum

Written by David Morton
Presented by The Dead Puppets Society
Currently booking until Sunday 30 December 2018

It’s hard to picture a more suiting play to be the first presented at the Natural History Museum’s new theatre space: a visually stunning educational romp through Darwin’s first voyage on the HMAS Beagle.

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With intricate, elegant puppetry, vivid projections, an exciting, mobile set and a sweeping cinematic musical score, the production is impeccably put together. Bradley Foster portrays the 22-year-old Darwin as an innocent, excitable man, immediately engaging the audience with his enthusiasm while he tangles with the challenges of his discoveries.

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There’s some scientific and historical content, some discussion of the impact of the research being portrayed, but there’s not much depth to it – this play would serve as an excellent introduction to Darwin’s studies, rather than an analysis of them. However, it is a stunning production, bringing to life the exotic Galapagos and the rich, simple emotion of awe we feel when looking at something unique and beautiful. I would recommend this show to people of all ages looking for an edifying spectacle.

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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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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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