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.

Tickets

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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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Trump’d by Cambridge Footlights @ C Venues

Written and directed by Joshua Peters, Adam Woolf and Aron Carr

At C Venues, Edinburgh Fringe,  Aug 23-27

This pastiche parody is one of three musicals about Trump playing at the Edinburgh Fringe – perhaps because the absurd American political reality demands the outrageous silliness of an over-the-top panto.

This Cambridge Footlights production, with a Wizard of Oz framing device, dueting Isis members, and fourth wall breaking Mexicans, really leans into this. There’s no detailed political analysis to be found – but plenty of the broad jokes are going to land with an audience who love to hate America. The writers have slipped a few pertinent points into the script: that’s it’s not too late to dump Trump, and there’s always hope.

The backing music for the songs has been borrowed from all your favourite musicals, provided on stage by Ted Mackey and Anthony Gray on keyboards. They’re well chosen – catchy and familiar, they bring a lot of energy to the small cast, making it seem like a bigger budget show.

All the performers are having a great deal of fun – though some are stronger singers than others, all put a lot of heart and personality into their roles and were hilariously engaging. Annabel Bolton’s rapping Hilary is delightful, as was Amaya Holman’s ingenue and Stanley Thomas’ grizzled ‘escort’. The members of the Mexican Resistance, played by Carine Valarche, Capucine May and Henry Eaton-Mercer, got to show off good comedic chops and great dance moves. Dan Allum-Gruselle did a lot with a stiff Austrian accent and several pairs of sunglasses. Jack Bolton, who plays Trump, brings to the obvious long tie, orange face and blond wig a disconcertingly perfect impersonation of the shitty President’s shitty voice.

There’s a lot of laugh out loud moments. There’s also a few disconcertingly dark spots in the play – a reminder that the writers and cast know that the reality is much more serious than they’re presenting to you now, which they’ve decided not to address – which is reasonable. A musical isn’t the place to sensitively portray internment camps or rampant xenophobia.

If you’re looking for an hour where you get to laugh at the most laughable parts of America, this is the show for you.

Tickets

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Super Hamlet 64 @ The Cockpit

Produced and presented by Eddy Day

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Trans/non-binary performer Eddy Day has many talents, and all of them are on display in this 90 minute show – song, mime, banter, many musical instruments, creative animation. It’s an exploration of what games mean to us and how we struggle with roles society imposes.

Despite Day’s skill, the show drags – it’s hard for one actor to maintain energy for over an hour, playing multiple characters with increasingly similar accents. Long segments felt unnecessary but for a single, simple joke or reference which frequently failed to support the show’s overarching message.

The music and projections were impressive, but not enough to support the text, which staggered under the the weight of lengthy quotation from a range of high and low culture texts.

The script was strongest when Day was original – there’s a few good monologues in there about living up to expectations and coming to terms with death – but the accompanying full 12 point font A4 page of video games referenced shows that there’s not enough focus in the show.

Full disclosure: I am obsessed with Hamlet. I’ve directed the play, I have most of it memorised, read essays about it for fun.

At one point, Day states, with ukulele accompaniment, that they’ve stuck pretty close to the spirit of the original. And they have, to an extent. Hamlet is also very long and discursive and filled with odd asides which add little to the main text. Day, as I’m sure they’re aware, is no Shakespeare. They’re clearly fond of the play, but has failed to interrogate or transform it.

In this production, Hamlet is simply another text to be quoted, as meaningful as any of the many, many video games which are referenced. It provides flavour, but could have been replaced with any other tragedy.

Secondary disclosure: I love video games. I sunk seven hours into Curse of Monkey Island last week and have strong opinions about Metal Gear.

Again – the video games are just there to provide flavour. There are so many touched on – through word play or complex visual presentations – that none of them are meaningful. A ten minute Portal reference? A motorcycle riding Ophelia? Rosa and Crash and Guile and Stan? It becomes noise, distracting from the core of what Day seems to be trying to get at.

Buried under the flurry of references, there’s a good 45 minute show about expectations and mortality, but it has to be exhumed from a pile of extraneous nonsense so tall it makes Ossa a wart.

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Princess Charming by Spun Glass Theatre – Interview

Peter is a boy. And boys like blue and football and fights. Jane is a girl. And girls
like pink and dollies and princesses.

Princess Charming is a new interactive cabaret show which addresses sexist and gender based bullying through song, dance and acrobatics – and it’s for the whole family.

Producer Jessica Cheetham answered a few of Theatre Box’s questions ahead of their tour through the UK over September and November.

What are your aims with staging this production?

Spun Glass Theatre wants to explore how gender stereotypes affect behaviour. If a boy is naturally more sensitive or a girl naturally more assertive, a continual admonishment from adults can chip away at their confidence. The performers present lots of different ideas about how stereotypes put pressure on girls and boys to act a certain way and how that might make us feel.

We also wanted to create a production that families will really enjoy while creating chances for them to chat about what it means to them to be a boy or be a girl.

Spun Glass Theatre has been interested in gender issues and women’s’ stories since we began in 2010. Princess Charming was born from a desire to talk about the ideas we layer onto children very early in life and the impact that has as they grow up and become adults.

Why have you chosen to appeal to this particular age bracket?

We have chosen this age bracket because they are starting to become aware of how what they like and dislike starts to create an identity that might be different from those around them. Children are around 7 to 11 years old when they start to really realise that they might be different from the majority of the children around them and this can have an impact on their confidence.

We created Princess Charming by visiting schools and performing sections of the play to children there. They were very honest in their feedback and helped us to shape a performance that was really meaningful to them. The show is fast-paced with about 20 different cabaret skits so it’s really engaging to watch. A cabaret style atmosphere is created with children and adults encouraged to heckle and take part so it’s really engaging.

Are there any big differences working with young audiences that you enjoy, or even dread?

The energy in the theatre feels much more positive which we really enjoy. We encourage the children to interact with the performers during the show and what they say is really funny and just adds to the performance, unlike some adults who heckle to distract from the show – so that’s been really fun.

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Princess Charming runs from September 19th to November 4th at various theatres around the UK.

Click here for more information and all venues.

The Egg Rumour, The Brew Makers Theatre Co @ The Cockpit, Marylebone

Produced and presented by The Brew Makers Theatre Co

Written by Ellamae Cieslik

The Egg Rumour is an original musical about the “new corporate perk” of egg freezing so that women can work more and longer hours without being distracted by their reproductive needs.

The script was written and produced by the lead actor, Ellamae Cieslik. It uses intentionally shallow characters to mount a social critique on the corporate world which treats its employees as interchangeable resources with no regard for their actual desires. It focuses, however, on a fairly narrow target – egg freezing is a relatively small issue for women in the workplace, and I was surprised to see it spun out into an entire hour.

The script is strongest when it leans into humour – there are a few laugh-out-loud moments based on misogynistic etiquette manuals and good comedic timing. However, as the piece clips along quickly, without giving most of the characters names or any realistic depth, the more dramatic moments lack any emotional punch. There were moments that felt undeveloped or unresolved – the Egg Whisperer is consistently mentioned but only gets to speak in a single didactic monologue, and the sexy doctor seems like he’ll be more important than he is.

The performances are engaging, including some capable singing and a little fun choreography – the original songs are simple and effective jazz style pieces that work in the context of the show. The set and costume design are minimal and cleverly done.

Overall, the Egg Rumour feels like the first draft of a piece that could be a more complex exploration of women in the corporate environment – worth a look but not groundbreaking.

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