REVIEW! Custody by Urban Wolf @ Ovalhouse Theatre

Author: Tom Wainwright
Creator: Urban Wolf
Director: Gbemisola Ikumelo
Wed 5 Jun – Sat 22 Jun

Rest in Peace, Brian.

It shouldn’t have happened to him. It shouldn’t happen to anyone.

In the last thirty years, nearly 150 non-white people have died in police custody. No charges of murder have been laid against the police.

A play about black deaths in police custody can really only be devastating, and that’s what this production is.

Focusing on the family of Brian Olayinka, a man pulled over for being black, beaten to death by officers for being black, Custody brings us into the crucial moments of realising, responding, falling apart – the cast give us grief and rage and bitter resignation. It’s a fictional play, but it rings true. This could have been real. This could be real. This will be real, statistically.

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We meet his mother, sister, brother and lover – and they take turns portraying Brian, who is fleshed out in such a way that the audience weeps for him too.  A man who had his life together is now only a memorial, a silhouette, a statistic. The script really explores all the different ways systemic violence against a group of people is depersonalising. It’s also, in places, funny – as family conversations are. Much more often, it is the halting, telegraphic dialect of grief – there are some things that can’t be said. The actors’ movements speak as much as the words.

The set is brilliant – mobile as the cast, but with the shape of a man’s head hanging behind the action throughout, ever present.

I couldn’t pick out a cast member to praise above the others – they all do such an exceptional job. Muna Otaru is the Mother – agonised, unable to find sense in what has happened. The politically-minded Sister who urges activism is embodied by Ewa Dina.  Rochelle James’ Lover is at a loss to find her place with the people that would have been hers if she and Brian had married, as they planned. Creator Urban Wolf, also known as Urbain Hayo, plays the brother, who finds himself holding his family together.

This play is perfect, and depressingly necessary.

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Previous Review: Transit by FLIP Fabrique @ Underbelly Festival Southbank

REVIEW! Love and Misinformation @ Drayton Arms

Created and directed by Stephen Davidson
Produced by Presence Theatre Collective

Performed by Avril Poole, Carla Keen, Chloe Kennedy, Invi Brenna, Jon Nguyen, Juwel Haque, Karo Kriks, Leander Vyvey, Maria Skolozynska, Olivia Gibbs-Fairley
21 – 25 May, 2019

It’s tricky to write about a production like Love and Misinformation. It’s an improvised play, so I can’t really mention anything about the plot, costumes or music – there weren’t any. I can say it’s distinct from a lot of improv shows in that they’re not just going for gags – there certainly are gags, but comedy is not the point of this show.

Conceived as an homage to Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, wherein fifteen actors play 100 characters in 50 scenes, Presence Theatre’s cast of ten experienced improvisers create countless characters in scenes that ranged from shockingly brief to painfully awkward. The scenes don’t form any particular plot – but as the show progresses, it develops a clear theme: connection and communication. There are hints at larger stories and references to things that may have never happened, ones that got away or refused to leave, people bumping into each other and trying to remember if they’ve met – it’s maddening to try to figure out links between characters played by actors who might not know either. Was I reading too much into something? Maybe! But maybe so was one of the performers in that scene! We’re all trying to figure out what’s going on together.

Theatre is about making meaning, and this production really encourages us to not only make our own meaning but question how that meaning is made, how we understand any social situations, and interactions, any media.

The show I saw was a preview for an upcoming Fringe run, and of course, it will undergo changes every time it is performed – maybe it will be tighter, maybe it will be looser. The cast were charismatic, though we barely spend enough time with any of them to get a handle on their strengths. Some actors seemed a little at sea – but aren’t we all, in this day and age? Isn’t it only right to be baffled by the world?

If this sounds a little vague, Love and Misinformation might not be the show for you. But, if you’re interested in a truly unique show, one that makes you reconsider some of your assumptions about relationships and society, definitely check it out.

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Previous review: Summer Street: The Hilarious Aussie Soap Opera Musical @ Waterloo East Theatre

REVIEW! Fighter @ Stratford Circus Arts Center

Written by Libby Liburd
Directed by Julie Addy
25th – 27th April  2019

Boxing was illegal for women in Britain until 1998. That’s not a typo: 1998. This is when the action of the play is set – when the boxing rings of Britain were just getting used to women running the ropes.

Written by and starring Libby Liburd, based on her own experiences as a single mother who found belonging in the male dominated boxing scene of the nineties, Fighter is a comforting narrative about forging your own path.

The script is full of warm and witty character voices, though the plot was a familiar rehash of obvious cliches. It felt like a show that wasn’t quite sure what it wanted to be – a three hander or a monologue? An action packed drama or a domestic comedy?

The main cast, including Cathy Tyson and David Schaal as Lee’s (Liburd) trainers, were excellent performers. Their interactions were a joy to watch. A group of young boxers from Fight for Peace provided energetic set dressing – skipping, bobbing, and feinting – but were a little awkward when called on to act.

Images courtesy of Alex Brenner

The production raises some great questions about the value of boxing – for women and men – as well as motherhood. Lee was at her most convincing when justifying how the skills of being a fighter are similar to those needed for raising a child.

This is an enjoyable show with an engaging cast and a few exciting moments. Despite issues with pacing, it’s valuable to see a play about a single mother and a female boxer, and fun to see one with this much heart.

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Previous Review: Twelfth Night @ Rose Playhouse

REVIEW! Twelfth Night @ The Rose Playhouse

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Adam Nichols
Musical direction by Tom Cagnoni
23rd April – 5th May 2019

This jukebox interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s awkward comedies is a fun romp, showcasing a widely talented cast.

Photography Credit – Lou Morris Photography

Set on a 1920’s cruise ship, the production runs to a tight 90 minutes, necessary as the semi-excavated historic Rose Playhouse has no heating or bathrooms. Behind the narrow shelf of the stage is a cavernous pit where the 400 year old structure is being revealed – in this production, the pit becomes the sea.

The 1920’s setting gives reason to the characters’ manias and hedonism – the war is over, and now we can drink, play pranks and fall in love. Duke Orsino (Will Forester playing him as frankly bi-curious) is our captain, Olivia (Emma Watson at full glamour) a famous actress. The innocent, plucky Viola (Lucy Crick) washes up on board and finds herself stuffing her trunks to convince people that she is worth employing – still a legitimate concern, even in the post-war relaxing of gender roles, women should not be alone with men.

The small staging space was cleverly used, the primary set piece being a modified piano that provided backing music as well as serving as a prop. The fourteen actors played music, sang and clowned, keeping the audience laughing and clapping along. Not all the songs felt entirely necessary – it’s not that they were poorly performed as much as they didn’t add much to our understanding of the characters. I don’t really need to hear the jazzy redux of the Thong Song in its entirety to know that Toby Belch is gross, or a cover of Alessia Cara’s Here to know that Feste feels out of place.

Photography Credit – Lou Morris Photography

There tends to be little to add to Shakespeare’s comedies, which play with gender and expectation in a cultural context we have no experience of. It’s common enough to cast Feste the fool as a girl, and Hannah Francis-Baker does a fine job as a grinning Greek chorus, using re-arranged pop songs to comment on the action of the play. This production, however, really leaned into the amorality of charismatic drunk Lady Toby (Anna Franklin as a washed up music hall star) and her crew, making a female Malvolia (Faith Turner playing priggish perfection) suffer – it’s more distressing to see a woman stripped to yellow stockings and taunted for thinking she might be loved than it is a man. In between that and the gentle, pitiably foolish Sir Andrew (James Douglas, at peak upper class twit), the play ends on a curious note, perhaps commenting on the torment of being the butt of jokes. It doesn’t entirely land – as it maybe can’t, without adding a post-script to Shakespeare’s play.

This production is worth your attention, appropriate for fans of pop, comedy and Shakespeare.

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Previous Review: H.M.A.S. Pinafore @ The King’s Head Theatre

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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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! 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