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.

Tickets

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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.

Spun Glass Theatre's Princess Charming (4)

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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Denied Under Section 221(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act by Connie Wookey @ South London Theatre, West Norwood

Devised and performed by Connie Wookey

Connie Wookey (yes that is her real name) is a charming and talented performer who has composed a fun 45 minute show about some distressing topics.

Essentially a light comedy cabaret about things in life we can’t control, “Denied Under Section 221(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act” touches on sexual harassment, malfunctioning planes and being an actress in New York, though doesn’t go into revelatory depth on any of these topics. Everything is dealt with simply, with a refreshing directness.

Some of Wookey’s songs and stories are touching, others feel a little like narrow casting – not all audiences are going to be able to identify or empathise with jokes about the vagaries of working as an actor or being middle class.

It’s an enjoyable show: a pleasant night out with an appealing host in Wookey.

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Artist’s website

GUY, Leoe&Hyde @ The Bunker

Music, Production by Stephen Hyde

Book, Lyrics by Leoe Mercer

Directed by Sam Ward

16 June – 7 July

GUY is a fun, fresh musical about friendship, love and Grindr. The music was slick, catchy computer pop – think SOPHIE and Sam Smith – and the lyrics were packed with word play and nerd references. It’s a minimalist show, with four actors, an almost empty set and a pre-recorded score but it does so much with this. Each actor displayed a polished, engaging performance – singing, dancing, deploying excellent comedic timing and dramatic chops. I couldn’t identify a stand out performer, since all four were strong talents who were a joy to watch.

It speaks to the the paucity of media by and for queer people, but it was relieving to see a story with no straight people in it. It’s not a story about homophobia or coming out or finding your identity, or even AIDS – all worthy stories to be sure, but it’s nice to see what’s essentially a gay rom-com. Which is not to say the story takes place in a queer utopia – Grindr, the story’s framing device, is famous for distilling racism, sexism and body dismorphia into the callous dismissal: “No fats, no femmes, no asians”. All these issues are identified and addressed in the show – there are shades of Cyrano De Bergerac in that so many characters feel they have to hide themselves from those they love due to perceived prejudice.

The show has the breezy positivity you want from a musical about falling in love, and the exceptional cast keep you engaged throughout an hour and a half run with very little lag. I recommend this show.

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Tickets

Kiss Chase, Second Circle @ The Bunker

Written and directed by Hannah Samuels

Devised by the company 

11 June – 7 July

Kiss Chase is an interesting piece of interactive devised theatre which combines short monologues and audience participation to present varied and unique perspectives on romance and relationships.

At first glance, the theatre seems like it’s set up for an ice breaking, team building activity that corporate insists will be good for sales. It’s like speed dating, but less fraught by sexual tension. Audience are given numbered labels which correspond to a clip board that waits for them on a chair. Everyone starts the night with a partner, though we’re warned that we’ll be swapping throughout – the point is not to find true love, but just connection. There’s an emphasis, as the show progresses, on secrets: what kind are kept, and for what reasons.

Our “hosts” Ben and Ruth (well played by Topher Collins and Rayyah McCaul) are warm, if a little tense, and talk us through a series of activities designed to get you to spill your guts. There’s some kind of undercurrent between them throughout the show – not exactly romance, but something they need to talk about. Some of the guests are also playing roles – spotlighted and speaking their thoughts to the whole audience. Each of the actors were talented in their moment, and I expect fairly good at improvisation – one of my partners from early in the show turned out later to be a character, which made our conversation about our jobs both weird and impressive. Some audience members volunteered to share their own thoughts on relationships, and I would have enjoyed if this happened a little more. The show would benefit if there was more time and encouragement, because all the actual audience participation was fascinating.

There’s no particular plot or resolution to the show, which accurately reflects the real world – brief connections, half glimpsed secrets, unanswered questions.

It was an interesting, creative and fun show that felt at times a little underdeveloped.

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