Elephant and Castle, Tom Adams and Lillian Henley @ Camden People’s Theatre

9th – 20th October 2018

Presented by Tom Adams and Lillian Henley

Elephant and Castle is a haunting, experimental piece of gig-theatre presented by husband and wife Tom Adams and Lillian Henley exploring the science and romantic impact of Adam’s parasomnia – sleep talking/walking.

A mattress propped up at the back of the stage begins to shake before creeping forward towards the audience – we hear a recording of someone whimpering, crying out layered with sounds of electrocution. It’s unsettling, to say the least. But then the mattress flips down and Henley and Adams bounce onto the bed in match-clash paisley pyjamas, find us with their eyes, and begin to sing their story, regaling us with when they first met and their later struggles with Adam’s parasomnia.

Henley’s hauntingly beautiful voice heightens the domestic tragedy of the songs, indicative of the show’s off-beat, quirky humour. This is a show that is not afraid to sit in its authored awkwardness. Elephant and Castle is equally generous and odd – cocooned by a Lynchian atmosphere. Recordings made over 3 years sample the strangeness of Adam’s night time ramblings, and are played in the darkness between transitions.

Henley plays her own long-sufferance to the cheek of Adam’s parasomnia – luminous, still, her voice transcendent, both eerie and beautiful. Adam’s mischief offers an appealing counterpoint, and they have a distinct chemistry that makes the spirit of this work unique. It delves into some darker territory, questioning what parasomnia can reveal, the threat it offers, never losing its idiosyncratic charm.

I especially enjoyed the use of a hand-held projector, projecting what looked like go-pro sleepwalk footage onto the back of the again upturned bed. It was immersive, lulling me into the logic of a dream-like state. The show’s composition and design converged in a fully realised atmosphere. As I sat, trying to grasp at shapes in the figurative footage, slipping out of definition, I happily gave myself over to its flow.

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Square Rounds, Proud Haddock @ Finborough Theatre

Written by Tony Harrison
Directed by Jimmy Walters
Set and Costume Design by Daisy Blower
Lighting Design by Arnim Friess
Music by Jeremy Warmsley
Musical Direction by Adam Gerber
Sound Design by Dinah Mullen
Movement Direction by Depi Gorgogianni
Cast: Eva Feiler, Gracy Goldman, Rujenne Green, Amy Marchant, Philippa Quinn, Letty Thomas

4 September – Saturday, 29 September 2018

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Photo by Samuel Taylor

Proud Haddock presents Tony Harrison’s all-female war drama Square Rounds at the Finborough Theatre, re- staged for the first time in 30 years to mark the 100-year anniversary of the First World War.

Proud Haddock’s emphatic work explores the ethical duality of scientific progress and how the best human intentions are behind some of the most horrific atrocities.

The play is a lyrical, lilting, odd work that jumps across time, employing magician stage craft, movement and live songs to deliver a message on repeated folly and hubris.

Daisy Blower’s set draws on the work’s thematic concerns, with a white box outlined on the black floor and multi-purpose white and black boxes with squares movable between scenes. The centrepiece is a large black box that is alternately used as a toilet cubicle, magician’s box, display case, blackboard, gas chamber, and more. A canny piece of design well incorporated into the action and reinvented in use by the cast. War time and historical footage are projected over the set, only registering as subtle movement on the black, visible in its white.

The ensemble cast was energetic and charming, hurtling through the verse, offering a contrast between the earnestness of the characters with their historical tragedy. While this dramatic irony was successfully fulfilled, I found myself wanting a more detailed irony and humour grounded in the language and characterisation: some of the ideas might have been more expressly served if tied to human motivation or relationships, as exemplified in the stand-out, rousing performances of Gracy Goldman and Philippa Quinn arguing as German-Jewish chemists and spouses Fritz Haber and Clara Immerwahr, Quinn as Haber defending her invention of chlorine gas. The actors as a whole did artful, attentive work within the production.

This re-staging of Square Rounds felt intellectually relevant, but because of this detached, historical quality did not offer a deeper connection with our present time or an understanding of its related but unique set of concerns.

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Caterpillar, Alison Carr @ Theatre503

29 August – 22 September 2018

Writer: Alison Carr
Director: Yasmeen Arden
Producer: Michelle Barnette
Design: Holly Pigott
Lighting: Ben Jacobs
Sound: Jac Cooper
Cast: Judith Amsenga as Claire, Alan Mahon as Simon and Tricia Kelly as Maeve

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Small Truth Theatre premieres Alison Carr’s Caterpillar at Theatre503, a finalist of their 2016 Playwriting Award, with a continued run at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.

Caterpillar takes place at a closed seaside B&B run by grandmother Maevis who is recovering from a recent stroke that’s paralysed the left side of her body. Her daughter Claire has been living in to help look after her and seems unwilling to leave to return to her own life as a mother. Unexpectedly, guest Simon arrives late one night, to participate in a Red Bull style hang-gliding event taking over the town, the last request of his now dead girlfriend.

Set in Maeve’s living room, Holly Pigott’s naturalistic design is characterised by welcoming, coastal themed décor, all seemingly sourced from the local seaside gift shop, giving it a cosy but identifiably curated feel.

Alison Carr has an ear for natural dialogue and a knack for embedding comedy in her characters’ voices, offering up engaging, complex portraits of humanity. Yasmeen Arden’s quietly confident direction lets the charm and warmth of the text shine.

The production is a slow-burn, taking its time to introduce us to the world and unfurl the secrets at the heart of its characters. However, some of the darker reveals and decisions later in the piece feel unseeded in earlier action, especially stacked as they were in the second act.

The actors gave striking, well-drawn performances; credible and nuanced. Tricia Kelly as Maeve is a commanding combination of saucy humour and iron pragmatism, a vitality offset by the vulnerability of the character’s age and health issues. Alan Mahon disarms with a warm (later creepy) earnestness and Judith Amsenga assuredly balances tenderness, aggression and a biting wit.

Alison Carr’s writing finds fresh vision in familiar themes. I found the mother-daughter dynamic to be the strength of the piece: a mixture of loyalty, kind-cruelty, blindness and unmet expectations, and wish there had been greater attention given to this relationship as the linchpin of the play’s concerns, which sometimes felt unfocused. Caterpillar has interesting things to say about performative caring and reflects on constrictive roles both in and out of family structures.

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Additional performances:
27 – 29 September 2018                 Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

Ladykiller, The Thelmas @ Pleasance Courtyard

1st – 27th August 2018

Director:  Madelaine Moore

Writer:  Madeline Gould

Designer:  Baska Wesolowska

Lighting Design:  Jennifer Rose

HER: Hannah McClean

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Ladykiller is a darkly humorous examination of the social expectations of female serial killers, and more broadly, instructive of how to find advantage within a system geared to disempower you, to take it down from the inside.

Upon entering Bunker One we find a woman, dead, face down on the floor with blood spreading beneath her. Hannah McClean enters as the character HER in a French maid’s uniform, her apron and hands wet with blood. She begins a defence of the murder, telling the story of how the now dead hotel guest attacked her and how she had no choice but to protect herself.

Ladykiller challenges the idea of victim-hood in a post me-too world. It explores the intersection of both being a woman and working in minimum wage as abused roles, but the power/access that can come out of that. It further critiques how successful this position of being underestimated can be, offering an unresolved question about the relationship between trauma, cycles of violence and whether harsher consequence should be the way to change behaviour. It spun together familiar ideas and made them feel fresh, its comments novel. The image of HER standing over another woman’s body a potent image at the centre of the work.

Ladykiller is entertaining, funny, engaging, and an effective allegory for challenging gender roles in contemporary society. The writing is relevant and well executed. Hannah McClean has perfect comic timing, adeptly handling the pacing of the show’s meandering associations, expertly inhabiting the stage with her impressive pretence, stick-shifting our expectations like she’s driving at the Formula One.

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Bunker One, Pleasance Courtyard, 60 Pleasance, EH8 9TJ

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Bury the Hatchet, Out of the Forest Theatre @ The Hope Theatre, Islington

24 July – 11 August

Written by Sasha Wilson, further devised by the company
Cast: Joseph Harrison, David Leopold and Sasha Wilson
Design: David Spence
Lighting Design: Will Alder
Produced by Joseph Cullen, Sarah Divall and Claire Gilbert for Out of the Forest Theatre

Photo Credits: Reg Madison/Liam Bessell

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Bury the Hatchet is a re-visiting of the famous Lizzie Borden story, performed in the black-box studio of The Hope Theatre, Islington. Upon entering we find Sasha Wilson, the actor who plays Lizzie and herself as the playwright, kneeling on the floor in a lace black dress (wearing matching Etsy style earrings of Lizzie Borden) at the centre of radiating family portraits splattered with red blood. Sasha copies details from a hefty history tome into a notebook, presumably crafting the play we’re about to see. Above, a lit hatchet dangles from a rigged loop of rope.  Stringed instruments – a violin, a banjo, etc. – crowd the back of the stage. A resonant whistle fills the space as Joseph Harrison and David Leopold enter, completing the ensemble cast, and we’re off.

What follows is an investigation of the persevering mystery, nagging happenstance, and odd Victorian social hang-ups that contributed to the peculiar and unresolved case of Lizzie Borden, who was accused of the murder of her father and step-mother by hatchet in 1892. (Lizzie Borden took an axe, And gave her mother forty whacks…etc.)

In the play, Sasha claims that she initially set out to write a historically accurate show. What results is an interesting frisson between Lizzie Borden pop-lore, the dramatisation of primary sources and the beginning of the playwright’s inquiry into both Lizzie’s motivation and her own fascination with the story, set to a gorgeous prairie bluegrass soundtrack.

Sasha’s exploration feels strongest when the playwright reflects on what she finds interesting about the murder and its circumstance – weaving together a possible psychology for Lizzie, before revising her theories with a new set of supporting facts. Her desire to find something else in Lizzie’s motivations, and Lizzie’s relationships with her sister Emma and the family maid Bridget, even if only through supposition, brings new life to the nursery rhyme.

Joseph Harrison and David Leopold had a markedly generous energy and seamlessly led the audience through the thorny mystery, expertly playing a bevvy of supporting characters. The ensemble was silly and charming, the piece defined by a meta-humour that buoyed along the more serious themes, allowing a critique of the original trial, both with facts, fictions and digressions.

The atmosphere was intimate and immersive, aided by a subtle choreographed movement, well-articulated by the actors and magnetic in the space. Within the studio, Will Alder created a moody, oil-painting lighting scape, with wisps of more electric horror, highlighting the ensemble’s striking arrangements (both musical/physical) beneath the ever-hanging hatchet.

The style sang best when it positioned its author as architect of the inquiry. Sasha Wilson is particularly compelling when she filters Lizzie through the lens of her own experience, reflecting on the awakening Lizzie might have felt after her first European tour, or interrogating her own relationship with death. While the details of the crime are teasingly interesting, the question of what is true remains locked in time and I found the pursuit of what might be understood, or re-interpreted from the vantage of now, to be far more engaging.

Overall, the piece was rich and evocative, expertly conjuring the feeling of vaudevillian horror as well as identifying something at the heart of our ongoing fascination with “guilty” true crime celebrities and Lizzie’s relatable, out of time refusal to have less.

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Pigspurt’s Daughter, Daisy Campbell @ Hampstead Theatre

11th – 14th July 2018
Written and Performed by Daisy Campbell

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In Pigspurt’s Daughter, Daisy Campbell marks the 10-year anniversary of her father cult theatre figure Ken Campbell’s death.

At the beginning of the show, Daisy Campbell tells us that she has been putting off sorting through the artefacts of her father’s theatrical legacy for the decade since.

The stage reflects this, boxed shelves display comedy props such as Ken’s joke-shop dick nose and laughing mirror (his cure for depression), posters from his many shows, media quotes, close-ups of his buttocks shaped nose, his notebooks, The Illuminatus Trilogy that he famously adapted, and other texts that have informed his work; a shrine-cum-studio-cum-storage unit amongst which Daisy performs her first one-woman show.

Daisy invokes her father’s legacy as a comedic genius and experimental theatre-maker, telling his stories; performing a nasally Ken Campbell instantly recognisable to the audience. Daisy’s childhood was spent watching her father’s one-man shows, hanging out in the Hackney Marshes where they lived on their boat The Snark, and attending Robert Mckee’s Story Structure Course. Daisy has used this education to architect a memoir fitting of a master storyteller.

Daisy Campbell is a spell-binding performer – confident, charismatic and enticing as she weaves together seemingly disparate events and ideas into a swirling tapestry of meaning (and mycelium). Early in the show Daisy relates the findings of the split-self experiments of neuroscientist Gazzaniga, the contents of which she encountered in an old documentary narrated by her father. Daisy explains that there is a gap where the self should be and what in fact inhabits that gap, according to Gazzaniga, is our interpreter, or as Daisy prefers to put it, her storyteller. The storyteller’s job is to make sense of the world, creating the illusion of meaning and purpose, only masquerading as the Self. As Robert Mckee puts it, the story exists in The Gap between expectation and what’s really happening. Incidentally, Mckee thought Ken Campbell was the greatest storyteller he ever met.

Daisy becomes suspect of her own storyteller and its “soap-opera sensibilities”, and decides to feed it a glut of story set-ups, mystifying it by handing out tarot cards to friends without explanation or the possibility of pay-off, challenging the storyteller’s ability to produce meaning, and so in over-drive, it finds meaning in everything. Daisy reports how things get weird when you mess with your storyteller, but this is just the beginning as Daisy begins to see and find Gaps everywhere.

Through a series of semi-serendipitous events, threaded together like the hyphae of the recurring image of the mycelium, Daisy is possessed by her father’s demonic character Pigspurt, (from his Evening Standard Critic’s Choice Best Comedy awarded show at the National Theatre of the same name) through an accident of gastromancy, a rectal invocation of dead spirits. (In the original NT production of Pigspurt, the demon is finally exorcised when Ken finds the female buttocks that matches the shape of his nose.)

Her father as Pigspurt takes over the voice of her storyteller, making a deal with Daisy that she can use Ken’s old stories if she promises to drive the story to the end of the line, to find Robert Mckee’s Negation of the Negation, and so to go farther than her father. So naturally, Daisy begins seeking the solution to exorcise Pigspurt, to get her father out of her arse so she can then figuratively get out from inside his arse and locate her missing Self. Daisy references the disappointment she was to Ken for not becoming a Russian gymnast or someone who whazzes particles together at CERN in Switzerland.

If the ideas in the show seem dense, complex and the allusions sometimes lofty, they are. But Daisy Campbell is a compelling, warm guide through these entwined ideas, inventing the perfect theatrical vessel to honour her father, and the worldview and stories she inherited from him. And she’s just so outrageously funny doing it, her charm, irresistible; on the knife-edge between child-like and preternaturally canny.

The play crept up on themes of grief, loss and love without a hint of the performative pain that sometimes rides shotgun to these topics, addressing instead the feeling that is revealed by these experiences, of a collapsing narrative; and the sensation of a Gap where your Self should be.

And while you might be tempted to reduce the piece to its thematic jus like I have just done, the strength of the work lies in its refusal to be simplified. The power of the story is in its swirling associations and circuitous exploration of the Gap and the Self, complicating the need for definition with its form, artfully hijacking narrative to ultimately discredit it.

Daisy both questions the compulsion to create meaning and fill “the Gap” while also enriching the autobiographical show with the many fictions that were the foundation of Ken and Daisy’s relationship. While it’s very clever, it’s also just full of really entertaining, outlandish micro-stories and robust comedy.

Daisy does provide Act 3 pay-offs, the Negation of the Negation turns out to be something hilarious and disturbing, performed in Ken’s old fat-suit. The subsequent resolution is so Hollywood and comparatively clichéd within the overall show, that fresh surprise is found in the obviousness of its revelation; a tongue-in-cheek ending provided after Daisy has spent the last 2 hours challenging our desire for a recognisable narrative arc (re:protuberance). As Daisy confirms in conversation with her dead father, she made narrative the antagonist. Her way of seeing the world, a hallucinogenic.

The structure may at some points feel convoluted, but I think this show is comedic, meticulously crafted genius and a joyful ride from start to finish. You don’t need to be familiar with Ken Campbell’s work, Daisy does a fantastic job of bringing the man to life in front of you, and produces a show that services the idea of him as a beloved public figure while still illuminating a relationship, if peculiar, between a child and parent who was larger than life, and the need to live up to and beyond them.

As Ken Campbell used to say, “Critics never tell the truth, namely that in actual fact it’s all bollocks”. As I couldn’t resist such an easy feed, this show is hilarious, human, esoteric, relatable, dizzying, exceptional bollocks.

31 August        The British Library, London

9 September   Slung Low’s The Hub, Leeds

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