REVIEW! A Wake in Progress, Fine Mess Theatre @ Vault Festival Cage

Writer: Joel Samuels
Director: Liz Bacon
Producer: Leila Sykes with Fine Mess Theatre
Wednesday 7th – Sunday 10th Feb

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Stella Taylor and Amy Fleming in A Wake in Progress

The Cage theatre at the Vault festival is a dank and dingy cellar space, where trains rattle overhead at regular intervals and the air is surprisingly hot and muggy for such a subterranean place. It’s somewhere you could imagine stumbling across long-forgotten dead bodies, but that’s about as close as it comes to being funeral-adjacent, let alone a location for a wake party whose subject is still very much alive. And yet, Fine Mess Theatre manage to live up to their name, and transform the Cage into a space for pathos, humour, joy, and a shindig which leaves it strewn with party hats and, brightly coloured decorations, and empty plastic cups of prosecco.

At just over 45 minutes long, A Wake in Progress is both short and (bitter)sweet. It tells the story of a young person diagnosed with a terminal illness, and how they and the people closest to them come to terms with the fact that their time left with them is limited. The five actors play various roles from the protagonist’s life, including lover, sibling, best friend, and funerary celebrant/amateur therapist/narrator (who, played by Stella Taylor, was the standout talent in a talented cast). The audience plays a role in decision-making at several junctures, from naming new characters as they’re introduced, to deciding whether our story’s protagonist decides to buy a dog or go skydiving. On the night I was there I didn’t feel like the cast did the best job of incorporating the audience suggestions in any way deeper than the odd throwaway line, but this was still enough to instill in the audience a sense that we were part of events.

As a result, towards the end (when the titular wake takes place), it felt relatively natural for us to play the role of assorted family and friends – assisting to hand out party hats, pour drinks, pass around sweets, and generally get up and moving and schmoozing. The resultant atmosphere really did feel like a somewhat awkward but overall pleasant soiree – just as it was supposed to be. After all the characters had finished their speeches, we came together to sing In My Life to ukulele accompaniment, sharing pre-printed lyric sheets with the person next to us. With my eyes on the paper in front of me, and my whole concentration on trying to sing along, I didn’t notice a subtle change taking place on stage; when I looked up and noticed what was different, it really did hit me in the guts. This final moment – of loss mingling with a feeling of community and connectedness – was the one which best encapsulated what grief truly feels like, and it stayed with me as I left the theatre.

A Wake in Progress is nicely done little play about life, death, and relationships; yet despite these heavy themes, it manages to stay light and warm-hearted. It is hardly an ambitious project, but with it the artistic team at Fine Mess has achieved a playful, earnest, and amusing piece of theatre which fits snugly with the feeling of the Vault festival.

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Previous: REVIEW! Dracula, Creation Theatre @ The London Library

REVIEW! Cuzco by Víctor Sánchez Rodríguez @ Theatre503

Directed by Kate O’Connor
Translated by William Gregory
Produced by Daisy Hale
Featuring Dilek Rose and Gareth Kieran Jones
23rd January – Saturday 16th February 2019

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Images courtesy of Holly Lucas

Many of us in the Western world have, at one stage or another in our lives, fallen into the trap of thinking that we can escape our troubles by travelling to a distant corner of the world. Sometimes, this even works, if just temporarily – but often we find instead that our problems have followed us on the journey.

This is the case with the unnamed Spanish couple in Cuzco. As soon as they arrive in their hotel room in Peru, the cracks in their relationship begin to show. She is afflicted by altitude sickness – or so she claims – and while he is keen to explore the city with newfound friends (another Spanish couple on the same Inca Trail tour), she refuses to leave the hotel. When she does, she is quickly overwhelmed by the city’s culture, so familiar and yet alien to her own, as well as the locals’ aggressive pursuit of Western tourist cash. The echoes of colonialism and the pervasive poverty of Latin America repulse her, but somehow attract her too, and as she is drawn deeper into the mysticism and injustice of the country, her relationship with her partner crumbles into irreparable ruins.

This is the first time Cuzco has been staged in English rather than its native Spanish, and I can honestly say that it is the best translation of a foreign language play that I have ever seen. Of course, this is despite the fact that I don’t speak a word of Spanish, and so have no way of knowing how faithful it was to the original – but often, translators become almost like secondary playwrights, moulding a text in their own creative image as they translate, and I suspect this was the case here. Chatting with a cast member afterwards, I was told that translator William Gregory was very present throughout the rehearsal process, and the result is poetic dialogue which flows beautifully in its friction, humour, tension, pathos, and conflict.

The performances from Dilek Rose and Gareth Kieran Jones are excellent. Rose is compelling throughout, even when utterly dislikeable, and while Jones’ performance is less consistently strong, his final monologue (“see, I can speak your language”) is gut-punchingly powerful. Another reviewer I spoke to was of the opinion that the two lacked onstage chemistry, but I feel this was absolutely an intentional and effective choice – this is a couple who don’t connect anymore, who haven’t slept together in a year, who almost never even look at each other as they talk. Instead, they largely face out towards the audience when speaking, or sit in silence, face turned away and emotions inscrutable. This partial view into their relationship is echoed by the staging; we see them in three different hotel rooms, each time from a different angle, and never outside these rooms. We come to feel that it is the only place their paths really cross as they have two very different and incompatible travel experiences.

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Images courtesy of Holly Lucas

This production is both slick and cuttingly sharp, modern and timelessly relevant, and I can only applaud the acting, translating, directing, and lighting, stage, and sound design. The only way in which it is let down is through its writing. Sánchez Rodríguez tries to include so many meaty topics – tourism, sexism, racism, mental illness, gender roles, colonialism, cultural imperialism, class privilege, child abuse, and more – that none of them are truly unpicked to the extent needed. Indeed, at times these topics are dealt with so shallowly and stereotypically as to be distasteful and disrespectful. This also means that the play is constantly running at high tension and drama that verges on melodrama, without the lulls and comic relief needed to provide emotional pacing for the audience (with the exception of a couple of truly witty anecdotes, such as one about a run-in with another, Dutch, tourist). I felt drained by the time we reached the play’s final climax, and found it difficult to care about the inevitable breakdown of the couple’s relationship, or her surreal existential journey. I do wonder if this can be attributed to cultural differences – perhaps Spanish theatre is simply turned up to a higher intensity than is normal in Britain.

That said, it took a couple of days of mulling over for me to come to the conclusion that the underlying writing of Cuzco wasn’t for me. Walking out of the theatre, I was incredibly impressed by what was an excellent production, and which I would certainly recommend for those who like their theatre at full emotional saturation.

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Previous review: Romeo and Juliet: Mad Blood Stirring by China Plate @ Albany Theatre

REVIEW! Outlying Islands, Atticist @ King’s Head Pub Theatre

Written by David Greig
Directed by Jessica Lazar
Designed by Anna Lewis
9th January – 2nd February 2019

In this intimate production of David Greig’s 2002 play, we are transported to a world of harsh weather, barren horizons, naive hope, and seething ideological tensions. John and Robert are two young ornithologists, selected by the Ministry for an opportunity they would only have dreamt about: to spend one month in a remote island in the Outer Hebrides, observing the nesting habits of rare birds which remain obscure in scientific journals. Alone in this harsh environment with only an old Scottish shepherd of difficult temperament and his sheltered niece, the young men discover that all is not as it seems with the island, their mission, the birds, their neighbours, or even each other.

At two hours and fifteen minutes (including interval), I’m pretty sure Outlying Islands is the longest piece I’ve seen in a London pub theatre. The story simmers along on low heat, with events taking a while to come to the boil – but when they do, and tensions bubble over, the plot’s twists and turns take the audience by surprise (or me, anyway). Most of the action takes place in a central stage space which serves as the abandoned “pagan chapel” where John and Robert are camping out for their stay, and this cramped stage and audience space excellently conducts the feelings of claustrophia and cabin fever which the boys begin to develop. We only witness the outside world in a corner of the theatre, which in my memory is full of flitting bird shapes and driving wind, even though these were evoked only through Christopher Preece’s wonderful sound design.

The four main characters in this play are all very distinctive personalities, with two actors in particular standing out for their chemistry and comedic abilities: Rose Wardlaw as Ellen and Jack McMillan as John. In a story with an excess of navel-gazing, faux-edgy philosophising, and lulls, their interactions were some of the times when I found myself most captivated. Others included the snippets bordering on magical realism, such as an almost bacchanalian “pagan hymn” performed at a funeral, and the dreamy rapture of Ellen recounting an act of life-changing voyeurism. It was at these points that Jessica Lazar’s directorial touch shone through most clearly, as well as the neat work of movement director Jennifer Fletcher.

It is clear that a number of talented creatives have worked on this production, as we have come to expect from the team at Atticist. However, Outlying Islands is ultimately let down by its script, which gets bogged down in dialogue often reminiscent of a first-year philosophy student’s self-important extemporising on matters of self and society. That said, this didn’t irk my companion as much as it did me, (“possibly because I’m a pretentious white male myself” – his words!), and if that doesn’t sound like a deal-breaker for you, then I would absolutely recommend taking yourself to Islington to catch this eloquently staged production before it flies away.

Tickets

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REVIEW! How To Catch A Krampus, Sink the Pink @ Pleasance Theatre

Writer, Director, Designer: Ginger Johnson
Musical Direction: Sarah Bodalbhai
Produced by Glyn Fussell for Sink The Pink and Nic Connaughton for Pleasance
Featuring: Ginger Johnson, Lavinia Co-op, David Cumming, Mairi Houston, Mahatma Khandi, and Maxi More
13 Nov – 23 Dec 2018

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Ginger Johnson in How To Catch a Krampus. Images courtesy of Ali Wright

I was instantly drawn to this show when I read its title: the figure of the Krampus, a devilish Central European counterweight to Saint Nicholas, has always held a particular dark fascination to me. The image of a dark, cold, snowy land, inhabited by sinister figures and child-punishing monsters, forms the very antithesis to the jolly, magical, family-friendly wonderland which we in the West associate with Christmas. I was not disappointed by this production, which used exactly this creepy Gothic horror setting (kudos to sound and lighting designers, Alicia Jane Turner and Clancy Flynn) to tell a panto story that was both fabulously dark and silly – featuring history’s campest Krampus!

Ginger Johnson, a veteran London drag queen, wrote and stars in this story about a charlatan spirit medium who embarks on a quest to return a stolen child to his grieving and impoverished family. In the process, Ginger is forced to confront her own past and its associated demons – she may have lost her son to the Krampus, but she is the only person who can stop history from repeating itself. Along the way we meet a motley assortment of characters, encompassing a crew of highly comic Morris dancers, a coven of genuinely chilling demonic witches, an Italian opera diva and her questionable translator, an elderly prostitute with a colourful history, a Rocky Horror-esque German mad scientist, and many many more.

As you can probably imagine, many of these skits did not link up with each other in any sort of narrative sense, and at times this could be disorienting as your brain tried to fit together pieces drawn from different puzzles. However, all fit perfectly with theme of a deliciously dark and naughty Christmas panto, showcasing the performers’ skills at spoof and spook, dance and drama, slapstick and soprano. Musical highlights included:

  • 67-year-old Lavinia Co-op blending class and crass in a slowed-down parody of Rihanna’s S&M;
  • An all-cast a capella (I think?) and actually goosebump-raising rendition of MJ’s Thriller;
  • Dancing from Morris, Morris, Morris, Morris, Morris, and Susan;
  • A side-splittingly chaotic version of The Twelve Days of Christmas;
  • Houston sweetly singing Not While I’m Around from Sweeney Todd whilst attempting patricide;
  • Look, basically every other moment of the show…
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Lavinia Co-op and Mairi Houstin in How To Catch a Krampus. Images courtesy of Ali Wright

While each performer got their time in the spotlight, much of this show’s charm came from the chemistry between its characters. Mairi Houston as the token non-drag actor had a wonderful dynamic with Ginger Johnson, acting as a perfectly contrasting counterpart to the flamboyant larger-than-life queen. How To Catch A Krampus is bookended by comedic collaboration/confrontation between Ginger Johnson and David Cumming, whose relationship sparks with friction and hidden tensions – when they revealed the twist ending to the fable, the theatre erupted with shocked gasps.

A warning: this production is not for the faint-hearted, prudes, traditionalists, or children. Expect jump scares (the very first moment of the performance had me violently spilling my red wine over my neighbour’s yellow jacket, ooops), partial nudity, jokes about swords being semi-sexually inserted into various orifices, and all sorts of outrageous stunts. But a riot is rarely a safe event, and How To Catch A Krampus is certainly a riotously good time for the open-minded.

Tickets

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Previous review: Cuckoo by Lisa Carroll @ Soho Theatre

REVIEW! Cuckoo by Lisa Carroll @ Soho Theatre

Written by Lisa Carroll
Directed by Debbie Hannan
Produced by Sofi Berenger

Presented by Metal Rabbit Productions
13 November – 8 December 2018

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Elise Heaven and Caitriona Ennis as Pingu and Iona. Images courtesy of David Gill

Cuckoo is a new play from Irish playwright Lisa Carroll. It follows the story of Iona, a teen girl growing up in rural Ireland, and her best friend Pingu, who is non-binary, voluntarily mute, and sports a raggedy ensemble of hoodie, tuxedo, and lapel badges, which I found oddly appealing. The two are sick of being social outcasts in their little town, where poverty is rife, opportunities are few, and the teenagers are particularly vicious – so, they decide to buy one-way Ryanair tickets to London, where they can start afresh. When the local cool kids get wind of this plan via Iona’s social media broadcasts, she finds herself suddenly getting the attention she always craved – but how will this impact her plans to get out, and her relationship with Pingu? It’s a variation on the same teen drama premise that inspired Mean Girls and countless others, but this story is Irish not American, so there is no Hollywood happy ending here.

The black box theatre space is small and intimate, with rows of audience seating arranged along both long sides of a profile stage. I would strongly advise arriving early enough to land one of the front row seats, as the barely-tiered rows behind have obscured views of the stage (especially if the front row occupants are tall!). However, even if you can’t see the lower parts of the stage, this won’t ruin your enjoyment of the show, as its main attraction is the fizzing energy and dialogue of its characters. Caitriona Ennis as Iona is particularly outstanding, with razor-sharp comic abilities and an incredibly expressive face and voice. Peter Newington as Trix plays a straightforward toxically masculine bully with aplomb, but Colin Campbell and Sade Malone have the more challenging roles of antagonists with vulnerabilities and softer sides. The fact that these supporting roles still have their own compelling and pathos-filled arcs speaks to both the actors’ and writer’s skills.

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Elise Heaven and Sade Malone as Pingu and Toller. Images courtesy of David Gill

Elise Heaven as Pingu also manages to be wonderfully expressive, despite their grand total of zero lines; instead, their eyes and body language have to do all the work in expressing anguish, joy, sass, hurt, worry, resentment, and everything in between. I’m still not completely comfortable about the ethics of having a non-binary character who is mainly just a silent satellite around the cisgender protagonist, but in some ways, I suppose the fact that Pingu’s gender identity does not dominate the conversation is a step towards normalisation. The usage of singular they/them pronouns is still quite new even to more progressive social circles, but not even the bullies in Cuckoo misgender Pingu. The play and, for the most part its characters, do not treat Pingu’s gender identity like a riddle to be solved, but as just another reason why they and the quirky Iona don’t fit in.

Iona is the only character in the play who goes by their birth name (I’m assuming that “Pockets”, for example, is probably a nickname). This, to me, seems yet another example of how she inhabits a no-man’s-land between belonging to a group – and being bestowed with a personalised nickname from the gang – and having the confidence for independent self-determination like Pingu, who we presume chose their own name as part of their journey coming out. The name “Iona” isn’t even Irish, but Scottish; for all that it looks and sounds typically Irish, it is an outsider in the small country town of Crumlin. Much like its bearer. And so it is no surprise that Iona’s desperate attempts to belong will fail, no matter how many others she pushes from the nest to do so.

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Caitriona Ennis and Colin Campbell as Iona and Pockets. Images courtesy of David Gill

These characters are messy, with figurative open wounds bleeding all over the floor even as they continue to claw at each other. Their moments of connection and softness are beautiful, as are their flares of raw rage at the hand they’ve been dealt. Cuckoo is a snapshot of a very specific piece of society, exploring questions of class, gender, youth, belonging, family, and fried chicken. And, throughout all of this, it is laugh-out-loud funny! Young people in particular will appreciate the way Cuckoo is bang up to date for 2018, but I fear that many of the pop culture, political, and technological references will date fairly quickly – all the more reason to catch it while it’s fresh.

Tickets

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Previous review: vessel by Sue MacLaine Company @ Battersea Arts Centre

REVIEW! Chutney, Flux Theatre @ The Bunker

Writer: Reece Connolly
Producers: Flux Theatre & Zoe Weldon

Director: Georgie Staight
Cast: Isabel Della-Porta and Will Adolphy
6 November – 1 December 2018

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Images ©Rah Petherbridge Photography

Claire and Gregg are young, attractive, and successful. They have their own place with a spacious backyard, a stylish modern kitchen, a spare bedroom, and a John Lewis blender. He teaches English at the local school, she works a 9-5 (well, more like 8:30-6 and sometimes weekends) office job, and together they cook vegetarian meals, drink wine, watch telly, and brutally kill neighbourhood pets in the dead of night. The question is: is it true that couples who murder together, stay together?

Chutney is a black comedy with a white set, and the ethics of its narrative are pretty black-and-white to match: animal cruelty is wrong, and Claire and Gregg are basically evil, no matter how much they assert that they are simply ‘good people who do bad things’. And yet, they are shockingly, hilariously, relatably normal people, grappling with the challenges and mundanities of modern life. This is most evident in Claire, who is bored of her job and scornful of her colleagues, for all that she wants to impress them. When a workmate gifts her a kitschy singing fish for her birthday, its refrain – 9 to 5 by Dolly Parton – kicks off an existential panic attack: is this all life is? Working 9-5? Ticking boxes, keeping up appearances, saving up for an orangery? What the fuck even is an orangery, anyway??

Isabel Della-Porta is absolutely phenomenal as Claire. She is at once every go-getter young professional I’ve ever worked with (or for), a chilling Lady-Macbeth-slash-Cruella-de-Vil, and even myself when at my darkest and most morbid. I am reminded strongly of assassin Villanelle (portrayed by Jodie Comer) in BBC America’s recent series Killing Eve; both actors manage to create characters with fascinating capacities for viciousness and vulnerability, seductiveness and savagery, intelligence and insensitivity. Della-Porta moves like a shark around the stage, perfectly in control of the space and her character down to every syllable and facial twitch. Will Adolphy as Gregg is pulled along in her wake – accomplice, consort, subject, partner – and evokes the perfect mixture of pity and scorn in the audience as he sinks lower and lower into depravity trying to please her. He knows she is free-falling, and all he wants is to fall with her. Their chemistry is magnetic.

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Images ©Rah Petherbridge Photography

Both actors – as well as voice actor Rosalind McAndrew, who plays the narrator (Bertha the singing fish, don’t question it) – are brilliantly directed by Georgie Staight. I also have only good things to say of the various creative designers (Jasmine Swan on set and costume, Matt Cater on lighting, and Ben Winter on sound), whose contributions are crisp, effective, clever, and beautifully complement the script.

And of course the script, from up-and-coming writer Reece Connolly, is bitingly funny and ferociously intelligent. The dialogue crackles and the mood ricochets between hilarity, brutality, and desperate pathos. The satire of modern society and life is cutting without being patronising, and the thematic questions are explored with insight and self-awareness. In an increasingly artificial world, are we out of touch with our own human natures, and if so, is that such a bad thing? Are we all so concerned with maintaining a perfect facade that we are sacrificing all structural integrity, and crumbling as a result? How can we find meaning and stability in lives which seem increasingly hollow and precarious? Does anyone really connect anymore? Is ground-up bone meal really a good fertiliser for hanging plants?

Get yourself down to The Bunker Theatre, and you might just find out.

Tickets

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Previous review: Mirabel by Chris Goode @ Ovalhouse

REVIEW! Mirabel by Chris Goode @ Ovalhouse Theatre

Written and performed by Chris Goode
Director: Rebecca McCutcheon
Designer: Naomi Dawson
Presented by Chris Goode & Company
31 October – 18 November 2018

 

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Images courtesy of The Other Richard

It has been two days since I saw Chris Goode’s Mirabel at the Ovalhouse, and I can’t say that I’m much closer to having formed a solid opinion on it. Of course art doesn’t have to follow a conventional formula, make sense, or have a clear meaning, but the absence of all of these does make it difficult to review! In the absence of a grownup to lead me by the hand I, like Mirabel, will simply have to do the best I can.

The eponymous heroine of our story is an eight-year-old girl who wakes up in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Her parents are dead, and there is nobody with her except her teddy bear, who identifies as a Wolf. So she sets off to find a responsible grownup to tell. Tell what? Well, just… tell. Along the way, she builds a ragtag gang of friends including a rock called Baheegwing, a dog with laser eyes, an injured pilot who may or may not be a paedophile, a dog with laser eyes, and a bluebell called Salad. All of these creatures can talk, except Salad – don’t be stupid, she’s a bluebell. Chris Goode portrays all these characters, with only minor changes in voice to show dialogue (the character Urban is originally voiced with an impressively deep and spooky growl, but this is not consistent throughout).

That’s the plot, more or less, with the exception of an abrupt change of setting and mood at the end, as the story is turned on its head with a twist (I think?). The language is evocative, delivered lightly and matter-of-factly, with instances of beautiful evocative imagery, quirky abstractions, and moments that are straight-up horrifying and macabre. Goode stumbles a few times on the script, but only ever loses momentum momentarily. I am reminded throughout the piece of Douglas Adams, and his later books in the Hitchhiker’s Guide series – the ones where his droll absurd humour becomes more and more erratic and difficult to interpret. At one point in Mirabel there is a brief interlude featuring an animated projection to ethereal music; the animations (by Lou Sumray) are stark and gorgeous, yet eerie in a way that brings to mind the bunyip scene in Dot And The Kangaroo, a 70s cult classic which gave me nightmares as a child.

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Images courtesy of The Other Richard

These marriages of beauty and bizarre surreal freakiness characterise Mirabel, even down to costuming (almost-steampunk leather jacket and boots, blindfold) and set design (by Naomi Dawson – a succession of narrow strips of stage space, littered with rubble and debris, separated from one another by gauzy partitions which only become transparent when backlit). The dim lighting and ambiguity of the wreckage strewn over the stage means that your imagination – encouraged into overactivity by Goode’s lucid dream narration – fills in the gaps, and you can see the twisted hulk of a crashed airplane, a gaping fissure in the ground, or at one point an infanticidal giant lizard (although this turned out later to actually be a disembodied mannequin’s arm. Obviously). The presence of a small, sweet, naive yet determined young girl in such a dystopian nightmare enables many more such juxtaposing concepts, like Disney sticking plasters over a gaping self-inflicted wound.

For the most part, these contrasts are poignant and witty rather than self-indulgent and willfully edgy, but when the play crosses that line, boy does it cross it. I understand that instilling discomfort and confusion in the audience can be a valid artistic choice, but when done wrong, it can lead to sighing, eye-rolling, and watch-checking rather than stimulation, and unfortunately I ended this show in the former state. That said, I have spent the last two days gnawing on the concepts of this play like a (non-supernatural) dog on a bone, and I suppose that is ultimately what Goode was after. Certain types of theatregoers will find Mirabel a fascinating and challenging piece that really pushes boundaries; others will decree it bewildering tosh. Search within yourself to judge which camp you’ll likely fall into, before you decide to embark into the wilderness with Mirabel.

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REVIEW! Billy Bishop Goes to War, Proud Haddock @ Jermyn Street Theatre

Written by John Gray with Eric Peterson
Directed by Jimmy Walters
Designed by Daisy Blower
Featuring Charles Aitken and Oliver Beamish
31 October – 24 November 2018

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Image courtesy of Robert Workman

I have never been to Jermyn Street Theatre before. It is tucked away just off Piccadilly Circus, a modest little door on a quiet back street. I make my way downstairs to discover an intimate but bona fide theatre space, complete with audience seating upholstered in faded red, and one that is perfectly suited to this particular play. The theatre’s dim lighting, classic decor, and underground location make me feel like I stepped into a wartime bunker bar. The set is amazing, halfway between a mancave-type hideaway and a veteran’s private, personal museum. It is littered with wartime paraphernalia, framed black and white photographs, and various bits and pieces, each of which hints at its own backstory (even if we never discover the stories behind most of these objects). The rough wooden walls are plugged up in places with white canvas cloth – a parachute? – which allows for beautiful plays of light glowing through crevices and cracks.

After a while, the house lights go down and the jazz music quiets, and the veteran himself (played by Oliver Beamish) steps out into the stage space. He spends a few moments tidying up the cluttered space, beaming in nostalgia at each object he picks up, until an old pair of shoes transport him back in memory to a wartime dance. Dusting off an old piano in the corner, he begins to play and sing, and his younger self (Charles Aitken) steps onto stage and starts to tell the audience his story of when Billy Bishop went to war.

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Image courtesy of Robert Workman

Aitken’s Billy is almost eerily convincing as a young Canadian WW1 soldier (although admittedly, I don’t have much experience with Canadian accents myself) – in his faded army issue, and later aviator uniform, he seems to have stepped straight out of an old photograph. But it’s not just his costuming: even his vocal tonalities and facial mannerisms are spot-on, like your great-grandfather in the body of a young man. Taking the audience into his confidence, he charms us with his cheek and energy, magnetically inhabiting the space and transporting us back in time. His older self, for the main part, watches from the edge of the stage, providing piano backing and occasionally stepping in to embody various supporting characters (as does Aitken too, most comedically the women Lady St Helier and Lovely Helene).

Billy Bishop’s story is a true one, although fictionalised and romanticised somewhat in this play. An underachieving young Canadian who, despite a number of suspiciously timed injuries and illnesses, he joins the Army and sails to Europe to fight “the hun” for the British motherland. His exploits find him climbing in rank and altitude to become a fighter pilot, a captain, and a posterboy for the Colonial war efforts – but rarely do we feel like he is ever totally in control of his journey.

This is a superbly executed production. The acting is absolutely phenomenal, the period-appropriate music in turns droll and spellbinding, the pacing riveting, and all aspects of design – set, lighting, sound – flawless. It is rare to feel so completely transported in time and place, with that rare kind of beautifully eloquent writing and powerful delivery that can conjure up vivid images before your eyes. The set never changes, but with subtle and evocative support from the sound, music, and lighting designers (Dinah Mullen, Adam Gerber, and Arnim Friess), the audience is pulled along with Billy to witness the open airs of Canada, the luxury of London high society, the squalor and horror of the trenches, daring aerial battles, and much more besides. It is easy to see how Billy Bishop Goes To War is often billed as one of Canada’s greatest theatrical triumphs.

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Image courtesy of Robert Workman

That said, it was originally written forty years ago, and this does show in the way it at times feeds into outdated narratives and attitudes. It is true that Billy is presented as a very flawed and human hero, and that the play does explore the nightmarish, horrific side of war, and I realise that Billy’s perspectives and beliefs are representative of his character and era rather than those of the writers. However, I doubt that any play written today would present the glory and heroism of war as uncritically as Billy Bishop, let alone notions of Empire and the “colonial spirit”. It is difficult to tread the fine line between respecting fallen soldiers and painting them in rosy colours, and it is understandable why this play tends towards the latter, but in today’s present political climate – with tides of nationalism, war-mongering, male chauvinism, and imperialism on the rise worldwide – it seems to me to be irresponsible to produce a play which at times feels like a nostalgic homage to old-fashioned masculinity and patriotism. Don’t get me wrong, this play and production do acknowledge the futility and horror of war and send up blind jingoism (and especially the British), but not as much as the times require. Just today it was announced that the government is planning to increase numbers of  recruits from the Commonwealth for the British armed forces, and it struck me that Billy’s final scene speech to the next generation of colonial soldiers could serve wholesale as propaganda to aid enlistments for this change.

Despite this ideological cautioning, I would still heartily recommend this show as a classic piece of excellently produced theatre. Aitken’s performance, in particular, is phenomenal, and I would like to reiterate my admiration of the whole creative and design team. Get to the Jermyn Street Theatre and take to the skies with Billy before the end of this show’s run – just make sure to keep the real world in your sights.

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Previous review: The Full Bronte @ The Space

REVIEW! The Full Bronte, Scary Little Girls @ The Space Theatre

Writer: Rebecca Mordan
Director: Sharon Andrew
Performers: Rebecca Mordan and Sharon Andrew (Scary Little Girls)
30 October – 3 November

The Full Bronte Production 1

Scary Little Girls stars Rebecca Mordan and Sharon Andrew present The Full Bronte, a comedic cabaret homage to the Brontë sisters (and mother). The setting of The Space Theatre, located in a converted Victorian church in the Isle of Dogs, and the timing of its run there, over the All-Hallows season and into the first wintry days of November, came together in perfect confluence to provide a fitting atmosphere for this show. The theatre space and attached bar were welcoming, as was the audience (mainly middle-aged women), and the eighty minutes passed in a riot of giggles and raised eyebrows.

Cabaret diva Maria (Mordan) and her put-upon Cornish intern Brannie (Andrew) inhabit the stage with such comfortable, familiar, pitch-perfect harmony, that the show never misses a beat or loses its rhythm, despite the chaotic and at times disjointed nature of its content. The show slides between musical theatre, slapstick buffoonery, pantomime, hip-hop, literary lecture, interpretive dance, dramatic readings, gameshow farce, and pure comedic squabbling, with audience interaction woven throughout. There is even a moment when the comedy is temporarily stripped back, and Maria performs an exquisite piece of poetry set to song, accompanied by a ukulele of all things. This breath of genuine beauty amongst all the silliness caught me pleasantly off-guard, and it felt like the character of self-absorbed diva Maria briefly fell away,  revealing Mordan with her very real vocal talents and love of literature. Then the song ended, the spell was broken, Maria was back with her melodrama, and The Full Bronte lurched ahead at full comical speed.

In the Q&A following Thursday night’s performance, Mordan and Andrew mentioned that some critics pooh-pooh the show (which has been touring for seven years now!) because of its lack of literary gravitas. To those critics, I could only ask: well, what did you expect?? Who wanders into what is clearly an over-the-top comedic cabaret expecting a TED Talk on the literary greats? Even my friend, whom I dragged along at the last minute, who had never read anything by the Brontës, and who darkly threatened me on entry that “there had better not be any audience participation in this, Sophia” had an absolute ball. (And, yes, he did end up being the one singled out to undergo the longest and most mortifying piece of audience participation in the show… Sorry and thanks Andy, I’m sure she didn’t mean to use that much tongue!)

The Full Bronte is not breaking any particularly new grounds in comedic cabaret theatre: the characters and their relationship are tropey, the music is largely by-the-numbers, and most every element of the show is fairly predictable (yes, there is an excellent Kate Bush impression, and yes, some comedic cross-dressing, and of course, some wink-wink sex jokes). However, seeing comedy confidently performed by two experienced, magnetic woman artists is always a breath of fresh air, and when the subject matter is a celebration of other woman artists, that becomes an even rarer joy. Tonight is the last night of Scary Little Girls’ run at The Space, but they will continue touring afterwards, and I would highly recommend the show to anyone who enjoys cabaret and/or the Brontës.

Reader, I loved it!

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The Distance You Have Come by Scott Alan @ The Cockpit

Book, Music, Lyrics, and Direction: Scott Alan
Arrangements, Orchestrations, and Musical Direction: Scott Morgan
Producers: Sevans Productions & Krystal Lee
Cast: Andy Coxon, Adrian Hansel, Emma Hatton, Jodie Jacobs, Dean John-Wilson, Alexia Khadime
Set and Costume Design: Simon Daw
16-28 October, 2018

Scott Alan's The Distance You Have Come, The Cockpit (courtesy Darren Bell) (12).jpg

Alexia Khadime as Laura and Dean John-Wilson as Joe. Image courtesy of Darren Bell.

The Distance You Have Come is a song cycle by proficient and beloved songwriter Scott Alan, featuring a star-studded cast of talented West Enders. Running at an hour forty-five minutes plus interval, the piece follows the lives of six characters as they navigate love, heartbreak, inner demons, ambition, insecurity, parenthood, and the perils of modern dating. There is very little in the way of dialogue or real plot (which is why it is billed as a “song cycle” rather than a “musical”), and the characters usually inhabit the minimalistic central stage as a sort of unreal reality, a dreamscape or place of memories. Live musical scoring floats down from an elevated bandspace above the performance space, and the actors are miked such that the music and vocals swell throughout the entire theatre, enveloping the audience.

It must be said that the stars of its show are its music and, well, its stars. Each actor is offered and capitalises on the opportunity to shine in multiple solo pieces, as well as duets and ensemble pieces. All are possessed of a strong and beautiful voice, however my personal favourites in terms of vocals were Andy Coxon as Brian and Alexia Khadime as Laura, with performances so nuanced and exquisite that they made my heart vibrate in key. Dean John-Wilson demonstrates devastating emotional depth as Joe, a lost boy battling to overcome alcoholism, the loss of love, and the trauma of childhood abuse. His character’s story reaches its nadir with the heart-rending song “Quicksand”, his anguish and hopelessness accentuated by evocative lighting design (by Andrew Ellis) and creepy costuming (Simon Daw). Daw’s set design also complemented the production perfectly, covering the theatre-in-the-round stage space with the intricate veins of a battered leaf, balanced by a beautiful cascade of leafy branches interwoven with bare lightbulbs suspended from the high ceiling. The only items of set were a swing and a park bench (doubling as a sort of water trough), which were put to flexible use throughout both acts.

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Emma Hatton as Maisey. Set design by Simon Daw. Image courtesy of Darren Bell.

Unfortunately, despite the aural and visual feast provided by this production, there was very little substance to it in terms of content, and equally little variation in tone. Scott Alan is renowned as a songwriter whose works are staples in musical theatre audition rooms everywhere, however a show close to two hours long which consists mainly of generically emotional power ballads is quite exhausting and becomes monotonous at times. There are some respites, largely provided by Jodie Jacobs as fickle, lascivious, maybe-lesbian-maybe-bisexual Anna; Jacobs’ excellent comedic abilities perfectly accentuate Alan’s lighter pieces and even provide a welcome layer of irony to some of his more earnest ones. But we needed more comic pieces like these, and fewer of the heavier ones. I feel that the show could benefit from being condensed and streamlined – a number of the songs simply did not make sense in the context of their characters’ storylines, and felt like they had been shoehorned in on very thin pretexts.

Adrian Hansel and Andy Coxon are largely spared angsty material as sugar-sweat lovebird couple Samuel and Brian, and it is wonderful to see two gay characters given such a pain-free storyline, culminating in a healthy, happy, loving family. Indeed, the representation in The Distance You Have Come is refreshingly diverse, with straight characters numbering only two of six, fifty-fifty white/POC actors, and gender parity. However, it is a shame that the “sad lesbians” trope was perpetuated, as was the implication that self-realisation and happiness are only achievable through marriage and child-raising, and the portrayal of Anna’s sexuality flirted with the border between funny and problematic. Despite the diversity of orientations and races onstage, there was very little diversity of perspective or personality: all characters (with the possible exception of Jacobs’ Anna) seemed to speak with the voice of writer and director Scott Alan.

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Andy Coxon and Adrian Hansel as Brian and Samuel. Image courtesy of Darren Bell.

Overall, The Distance You Have Come was a treat for the ears and the eyes, boasting top-quality acting, design, music, and technical execution; where it fell down was in the writing of the book, and in pacing and tone. It functions well as a showcase of its individual actors’ talents, but does not quite have the coherency or substance to make a whole as great as the sum of its parts.

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