REVIEW! Before I Was A Bear by Eleanor Tindall @ The Bunker Theatre

Directed by Aneesha Srinivasan
Performed by Jacoba Williams
Produced by Salome Wagaine
Presented by Broccoli Arts
12th – 23rd November 2019

The first show I ever saw at The Bunker Theatre was also the first I reviewed for Theatre Box: Devil With The Blue Dress, a play examining the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the light of #metoo. It seems fitting that, as the news is announced that The Bunker will be closing in March 2020 after three and a half years of being an amazing “temporary” theatre space, I should revisit it for a play so thematically similar and so very good.

Cally is a bear. She had a crazy run-in with a famous, hot, charming TV detective actor, responded the way anyone would, and now has any number of problems on her furry paws. She wasn’t always ursine, though – she used to be normal, like you. And that is the beauty of this piece: the life story we’re treated to is, up until that certain point, so very normal and relatable. From her pre-teen years, through adolescence, and into the first tastes of freedom that come with moving out of home, Cally travels through personal trials and tribulations that will sound deeply familiar for anyone in the audience who had the dubious honour of experiencing girlhood and the transition to womanhood. Eleanor Tindall’s crackling writing takes these common themes and treats them with poignancy and humour, showcasing that rare knack of taking the mundane and making it quirky, even deep. The world of schoolgirl friendships, adolescent crushes, celebrity obsessions, and first forays into sexuality are all-consuming and devastatingly impactful to those who are experiencing them, and Tindall offers us a glimpse back into that existence which we all (with varying degrees of thankfulness) have left behind.

Enter Jacoba Williams in Before I Was A Bear. Image courtesy of Tara Rooney

Of course, it’s not all down to Tindall alone. The casting of Jacoba Williams as Cally is excellent: she jumps with perfect precision between childhood vitality, teenaged insecurity, young adult hedonism, and recently-turned-bear angst, always balancing physical and verbal comedy deftly against pathos and piercing social commentary. Director Aneesha Srinivasan brings her own creative flair to the staging, adding even more layers of meaning to an already-fertile script, as do designer Grace Venning and lighting designer Martha Godfrey, with touches that perfectly complement the play’s style and substance.

Before I Was A Bear is inspired by Ovid’s myth of Callisto, a story ripe for modern interpretation through feminist and queer lenses, which is exactly what Tindall has done. The bare bones of the plot are quite true to the source material, and there is little attempt to disguise this (anyone with a basic knowledge of Greek/Roman myth should be able to guess who a character named “Bolt” is based on, and that an affair with this figure probably won’t end well). A number of parallels are more subtle and clever, however – I really enjoyed the subtextual discussion of heteronormativity determining what “counts” as female sexuality, and the sub-inter-textual implications that perhaps Artemis and her gang of gal pals weren’t as platonic as male-dominated academia would have us believe. It is always refreshing to see portrayals of bi women which treat their female trysts as more than just physical (or for the male gaze), and [SPOILER] the theme of redemption through the love of other women – both platonically and romantically – is beautiful.

Jacoba Williams in Before I Was A Bear. Image courtesy of Tara Rooney

Honestly, there is so much to unpick in this one-woman show that I’m wary of writing yet another review-turned-essay here… Cally’s journey is crammed with so many topical topics that it sometimes feels a little heavy-handed, although they are mostly treated with admirable nuance and deftness. (Others remain more obscure – I have some theories about the meaning behind the progressively-revealed voicenote, but I’m not sure how much it really added to the piece.) It’s absolutely the kind of show that you should go and see with your wokest queer feminist artsy theatre friends (these were certainly the types who comprised 90% of the audience on the night I was there, which made me feel very at home) and dissect afterwards over cheap pub wine in order to get the most out of it. This is not to say, however, that you need a degree in Gender Studies or even a Tumblr account to enjoy this show – social philosophising aside, it’s just bloody good dark comedy, masterfully delivered. Make sure you catch it before the run finishes, or the regret may be unbearable.

Tickets

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Previous review: Crisis? What Crisis? @ COLAB Factory

REVIEW! The Play at Eight: The Monkey’s Paw by Storyfleas @ The Space Theatre

Written by Jack Williams and Sara Butler
Directed by Matthew Jameson
Featuring Jordan Baker, Becky Coops, Matthew Jameson, Jack Williams, and Matthew Walker
15 – 19 October 2019

I didn’t really know what to expect from this show, as radio has never really been my thing (I don’t even listen to podcasts), I’d never heard of “Foley artistry” in my life, and I’m a huge wuss who usually avoids anything mildly spooky. However, not only did I thoroughly enjoy last Saturday’s matinee performance of The Play at Eight, I even returned for the evening slot!

A radio play within a play, the setting for this show is a radio studio of the 30s, and we the audience its studio audience. At first, the radio sound engineer-slash-announcer (co-writer Jack Williams) was the only one on stage, introducing us to the British Empire Radio Corp, the era, and the aesthetic of pomaded hair and rolled Rs. We listened to pre-recorded advertisements for Alka-seltzer and Zonite until the other cast members emerged. The Director was played by real-life director Matthew Jameson, and the two actors – Nancy and Dick Everett – by Jordan Baker and Becky Coops respectively.

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Becky Coops, Jordan Baker, and Jack Williams in The Play At Eight: The Monkey’s Paw. Photography by Natalia Queirolo.

The Everetts are an unhappily married showbiz couple, a bundle of easy tropes tied together with makeup and snark – he’s an alcoholic and a scoundrel, she’s a gold-digger and a nag. This tired old dynamic was made tolerable to a 2019 audience by the casting of women in both roles; Coops was excellent as the swaggering, bucolic, greasy Dick, even sleazing on an audience member throughout the course of events (yes, I had the honour). Her facial expressions and body language were spot-on, and she modulated her voice so well that I often forgot she wasn’t a middle-aged man with the plummy vowels of the early 20th century. Jordan Baker (with the perfect name for the era) as Nancy also had the accent of the era down pat, along with self-applied makeup and hair styling. Her dramatic flourishes and acidic asides to the audience were delivered with impeccable comic timing, and she did well in bringing layers of performance to an otherwise two-dimensional character.

The three male actors (Jameson, Williams, and sound technician Matthew Walker who has a highly comic cameo as Professor Swan) were clearly having a great time inhabiting their characters, playing off each other with cheeky charisma. The set was furnished by Williams with an assortment of olde-worlde knickknacks, and the authenticity and charm of this play’s dressing – not just the props, but also the lovingly crafted recording booth, and the vintage-style artworks – was a major strength of the production (set and graphic designer Sam Moulsdale is to be congratulated).

After some scene-setting, replete with bubbling tension between the actors and spite-laced practical jokes, the radio play began. The lighting dimmed, with only the two tables (one for the actors, one for the Foley engineer) as islands of illumination. We were urged to close our eyes for full immersion in the radio experience, and the gothic horror tale of The Monkey’s Paw began.

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Matthew Jameson in The Play At Eight: The Monkey’s Paw. Photography by Natalia Queirolo.

This was originally a short story written in 1902 by W. W. Jacobs, and has been adapted for various different media formats over the century since. This version has been edited by Williams and Butler for a smaller cast and to allow for some world-building embellishments. With its imperial British setting, there are a number of rather unfortunate references to “quaint superstitions” and “primitive natives” etc, but I excused these as being relics of Jacobs’ time. However, in researching for this review, I stumbled across the original text from 1903, and was surprised to see that almost none of these now-racist tropes were actually present in the original. Were they added in a later 20th-century adaptation for extra exoticism, or written in by Williams and Butler especially for this Play at Eight? Either way, I would highly recommend reconsidering this for future iterations of the play, as it doesn’t add anything particularly valuable to the performance and is very out of place in a piece of modern writing.

This is part of one of the weaknesses of this show – it is highly entertaining, equal measures funny and spooky, but doesn’t have much weight to it or anything particularly interesting to say. It’s something of a missed opportunity to skirt discussions such as colonialism or repatriation of museum artifacts, particularly with a character from the British Museum! Of course I understand that not every piece of theatre needs to be explicitly political, but questions of race, culture, gender expectations, etc are inherently political and it is simply not enough any longer to portray antiquated attitudes uncritically.

That said, The Play at Eight: The Monkey’s Paw really is jolly good fun, as evidenced by my decision to see it twice! The loving attention to detail, spirited performances by talented actors, and self-aware humour both scripted and improvised, ensure a fun hour. The element of Foley artistry (creation of audio special effects live on stage) was an added bonus, and excellently pitched for entry-level Foley audiences such as myself. I would love to see this piece developed further and taken on tour – if it happens, I’ll be right there in line for a third ticket!

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Previous review: Mission Creep by Bee Scott @ The White Bear Theatre

REVIEW! Mission Creep by Bee Scott @ The White Bear Theatre

Directed by Paul Anthoney
Presented by Controlled Chaos Theatre Company
Featuring Carmella Brown, Charlie Maguire, and Emilia Stawicki
15 – 19 October, 2019

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Tess and Liam are flatmates and best friends, united in queerplatonic solidarity. As the planet hurtles towards destruction, they’re determined to get out alive – their ticket, an alien- and British government-funded programme looking for fertile heterosexual couples willing to procreate amongst aliens, for science. For asexual Tess and bisexual Liam (whose boyfriend is en route to an apocalyptic hedonism cult in Wales), this seems doable; all they have to do is bluff through the interview process and then they’ll figure it out once they’re off-world. Unfortunately, while they concentrate on the immediate plays before them, the powers that be keep shifting the goalposts. How much of their identities are they willing to sacrifice, and is it even possible to draw any lines in the sand of a nuclear wasteland?

The world, we gather, is rapidly disintegrating due to international nuclear strikes, the radiation from which has also rendered large swathes of humanity infertile. While this is a reliable trope (Scott gets the Handmaid’s Tale references out of the way early) and provides decent excuses for several plot points, not attributing the apocalypse even in part to climate change seems something of a missed opportunity in the light of current events. However, the socio-political setting is not the point of this play; Mission Creep shines in its nihilistic humour and its commentary on friendships and the queer experience.

Emilia Stawicki and Charlie Maguire as Tess and Liam are dynamic and relatable, oozing platonic chemistry and that quintessentially millennial anxiety-fueled humour. Stawicki in particular is hilarious as she dials facial expressiveness and physical humour up to 11, making it all the more devastating when emotional trauma shocks her into silence and she retreats into herself. Maguire plays more of the (not-)straight guy to her exaggerated comedy, which is a nice reversal of the usual gender roles, and ties in well with their American-British cultural differences. His reaction to the biphobic barbs thrown about throughout the play is perfectly done – a wince, gritted teeth, and smiles that don’t reach the eyes.

Carmella Brown as Mary – the face of the unnamed company overseeing the Earth side of the interstellar breeding programme – commands the small space of the White Bear Theatre whenever she enters it, stalking the stage like a corporate tiger with red blazer and crisp Scottish accent. It is a pleasure to see her apparent inhumanity built up and then deconstructed throughout the hour’s run time, creating a compelling and complex (if utterly unlikable) antagonist.

Staging, lighting, and sound effects are minimal but effective when deployed, and Paul Anthoney’s deft direction ensures that the space is well-utilised, all movement worked such that audience on both sides of the stage have clear views, yet it still feels natural. It is easy for any low-budget pub theatre to stray into tackiness, and this goes doubly for on-stage sci-fi. However, the standout talent here lies with the playwright, Bee Scott, for embracing two challenging genres (sci-fi and queer theatre) and pulling them off with humour and humanity. What’s more, you don’t need to be a Star Trek fan or gay yourself in order to enjoy Mission Creep – it’s low on technobabble and LGBTQI jargon but high on observational humour, meaning it should be enjoyable by both newcomers to the genre and veterans. I feel lucky to have seen the premier performance of this piece of new theatre. The one piece of constructive criticism I would offer is that the third act could do with some tightening, as the dramatic tension was lost when certain secrets were revealed, and without this through-thread the plot lost its momentum and instead became more of just a series of escalating events. However, I am sure this is something which could easily be reworked for future productions.

Mission Creep is playing at The White Bear Theatre until this Saturday – make sure you’re on that spaceship before it sails!

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Previous review: Gutted by Sharon Byrne @ Churchill Studio, Bromley

REVIEW! Red Palace by Shotgun Carousel @ The Vaults

Concept & Creative Producer: Laura Drake Chambers
Director: Celine Lowenthal
Writer: Cressida Peever
24th September 2019 – 12th January 2020

 

Images courtesy of Nic Kane Photography

A new immersive theatre/dining experience has taken over the labyrinthine Vaults Theatre for the rest of 2019: welcome to the Red Palace, a world of gothic delights and fanciful frights. Right now there’s a popular trend of re-imagining and remixing classic fairy-tales and fables, and Red Palace is an excellent example of this genre. Throughout the duration of an evening, your favourite childhood stories collide with snippets of more obscure folklore, their characters weaving together to play with and subvert assumptions and tropes. At the centre of it all is the Prince, your host in the palace – and the subject of an ominous prophecy…

I love cabaret, I love modern reinventions of fairy-tales, I love immersive theatre, and I love fancy dress, so in attending this show (and dragging two friends along with me) I was very much aware that I’d set myself up to be disappointed… and was pleasantly surprised not to be! It really was magical to explore the various chambers and meet their weird and wonderful inhabitants. Characters included Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf, Baba Yaga, Hansel and Gretel, and others I don’t want to give away (judging by the cast list, there were also a number whom I didn’t encounter, so perhaps I’ll have to go back for them during the run). These are not the folks you remember from childhood storybooks, however, they’ve grown up and had a makeover for 2019; Hansel is running a bar, Gretel is a cabaret performer, Snow White seems straight off TOWIE, and Little Red is basically a cross between Katniss Everdeen and a GoT wildling (with some serious childhood trauma). The cast multi-roles throughout the run so you may see very different versions of these characters to the ones I did, but I would like to make particular mention of a few performers:

  • Emer Dineen as Gretel, who effortlessly embodied the roles of barmaid, compere, cabaret performer, landlord, and palace gossip. She made us chuckle, gasp, whistle, cheer, and damn near cry when at dark secret was uncovered… Excellent displays of bravado, vulnerability, and sexiness, in all the right places.
  • Alice Morgan-Richards as Snow, who welcomed us into her “boudoir” for a pyjama party extraordinaire, complete with girl talk, a lesson in dance choreography, oodles of the colour pink, and a mystery party-crasher… Morgan-Richards absolutely threw herself into the role with joyful abandon, utterly shamelessly embracing the caricature and ensuring a fun time for all involved.
  • Joanna Vymeris as Cat, whose every movement evoked the supple and sinewy flexibility of a feline, and who managed to be both alluring and creepy at the same time.
  • Ella Prendergast as a character I shan’t name, who somehow has the act of awkward bumbling middle-aged male inventor down pat, despite being a very attractive young woman. In a cameo appearance in another character’s episode, she also went on to win hearts as a desperately hopeless Hugh Grant-esque would-be lover.

Images courtesy of Nic Kane Photography

The rest of the cast (all women and non-binary performers, what’s more) were also fabulous, whether holding court in their own domains or weaving through others’ stories to tie the overarching plot together. It must have been difficult to balance these performances with the logistical responsibilities of chivying groups of audience members along to their next destinations, but they remained confident and commanding at all times. The costume and set designer, Maeve Black, also deserves the highest of kudos not only for her magnificent costumes, but also for her bewitching transformation of these Vault spaces (which go by names such as “The Bricky One”, “The Long Wet One”, “The Short Wet One”, etc) into sets such as a fortune-teller’s tent, a bathhouse, a dark and dank forest, a prison cell, and more. Such vision and attention to detail is particularly crucial in immersive theatre, and doubly so when the show is centred around such sumptuous decadence and sensuality as Red Palace!

So, why didn’t this piece get the elusive five-star rating from me? Well, in short, it suffers from the teething problems which plague all immersive theatre productions, as it’s impossible to really know what works and what doesn’t until you start getting audiences through. Areas for improvement include:

  •  The “escape room” element of the prison cell. It was just far too easy! I already had the answer from moments after we stepped in thanks to some telltale dialogue, and had to bite my tongue to stop myself from giving it away too early.
  • The justification for it being a masquerade. This wasn’t woven into the plot quite convincingly enough, and as a result felt like quite a hollow pretext for an aesthetic choice. I think the “prophecy” could easily be expanded by a few words in order to give the Prince a clearer reason for demanding masks on all guests.
  • The audience interaction. Again, this is a common bugbear for immersive theatre: how do you involve the audience, while still remaining in control? Some audience involvement in Red Palace did successfully toe that line (for example, the “party trick” bit in the Gingerbread House), but when asked by one character to deliver a message to another, it became very obvious that our doing so did not actually have any effect on events. Perhaps a few additional mini-scenes could be written as character responses to such code words, or small items or tokens given to audience members, to achieve more of a feeling of having influenced the scene? As it is, it feels more like promenade theatre in a random order. Which brings me to…
  • The logistics of moving from scene to scene. This often involved queuing in front of stage spaces, with an usher ready to let us in at the allotted time, and somewhat disrupted the immersion. I have to compare this unfavourably to the smoothness of the Great Gatsby immersive experience, though I understand the mechanics were different there, as the scenes progressed through a plot rather than simply resetting.

Images courtesy of Nic Kane Photography

 

It’s also worth mentioning that Red Palace also offers a dining experience, which starts an hour earlier than the rest of the show and includes a three-course meal by Annie McKenzie of Masterchef fame, a complimentary glass of bubbly, and exclusive seating and performances. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it in time for this dinner, but I did see some poisonous green toffee apples on their way to being served, and they looked pretty appealing, not to mention apropos!

I realise I’ve hit 1000 words with this review already and risk a telling-off from the Theatre Box site manager, so I’ll have to skip dissecting the meta-plot and its themes, as well as aesthetic references to Poe and Atwood. The last point I really want to make is this: tickets for Red Palace start at £18, and if that’s not a bargain, then I don’t know what it is. London, this is your chance to experience some magical theatre and have a ball while doing it (pun intended). Don’t wait until the clock strikes twelve!

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Tickets and more information here.

Previous review: Baby @ Bread and Roses Theatre, Clapham Fringe

 

REVIEW! Hitler’s Tasters by Michelle Kholos Brooks @ The Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Directed by Sarah Norris
Presented by New Light Theater Project
Greenside (Infirmary Street)

2nd – 24th August

Mary Katherine Kopp, Kaitlin Paige Longoria, and Hallie Griffin in Hitler’s Tasters. Image courtesy of Hunter Canning

Here’s the thing: for undergrad, I did a triple major in History, German Language & Culture, and Theatre Studies. Has this combination ever really come in useful? Until now, no, but when I saw the description of this show, I thought my moment had finally come. As it turned out, you don’t really need to know that much about German or History to understand Hitler’s Tasters. This disappointed me a little (as well, I suspect, as the American lady in the queue in front of me who promised her son that this would be an historically educational experience), but even if there wasn’t too much there to stimulate my German/History nerdery, it was still an engaging and technically interesting piece of theatre.

A new play by American playwright Michelle Kholos Brooks, Hitler’s Tasters follows the story of four girls – Hilda, Margot, Anna, and Liesel – who were conscripted to serve their country as tasters for the Fuehrer. It is true that there were a number of such women during WWII who were selected for this role of sampling all Hitler’s meals before he touched them, to check that the food was safe from poison, and one of them (the only survivor) was called Margot; but that’s about as far as the historical accuracy of this play stretches. Everything else is highly stylised invention, dressed in a superficial understanding of German history and culture.

This lack of historical accuracy, however, is something embraced by the play, which is more focused on exploring a thematic concept. To this end, it merges a historical setting with very modern elements, to create a strangely effective atmosphere of timelessness. The girls snap selfies on their phones and then gossip about the attractiveness of Clark Gable; they dance frenetically to electronic pop, then fret over how Aryan they are, and how marriageable. They spend interminably slow hours locked in a room, waiting for symptoms of poison to manifest, and they fill this time with exactly what you’d expect of teenaged girls from any era. They snipe, gossip, play Truth or Dare, braid each other’s hair, swap confessions and fears, philosophise about life and death, and descend into giggling fits of ecstasy over male celebrities. There are power plays, spiteful insults, and betrayals… as well as declarations of sisterhood and support. Each girl is given a distinctive personality, which the talented actors fine-tune and portray with skill. There is an interesting interplay between stereotypical teenaged girl cattiness and the undercurrents of very real  social danger – the knowledge hanging in the air that if one of these girls were to turn on another and report her for social non-conformity, the consequences would be much more serious than the normal high school ostracism.

Image courtesy of Hunter Canning

At first I found it a very distracting stylistic choice to have all the girls speak in heavy American accents, with heightened “valley girl” vocal inflections. I reasoned that it was probably to help the audience draw parallels with modern pop culture texts such as Mean Girls, and the image of the millennial teenaged girl which is distilled in its most concentrated and exaggerated form in American media. Upon realising that it was an entirely American production, with American actors and having toured in America, I now wonder if this was simply intended to be a functionally invisible accent choice, as Southern English accents probably would be if it were a British production. If so, that’s an interesting side effect of having taken the play trans-Atlantic, and not necessarily a negative one. I would, however, advise that the director and cast should do a quick bit of research into the pronunciation of those occasional German words sprinkled throughout – mainly for “father” and “mother” – as they sounded quite ridiculous spoken in American.

A stylistic choice that I did really enjoy was the abstract nature of the framing scenes; these were used to represent the actual meal tasting, which was presented as highly ritualised, with slickly choreographed physical movement and unsettling sound and lighting effects (kudos here to choreographer Ashlee Wasmund and production manager Christina Tang). Overall, the production values of this show were excellent, maintaining a consistent high quality throughout, from usage of the stage space through to the costume design. Sarah Norris is to be congratulated on her tight direction and evocative interpretation of the text. It is particularly relevant to us today to be reminded that fascism and far-right brainwashing can happen so insidiously that the end results just look like normal people; these young girls are both victim and complicit, and remain emphatically human throughout.

Kaitlin Paige Longoria and Hallie Griffin in Hitler’s Tasters. Image courtesy of Hunter Canning

Overall, I do realise that my gripes with Hitler’s Tasters are very subjective, and largely due to expectations of historical interest which the show never actually promised me. In the end, I’m sure the young boy in front of me in the line learned some snippets of history – even if it was just that Hitler was a vegetarian and loved his dog, that teaches the important lesson that evil doesn’t always seem it. Even though I think there was a missed opportunity for more historical, political, and social complexity within the text, this play still demonstrates the importance of empathy and trust, independent thinking, and bravery.

Tickets

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Previous review: Knot by Nikki & JD @ The Edinburgh Fringe Festival

REVIEW! Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein @ Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Presented by Underbelly and Manual Cinema
McEwan Hall, Bristo Square
31st July – 26th August 2019

I went into Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein having, as usual, done no prior research and with nothing but a vague preconception that as the description had included “shadow puppets” it’d probably be something quite small – cute and dinky. Upon entering the McEwan Hall, I instantly realised I was way off base. The domed hall is used for University of Edinburgh graduations, is decorated in Italian Renaissance style, and is huge (especially in comparison to most Fringe venues). The raked seating commanded a good view of the stage, cluttered with all sorts of technical paraphernalia, some of it quite weird and wonderful – very appropriate, given the story it would be used to tell. There were two large screens, one facing the audience and one perpendicular to us, a row of old-school overhead projectors, a camera, a number of musical instruments, and various seemingly random props. Then the house lights went down, and the show began.

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Photo by Michael Brosilow

It is so difficult to describe the breathtaking creative genius of this show, the mixture of art and technology, magic and science. Manual cinema really does seem the best description for it – we watched a film projected onto a big screen, while simultaneously watching it being created live on stage in front of us. It felt like watching a master pianist play the most exquisite symphony on a transparent piano, with all the inner workings laid bare. The end product, the film shown on the big screen, was elegantly beautiful in itself, but watching the cogs of the machine work with such perfect precision and ingenuity transformed the experience into something truly awe-inspiring.

The work takes the form of a story-within-a-story; we are first introduced to Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley, a novelist, pregnant and struggling to find artistic inspiration. Her husband, Percy, is a poet who loves his wife but unwittingly creates distance between them due to his devotion to his art. When Mary delivers her baby (“Clara”), she is overwhelmed with wonder at it as well as nervousness at the prospect of motherhood. When the baby dies unexpectedly in the night, it wounds her deeply, and creates a morbid preoccupation with death, the creation of life, and the deep bond between parent and child. Months later, on holiday in Geneva with her husband and Lord Byron, Mary enters into a competition with them to write a ghost story – and a nightmarish vision of her baby, reanimated in a flash of lightning, gives birth to the story which is said to have been the fore-runner to all sci-fi and gothic horror.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

I should note here: all of this is told without any dialogue, in black and white, with only silhouettic figures, using a bewitching blend of paper shadow puppetry and live actors, with soundscapes and backing music created onstage by live musicians. It is, frankly, exquisite. But as we now move into the secondary story – that of Frankenstein itself – another element is added into the mix: our actors (all women) move to the other side of the projection screen, and begin lending their faces as well as their silhouettes to the artwork in front of us. Mary undergoes a quick costume change to become her creation, Victor Frankenstein, and we step into his story. Eventually, a tertiary storyline and art style emerges, following the perspective of Frankenstein’s monster himself, brought to life as a physical puppet. The three storylines intertwine with incredible poignancy, drama, and just the right amount of gruesomeness.

Manual Cinema has taken some liberties with both history (Shelley wrote Frankenstein before her marriage to Percy, and Clara was her third child, not the first one who died in the night) and the tale of Frankenstein, but I doubt this will bother avid Frankenstein fans given how achingly true it is to the messages and sentiment of the original novel. The lack of dialogue, the old-fashioned silent movie stylings, the mechanical genius, the emotional depth, the melodramatic rendering, and the underlying mysticism make this quite possibly the best interpretation of the classic text ever to have been made (yep, I just said that). If you are at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year, you simply must see it (ignore the silly corniness of the posters, they’re a bad representation of this beautiful piece of art). In this production, Manual Cinema has brought life to a truly miraculous creation.

Tickets

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Manual Cinema’s ‘Frankenstein’ Official Edinburgh 2019 Trailer from Manual Cinema on Vimeo.

Previous review: Mating in Captivity @ The King’s Head Theatre

REVIEW! Libertalia by Gary Lockley @ The Golden Hinde

Written and directed by Gary Lockley
Presented by the Golden Hinde
Featuring Nathalia Campbell-Smith, Patrick Strain, DK Ugonna, and David West
Thursday 15th August – 5th September 2019

If you’ve spent much time in London at all, chances are you’ve wandered past The Golden Hinde, a reconstruction of Francis Drake’s sixteenth century galleon, now moored on the South Bank and a popular tourist attraction. Perhaps you’ve even surrendered a fiver to step on board, and viewed the ship’s compartments and faux-historical furnishings. But have you ever taken part in a pirate summit deep in the bowls of the ship, and investigated its cabins and crew to uncover dark secrets and dastardly deeds?

Probably not, but starting this week there will be an opportunity to do just that, as the Hinde will be commandeered out of hours by the immersive theatre show Libertalia. Inspired by Captain Charles Johnson’s “A general history of pyrates”, the TV show Black Sails, and video game Uncharted, this story takes place during the Golden Age of Sail and the height of New World colonialism and mercantilism. Upon boarding the ship, audience members are sorted into four “crews”, each with an allegiance to a different pirate captains. These captains are played by the show’s four actors, each based on a real historical pirate. We have all been summoned here, we are told, by the revered Captain Tew, who wishes to tell us about his plans to found a free pirate colony called Libertalia – but who will lead this colony? And are the sails the only things on this ship that are rigged?

What follows this initial scene-setting induction is two hours of high seas intrigue and scandal, as audience members are encouraged to explore the ship and follow the actors around to witness snippets of dialogue which gradually reveal that something fishy is going on. Is there more than meets the “aye” to these pirate captains?

Libertalia is creator Gary Lockley’s first foray into writing site-specific interactive theatre, and he set the bar high for himself by securing such an impressive and evocative venue. Unfortunately, it’s a difficult genre of performance to master, filled with volatile elements and delicate lines to tread, and despite some excellent moments, it quickly became clear that this piece could have done with guidance from someone more experienced in the field. I (and other audience members, as we discussed abovedecks after the show) often found ourselves searching for depths and details which were simply not there: a diary left unguarded in the captain’s quarters turned out to be disappointingly empty, two audience members told me of how they riffled through an entire trunk of blankets only to find that it was just that, and though our captains gave us the vague directions to mingle with other crews to “find out information”, it quickly became clear that none of us had actually been given any tidbits to guard. In the age of Sleep No More and other rich, multi-layered immersive experiences, this felt somewhat underdeveloped.

That said, there were some wonderful moments of immersion and interaction. Finding a coded message and banding together with rival audience members to decode it – hunched over ragged bits of parchment, scrawling out messages and discovering plot twists together – was excellent, as was singing a sea shanty with these newfound comrades later on. Interacting with the actors was great fun; I especially loved talking to Nathalia Campbell-Smith as Anne Bonny, and hearing about the woes and escapades of this real historical woman (more of this in future, please!). The cast had great chemistry with each other, and all the actors were animated, funny, and commanded attention and interest, as well as being able to improvise well with each other and the audience. Lastly, but most obviously, the ship herself was both stage and star of this show, and the undeniable coolness of pretending to be a pirate in an actual (reproduction) pirate’s ship was more than worth all the bumps to the head.

Without wanting to spoil the story’s ending, I do have to note that it quickly became clear that as the audience, our actions – our subterfuge and investigations and conspiring – had no real impact on the plot. While it’s absolutely possible to have great immersive theatre which provides the illusion of agency but whose story is ultimately pre-determined (the Gatsby immersive experience is a successful example), that illusion is key. Otherwise, all the audience’s efforts begin to feel like meaningless busy-ness, a filler between watching actors perform rehearsed scenes. This was the case in Libertalia, and resulted in a lot of dead time where we ended up making real-life small talk with strangers, or filling our (hour)glasses at the below-decks bar. This could be remedied by including more sub-plots, even if they don’t lead anywhere, deeper world- and character-building, and more active parts and activities for the audience to undertake; again, see Gatsby for examples of all this.

When the final scene played out, it was unsurprising to all of us who had put together the pieces much earlier on in the evening, but nevertheless a fun bit of drama. This was watered down somewhat by a parting monologue which aimed for rousing but landed on emptily didactic, full of vague platitudes about freedom and unity that could equally have been denouncing Brexit or supporting it (and what with the historical setting, and inclusion of a freed slave character as well as colonial privateers, there was so much more potential for meaningful exploration of complex themes). At the journey’s end, I disembarked the ship having had fun, but feeling that Libertalia’s maiden voyage left quite a bit to be desired. Hopefully the show will continue to evolve and adapt, as it could become something truly special.

Could also do with a talking parrot.

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Previous review: Naked People Waking Up @ Etcetera Theatre, Camden Fringe

REVIEW! Lovers Anonymous @ The Space

Presented by Encompass Theatre Collective
9th – 19th July 2019

Open entering the re-purposed church that is The Space Theatre, it really did feel like walking into a meeting of AA, or some other self-help workshop run by professional “love coaches”. The raised stage was being used only as a platform for tea and coffee dispensation, and where pews once stood, plastic chairs were arranged in a ring. Arriving alone (which was a shame, because I feel this experience would absolutely have been enhanced by the presence of a partner), I hesitated in taking a seat, which was how I had my first interaction with “Sandra” and “Mike”, who would be running the workshop under the guise of the (not-so) perfect couple. They greeted me warmly, but with a certain artificial friendliness suggesting that these workshops were more of a money spinner than truly community spirited. I found myself in a seat next to a nice stranger called Helen, and soon enough, the show began.

From the start, Mike and Sandra (Edward Kaye and Becky Gibbs) played a slick role, bouncing plasticky enthusiasm and smiles back and forth as they bantered through an introduction. Their dynamic was an old one – she’s business-like, cool, and bossy, he’s goofy, overly affectionate, and oblivious – but tropes become tropes for a reason, and this fraught relationship provided an opportunity to explore the perks and pitfalls of a long-term relationship.

Rehearsal images for Lovers Anonymous

Though they’d obviously made an effort to be gender- and sexually-neutral in their dating advice,  the whole thing did have a bit of a “women are from Venus, men are from Mars” sort of vibe to it. The male actors / audience plants were almost all either creepy in a funny way, socially inept, comically geeky, or a combination of these, whereas the one woman “audience” actor was more of a quirky MPDG type. These men all had issues treating women like people, and the woman… existed basically to challenge unhealthy attitudes from the men? I don’t remember her having a story of her own, unlike the others.

The one audience actor whose role defied these trends was playing a man who had lost his partner in a tragic accident, moments after having a fight with him. This sudden death was hinted at through a frozen-time flashback at the beginning of the show, but this apparent trauma was left a mystery until near the the end. The effect was a neat bit of ground-laying with effective emotional payoff later, and though again this character’s story and it message were not exactly original, they did provide a certain amount of earnestness sincerity which contrasted nicely with the silliness and melodrama of the rest of the show.

The show blurb promises a wide range of love-related discussion topics: “from sexuality to sex, tinder thrills to online spills, everything is welcome”. Did it deliver? Well, there was a lot of ground covered: there was a very humourous section on online dating, some cringey stories about awkward first dates, a debate on the morality of pornography, an exercise about working through conflict, exploration of the familiarity/banality of sharing a life with someone, and much more. None were explored in much depth, but there were certainly some interesting moments of introspection and examination of societal norms. I think that in 2019, perhaps more types of “non-traditional” relationships could be explored – as it is, the show is mainly quite blandly heterosexual, except for mentions of homo/bisexuality thrown in for shock twist value rather than being examined in any meaningful way.

Rehearsal images for Lovers Anonymous

Likewise, the audience interaction was played very safe, and honestly other than myself and one other audience member, I don’t think anyone really actively participated except the audience plants. It’s difficult in immersive theatre to challenge audience members and draw them into the show as active members without making them uncomfortable, but Lover Anonymous definitely stopped shy of either of those outcomes. This made it a little tame for me, but certainly much more welcoming for theatregoers who are not as used to audience interaction. For future iterations, I would advise some segments where audience members are split into smaller groups (perhaps with one actor planted in each, to guide things along) for activities that allow them to interact with the material and one another without being put on the spot. This would be easy to do without losing the workshop/seminar feeling of the piece, and make it more hands-on. The rhino/porcupine exercise was a good start towards this sort of dynamic – keep heading along that path!

All in all, Lovers Anonymous has the potential to be further developed into a really interesting and fun show: it already has a beautifully playful and welcoming atmosphere to it, some excellent comedic moments, good snippets of physical theatre, and a number of tightly written and executed scenes. With increased audience involvement and a more daring foray into meatier love-related topics, this could become the kind of show that would make anybody swipe right.

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Previous review: Spitfire Sisters @ The Space Theatre

REVIEW! Kill Climate Deniers by David Finnigan @ The Pleasance Islington

Written by David Finnigan
Directed by Nic Connaughton
Produced by Pleasance Theatre and Maya Ellis
Featuring Felicity Ward, Kelly Paterniti, Bec Hill, Hannah Ellis Ryan, and Nathan Coenen
4th – 28th June 2019

The first show I saw at the downstairs Pleasance Theatre in Islington was Bismillah! An Isis Tragicomedy, a play which mixed side-splitting black comedy with controversial and complex socio-political commentary. I gave it five stars. This weekend I found myself in that space again, and once again, I was treated to a piece of theatre which had me alternately gasping with laughter and staring down the barrel of one of the biggest crises of the modern day. They sure can pick ‘em.

The majority of Kill Climate Deniers is cathartic silly satire, and very good at being that. An all-women cast of experienced Australian actors and comedians caper through the riotous tale of a terrorist attack on Parliament House during a Fleetwood Mac concert; we follow the story of Gwen Malkin, Minister for the Environment in a conservative government, and her social media advisor, Georgia Bekken. Felicity Ward – one of Australia’s biggest comedienne exports of the moment – absolutely nails the role Malkin, playing to perfection a politician out of her depth, hiding insecurity with bluster and narcissism. Kelly Paterniti as Bekken provides terrific support and counterbalance as the more level-headed advisor, pulling the politician’s strings even as she strokes her ego – except for occasional flashes of mania, centring around a hatred of bloggers (this monologue was the only time in the play that I really worried for my safety) and an encyclopaedic knowledge of 80s disco hits. Certainly quite a different role to the last I saw her in, which was the titular heroine of a Romeo and Juliet production at the Sydney Opera House!

Hannah Ellis Ryan and Bec Hill. Image Credit: Ali Wright

On the other side we have Bec Hill, another successful Aussie comedy export, as the eco-terrorist leader Catch. Combining army fatigues and gothic chic (and on that topic, kudos to Prinx Lydia, set and costume designer, for their excellent touches), she really does exude menace and chilling fanaticism. She knows that she’s on the side of the bad guys, but believes so completely in her cause that she feels the possible ends justify the means: ‘See I know we’re not right… but even if I were 99% wrong, I’d still shoot every politician for that 1% chance of changing things’. (I was very intrigued by the implications of an authorial aside revealing that, in an earlier draft, Catch was Malkin’s 11-year-old daughter via a time-travelling subplot… but I can see why this was cut.) Finally, playing a number of roles with great versatility is Hannah Ellis Ryan, who dies a few times onstage as various terrorist henchwomen, and then once with great aplomb as centre-right political commentator Beverly Ile. It is as Ile that she really shines, maintaining a smooth and smarmily bland façade while all goes her way, and the dropping the mask and letting rip in a spitting, venomous, spiteful rant about the patheticness of scientists.

Together, and to some seriously banging tunes, these women act out a story of mutual destruction grounded in fear and an inability to communicate. I think the meaning of this tale is perfectly expressed in the foreword by Julian Hobba, artistic director of Aspen Island Theatre Company, who first commissioned the project: ‘[the characters] represent two powerful and opposing political forces, pushed, by the extremity of the situation and the immovability of their positions, into a lethal death spiral… Through the eyes of this play, we are name-calling through counter-narratives while Rome burns.’

Felicity Ward and Bec Hill. Image credit: Ali Wright

There is another key aspect of this show which I’ve yet to touch on: there is another presence onstage, or seated just off to the side, in the audience. This is the author (or, as I only realised partway through, an actor standing in for him), and he often presses pause on the events onstage to provide commentary, justification, context, or the true backstory of the play’s development and verbatim reactions from climate deniers, politicians, and Andrew Bolt. These asides are often as hilarious as the gags onstage, but some provide a more serious counterweight to the semi-absurd comedy, and make astute and sobering socio-political observations. The final two monologues – addressed to climate change deniers and appraising the driving force behind their beliefs – truly blew my mind and explored the issue in a light I had never considered before.

This “Finnig” (that is, the voice of writer David Finnigan) is portrayed by Nathan Coenen, an actor of Australian origin who has been in the UK for many years. Indeed, he takes a little while to settle back into the Australian accent, sounding very British-neutral for the first scene or two, but so many Aussies (myself included) are guilty of this unconscious chameleon camouflage when in the Motherland, and by the time the play is properly underway he is able to “yeah, nah” with the best of them. It is in this voice that he explores the author’s doubts and regrets about the title and the ethical content of the play, with the benefit of hindsight as it went through a number of evolutions.

I exited Kill Climate Deniers having known that I’d seen some amazing theatre. My only qualm was – yep – the title, and the premise of violence against those we disagree with. Not because I never feel that rage and frustration, but because I enjoy having the moral high ground, and feel that the left (usually) manages to hold onto principles better than the right. However, it’s not like the play doesn’t address this, and at its heart, this play is not based in violence or hatred. It’s based in primal, abject terror of the future we are sleepwalking into; it’s raging against the powerlessness we as individuals feel when up against global crises; it’s hysterical laughter and communal catharsis in the knowledge that everyone else in the room is just as scared as you.

Bec Hill, David Coenen, and Kelly Paterniti. Image credit: Ali Wright

I’m not exaggerating in the least when I say that I could continue to write a full-length analytical analysis about this play, but I’ve been told off for my verbosity before, so I’ll wrap it up here. All I can say is that Kill Climate Deniers is intelligent, hilarious, thought-provoking, and fun, and you should go and see it. (Especially if you’re an expat from Down Under living in London – because someone in the audience needs to laugh at those Aussie-only cultural references.) (Also how fucking great is it to have an all-female cast in comedic roles that would often be given to men without a second thought?)

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Previous review:  Custody by Urban Wolf @ Ovalhouse Theatre

REVIEW! Transit by FLIP Fabrique @ Underbelly Festival Southbank

Director: Alexandre Fecteau
Artistic Direction: Bruno Gagnon
Choreographer: Annie Saint-Pierre
Presented by FLIP Fabrique and Underbelly
27th May – 7th July 2019

FLIP Fabrique is a company of young artists from Quebec, Canada, who travel the world performing their circus routines. Their latest show, Transit, is about… travelling the world performing circus routines. From the moment the performers tumble onto the stage out of a road case, it is evident that there is something different about this troupe: they have an infectious sense of fun and mischief, and tangible close rapport with each other. Despite the fact that their show is in a mix of English and French, their brand of humour is both too exuberant to be English and too irreverent to be French. And despite the fact that there was little in the way of story or aesthetic theme, the show felt cohesive and never lost momentum or interest.

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Throughout the course of the hour-long performance, the troupe cycled through a number of circus acts and disciplines. Of course, in homage to their name, they started with a series of acrobatic tricks; flips and tumbles and feats of precarious balancing atop a wildly ambulatory road case. This soon gave way to aerial straps performances from Pierre Riviere (once topless and showing off his chiseled physique, and then later as a comical callback performance in a fatsuit, weeping into doughnuts); hula-hoop feats from Jade Dussault; strongman stunts from Jonathan Julien; juggling of various items (pins, balls, knives, etc) from Jasmin Blouin; hair-raising trampoline acrobatics from Cedrik Pinault; and, as a standout performance, diabolo juggling and general wizardry from Jeremie Arsenault. Honestly, diabolos have never been anywhere near the top of my list of most exciting circus instruments, but this man’s skill with the things was mind-blowing. Indeed, I’m convinced that he was controlling them with some sort of otherworldly power, because they were behaving more like perfectly-trained show dogs than inanimate objects. Coupled with this mastery was his sparkling mien of mischief and good humour, which made his every scene into side-splitting comedy.

These acts were interwoven with other short skits and exchanges which ranged from silly (waking up a birthday boy with a faceful of shaving cream), to surreal (live creation of a chalk dust Jackson Pollock-esque painting of the team), to banter between friends (“what’s your next project?” “giving life” “never heard of them”), and back to silly again (an entire routine based in balletic sweet-spitting, because if travelling as a troupe means anything, it means going down as a team if even one of you gets a cold). The trampo-walling finale literally had me on the edge of my seat, torn between awe and horror, and when the show ended I felt like I was saying goodbye to friends.

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This, really, was the atmosphere that made Transit so enjoyable: the feeling that, on stage in front of you, was a bunch of mates who genuinely love each other’s company, who sometimes squabble like children, but support each other on-stage and off, and just have an absolute ball creating and performing shows together. There were a number of fluffed tricks throughout, but they were dealt with so good-naturedly that you couldn’t really hold it against them. There were also times when I felt like artists were performing outside of their skillsets, to the detriment of the performance (when my friends and I went through our skipping-rope phase in primary school I remember pulling off a number of tricks that didn’t land in this show). When these same performers then had shining moments of incredible skill later on, it made me question whether they were being used to their best advantage at all times. That said, I can understand the impulse to have as many of the troupe as possible on stage together as much as possible, because together, this FLIP Fabrique team was dynamite. I would absolutely recommend this show to people of all ages, and anyone looking for a fun and uncomplicated night out.

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Previous review: A Winter’s Tale @ The Warren, Brighton Fringe