The Red Shoes, Young Pleasance @ Pleasance Courtyard – Beyond Theatre

By Jo Billington & Will Feasey with Tim Norton
Original music composed by Ned Bennett
August 15 – 18

And my Edinburgh Fringe is off to a good start with the Young Pleasance’s charming production for 2018, The Red Shoes! A re-imagining of the tale by Hans Christian Andersen, this (light on the music) musical follows the story of Lotta as she grows up in early 20th century Berlin. We see Lotta as she grows through three stages: her childhood as the orphanage’s wild child, her teenaged years working as a maid and then stumbling into cabaret performance, and finally her later years as a rich entrepreneur’s mistress and actress in Goebbel’s propaganda films. Throughout all this time, two things remain constant: Lotta’s best friend, a Jewish boy named Jacob, and the pair of red dancing shoes she inherited from her late mother.

This production is slick, with well-oiled choreography crafted for actors who are not trained dancers, and song numbers crafted for actors who are not trained singers. The costumes and sets are sumptuous and wonderful – adult Lotta’s film star outfit shone for the former, and a transparent gauze curtain was used to great effect for the latter when intimating flashbacks or detached worlds (such as the unreachable upper class audience watching Lotta perform). The ensemble class is strong, with the Narrators (Hannah Margerison and Kieton Saunders-Brown) inhabiting the most consistent roles, and performing them strongly. Margerison also played a key figure asthe mysterious friend who introduced Lotta to the world of performance – this double-casting carried interesting implications about whether the seemingly impartial, omniscient narrator was providing a guiding hand in Lotta’s fate.

Of the three Lottas, the youngest (played by Eliana Franks) certainly had the most energy and charisma; however, it may have been more of a problem with the writing than acting that the characterisation of this story’s lead felt like it lacked continuity. There were few similarities between Franks’ precocious and rebellious girlchild, Katie Walton’s naive and unsure teenager, and Eva Burton’s glamorous, selfish adult woman. Jacob, however – played by Theo Murchie and later Kishore Walker – seemed to remain the same idealistic, intelligent, and innocent young boy so captivated by Lotta’s charms. Other standout actors in minor roles included Ella Davis as the sharp-tongued Frau Pelzer, and Miles Rosbrook as the coldly villainous Franz.

This play, as we are informed almost immediately, is about temptation in all its forms: fame, fortune, love, belonging, and much more. It blurs the lines between a glittering glamour which is never quite within Lotta’s grasp, and the seedy, desperate, harsh reality which keeps chasing her. But once she has slipped her feet into those shoes, she cannot take them off until she has lived out her fate – and the final, powerful image spotlit on stage serves as a warning against the fickle nature of that which may tempt us.

This talented young cast is certainly one to watch – The Red Shoes is on at the Fringe until the end of this week, so hurry to catch it before it dances out of sight! Tickets available here.

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Where the Hell is Bernard, Haste Theatre @ Blue Elephant Theatre

10th July, 2018
Haste Theatre
Featuring: Elly Beaman Brinklow, Jesse Dupré, Valeria Ross, and Sophie Taylor

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Image credit: Rarar Su

Haste Theatre’s current work in progress, Where the Hell is Bernard?, is an exploration of a dystopian future in which people live dreary, monotonous lives devoid of any pleasure or individuality, controlled by an authoritarian power known as the Vine. The story follows Pod 17, a unit of four women who dress in matching platinum blonde wigs and shapeless khaki jumpsuits and move, work, and live in unison and silence. When citizens are “evaporated” at age 50, it is Pod 17’s job to sort through their possessions and assign them to new pods for reuse. However, one day a citizen named Bernard does the unthinkable: rather than proudly stepping up for the honour of this death, he defies the social conditioning and ends up on the run. Pod 17, left holding a box of his posessions and clothes, finds cryptic and poetic instructions hidden within them, encouraging them too to break free from the Vine and embark on an adventure to discover themselves and the humanity denied to them.

This performance is a creative mix of mime, live song, movement, clowning, and abstract dystopian drama. With only six characters including the disembodied voice of the Vine and Bernard’s spiritual presence, portrayed by the four onstage actors through puppetry and mime, we see the futuristic society solely through the Pod’s experiences. The set, designed by Georgia de Grey, is flexible enough to stand in for a number of settings, from factory-style office to nursery to nightclub to forest, and is reminiscent of classic 70s-era sci-fi: white, glowing, and minimalistic.

In fact, much of the atmosphere of the piece is very much like twentieth-century sci-fi, with its anxiety about totalitarianism, the future, state surveillance, technology, and loss of connection to nature and maternity – it was impossible not to think of Fahrenheit 451 as the pod members explored an outlawed library. This re-emergence of narratives from the Cold War is a trend which reflects the current sociopolitical climate, most obvious in the success of the recent TV serialisation of The Handmaid’s Tale; however, in this new era of dystopic “speculative fiction”, the centre of the thematic anxiety tends no longer to be technology, but rather humanity, and this is also true of Where the Hell is Bernard. Although the core of the Vine seems to be a giant glittering server, and its maternal/authoritarian disembodied voice has hints of AI about it, an exceedingly clever twist on the ending suggested that instead, the villain of this story is an inherent part of the human condition. Can the new generation tear down a broken and oppressive system in order to create a newer, fairer, freer society? Or are we doomed to repeat the mistakes of our parents? Is all social struggle pointless if the powerless are always corrupted by power as soon as they attain it? Even if none of the concepts in this show were exactly innovative, their presentation through this type of performance art was ambitious, and the ending helped create the payoff which the piece had lacked up until that point.

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Image credit: Rarar Su

This is not a finished work, evidenced by some discrepancies between the events onstage and the plot description online, as well as a number of plot holes and issues with the fictional world’s lore (if pod members are all totally uniforms and identity-less, why do the “evaporated” citizens seem to have been allowed such unique costumes and possessions, and why are they being recycled on an individual scale? Why are the pod members literate if reading is banned and not necessary for their work? If the Vine is so omniscient and omnipotent, why do they struggle so to catch the four pod members on the run? Why was there a forbidden rave club apparently up and running for the women to experience alcohol and flirtation, and who was there with them?). However, the abstract, surreal nature of the shows was such that I was able to mostly suspend my disbelief and enjoy the beautiful synchronicity and dissonance of the performance before me, and contemplate its questions and themes without examining too closely the vehicles used to take me there. I expect, too, that many of the flaws will be ironed out in further development, and that when I drop by Assembly George Square to see them during their Edinburgh run, the show will be of even higher quality. So, taking into account the in-development of this piece, its ambition, the skill of the performers and devisers, and the way it made me turn it over and over in my mind afterwards, I am satisfied that Where the Hell is Bernard? is deserving of four stars.

 

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Apologies to Blue Elephant and Haste Theatre for the tardiness of this review.

The Family Blimp, Klump Company @ Blue Elephant Theatre

21 – 23 June 2018
Klump Company
Chloe Young, Megan Vaughan-Thomas, Ulima Ortiz, and Arthur Dumas

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The Blimp family has moved to the UK, and mother Evelyn and father Phillip struggle with opening the door to their new house, let alone controlling daughter Emily and baby Dioxyne! The beginning of this show seemed innocuous enough – straightforward slapstick clowning and buffoonery, with the support of a few novelty props and classic white facepaint. For these first five or ten minutes, dialogue was minimal and/or in exaggerated French, but then the character of community leader Jocelyn Price was introduced in the form of a booming voice emanating from a picnic hamper… and things started to really get interesting!

These four recent graduates of Ecole Jaques Lecoq, Paris’ internationally famous physical theatre school, devise and perform as a collective without any director. According to the theatre manager, they were a pleasure to host at Blue Elephant, and almost manically cheery throughout their time there, though this may have had something to do with the gallons of coffee they powered through every day… And honestly, I can see why they needed it, as this performance was chock-full of creative and physical energy. This was both a strength and a weakness: sometimes the action onstage seemed to hurry through conceits and plot points which would have been more effective if explored at greater length, and as a result the story sometimes felt quite disjointed and oddly paced (for example, I loved the family game show section, however it began and ended so suddenly that I couldn’t really get into it as I’d have liked to). I also felt that the ending of the narrative was a little abrupt and not particularly satisfying; personally, I’d have closed it off with the family coming full circle, and appearing on a new neighbour’s doorstep to sinisterly welcome them to the community…

Really though, the fact is that this show had far too much to offer for it to all cram into 45 minutes. The Blimp family’s trials and tribulations may have been grotesquely, cartoonishly comic, but they did also provide some very astute commentaries on the experience of new migrants to the UK navigating the unspoken expectations of British social life and its concepts of respectability. I particularly enjoyed the exploration of the disconnect between British attitudes of welcome to our neighbourhood, we value multiculturalism and we expect you to assimilate and learn to play by our rules. We were provided with a unique viewpoint on all of this by the positioning of the audience as both within the Blimps’ home, witnessing private scenes, and also as part of the wider community looking in from the outside and judging. The periodic breaking of the fourth wall kept us on our toes, particularly when the creepy, malevolent baby Dioxyne started taking an interest in audience members! Speaking of Dioxyne, she and her sister Emily really stole the show from their onstage parents; I don’t feel that this was a reflection on any of the actors’ abilities, as they all seemed very evenly matched, but rather that the two children were given the wilder roles, while the parents were often stuck playing the straight man.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable short performance which left me wanting more, and even thinking about the meat of its subject matter afterwards – unusual for a clowning show! The Klump Company artists certainly have a bright future ahead of them, and I hope they keep developing The Family Blimp to best showcase their obvious comic, creative, and sociopolitical talents. I’ll be looking out for them at the Edinburgh Fringe, and beyond!

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Finally: my deepest apologies to the Klump Company and Blue Elephant Theatre for the extreme tardiness of this review. This is a reflection on developments in my personal life, and not in any way on my enjoyment of the show.

Peepshow, Circa @ Underbelly

27th June – 18th August 2018
Directed by Yaron Lifschitz
Devised and Presented by Circa Contemporary Theatre
Performed at Underbelly Festival’s Spiegeltent

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Images courtesy of Kurt Petersen

This was, quite simply, phenomenal cabaret circus. I sat transfixed in Underbelly’s Spiegeltent for 60 minutes and forgot the world outside existed, as the six performers – four women and two men – moved fluidly and gracefully through a series of acts encompassing dance, hoops, physical comedy, aerial silks, and superb displays of acrobatics. Unfortunately on the night I was there, the trapeze artist pictured in promotional materials was not performing, but he was barely missed amongst the rest of the extremely talented cast.

According to director Yaron Lifschitz, Peepshow explores the concept of “looking and being seen”; the performers navigate through light and darkness, visual effects and illusions, and the states of observer and observed. Classic cabaret tropes and techniques are twisted and subverted – I was pleasantly surprised to see that two of the acrobatic bases were women, and it was wonderful to see a break from the usual convention that only male acrobats must be strong and muscular while their female counterparts are small, lithe, and sexy. (Side note: one of the performers looked for all the world like a fourth Hemsworth brother and the most attractive, not to mention the most physically talented!) Which is not to say that the women in this show weren’t sexy – at times they were, but they were not confined to this. And although there were some classic displays of performative masculinity, including a gracefully choreographed dance fight, there was also a feeling of gender and sexual fluidity, not to mention homoeroticism. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that the objectification of the performers was equal, deliberate, and self-aware, all of which only made it more devastatingly effective. The style flirted with the seediness of a burlesque peepshow, but poked gentle fun at it as well. And the music was phenomenal!

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Images courtesy of Kurt Petersen

My only criticisms of this production are mild, and are actually focused on some of the more traditional acts in the show: the miming and juggling were not quite as seamless and engrossing as the more innovative acts. In addition, the lack of any stronger through-thread, plot, or theme, meant that in the very few weaker moments, the show lost momentum somewhat. However for the most part, this production was absolutely exquisite and breath-taking. I would highly recommend making your way down to the Southbank in time to see Peepshow before its run there ends in August!

Tickets

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Belly of the Whale, Ockham’s Razor @ Greenwich and Docklands Festival

23-24th June, 2018
Directed by Tina Koch – Ockham’s Razor

Produced by Turtle Key Arts
Devised and Performed by Amanda Homa, Nathan Johnston and Stefano di Renzo

Photo by reviewer

It’s hard to believe that this performance was not originally devised for the space in which it was performed yesterday. The backdrop of the docks and the soaring masts and rigging of the Cutty Sark set the scene perfectly, and the maritime creaks and sighs woven through the soundscape completed the setting. Despite its name, Belly of the Whale, this show evokes images of ships sailing on high seas rather than anything particularly biblical. The rocking and rolling of the central set piece (sort of like a… seesawing half-pipe which also became a climbing scaffold… look I don’t know circus terminology, okay) beautifully evoked the sensation of waves and tides, with interruptions to the rhythm serving as a reminder that the ocean can be unpredictable and even playful.

There was no narrative or real dialogue to this show, which meant it did tend to feel a little directionless at times, but it was wonderful to recline on the hot pavement (glad I brought a picnic rug!) and immerse myself in the visual and aural feast before me. The performance was  billed as circus and was by circus troupe Ockham’s Razor, however as in the case of much modern circus, it was almost more like a mixture of dance, acrobatics, and performance art than what people classically think of as circus. The performers leapt, wobbled, climbed, rolled, ran, stumbled, tumbled, and even play-fought around Thomas Loriaux and Eric Abadie’s versatile setpiece, transforming it by use of ropes, pulleys, weights, bars. Classic circus skills made their appearance mainly through tightrope walking and aerial silk acrobatics. I was particularly impressed by performer Amanda Homa and her effortless supple grace; even when performing clumsiness, her movements were so beautifully fluid and perfectly in time with the music. The show was at its strongest towards the end, when the pace and rhythm picked up, all three performers shared the stage in a wonderfully chaotic but tightly choreographed dance – at other times the pace slackened somewhat and the performers began to lose the attention of some of the audience (particularly its junior members), but for this finale, everyone was absolutely entranced.

It would be remiss not to make special mention of the on-stage musician: combining electrical keyboard, a string instrument which I think may have been a sitar?, various digital samples and effects, live looping, and many more audio techniques of which I am ignorant, he created the perfect soundscape as a backdrop for this performance. At times I was tempted just to close my eyes and sink into the aural world he created, where sailors still sing sea shanties, you must never shoot an albatross, and sea serpents lurk on the edges of maps…

Belly of the Whale will continue touring the UK and Europe throughout 2018 – I doubt any of its other settings will be as perfect as the docklands, but I am convinced that it will still shine in more traditional spaces, so catch it if you can! You can see a list of performance locations and dates here.

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The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, The Elufowoju jr Ensemble @ Arcola Theatre

7 June–21 July 2018
Directed by Femi Elufowoju, jr

Text (novel) by Lola Shoneyin
Adapted for the stage by Rotimi Babatunde

Credit: Idil Sukan

I am so, so glad that I went to see this play. It was so different to everything else I’ve seen in London – like a bowl of spicy Nigerian yam after a steady diet of bland bubble and squeak. Right from the moment I joined the queue for the (sold-out) Saturday matinee session, I could sense a different atmosphere to that usually found in an off-West End theatre, and I was very conscious that for once in my life, I possessed some of the palest skin in the room. The audience seemed to be comprised of many large groups – families, groups of girlfriends, whole communities crammed into Arcola Theatre’s many-tiered seating. They were quite possibly the most responsive audience I’ve ever seen, laughing uproariously at all the jokes, drawing shocked gasps at revelations, sighing and groaning at characters’ misfortunes, and often (seemingly involuntarily) answering characters’ rhetorical yes/no questions as they soliloquised. It was a pleasure to be drawn along by their energy, which echoed and amplified that of the performers.

Not that the performers were in any way lacking in energy: in fact, they crackled with it. This ensemble troupe is comprised of ten actors, seven women and three men, and each of them plays multiple roles, sings, dances, plays instruments, performs as a chorus-like ensemble, and often sits amongst the first row of the audience, reacting along to the anecdotes and events on stage. Through them, we are introduced to the scandalous story of a household in Nigeria, and its four main characters: Baba Segi and his four wives, Iya Segi, Iya Tope, Iya Femi, and Bolanle. We get to know Baba Segi and each wife in turn, learning about their origins, trials and tribulations, and the decisions and fates which led them to this household. Once we’re all caught up with the local history, we follow the family as it investigates the mystery of youngest, most educated wife Bolanle’s seeming inability to fall pregnant.

Credit: Idil Sukan

This play is belly-achingly funny. Every actor has impeccable comic timing and is able to transform any line into a punchline through playful use of voice, body, and face. Sometimes, this propensity towards comedy can border on the uncomfortable: it is not often that heavy topics such as marital rape and what is effectively female enslavement are played for laughs. (Upon skimming though the script provided with the programme, it is worth noting that a number of relationships and sexual encounters were originally written as unpleasant or non-consensual, but were changed for the positive for the final version. I am very grateful for this!) However, perhaps disguising these topics as jokes was a way of sneaking criticism and condemnation of them into the play without moralising. Or perhaps my discomfort was simply due to my status as a cultural outsider. In any case, such moments were certainly confronting and provocative, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, is it? I do wish, though, that the ending had provided a clearer judgement on the moral(s) of the story, as Baba Segi’s and Bolanle’s final addresses to the audience provided a strange mixture of unrepentant misogyny and enlightened feminist empowerment.

This mix of old and new, tradition and progression, superstition and science, sexual liberation and sexual oppression, form a constant motif of the play and reflects the type of isolated yet rapidly modernising community in which it is set. This divide is explored both in caricature and in nuance, and we see a sympathetic side to every character portrayed, even if they are would-be murders or abusive husbands. There is one notable exception in the form of an unnamed rapist: it is no coincidence that this is also the most Westernised character in the play, and the only one who speaks English without an African accent. This play, for all its mockery of antiquated gender roles and superstitious/religious clap-trap, thrums with pride in West African culture. Sexual courtship is portrayed through dance, grief through ululating wails, and all manner of things from celebration to mourning to everyday cheerfulness through song. The entire play thrums with rhythm, even when drums are not present on stage, and the actors never miss a beat. They don’t need any setting other than a few armchairs and occasional props (a birthday present, a sinister jar, a fetish whip, etc): the performers’ bodies form the foreground and backdrop, their simple yet vibrant costumes providing all the colour needed.

Credit: Idil Sukan

Although the entire cast was outstandingly strong, I feel it fair to say that the standout performers were Patrice Naiambana as Baba Segi and Jumoké Fashola as Iya Segi. Both wove complex characters who were sympathetic despite their chauvinism and nastiness, showing us the festering wounds which caused these defects: loss of innocence and freedom, bitterness, vulnerability, gullibility, fear, insecurity, jealousy. And despite having many of the play’s most poignant moments, these actors were also the ones most likely to have us clutching at our sides with laughter!

Look: if you don’t see this play before its run ends on July 21st, you will be sorely missing out. This is theatre with a difference, with a spirit, which will open your eyes and worldview. We need more like it, but it seems unlikely that anything of a similar style and calibre will pop up on the London theatre scene any time soon, so catch it while you can!

Tickets

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Cassandra, Found in Translation @ Blue Elephant Theatre

Directed by Ollie Harrington
Written and Produced by Rose Goodbody
12th-16th June, 2018

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Photo credit: Caitlin MacNamara

Cassandra has always been one of my favourite figures in Ancient Greek myth. A prophetic priestess who spurned Apollo and was cursed forever to see tragedy before it unfolded, but never to be believed – the romance and pathos of her story is incredibly affecting. I have always felt that she was definitely the most compelling and underutilised character in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, so I strongly approve of Found in Translation Theatre Company’s decision to refocus the story on her and rename it accordingly.

 

Today, two and a half thousand years after Aeschylus wrote Agamemnon, the concept of a highly gifted woman being punished for refusing to give herself to a man is still sadly relevant in our society. Found in Translation chose a timely moment to produce this play in the wake of #metoo and #timesup, and capitalised on it with not-so-subtle allusions to modern figures (at one point, Paul Irwin’s Agamemnon announces directly to the audience “Make Mycenae great again!”). I loved the reworking of Cassandra’s backstory with Apollo: he may be a god, but his treatment of Cassandra, with all its jealousy, manipulation, and power play, is textbook abusive behaviour and all too human. Hayden Tyler’s Apollo, with his golden good looks and booming deep voice (seriously, I could barely believe at first that it wasn’t digitally augmented), stood in as the archetype of bruised masculine ego, both fearsome in his power and pathetic in his pettiness.

The play’s set design in Blue Elephant’s small space is minimal, and the empty space allowed for some wonderful stage combat/dance choreography. Hanging curtains by the sides of the stage serve both to conceal exits and also to evoke a Grecian feeling, and other than that, the only things on stage are a couple of wine goblets on a small stand, and a long red cloth which is variously and creatively used as a symbol of seduction, victory, holiness, captivity, violence, and pride (most translations of Agamemnon refer to a “purple” cloth, but since there is historical dispute over ancient names for colours, and red works better symbolically today, I think this was an excellent design choice). Costumes were mainly modern, but draped toga-like for the women characters (the Advisor and Watcher were played by women, but effectively served as sexless characters in terms of the play’s gender politics). Other than said costumes, and the Advisor’s clipboard, the play remained very firmly Ancient Greek, which is a shame – I feel that writer Rose Goodbody could have gone a step further in fully transforming this piece and placing it within a modern setting, and cutting even more of the dialogue, which tended Greek-style towards telling not showing. As it is, it sits somewhat awkwardly between being a modern translation and a true adaptation; perhaps “reinterpretation” is the best word.

As mentioned above, I have a long-standing love of Ancient Greek myth and theatre, and was already quite familiar with Agamemnon before entering the theatre last night. This was lucky, as there was a fair amount of assumed knowledge about the mythology, particularly the legend of Troy. I’m not sure if a newcomer to the genre would have followed the plot as well, or caught a number of the relatively oblique references to offstage events and characters. This is perhaps something that needs to be worked on, considering Found in Translation’s mission statement is to “produce work that promotes education in the arts and Classical subjects to those that don’t have easy access.” It’s also a shame that the piece’s complex and sensitive commentary on abusive relationship dynamics and gendered discrimination was obscured by the melodramatic treatment of the play’s plot. The King and Queen, and to a lesser extent the Advisor, were almost cartoonish villains, both in dialogue and acting. Agamemnon’s stupid smirk and Clytemnestra’s rage-filled, twitching eyes did not allow for any exploration of character complexity, and the constant use of shouting to convey anger is always exhausting for both actor and audience. Director Ollie Harrington should have spent more time with these actors, developing layers of subtlety for their characters.

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Photo credit: Caitlin MacNamara

Jade Clulee’s role as the Watcher – the only commoner in the play, and often comic relief – allowed for some more compelling characterisation, and despite some stilted dialogue Clulee managed not only to make the audience chuckle, but also to create a relatable and endearing character. I was always sad to see her leave the stage. However, the standout in this performance was, of course, its lead. Lyna Dubarry as Cassandra was absolutely captivating every moment she spent on stage, in which time she was often addressing the audience directly. She showed us Cassandra’s memories of courtship with Apollo, told stories from her time in Troy, lamented her current situation, prophesied the doom to come, and often simply mused on the helplessness of voiceless, powerless women. Despite Cassandra’s constant apathetic sorrow, Dubarry managed to create a compelling character, pitiful without being pathetic. The soft lilt of her accent (Dubarry is French-Moroccan) serves wonderfully to remind us that Cassandra is a foreigner in Mycenae, isolated from the other characters. Only the Watcher attempts to truly connect with her, in a touching scene which adds a much-needed sense of sweetness and hope to the play.

Overall, Found in Translation’s Cassandra is an ambitious play with some excellent concepts and design, and has great potential to be an engaging and relevant Classics-based text for a modern audience. I would strongly urge the creative team to consider workshopping the dialogue and characterisations further, and to play up the script’s and cast’s strengths: giving voices to the voiceless, and showing us the flawed yet beautiful humanity which drives all tragedy.

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Two, Clueless Theatre @ Drayton Arms Theatre

Written by Jim Cartwright
Directed by Kyle Cluett
Performed by Debbie Griffiths & Piers Newman
At Drayton Arms Theatre 10th – 11th June, 2018

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This was some of the best pub theatre I’ve seen in a while! This minimalistic production of Cartwright’s classic, two-person, quintessentially English play hits all the right notes. The intimate theatre space is perfect to help the audience feel like the denizens of a cosy Northern pub, and as the play progresses various characters talk to and banter with us, as if we were sat around the room on bar stools rather than theatre seats.

Two may only feature two actors, but through the course of the performance we encounter fourteen different characters, comprising:

  • a jealously abusive man and his clearly traumatised partner;
  • a lost young boy;
  • a woman with a lust for macho men and her partner who is…not;
  • a conflicted Other Woman;
  • an old man dealing with the loss of his wife;
  • an old woman dealing with the ageing presence of her husband;
  • a sleazy would-be Casanova and his long-suffering would-be fiance;
  • the most adorable elderly couple wearing matching beanies and sweaters; and
  • the landlord and landlady.

These last pair are our hosts, commentators, protagonists, framing devices, and also form the through-thread which keeps the play from pointless meandering. Right from the beginning, their banter has a bite to it, an edge of bitterness which hints at more under the surface. Piece by piece, interspersed between encounters with other bargoers, the ugly wound at the heart of their marriage is revealed to us.

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Both Debbie Griffiths and Piers Newman reveal themselves to be consummate artists and talented character actors throughout their many roles in this piece. Griffiths in particular has an excellent sense for comic timing, and Newman almost brought me to heartache tears during his monologue as the lonely old widower. Both actors have an excellent feel for all of their roles, creating a wide range of strongly characterised yet nuanced personalities, all while keeping the rough honesty of working-class Northern culture. It is clear that both actors, and director Kyle Cluett, understand the play completely on all its levels, and I got the feeling that their artistic choices only improved on the value of the script (which did occasionally show hints of contrivance and cliche, as well as being slightly dated by its 80s provenance, and sometimes suffered from an ambition to touch on so many complex topics that it was unable to properly explore them).

My only criticism of the production is entirely superficial: the stage setting included a high school gym-esque basketball court, with big cutout letters strewn over the floor and walls. I gathered eventually that these were incidental, possibly belonging to a previous or subsequent production, but I did waste a certain amount of brainspace trying to figure out the significance of this apparent set design! (EDIT: I have since been informed that Two is sharing the space with a concurrent run of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. This checks out.)

Clueless Theatre’s Two is on tour and will be performing at both the Camden and Edinburgh Fringe festivals in August; for more information, see here. This production may not be groundbreaking in terms of content or style, but it is one of the few pieces of theatre which manage to capture a glimpse of what it means to be human – both the good, and the bad. I definitely recommend it.

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Brain Rinse @ Blue Elephant Theatre

Created and performed by Mike Raffone
Directed by John Whelan
Rinse Productions
Friday 1 June – Saturday 2 June

 

Mike Raffone in Brain Rinse

I like the vibe of Blue Elephant Theatre. Tucked away in a Camberwell back in the middle of a council housing estate, this theatre feels cheery and cosy. The volunteer staff are friendly and chatty, and the armchairs in the upstairs bar/foyer are just the right type of comfy. This is a theatre company which prides itself on bringing performances to a community which may not have much experience of theatre, and I gather that most of my (dozen-odd) fellow audience members fell into that category. This was fortunate, as they were just the right type of demographic for this show.

Mike Raffone (yep) is an experienced street performer and entertainer, with Brain Rinse being his first full-length one man show. The (fairly thin) premise is that he, a Northern ninja, is going to train us, the audience, to discover our inner ninjas also, via a journey through our minds: not a brain wash, you understand, just a light rinse. The whole “ninja” thing – the costume, the faux martial arts, the faux Japanesey war cries – was extremely cringey, in more ways than perhaps intended, but thankfully he wasn’t the only character: we also encountered an Army sergeant, a mountaineer, and a sex cult guru, thanks to some comically awkward costume changes behind a screen.

This is a show which relies heavily on asking the audience to come onstage and embarrass themselves in a range of ways. These include, but are not limited to: star jumps, pushups, pulling an “orgasm face”, being a “man mountain” which Raffone would then “mount” and conquer, “tantric French kissing” (no touching but lots of tongue), reciting Shakespeare, and much much more. The comedy is that old classic – laugh at a man doing silly things, then laugh at him making your unprepared friends do other silly things in front of an audience. And at time, it absolutely works! Some audience participants were terrified, others were good-natured and goofy, some even return some light fire, and one even discovered within herself an unexpected flair for performance (shout-out to Dawn!!). The hardest laugh for me was not at any of Raffone’s jokes, or even any of the victims’ actual stunts, but at the soft and helpless “oh, no” uttered by a hapless audience member as he realised that he was the next to be picked on.

This is entry-level theatre, entry-level interactive comedy, designed – much like street theatre – for your average Joe Bloggs who will be reliably intimidated by audience interaction, not too bothered by political correctness, and likely to dissolve into nervous laughter. I would not recommend this show to seasoned comedy or cabaret punters, as they may run the risk of undercutting some of Raffone’s jokes by being too comfortable taking part, and nor would I recommend it to those who may be made seriously uncomfortable by innuendo-laden personal space invasion (I can’t say I overly enjoyed having to have “tantric intercourse” with an older, male, audience member… even though there was no actual touching, we were instructed to go at it with thrusting motions towards the crotch accompanied by loud grunts, not something everyone wants to do with a complete stranger). However, if you’ve never strayed much into the cabaret/interactive theatre/comedy genre and fancy some silly fun with your friends (and yes, you can dob them in to be picked on), this show could be a good place to start.

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Don’t Panic! It’s Challenge Anneka, on the button @ The Bunker

29 May – 9 June 2018
Devised and performed by Sophie Winter
Directed and co-devised by Ben Hadley

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Sophie Winter as Anneka Rice (photo courtesy of Paul Aitchison)

I am a woman with anxiety on my way to see a show about a woman with anxiety, when I realise that I have put the coordinates for the wrong theatre into Citymapper and now have to power walk one kilometre to the correct one. Not a great start. I arrive sweaty and red, puffing and panting, five minutes after the performance has begun, trying to kid myself that arriving to this show in a state of high anxiety is basically just a Stanislavski-esque reviewing technique.

However, as soon as I am calmly and forgivingly ushered into the dark subterranean space of the Bunker Theatre, my heartbeat starts to return to normal. The performer is wearing a bright blonde wig, a terrible 80s puffer jacket, a bum bag, and a welcoming smile. The stage is empty except for a large cartoonish old-style TV, a big rug with rainbow stripes reminiscent of TV colours bars, and a mound of cushions in cheerful colours. There is a nice comfy cushion on my seat. This feels like a safe space – I am reminded strongly of my kindergarten teacher’s classroom.

I have done some basic googling on my way to the theatre, so I know that Challenge Anneka was a TV series from 1989-95 (with a brief 2006-7 reboot) starring Anneka Rice, who completed – on camera – charitable projects in a very short timeframe. This woman in front of me looks like an approximation of that blonde, confident, almost manically capable woman. Her challenge today? To cure the anxiety of one of her biggest fans, Holly. Over the course of this challenge, we meet a wide variety of characters (all portrayed by versatile comedian Sophie Winters), both onscreen and onstage (I loved the various dialogues between a character onstage and another onscreen, which must have been tricky to memorise and get to the point where they were natural, well-timed, and comedic!). A number of methods for tackling anxiety are floated by various characters encountered – from yoga to facing your fears to having sex to Zoloft – and Anneka and Holly delve into her experience of anxiety, its symptoms, causes, and effects. There is light audience interaction, and I am required to give up my cushion in order to help Holly move house, but I don’t mind. A man offers Holly gummy bears while she’s having a panic attack, and I am strongly reminded of Tom Baker’s Doctor. But that’s not really relevant to this review.

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Sophie Winter as Holly (photo courtesy of Paul Aitchison)

For the most part, Don’t Panic! It’s Challenge Anneka is light, playful, and feels like an educational children’s show, with just enough of a wink-wink self-awareness to make its silly premise work. The audience is never the butt of any jokes, and when Holly is, it’s clear that we are laughing with her and not at her, or her anxiety, which is important. However, there are times when it strays into more serious territory: the moments when Holly has a panic attack on the Tube, and another while a UCL scientist gives us a lecture on neuroscience, for example. The blurred vision, multiple conflicting intrusive thoughts, heavy breathing, and descriptions of claustrophobia and nausea hit a little too close to home for me, but thankfully weren’t taken too far for my limits. It helped that throughout, Winters was (in character) only ever kind, empathetic, and understanding to her audience and any sufferers of anxiety. The final resolution was, as admitted by the temporarily character-less narrator, not very dramatically satisfying, but it was realistically, cautiously optimistic about life with anxiety. A special video cameo at the end hit the perfect final note and left the show feeling balanced and well concluded.

My only criticisms of this performance would be the following: 1) It sometimes meandered a little, and could have done with more narrative tension or structure – perhaps something as simple as a checklist of “tasks” Anneka would complete? Or a countdown, to mimic the original TV series? 2) For sufferers of stronger anxiety than mine, some of the themes and staging decisions could be somewhat confronting and/or triggering – if a warning to that effect was in place, I might have missed it in my late rush, but one was probably necessary. 3) The descriptions of anxiety were very basic-level and at times reductive; I realise that this show was intended as Learning About Anxiety 101, but some discussions about the different types of anxieties, the history of the disorder, and social causes (rather than just neurological) would have been welcome to make the show a little more interesting and thought-provoking for those more familiar with the topic.

On balance, this show was a well-researched, sensitively crafted, gently humorous, and simply a kind exploration of what it’s like to live with anxiety. I would especially recommend it for older children and young adults, those who are just starting to wonder if they might have anxiety, and anyone who has a friend or loved one with anxiety and who wants to learn more about their experiences. Tackling anxiety is certainly a challenge, but just like Anneka, you don’t have to do it alone.

Tickets

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