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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tickets

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Previous review: Cuckoo by Lisa Carroll @ Soho Theatre

REVIEW! Cuckoo by Lisa Carroll @ Soho Theatre

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

Presented by Metal Rabbit Productions
13 November – 8 December 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tickets

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

REVIEW! Chutney, Flux Theatre @ The Bunker

Writer: Reece Connolly
Producers: Flux Theatre & Zoe Weldon

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

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Images ©Rah Petherbridge Photography

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

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

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

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Images ©Rah Petherbridge Photography

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

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

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

Tickets

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Previous review: Mirabel by Chris Goode @ Ovalhouse

REVIEW! Mirabel by Chris Goode @ Ovalhouse Theatre

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

 

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Images courtesy of The Other Richard

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

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

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

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Images courtesy of The Other Richard

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

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

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

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

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Image courtesy of Robert Workman

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

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

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Image courtesy of Robert Workman

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

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

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

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Image courtesy of Robert Workman

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

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

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Previous review: The Full Bronte @ The Space

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

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

The Full Bronte Production 1

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

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

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

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

Reader, I loved it!

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The Distance You Have Come by Scott Alan @ The Cockpit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit…* @ Finborough Theatre

Written by Halley Feiffer
Directed by Bethany Pitts
Featuring Cara Chase, Robert Crouch, Cariad Lloyd, and Kristin Milward.
Presented by Arsalan Sattari Productions in association with Neil McPherson
Tuesday, 2 October – Saturday, 27 October 2018

*Okay, so the full title of this piece was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City, but that made this post title far too long!
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Set design by Isabella Van Braeckel. Photo by James O Jenkins

My experience of the pub theatre scene in London has spanned an eclectic mix of plays, from tried-and-true classics to material still in the rough work-in-progress stages, from the clever to the dumb, high calibre to low. A Funny Thing… was easily the highest quality piece of theatre I’ve seen in this range.

From the moment the plasticky pastel green divider curtains are pulled aside to reveal an excellently-executed hospital ward, complete with two patients who remain slumbering in their identical beds throughout the majority of the play. Isabella Van Braeckel is to be commended on her flawless set design, which is not only hyper-convincing but also features wonderfully sardonic touches such as the winkingly vaginal abstract artworks on the walls.

As the play starts to develop, however, the dialogue is quickly revealed to be less convincing and realistic than the set. Characters Karla and Don meet in the gynecologic oncology unit where they are both visiting their (probably) dying mothers; she is a young, foul-mouthed millenial who works as a stand-up comedian, and he is an awkward middle-aged slob with an unstable temperament. Their initial interaction is explosively confrontational, and the following 180-pivot of their their relationship also beggars belief, particularly since a lack of onstage chemistry makes it feel somewhat forced. As the characters rush to bare the crevices of their minds in all their filth and generosity, I couldn’t help feeling a slight British distaste for what seemed like a very American type of candid emotional display, with all the subtlety and hidden meaning of a sledgehammer.

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Kristin Milward as Marcie. Photo by James O Jenkins

That said, as the play progressed and it became clear that it was to be a sustained artistic and thematic choice, this brutal honesty and unflinching examination of its characters’ psyches grew on me. The three individuals of Don, Karla, and her mother Marcie are revealed to be riddled with flaws, yet each has their own vulnerability, inner strength, and moments of shining kindness. Each grows as a person during the course of the play, and learns to form stronger, healthier connections with those around them. And along the way, they are harshly hilarious – particularly Kristin Milward as Marcie, who managed to steal scenes despite being confined to a bed and drip and, largely, unconscious. For every snarky burn or crass joke, there is a witty observation, a crackle of deliciously dark humour, or a burst of shared joy, and it is in these moments that the play is at its strongest.

My enjoyment of this clever comedy was only slightly marred by a sprinkling of unnecessary shock-value jokes; for the most part, the play was “edgy” in a good way, but it did occasionally cross the line into ableism or homophobia which didn’t add anything to the value of the play. Although these cracks detracted slightly from the moral weight of the play, they can at least be partially justified by the fact that none of its characters are, especially at the beginning, particularly good people.

Overall, A Funny Thing is an excellent, funny, poignant new piece of dark comedy and social commentary from American playwright Halley Feiffer. I felt buoyed by every shameless celebration of female sexuality and masculine vulnerability, and touched by the emotional rawness of these complicated relationships. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart… but in the end, for a show that is largely about death, disease, and dissatisfaction with life, there is a remarkable amount of cautious optimism and love woven in.

Tickets.

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Cariad Lloyd and Robert Crouch as Karla and Don. Photo by James O Jenkins

I Will Miss You When You’re Gone, Starbound Theatre @ Hen & Chickens Theatre

Written by Jessica Moss
Directed by Yuqun Fan
Produced by Rebecca Dilg
Performed by Paulina Brahm, Marta da Silva, Sharon Drain, and Tammie Rhee
18 – 29 September 2018

Petra Eujane Photography - Marta da Silva, Tammie Rhee, Paulina Brahm (1)

Rehearsal image by Petra Eujane

I Will Miss You When You’re Gone is a new play written by Canadian playwright Jessica Moss. Starring four women and a roomba, this 75-minute piece follows two living characters, Robin and Celeste, who are being haunted by their erstwhile colleague Evelyn and Celeste’s mother Theresa – but not necessarily in that order. A comedy which is alternately dark and sweet, this play explores such heavy topics as suicide, grief, depression, anxiety, isolation, and workplace bullying.

As is usual in pub theatre, the set was small and simple, which worked well for this intimate and personal story, and increased the effectiveness of artistic touches such as the costuming of living characters in sterile white but dead ones in vibrant colours. The soft Canadian accents and quips about Toronto made for a refreshing change of setting. However, the heavily 60s-styled costumes contrasting with references to BuzzFeed and Game of Thrones threw me somewhat. Similarly distracting were the frequent scene changes – often abrupt, awkward, and graceless, with very little in the way of transition. This could have easily been alleviated by simple use of sound, lighting, and/or movement, and is something that director Yuqun Fan should remedy for future productions.

The highlight of this show is definitely its excellent cast. Marta da Silva as Evelyn was the standout performance, channeling a fierce Gina Linetti vibe and juggling both pathos and comedic snark. Tammie Rhee was also excellent as the bureaucratic boss Robin, and Sharon Drain brought a wonderfully warm presence to the stage as mother Theresa. Although not as strong as her castmates, Paulina Brahm provided a relatable character for a millennial audience in the form of Celeste, an underachieving, under-confident intern struggling to cope with adult life. I was, however, confused by whether this character was supposed to be developmentally delayed or not; her ineptitude, naivete, and lack of social abilities was regularly the butt of jokes, but Celeste herself angrily protests at one point that she’s “not retarded”. This casual throwaway use of a slur seemed at odds with a story about treating others with empathy, and being sensitive to issues of mental illness.

Petra Eujane Photography - Sharon Drain, Paulina Brahm

Rehearsal image by Petra Eujane

Overall, I Will Miss You When You’re Gone felt like a 75-minute riff on an interesting concept which wasn’t really developed enough to carry the length of the show. As a result, too many complex themes were introduced superficially as filler material, while plot holes and questions of world-building were left unanswered. However, this and the weak characterisation of the play’s central character were leavened somewhat by the excellent performances and compelling arcs of its supporting figures, as well as a number of clever gags. With some rewriting, condensing, and slicker directing, this show could be a very effective and enjoyable Fringe-sized piece.

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Shift, Barely Methodical Troupe @ Underbelly Circus Hub

Directed and devised by Melissa Ellberger, Ella Robson Guilfoyle and the Cast
Performed by Louis Gift, Esmeralda Nikolajeff, Elihu Vazquez, and Charlie Wheeller​
Produced by ​​Di Robson​
4 – 25 August at Underbelly Circus Hub, Edinburgh

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Shift – courtesy of Gregory Batardon

Shift by Barely Methodical Troupe is categorised on the Edinburgh Fringe website as “dance/physical theatre/circus”, which I initially thought must have meant that all shows of those genres were being lumped together – however, as it turns out, Shift really did deserve equal claim to all those descriptors!

The four performers bounded around the stage with an energy of absolute exuberance, interacting like playful siblings, completely comfortable with their own bodies and each others’. There was only a minimal amount of dialogue, mainly in the form of light banter with the audience, in an informal style which added to the intimate atmosphere. Moments when the playful, comedic mood was dropped included a beautiful routine accompanied by haunting singing from Esmeralda Nikolajeff in her native Swedish (I assume), and a dream-like sequence with the gigantic (and distractingly handsome) Louis Gift delivering a hypnotising spoken-word parable whilst his castmates clambered over his body. Lighting and reverberant soudscapes accentuated performances without distracting from them, and the few tools involved – mainly rubber resistance bands and a Cyr Wheel – were similarly woven into the show in a way that felt like they were just accessories to the central feature: the performers’ astounding athletic, acrobatic skills.

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Shift – courtesy of Gregory Batardon

Each cast member showed off their own particular skill set to great effect: Elihu Vazquez performed break dancing as if he had electric currents running through his veins, and Charlie Wheeller effortlessly handled the Cyr Wheel like it was a perfectly-trained circus animal. However, the most compelling acts were certainly those featuring the partnership of Nikolajeff and Gift; their big-brother-little-sister chemistry and gentle physical comedy were absolutely charming, as they performed breathtaking feats and subverted expectations of their respective roles (Nikolajeff may be petite, but it turns out she’s probably stronger than most burly men twice her size!).

My only minor criticism would be that the various components of the piece didn’t always tie in with each other intuitively, or segue smoothly from one to the next. Unfortunately, it was these ragged tonal shifts which were the weak point of Shift, and the only times when it lost momentum. However, overall this was a beautiful, magical performance which I am positive held every audience member spellbound for its duration, from the little girls in pigtails in the front row to the elderly couple sitting beside me. I hope I can catch the next performance from Barely Methodical Troupe, as whatever it might be, I am confident I will love it too.

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