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!

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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.

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Into the Woods @ The Cockpit

All Star Productions and Trilby Productions
Written by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Tim McArthur
23 May – 24 June 2018

For those who don’t know it, Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical is a crossover fairytale saga which is more Grimm than Disney, following an ensemble cast including Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack (of beanstalk fame), Little Red Riding Hood, and a baker and his wife who are determined to lift a witch’s curse and have a child. All these characters’ quests take them into the woods, where they cross paths and purposes, and by the end of the first act, all the storylines are resolved more or less as you’d expect. But the second act takes us beyond Happily Ever After and into somewhere darker…

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Ensemble (photo credit: David Ovenden)

This was the third or fourth production I’ve seen of Into the Woods, and right from the moment my eyes adjusted to the initial gloom of the stage space, I saw that this one would be different. Most productions use a normal proscenium arch stage, with classic panto-style fairytale backdrop, and old-timey Disney-esque costumes. Not so with this production. The Cockpit stage is theatre in the round, with the audience seated in ascending rows on four sides (the front row shares the floor with the characters, which feels very immersive but which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend, as I was in constant fear of tripping the actors up, and got a bit of a strained neck from the awkward viewing angle also. I moved back a row at interval). The floor is covered in wood chip – I was constantly in awe of the Cinderella-story ladies’ abilities to walk and dance over such tricky terrain in towering heels – and the set pieces are constructed from rough wooden scaffolding (into the wood? hehe).

The costumes, however, are the biggest change, taking the fairytale characters and tropes and plonking them right into the 21st century. Apparently inspiration was taken from a number of British reality TV shows, but as an ignorant recent immigrant, I’ve never watched a minute of TOWIE or Made in Chelsea or any of the others; as such, a lot of the cultural references were lost on me. However, the basic archetypes were quite easy to recognise: the chavvy teenaged mum (Glaswegian accent as subtle as her hot pink thong), the husband-hunting Real Wives of Stepfamily, the bag lady witch, the ‘yahing’ public schoolboys, etc etc. I was quite surprised at how well a lot of these modernisations worked, and the extra layer of meaning they added to certain characterisations, especially Jack’s and his mother’s – but in other cases, such as drug-snorting Rapunzel, it felt at times gimmicky and inconsistent instead. In any case, the modernisation certainly didn’t take anything away from the performance, and sometimes added to it, so while it didn’t blow me away, overall it paid off.

In some ways, however, this production of Into the Woods was similar to others, most notably the way in which it begins to drag along in the second act. The actors seemed to feel this too, as after a shining first act, they seemed to suffer a marked slump in energy and chemistry for the second; this is perhaps to be expected for the first Saturday in a month-long run, but unfortunate nonetheless. Sound issues cropped now and then, and when the Giantess’ voice made its debut, un-miked, I thought at first that this was another technical problem – however, as it persisted throughout the act, I realised that this must have been a deliberate choice, perhaps trying for the illusion of distance and therefore height? Unfortunately, it only made her sound confusingly small. As for the other characters, their caricature-like acting which had been employed to great effect in the first act didn’t manage to harness the pathos and emotion of the second act, so that the string of tragedies and heartbreak felt somewhat by-the-numbers and flat.

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Michele Moran as the Witch (photo credit: David Ovenden)

Criticism aside, there was a lot to love about this production as well. Overall, the production qualities were extremely high, including the live band, the sound and visual effects, and the contrasting aesthetics of the heightened realism costuming, minimalistic symbolic props, and Joana Dias’ excellent set design. This last was beautiful in its rough simplicity, a standout moment being when the Witch climbed a ladder which lit up in fairy(tale) lights in time with her steps and the music. Speaking of Michele Moran’s Witch, she was excellent, both in her shuffling creepy form and glamorous haughty reincarnation. Her Irish accent tied in well with her Celtic-esque costume design (gotta love a good torc), and her swan song hit all the right notes including unhinged, vulnerable, desperate, reckless, and downright scary. The standout performance, however, was from Abigail Carter-Simpson’s Cinderella, with her soaring voice, beat-perfect comedic acting, and heights and depths of emotion.

The rest of the cast had a mix of strengths and weaknesses: Jack’s mother was at times a little one-note, but that note was wonderfully bolshy; the Princes hadn’t the strongest voices but didn’t need them to be hilarious; the Baker’s Wife tended to misjudge her comic timing but got us deeply invested in her through pure likability; Red and Jack were endearing but perhaps not entirely convincing children; Rapunzel and her gorgeous voice were somewhat short-changed by the unconvincing character arc (I loved her final moments sitting cross-legged on stage with a beautifully wistful smile); the Narrator suffered in the modernisation of the play, losing his point of difference, but was still very compelling with his wide-eyed wonder and earnest investment; supporting characters Steward, Stepmother, Stepsisters, Grandmother, and Old Man were all strong, and as a result felt somewhat underutilised. Director Tim McArthur was thoroughly eclipsed in his role as the Baker by the rest of his cast, however we have him to thank for the production’s vision and, I gather, its outstanding choreography.

Overall, this production of Into the Woods is fresh and fun, particularly in the crackling first act. The second failed to pack as much oomph, but I do suspect I just caught them on a bad night. If you are a fan of Sondheim, fairytales, or just musical theatre in general, I would encourage you to check this production out before its run ends.

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Adam & Eve, Broken Silence Theatre @ The Hope Theatre

Writer: Tim Cook
Director: Jennifer Davis
22 May – 9 June 2018

I walked out of this play feeling quite sure that I had seen some very affecting and high-quality theatre, but unsure what it had meant. ‘How many stars will you give it?’ asked my companion. ‘Four, I think, maybe four and a half,’ was my reply, ‘I just have to do some processing – figure out what its message was.’ On the Tube home we spent as much time discussing this play as we had watching it, and by the time I walked in my front door, my feelings towards it had completely changed. I’d realised some things.

Perhaps appropriately, this is much the same way that the play’s plot progresses. (It is going to be extremely difficult to review and discuss Adam & Eve without spoiling its ending or at least hinting at it, so maybe you should stop reading now if you want to maintain your ignorance in that respect.) Adam and Eve have recently moved to the country, where they have bought a house and gotten right down to the business of baby-making. Everything seems to be going ideally until Adam – a high school English teacher – is accused of having a sexual relationship with one of his students, a precocious, pretty teen called Nikki. For the most part, we follow Eve as she struggles to come to terms with this hammer blow that takes apart her happily domestic life, and as she tries to ascertain the truth. Are these allegations against Adam true? Partially true? Totally false? If false, why is Nikki making them? We see all three characters run a gamut of emotions and relationships throughout the space of the play, and their actors (Lee Knight and Jeannie Dickinson as the titular couple, with Melissa Parker joining them as Nikki) absolutely shine throughout. They build vibrant, entertaining, believable, flawed, and ultimately very human characters, with just the right touch of pathos at the right moments. Dickinson, in particular, creates an Eve who is both intelligent and naïve, capable and vulnerable, who stands up for herself yet clearly longs for affection and security. Watching her heart break throughout the play broke mine along the way.

The staging is minimalistic (a typically small and basic pub theatre room, capacity 50), with the audience forming the four sides of this theatre in the round/square – one row of audience seating is a church pew, a nice tie-in to the play’s theme of marriage. The only items on stage are two chairs, and basic props sometimes carried by the characters, such as an iPad, toothbrush, notepad, etc. Hovering above the stage space is a light installation, a cloud made of what looks like white wedding serviettes, which is illuminated in various different colours throughout the play. Yet despite the lack of setting markers, there is never any doubt where a scene takes place, and the plot, acting, and the quality of the dialogue is enough to make the sparsity of the stage space melt away into irrelevance. The pacing is excellent, the dialogue crackles, the story sucks you in, the characters are compelling, none of that is the problem.

The problem is that hidden under the well written play and all that high quality is an argument that is unethical, ugly, and regressive.

Again, I don’t want to spoil the ending, but let’s just say that in this play, Adam and Eve’s Eden is a happy, traditional, heteronormative marriage, with a mortgage and a baby on the way, and Eve ruins this by taking the poisoned apple offered up by an Old Nick who is effectively a strawman for a sort of vicious, misandrist hyperbole of third wave feminism. This play is inextricably enmeshed in the current climate of #MeToo and sexual abuse, but instead of punching up at the abusers, it is punching down at the survivors. It laces in all the arguments of ‘maybe the men who are accused are the real victims’, and ‘women have total power to ruin a man’s life with a nothing but a single accusation’ (which is statistically untrue, and even within the plot of this play I found it hard to suspend my disbelief there is chance authorities would have taken Nikki seriously given the paucity of hard evidence – but I digress), and ‘we can never know what the truth is when it’s her word against his, so it would be wrong to punish him’.

Not that any of this is particularly obvious – the irony is that this play is better at gaslighting and manipulation than any of its characters. All these messages are insidiously couched in a mimicry of #MeToo and third-wave feminist rhetoric, which is then undercut and subverted into the polar opposite.

It’s a well done play, but rehashing the story of the Fall of Man with no changes to the gender dynamics, except to portray the devil as a young woman, is not fresh or original. A story where women are either weak and fallible or scheming home-wreckers who use their sexual attraction to manipulate and punish men is not original. Even this story’s twist and the characters’ names are not original – they are almost identical to those of The Shape of Things by Neil Labute. The parallels to Jane Eyre would have been a nice touch had they not been manipulated to push an agenda less progressive than the novel written hundreds of years ago. So despite the excellent acting, production values, and overall quality of Adam & Eve, I cannot give it four and a half stars that all these things merit; but neither will I let my overall rating be wholly determined by my moral objections to the play’s values and lack of originality.

You’ll have to be satisfied with a solid three.

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How To Survive A Post-Truth Apocalypse @ Battersea Arts Centre

Written and performed by Francesca Beard
17th to 19th May, 2018, then touring the UK

Francesca Beard is not a shaman, or a storyteller, or a hero; she is a poet, and she is a liar.

Post-Truth Apocalypse 03 credit Claire Haigh_preview

Images courtesy of Claire Haigh

I tend to go into shows with no preconceptions or expectations. I’d like to pretend that this is a conscious decision with the aim of maintaining my unbiased integrity as a reviewer, but honestly? I’m usually just too lazy to do any research beforehand. Whew, that was an exercise in truth-telling – as is much of this one-woman show which is currently wending its way throughout the UK. Anyway, as I was saying, I didn’t know what I was expecting to happen when the show started, but it certainly wasn’t for a woman wearing an explorer’s jumpsuit and felt goggles to dramatically emerge, shrouded in smoke and lights, booming ominous/prophetic/cultish mumbo jumbo… And then to undercut all this by shrugging off the mask and awkwardly introducing herself with a goofy smile as Francesca, our guide.

This mix of high melodrama and mild self-deprecation, serious introspection and gentle meta-humour, came to define much of this 70-minute show. It was evident in the aural landscape we travelled through, which ranged from exquisite soundscapes (think birdsong and wind chimes) to freakish otherworldly laughter to an out-of-tune ditty about awkward/nasty truths. It was evident in the dramatic contrast between the slick projection art which set the magical scene, and the gaudy, tacky props and costumes worn by creatures who inhabited this land (press-ganged audience members). It was evident when Beard guided us from (intentionally) lame gags into raw spoken-word poetry about loneliness and reckless behaviour bordering on self-harm. In an echo of its theme, the production moved from fiction to reality and through the grey spaces inbetween; it was a lot to navigate on the meagre rations of a single goji berry.

The supposed plot of this piece was that we were on a heroes’ journey to find The Truth to save humanity from the post-truth era we find ourselves in. Less political commentary and more faux-fantasy saga, we trekked through the Forests of Desire, the Obsidian Cliffs, the Lava Mountain (?) and a number of similarly named locations. Each one required us adventurers to pass a test, complete a ritual, or reenact a myth. With the help of her Shaman Manual (not sure why Shamanual wasn’t punned, but oh well), various props and scrolls, and some of the braver front-row audience members, we finally made our way to the Oracles of Truth, on a journey which sometimes lagged and foundered, but was mainly quite enjoyable. I won’t reveal what we found there – you’ll have to go on your own post-truth odyssey.

Post-Truth Apocalypse 01 credit Claire Haigh_preview

Images courtesy of Claire Haigh

The strengths of this production lay in Beard’s endearing charm, the lovely set design (dual projectors shining through haze, Pixar-esque anthropomorphic lamps crowded around artifacts, love poetry comically dropping from the ceiling on a string), and the audience interaction, which was always inclusive without being pushy or intimidating, funny and bantery without ever being mocking or disrespectful. Beard touched on some interesting concepts around the topic of truth and artifice, but never really teased out any viewpoints which were particularly complex or original, and the substance suffered from a lack of specificity or subtlety. Despite (or perhaps because of) the through-thread of the Quest plot, many segments of spoken-word poetry or musing stream of thought seemed disjointed, as if they didn’t really belong, like the adolescent Francesca at her boarding school. That said, the spoken word poetry was clearly the artistic heart of this project, and it provoked images and emotions which stirred and shone in my mind.

How To Survive A Post-Truth Apocalypse didn’t leave me feeling any better equipped to deal with a world of fake news, or even sure whether lies are a good or bad thing (good? I think? Sometimes? Depends if you’re Hitler or going on a first date?), but it provided me with some gorgeous mental and visual imagery, and over an hour of gentle entertainment which made me smile but not laugh, sigh but not weep, and check my watch but only once or twice. In a theatre climate which is full of very dense, challenging, depressing, and at times pretentious art, it was nice to see something light, self-aware, and kind-hearted for a change. Believe me.

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Grotty, Damsel Productions @ The Bunker

1 – 26 May 2018
By Izzy Tennyson
Directed by Hannah Hauer-King

Grotty, The Bunker - Courtesy of The Other Richard (4) Rebekah Hinds, Izzy Tennyson and Anita-Joy UwaJeh.jpg

Rebekah Hinds, Izzy Tennyson, and Anita-Joy Uwajah in Grotty. Images courtesy of The Other Richard

Grotty is a semi-autobiographical work by Izzy Tennyson (who also plays the lead role as a younger, fictionalised version of herself, “Rigby”).

Rigby is socially awkward, depressed, anxious, indecisive, sometimes nasty, insecure, superficial, and annoying; she has problems with drugs, alcohol, sex, her relationships, self-image, family, and existentialism; she lies to, manipulates, and displays an enormous lack of respect for herself and everyone else on the planet. All of this is entirely self-aware, but that doesn’t always make it more palatable. Tennyson plays her character to be “grotesque”, with an over-exaggerated hunch, screwed-up face, jutting lower jaw, messy hair, scowl, open mouth, and twisting hands. She speaks so fast that I could barely understand her. She doesn’t seem to display any sort of character development throughout the period of the play, despite coming oh-so-close at the end to admitting to her therapist that all her problems are of her own making. She is constantly slagging off everyone around her, but reserves some of the worst bitterness as ammunition against herself.

There is a moment when Rigby, in conversation with her straight friend Kate, dismisses the suggestion that she find herself a “nice girl” by asserting that nice lesbians don’t exist (echoing her friend Josie’s declaration that “women are bitches, mate”). Kate responds, straight-faced (sorry), with “that’s a bit homophobic, Rigby.” Cue a comedic pause as Rigby raises her eyebrows at the audience – the punchline, of course, is I’m the lesbian here, I can’t be homophobic! The thing is, Kate was absolutely on the money.  Women can be misogynistic (most characters in this all-woman cast are), people defying gender norms can still reinforce them (every lesbian character’s cruelty about Toad’s weight), and members of the LGBTQ community can still be transphobic, biphobic, or homophobic (Rigby and her lovers/friends are all of these!). I know, I know, these are not “nice girls” and the criticism of their behaviours and opinions is implicit in the tone of the play, but when subtle digs like these are woven throughout the play and never really criticised, let alone outright condemned, it normalises it.

In one particularly sickening scene, Rigby and Josie effectively date-rape a “bicurious” Russian woman. This is an act which is admittedly not portrayed sympathetically, but Rigby shows no regret or guilt about it, it has no repercussions, and is never alluded to again. This was merely the most violent manifestation of a through-thread of vitriol towards bisexual women, described variously as attention-seeking, “fucking scum”, and “breeders”, who don’t belong in queer spaces, which should be “safe” for gold-star lesbians. As I said, I realise that this entire play was intended to be a portrayal of the human tendency to respond to disenfranchisement by paying the cruelty forward, but as a bisexual woman in what I had thought would be a queer safe space, I felt betrayed and alienated. Although I am a firm believer that comedy should always punch up, I could perhaps forgive a play that punches inwards – as Grotty mainly tends to – but punching down, or sideways, while you’re at it? I’m not so sure.

To give the play its due, there were some moments which were genuinely insightful and powerful. These included when Rigby reveals that she was assessed as being ineligible for Phase 2 of NHS mental health treatment (“suicidal but not suicidal enough… Next time, I’ll come back in a body bag!”), the observations that the lesbian community is relegated to the fringes of queer society by the louder, more flamboyant gay men and drag queens scene, and the guilt Rigby feels at being selfishly glad that her mother with cancer had been taken to hospital and was no longer in the house. Tennyson’s writing is beautiful stylistically, revealing her spoken word poetry background and a knack for making her audience laugh. The problem was, the play touched on so many complex and heavy topics – mental health, grief, love, sex, sexuality, gender roles, inter-generational conflict, addiction, trauma, etc etc – that it could not do proper justice to any of them. As a result, it felt thematically both crowded and overwhelmingly negative.

The cast of supporting members – in particular Rebekah Hinds (Toad/Kate), Grace Chilton (Witch/Elliot), and Anita-Joy Uwajeh (Natty/Josie) – shone in their various and varied roles. Often on the peripherals of the stage, seated in armchairs positioned amongst the front rows of the audience, they played Rigby’s memories of characters rather than the actual characters herself, summoned from the periphery of her consciousness when narrative required it. The contrast between the characters of Witch (older, abusive, psychopathic, fetishist) and Elliot (young, vulnerable, insecure, questioning her sexuality) meant that Chilton in particular had the opportunity to display her versatility. I was especially impressed by the variation in her vocal tones – as Witch, her voice was lower, more clipped, flatter, and almost robotic, even in the scene in which she revealed her one emotional weakness (superbly done – this character was such an unambiguous, almost cartoonish villain, and yet I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her in this monologue), whereas Elliot was oozing hurt and desperation for love with every awkward word she said.

Grotty, The Bunker - Courtesy of The Other Richard (7) Grace Chilton and Izzy Tennyson.jpg

Grace Chilton as Elliot and Izzy Tennyson as Rigby. Images courtesy of The Other Richard.

I cannot fault Hauer-King’s direction of this piece, and her use of the unique stage space that is The Bunker. Characters make use of every inch of available space, as well as backstage, so that the performance bleeds into the audience, feeling raw and immediate. The set and props are minimalistic – nine black boxes which can be manoeuvered into a bed, a table and chairs, a dancefloor, and much more, as well as a bench at the back of the stage resting against a jumble of mirrors, representing the fractured nature of Rigby’s world. Props are used sparingly and suggestively – there is a hat, a dog collar, a ball gag, a blanket, a number of plastic cups, some white powder, and not much more. The economy of materials means that each item is used to great effect, and nothing onstage is unnecessary or distracting.

Damsel Productions are, according to the programme, committed to “the crucial movement addressing both the misrepresentation and under-representation of women in theatre”. Ultimately, increasing the amount of (stage)space given to women in the industry can only be a good thing, as can widening the sorts of roles and narratives which women are able to portray. Women in theatre should be able to be not just beautiful or strong or likeable, but also messy, nasty, dysfunctional, ugly, grotesque, annoying, rude, and every other point on the human spectrum. It is absolutely possible to write an unsympathetic, repellent female character in a play that is also insightful, clever, affecting, or funny. However, Grotty feels like it aimed for shock factor rather than anything meaningful, and unfortunately, being edgy is not the same as being deep.

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The Bekkrell Effect, Groupe Bekkrell @ Roundhouse

Images courtesy of Massao Mascaro

When I saw the description of this show – French riot-grrrl feminist circus with an all-female cast, inspired by punk and nuclear physics – I had already decided that I was going to love it. Further cementing my confidence that this would be a wonderful night was the fact that I greatly enjoyed the last Circus Fest show I saw at the Roundhouse, RUHM. However, as much as I wanted to love this show, I ultimately left feeling underwhelmed.

The first act was slow to warm up, and consisted mainly of the four performers marching around the stage in stuffy tweed business suits. Parody of masculinity was quickly established as a running theme for the show, with the performers acting out displays of machismo, violence, and dominance with props such as swinging pulleys for genitals (pictured below) and mouthguards to transform their speech into ape-like grunting. The second act was the most interesting, as it contained the most of the show’s actual circussy, acrobatic elements, making creative and often slapstick use of a teeterboard, pole, tightrope, and simple yet effective pulley rope system. The small child in the row behind me giggled his way through this act, which is exactly the delighted response such clowning ought to elicit. However, he was very silent in the third act, which was much more abstract and conceptual, and included moments such as all four performers gathered around a hanging noose-like rope, asking it apparently nonsensical existential questions. The disjointed chaos of this act meant that it tended to drag, and I could feel my own attention wavering at around the same time that the child behind started getting restless and fidgety.

Images courtesy of Massao Mascaro

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the feminist theory behind this show. Circus is one of the performing arts in which roles for women are still sadly limited and one-note, usually centred around graceful, beautiful feats of aerial acrobatics, and featuring petite, pretty women in tight if not outright provocative costume, whereas their male counterparts get the lion’s share of clowning and comedic roles. Seeing Groupe Bekkrell take a stand against this was wonderful. When one performer had a very no-nonsense costume change onstage (no sensual stripping, just completely utilitarian clothes removal and replacement), a male audience member in the front row had the gall to wolf-whistle her; she and her stagemates whipped their heads around to glare at the offender and if looks could kill… In any case, he didn’t do it twice. The acrobatic feats the performers engaged in were similarly desexualised, and it was refreshing to see the women displaying their impressive physical skills without any veneer of performance for the male gaze.

However, the problem was that the show needed to do more than just challenge gender roles to be entertaining, and unfortunately it just didn’t have the substance necessary. We caught glimpses of the performers’ formidable acrobatic skills, but I couldn’t help but feel that they were holding back from properly exhibiting these talents or challenging themselves (and us) in any way except perhaps intellectually. It was too niche and conceptually obscure for a huge, classic circus venue such as the Roundhouse. And I didn’t see much evidence of the promised punk or radioactivity.

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