REVIEW! Summer Street: The Hilarious Aussie Soap Opera Musical @ Waterloo East Theatre

Created and directed by Andrew Norris
Set design by Amy Mitchell
Performed by Julie Clare, Simon Snashall, Myke Cotton, and Sarah-Louise Young
13 May – 2 June, 2019

Writing a new musical is a very difficult and brave thing to do. Concept, story, script, libretto, music; all are essential to the creation of a new smash hit such as any budding creative would hope to add to their resumé. Summer Street is a new tilt at those windmills, robing itself in the campy, melodramatic world of the Australian soap-opera glory days of the 1990s to spin a story about love, obsession, addiction and betrayal; pretty much the topics you’d expect, really.

Summer Street is a deeply self-aware and self-deprecating portrayal of a world that never really existed. The writer’s self-professed obsession with Australian soaps oozes out of every second of the production, and though the Australian-ness of the show is little more than aesthetic, to quote a true Australian classic, “it’s the vibe of it” that sells the theme, grounded in a uniquely British view of Australia dominated by sunny days, washboard abs and optimistic alcoholism.

The world of Summer Street is brought to life by a tight cast of four, each portraying a former actor (washed-up to varying degrees) in the titular soap, as well as the several characters they play in a reunion special years after the show’s conclusion. Over two acts and over a dozen original songs we follow the cast of Summer Street as they struggle with what the show did to them and what they do to each other.

Summer Street’s original incarnation was as a juke-box musical constructed of pop hits of the 80s and 90s, which has since has had its unlicensed soundtrack replaced with original numbers, and unfortunately it shows. The juke-box musical is a peculiar beast which, with few exceptions, is fuelled mainly by nostalgia for old familiar tunes and the comedy value of seeing them in an unfamiliar, often surprising, context. Without those familiar classics – the Kylie, the AC/DC – the core of Summer Street feels somewhat hollow. Andrew Norris’ music and lyrics would be adequate in a show with a stronger book and meatier subject matter; they’re lightly amusing, provide a lot of over-the-top melodrama for the cast to work with, and showcase the singers’ abilities. However, they’re not strong or subversive enough to stand in for the pop canon they’re trying to replace. It’s telling that the standout songs, to me, were the ones that were most musical theatre-esque and least poppy (Take The Knife and Dear Mr Drew).

I have the feeling that the cast watched a lot of Home & Away and/or Neighbours to prepare for these roles, and that self-sacrifice shows. As I and my companion were both actual fair-dinkum Australians, I can say that their accents were absolutely bang-on (or appropriately exaggerated for the medium), and the only slip-ups I really caught were a couple of sentences which wandered over to Johannesburg, and a tendency to slip into loftier vowel sounds during the musical numbers (chance rhymes with ants Down Under, not aunts).

Speaking of aunts, Julie Clare as Steph/Mrs Mingle/Marlene’s accent was so uncannily good that, blindfolded, I would’ve sworn she was my gossipy Aunt Anne. With her self-assured air, she commanded every scene she was in, and could definitely give Kath and/or Kim a run for their money. Simon Snashall was similarly superb as the comically-but-tragically alcoholic Aussie male archetype, despite bravely battling a laryngitis that left him almost voiceless by the show’s end (it was truly impressive that he managed not only to stay on key, but also to put in a hilarious improvised but in-character line referencing his affliction). Myke Cotton as Paul had less to work with than his co-stars, but he did convincingly fill the role of a tanned toned hippy straight out of Byron Bay. The final cast member, Sarah-Louise Young, had the best singing voice, and the strength to make up for Snashall’s handicap. Her acting was just as strong: she was heart-breakingly compelling as Angie, adorably plucky as Bobbi, and absolutely side-splittingly hilarious as Sheila. I wished she had had more time in this final role, as her rollercoaster accent was a work of parody art, and true evidence that she had her ears open the three times she performed at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival (thanks, programme bio). I hope I can see her perform again in the near future.

(07) Myke Cotton and Sarah-Louise Young, courtesy Simon Snashall.jpg

All in all, this was a strong cast in a show with some funny gags but just not quite enough substance to properly fill out its two-hour (including interval) run time. Perhaps as actual Australians, we just didn’t have the nostalgia for Aussie soaps which so many Brits seem to harbour, or perhaps experiencing a whole play in fluent ‘Strayan just doesn’t have the novelty value for us that it does for our English cousins. However, I can’t help but feel that the only way Summer Street could be a real hit would be to return to its jukebox roots, and songs that you just can’t get out of your head.

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Previous review: Drawing The Line by Hidden Track @ Deptford Lounge

REVIEW! Drawing The Line by Hidden Track @ Deptford Lounge

Written by Elliot Hughes
Directed by Anoushka Bonwick
Performed by Steph Reynolds, Nisal Cole, & Elliot Hughes
Produced by Beccy Smith for Hidden Track Theatre
9th – 25th May

Image credit: Rosie Powell

The theatre at Deptford Lounge is tucked away upstairs over a library, but it is a serious theatre space – large, versatile, and well-equipped. The audience and stage are contained within walls of black curtains, which make us feel like we are in our own little world. There is a large projector screen, which holds a message as the audience files in, thanking us for our presence and assuring that though this is interactive theatre, there is no pressure to take part. On each seat there is also a simple but elegant black card, reading in white letters NO, THANK YOU. We are to use it to opt out of any proffered interaction. For my companion, who is less seasoned in the ways of fringe theatre than I, this is very comforting, and allows me to convince her to sit in the front row with me. In front of us, the stage is empty, with no settings, backdrop (other than the projector), props (yet), or people. In the beginning, there was nothing.

The first signal that something is about to happen is when the projector’s looping welcome message disappears. In the sudden silence and darkness, three performers – two women and one man – begin telling a Creation myth. It’s one made up by Hidden Track for this show, and tells the story of a world in which resources spring into being from the Everything, allowing for all sorts of wonders, and all in this world, audience included, is separated into two halves by The Line (introduced on stage as a thick, heavy rope). Eventually, two nations spring up, each represented on stage by an actor as a “guardian spirit”, with the divide between them moderated by a supposedly neutral entity, the Lineswoman. Everything is cordial, with only slight underlying tension, until Points are introduced.

Points are the mechanic which encourages and rewards audience participation, and fosters competition between the two “nations”. Audience members can earn points by, as summarised by a character later in the story, “clapping, cheering, or yelling out random words” – or any other type of interaction. Basically, we have the power to name our guardian spirit, choose the national fauna, and build landmarks out of cardboard boxes – but it’s strictly a gap-fill kind of participation, with a tightly scripted plot which doesn’t allow for or rely on much improvisation. And that is not a criticism! It means that the show is always held firmly in grip, never spinning out of the performers’ control, and that momentum is kept up nicely. But there is just enough audience participation to keep us involved and entertained, and enough tongue-in-cheek self-awareness for it not to be twee.

Image credit: Rosie Powell

Unfortunately, this self-awareness, momentum, and audience interaction fades somewhat at the end. After a lengthy and often absurd or surreal allegory, the plot is wrapped up with some narration that feels both prolonged and rushed, not to mention didactic. Without the veneer of humour, the philosophical and political messages begin to feel patronising, and about as subtle as a brick: jingoism is bad, so is discrimination, inequality, us vs them mentalities, building walls, etc. The only concept that really makes me prick up my ears is a line about how “the system isn’t failing, it’s doing exactly what it’s designed to do”, but this isn’t really explored except as a springboard for symbolically dismantling the system.

Other than this uneven pacing, though, the show is incredibly slick for interactive theatre, well managed, aesthetically pleasing, and just plain fun. Irene Jade is to be congratulated for an elegantly miminal design, director Anoushka Bonwick for a tightly wound and polished production, and actors Steph Reynolds and Elliot Hughes for keeping the audience well in hand and excelling in their portrayals of a wide range of characters, especially the comic ones. If you’re new to interactive theatre, this is an excellent starting point, and I would especially recommend it to families who want some kid-friendly fun which might provide an opportunity to discuss some meaty topics on the way home. Be willing to put up a hand to take part (the interactions are anything but strenuous, I promise) and to spend the rest of the night brushing chalk off your jeans legs. If any of this appeals to you at all, make sure you get in line now to buy tickets for Drawing The Line.

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Previous review: Ish… by Georgie Jones @ The Roundhouse

Review! Ish… by Georgie Jones @ The Roundhouse

Written and Performed by Georgie Jones
Directed by Jenny Bakst
Presented in the Sackler Space, The Roundhouse
3rd May, 2019

Image result for ish georgie jones

Georgie Jones is 25 (ish) and she’s cracked what it means to be a woman. Just kidding, she’s on the same messy journey as the rest of us; unpicking sexist conditioning, examining questions of philosophy and identity, and navigating the same pitfalls that have stymied generations of women and girls. In this one-woman show, she jumps back and forth through personal stories from various stages of her growing up, interweaving them with spoken word poetry, comically exuberant dancing to accompanying 90s jams, and faux lectures on the wide-ranging topic of femininity. Dressed in denim overalls and with a face bare of makeup, it was clear from the get-go that this show would be performed with honesty and strength of character and conviction.

From the press release, I had expected this show to be mainly about sex (mis)education and how it screws all of us over, and at first it did largely gravitate back towards this theme. However, as the show progressed, it tended to stray further into the more generalised and ambitious territories of love, existential crises, and identity. The viewpoints explored in these facets were relatable, eloquently put, funny, and clever, but I felt that the punch of the show was diluted by its attempted breadth of focus. This caused a lack of direction and momentum, which I suspect Jones felt as well, as her performance – so strong and self-assured at the start, hitting every beat and knowing her work inside out – became shakier as the show went on.

As a 25-year-old woman myself, much of Ish‘s content resounded with me very deeply, even though there were some very English references and rites of passage which hadn’t been part of my growing up Down Under. But the 90s nostalgia was strong, and catapulted me right back into a teenaged world where everything was at once much simpler (I was struck by how we were the last generation to escape high school mostly unscathed by the advent of mobile internet, cyber-bullying, and social media politics) and much, much more complicated. Jones portrayed this world with wit and warmth, poking fun at herself and us all whilst still treating her younger self with compassion and affection. There were laugh-out-loud moments, a lot of sympathetic groans, and winces of “yep, I was guilty of that too…” The early pubescent panic of staring at the hair removal methods on offer at the pharmacy was brought back to me viscerally, and the grateful love with which Jones spoke about her female friendships made me appreciate my own anew. Mentions of a possible rape and resulting trauma lent some balance to the emotional range of the piece, but could perhaps have been explored with more nuance and sensitivity to avoid emotional whiplash for the audience.

Overall, this was a strong start for a young performer, demonstrating formidable stage presence as well as a compelling way with words. Ish… itself has great potential, and a lot of sparkling gems scattered throughout its content. However, I feel that the script could benefit from some streamlining, possibly being pared back to its strongest core theme of sex education, what we weren’t told, and how we found it out along the way. If this were undertaken, it could be an excellent, punchy half-hour performance which would bring laughter and contemplation to a festival stage. But even as it is already, the merits of the show make it a very enjoyable hour of theatre, and will certainly engender discussion and personal reminiscence all the way home.

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Apologies to Georgie for the tardiness of this review, and thank you for the opportunity to attend your show. 

Previous review: Fighter @ Stratford Circus Arts Center

REVIEW! Oliver With A Twist, Sh!t-Faced Showtime @ Leicester Square Theatre

Director and Writer: Katy Baker
Producer: Issy Wroe Wright
A Magnificent Bastards Production
27 March – 12 April, 2019

Image credit: Rah Petherbridge

The company which lurched into success – and the impressive Leicester Square Theatre – with Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare has expanded from the Bard to Dickens, with this tipsy twisty version of Oliver!. For the uninitiated, the gimmick of Shit-Faced Showtime is that they take classical, mainly serious theatre, and get one of the cast members outrageously drunk before the show. The result is somewhere between parody, improvisational comedy, and your most attention-seeking mate getting a bit sloppy on a night out.

The chosen drunkard on press night was Issy Wroe Wright, who was playing Oliver and is, incidentally, the producer of the theatre company. When I’ve seen Sh!t-Faced plays in the past, the afflicted actor was always instantly obvious – but in Wroe Wright’s case, it took me a little while to be sure. While I’m staunchly against alcohol abuse as well as abuse of actors, I couldn’t help but feel that she wasn’t quite soused enough to live up to the production’s central concept. The very first dance numbers were absolutely hilarious, as she scrambled after her co-stars, always a comedic, stumbling beat behind, completely failing to do hand claps or knee slaps – but as the show progressed, she seemed to sober up, and her numbers were increasingly just mediocre performances rather than bad enough to be funny. This was despite the beers handed to her by both the MC and audience members when she was deemed to need another; she never actually drank from these, instead just disposing of them offstage. Now, I can’t take my drink very well myself, and usually would absolutely be on the side of someone who’s decided they want to stop and move on to water, but… being willing to get a bit shit-faced is literally in the job description, in this case.

Image credit: Rah Petherbridge

Negativity aside, the rest of the cast – despite their sobriety – provided enough comedic relief to distract from Oliver’s straightness, and play up what boozy behaviour there was. Writer/director Katy Baker was wonderful as the MC, strutting about the stage with wit and wickedness, bantering with the audience and directing the action. Nick Moore (I think? both actors who alternate nights as Fagin are tall, fair Australians, according to the programme!) is excellent in his many roles, from orphan master to criminal master to court master. Alan McHale’s Dodger was as charming a cockney sidekick as Oliver could have asked, and Beth Rowe as Nancy impressed with a sped-up version of I Dreamed A Dream out of absolutely nowhere (as, I assume, they couldn’t afford Lionel Bart’s music, most of the production’s songs were cobbled together from various other sources, in bite-sized chunks small enough not to trip the rights wire). The cast was obviously having a lot of fun together on stage, and there was enough wittiness and silliness that I did find myself guffawing and snorting at points in the show.

Unfortunately, without delivering on the central premise and promise of a raucously sloshed actor, there wasn’t much else to the show. It ended up occupying that awkward window of being too facetious to be good theatre, but not bad enough to be funny theatre. As stated, I have seen other Sh!t-Faced productions in which the drunken actors were either better actors or drunks, and the concept really did work in a “dumb but harmless fun, and hey it’s making the classics more accessible” kind of way. I’m hoping that this time was an outlier, and that next time I catch one of their shows, the inebriated actor will be one who’s more willing to say “please sir, I want some more.”

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Previous review: Maggie May by SDWC Productions @ the Finborough Theatre

REVIEW! Maggie May by SDWC Productions @ the Finborough Theatre

Music and Lyrics: Lionel Bart
Book: Alun Owen
Director: Matthew Iliffe
Musical Director: Henry Brennan
Choreographer: Sam Spencer-Lane
Review by Peter Hoekstra-Bass and Sophia Halpin

James Darch and Kara Lily Hayworth in Maggie May at Finborough Theatre (courtesy Ali Wright) (4).jpg

Image credit: Ali Wright

When one hears of a revival of a musical that hasn’t seen the London stage for over fifty years, it is understandable to respond with a measure of scepticism. The stage is always hungry for vibrant musical productions, whether old or new, and five decades of West End silence do not speak well to a show’s calibre. The production at the Finborough Theatre proudly touts their season of Maggie May as the first professional UK production in over fifty years. I went in with moderated expectations.

Inspired by the folk ballad of the same name, Maggie May tells the story of two young lovers: Pat Casey, son and heir apparent of the once-and-future king of the docklands unionists, and Pat’s sweetheart – the titular heroine, a Liverpudlian sex worker-with-a-heart-of-gold. The show is unrepentantly political and working class, as most of the action is given over to the struggles of Casey and his friends against the establishment, personified in their corrupt union leader Willie Morgan.

While the refrains of “Solidarity Forever” seem to echo over almost every scene, the political backdrop of the story is rarely more than that, as the broad beats of the story could be put over any narrative aesthetic and work just as well. Indeed, in his role as the son of a union organiser murdered by the police and heir presumptive to his father’s position, Patrick Casey has more of Aragorn about him than he does Enjolras. And while the themes of social stratification, exploitation of workers, and economic hardship may still ring true today, the piece shows its age in its one-note depictions of women. It’s certainly the sort of mid-twentieth century musical in which the boys sing about politics, social change, identity, and personal destiny, and the girls sing about… boys.

Joshua Barton, Kara Lily Hayworth and Michael Nelson in Maggie May at Finborough Theatre (courtesy Ali Wright).jpg

Image credit: Ali Wright

By a significant margin, the weakest element of this revival of Maggie May is the book itself, which is to say that this is an excellent production of some mediocre material.

The cast (seemingly impossibly large for the pub-theatre scale of the production) is uniformly excellent, and it was hard to believe they had only been performing together for a few days. Whether in their roles as friends or foes, lovers or rivals, the chemistry was always vivid and convincing between all the characters, and the obvious comfort the cast had with each other was keenly felt by the audience.

In his role as the pauper prince Pat Casey, James Darch was charming and endlessly watchable; twinkle-eyed when he needed to be, but effortlessly powerful when he assumed his father’s mantle. Similarly, Kara Lily Hayworth inhabited the admittedly thin role of Maggie May with ease and made more of her Bechdel-Test-failing scenes than should have been possible. David Keller as the elder statesman and unionist true believer was always entertaining, and Mark Pearce’s slimy union leader brought just the right amount of Fagin and Thénardier to his scenes. Indeed, there is almost no member of the cast who does not deserve singling out, and some of the strongest scenes in the production were when the small, pub-theatre stage was filled to bursting with singing, dancing Liverpudlians.

Which brings me to one of the highlights of the production, namely: the dancing. Choreographer Sam Spencer-Lane has worked magic with this production, as her dance numbers, executed ever-so-tightly by the cast, seemed to grow the small venue to that of a West End theatre. This masterful use of the space, combined with Jonathan Simpson’s bold but effective lighting, made it easy to forget I was in a cosy attic upstairs of a pub – although, sat as I was in the front row, I did sometimes feel that I could catch a high kick to the face at any moment!

Michael Nelson, Kara Lily Hayworth and Joshua Barton in Maggie May at Finborough Theatre (courtesy Ali Wright).jpg

Image credit: Ali Wright

Before summarising my overall impression of this production of Maggie May, I must preface with a reiteration that the original text is not strong. There is certainly charm and linguistic interest in the language used – an appealing if often unintelligible docklands mixture of Scouser, Irish Gaelic, and Welsh – but the plot often felt as grey and grimy as Liverpool bilge water. What really brought this show to life was the superb skill and energy of the creatives involved, most especially the director, choreographer, and actors. While emotional investment in Liverpool and/or trade union politics of the 60s would probably enhance the experience, all you really need is a love of musical theatre to enjoy this show. But hurry, Maggie will be gone by May!

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Previous review: Sick @ Kings Head Theatre

REVIEW! It’s Not A Sprint Novae Theatre @ Vault Festival

Writer and performer: Grace Chapman
Director and Producer: Ellie Simpson
Presented by Novae Theatre with Idle Motion
27 Feb – 3 March 2019

Maddy is turning 30, and about to run a marathon. She’s in it alone, with only a balloon and the voice of her insecurities for company. Her best friend is conspicuously absent, her mum is sending texts that are both supportive and worrying, and her boyfriend is waiting at the finish line with a big question. It becomes increasingly clear that Maddy is in denial about a lot of things, ranging from her lack of fitness to where she’s going with her life, but perhaps this marathon will be a chance to work through all these issues and, as a 30-year-old, hit the ground running…

Look, let’s be honest: a one-person show about being a millennial in which the writer is also the performer is likely to be… well, indulgent and mediocre. It’s Not A Sprint bucks that trend. From starting gun to finish line, this piece is compelling, relatable, self-aware, quirky, clever, insightful, and above all funny. Chapman has impeccable comic timing (and just normal timing – it’s tough having an onstage conversation where the other half of the dialogue is recorded, but she nailed it. I’m sure sound tech deserves credit for that too) and a wonderfully expressive face. It absolutely speaks to her skills as a writer and performer that she can take so many everyday and universal experiences and make them into a captivating hour-long performance. There’s not even anything on stage with her except that balloon and a number of sound effects – the magnetism is all her own.

It’s worth mentioning too that, as the piece’s action takes place during a marathon, Chapman spends almost the whole time jogging in place. I, a self-confessed slob, cannot fathom being fit enough to do that – whilst also pouring my heart and soul into a performance which must be mentally and emotionally taxing – but she manages it with only a light sweat. The ebb and flow of this piece loosely matches the demands of the marathon, as Maddy goes through alternating mindsets of nervousness, optimism, determination, despair, self-doubt, and tentative hope. The mix of tension and release is perfect to keep the audience invested without becoming as fatigued as Maddy. My only criticism of the show would be that the ending felt very abrupt, though of course given the nature of the thing, it couldn’t exactly have been wrapped up with a nice ribbon and a neat ending. Sometimes in theatre, as in life, the ending is messy, with glitter all over the floor.

If you’re a millennial going through a mid-(or quarter-, third-, whatever)life crisis and you feel like time is running out and you’re NOT prepared for the future – go and see this piece. And if you’re a baby boomer thinking that our generation is overly fragile and entitled – go and see this piece, and maybe you’ll come out with a better understanding of what it’s like to become an “adult” in a time of such social, political, and economic upheaval. And if you’re just looking for some quality theatre, or a laugh and a think – see this piece. It’s not a sprint, it’s definitely not a slog, and you absolutely must catch it before Maddy ends her run.

 

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Previous review: Smack That (a conversation) @ Ovalhouse

REVIEW! Cacophony, Almeida Theatre @ The Yard

By Molly Taylor and The Almeida Young Company
Directed by Michael Bryher
Presented by Almeida at The Yard Theatre
19th – 22nd February

Cacophony at the Yard Theatre. Annie Hawkins (front). Photo credit Bronwen Sharp (15).JPG

Image credit: Bronwen Sharp

Cacophony is a new play from upcoming writer Molly Taylor. Set in modern Britain, it tells the story of a group of young people whose lives are rocked by a tragic incident at a protest. In its aftermath, central figure Abbie (played by Annie Hawkins) pens a moving blog post about her experience at the protest, and is unexpectedly catapulted into the spotlight as a prominent feminist activist. Articulate, passionate, intelligent, and pretty, she becomes a Twitter celebrity in short order, finding herself featured on talk show panels and invited to speak at conferences. However, Abbie has a secret that she’s not telling, and it threatens to bring her tumbling down from her new heights of fame, with disastrous consequences.

There is a phenomenal energy to this production, thanks to the powerhouse cast of 17 young actors who play their (often multiple) roles with precision and punch. The story is told as conceptualised flashbacks, a desperate investigation into the past to find how events led to the cliffhanger on which the play ends. I always appreciate theatre with ambiguous endings, and it is especially effective here.

Taylor’s writing is witty and razor-sharp, crackling with humour and social commentary. Michael Bryher has achieved the feat of directing a large cast on a minimalist stage in such a way that it never feels crowded or sloppy – the movement of myriad characters around and over the space is done with exactitude and grace, and the audience’s attention is always focused just where it is supposed to be. Cacophony hums with tension throughout its 80 minutes. Sound, lighting, and visual effects complement and enhance the drama without ever distracting from it. And, again, I must come back to the superb performances from the entire cast, who bring these characters to messy, beautiful, flawed, and vibrant life.

Cacophony at the Yard Theatre. Photo credit Bronwen Sharp (8).jpg

Image credit: Bronwen Sharp

As is often the case with my reviews, my only criticisms here are more about the social politics of the writing rather than the staging of this production. Although there is a powerful scene in which one of Abbie’s (black) friends points out that Abbie is riding on fame only available to her due to her image as a pretty, young, educated white girl, this doesn’t change the fact that this is a story in which a white girl is placed front and centre while her black friends orbit her – often incapacitated, unwilling to speak, or awed by her. Abbie is a complex, flawed character and this is wonderful, but the final monologue from her (also black) best friend seems to whitewash all her sins and paint her as the character for whom we should have the most admiration and sympathy in this story, despite the fact that… it’s not her, but a black character who is almost killed for her beliefs, and then sidelined for most of the play. Feminist art is almost always dominated by the stories of white women, and this phenomenon is almost painfully obvious in Cacophony. 

That said, this is an awesomely slick, hard-hitting piece of theatre with a lot to say. I am reminded in story and themes of Feed by Theatre Témoin @ Pleasance Dome, which I reviewed during last year’s Edinburgh Fringe – the subject of online activism and the meteoric rises and falls of its darlings is certainly very topical, as is that of the effects of social media on identity and mental health. I hope this production and cast has more performances still to come, and would highly recommend Cacophony to anyone who wants to see some excellent theatre.

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Previous: REVIEW! Hotel Paradiso, Lost in Translation Circus @ Jacksons Lane Theatre

REVIEW! Hotel Paradiso, Lost in Translation Circus @ Jacksons Lane Theatre

Devised by Massimiliano Rossetti and Annabel Carberry
20th – 24th Feb 2019

Relative newcomer to London that I am, I had never been to Highgate in North London before this evening. I didn’t expect, on exiting the tube station, to enter such a beautifully leafy, quiet, almost quaint community! The Jacksons Lane Art Centre is located in a former Methodist church, built in the Gothic style, and the decor inside mixes cosy charm with old church pews. On settling down in the theatre to watch the show (and I think I was about the only adult without a small child in tow), I began to suspect that this was going to be old-style family fun circus, matching its venue. I was right: Hotel Paradiso was exactly the mix of acrobatics, slapstick clowning, pantomime, and melodrama which has been entertaining families for centuries. The plot – about the ragtag staff of a once noble hotel, banding together to fight the evil Banker – was absolutely paint-by-numbers, often made very little sense (as acknowledged by its narrator), and mainly existed as a framing device around the various circus acts.

Hotel Paradiso Lost in Translation Circus photo Trevor Fuller-80 sml.jpg

These acts included a fair amount of tightly choreographed group acrobatics, as well as aerial performance, juggling, balancing, and hula hoop work. Three of the six performers tended to be the ones doing most of the show’s acts, with the other three seeming underutilised in supporting roles. One performer in particular seemed to be having a rough night, with a fair few fumbles and trips, though these were carried well in-character with an oafish “oops” and goofy grin.

Although the three male performers in Hotel Paradiso did bear the responsibility for all the acrobatic base work, it was really the women who carried this show. Natasha Rushbrooke as chambermaid Talia was elfinly lovely in all her acts, and I found myself especially on tenterhooks watching her twist her limbs into impossible positions as she balanced on a precarious stack of chairs. Her character had virtually no lines, and existed as very little beyond a wide-eyed, beautiful, coquettish young girl, but she played this role with as much sweetness and humour as possible. The character of her mother – the Madame of the hotel – was played by Annabel Carberry, a company director at Lost in Translation. Carberry’s hula hooping skit (featuring more hoops than is compatible with drinking a glass of wine) was definitely the main highlight of the show, combining finely-tuned acrobatic skill with excellent comedy. Some light googling on my way home on the tube revealed that this routine is a staple of Carberry’s, usually performed as a solo act called “A Glass of Red”. It had been lifted wholesale, inserted into Hotel Paradiso, and tweaked slightly to be more or less plot-adjacent…  and I loved it!

However, other than in these two women’s acts, the rest of the show did have a tendency to drag and feel repetitive. I am the least flexible and coordinated person I know, so it feels a bit rich to judge these performers, but I’ve seen a lot of excellent circus in the past year and this company couldn’t really compete. That said, this show wasn’t really for the circus connoisseur – it was for the children in the crowd, who I often observed at the edge of their seat, gaze transfixed, mouth agape, sometimes letting slip loud gasps or exclamations of “she’s going to fall!!” Anything that can keep the enraptured attention of an audience full of four-year-olds must have some spark of magic to it, and so on consideration, I think Hotel Paradiso can best be described as an excellent alternative to the cinema or local playground for anyone with small children.

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Previous review: A Wake in Progress, Fine Mess Theatre @ Vault Festival Cage

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

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

A Wake in Progress, VAULT Festival (Courtesy of Ali Ward) (7) Stella Taylor and Amy Fleming.jpg

Stella Taylor and Amy Fleming in A Wake in Progress

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

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

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

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

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REVIEW! Cuzco by Víctor Sánchez Rodríguez @ Theatre503

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

Cuzco, Theatre503 (Dilek Rose and Gareth Kieran Jones) Courtesy of Holly Lucas (1).jpg

Images courtesy of Holly Lucas

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

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

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

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

Cuzco, Theatre503 (Dilek Rose and Gareth Kieran Jones) Courtesy of Holly Lucas (4).jpg

Images courtesy of Holly Lucas

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

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

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