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.

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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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Previous: REVIEW! Dracula, Creation Theatre @ The London Library

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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Previous review: Romeo and Juliet: Mad Blood Stirring by China Plate @ Albany Theatre

REVIEW! Outlying Islands, Atticist @ King’s Head Pub Theatre

Written by David Greig
Directed by Jessica Lazar
Designed by Anna Lewis
9th January – 2nd February 2019

In this intimate production of David Greig’s 2002 play, we are transported to a world of harsh weather, barren horizons, naive hope, and seething ideological tensions. John and Robert are two young ornithologists, selected by the Ministry for an opportunity they would only have dreamt about: to spend one month in a remote island in the Outer Hebrides, observing the nesting habits of rare birds which remain obscure in scientific journals. Alone in this harsh environment with only an old Scottish shepherd of difficult temperament and his sheltered niece, the young men discover that all is not as it seems with the island, their mission, the birds, their neighbours, or even each other.

At two hours and fifteen minutes (including interval), I’m pretty sure Outlying Islands is the longest piece I’ve seen in a London pub theatre. The story simmers along on low heat, with events taking a while to come to the boil – but when they do, and tensions bubble over, the plot’s twists and turns take the audience by surprise (or me, anyway). Most of the action takes place in a central stage space which serves as the abandoned “pagan chapel” where John and Robert are camping out for their stay, and this cramped stage and audience space excellently conducts the feelings of claustrophia and cabin fever which the boys begin to develop. We only witness the outside world in a corner of the theatre, which in my memory is full of flitting bird shapes and driving wind, even though these were evoked only through Christopher Preece’s wonderful sound design.

The four main characters in this play are all very distinctive personalities, with two actors in particular standing out for their chemistry and comedic abilities: Rose Wardlaw as Ellen and Jack McMillan as John. In a story with an excess of navel-gazing, faux-edgy philosophising, and lulls, their interactions were some of the times when I found myself most captivated. Others included the snippets bordering on magical realism, such as an almost bacchanalian “pagan hymn” performed at a funeral, and the dreamy rapture of Ellen recounting an act of life-changing voyeurism. It was at these points that Jessica Lazar’s directorial touch shone through most clearly, as well as the neat work of movement director Jennifer Fletcher.

It is clear that a number of talented creatives have worked on this production, as we have come to expect from the team at Atticist. However, Outlying Islands is ultimately let down by its script, which gets bogged down in dialogue often reminiscent of a first-year philosophy student’s self-important extemporising on matters of self and society. That said, this didn’t irk my companion as much as it did me, (“possibly because I’m a pretentious white male myself” – his words!), and if that doesn’t sound like a deal-breaker for you, then I would absolutely recommend taking yourself to Islington to catch this eloquently staged production before it flies away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Previous review: Cuckoo by Lisa Carroll @ Soho Theatre

REVIEW! Cuckoo by Lisa Carroll @ Soho Theatre

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

Presented by Metal Rabbit Productions
13 November – 8 December 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tickets

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

REVIEW! Chutney, Flux Theatre @ The Bunker

Writer: Reece Connolly
Producers: Flux Theatre & Zoe Weldon

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

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Images ©Rah Petherbridge Photography

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

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

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

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Images ©Rah Petherbridge Photography

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

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

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

Tickets

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Previous review: Mirabel by Chris Goode @ Ovalhouse