Mirrors Siobhan McMillan @ Leicester Square Theatre

28 March – 14 April
Written and performed by Siobhan McMillan
Directed by Gabbi Maddocks

Mirrors 4. Pic Credit Thomas Ashton.JPG

Mirrors, Siobhan McMillan’s comedy at the Leicester Square Theatre, is as strange as it is dark. It is a playful, disturbing romp through a world of fairytales, online beauty bloggers, and female desperation.

McMillan begins the show as ShyGirl, a wildly unsuccessful youtube personality tormented by being constantly undervalued and stood up, and her own insecurities. In her desperation, she summons Shivvers, a witch, whose cunning and ruthlessness are matched only by the fragility of her ego.

Most of the piece follows Shivvers, on a quest to find (and murder) the woman who has usurped her throne as “the fairest of them all.” On her way to this goal, she meets a series of strange characters, each exploring a different element of ShyGirl’s insecurity.

Shivvers is played by McMillan, along with all of the other characters. McMillan brings a lively and playful energy to her roles, and has a genuine, self-deprecating comic energy that breathes life into the story. It felt as though some of the storytelling in the piece could have been made a more clear, as so much of the audience’s experience relies on McMillan’s narration, and I found we were occasionally left behind as our storyteller jumped to the next moment before we had fully grasped the last one.

Though the piece explores some very interesting feminist themes, I personally would have preferred if more work had been done to make the message surrounding those themes somewhat clearer. Though I eventually came to realize that (spoiler alert?) Shivvers was travelling through ShyGirl’s subconscious, that relationship was never made completely clear, and by the end I was left slightly befuddled as to what, exactly, the piece was saying. It was clear we were following an evil character committing evil deeds in the name of toxic female competition and false beauty standards, but what exactly McMillan and director Gabbi Maddocks wanted to communicate about that never quite made it across.

Though some of the themes seemed unclear, and the storytelling sometimes left me behind, Mirrors is a largely enjoyable dark fairytale romp. It creates a world, one of deep shame and insecurity, that can only be soothed with ruthless aggression and vicious competition.
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Thirsty! Tori Scott @ The Vaults

14th March- 18th March
Performed by Tori Scott

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Tori Scott’s Thirsty! is a freewheeling hour of cabaret, filled with salacious humour and honestly affecting songs. Scott slings together risqué vignettes taken from her own life with numbers ranging from Judy Garland to Janelle Monae. The result is ribald fun and an authentic New York cabaret atmosphere.

Tori Scott’s comedy is generously self deprecating, and she delivers punchlines with hilarious frankness. Her stories all riff on the theme of “thirst,” whether that be thirst for booze, and the joyfully depraved places that’s led her, or plain old sexual desire. At some point in the performance she refers to the piece as a cautionary tale, but there’s no real narrative connecting the stories, nor does our heroine seem to learn any real lessons from her experiences. Tori Scott doesn’t really want to teach us anything, she just wants to entertain, and on that level she certainly succeeds.

What surprised me was exactly how she goes about doing that. While the humour is bawdy and the comedy sharp, the real joy for me came from the singing, accompanied by Scott’s appropriately named band, The Shame Spirals. Scott is an extremely talented and skillful singer, and the generosity that she brings to her comedy is doubly present in her singing. She sings with both self-assured panache and honest, soul-baring emotion. It caught me off guard: one moment I was hearing a particularly suggestive bit about making eye contact with a public masturbator on the New York subway, and the next I was hearing a surprisingly soulful cover of Hozier’s ‘Take Me To Church.’ Like mixing sweet and salty, the contrast makes both stronger, and the variety brings a zesty flavour to the proceedings.

I did feel that the performance was slightly let down by its venue. Not by the Vault Festival in general (which is a perfect match for Scott, with its neon underground atmosphere and ready access to alcohol) but by the Crescent theatre specifically. The Crescent is a fairly conventional, pros-arch space, about as conventional as one can get in a disused underground tunnel. I’m no expert in cabaret, but to my understanding it’s most often performed in more of a pub or comedy club atmosphere, with audiences sat around tables and, crucially, the ability to get up and order more drinks. The dead-on nature of the proscenium arch and “latecomers will not be admitted” atmosphere all felt a bit too formal, and jarred slightly with the very loose energy of the show. However, I’m nitpicking, as the fun electric vibes of the Vault festival more than make up for the slightly over-formal structure of the Crecent.

If Thirsty! sounds like it would appeal to you, here’s my advice: Show up early. Take a few friends with you. Preferably, some or all of you will be gay men. This is to best enjoy Tori Scott’s many references to gay culture, terminology, and dating apps, but is by no means a requirement. Spend some time at one of the Vault Festival’s many bars, soak in the underground atmosphere, and have at least a couple of drinks. Then, get ready to sit back and enjoy some raunchy, entertaining cabaret.

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Frankenstein Burn Bright Theatre @ The Space

20th February – 10th March
Burn Bright Theatre 
Adapted by Isabel Dixon
Directed by Katherine Timms
Starring Danielle Winter and Elizabeth Schenk

Danielle Winter Frankenstein

Sam Elwin Photography

Though thought-provoking, and grotesquely thrilling, Burn Bright’s Frankenstein is held back by its decision not to diverge more from the original novella. The first and most pressing way that this manifests is in its plotting. The decision to remain faithful to Shelley’s work is understandable (Frankenstein is a brilliant book after all), but it causes some problems in the pacing of the show. The story of the novella is structured in a series of arcs: the framing scenes on the arctic expedition, Frankenstein’s creation of the Monster and his flight from his home, the Monster’s description of its time living among the family in the cottage, etc. Each of these arcs serves as a self-contained episode of the story, with its own central conflict and emotional climax. Though this works well in the novella form, a problem arises when the same story is adapted to the stage — there are too many “big moments,” and not enough time spent on each one for any of them to have real weight. Why not elide some of these plot points, or cut them altogether? Why can’t we spend more time on the good stuff?

And there is a lot of good stuff to be had here. The core performances are stellar: Danielle Winter bestows this particular version of Doctor Frankenstein with a compelling mix of magnetic obsession and humanizing doubt, and Elizabeth Schenk’s Creature is truly fascinating. A loping, electric, gleeful presence, equally terrifying and beguiling. She charges the room with real horror whenever she appears, and sends a chill through the audience when we hear her bounding and cackling around us, in the shadows. Together, they achieve some wonderful moments of on-stage dread. The scene in which the Monster is first “born” was both nightmarish and exhilarating.

Supporting these performances is some legitimately thrilling direction from Katherine Timms and movement work from the rest of the cast. The scenes in the lab, in which the ensemble form the various mechanical and occult grotesques that Frankenstein uses to achieve her ghoulish ends, are particularly thrilling, macabre fun.

But most interesting of all are the ways that the piece chooses to diverge from the original. The most obvious of these is the decision to make both the Doctor and the Monster women. There are some thought-provoking ways they adapt the plot of the novella here: the Doctor in this version is Elizabeth Frankenstein, adopted daughter of the Frankenstein family. The Monster is also played by a female-presenting person, and though it was less explicit in the text of the piece (the Doctor tends to use the genderless “it” pronoun when referring to the creature) the implication seems to be that it is also female. Unlike Victor Frankenstein, Elizabeth Frankenstein cannot attend university. In this story, she is an entirely self-made and self-taught woman, learning to create life itself through the power of her will and intelligence alone. She is also unable to leave her family home after the death of her father, implying her obsession with reanimation might be an expression of her suffocated freedom. If she cannot defy the laws of the era and attend university, she will defy the very laws of mortality. There is also a fascinating parallel drawn between Elizabeth’s desire for acceptance, as both a woman in a misogynistic society and as an adopted child in close-knit household, and the Monster’s desire for acceptance by humanity.

However, the structural flaws prevent the piece from really diving into these ideas. Whenever we start to explore the very interesting territory that these choices open up, the piece is forced to move on to the next plot point. As a result, the play feels unfocused. In hewing so close to the plot of the novel, it tries to cover too much ground, and misses out on a chance to explore the really fascinating questions that make it special. I would have loved to see this piece if it was a little tighter in scope, and a little more willing to twist and mould the original story to its own ends. There is the nugget of a truly inspired story in this piece, one that explores what happens to a brilliant mind when it is not allowed to freely express itself, one that riffs off of Mary Shelley’s original story and develops its themes into a unique artistic statement. However, because the play doesn’t allow itself the time to tell that story, it never really comes to fruition. We the audience just see glimpses of it, peeking through a faithful but unfocused adaptation of Shelley’s classic novella.

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Derailed, Little Soldier @ The Ovalhouse

21st February to 3rd March
Little Soldier
Direction and Dramaturgy by Ben Kidd and Jesse Britton

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With Derailed, Little Soldier invites us to their going-away party. It really feels like a party too: there’s champagne, somebody’s making gazpacho, and everyone’s getting in on the action on-stage. The live music helps too, endowing the party with a rock-gig feel, and underscoring the winding, goofy tangents that Little Soldier take us on.

But not everyone is in the mood to party. Little Soldier themselves, as it turns out, aren’t ready to go yet.

Derailed is a play about Brexit, and so it’s a play about rejection, and endings, and saying goodbye. Little Soldier, made up of Spanish artists Patricia Rodríguez and Mercè Ribot, have a wonderful, winking charm to them.And in their clownish, entertaining way, they go about searching for some way to give their time in the UK meaning.

They lead us down strange, winding pathways. Then they suddenly change direction, starting on something totally new. Admittedly, a few of those pathways feel like they go on for a bit too long. But so quickly are we pulled into the next game, we almost immediately forget.

And game really is the word — Little Soldier seem to be in a state of constant play. They seem to revel in the unpredictability of the moment. They happily bring audience members on stage to act in scenes, play instruments, even trusting one with a blender. The constant playfulness of the piece ensures it is always light, always fun, even when reckoning with the real pain of being rejected by one’s chosen home.

The times when the play does come down to earth are legitimately touching. One moment, in which Patricia struggles to articulate why it’s so important to her that she protest in Britain, was particularly moving. But they never fall into self indulgence. They don’t have time to, as it’s not long before Little Soldier spins everything around and starts something completely different.

The constant changes in direction do leave the piece feeling somewhat unfocused.One would be hard pressed to find a single cohesive thesis statement that the piece is putting forward. But that’s not the point. Little Soldier are playing, riffing on the theme of goodbyes, telling a joke about the futility of trying to wrap up several years of two human lives in a neat little bow. It’s all just for fun, they say. That’s all it was ever about.

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If We Got Some More Cocaine I Could Show You How I Love You @ The Vaults

Written by John O’Donovan, Directed by Thomas Martin, Starring Josh Williams and Alan Mahon

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Photo Credit Keith Dixon

“Isn’t it good here?’

‘If We Got Some More Cocaine I Could Show You How I Love You,’ John O’Donovan’s 2016 play performed at the Vaults, is about two young men, trapped on a rooftop and surrounded by police. They’ve just stolen some money, some drugs, and they’re in love. Despite the police, a strange peace is found on the rooftop. It becomes an oasis of stillness. From this fixed point, the two men may lean back and observe the chaos that surrounds them. Through the stories and memories they share, we come to see the small Irish city they live in through their eyes. We learn about impulsive violence that ends with someone in hospital. We learn about cruel, draconian punishments.We learn about bitter feuds and gas station thefts and fraudulent relationships and, underneath it all, constant fear. These two young men never feel safe in this town.

John O’Donovan’s script artfully fills in the world around the rooftop, and Thomas Martin’s direction creates a sense of vertigo on the slanted rooftop. Josh Williams and Alan Mahon both put forward touching performances as Casey and Mikey.

Moving, sad, and full of bleak humour, If We Got Some More Cocaine I Could Show You How I Love You is a beautiful piece, skilfully put together by all involved.

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The Vault Festival

Interview with Owen Calvert-Lyons, Artistic Director at the Ovalhouse Theatre

 

Owen Calvert-Lyons, Head of Theatre and Artist Development at Ovalhouse (credit Ludovic Des Cognets) 11.jpg

 

Can you tell us about your role as artistic director, and what kind of work that entails? 

I’m the head of theatre, so I program all of the art and artists in the building. We’re a commissioning house, so we commission new works, we commission nine full new productions a year, and we also ‘seed commission’ somewhere between another nine and twelve. So part of my role is about creating new pieces of theatre, working with artists and identifying artists who have new stories to tell, creating co-productions, almost all of our productions are made as co-productions with another organisation, so I also help build all those relationships and find the right partners for every project.

We also bring some work in that already exists, so there’s a programming role about finding work that I think suitable for our audiences. Ovalhouse acts as a conduit between London and the regions so there’s a huge amount of great work that is made in London and never reaches beyond the M25, so we’re very keen to ensure that lots of the work we present goes out and reaches the rest of the country. The converse is also true, lots of amazing work made all across England and the United Kingdom doesn’t make it into London, so we also want to ensure that those voices from the rest of the country are heard in London.

And then there’s an artist development role. We have five associate artists, we have an artist training program, and I look after that to make sure our artists have access to the training that they want, and more importantly that they’re a part of a community of artists. As freelancers, as most artists are, it can be very isolating and it can feel like you work alone, rather than feeling that actually you work in a big industry and that London is full of freelancers, so finding ways for them to connect and work together and feel that they’re part of a bigger team is really important, and cultivate that sense that everybody’s on the same side. There can be a really damaging divide that suggests that artists and venues are separate and somehow in competition, rather than actually, we’re all working together, and most of us are, to an extent, paid by the same employer, in that Arts Council England is one of the biggest funders of the arts. They’re our core funder and for lots of our work they’re the core funder as well. So although we’re all working in very different setups, we’re absolutely working for the same goal.

 

To delve a bit deeper into that programming role, what’s your first step when it comes time to program a new season? 

I guess the starting point is the kind of ethos of our theatre which is about radicalism, politics, and experimentation. All the work we present will adhere to one or all of those facets. We’ll be looking for new voices, we’re very much about supporting artists outside of the mainstream, so sometimes we’re looking at supporting an artist whose voice has never been heard before or sometimes we’re looking to support an artist because we think they’ve got something really important and powerful to say and sometimes those two things coalesce and we’re doing the same thing. Quite often those people who haven’t been listened to before have really powerful things to say, but the reason that an artist is outside of the mainstream doesn’t have to be the reason that they’re making their work, those two things can be separate. A new voice in theatre who wants to say something we’ve heard before is fine, and equally an established artist might want to say something really radical, and we support that too.

 

I imagine people who are outside of the mainstream, even if they’re dealing with a topic that’s been covered before, will often have a new perspective on that topic.

Absolutely, and that is really what diversity for us is all about, that’s the creative case for diversity: that those voices that aren’t heard might have a very different perspective on the same ideas we’ve seen explored before.

 

You mentioned before you find it important to create a community of artists. Something you do here at the Ovalhouse that seems to work towards that goal is the First Bites program. Could you tell us about that program, and why you use that structure rather than a traditional scratch? 

For us it’s a program that is working really well at the moment, so it’s something that we want to continue to back. In terms of how it operates, it’s fairly structured, in that we offer one week of rehearsal time, one week in the theatre for technical and performance time, and we anticipate that ending in three nights of public performance  in which an unfinished work is presented to the public for five pounds.

I think one reason it’s successful is that we provide the artists with £500 cash, so there’s a real crucial difference there in terms of putting some actual cash in the hands of artists. Lots of venues, ourselves included, are resource rich and cash poor, and therefore artists can quite often put together a package of support, but what’s missing is the cash match, and then they go to Arts Council and they get turned down because they don’t have that crucial cash match. With £500, that artist can probably get about ten times that in terms of support from a funder like Arts Council. So maybe they’re now looking at getting £5000 pounds to support their research and development, and suddenly they’ve got quite an attractive proposition, they’ve got enough money to pay collaborators for a relatively short period of time, to test some idea.

I think the other reason it’s successful is that it uses a model that’s used a lot outside of theatre, that idea of properly rigorously testing something before it goes to the stage of being made. Scratch is very early-stages and very light-touch, whereas this aims to present something much more developed, something that isn’t finished, but is a good way there, so that everybody, us as producers, the artists themselves, and the audience, can all look at it and say “should we spend money on making this into a full show?” And so for us it really helps to decide where to put our full commissions, things that come out of the back of a really good First Bite, we already know the audience like it, the audience are interested and have questions to ask, we know that we like it, as producers, and think it’s a quality work, that artists feel that the questions in it that are really difficult questions can be ironed out here. It’s still got to go into rehearsal to finish it but the really meaty bits, the really problematic bits can be addressed in a fairly low-risk scenario. So we find it really advantageous for that, fifty percent of our First Bites go on to full commission.

And there’s another facet to it that’s about clarity. I think if you are an artist at the beginning of their career, or you feel like you don’t yet have that kind of experience or support behind you to know which venues to talk to and what support to ask for and how you can get it, there’s something about the clarity of First Bites that make it much easier for a new artist to come and say “I’d like one of those, I can read there that I get £500, a week of rehearsal, a week of performance, that’s what I want. Whereas I think in theatre we can be quite bad about being very vague about things, and artists sometimes, if they know the system and they know those venues, they understand what to ask for, you know how to navigate it. But if you’re a new artist, that is really hard to navigate, and I think this program and its openness allows new artists to come to us, and for us to form new relationships in a low-risk way. That means we’re more able to fulfil that goal of having new voices reaching our audiences.

 

Are there any common threads in the pieces chosen for this season at the Ovalhouse you’d like to highlight? 

We don’t thematically program, so we don’t set out with a theme in mind, but there often are emergent themes, there are things that we become interested in or where we see a few shows that we think might sit neatly together or might be speaking to one another, which is often really interesting. In this season one of the things that unites a large proportion of the season is that 75 percent of this season’s programming is female-led, and that is something we’re always interested in. The other thread that’s emerged in this season is about gig theatre and music, Medea Electronica feels like you’re in the middle of a gig and has a live electronica band as a part of it, Derailed by Little Soldier is also set up as a gig, it’s got a live band. And after that we’ve got Whatever Happened to Vandal Raptor which is all about punk music. So there’s a definite thread about live music, and I think part of that is our aim to always be playing with the audience experience, in Medea Electronica there are moments where it really feels like you’re in a gig, in Derailed there’s even a moment where one of the audience members is invited up to play one of the instruments as part of the performance, which really kind of turns that idea around.

 

You’re directing a piece right now, Random Selfies, can you tell us a little bit about what that’s about? 

We’ve been working on that for about year, and it’s part of a three year research project into child loneliness. Which is something we’re really interested in at the moment. In recent years the focus on loneliness has really been around older people, and the assumption is you get lonely when you’re elderly and alone, and the funding has gone to support that. Very little funding has gone to support other parts of the population, even though the problem is much more widespread than people realize. Where it’s having a really disastrous effect is on our children, and really there’s been very little focus on the way in which children can feel lonely, in a way that is not necessarily connected to personal circumstances like living in a rural area, or not having siblings, or not having a loving mum or dad.

 

What’s so interesting about Random Selfies is that it takes place in a flat in London, which raises the contradiction of being lonely in one of the most populous cities in the world. 

Absolutely, and that fascinated us. It’s written by Mike Kenny, who grew up as an only child in inner-city Leeds, and often felt very lonely as a child in a big city. We’ve worked with local children in and around Kennington, and we’ve gone into schools and we’ve talked to nine, ten and eleven years olds about their experience of loneliness, and that research process has been extraordinary. That’s all happened over the last year. Off the back of that time spent with those children and lots of art therapy workshops Mike went away and wrote the play. We’re going to present it here in March and April and then it goes to the Polka as part of their Techtopia festival, and then it will do a UK tour in the Autumn. One of the challenges we set ourselves was to make it a one-woman show. The other thing we play with is, we’ve got a designer, Rachana Jadhav, and she’s creating an animated set. She’s an illustrator, she draws very beautiful pictures, and that will allow the walls of Loretta’s bedroom to come to life and be a part of that story. So the set becomes the other characters, the set has the ability to take all the things that are going on in Loretta’s mind and present them out to us.

 

You were appointed here in 2016, and the Ovalhouse has been going through a period of transition in that time. How have things been changing since you got here? 

Well you’re right that Ovalhouse is undergoing enormous change, and that began before my appointment. I would say that change really began in 2015 with the appointment of Stella Kanu, our executive producer. What she set about doing was the beginning of really a five year program of continual change, leading up to the opening of a new building in 2020. One of the things Stella talked about when I arrived was about how uncomfortable change is, and that one of the ways we manage change is we kind of say “oh, it’s okay feeling uncomfortable, because in x amount of time that will change and I’ll feel okay.” But actually five years of change is quite a lot of time, it might be the entire duration of your time at Ovalhouse. So some of it has been about how we manage change, how we learn to be okay with change, how we learn to be okay feeling uncomfortable, and how we make that okay for one another as well. One of those stages was me coming in and changing the whole of the program, which came into effect in January 2017. I brought in quite a lot of change there, a bigger program, a different approach to the work we’d produce. Not long after that we brought into the new participation team, and the next stage is we’re about to bring in a new communication team and a new finance team. So by the end we’ll have almost a completely new team, with some people who’ve been there throughout. Then the next period of change will be the closure of this building, and there’s likely to be a period between the closure of this building and the opening of the new building, and then ultimately all of this is leading to the opening of the new building, but then that will take at least a good year to get used to that new space and all that that brings.

I think one of the other big areas of change is this idea of working off-site. One thing we’ve been really keen on is making work outside of these four walls, which makes us work in a different way, and means that when we move into our new building we won’t see it as an ivory tower. It’ll be a tool at our disposal, but we’ll know that actually there are some things that you can create outside that you can’t create inside. We made a piece in a chapel last summer, this summer we’re likely to make another piece offsite, and once this building closes we’ll make significantly more work off-site.

 

Outside of Ovalhouse shows, is there a piece of art you’ve experienced recently that’s inspired you?

I saw Tim Cowbury’s The Claim at Shoreditch Town Hall and Benin City’s Last Night in an underground bar in Hackney – both were excellent!

 

Check out what’s on this season at the Ovalhouse

Interview with Thomas Martin, Director of If We Got Some More Cocaine I Could Show You How I Love You @ The Vaults

Director: Thomas Martin on If We Got Some More Cocaine I Could Show You How I Love You by John O’Donovan.

14th February- 25th February

The Vaults

To book tickets – click here


What originally attracted you to work on If We Got Some More Cocaine I Could Show You How I Love You?

The characters and the place. John O’Donovan has written two charming, complex young men, each of them speaking in strikingly differentiated language – it’s proof of the writing that I could imagine vividly not only what each of them was thinking when I first read it, but also where each of them was from. Mikey and Casey’s Ennis, though you sense it’s not the easiest of places to live, especially for young gay men, still feels so full of life that you want to stay there even after the play is done.

 

What’s it like re-staging the piece now, at the vault festival? 

We’ve already restaged it for its four week tour of Ireland, where it’s played at Project Arts Centre in Dublin, Glor in Ennis, and the Mick Lally Theatre in Galway. These spaces are dramatically different in size and configuration, so we’ve always had to be quite quick on our feet in terms of staging the show! VAULT is end-on, so audiences will be getting the more widescreen version of this play.

 

The show has been praised for the chemistry between the two leads, did you do any particular work in rehearsal to help establish that rapport?

Luckily, Josh and Alan get on like a house on fire outside of rehearsals, so we had no trouble developing that connection in the room, but this time round we were lucky enough to work with movement director Sue Mythen. She helped the actors access not only a more realistic physical relationship to the roof, but also a deeper physical relationship with each other, which reads wonderfully on stage. Improvisations on the characters’ historical interactions were also really helpful.

 

The play deals with a lot of complex and difficult issues: homophobia, domestic abuse, poverty — how do you deal with bringing such weighty issues to the stage?

You take them seriously, and really make use of them. The play doesn’t discuss these things, nor would I say it’s about them, but they are the facts about the characters, and any good actor will use those as fuel for their performance. The difference in experience between two people is always potent – there’s a tiny shift in the play when Casey asks Mikey (who is unemployed, lives on the dole, deals a bit to get by) if he’s ever been kicked out of a flat by his landlord. Casey has, and that shift in status was a great discovery that we only made by taking the difficult circumstances of the characters seriously.

 

What element of the show are you most excited for audiences to see?

The ending! Wow, the ending! This is a sneaky way of making sure nobody walks out, but it’s also a really good ending.

 

What’s going to surprise people about this show?

I think people are always surprised by how much they think of the characters afterwards. Loads of audience members have remarked on wanting to know what happens to them next, and I think it’s testament to the writing that Mikey and Casey feel real enough to have that sort of effect.

Any advice for aspiring theatre professionals?

If you don’t need to be doing it, if it’s not the thing that makes you happiest in the world, probably don’t do it.

 

Aside from ‘If We Got Some More Cocaine…’ what’s a book/production/piece of art/film you think more people should see? 

Simon Longman’s play Gundog has just opened at the Royal Court, and it’s a magnificent bit of work.

 


If We Got Some More Cocaine I Could Show You How I Love You by John O’Donovan.

14th February- 25th February

The Vaults

To book tickets – click here

 

Medea Electronica, Pecho Mama @ The Ovalhouse

30th January – 10 February
Created and performed by Pecho Mama: Mella Faye, Sam Cox and Alex Stanford

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With Medea Electronica, Pecho Mama have found some kind of sorcery.

The piece, a retelling of the tragedy of Medea, is half play, half live concept album. The members of Pecho Mama persistently blur the line between these two halves. They place their synthesizer and electronic drum kit prominently on either side of the stage. Front and centre is a mic stand. The stage looks like it’s set up for a concert, rather than Greek tragedy. It’s about to host both.

As the piece begins, we come to understand how this is possible.

The play dances effortlessly between song and scene. One moment, Mella Faye’s Medea will be comforting her children, or speaking to their teacher, or confronting her traitorous husband. Then, instantly, seamlessly, her reaction to that scene is pulsing all around us. It’s broadcast through musicians Sam Cox and Alex Stanford’s instruments and Mella Faye’s own soulful voice. Through this back and forth Pecho Mama weave an unbroken thread of tension through the piece. This thread grows tighter and tighter until, of course, it snaps. To glorious and terrifying effect.

Mella Faye portrays Medea as a meek, ordinary woman, pushed to the extreme end of violence by circumstance. As an audience we view her transformation with a mixture of fear, awe, and pity. We are conflicted. It’s electrifying to see her claw back her power, but the lengths to which she goes are horrifying.

Propelling the piece forward is Pecho Mama’s evocative, exciting music. Cox and Stanford’s synths are constantly driving the piece forward. They are ever-present, accompanying moments of dialogue with atmospheric drones or sharp, percussive beats. They give the piece a persistent musicality and rhythm that keeps the story flowing forward at a breakneck pace. They make music that feels true to the story’s roots as an ancient verse play, and keeps the intensity building until its inevitable breaking point. It helps as well that they’re just fun to listen to, mixing elements of 80’s synth-electronic with prog-rock to form a suitably epic and energetic sound, cleverly composed and performed with panache.

What makes the piece so spellbinding as a whole, however, is how every element comes together to amplify the emotional intensity of the piece. Medea delivers all her lines into her microphone. This, counter-intuitively, makes the piece feel more intimate. Her voice comes from speakers all around the audience, making us feel like we’re experiencing the story from inside her mind. The only people on stage are Faye, Stanford and Cox, and of the three of them only Faye plays a character. The rest of the world flows around us, just out of view. Characters pass through the world invisibly, represented solely by their voices. It is testament to the skill of all of the actors involved, and sound designer Simon Booth, that I could not tell if these voices were pre-recorded or performed live off-stage. Every moment felt completely natural, despite the layers of technological artifice.

Seeing it feels like witnessing magic, as Pecho Mama seem to conjure a whole world out of thin air. This spellworking is facilitated by Jack Weir and Mella Faye’s excellent lighting design, which begins subtle and atmospheric but gradually becomes more striking and impressionistic as our heroine’s inhibitions are stripped away; and Marie Kirkby’s costuming, which highlights Medea’s transformation beautifully.

Through their combined efforts, Pecho Mama seem to summon the truth of the story, driven forward by their music and channelled through Mella Faye.

The effect is an exquisite piece of theatre, brilliantly executed and not quite like anything I’ve seen before.

 

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Ken, Hampstead Downstairs @ The Bunker

24 January – 24 February

by Terry Johnson
Directed by Lisa Spirling
Starring Terry Johnson & Jeremy Stockwell

Ken, The Bunker - Terry Johnson and Jeremy Stockwell (courtesy of Robert Day)_preview.jpeg

Photo Courtesy of Robert Day

Watching Ken at the Bunker, it is immediately apparent how much love the performers feel for their subject.

Terry Johnson’s piece, performed by himself and Jeremy Stockwell, is a celebration of Ken Campbell, the legendary theatre maker and comic performer. Both Stockwell and Johnson knew Campbell personally, and the love they feel for the man is obvious in the stories they tell about him.

The play describes the great influence that Campbell had on the performers themselves and many other theatre-makers. It tells the story of Johnson’s first meeting with Campbell, his participation in the 22-hour long surrealist marathon The Warp, and a montage of other encounters from throughout the artist’s life.

The episodes themselves are all incredibly funny, the kind of wild theatre legends that one can hardly believe. Watching it feels like gathering round at a party to hear crazy stories from a couple of old friends. The tales feel like the kind that have been repeated many times, and have grown in the re-telling without losing any of their core truth. They feel like a collection of theatrical legends. And there is something truly wonderful about the sharing of legends by storytellers as skilled as these.

Johnson writes and speaks with humour and warmth. He presents the piece from a carpeted podium, alternating between narrating and acting directly in the episodes described. The play includes a touching coming of age tale from Johnson’s point of view. We learn how Ken acted as a sort of shamanistic mentor to Johnson, constantly goading him into pushing his own boundaries.

Johnson presents this memoir with remarkable generosity. He shows us his evolution from awkwardly arrogant youth to grounded, mature artist. He presents himself as the perpetual observer, always on the side of the action, never quite able to join in, and shows us how Ken gave him the insight he needed to finally switch on and get in on the fun. Johnson is a very witty writer, so of course the piece is very funny. But more than simply funny, it is gleefully written. There is a joy in the telling of these stories, a contagious delight that carries the audience along for the entire ride.

Embodying that joy, and the titular Ken, is Jeremy Stockwell. Stockwell’s performance is exceptional. It transcends impression and creates something that feels truly real. I never met Ken Campbell myself, so I cannot speak to the performance’s accuracy, but I can say that Stockwell has created a truly vivid, detailed portrait of a man. I believed every moment of it. I was constantly forgetting I was watching an actor portraying a real person, despite Stockwell’s sporadic cheeky nods to this fact. Stockwell’s Ken moves through the world like some kind of clown-wizard, taking in everything around him and throwing it back out in the form of joyous, naughty fun.

His performance is always drawing us in, always including us. Sometimes he’ll make the audience into background characters in the story being told, assembled actors in a decrepit Edinburgh cinema or members of a hippie-theatre commune. Sometimes he’ll come and riff with somebody in the audience off of what’s happening on stage, bouncing off of their reactions and using the momentum to flow into the next moment. He brings us in, and allows us to be a part of these stories. We feel as if we were there. And we’re made to understand why it meant so much to be there. Why it still means so much now.

Ken is a celebration and memorial to a very influential man. But more than that, it is an exaltation at having “been there.” Johnson’s writing and Campbell’s performance allow us to live out the legends of their lives in the theatre. The stories they tell are wild, hilarious and touching, and they give us a beautiful and vivid look at a provocative and influential figure.

A moving and raucously funny piece of theatre, Ken is equal parts memoir, memorial and circus. A joy. A collection of great stories told with love, humour, and above all, fun.

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Read our interview with Joshua Mctaggart, artistic director of the Bunker Theatre here!

Programme D, The One Festival @ The Space

12th January – 27th January

The One Festival – Programme D

The-Space-web

The final programme of the One Festival, Programme D, offers a slightly different structure than the others I’ve attended. Rather than featuring four or five shows of around twenty to thirty minutes each, it consists of an hour-long piece before the interval, and four shorter pieces after. This format allows us to really dive into the first piece, and then enjoy the pieces that follow as a sort of collage of short experiences. As I have come to expect from this year’s One Festival, I found the pieces that make up Programme D to be remarkably, consistently fine, despite a few places that could use some more polish. Programme D provides an intimate, compassionate look at people; their thoughts, their feelings, their sensual experiences, and their deepest, most comical embarrassments.

 

Mission Abort, Written and Performed by Therese Ramstedt, Directed by Claire Stone

Mission Abort exemplifies this intimacy, as it explores the deepest doubts and emotions of a woman before, after, and during an abortion. Therese Ramstedt does a wonderful job of making the piece feel close to us, speaking to the audience as if speaking to her closest confidante, and frequently making use of members of the audience to bring parts of her story to life. Ramstedt’s writing is filled with charming, self-effacing humour, and her performance shows real, deeply-felt emotion masked by a youthful affectation of not-being-bothered. The piece explores the experience of having an abortion, and the experience of anticipating and recovering from one, in deep and intricate detail. It was enlightening for me, and I expect will be to many cis-gendered male viewers, to learn just how frustrating and confusing that the experience can be, even in a country where the procedure is relatively available and accessible. As enlightening and entertaining as it was, I was aware while viewing it that the piece might still need some refinement. Structurally, the piece seems to end halfway through and begin again, which is slightly disorienting as an audience member and distracts from the very strong material in the second half. Despite this issue, I felt the piece is very much worth seeing. It’s a piece that is heavily laden with engrossing, revealing, and entertaining material, even if it feels like that material needs to be re-organized in order to truly shine. That material is complemented by stirring directing by Claire Stone, who creates such a striking image at the climax of the piece that I was sure it must be the finale. Filled with dark humour and disarming honesty, Mission Abort is an entertaining and illuminating journey into what it’s like to be young woman faced with an unwanted pregnancy in England today.

 

Crossrail by Philippa Mannion, Performed by Karen Ascoe, Directed by Jodie Botha

Crossrail is instantly refreshing, simply for telling a story from a point of view that is all-too-seldom shown in our arts and media. This beautiful character study by Philippa Mannion centres on Anne, a 56 year old Engineer working on the the new Elizabeth Line project. Again, simply by telling a story of an successful, independent, career-focused woman in her 50’s working in a STEM field, Crossrail is already interesting, but it’s made more interesting by the fact that it’s artfully written and sensitively, skilfully performed. Philippa Mannion’s script tells the story of a woman coming to terms with the loss of her husband by living her life to the fullest without him; moving from fascinating project to fascinating project, tending to her growing family tree, and eventually feeling comfortable enough to explore romance with others along the way. She expertly draws us a character who is profoundly intelligent, but also powerfully kind; a woman who is admirable in her ingenuity and strength, but always, always human. Enhancing and refining that humanity is Karen Ascoe, who brings a great sensitivity and life to the role. Ascoe beautifully captures the soul of a woman who is bursting with energy and joie de vivre. She imbues Anne with a deep passion. The way her eyes light up when she’s telling us about something she loves, whether that be her daughter’s baby shower or the tunnel breaking through at Farringdon Station, is a joy to behold. Artfully constructed and beautifully executed, Crossrail is an entrancing character study of a woman who is blazing through life with passion, intelligence, and independence.

 

 

 

Just One More Time by Guleraana Mir, Performed by Minhee Yeo, Directed by Mingyu Lin

This sensual and sensitive vignette by Guleraana Mir subverts expectations, as it tells the story of Suri and her disappointment with her new dance partner. This compassionate short play, performed with strength and elegance by Minhee Yeo, explores the trust we put in our partners, be they in dance or in life. Mir packs the short and engaging piece with sensual imagery and tender feeling, and Minhee Yeo’s sensitive performance is artfully showcased by Mingyu Lin’s directing. Altogether, the effect is intoxicating, and we are given an engrossing look into the life of a character who lives through movement and connection.

 

A Fallen Cigarette Butt Written and Performed by Stefanie-May Hammoudeh

A Fallen Cigarette Butt is a challenging piece to review, as its effects are difficult to describe. Structurally, the piece is a series of vignettes seen around a public square, told from the point of view of writer/performer Stefanie-May Hammoudeh as she reflects on a discarded cigarette. But Hammoudeh’s language, full of rhythmic repetition and lyrical, swirling descriptions, provides a feeling of reality twisting and turning around . Indeed, the entire experience feels meditative and dreamlike. Hammoudeh’s poetry doesn’t have any clearly spelled out message. Rather, it seems designed more to create a zen-like state, leaving one with an awareness of the connections between things. This poetic meditation on the mind-boggling richness of the world around us is beautifully written and performed by its creator. Through its lyricism and poetry, it shifts our awareness of the world around us in a subtle yet profound way.

 

The End of Term Show by Olu Alakija, Performed by Anthony Covens, Directed by John Fricker

 

The most clear-cut comedy of the evening, The End of Term Show is a hilarious, cutting show about childhood embarassment. It follows Maxwell Martin as he describes, in moment-to-moment detail, the day he became “The Boy Who Killed Christmas.” Olu Alakija’s piece is packed with clever, irreverent jokes, and Maxwell is played with manic verve by Anthony Covens, who almost berates the audience with the story of how he was unjustly maligned for ruining a school nativity play in his childhood. Full of energetic humour and performed with panache, The End of Term Show is a festive treat for the gloomy January season.

 

As I’ve found with the other sections of the One Festival, Programme D is an exciting evening of theatre, filled with intriguing characters, fascinating writing, and great performances. It features a collection of beautifully drawn characters telling intimate, personal stories. Well constructed and thrillingly executed, the work on display in Programme D is a stirring and well crafted collection of new writing.

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