Presented by Dank Parish
Unit 9, the Vault Festival
Part of Let’s Talk @ VAULT Festival
6 – 7 March
I don’t know why there’s something funny about the word “sturdy” – there just is. Combine it with the concept of divinity and even virginity, and you have a ready-made aesthetic for your interactive theatre show. This flavour of mock seriousness mixed with absurdity, religious satire, and just plain silliness typifies the Church of the Sturdy Virgin which is currently taking place at the Vault Festival as I type.
The piece started with an irreverent funeral procession along the grungy Leake Street, led by gothicky black-clad actors, the audience standing in for mourners. Upon entering Unit 9 – which with its high ceilings, shadowy spaces, and air that distinctly tastes of damp, really does feel like a ‘dank parish’ – we stepped into a wacky and slightly sinister hallowed ground. A winding path into the church proper took us past various nooks and rooms, half-hidden from view, populated by actors being weird and creepy in various ways. The best way to describe the aesthetic of the set design is that it reminded me strongly and favourably of the recent Sabrina reboot: mixed skulls and flowers, leather-bound books, old chalices, sinister-looking curiosities, tattered scrolls… there was even a graveyard section, complete with mounds of dirt, from which bones shone dirty white. I really have to hand it to the set designer, they really impressed me with their creative touches, sourcing of props, and commitment to detail. Despite being small-scale production with, no doubt, an even smaller budget, the set designer created a high-quality backdrop for the show’s action which perfectly supported and enhanced the experience.
Unfortunately, the contents of the play didn’t quite measure up to its set design. In fairness, I did go on a very early night in the run, and with interactive theatre the nature of the beast is that you can’t properly improve and perfect it until you have an audience, so no doubt it is running more smoothly and tightly now than when I saw it, but… there was definitely a fair bit of room for improvement.
Perhaps the biggest problem was that they had a clear structure for the beginning and ending of the piece (ie, introduction to the church and a funeral, respectively), but the momentum of the show got lost somewhere in the middle. We were rushed through the various scenes and activities in a way that felt both frenetic and time-stressed, but also like improvised filler material. Audience interaction was rife, but only ever in a limited or truncated fashion. Despite the fact that we were given secret missions in the past – for example, to discredit the recently deceased, or eke out some scandalous secrets from the disciples/actors – there was never really time or opportunity to act on these. At times there was a tinge of desperation to the actors’ performances, like they were in uncharted territory – which makes sense, if the show was still in the process of being reworked. This meant that often there was a lot of rambling improvisation. Unfortunately, genuinely interesting ruminations on society’s relationship with death, or satirisations of the same, were often lost amongst seas of quirkiness for quirkiness’ sake.
Criticism aside, there were moments where the show really did work. Three stood out to me in particular, and each made me feel a different way:
- Mass sing-alongs of classic pop hits as ‘hymns’, the congregation clapping and singing, as the church’s disciples led the performance with perfect poker faces and expression of religious exultation. This sense of incongruity, absurdity, subversion, and hilarity was exactly what Dank Parish was trying to achieve throughout the show.
- A ritual to exorcise a room (and a woman) of a disturbing spiritual presence. For this rite, four of us (our “family”, which we were allocated at the beginning) needed to take a corner of the room each, in which a small stool displayed a number of items each representing a different “element”. We were told to conjure a memory of connection to our particular element, and to hold onto that as we chanted lines of power and used these elements to purify the space. I honestly did feel like I was connecting to magical forces in that moment! A genuinely mystic episode amongst all the absurdity.
- The opportunity to write some words of wisdom in the congregational tome. I chose the last words said to me by a loved one right before I died, which I genuinely do try to keep with me and live my life by. Writing them in the book, I saw others’ contributions – most of which were incredibly silly, hamburger hamburger hamburger ha for example – and this juxtaposition made me smile and reflect on the myriad ways that we, as humans, cope with the senselessness of our world.
Overall, I feel that Church of the Sturdy Virgin has the potential to be a really interesting piece of immersive theatre, with some workshopping, tweaking, and tightening of structure. The aesthetic design is already top-notch, the actors were clearly enthusiastic about the project, and some of the concepts were very effective. After a bit of work, this piece could truly become sturdy, and stay sturdy.
Previous review: A Hundred Words for Snow @ Trafalgar Studios
Director: Helen Tennison
Writer: Kate Kerrow
Cast: Sophie Greenham & Bart Lambert
2 February – 3 March 2019
Reviewer: Peter Hoekstra-Bass
In the aftermath of Anne Rice, True Blood and Twilight it’s easy to forget the original bloodsucker to make us fear the dark, but Creation Theatre’s production Dracula is here to remind us in an evocative fashion.
The twist here is that Dracula takes place in the London Library, amongst the very books that, over a century ago, Bram Stoker used to research his seminal work of vampiric fiction. This is a fact only recently discovered by the library itself, a charming institution that seems itself torn from the pages of a romantic Victorian novel.
Creation Theatre is no stranger to site-specific productions, and has been staging them for over two decades, including last year’s original run of Dracula in Blackwell’s Bookshop, Oxford.
The play itself is a two-hander starring Sophie Greenham and Bart Lambert as Mina and Jonathan Harker, as well as several other secondary characters. In the aftermath of Jonathan’s encounter with Dracula on the continent and the death of Mina’s friend Lucy, we meet the Harkers as they grapple with grief, a new and flawed marriage, and a growing darkness neither of them wishes to address.
Though still firmly Victorian in themes and1950s in setting, Creation Theatre’s production makes great strides in adapting Stoker’s text for the twenty-first century, making it more palatable for a contemporary audience than the at times stilted pace and style of the original (I confess I have tried but never succeeded in reading the book myself).
Greenham and Lambert juggle their multiple characters well, but I often found myself longing for them to return to the central imperilled couple, where their chemistry was most keenly felt, rather than lingering on the secondary characters as the script did for large parts of the second act.
And speaking of the second act, the text itself is somewhat bloated, and saw me wishing it has been edited to a tight seventy-five minutes rather than the two hours with interval it stretched for.
As always with horror, whether on screen or stage, the monster is best when left unseen, and in the case of a figure as well known as Dracula, he can work his dark magic best when even left unmentioned. The strongest parts of the play were when the Count’s influence was felt but never mentioned, and despite cunning and eerie use of projected special effects and soundscapes, the monsters were always at their worst when they were at their most palpable.
The audio and visual design by Matt Eaton and Eva Auster respectively was mostly excellent and evocative, with the notable exception of a particularly egregious animated bat that looked straight out of Microsoft Word clipart circa 1998.
For a piece of site-specific horror theatre in as apt a site as you are likely to find, fans of all things vampiric are advised to catch Dracula at the London Library while they still can, as the season is expected to sell out.
24 July – 18 August 2018
Created by Neil Connolly and Dean Rodgers
Winner of the London’s VAULT Festival 2018’s People’s Choice Award, Lamplighters is a hard-to-forget night out. Neil Connolly plays host in a part spy-thriller, part improv-comedy farse that sees it’s audience moonlight as secret agents with hysterical results.
The show takes you through a very familiar spy adventure plot with clandestine meetings and high-pressure heists. The catch is that Connoly himself only hosts, every shady character, corpse, location, mission objective and piece of musical score, is plucked from the audience.
It’s just a ton of fun. No other way to put it. Even if you don’t want to participate, this show will have you in stitches.
Connoly is a magnetic and very charismatic host. the mechanics of the show’s gameplay is very clever, the lights and props and staging work wonderfully to enhance and create all sorts of comedic effects, which are entirely participatory in the shows descending chaos.
As with all improv comedy, I imagine it’s very dependant on the audience on the night. I was lucky enough to be in a group who revelled in the experience as much as Neil himself did, and who happened to be hilarious in their own right. It was a big bonus for me, but I can guess that even on a bad night this will be a show that leaves you grinning from ear-to-ear.
If you are looking for a good night out with a mate, look no further.
15 – 19 May, 2018 @ The Barbican
by Lois Weaver, Peggy Shaw, & Hannah Maxwell
Directed by Lois Weaver
More dates in Glasgow, Battersea and more – click here for details
American duo Split Britches bring their unique exploration of anxiety to our shores. UXO is a conversation about calamity, built heavily around the themes and imagery of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).
The production is not your usual theatre piece, but rather a public discussion using theatrical elements. Audience members are invited onto the stage to form a ‘Council of Elders’ in a perfectly designed Dr. Strangelove Situation Room.
It’s an interesting show. It’s a look at that feeling of inescapable dread that seems to permeate everything nowadays. Cleverly, it uses the metaphor of unexploded ordinances as both symbol of the hidden dread around us, and of unexplored desires waiting to burst forth. Doom and hope.
The characters, inspired by George C. Scott’s General Turgidson and Peter Sellers’ President Muffley, are hilariously performed. Played by Weaver and Shaw, the pair give worthy tribute to some of the film’s iconic moments. They are wonderfully comic performers.
Lois Weaver duels as the night’s MC and head panellist to the ‘Council of Elders’. She leads the discussion, talking to the Council about their desires and fears (with social media being the overwhelmingly main concern tonight. As a non-elder I can’t help but feel our generations receive our existential dreads from vastly different places, but I digress…)
They provoked some interesting discussion, but as the show relies on its Council for its content, it’s at the mercy of those audience members to provide the meat of the show. It’s the audience that ultimately provides the biggest laughs and the most moving moments.
One problem with this is that not every audience member is created equal in the oratory department, and though managed well, not every audience member necessarily opens the lid on an issue with the same nuance. It also means that the discussion lacks a single direction therefore can’t go particularly deep.
On the other hand, some of the anecdotes and human moments that were brought to the stage tonight were often funny and really touching, and the mission to discuss these fears; to have an open public sharing of anxieties and attempt to find creative solutions, is an important one.
So yes, an interesting and thought-provoking show, though not one that gets the heart pounding.
Bold & Saucy Theatre Company
BAFTA nominated writer John Fitzpatrick has delivered a moving and marvellously engaging fly-on-the-wall family drama. It’s a character-driven piece full of surprises, dark comedy and heartfelt moments held together by a terrifically talented cast as three generations of women clash and struggle in a too-small house.
Shelley Atkinson is pitch-perfect in the role of strained wife Eileen, vainly trying to keep her household from falling apart as tensions mount. Paddy Glynn is wonderful as Nora, the acerbic and increasingly senile mother-in-law whose performance pendulums from hilarious to heart-breaking. Danielle Phillips’ rebellious teenage Caitlin too is a joy to watch, unexpectedly delivering my favourite rendition of a Lady Macbeth speech that I’ve ever seen, along with bitter sarcasm and vulnerable moments of confession as she tries to find her way. Adding to the chaos and comedy are Daniel Crossley as the avoidant and ineffectual father, and Rohan Nedd who is side-splitting as a clueless teenage love interest. They are all an absolute pleasure to watch.
In addition, Sammy Dowson has designed a set that feels like it’s been moved wholesale from someone’s actual house. It’s incredibly detailed, reeling you in from the moment you enter the space. A half empty bottle of washing-up liquid and drying dishes sit by the sink, empty wine bottles stand by the recycling bin, childhood memorabilia hang from the walls, and innumerable other pieces of family detritus clutter every available surface.
The play leaves some unanswered questions, but I was glued to my seat from beginning to end. With dynamic direction and intelligent writing, this is not a show to be easily missed.
3 – 14 April, 2018
Written & directed by Henry C. Krempels
On an overnight train across Europe, a British woman finds a Syrian refugee in her bed. Longlisted for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, The Sleeper unfolds as a fascinating and thought-provoking exploration of some of the twisted morality that surrounds the Syrian refugee crises.
The play draws largely from a real-life incident of writer/director Henry C Krempels, and the play very much feels like Krempel’s attempt to come to terms with his deeply affecting experience. We watch and rewatch the discovery of a young refugee girl on the train by a British woman and the train’s manager. These characters attempt again and again to uncover the truth about their unexpected guest before, suddenly, the narrative is flipped inside-out to be told from the refugee’s perspective. And by ‘the refugee’s perspective’, I actually mean ‘the actor’s perspective’.
It gets a little surreal.
The meta elements become fairly extreme, with actors breaking the fourth-wall and talking about the play analytically, questioning the narrative and characters that have been built and developed up to that point.
On the one hand, I found this incredibly jarring. Literally being told by the actors that everything you’ve just seen is meaningless goes quite a long way to undermine all narrative tension and development built to that point.
And yet, on the other hand, it’s this level of self-analysis that makes the play as unique and thought-provoking as it is. Touching on themes of privilege, moral obligation and guilt, it’s a sharp reminder that our views on the global refugee crisis can be woefully out-of-touch.
The story is helped along by it’s simple and creative set (by Jasmine Swan), and the strong cast. Sarah Agha brings wonderful power to her role. A refugee character is so often reduced to being nothing but a victim of circumstance, and one of triumphs of the play for me was seeing something a lot deeper. A refugee who is angry; frustrated by her predicament and by our overly-simplistic understanding of her narrative. Michelle Fahrenheim gives a sympathetic performance as a kind, yet naïve British traveller, whilst Joshua Jacob does a superb job as the pragmatic and occasionally sinister train conductor.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, The Space programs incredibly ambitious and interesting work. Though I don’t always agree with every creative decision made in its walls, it’s a venue worth supporting, and the shows leave you thinking. The Sleeper is a case in point.
27th February – 3rd March, 2018
by Maureen Duffy
Directed by Natasha Rickman
Performed by Sarah Crowden
Part of the ‘Scandal’ season at the Jermyn Street Theatre, the play is a double-bill following the stories of two remarkable women. The first is Virginia Woolf, who uncovers the secrets, affairs and scandals behind her novels. The second is Hilda of Whitby, a rebellious saint from the 1st century BCE who faces a crisis of faith.
Both women are played by Sarah Crowden in this ambitious duel-story one-woman show.
Crowden’s gives an often sympathetic and charming performance. The characters are distinct and often lovable. The design changes completely between halves, going from book-filled writing office to medieval chamber incredibly effectively. Books and skulls, candles and tapestries help deliver the worlds of the play convincingly.
The action in the play however suffered from a distinct lack of subtlety. ‘I’m brilliant!’ declares Virginia, standing on a chair, before clambering down for the next line as if nothing had happened. ‘I took drugs’ she confides, extracting a bottle from a hollow book, showing us, and then taking a swig to illustrate the point. Then, whenever angry, she knocked the books to the ground.
These sorts of actions permeated the performance. Sometimes they worked, but more often they didn’t. They sometimes left the production feeling as hollow as the books.
The text itself provides interesting glimpses into the personalities of Hilda and Virginia. Insights into their lives and inner-conflicts. Duffy’s writing and Crowden’s performance elicited giggles frequently witty from the audience, who, to be fair to the show, seemed to enjoy themselves far more than I did.
So, maybe it was just me, but I was unmoved. I was unconvinced as to the reason these stories were forced together as a double-bill, and why the stories needed to be told in the first place. They felt almost entirely disconnected. If the experience of one character was meant to provide insight on the dilemma of the other I didn’t get it.
One-person shows are a tough ask for any performer. Keeping an audience engaged for any amount of time is not easy, especially on one’s own (as anyone who has ever spoken in public can attest). I admire Crowden for how well she did, but a 2-hour run-time with two mostly disconnected stories left me nonplussed.
For the most part anyway.
Make up your own mind, see what you think, and let me know?
For my readers who aren’t aware of your work, who are you?
I’m Joshua Mctaggart, I’m the artistic director of the Bunker theatre, which is an off-west end venue in London Bridge. The space used to be an abandoned car park when we first got the lease, it was very much in disarray. And then in 2016 we transformed it into a 110 seater studio theatre space with a small bar. We celebrated our first birthday last October, so just over a year now.
This season we’re launching a new season and new bar, which is exciting!
One of the articles I read on you described you as the accidental artistic director, how did that happen?
I founded the Bunker with Joel Fisher (the current executive producer at the Bunker). He and I met in 2015 through the springboard program at the Young Vic, and we realized we had similar beliefs about how off-West End theatre should be run in a way that empowers artists. As so often happens in the arts, we sat around having coffee, talking about things we didn’t like about the industry and things we wanted to change. I was always very open about my dream of running a venue one day, with the aim of bringing collaborators together and forming artistic connections in a space. I think there’s something really exciting about the spaces where audiences and performers meet and where people gather, and something really important about cultural and community spaces. Joel and I had similar beliefs about how we could go about creating a space like that.
Then, about two years ago, Joel and I met with a landlord to discuss this abandoned underground car park that he was using as an ad-hoc rehearsal space. It had no health and safety sign-off, no ramp, no wheelchair access. A Southwark tcouncillor told me it was a car-crash waiting to happen, which I took as a challenge! So, I spent the next 6-8 months overseeing a building site, and we eventually got the licensing and the legals and the sign off, announced in August, and opened with a full season of work in August 2016. We launched with Skin a Cat, which I thought was a very clear statement of intent for the Bunker about what we’re interested in artistically: work from points of view that we don’t always hear from, work that challenges social taboo and gender identity, feminist stories. I think it was a real calling card for us.
Since then we’ve had some huge shows, like La Ronde, which is the first play in several years to be nominated for the Best Off-West End category of the What’s On Stage awards.
You’ve talked previously about wanting Off-West End theatre to be produced differently. What precisely did you mean by that?
Well there’s two levels, there’s the creative level and the financial level. On a creative level, it was about the event of seeing the play. All too often, when people go to a play they show up five minutes before, they see the play, and they go straight home. But I’m fascinated by spaces, and so I thought it was critical for people to really inhabit that environment. Because of the nature of the Bunker, we keep the bar open until the end of the night, and we keep the doors open so that people can go back inside. I think it’s really exciting to be able to be right next to a set and be able to have those post-show conversations.
On the financial level, I’m mostly concerned with finding models of producing off-West End theatre that ensures everyone is compensated fairly, while remaining financially viable.
“Beautiful things start, and beautiful things end, but beautiful things will start again. I’ve found that as long as you can hold on to that,
you can get through”
What is important to you in deciding what creators you want to work with?
I’m constantly impressed by the way every creative I interact with functions in their everyday life. The challenges of being freelance and of balancing work, play and creation are enormous, and I’m always very impressed by the work people are making and the strides people are taking to be heard. I think what’s really important is that there’s a story that really needs to be told, and a passion for that story. I think it’s much more important that a story have a fire behind it than that it be ‘marketable.’ So, I seek out artists that are passionate about the stories they’re telling, and that share a passion for storytelling. Sometimes you can tell, there are some people that seem to radiate with that passion.
Electra is the next show to go up at the Bunker. Greek tragedy can be quite difficult to pull off, what gave you faith in this particular production?
When someone sits down with you and says ‘I want to take the story of Electra and make it a punk rock performance with actor-musicians. Here’s this really poetic script we’ve been working on.’ It’s impossible to say no, really. Every time you embark on producing a show there’s an element of risk, and what really emboldened me with Electra was the creators behind it, both on the writing and musical side and on the producing side.
Also, they’re a Bristol-based company (DumbWise Theatre), and I think as a London venue it’s important that we don’t get stuck in the rut of only producing work from London-based companies. It’s critical that we develop those artistic relationships and nurture those connections with artists from other cities.
After Electra, you’ll be putting on Devil with the Blue Dress. What excites you about American work?
I’m excited about American practitioners, to be precise. What fascinates me about America, and why I think it’s still important for us to look at it as a country, is that America is an experiment: how free can people be while still having a structure of government in place. That’s the question that America poses, and that question leads to really fascinating culture and really fascinating politics. The UK is so very different from America, and so I think that cultural exchange is very important.
I also think it’s fascinating how this particular piece has evolved as the world shifts around it. The play was written before the 2016 election, and at that time it was very much intended to be about where the first female president came from. Then the election happened, and the play became about how Hillary Clinton lost. Now, in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the many reports of sexual misconduct in Hollywood and beyond, it’s become about abuses of power by men, and the way we as a society react to those abuses.
What is your message to creators who want to work at the Bunker?
I’m amazed by how many people come and ask me to have a cup of coffee with them who don’t know about the work we do. From a purely practical perspective, if you’re going to sit down and speak with the artistic director of a venue, it would help to have a clear understanding of the ethos of that venue. I’m generally very open to talking to people, but I would say my advice is “know why you want to be at the Bunker.” why should your story be at the bunker? Who is the audience? Where is the passion for that story? And if it comes back to storytelling and a passion for telling that story, then that’s exciting. Don’t come and tell me the story you think I want you to tell, tell me the story that you want to tell. I think that applies both to the Bunker and the industry at large.
Finally, is there a piece of work that changed your worldview, personally?
There are two paintings, one in the National Gallery and one in the Tate Britain, both by Turner. One is called the Rise of Carthage and one is called the Fall of Carthage. They’re two epic, beautiful paintings, one about the arrival of Dido in Carthage and the other about the expulsion from Carthage. One time, I went to the National Gallery and looked at the Rise, then walked across the river and looked at the Fall, and then I walked back and looked at the Rise again; and that reminded me that beautiful things start, and beautiful things end, but beautiful things will start again. I’ve found that as long as you can hold on to that, you can get through, whether that applies to art, relationships, or life itself.
Massive thanks to Joshua and Tilly for their time and patience, and to @samwellswriting for all his help!
Wednesday 7th – Sunday 11th, 2018
by Madeline Gould
Directed by Tilly Branson
Based on a real-life WW2 scandal, audiences become part of a crowd sheltering from the Blitz and meet a pair of women who set up a tea dance to raise moral. When some Canadian pilots join the fun, they threaten to uncover some dangerous secrets.
This show is brilliant. It’s delightful and charming, and oh boy it is fun! A powerful and moving drama, with playful characters and joyful air, it entertains and scandalises.
The cast are just wonderful. Special mentions to the boisterous and irreverent Madeline Gould (Vera), who welcomes you into the world of the show with a roguish smile and a sly wink, and to the utterly lovable and lovelorn Stefan Menaul as Cpl. Frank Lamb – whom you spent most of the show trying not to run up and cuddle.
Leila Sykes gives a subtle and heartfelt Bette across from the slime-ball that is Pip Brignall’s Lt. Tom Gagnon, who makes a wonderful and cynical antagonist, vying with Matthew Biddulph’s charismatic Lt. Bill Dunne to be top dog.
They’re deeply empathetic characters, perfectly portrayed and wittily written. A big congrats to the cast, they really bring this show alive.
It really is superbly playful, and hearing bombs drop and giggling together at the repartee and love triangles, I began to feel an odd sense of community with my fellow patrons, as we all smiled sheepishly at each other in an impromptu jive lesson and take part in the raffle where you stand the chance of winning the luxurious prize of two fresh eggs.
This is all wonderfully balanced with the well-acted and fiery drama that unfolds before you.
The Vaults is a perfect venue. Though the acoustics occasionally aren’t kind and some of the pacing could be tighter, the cavernous and dripping hall sucks you into the world of the play before spiting you out the other side touched and grinning from ear to ear.