REVIEW! Lovers Anonymous @ The Space

Presented by Encompass Theatre Collective
9th – 19th July 2019

Open entering the re-purposed church that is The Space Theatre, it really did feel like walking into a meeting of AA, or some other self-help workshop run by professional “love coaches”. The raised stage was being used only as a platform for tea and coffee dispensation, and where pews once stood, plastic chairs were arranged in a ring. Arriving alone (which was a shame, because I feel this experience would absolutely have been enhanced by the presence of a partner), I hesitated in taking a seat, which was how I had my first interaction with “Sandra” and “Mike”, who would be running the workshop under the guise of the (not-so) perfect couple. They greeted me warmly, but with a certain artificial friendliness suggesting that these workshops were more of a money spinner than truly community spirited. I found myself in a seat next to a nice stranger called Helen, and soon enough, the show began.

From the start, Mike and Sandra (Edward Kaye and Becky Gibbs) played a slick role, bouncing plasticky enthusiasm and smiles back and forth as they bantered through an introduction. Their dynamic was an old one – she’s business-like, cool, and bossy, he’s goofy, overly affectionate, and oblivious – but tropes become tropes for a reason, and this fraught relationship provided an opportunity to explore the perks and pitfalls of a long-term relationship.

Rehearsal images for Lovers Anonymous

Though they’d obviously made an effort to be gender- and sexually-neutral in their dating advice,  the whole thing did have a bit of a “women are from Venus, men are from Mars” sort of vibe to it. The male actors / audience plants were almost all either creepy in a funny way, socially inept, comically geeky, or a combination of these, whereas the one woman “audience” actor was more of a quirky MPDG type. These men all had issues treating women like people, and the woman… existed basically to challenge unhealthy attitudes from the men? I don’t remember her having a story of her own, unlike the others.

The one audience actor whose role defied these trends was playing a man who had lost his partner in a tragic accident, moments after having a fight with him. This sudden death was hinted at through a frozen-time flashback at the beginning of the show, but this apparent trauma was left a mystery until near the the end. The effect was a neat bit of ground-laying with effective emotional payoff later, and though again this character’s story and it message were not exactly original, they did provide a certain amount of earnestness sincerity which contrasted nicely with the silliness and melodrama of the rest of the show.

The show blurb promises a wide range of love-related discussion topics: “from sexuality to sex, tinder thrills to online spills, everything is welcome”. Did it deliver? Well, there was a lot of ground covered: there was a very humourous section on online dating, some cringey stories about awkward first dates, a debate on the morality of pornography, an exercise about working through conflict, exploration of the familiarity/banality of sharing a life with someone, and much more. None were explored in much depth, but there were certainly some interesting moments of introspection and examination of societal norms. I think that in 2019, perhaps more types of “non-traditional” relationships could be explored – as it is, the show is mainly quite blandly heterosexual, except for mentions of homo/bisexuality thrown in for shock twist value rather than being examined in any meaningful way.

Rehearsal images for Lovers Anonymous

Likewise, the audience interaction was played very safe, and honestly other than myself and one other audience member, I don’t think anyone really actively participated except the audience plants. It’s difficult in immersive theatre to challenge audience members and draw them into the show as active members without making them uncomfortable, but Lover Anonymous definitely stopped shy of either of those outcomes. This made it a little tame for me, but certainly much more welcoming for theatregoers who are not as used to audience interaction. For future iterations, I would advise some segments where audience members are split into smaller groups (perhaps with one actor planted in each, to guide things along) for activities that allow them to interact with the material and one another without being put on the spot. This would be easy to do without losing the workshop/seminar feeling of the piece, and make it more hands-on. The rhino/porcupine exercise was a good start towards this sort of dynamic – keep heading along that path!

All in all, Lovers Anonymous has the potential to be further developed into a really interesting and fun show: it already has a beautifully playful and welcoming atmosphere to it, some excellent comedic moments, good snippets of physical theatre, and a number of tightly written and executed scenes. With increased audience involvement and a more daring foray into meatier love-related topics, this could become the kind of show that would make anybody swipe right.

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Previous review: Spitfire Sisters @ The Space Theatre

REVIEW! Spitfire Sisters @ The Space Theatre

Written by Three of a Kind (Doc Andersen-Bloomfield, Catherine Comfort and Heather Dunmore)
Directed by Adam Hemming
Produced by Grace Chapman
2 – 6 July 2019

Attaboys. That was the affectionate name given to pilots of the ATA, the Air Transport Auxiliary, a civilian organisation set up during World War II to ferry aircraft between factories and military sites, thereby freeing up RAF pilots for front line service. Except that many of the “boys” were women, who joined because, unlike with the RAF, they could be accepted into the ATA regardless of gender, age or disabilities.

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Faye Maughan (Phyllis Griggs). Photo courtesy of Liz Isles

Spitfire Sisters tells the as-yet little-known stories of several of these women, following their daily lives at the airbase, awaiting their assignments under the constant threat of air raids, doing their best to live in a country torn by war. It follows a year in their lives during the war as they navigate their way through a society where they were not only largely invisible, but also actively put in harm’s way: women were only allowed to fly if they did so without instruments. Considered too unskilled to learn how to use the same tools as men, they were given a compass and a map, and nothing else.

The background of the fight for gender equality, with women dealing with the same problems and dangers as their male counterparts while having to prove their worth every step of the way, is unfortunately a familiar one to this day. The struggle is depressingly real, and so are the women’s attitudes towards it, from unwavering dedication to the cause, to complete indifference, to casual interest, to a resigned acceptance of their status.

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Photo courtesy of Liz Isles

The script shines in how it portrays the diversity of voices and backgrounds of these women, who joined out of a need to find freedom from social constraints, to prove their self-worth to themselves and others, to follow a bright-eyed fascination with machines, to flee a home that had no place for them, to create a better life for themselves, to fight for their country and find closure to the traumas of the war.

Their love of flying is the common ground, as all-encompassing as the rumble of the Merlin engines. The top notch quality of the cast, who are absolutely believable in their individual portrayals and in their relationships to one another, brings this to the foreground, and ties the otherwise loose story together. The scenes when all the women are together, either celebrating rare moments of respite or mourning yet another unthinkable loss, felt genuinely joyous and/or heart-wrenching. Every emotion here is layered, from blind devotion and self-sacrifice, to self preservation and independence, carefree affection, quarrels and rivalries between friends, lovers, colleagues, superiors. Mary Roubos stands out as the vivacious Georgia, while Chloe Wade’s Jessie combines fierce determination with genuine compassion.

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Ali Shinall (Cornelia Wood). Photo courtesy of Liz Isles

Unfortunately, the powerful moments make the less effective parts of the script conspicuous in comparison. The scenes featuring the only male character felt particularly weak, his coarse manner and outbursts a jarring contrast to the women’s nuanced portrayals. Perhaps this was on purpose, but it felt unnecessary. Finally, the aesthetic choice of having the cast smoke on stage may have helped to create an accurate atmosphere, but it made my head and lungs ache as much as the poignant scenes made my heart ache. I didn’t notice any warning in the programme about this involuntary audience immersion, and it is something that should be flagged for future performances, for asthmatics and non-smokers like myself.

Ultimately, these are stories that deserve to be known, told in a way that shows genuine care and enthusiasm for the source material. Take it from a female aviation enthusiast who grew up being told that women don’t have what it takes to become pilots! However, even if you don’t fall in love with the sound of an engine, you will find something here to delight you.

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Previous review: Kill Climate Deniers by David Finnigan @ The Pleasance Islington

REVIEW! Kill Climate Deniers by David Finnigan @ The Pleasance Islington

Written by David Finnigan
Directed by Nic Connaughton
Produced by Pleasance Theatre and Maya Ellis
Featuring Felicity Ward, Kelly Paterniti, Bec Hill, Hannah Ellis Ryan, and Nathan Coenen
4th – 28th June 2019

The first show I saw at the downstairs Pleasance Theatre in Islington was Bismillah! An Isis Tragicomedy, a play which mixed side-splitting black comedy with controversial and complex socio-political commentary. I gave it five stars. This weekend I found myself in that space again, and once again, I was treated to a piece of theatre which had me alternately gasping with laughter and staring down the barrel of one of the biggest crises of the modern day. They sure can pick ‘em.

The majority of Kill Climate Deniers is cathartic silly satire, and very good at being that. An all-women cast of experienced Australian actors and comedians caper through the riotous tale of a terrorist attack on Parliament House during a Fleetwood Mac concert; we follow the story of Gwen Malkin, Minister for the Environment in a conservative government, and her social media advisor, Georgia Bekken. Felicity Ward – one of Australia’s biggest comedienne exports of the moment – absolutely nails the role Malkin, playing to perfection a politician out of her depth, hiding insecurity with bluster and narcissism. Kelly Paterniti as Bekken provides terrific support and counterbalance as the more level-headed advisor, pulling the politician’s strings even as she strokes her ego – except for occasional flashes of mania, centring around a hatred of bloggers (this monologue was the only time in the play that I really worried for my safety) and an encyclopaedic knowledge of 80s disco hits. Certainly quite a different role to the last I saw her in, which was the titular heroine of a Romeo and Juliet production at the Sydney Opera House!

Hannah Ellis Ryan and Bec Hill. Image Credit: Ali Wright

On the other side we have Bec Hill, another successful Aussie comedy export, as the eco-terrorist leader Catch. Combining army fatigues and gothic chic (and on that topic, kudos to Prinx Lydia, set and costume designer, for their excellent touches), she really does exude menace and chilling fanaticism. She knows that she’s on the side of the bad guys, but believes so completely in her cause that she feels the possible ends justify the means: ‘See I know we’re not right… but even if I were 99% wrong, I’d still shoot every politician for that 1% chance of changing things’. (I was very intrigued by the implications of an authorial aside revealing that, in an earlier draft, Catch was Malkin’s 11-year-old daughter via a time-travelling subplot… but I can see why this was cut.) Finally, playing a number of roles with great versatility is Hannah Ellis Ryan, who dies a few times onstage as various terrorist henchwomen, and then once with great aplomb as centre-right political commentator Beverly Ile. It is as Ile that she really shines, maintaining a smooth and smarmily bland façade while all goes her way, and the dropping the mask and letting rip in a spitting, venomous, spiteful rant about the patheticness of scientists.

Together, and to some seriously banging tunes, these women act out a story of mutual destruction grounded in fear and an inability to communicate. I think the meaning of this tale is perfectly expressed in the foreword by Julian Hobba, artistic director of Aspen Island Theatre Company, who first commissioned the project: ‘[the characters] represent two powerful and opposing political forces, pushed, by the extremity of the situation and the immovability of their positions, into a lethal death spiral… Through the eyes of this play, we are name-calling through counter-narratives while Rome burns.’

Felicity Ward and Bec Hill. Image credit: Ali Wright

There is another key aspect of this show which I’ve yet to touch on: there is another presence onstage, or seated just off to the side, in the audience. This is the author (or, as I only realised partway through, an actor standing in for him), and he often presses pause on the events onstage to provide commentary, justification, context, or the true backstory of the play’s development and verbatim reactions from climate deniers, politicians, and Andrew Bolt. These asides are often as hilarious as the gags onstage, but some provide a more serious counterweight to the semi-absurd comedy, and make astute and sobering socio-political observations. The final two monologues – addressed to climate change deniers and appraising the driving force behind their beliefs – truly blew my mind and explored the issue in a light I had never considered before.

This “Finnig” (that is, the voice of writer David Finnigan) is portrayed by Nathan Coenen, an actor of Australian origin who has been in the UK for many years. Indeed, he takes a little while to settle back into the Australian accent, sounding very British-neutral for the first scene or two, but so many Aussies (myself included) are guilty of this unconscious chameleon camouflage when in the Motherland, and by the time the play is properly underway he is able to “yeah, nah” with the best of them. It is in this voice that he explores the author’s doubts and regrets about the title and the ethical content of the play, with the benefit of hindsight as it went through a number of evolutions.

I exited Kill Climate Deniers having known that I’d seen some amazing theatre. My only qualm was – yep – the title, and the premise of violence against those we disagree with. Not because I never feel that rage and frustration, but because I enjoy having the moral high ground, and feel that the left (usually) manages to hold onto principles better than the right. However, it’s not like the play doesn’t address this, and at its heart, this play is not based in violence or hatred. It’s based in primal, abject terror of the future we are sleepwalking into; it’s raging against the powerlessness we as individuals feel when up against global crises; it’s hysterical laughter and communal catharsis in the knowledge that everyone else in the room is just as scared as you.

Bec Hill, David Coenen, and Kelly Paterniti. Image credit: Ali Wright

I’m not exaggerating in the least when I say that I could continue to write a full-length analytical analysis about this play, but I’ve been told off for my verbosity before, so I’ll wrap it up here. All I can say is that Kill Climate Deniers is intelligent, hilarious, thought-provoking, and fun, and you should go and see it. (Especially if you’re an expat from Down Under living in London – because someone in the audience needs to laugh at those Aussie-only cultural references.) (Also how fucking great is it to have an all-female cast in comedic roles that would often be given to men without a second thought?)

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Previous review:  Custody by Urban Wolf @ Ovalhouse Theatre

REVIEW! Custody by Urban Wolf @ Ovalhouse Theatre

Author: Tom Wainwright
Creator: Urban Wolf
Director: Gbemisola Ikumelo
Wed 5 Jun – Sat 22 Jun

Rest in Peace, Brian.

It shouldn’t have happened to him. It shouldn’t happen to anyone.

In the last thirty years, nearly 150 non-white people have died in police custody. No charges of murder have been laid against the police.

A play about black deaths in police custody can really only be devastating, and that’s what this production is.

Focusing on the family of Brian Olayinka, a man pulled over for being black, beaten to death by officers for being black, Custody brings us into the crucial moments of realising, responding, falling apart – the cast give us grief and rage and bitter resignation. It’s a fictional play, but it rings true. This could have been real. This could be real. This will be real, statistically.

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We meet his mother, sister, brother and lover – and they take turns portraying Brian, who is fleshed out in such a way that the audience weeps for him too.  A man who had his life together is now only a memorial, a silhouette, a statistic. The script really explores all the different ways systemic violence against a group of people is depersonalising. It’s also, in places, funny – as family conversations are. Much more often, it is the halting, telegraphic dialect of grief – there are some things that can’t be said. The actors’ movements speak as much as the words.

The set is brilliant – mobile as the cast, but with the shape of a man’s head hanging behind the action throughout, ever present.

I couldn’t pick out a cast member to praise above the others – they all do such an exceptional job. Muna Otaru is the Mother – agonised, unable to find sense in what has happened. The politically-minded Sister who urges activism is embodied by Ewa Dina.  Rochelle James’ Lover is at a loss to find her place with the people that would have been hers if she and Brian had married, as they planned. Creator Urban Wolf, also known as Urbain Hayo, plays the brother, who finds himself holding his family together.

This play is perfect, and depressingly necessary.

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Previous Review: Transit by FLIP Fabrique @ Underbelly Festival Southbank

REVIEW! Transit by FLIP Fabrique @ Underbelly Festival Southbank

Director: Alexandre Fecteau
Artistic Direction: Bruno Gagnon
Choreographer: Annie Saint-Pierre
Presented by FLIP Fabrique and Underbelly
27th May – 7th July 2019

FLIP Fabrique is a company of young artists from Quebec, Canada, who travel the world performing their circus routines. Their latest show, Transit, is about… travelling the world performing circus routines. From the moment the performers tumble onto the stage out of a road case, it is evident that there is something different about this troupe: they have an infectious sense of fun and mischief, and tangible close rapport with each other. Despite the fact that their show is in a mix of English and French, their brand of humour is both too exuberant to be English and too irreverent to be French. And despite the fact that there was little in the way of story or aesthetic theme, the show felt cohesive and never lost momentum or interest.

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Throughout the course of the hour-long performance, the troupe cycled through a number of circus acts and disciplines. Of course, in homage to their name, they started with a series of acrobatic tricks; flips and tumbles and feats of precarious balancing atop a wildly ambulatory road case. This soon gave way to aerial straps performances from Pierre Riviere (once topless and showing off his chiseled physique, and then later as a comical callback performance in a fatsuit, weeping into doughnuts); hula-hoop feats from Jade Dussault; strongman stunts from Jonathan Julien; juggling of various items (pins, balls, knives, etc) from Jasmin Blouin; hair-raising trampoline acrobatics from Cedrik Pinault; and, as a standout performance, diabolo juggling and general wizardry from Jeremie Arsenault. Honestly, diabolos have never been anywhere near the top of my list of most exciting circus instruments, but this man’s skill with the things was mind-blowing. Indeed, I’m convinced that he was controlling them with some sort of otherworldly power, because they were behaving more like perfectly-trained show dogs than inanimate objects. Coupled with this mastery was his sparkling mien of mischief and good humour, which made his every scene into side-splitting comedy.

These acts were interwoven with other short skits and exchanges which ranged from silly (waking up a birthday boy with a faceful of shaving cream), to surreal (live creation of a chalk dust Jackson Pollock-esque painting of the team), to banter between friends (“what’s your next project?” “giving life” “never heard of them”), and back to silly again (an entire routine based in balletic sweet-spitting, because if travelling as a troupe means anything, it means going down as a team if even one of you gets a cold). The trampo-walling finale literally had me on the edge of my seat, torn between awe and horror, and when the show ended I felt like I was saying goodbye to friends.

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This, really, was the atmosphere that made Transit so enjoyable: the feeling that, on stage in front of you, was a bunch of mates who genuinely love each other’s company, who sometimes squabble like children, but support each other on-stage and off, and just have an absolute ball creating and performing shows together. There were a number of fluffed tricks throughout, but they were dealt with so good-naturedly that you couldn’t really hold it against them. There were also times when I felt like artists were performing outside of their skillsets, to the detriment of the performance (when my friends and I went through our skipping-rope phase in primary school I remember pulling off a number of tricks that didn’t land in this show). When these same performers then had shining moments of incredible skill later on, it made me question whether they were being used to their best advantage at all times. That said, I can understand the impulse to have as many of the troupe as possible on stage together as much as possible, because together, this FLIP Fabrique team was dynamite. I would absolutely recommend this show to people of all ages, and anyone looking for a fun and uncomplicated night out.

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Previous review: A Winter’s Tale @ The Warren, Brighton Fringe

REVIEW! Love and Misinformation @ Drayton Arms

Created and directed by Stephen Davidson
Produced by Presence Theatre Collective

Performed by Avril Poole, Carla Keen, Chloe Kennedy, Invi Brenna, Jon Nguyen, Juwel Haque, Karo Kriks, Leander Vyvey, Maria Skolozynska, Olivia Gibbs-Fairley
21 – 25 May, 2019

It’s tricky to write about a production like Love and Misinformation. It’s an improvised play, so I can’t really mention anything about the plot, costumes or music – there weren’t any. I can say it’s distinct from a lot of improv shows in that they’re not just going for gags – there certainly are gags, but comedy is not the point of this show.

Conceived as an homage to Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, wherein fifteen actors play 100 characters in 50 scenes, Presence Theatre’s cast of ten experienced improvisers create countless characters in scenes that ranged from shockingly brief to painfully awkward. The scenes don’t form any particular plot – but as the show progresses, it develops a clear theme: connection and communication. There are hints at larger stories and references to things that may have never happened, ones that got away or refused to leave, people bumping into each other and trying to remember if they’ve met – it’s maddening to try to figure out links between characters played by actors who might not know either. Was I reading too much into something? Maybe! But maybe so was one of the performers in that scene! We’re all trying to figure out what’s going on together.

Theatre is about making meaning, and this production really encourages us to not only make our own meaning but question how that meaning is made, how we understand any social situations, and interactions, any media.

The show I saw was a preview for an upcoming Fringe run, and of course, it will undergo changes every time it is performed – maybe it will be tighter, maybe it will be looser. The cast were charismatic, though we barely spend enough time with any of them to get a handle on their strengths. Some actors seemed a little at sea – but aren’t we all, in this day and age? Isn’t it only right to be baffled by the world?

If this sounds a little vague, Love and Misinformation might not be the show for you. But, if you’re interested in a truly unique show, one that makes you reconsider some of your assumptions about relationships and society, definitely check it out.

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Previous review: Summer Street: The Hilarious Aussie Soap Opera Musical @ Waterloo East Theatre

REVIEW! Fighter @ Stratford Circus Arts Center

Written by Libby Liburd
Directed by Julie Addy
25th – 27th April  2019

Boxing was illegal for women in Britain until 1998. That’s not a typo: 1998. This is when the action of the play is set – when the boxing rings of Britain were just getting used to women running the ropes.

Written by and starring Libby Liburd, based on her own experiences as a single mother who found belonging in the male dominated boxing scene of the nineties, Fighter is a comforting narrative about forging your own path.

The script is full of warm and witty character voices, though the plot was a familiar rehash of obvious cliches. It felt like a show that wasn’t quite sure what it wanted to be – a three hander or a monologue? An action packed drama or a domestic comedy?

The main cast, including Cathy Tyson and David Schaal as Lee’s (Liburd) trainers, were excellent performers. Their interactions were a joy to watch. A group of young boxers from Fight for Peace provided energetic set dressing – skipping, bobbing, and feinting – but were a little awkward when called on to act.

Images courtesy of Alex Brenner

The production raises some great questions about the value of boxing – for women and men – as well as motherhood. Lee was at her most convincing when justifying how the skills of being a fighter are similar to those needed for raising a child.

This is an enjoyable show with an engaging cast and a few exciting moments. Despite issues with pacing, it’s valuable to see a play about a single mother and a female boxer, and fun to see one with this much heart.

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Previous Review: Twelfth Night @ Rose Playhouse

REVIEW! Twelfth Night @ The Rose Playhouse

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Adam Nichols
Musical direction by Tom Cagnoni
23rd April – 5th May 2019

This jukebox interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s awkward comedies is a fun romp, showcasing a widely talented cast.

Photography Credit – Lou Morris Photography

Set on a 1920’s cruise ship, the production runs to a tight 90 minutes, necessary as the semi-excavated historic Rose Playhouse has no heating or bathrooms. Behind the narrow shelf of the stage is a cavernous pit where the 400 year old structure is being revealed – in this production, the pit becomes the sea.

The 1920’s setting gives reason to the characters’ manias and hedonism – the war is over, and now we can drink, play pranks and fall in love. Duke Orsino (Will Forester playing him as frankly bi-curious) is our captain, Olivia (Emma Watson at full glamour) a famous actress. The innocent, plucky Viola (Lucy Crick) washes up on board and finds herself stuffing her trunks to convince people that she is worth employing – still a legitimate concern, even in the post-war relaxing of gender roles, women should not be alone with men.

The small staging space was cleverly used, the primary set piece being a modified piano that provided backing music as well as serving as a prop. The fourteen actors played music, sang and clowned, keeping the audience laughing and clapping along. Not all the songs felt entirely necessary – it’s not that they were poorly performed as much as they didn’t add much to our understanding of the characters. I don’t really need to hear the jazzy redux of the Thong Song in its entirety to know that Toby Belch is gross, or a cover of Alessia Cara’s Here to know that Feste feels out of place.

Photography Credit – Lou Morris Photography

There tends to be little to add to Shakespeare’s comedies, which play with gender and expectation in a cultural context we have no experience of. It’s common enough to cast Feste the fool as a girl, and Hannah Francis-Baker does a fine job as a grinning Greek chorus, using re-arranged pop songs to comment on the action of the play. This production, however, really leaned into the amorality of charismatic drunk Lady Toby (Anna Franklin as a washed up music hall star) and her crew, making a female Malvolia (Faith Turner playing priggish perfection) suffer – it’s more distressing to see a woman stripped to yellow stockings and taunted for thinking she might be loved than it is a man. In between that and the gentle, pitiably foolish Sir Andrew (James Douglas, at peak upper class twit), the play ends on a curious note, perhaps commenting on the torment of being the butt of jokes. It doesn’t entirely land – as it maybe can’t, without adding a post-script to Shakespeare’s play.

This production is worth your attention, appropriate for fans of pop, comedy and Shakespeare.

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Previous Review: H.M.A.S. Pinafore @ The King’s Head Theatre

REVIEW! H.M.S. Pinafore @ The King’s Head Theatre

Music and lyrics by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
Directed by John Savournin
Music directed by David Eaton
Produced by Michelle Barnette for Charles Court Opera
10 April – 11 May 2019

One must approach a Gilbert and Sullivan production with a keen understanding of exactly what one is in for. In many ways, their operettas bridge the gap between a comic opera and what we think of as “modern” musical theatre. Often the principle reserve of the amateur theatrical society, the student musical ensemble, or unambitious independent theatre group, it is very easy to do a G&S production very poorly. Fortunately, Charles Court Opera’s production of H.M.S. Pinafore at the King’s Head Theatre is not an example of this.

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Image credit: Robert Workman

Subtitled ‘the lass who loved a sailor’, H.M.S. Pinafore tells the story of the star-crossed lovers Ralph Rackstraw (Philip Lee), able seaman, and Josephine Corcoran (Alys Roberts), captain’s daughter. As with all Gilbert and Sullivan productions, the core themes revolve around class, duty, love and the comedy to be found in the intersection and conflict between the three. The narrative is familiar, unthreatening and concludes ludicrously. There is a sameness to many of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas that leads me to forget which beginnings go with which endings, and which songs are present in which, and I have seen my fair share over the years. But every time I heard a familiar refrain strike up at the start of a song I was reminded of how enjoyable these productions can be when done as well as they are here, and I spent a vast majority of this show beaming widely at the ridiculous antics of the crew of the Pinafore and all they came into contact with.

Gaily rendered in bright, 1960s tones, replete with an interpretation of the Pinafore as nothing less than a yellow submarine, the set and costumes created by designer Rachel Szmukler were charming and effective. Clever use was made of the small space, and the low ceilings of the King’s Head make for a believably claustrophobic submarine, setting the stage for some truly excellent performances.

With a tight cast of eight and gender parity, it is hard to fault any of the performances given by the cast on the night. Particular mention must go to Joseph Shovelton’s Sir Joseph Porter, the perfect embodiment of the bombastic, patriarchal, British twit so familiar across Gilbert and Sullivan’s opuses, commanding attention in every scene in which he was present, and consistently eliciting laughs from the entire audience. Matthew Palmer’s Captain Corcoran (also played on alternating weeks by Matthew Siveter) was endearing and feckless as he was carried along by the nonsensical story and Jennie Jacobs doubling as Little Buttercup and Sir Joseph’s Sister was the master of the sideways glance to the audience and always a highlight. As excellent as all the performances were, the bravest and most effective choice was undoubtedly the casting of Sir Joseph’s Aunt, who was an absolute scene-stealer whenever she was present.

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Image credit: Robert Workman

Accompanied only by musical director David Eaton on the keys, the music was tight and the harmonies flawless, as the cast fully embraced the operatic style that the show was written in, with no invasion of a more typical contemporary or “musical theatre” tone to the vocals.

Of course there are certain cringe-worthy moments that are borne of the dated mores of Gilbert and Sullivan’s era (though, admittedly, far fewer than are present in their other shows), particularly in reference to Little Buttercup’s “gypsy blood” and the apparent oracular abilities it gives her. The question must be asked whether anything would be lost from the original script for these references to be changed or omitted, and I don’t pretend to have the answer, though we are prepared to suffer much worse in other forms of historical popular culture.

For fans of Gilbert and Sullivan, the Charles Court Opera’s production of H.M.S. Pinafore is unmissable, and for anyone who has never seen a G&S show, it is hard to imagine a more accessible introduction to the form. The production runs at the King’s Head Theatre until the 11th of May, and tickets are selling fast, so grab them before it ships out for good.

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Previous review: Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story @ The Hope Theatre

REVIEW! Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story @ The Hope Theatre

Performed by Bart Lambert and Richard Loeb
Book, music, and lyrics by Stephen Dolginofff
Directed by Matthew Parker
Music directed by Tim Shaw
Produced by Benjamin Alborough for The Hope Theatre
2 – 20 April
Reviewer: Peter Hoekstra-Bass
On May 21, 1924, two young college students in Chicago committed what the press of the time would go on to call the crime of the century; this story is told across eighty gripping minutes in Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story.
The musical’s framing device is Leopold’s parole hearing, decades after events, as he recounts the crime to the parole board in the hope of earning his freedom. Leopold tells of his early relationship with Loeb and the lead-up to their crime. He paints his younger self as an impressionable young man, utterly enthralled and entwined with his friend-cum-lover-cum-rival, the dangerous and manipulative Loeb. Obssessed with themselves and each other, the young men are convinced of their own brilliance, and Loeb in particular with the writing of Friedrich Nietzsche. He envisions himself the Übermensch, above society and its laws. When a slew of petty crimes fails to satisfy this superiority complex, Loeb decides to hunt the ultimate thrill: murder.
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Intense and intimate, Thrill Me is an inventive two-handed show that lives and dies on the considerable talents of its two leads. Nathan Leopold is brought to life by the expressive Bart Lambert, who juggles well the role of unreliable narrator, ably affecting the manner of a much older man when addressing the parole board, and seamlessly slipping back into the frenetic energy of the younger Leopold. Jack Reitman’s Richard Loeb is seductive and serpentine, a linen-suited Mephistopheles who cracks just enough to let the uncertainty and fear show through when needed.
The book itself is adequate to the task, with enough interesting numbers never to lag, but don’t expect to see any of its songs topping the charts. Cursory research into the true Leopold and Loeb story shows that there is little in the way of consensus regarding the two men’s characters or the exact nature of their crimes and relationship, waters muddied by almost a century of rumour, hearsay and pop-cultural obfuscation.
The fixation on the sexual relationship between the two men is an unfortunate feature of the musical. Although it provides an engrossing anchor for the narrative, there is little enough queer representation in modern media, that telling such a grim, twisted story in such an overtly homoerotic way seems in bad taste, if not tone-deaf and salacious.
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Designer Rachael Taylor has ensured that, visually, the production is at the upper end of what can be expected of pub theatre. A wood-paneled set evokes the basement of a bygone era, walls papered with newspaper clippings pertaining to the murder, all joined by web of red string stretching across the walls and overhead, cleverly suggesting the classic “conspiracy wall”.
With the rise and rise of the true-crime genre across pop culture, Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb story is of the moment, engaging throughout, and executes a surprising and satisfying twist in the eleventh hour. Fans of unusual, modern musical theatre, or those with a penchant for the macabre are advised to catch it at the Hope Theatre before it escapes on April 20.
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