REVIEW! Hitler’s Tasters by Michelle Kholos Brooks @ The Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Directed by Sarah Norris
Presented by New Light Theater Project
Greenside (Infirmary Street)

2nd – 24th August

Mary Katherine Kopp, Kaitlin Paige Longoria, and Hallie Griffin in Hitler’s Tasters. Image courtesy of Hunter Canning

Here’s the thing: for undergrad, I did a triple major in History, German Language & Culture, and Theatre Studies. Has this combination ever really come in useful? Until now, no, but when I saw the description of this show, I thought my moment had finally come. As it turned out, you don’t really need to know that much about German or History to understand Hitler’s Tasters. This disappointed me a little (as well, I suspect, as the American lady in the queue in front of me who promised her son that this would be an historically educational experience), but even if there wasn’t too much there to stimulate my German/History nerdery, it was still an engaging and technically interesting piece of theatre.

A new play by American playwright Michelle Kholos Brooks, Hitler’s Tasters follows the story of four girls – Hilda, Margot, Anna, and Liesel – who were conscripted to serve their country as tasters for the Fuehrer. It is true that there were a number of such women during WWII who were selected for this role of sampling all Hitler’s meals before he touched them, to check that the food was safe from poison, and one of them (the only survivor) was called Margot; but that’s about as far as the historical accuracy of this play stretches. Everything else is highly stylised invention, dressed in a superficial understanding of German history and culture.

This lack of historical accuracy, however, is something embraced by the play, which is more focused on exploring a thematic concept. To this end, it merges a historical setting with very modern elements, to create a strangely effective atmosphere of timelessness. The girls snap selfies on their phones and then gossip about the attractiveness of Clark Gable; they dance frenetically to electronic pop, then fret over how Aryan they are, and how marriageable. They spend interminably slow hours locked in a room, waiting for symptoms of poison to manifest, and they fill this time with exactly what you’d expect of teenaged girls from any era. They snipe, gossip, play Truth or Dare, braid each other’s hair, swap confessions and fears, philosophise about life and death, and descend into giggling fits of ecstasy over male celebrities. There are power plays, spiteful insults, and betrayals… as well as declarations of sisterhood and support. Each girl is given a distinctive personality, which the talented actors fine-tune and portray with skill. There is an interesting interplay between stereotypical teenaged girl cattiness and the undercurrents of very real  social danger – the knowledge hanging in the air that if one of these girls were to turn on another and report her for social non-conformity, the consequences would be much more serious than the normal high school ostracism.

Image courtesy of Hunter Canning

At first I found it a very distracting stylistic choice to have all the girls speak in heavy American accents, with heightened “valley girl” vocal inflections. I reasoned that it was probably to help the audience draw parallels with modern pop culture texts such as Mean Girls, and the image of the millennial teenaged girl which is distilled in its most concentrated and exaggerated form in American media. Upon realising that it was an entirely American production, with American actors and having toured in America, I now wonder if this was simply intended to be a functionally invisible accent choice, as Southern English accents probably would be if it were a British production. If so, that’s an interesting side effect of having taken the play trans-Atlantic, and not necessarily a negative one. I would, however, advise that the director and cast should do a quick bit of research into the pronunciation of those occasional German words sprinkled throughout – mainly for “father” and “mother” – as they sounded quite ridiculous spoken in American.

A stylistic choice that I did really enjoy was the abstract nature of the framing scenes; these were used to represent the actual meal tasting, which was presented as highly ritualised, with slickly choreographed physical movement and unsettling sound and lighting effects (kudos here to choreographer Ashlee Wasmund and production manager Christina Tang). Overall, the production values of this show were excellent, maintaining a consistent high quality throughout, from usage of the stage space through to the costume design. Sarah Norris is to be congratulated on her tight direction and evocative interpretation of the text. It is particularly relevant to us today to be reminded that fascism and far-right brainwashing can happen so insidiously that the end results just look like normal people; these young girls are both victim and complicit, and remain emphatically human throughout.

Kaitlin Paige Longoria and Hallie Griffin in Hitler’s Tasters. Image courtesy of Hunter Canning

Overall, I do realise that my gripes with Hitler’s Tasters are very subjective, and largely due to expectations of historical interest which the show never actually promised me. In the end, I’m sure the young boy in front of me in the line learned some snippets of history – even if it was just that Hitler was a vegetarian and loved his dog, that teaches the important lesson that evil doesn’t always seem it. Even though I think there was a missed opportunity for more historical, political, and social complexity within the text, this play still demonstrates the importance of empathy and trust, independent thinking, and bravery.

Tickets

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Previous review: Knot by Nikki & JD @ The Edinburgh Fringe Festival

REVIEW! Knot by Nikki & JD @ The Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Directed by Jean-Daniel Broussé, Nikki Rummer, and Rosamond Martin
Produced by Jacksons Lane 

Presented at the Assembly Roxy (Upstairs)
31st July – 25th August

Knot is a show about relationships. It is about relationships of all kind, romantic, platonic, professional, about the blurred lines between them and the lies we tell ourselves and each other in the pursuit and preservation of them, or in the creation of an interesting and credible piece of Fringe dance theatre.

The show is an excellent example of dance, acrobatics and circus skills by its two compelling performers, American Nikki Rummer and Frenchman JD Broussé. We are introduced to our two characters, playing heightened versions of themselves, as we find out how they met and began their relationship. But everything is not as it seems between our partners, as is explored over the subsequent hour of intense dance segments interspersed with minimalistic but effective monologues and duologues.

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Photo by David White

Particularly charming and enjoyable are the stylised, choreographed “fight” scenes between Nikki and JD, as they revert to child-like physicality, with all the pettiness and vindictiveness that youth can bring.

There is very little to this production from a technical standpoint. The stage is an entirely unadorned black box, there is nothing in the way of set or props (excepting the microphones the performers both use intermittently), they wear the simplest, most practical clothing (tight, acrobats’ garb in neutral colours), and the music is effective but unobtrusive, leaving nothing to distract the audience from the phenomenal acrobatic abilities of the performers. Were JD and Nikki less exceptional performers, the simplicity of the show that is built around them would be a detriment, but as it stands it places the focus exclusively where it should be.

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Photo by Laurent Cahu

This is unapologetically a piece of physical theatre, centring the bodies of its performers and the extraordinary things they can do with them. The narrative framing and snippets of acting accentuate and amplify the physical performances, and the emotion and nuance Nikki and JD are able to infuse into their dance and acrobatics all feeds back into the spoken segment. On their own, neither the physical performance nor the dialogue would make for a particularly engrossing show, but in combination they create an experience that is greater than the sum of its parts. Knot is not the most mind-blowing circus show you will see this Fringe, and it is not trying to be; but it is physically impressive, entertaining, and quietly subversive in its honesty.

This show may not, however, be the best introduction to physical theatre for the uninitiated. Its stark and minimalistic style does not give a viewer uncertain of their level of interest in the form a lot to hang onto. But for audiences with an established interest in acrobatics, dance, circus or physical theatre, Knot is a clean, crisp delight, an excellent palate cleanser between the often ostentatious and over-the-top norm of the Edinburgh Fringe.

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Previous review: Four Woke Baes by Jonathan Caren @ The Edinburgh Fringe Festival

REVIEW! Four Woke Baes by Jonathan Caren @ The Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Directed by Teddy Bergman
Produced by Hidden People and Something for the Weekend
Featuring Lyndsy Fonseca, Michael Braun, Matt Stadelmann, Quincey Dunn-Baker, and Noah Bean
Underbelly Cowgate (Belly Button)
1st – 25th August

With its faux-trendy, twitter friendly title it’s clear that Jonathan Caren’s Four Woke Baes wants to present itself as a funny, incisive examination of modern masculinity, its foibles, contradictions and conflicts. What it is instead is a fairly mundane comedy that embraces tropes and stereotypes of the “battle of the sexes” comedies that more belong in a past two decades gone than they do in 2019.

Dez (Noah Bean) is getting married, an occasion being marked by a bachelor party camping trip in the American wilderness with his three best friends, the bro-ish womaniser Boardman (Quincy Dunn-Baker), the neurotic vegan Sean (Matt Stadelmann), and the nine-year-marriage veteran Andre (Michael Braun). The drama comes when Emma (Lyndsy Fonseca), a provocative and beautiful nu-wave author, turns up, informs them that they are in her campsite, and begrudgingly agrees to share it.

Four Woke Baes (Courtesy of Karla Gowlett) (7) Noah Bean, Michael Braun, Quincey Dunn Baker and Matt Stadelmann.jpg

Photo by Karla Gowlett

Over the course of seventy five minutes, the failings of the four “woke baes” are revealed, and the apparent hollowness of their supposed progressive views laid bare. The problem is that the four baes are never shown to be particularly woke in the first place, giving them no high ground from which to fall, and all of their missteps are straw-mannishly contrived.

Credit must be given to Teddy Bergman’s direction of his cast, who make excellent work of the text. The various chemistries, romantic and bromantic, are believable, and the scenes themselves crackle along at a heady pace. Any ten minute snippet of the production could have easily been a pedestrian excerpt from a far more interesting show, but put all together the text is unable to support the skills of its actors.

Four Woke Baes (Courtesy of Karla Gowlett) (12) Quincey Dunn Baker, Noah Bean, Michael Braun and Matt Stadelmann.jpg

Photo by Karla Gowlett

With almost clockwork regularity every character has a twist, revelation or moment of character assassination that supposedly undercuts them or relationships in some way, I suppose to show the futility of attempting integrity in the modern world. The problem is that these beats never feel earned, so the next fifteen minutes of the play are spent justifying them post hoc, just in time for the next revelation to emerge and begin the cycle again. The show creates a cast of cliches and stereotypes, sets them up to fail, and then attempts to pass off passé cynicism as wisdom when they inevitably do.

But for the title and the occasional reference to Instagram or some other artifice of modern life, this play seems like an unwieldy transplant from the early 2000s, replete with manic pixie dream girl. Furthermore, for a show supposedly about “wokeness” it does an excellent job of objectifying its only female character, both in its centring of her as a sex object, and as a narrative one who exists only to facilitate the emotional journeys of the more fully realised male characters.

Four Woke Baes (Courtesy of Karla Gowlett) (11) Noah Bean and Lyndsy Fonseca.jpg

Photo by Karla Gowlett

In short this is a play about “wokeness” that seems to be written by someone who has heard of the concept but doesn’t actually understand what it is. One can claim satire, or irony, or provocativeness all one wants, but with such hollow lip service paid to its central conceit, such assertions inevitably ring false. The show is overtly heterosexual, white (the one non-white member of the cast was inhabiting the most cliched, American suburban, white picket fence character), and middle class; the very mention of feminism is almost a punch-line and speedily glossed over, where I was expecting earnest declarations of allyship from the baes, perhaps a misapplied “#metoo”.

I was excited by the idea of the show I thought I was seeing when I went into Four Woke Baes, but the truth of the performance did not live up to the promise of its title or its marketing copy. If you are looking for some idle entertainment, and the chance to recognise faces among the cast from American television, then Four Woke Baes is a decent enough way to pass an hour or so at the Fringe. Indeed, sitting in the theatre I was mostly enjoying myself, but with some distance from the show and the chance to reflect on its text and themes, even the excellent individual performances by the cast cannot hide its manifold flaws.

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Previous review: Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein @ Edinburgh Fringe Festival

REVIEW! Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein @ Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Presented by Underbelly and Manual Cinema
McEwan Hall, Bristo Square
31st July – 26th August 2019

I went into Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein having, as usual, done no prior research and with nothing but a vague preconception that as the description had included “shadow puppets” it’d probably be something quite small – cute and dinky. Upon entering the McEwan Hall, I instantly realised I was way off base. The domed hall is used for University of Edinburgh graduations, is decorated in Italian Renaissance style, and is huge (especially in comparison to most Fringe venues). The raked seating commanded a good view of the stage, cluttered with all sorts of technical paraphernalia, some of it quite weird and wonderful – very appropriate, given the story it would be used to tell. There were two large screens, one facing the audience and one perpendicular to us, a row of old-school overhead projectors, a camera, a number of musical instruments, and various seemingly random props. Then the house lights went down, and the show began.

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Photo by Michael Brosilow

It is so difficult to describe the breathtaking creative genius of this show, the mixture of art and technology, magic and science. Manual cinema really does seem the best description for it – we watched a film projected onto a big screen, while simultaneously watching it being created live on stage in front of us. It felt like watching a master pianist play the most exquisite symphony on a transparent piano, with all the inner workings laid bare. The end product, the film shown on the big screen, was elegantly beautiful in itself, but watching the cogs of the machine work with such perfect precision and ingenuity transformed the experience into something truly awe-inspiring.

The work takes the form of a story-within-a-story; we are first introduced to Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley, a novelist, pregnant and struggling to find artistic inspiration. Her husband, Percy, is a poet who loves his wife but unwittingly creates distance between them due to his devotion to his art. When Mary delivers her baby (“Clara”), she is overwhelmed with wonder at it as well as nervousness at the prospect of motherhood. When the baby dies unexpectedly in the night, it wounds her deeply, and creates a morbid preoccupation with death, the creation of life, and the deep bond between parent and child. Months later, on holiday in Geneva with her husband and Lord Byron, Mary enters into a competition with them to write a ghost story – and a nightmarish vision of her baby, reanimated in a flash of lightning, gives birth to the story which is said to have been the fore-runner to all sci-fi and gothic horror.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

I should note here: all of this is told without any dialogue, in black and white, with only silhouettic figures, using a bewitching blend of paper shadow puppetry and live actors, with soundscapes and backing music created onstage by live musicians. It is, frankly, exquisite. But as we now move into the secondary story – that of Frankenstein itself – another element is added into the mix: our actors (all women) move to the other side of the projection screen, and begin lending their faces as well as their silhouettes to the artwork in front of us. Mary undergoes a quick costume change to become her creation, Victor Frankenstein, and we step into his story. Eventually, a tertiary storyline and art style emerges, following the perspective of Frankenstein’s monster himself, brought to life as a physical puppet. The three storylines intertwine with incredible poignancy, drama, and just the right amount of gruesomeness.

Manual Cinema has taken some liberties with both history (Shelley wrote Frankenstein before her marriage to Percy, and Clara was her third child, not the first one who died in the night) and the tale of Frankenstein, but I doubt this will bother avid Frankenstein fans given how achingly true it is to the messages and sentiment of the original novel. The lack of dialogue, the old-fashioned silent movie stylings, the mechanical genius, the emotional depth, the melodramatic rendering, and the underlying mysticism make this quite possibly the best interpretation of the classic text ever to have been made (yep, I just said that). If you are at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year, you simply must see it (ignore the silly corniness of the posters, they’re a bad representation of this beautiful piece of art). In this production, Manual Cinema has brought life to a truly miraculous creation.

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Manual Cinema’s ‘Frankenstein’ Official Edinburgh 2019 Trailer from Manual Cinema on Vimeo.

Previous review: Mating in Captivity @ The King’s Head Theatre

REVIEW! Libertalia by Gary Lockley @ The Golden Hinde

Written and directed by Gary Lockley
Presented by the Golden Hinde
Featuring Nathalia Campbell-Smith, Patrick Strain, DK Ugonna, and David West
Thursday 15th August – 5th September 2019

If you’ve spent much time in London at all, chances are you’ve wandered past The Golden Hinde, a reconstruction of Francis Drake’s sixteenth century galleon, now moored on the South Bank and a popular tourist attraction. Perhaps you’ve even surrendered a fiver to step on board, and viewed the ship’s compartments and faux-historical furnishings. But have you ever taken part in a pirate summit deep in the bowls of the ship, and investigated its cabins and crew to uncover dark secrets and dastardly deeds?

Probably not, but starting this week there will be an opportunity to do just that, as the Hinde will be commandeered out of hours by the immersive theatre show Libertalia. Inspired by Captain Charles Johnson’s “A general history of pyrates”, the TV show Black Sails, and video game Uncharted, this story takes place during the Golden Age of Sail and the height of New World colonialism and mercantilism. Upon boarding the ship, audience members are sorted into four “crews”, each with an allegiance to a different pirate captains. These captains are played by the show’s four actors, each based on a real historical pirate. We have all been summoned here, we are told, by the revered Captain Tew, who wishes to tell us about his plans to found a free pirate colony called Libertalia – but who will lead this colony? And are the sails the only things on this ship that are rigged?

What follows this initial scene-setting induction is two hours of high seas intrigue and scandal, as audience members are encouraged to explore the ship and follow the actors around to witness snippets of dialogue which gradually reveal that something fishy is going on. Is there more than meets the “aye” to these pirate captains?

Libertalia is creator Gary Lockley’s first foray into writing site-specific interactive theatre, and he set the bar high for himself by securing such an impressive and evocative venue. Unfortunately, it’s a difficult genre of performance to master, filled with volatile elements and delicate lines to tread, and despite some excellent moments, it quickly became clear that this piece could have done with guidance from someone more experienced in the field. I (and other audience members, as we discussed abovedecks after the show) often found ourselves searching for depths and details which were simply not there: a diary left unguarded in the captain’s quarters turned out to be disappointingly empty, two audience members told me of how they riffled through an entire trunk of blankets only to find that it was just that, and though our captains gave us the vague directions to mingle with other crews to “find out information”, it quickly became clear that none of us had actually been given any tidbits to guard. In the age of Sleep No More and other rich, multi-layered immersive experiences, this felt somewhat underdeveloped.

That said, there were some wonderful moments of immersion and interaction. Finding a coded message and banding together with rival audience members to decode it – hunched over ragged bits of parchment, scrawling out messages and discovering plot twists together – was excellent, as was singing a sea shanty with these newfound comrades later on. Interacting with the actors was great fun; I especially loved talking to Nathalia Campbell-Smith as Anne Bonny, and hearing about the woes and escapades of this real historical woman (more of this in future, please!). The cast had great chemistry with each other, and all the actors were animated, funny, and commanded attention and interest, as well as being able to improvise well with each other and the audience. Lastly, but most obviously, the ship herself was both stage and star of this show, and the undeniable coolness of pretending to be a pirate in an actual (reproduction) pirate’s ship was more than worth all the bumps to the head.

Without wanting to spoil the story’s ending, I do have to note that it quickly became clear that as the audience, our actions – our subterfuge and investigations and conspiring – had no real impact on the plot. While it’s absolutely possible to have great immersive theatre which provides the illusion of agency but whose story is ultimately pre-determined (the Gatsby immersive experience is a successful example), that illusion is key. Otherwise, all the audience’s efforts begin to feel like meaningless busy-ness, a filler between watching actors perform rehearsed scenes. This was the case in Libertalia, and resulted in a lot of dead time where we ended up making real-life small talk with strangers, or filling our (hour)glasses at the below-decks bar. This could be remedied by including more sub-plots, even if they don’t lead anywhere, deeper world- and character-building, and more active parts and activities for the audience to undertake; again, see Gatsby for examples of all this.

When the final scene played out, it was unsurprising to all of us who had put together the pieces much earlier on in the evening, but nevertheless a fun bit of drama. This was watered down somewhat by a parting monologue which aimed for rousing but landed on emptily didactic, full of vague platitudes about freedom and unity that could equally have been denouncing Brexit or supporting it (and what with the historical setting, and inclusion of a freed slave character as well as colonial privateers, there was so much more potential for meaningful exploration of complex themes). At the journey’s end, I disembarked the ship having had fun, but feeling that Libertalia’s maiden voyage left quite a bit to be desired. Hopefully the show will continue to evolve and adapt, as it could become something truly special.

Could also do with a talking parrot.

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Previous review: Naked People Waking Up @ Etcetera Theatre, Camden Fringe

REVIEW! Mating in Captivity @ The King’s Head Theatre

Flo Taylor Productions associated with We are Kilter
Mating in Captivity
The King’s Head Theatre
30th July- 4th August 

Mating in Captivity is a fast-paced and funny comedy show. Written by New Zealand writer Oliver Page, it is currently at The King’s Head Theatre for the European premiere of the play. The second night of its run saw an excited audience in the house, who proceeded to find themselves in stitches for most of the performance.

Mating in Captivity

Photo credit: Jack Whitney

The play starts off with a bang as Annie and Rob burst into their flat ready for a night of passion on their wedding night. However, what happens next is a surprise for everyone (especially Annie): as she gets ready to prepare the bed, she finds a stark naked man under the covers. As events unfold, it transpires that the man (Jacob) is not a psychopath, as she thought at first, but Rob’s long lost ex-boyfriend. There are several more surprises in store for Annie and the audience as the story develops. 

The play is masterfully directed by Ed Theakston, who insures the action is fast-paced and full of energy. The dialogue is very funny, with some outrageous jokes which had us in the audience gasping. However, it would be great to see some contrast in the play and the characters to expose the gritty reality in the story. The characters (again, especially Annie) are upset and confused at times but these moments still come across as comical. It would be great to see a different and more serious side to the action.

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Photo credit: Jack Whitney

All three actors are brilliant and there is a great relationship between them on stage. Jane Christie plays a confused and witty Annie who is not afraid of saying what she thinks. Annie has a wild side but it would be nice to see more of a sensitive aspect to this character as well. Rowland Stirling plays an anxious and chaotic Rob who is a hilarious and sometimes ridiculous character. He is very charming and you can clearly see why Annie and Jacob like him so much. Finally, there is poor Jacob, played by George Rennie, who is stuck in very awkward circumstances. Jacob is very likable and the audience feels a lot of sympathy for him. He tries to get out of the situation several times but always fails because of his lust for Rob and a hard push from Annie. 

Mating in Captivity is an excellent, outrageous comedy with an outstanding cast. It would be great to see this play developed further as I think it has a lot of potential.

Tickets

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Previous review: Lovers Anonymous @ The Space

 

 

 

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.

Spitfire Faye

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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