REVIEW! Welcome to the UK by PSYCHEdelight @ The Bunker

Director and Lighting Design: Sophie NL Besse
Assistant Director: Gareth Watkins
Music and Songs: Tamara Astor
Movement director: Peter Pearson
Running Dates: 22nd January – 16th February 2019

Welcome to the UK is a carnival comedy with a heart of gold. Created and performed by PSYCHEdelight – a company dedicated to giving asylum seekers a voice – whom are well known for their successful 2016 satire comedy Borderline. Welcome to the UK is the next chapter after Borderline, with a cast from 13 different countries all sharing moments of their personal journey through epic theatre techniques.

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Welcome to the UK Cast on stage at The Bunker. Photo: Jose Farinha

The fun circus style and patriotic set design of union jack coloured bunting and flags gave us a warm welcome as we entered the space. Opening with burst from the energetic compère, played by Reuben Williams, we are immediately asked to think of a dream and blow it into the balloon left on our seats. After direction we all threw our airy dreams (pardon the pun) onto the stage… only to realise the balloons were for the rifle range at this warped carnival and it was perhaps not going to be all fun and games after all.

The next 70 minutes was a whirlwind of fun fair activities masking the challenges refugees face when trying to claim asylum and build a future in the UK; menacing pigs in the haunted house portraying the fear in an arranged marriage, a home office interview displayed as a series of ridiculous questions from a mystical gypsy, a refugee’s struggle to meet tight deadlines reworked as a UV video game. Each scene was imaginative and comedy fuelled, however the show lacked slick transitions and the energy on stage regularly fluctuated.

Aesthetically the piece was very strong; the diverse ensemble using physical storytelling (such as a literal emotional roller-coaster, which certainly made me giggle), the bright (and sometimes sparkling) costumes, and most of all the intricate lighting design which was effectively utilised to change the atmosphere throughout.

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A scary Teresa May (Left) controlling the hamster whirl effect. Photo: Jose Farinha

The hostile environment created for the asylum seekers was a reflection of the UK’s decisions and policies, and this was clearly conveyed. There is no denying the importance of the show and the extremely current issues surrounding the topic. Watching the talented asylum seekers perform with such enthusiasm (particularly Mohand Hasb Alrsol Badr, who made me chuckle constantly) and listening to their experiences in a way that we can all learn and laugh was brilliant.

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An overly sympathetic ‘Mary Poppins’-esque character. Photo: Jose Farinha

PSYCHEdelight has again produced a platform for expression, and whilst making us giggle they provoke us to think, to consider, to empathise. During this wacky performance there was one particularly powerful and unsettling image; Abdulrahman Salama (a Syrian refugee) sat alone on the top of a ladder throughout with a single orange balloon, holding his phone and waiting in distress for news of his family. A constant reminder of the harsh reality between the laughs.

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Previous review: Outlying Islands, Atticist @ King’s Head Pub Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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REVIEW! BRAWN, Chris Wollanton @ The Space

Director: Richard Weston
Actor & Writer: Chris Wollanton
15th-19th January 2019

BRAWN is a one man show, and this one man is certainly more than enough. Chris Wollaton, who is not only the actor but also the writer, dominates the stage with his words and his chiselled physique.

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The Space is a great space for this minimalist piece of theatre; one black chair sandwiched by two large dumbbells. The fantastic acoustics guides Wollaton’s voice around the room, even at a whisper, which helps to transport us to Ryan’s garage-turned-gym where the play unfolds. Directed by Richard Weston, BRAWN shines a spotlight on the little known subject of muscle dysmorphia.

Ryan first enters the space in an obvious rush and starts working out almost immediately, raising his heart beat before removing his top. Bare chested he begins boasting in the ‘mirror’; “I’m a sexy beast.” These comic moments provide a light relief from the constant flow of gym culture.

Body obsessed Ryan gradually reveals aspects of his life which drove him to this physical and mental torment, which he obviously perceives it as a positive and focused mentality. The damage done by societies outlook on what masculinity is, and continuously advertising ‘perfection’ as a well defined muscular body, is evident and perhaps slightly repetitive. Ryan talks of how girls want to see a t-shirt tight against his ripped body, however he also delves into his past friendship with a girl from school which displays a softer side to him. These moments of gold where he forgets his weight lifting regime and shares heartfelt accounts with the audience shows the vulnerability underneath the lean figure. Chris Wollaton refers to this in the Q&A as a attempt to ‘influence men to notice what creates a real connection’.

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It is clear that the bigger Ryan’s muscles get the more suppressed his insecurities become. This is a sad fact of many young men with body dysmorphia growing up with a warped view of masculinity. BRAWN is a must-see play, full of energy and covering a rarely addressed topic but one of upmost importance nonetheless.

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Previous review: Seussical the Musical, Immersion Theatre @ Southwark Playhouse

REVIEW! Canary by Fun In The Oven @ Circomedia, Bristol

Director & Dramaturg: Andrea Jiménez
Movement Director: Noemi Fernández
Cast: Katie Tranter, Robyn Hambrook, Alys North
Next Show: 30th Nov 2018 (Newcastle)

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The three Canary Girls receiving their beloved letters. Photo Credit: Chris Bishop

I watched Canary at the UK’s largest circus centre; Ciromedia, in the heart of Bristol, and what a magnificent stage for an energetic company like ‘Fun in the Oven’ to perform on. There was an abundance of space but every inch was kept alive throughout by the capable performers, the genius comedy, and the representation of such a strong topic.

This topic being WW1’s Canary Girls (don’t worry, no one watching knew of them either!), thousands of courageous British women doing more than just ‘their bit for the war effort’. Due to the lack of men, these ‘unsung war heroes’ were assembling TNT bombs everyday in factories; extremely dangerous work which gave them a number of health issues… one of which turned their skin yellow! (hence the makeup choice in Canary). 

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Playing ‘Truth or dare’. Photo Credit: Chris Bishop

Whilst addressing this unique gem of history the talented cast showed us the life of three workers; confident supervisor Agnes, naive football lover Betty, and a slightly older upper class volunteer called Anne. After a quick clip of footage displaying some overly happy WW1 propaganda, Fun in the Oven takes hold our emotions, making us laugh, cry and in awe of their slick physically and strong ensemble. This was particularly prominent when they demonstrated how the women assemble the bombs, taking us through a conveyor belt of movements with a brilliant cheery voice over (by Lawrence Neale) encouraging them along.

After an air raid hits the factory we watch as their friendship blossoms even further and their hopes and fears unravel. We laughed through familiar games of truth or dare, secrets being shared, and were shocked by harsh realities. Although the most hard hitting moments were always cleverly uplifted with comedy, and superbly executed.

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Preparing to leave each other and return to their homes after the war ended. Photo Credit: Chris Bishop

One of the highlights of this performance (pardon the pun) was when the girls ate cordite. This is a dangerous explosive used for ammunition, but also gave the girls a buzz which made them work faster and let off some steam. This sequence of crazy facial expressions and comedy madness allowed for their characteristics to explode (I’ll stop with the puns) and was extremely well received by the audience. It also lead us through an emotional discovery of how the women perceived themselves within society and hierarchy during the early 1900’s.

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After taking Cordite… Photo Credit: Chris Bishop

Canary is a strong piece of physical theatre addressing and remembering these female heroes of Britain (and rightly so). You will not be able to take your eyes off these three talented performers, and you will certainly leave with your eyes open to a wonderful snippet of history and your cheeks aching from all the laughter. It would be utterly mad not to grab a ticket to this show!

Follow the link for more info: http://www.funintheoventheatre.com/

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REVIEW! A Dog’s Heart, Xameleon Theatre @ Theatre 21

Based on the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov
Director: Konstantin Kamensky
Producer: Vlada Lemeshevska
Cast: Oleg Sidorchik, Sergey Kotukh, Alexey Averkin, Eimas Minkelis, Vlada Lemeshevska
22 – 24 November 2018

Bulgakov’s satirical novel was, like much of his work, banned in Soviet Russia for over sixty years. The plot, somewhere between Frankenstein and Animal Farm, centers around a successful surgeon experimenting with eugenics by transplanting animal organs into humans, to create a peak human at peak health.

The opening of the book and the play is a far cry from these lofty ideals: an injured, desperate dog foraging through trash in the middle of winter. The dog is played with exceptional empathy and physicality by Sergey Kotukh. He’s not wearing any particular make up or costume but did make me forget, at times, that he was not a dog. He makes such a good dog, it’s even more painful to watch his slow transition into a terrible man.

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He is adopted, from the street, by the successful Professor Preobrazhensky (a name derived from the Russian word for transformation), who brings him back to his apartment and starts spoiling him. He gets a collar and is named Sharik – the Russian equivalent of Rex or Rover. He’s just becoming comfortable in his role as a gentleman’s dog when he’s sedated and operated on – the new subject of an experiment to see what happens when the pituitary gland and testicles of a man are transplanted into a dog.

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The Professor, Oleg Sidorchik, is as much a parody of the anti-communist bourgeois as the uncouth Sharik is a parody of the proletariat – there are no ethically sound characters or decisions in this show, only an uncomfortable black humour and dissection of class struggle. Is the issue with Sharik, who never asked for this? With the Professor, a stubborn, snobby nepotist who uses his connections to protect himself? With the fact that Sharik’s donor organs came from a criminal (who’s name may or may not have been a punning reference to Stalin)? How can we ask anyone to change their heart?

It’s a small, highly talented cast with excellent timing, performing in Russian. There are English surtitles, as you’ll often find in operas. It can be a little distracting to look back and forth – the action of the play moves faster, with more jokes than an opera. There are also multiple, mobile screens which partition the stage and have videos projected onto them. This worked extremely well in the first act, as a clever combination of live and recorded black and white video helped us understand the perspective of Sharik as he is adopted. These many projections became increasingly difficult to follow and focus on as the play progressed – I got the impression that the show had been designed for a differently shaped theatre entirely.

Despite the overuse of technology, the strength of the play is its cast. It’s a bleak story, distressingly relevant nearly one hundred years after it was written. It’s a funny, moving, thought-provoking play that’s well worth watching.

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Previous Review: How To Catch A Krampus by Sink the Pink @ Pleasance Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Previous review: Cuckoo by Lisa Carroll @ Soho Theatre

REVIEW! Cuckoo by Lisa Carroll @ Soho Theatre

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

Presented by Metal Rabbit Productions
13 November – 8 December 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVIEW! vessel, Sue MacLaine Company @ Battersea Arts Center

Writer/Director: Tess Agus
Performer/Assistant Director: Sue MacLaine
Performers/Collaborators: Angela Clerkin, Kailing Fu, Karline Grace Paseda
6 – 24 November

vessel is an experimental piece inspired by the writing of Judith Butler and the ancient practice of anchorage, where a member of clergy would voluntarily enter a cell for the remainder of their life. The anchoress – often a nun – would contemplate God and spirituality. The production tells us she has only three small windows which are all the communication she with the world until she dies and is buried in the grave she has dug for herself in the cell. 

Reflecting this, our four performers are isolated and static for much of the show – anchored in circles, seated, though they move their chairs in synchronised movement at moments, signifying a change in theme.

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If you’re with me so far, you know that this is a heavy show.

There’s no plot or character – simply four overlapping, almost identical monologues, presented in concert, the actor’s voices moving in and out of phase as they ask the audience to think about language, power, capitalism, sexuality, domesticity, violence – the personal and political.

The echoing voices, repeating and talking over each other, combined with low light projections of the text they read slipping across the backdrop, as well as a gentle, vivid ambient soundtrack designed by Owen Crouch, have a hypnotic quality – abstract art inviting abstracted thinking.

The text is dense – imagine two hundred thesis statements and a tone poem by Steve Reich – and only raises questions, answering them solely with increasing abstraction. It’s an unsatisfying piece, but this seems intentional – all good philosophy and poetry is semiotically open.

The actors, costumed by Holly Murray in outfits that suggest without directly referencing ecclesiastical clothes of different religions, express themselves almost entirely through voice and limited, ritualised gestures. We get the sense of these images, actions and questions recurring over and over throughout history.

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It’s a difficult show to talk about – I wouldn’t call it an enjoyable night out, but I may call it an important one.

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Previous review: Chutney @ The Bunker Theatre

 

REVIEW! Mirabel by Chris Goode @ Ovalhouse Theatre

Written and performed by Chris Goode
Director: Rebecca McCutcheon
Designer: Naomi Dawson
Presented by Chris Goode & Company
31 October – 18 November 2018

 

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Images courtesy of The Other Richard

It has been two days since I saw Chris Goode’s Mirabel at the Ovalhouse, and I can’t say that I’m much closer to having formed a solid opinion on it. Of course art doesn’t have to follow a conventional formula, make sense, or have a clear meaning, but the absence of all of these does make it difficult to review! In the absence of a grownup to lead me by the hand I, like Mirabel, will simply have to do the best I can.

The eponymous heroine of our story is an eight-year-old girl who wakes up in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Her parents are dead, and there is nobody with her except her teddy bear, who identifies as a Wolf. So she sets off to find a responsible grownup to tell. Tell what? Well, just… tell. Along the way, she builds a ragtag gang of friends including a rock called Baheegwing, a dog with laser eyes, an injured pilot who may or may not be a paedophile, a dog with laser eyes, and a bluebell called Salad. All of these creatures can talk, except Salad – don’t be stupid, she’s a bluebell. Chris Goode portrays all these characters, with only minor changes in voice to show dialogue (the character Urban is originally voiced with an impressively deep and spooky growl, but this is not consistent throughout).

That’s the plot, more or less, with the exception of an abrupt change of setting and mood at the end, as the story is turned on its head with a twist (I think?). The language is evocative, delivered lightly and matter-of-factly, with instances of beautiful evocative imagery, quirky abstractions, and moments that are straight-up horrifying and macabre. Goode stumbles a few times on the script, but only ever loses momentum momentarily. I am reminded throughout the piece of Douglas Adams, and his later books in the Hitchhiker’s Guide series – the ones where his droll absurd humour becomes more and more erratic and difficult to interpret. At one point in Mirabel there is a brief interlude featuring an animated projection to ethereal music; the animations (by Lou Sumray) are stark and gorgeous, yet eerie in a way that brings to mind the bunyip scene in Dot And The Kangaroo, a 70s cult classic which gave me nightmares as a child.

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Images courtesy of The Other Richard

These marriages of beauty and bizarre surreal freakiness characterise Mirabel, even down to costuming (almost-steampunk leather jacket and boots, blindfold) and set design (by Naomi Dawson – a succession of narrow strips of stage space, littered with rubble and debris, separated from one another by gauzy partitions which only become transparent when backlit). The dim lighting and ambiguity of the wreckage strewn over the stage means that your imagination – encouraged into overactivity by Goode’s lucid dream narration – fills in the gaps, and you can see the twisted hulk of a crashed airplane, a gaping fissure in the ground, or at one point an infanticidal giant lizard (although this turned out later to actually be a disembodied mannequin’s arm. Obviously). The presence of a small, sweet, naive yet determined young girl in such a dystopian nightmare enables many more such juxtaposing concepts, like Disney sticking plasters over a gaping self-inflicted wound.

For the most part, these contrasts are poignant and witty rather than self-indulgent and willfully edgy, but when the play crosses that line, boy does it cross it. I understand that instilling discomfort and confusion in the audience can be a valid artistic choice, but when done wrong, it can lead to sighing, eye-rolling, and watch-checking rather than stimulation, and unfortunately I ended this show in the former state. That said, I have spent the last two days gnawing on the concepts of this play like a (non-supernatural) dog on a bone, and I suppose that is ultimately what Goode was after. Certain types of theatregoers will find Mirabel a fascinating and challenging piece that really pushes boundaries; others will decree it bewildering tosh. Search within yourself to judge which camp you’ll likely fall into, before you decide to embark into the wilderness with Mirabel.

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REVIEW! Billy Bishop Goes to War, Proud Haddock @ Jermyn Street Theatre

Written by John Gray with Eric Peterson
Directed by Jimmy Walters
Designed by Daisy Blower
Featuring Charles Aitken and Oliver Beamish
31 October – 24 November 2018

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Image courtesy of Robert Workman

I have never been to Jermyn Street Theatre before. It is tucked away just off Piccadilly Circus, a modest little door on a quiet back street. I make my way downstairs to discover an intimate but bona fide theatre space, complete with audience seating upholstered in faded red, and one that is perfectly suited to this particular play. The theatre’s dim lighting, classic decor, and underground location make me feel like I stepped into a wartime bunker bar. The set is amazing, halfway between a mancave-type hideaway and a veteran’s private, personal museum. It is littered with wartime paraphernalia, framed black and white photographs, and various bits and pieces, each of which hints at its own backstory (even if we never discover the stories behind most of these objects). The rough wooden walls are plugged up in places with white canvas cloth – a parachute? – which allows for beautiful plays of light glowing through crevices and cracks.

After a while, the house lights go down and the jazz music quiets, and the veteran himself (played by Oliver Beamish) steps out into the stage space. He spends a few moments tidying up the cluttered space, beaming in nostalgia at each object he picks up, until an old pair of shoes transport him back in memory to a wartime dance. Dusting off an old piano in the corner, he begins to play and sing, and his younger self (Charles Aitken) steps onto stage and starts to tell the audience his story of when Billy Bishop went to war.

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Image courtesy of Robert Workman

Aitken’s Billy is almost eerily convincing as a young Canadian WW1 soldier (although admittedly, I don’t have much experience with Canadian accents myself) – in his faded army issue, and later aviator uniform, he seems to have stepped straight out of an old photograph. But it’s not just his costuming: even his vocal tonalities and facial mannerisms are spot-on, like your great-grandfather in the body of a young man. Taking the audience into his confidence, he charms us with his cheek and energy, magnetically inhabiting the space and transporting us back in time. His older self, for the main part, watches from the edge of the stage, providing piano backing and occasionally stepping in to embody various supporting characters (as does Aitken too, most comedically the women Lady St Helier and Lovely Helene).

Billy Bishop’s story is a true one, although fictionalised and romanticised somewhat in this play. An underachieving young Canadian who, despite a number of suspiciously timed injuries and illnesses, he joins the Army and sails to Europe to fight “the hun” for the British motherland. His exploits find him climbing in rank and altitude to become a fighter pilot, a captain, and a posterboy for the Colonial war efforts – but rarely do we feel like he is ever totally in control of his journey.

This is a superbly executed production. The acting is absolutely phenomenal, the period-appropriate music in turns droll and spellbinding, the pacing riveting, and all aspects of design – set, lighting, sound – flawless. It is rare to feel so completely transported in time and place, with that rare kind of beautifully eloquent writing and powerful delivery that can conjure up vivid images before your eyes. The set never changes, but with subtle and evocative support from the sound, music, and lighting designers (Dinah Mullen, Adam Gerber, and Arnim Friess), the audience is pulled along with Billy to witness the open airs of Canada, the luxury of London high society, the squalor and horror of the trenches, daring aerial battles, and much more besides. It is easy to see how Billy Bishop Goes To War is often billed as one of Canada’s greatest theatrical triumphs.

Billy Bishop Goes To War (Courtesy of Robert Workman) (10) Charles Aitken.jpg

Image courtesy of Robert Workman

That said, it was originally written forty years ago, and this does show in the way it at times feeds into outdated narratives and attitudes. It is true that Billy is presented as a very flawed and human hero, and that the play does explore the nightmarish, horrific side of war, and I realise that Billy’s perspectives and beliefs are representative of his character and era rather than those of the writers. However, I doubt that any play written today would present the glory and heroism of war as uncritically as Billy Bishop, let alone notions of Empire and the “colonial spirit”. It is difficult to tread the fine line between respecting fallen soldiers and painting them in rosy colours, and it is understandable why this play tends towards the latter, but in today’s present political climate – with tides of nationalism, war-mongering, male chauvinism, and imperialism on the rise worldwide – it seems to me to be irresponsible to produce a play which at times feels like a nostalgic homage to old-fashioned masculinity and patriotism. Don’t get me wrong, this play and production do acknowledge the futility and horror of war and send up blind jingoism (and especially the British), but not as much as the times require. Just today it was announced that the government is planning to increase numbers of  recruits from the Commonwealth for the British armed forces, and it struck me that Billy’s final scene speech to the next generation of colonial soldiers could serve wholesale as propaganda to aid enlistments for this change.

Despite this ideological cautioning, I would still heartily recommend this show as a classic piece of excellently produced theatre. Aitken’s performance, in particular, is phenomenal, and I would like to reiterate my admiration of the whole creative and design team. Get to the Jermyn Street Theatre and take to the skies with Billy before the end of this show’s run – just make sure to keep the real world in your sights.

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