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! A Winter’s Tale @ The Warren, Brighton Fringe

Director: Myles O’Gorman
Assistant Director: Sophie Leydon
Producer: Frances Livesey
NEXT SHOWING: The Warren, Brighton – Sunday 26th May – 6pm

A Winter’s Tale is not the first Shakespeare play we recall, although it is named among the best of his final plays, and in this adaptation by Helikon Theatre Company I can certainly see why. This tale of desperate jealously and shocking tragedy was cleverly adapted to fit our modern world, and with their talented cast and creative directing, it was a wonderful performance.

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Emma Blacklay-Piech (Mamillius) and Rhonwen Cash (Hermione)

With a simple, modern set complete with a projector and live streaming camera, O’Gorman created an outlook which was immediately familiar with the audience. The camera was mainly used to display the King Leontes, played by ALRA graduate Conor Kennedy, addressing his subjects (the audience) to update them on political and personal matters. The days passing were also projected as well as intimate moments in the garden between Hermione, played by Lindsey Huebner, and Polixenes, played by Lanre Danmola, which were obviously  prerecorded yet added another layer to this dynamic production. However, using so much technology within a Fringe performance can cause problems… my only fault with this piece would be the technical cues and accuracy.

The colloquial phrases interspersed with the original Shakespeare text added comical moments and also allowed the audience’s auto-translator (which we all have watching Shakespeare… don’t lie) to take a break. The main actor, Kennedy, truly grasped the comical timing of Shakespearean as well as the adapted moments of modern text. The energy and emotion he brought to the space was honest and powerful, his portrayal of Leontes’ distracted mind, stubborn outlook on his wife’s affair, and later heartbreak was all spot-on and heartfelt.

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Conor Kennedy (Leontes)

This emotionally charged piece found creative ways to display the more challenging moments of the script, for example the three deaths which drives the plot and gives depth to the characters and the text. (No spoilers here!)

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This radical portrayal of A Winter’s Tale was refreshing, dynamic and most of all well performed. I would certainly recommend a trip to Brighton to catch the last showing!

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

REVIEW! Summer Street: The Hilarious Aussie Soap Opera Musical @ Waterloo East Theatre

Created and directed by Andrew Norris
Set design by Amy Mitchell
Performed by Julie Clare, Simon Snashall, Myke Cotton, and Sarah-Louise Young
13 May – 2 June, 2019

Writing a new musical is a very difficult and brave thing to do. Concept, story, script, libretto, music; all are essential to the creation of a new smash hit such as any budding creative would hope to add to their resumé. Summer Street is a new tilt at those windmills, robing itself in the campy, melodramatic world of the Australian soap-opera glory days of the 1990s to spin a story about love, obsession, addiction and betrayal; pretty much the topics you’d expect, really.

Summer Street is a deeply self-aware and self-deprecating portrayal of a world that never really existed. The writer’s self-professed obsession with Australian soaps oozes out of every second of the production, and though the Australian-ness of the show is little more than aesthetic, to quote a true Australian classic, “it’s the vibe of it” that sells the theme, grounded in a uniquely British view of Australia dominated by sunny days, washboard abs and optimistic alcoholism.

The world of Summer Street is brought to life by a tight cast of four, each portraying a former actor (washed-up to varying degrees) in the titular soap, as well as the several characters they play in a reunion special years after the show’s conclusion. Over two acts and over a dozen original songs we follow the cast of Summer Street as they struggle with what the show did to them and what they do to each other.

Summer Street’s original incarnation was as a juke-box musical constructed of pop hits of the 80s and 90s, which has since has had its unlicensed soundtrack replaced with original numbers, and unfortunately it shows. The juke-box musical is a peculiar beast which, with few exceptions, is fuelled mainly by nostalgia for old familiar tunes and the comedy value of seeing them in an unfamiliar, often surprising, context. Without those familiar classics – the Kylie, the AC/DC – the core of Summer Street feels somewhat hollow. Andrew Norris’ music and lyrics would be adequate in a show with a stronger book and meatier subject matter; they’re lightly amusing, provide a lot of over-the-top melodrama for the cast to work with, and showcase the singers’ abilities. However, they’re not strong or subversive enough to stand in for the pop canon they’re trying to replace. It’s telling that the standout songs, to me, were the ones that were most musical theatre-esque and least poppy (Take The Knife and Dear Mr Drew).

I have the feeling that the cast watched a lot of Home & Away and/or Neighbours to prepare for these roles, and that self-sacrifice shows. As I and my companion were both actual fair-dinkum Australians, I can say that their accents were absolutely bang-on (or appropriately exaggerated for the medium), and the only slip-ups I really caught were a couple of sentences which wandered over to Johannesburg, and a tendency to slip into loftier vowel sounds during the musical numbers (chance rhymes with ants Down Under, not aunts).

Speaking of aunts, Julie Clare as Steph/Mrs Mingle/Marlene’s accent was so uncannily good that, blindfolded, I would’ve sworn she was my gossipy Aunt Anne. With her self-assured air, she commanded every scene she was in, and could definitely give Kath and/or Kim a run for their money. Simon Snashall was similarly superb as the comically-but-tragically alcoholic Aussie male archetype, despite bravely battling a laryngitis that left him almost voiceless by the show’s end (it was truly impressive that he managed not only to stay on key, but also to put in a hilarious improvised but in-character line referencing his affliction). Myke Cotton as Paul had less to work with than his co-stars, but he did convincingly fill the role of a tanned toned hippy straight out of Byron Bay. The final cast member, Sarah-Louise Young, had the best singing voice, and the strength to make up for Snashall’s handicap. Her acting was just as strong: she was heart-breakingly compelling as Angie, adorably plucky as Bobbi, and absolutely side-splittingly hilarious as Sheila. I wished she had had more time in this final role, as her rollercoaster accent was a work of parody art, and true evidence that she had her ears open the three times she performed at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival (thanks, programme bio). I hope I can see her perform again in the near future.

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All in all, this was a strong cast in a show with some funny gags but just not quite enough substance to properly fill out its two-hour (including interval) run time. Perhaps as actual Australians, we just didn’t have the nostalgia for Aussie soaps which so many Brits seem to harbour, or perhaps experiencing a whole play in fluent ‘Strayan just doesn’t have the novelty value for us that it does for our English cousins. However, I can’t help but feel that the only way Summer Street could be a real hit would be to return to its jukebox roots, and songs that you just can’t get out of your head.

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Previous review: Drawing The Line by Hidden Track @ Deptford Lounge

REVIEW! Drawing The Line by Hidden Track @ Deptford Lounge

Written by Elliot Hughes
Directed by Anoushka Bonwick
Performed by Steph Reynolds, Nisal Cole, & Elliot Hughes
Produced by Beccy Smith for Hidden Track Theatre
9th – 25th May

Image credit: Rosie Powell

The theatre at Deptford Lounge is tucked away upstairs over a library, but it is a serious theatre space – large, versatile, and well-equipped. The audience and stage are contained within walls of black curtains, which make us feel like we are in our own little world. There is a large projector screen, which holds a message as the audience files in, thanking us for our presence and assuring that though this is interactive theatre, there is no pressure to take part. On each seat there is also a simple but elegant black card, reading in white letters NO, THANK YOU. We are to use it to opt out of any proffered interaction. For my companion, who is less seasoned in the ways of fringe theatre than I, this is very comforting, and allows me to convince her to sit in the front row with me. In front of us, the stage is empty, with no settings, backdrop (other than the projector), props (yet), or people. In the beginning, there was nothing.

The first signal that something is about to happen is when the projector’s looping welcome message disappears. In the sudden silence and darkness, three performers – two women and one man – begin telling a Creation myth. It’s one made up by Hidden Track for this show, and tells the story of a world in which resources spring into being from the Everything, allowing for all sorts of wonders, and all in this world, audience included, is separated into two halves by The Line (introduced on stage as a thick, heavy rope). Eventually, two nations spring up, each represented on stage by an actor as a “guardian spirit”, with the divide between them moderated by a supposedly neutral entity, the Lineswoman. Everything is cordial, with only slight underlying tension, until Points are introduced.

Points are the mechanic which encourages and rewards audience participation, and fosters competition between the two “nations”. Audience members can earn points by, as summarised by a character later in the story, “clapping, cheering, or yelling out random words” – or any other type of interaction. Basically, we have the power to name our guardian spirit, choose the national fauna, and build landmarks out of cardboard boxes – but it’s strictly a gap-fill kind of participation, with a tightly scripted plot which doesn’t allow for or rely on much improvisation. And that is not a criticism! It means that the show is always held firmly in grip, never spinning out of the performers’ control, and that momentum is kept up nicely. But there is just enough audience participation to keep us involved and entertained, and enough tongue-in-cheek self-awareness for it not to be twee.

Image credit: Rosie Powell

Unfortunately, this self-awareness, momentum, and audience interaction fades somewhat at the end. After a lengthy and often absurd or surreal allegory, the plot is wrapped up with some narration that feels both prolonged and rushed, not to mention didactic. Without the veneer of humour, the philosophical and political messages begin to feel patronising, and about as subtle as a brick: jingoism is bad, so is discrimination, inequality, us vs them mentalities, building walls, etc. The only concept that really makes me prick up my ears is a line about how “the system isn’t failing, it’s doing exactly what it’s designed to do”, but this isn’t really explored except as a springboard for symbolically dismantling the system.

Other than this uneven pacing, though, the show is incredibly slick for interactive theatre, well managed, aesthetically pleasing, and just plain fun. Irene Jade is to be congratulated for an elegantly miminal design, director Anoushka Bonwick for a tightly wound and polished production, and actors Steph Reynolds and Elliot Hughes for keeping the audience well in hand and excelling in their portrayals of a wide range of characters, especially the comic ones. If you’re new to interactive theatre, this is an excellent starting point, and I would especially recommend it to families who want some kid-friendly fun which might provide an opportunity to discuss some meaty topics on the way home. Be willing to put up a hand to take part (the interactions are anything but strenuous, I promise) and to spend the rest of the night brushing chalk off your jeans legs. If any of this appeals to you at all, make sure you get in line now to buy tickets for Drawing The Line.

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Previous review: Ish… by Georgie Jones @ The Roundhouse

Review! Ish… by Georgie Jones @ The Roundhouse

Written and Performed by Georgie Jones
Directed by Jenny Bakst
Presented in the Sackler Space, The Roundhouse
3rd May, 2019

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Georgie Jones is 25 (ish) and she’s cracked what it means to be a woman. Just kidding, she’s on the same messy journey as the rest of us; unpicking sexist conditioning, examining questions of philosophy and identity, and navigating the same pitfalls that have stymied generations of women and girls. In this one-woman show, she jumps back and forth through personal stories from various stages of her growing up, interweaving them with spoken word poetry, comically exuberant dancing to accompanying 90s jams, and faux lectures on the wide-ranging topic of femininity. Dressed in denim overalls and with a face bare of makeup, it was clear from the get-go that this show would be performed with honesty and strength of character and conviction.

From the press release, I had expected this show to be mainly about sex (mis)education and how it screws all of us over, and at first it did largely gravitate back towards this theme. However, as the show progressed, it tended to stray further into the more generalised and ambitious territories of love, existential crises, and identity. The viewpoints explored in these facets were relatable, eloquently put, funny, and clever, but I felt that the punch of the show was diluted by its attempted breadth of focus. This caused a lack of direction and momentum, which I suspect Jones felt as well, as her performance – so strong and self-assured at the start, hitting every beat and knowing her work inside out – became shakier as the show went on.

As a 25-year-old woman myself, much of Ish‘s content resounded with me very deeply, even though there were some very English references and rites of passage which hadn’t been part of my growing up Down Under. But the 90s nostalgia was strong, and catapulted me right back into a teenaged world where everything was at once much simpler (I was struck by how we were the last generation to escape high school mostly unscathed by the advent of mobile internet, cyber-bullying, and social media politics) and much, much more complicated. Jones portrayed this world with wit and warmth, poking fun at herself and us all whilst still treating her younger self with compassion and affection. There were laugh-out-loud moments, a lot of sympathetic groans, and winces of “yep, I was guilty of that too…” The early pubescent panic of staring at the hair removal methods on offer at the pharmacy was brought back to me viscerally, and the grateful love with which Jones spoke about her female friendships made me appreciate my own anew. Mentions of a possible rape and resulting trauma lent some balance to the emotional range of the piece, but could perhaps have been explored with more nuance and sensitivity to avoid emotional whiplash for the audience.

Overall, this was a strong start for a young performer, demonstrating formidable stage presence as well as a compelling way with words. Ish… itself has great potential, and a lot of sparkling gems scattered throughout its content. However, I feel that the script could benefit from some streamlining, possibly being pared back to its strongest core theme of sex education, what we weren’t told, and how we found it out along the way. If this were undertaken, it could be an excellent, punchy half-hour performance which would bring laughter and contemplation to a festival stage. But even as it is already, the merits of the show make it a very enjoyable hour of theatre, and will certainly engender discussion and personal reminiscence all the way home.

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Apologies to Georgie for the tardiness of this review, and thank you for the opportunity to attend your show. 

Previous review: Fighter @ Stratford Circus Arts Center

REVIEW! Maggie May by SDWC Productions @ the Finborough Theatre

Music and Lyrics: Lionel Bart
Book: Alun Owen
Director: Matthew Iliffe
Musical Director: Henry Brennan
Choreographer: Sam Spencer-Lane
Review by Peter Hoekstra-Bass and Sophia Halpin

James Darch and Kara Lily Hayworth in Maggie May at Finborough Theatre (courtesy Ali Wright) (4).jpg

Image credit: Ali Wright

When one hears of a revival of a musical that hasn’t seen the London stage for over fifty years, it is understandable to respond with a measure of scepticism. The stage is always hungry for vibrant musical productions, whether old or new, and five decades of West End silence do not speak well to a show’s calibre. The production at the Finborough Theatre proudly touts their season of Maggie May as the first professional UK production in over fifty years. I went in with moderated expectations.

Inspired by the folk ballad of the same name, Maggie May tells the story of two young lovers: Pat Casey, son and heir apparent of the once-and-future king of the docklands unionists, and Pat’s sweetheart – the titular heroine, a Liverpudlian sex worker-with-a-heart-of-gold. The show is unrepentantly political and working class, as most of the action is given over to the struggles of Casey and his friends against the establishment, personified in their corrupt union leader Willie Morgan.

While the refrains of “Solidarity Forever” seem to echo over almost every scene, the political backdrop of the story is rarely more than that, as the broad beats of the story could be put over any narrative aesthetic and work just as well. Indeed, in his role as the son of a union organiser murdered by the police and heir presumptive to his father’s position, Patrick Casey has more of Aragorn about him than he does Enjolras. And while the themes of social stratification, exploitation of workers, and economic hardship may still ring true today, the piece shows its age in its one-note depictions of women. It’s certainly the sort of mid-twentieth century musical in which the boys sing about politics, social change, identity, and personal destiny, and the girls sing about… boys.

Joshua Barton, Kara Lily Hayworth and Michael Nelson in Maggie May at Finborough Theatre (courtesy Ali Wright).jpg

Image credit: Ali Wright

By a significant margin, the weakest element of this revival of Maggie May is the book itself, which is to say that this is an excellent production of some mediocre material.

The cast (seemingly impossibly large for the pub-theatre scale of the production) is uniformly excellent, and it was hard to believe they had only been performing together for a few days. Whether in their roles as friends or foes, lovers or rivals, the chemistry was always vivid and convincing between all the characters, and the obvious comfort the cast had with each other was keenly felt by the audience.

In his role as the pauper prince Pat Casey, James Darch was charming and endlessly watchable; twinkle-eyed when he needed to be, but effortlessly powerful when he assumed his father’s mantle. Similarly, Kara Lily Hayworth inhabited the admittedly thin role of Maggie May with ease and made more of her Bechdel-Test-failing scenes than should have been possible. David Keller as the elder statesman and unionist true believer was always entertaining, and Mark Pearce’s slimy union leader brought just the right amount of Fagin and Thénardier to his scenes. Indeed, there is almost no member of the cast who does not deserve singling out, and some of the strongest scenes in the production were when the small, pub-theatre stage was filled to bursting with singing, dancing Liverpudlians.

Which brings me to one of the highlights of the production, namely: the dancing. Choreographer Sam Spencer-Lane has worked magic with this production, as her dance numbers, executed ever-so-tightly by the cast, seemed to grow the small venue to that of a West End theatre. This masterful use of the space, combined with Jonathan Simpson’s bold but effective lighting, made it easy to forget I was in a cosy attic upstairs of a pub – although, sat as I was in the front row, I did sometimes feel that I could catch a high kick to the face at any moment!

Michael Nelson, Kara Lily Hayworth and Joshua Barton in Maggie May at Finborough Theatre (courtesy Ali Wright).jpg

Image credit: Ali Wright

Before summarising my overall impression of this production of Maggie May, I must preface with a reiteration that the original text is not strong. There is certainly charm and linguistic interest in the language used – an appealing if often unintelligible docklands mixture of Scouser, Irish Gaelic, and Welsh – but the plot often felt as grey and grimy as Liverpool bilge water. What really brought this show to life was the superb skill and energy of the creatives involved, most especially the director, choreographer, and actors. While emotional investment in Liverpool and/or trade union politics of the 60s would probably enhance the experience, all you really need is a love of musical theatre to enjoy this show. But hurry, Maggie will be gone by May!

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Previous review: Sick @ Kings Head Theatre

REVIEW! A Hundred Words for Snow @ Trafalgar Studios

Writer: Tatty Hennessy
Director: Lucy Jane Atkinson
Performed by Gemma Barnett
5th March-30th March

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Photo credit: Nick Rutter

A Hundred Words for Snow is one of the best solo shows I have ever seen, masterfully directed by Lucy Jane Atkinson. The piece was beautifully written by Tatty Hennessy. Without a shadow of a doubt, it is a fantastic five star show.

The Show follows the story of Rory, a likeable and funny 15 year old girl, who sadly has just lost her dad. Rory’s dad was a geography teacher and would-be explorer. He planned an exciting and almost impossible trip to take Rory to the North Pole, but never had the chance. Rory begins a journey all the way from England to the North Pole, carrying her dad’s ashes in her backpack which she plans to scatter at the North Pole. It is so fantastic to see an empowering story about a strong, courageous but also perfectly normal teenage girl. A very refreshing change!

Gemma Barnett is a fantastic performer and a perfect casting for Rory! She has the audience in stitches throughout the piece and is a lovely but also painfully relatable portrayal of a young teenage girl. Gemma played all the characters in this piece, including her mum and the people she met along the way. I was so engaged in every single one of them that I felt like there were two people on stage. It was clear the audience absolutely loved Rory and were supporting her every step of the way.
The design of the show was great. Christianna Mason created a space which was beautiful and the audience believed for every second they were on Rory’s journey with her. There were several effects in the show which were a wonderful part of the storytelling, for example a fan blowing and suddenly the audience were transported into a helicopter in the north pole. I was completely magicked away from London and placed thousands of miles away, which is precisely the reason I adore theatre.

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Photo credit: Nick Rutter

A Hundred Words For Snow is a beautiful piece of theatre which I would highly recommend to everyone, with a faultless performance from Gemma Barnett. It’s fantastic to see this story being put on front of an audience and it is very important to show these stories of young girls. The story really was like nothing I have ever seen on a stage before and I loved it. I cried tears both of sadness and joy. This show will inspire you to go on an adventure, pick up a book or call your loved ones. Personally it reminded me of my childhood where I was desperate to go on adventures around the world like my parents had done. I have since become nervous and scared about doing this, but this show has inspired me to get out there and do it.
Unmissable.

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Previous review: It’s Not A Sprint Novae Theatre @ Vault Festival

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 Wollaton @ The Space

Director: Richard Weston
Actor & Writer: Chris Wollaton
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.

brawn

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