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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SCOTLAND! @ Mission Theatre, Bath

Created and Performed by The Latebloomers

Next Show: Small Beer Brew Co, London, 1st December

Friday evening in the quaint Mission Theatre there was a hilarious physical exploration of Scottish culture by The Latebloomers Theatre Company. The trio of clowns took to the stage covered in a mismatch of tartan and lead us on an adventure with there award winning original show ‘SCOTLAND!’.

Sam Dugmore, Jonathan Tilley and Oliver Nilsson, whom all trained at École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq (A.K.A one of the best clown schools in the world), created the perfect dynamic on stage; their individual clowns contrasted one another brilliantly and each personality was equally displayed (and loved). Also, their ability to work as an ensemble and fluidly react together was flawless. For instance at the beginning they performed an impressive body percussion song (slapping each other all over the place… in rhythm, of course) which at moments was completely captivating yet still ridiculously funny.

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The minimalist style of the piece was a great choice as it allowed the space to be filled with the performers energy and physicality, and also encouraged the audience’s imagination to blossom. Just 3 plain stools, some whiskey and shortbread, and a moose head helmet was all that was needed… their ridiculous facial expressions and perfect comic timing did the rest!

The three man-clowns took the audience through the stereotypical Scottish life, regularly getting them involved and even up on stage several times! One of my favourite moments being when Nilsson stuck a moose head helmet (yes I’m being serious) on an audience member and they performed a lengthy, larger than life, hilarious hunting scene which the poor bloke had to then attempt to copy with the helmet on! Safe to say it had the whole room in fits of laughter and it certainly wasn’t the only time. Audience interaction is always risk, as you never know the outcome, but these three performers used their experience and improvisation skills (plus some cheekiness) and it certainly paid off.

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SCOTLAND! is one of those performances you could watch every night for a week and still go back for more. The lighthearted storyline (with a slight turn at the end) will have you exploring the hills of Scotland (from the warmth of your seat), falling in love with the utterly bonkers antics of The Latebloomers, and crying with laughter. Why would you miss it?! (p.s – your cheeks will hurt afterwards and you’ll be trying the Scottish accent all the way home!)

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Unexploded Ordnances (UXO), Split Britches (Tour)

15 – 19 May, 2018 @ The Barbican

by Lois Weaver, Peggy Shaw, & Hannah Maxwell
Directed by Lois Weaver

More dates in Glasgow, Battersea and more – click here for details

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Photography by Theo Cote

 

 

American duo Split Britches bring their unique exploration of anxiety to our shores. UXO is a conversation about calamity, built heavily around the themes and imagery of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).

The production is not your usual theatre piece, but rather a public discussion using theatrical elements. Audience members are invited onto the stage to form a ‘Council of Elders’ in a perfectly designed Dr. Strangelove Situation Room.

It’s an interesting show. It’s a look at that feeling of inescapable dread that seems to permeate everything nowadays. Cleverly, it uses the metaphor of unexploded ordinances as both symbol of the hidden dread around us, and of unexplored desires waiting to burst forth. Doom and hope.

The characters, inspired by George C. Scott’s General Turgidson and Peter Sellers’ President Muffley, are hilariously performed. Played by Weaver and Shaw, the pair give worthy tribute to some of the film’s iconic moments. They are wonderfully comic performers.

Lois Weaver duels as the night’s MC and head panellist to the ‘Council of Elders’. She leads the discussion, talking to the Council about their desires and fears (with social media being the overwhelmingly main concern tonight. As a non-elder I can’t help but feel our generations receive our existential dreads from vastly different places, but I digress…)

They provoked some interesting discussion, but as the show relies on its Council for its content, it’s at the mercy of those audience members to provide the meat of the show. It’s the audience that ultimately provides the biggest laughs and the most moving moments.

One problem with this is that not every audience member is created equal in the oratory department, and though managed well, not every audience member necessarily opens the lid on an issue with the same nuance. It also means that the discussion lacks a single direction therefore can’t go particularly deep.

On the other hand, some of the anecdotes and human moments that were brought to the stage tonight were often funny and really touching, and the mission to discuss these fears; to have an open public sharing of anxieties and attempt to find creative solutions, is an important one.

So yes, an interesting and thought-provoking show, though not one that gets the heart pounding.

 

 

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Tickets / www.barbican.org.uk/

Reared, Bold & Saucy @ Theatre503

4 – 28 April, 2018
by John Fitzpatrick
Directed by Sarah Davey-Hull

Bold & Saucy Theatre Company

Reared Production PhotosTheatre 503

Photography courtesy of The Other Richard

BAFTA nominated writer John Fitzpatrick has delivered a moving and marvellously engaging fly-on-the-wall family drama. It’s a character-driven piece full of surprises, dark comedy and heartfelt moments held together by a terrifically talented cast as three generations of women clash and struggle in a too-small house.

Shelley Atkinson is pitch-perfect in the role of strained wife Eileen, vainly trying to keep her household from falling apart as tensions mount. Paddy Glynn is wonderful as Nora, the acerbic and increasingly senile mother-in-law whose performance pendulums from hilarious to heart-breaking. Danielle Phillips’ rebellious teenage Caitlin too is a joy to watch, unexpectedly delivering my favourite rendition of a Lady Macbeth speech that I’ve ever seen, along with bitter sarcasm and vulnerable moments of confession as she tries to find her way. Adding to the chaos and comedy are Daniel Crossley as the avoidant and ineffectual father, and Rohan Nedd who is side-splitting as a clueless teenage love interest. They are all an absolute pleasure to watch.

In addition, Sammy Dowson has designed a set that feels like it’s been moved wholesale from someone’s actual house. It’s incredibly detailed, reeling you in from the moment you enter the space. A half empty bottle of washing-up liquid and drying dishes sit by the sink, empty wine bottles stand by the recycling bin, childhood memorabilia hang from the walls, and innumerable other pieces of family detritus clutter every available surface.

The play leaves some unanswered questions, but I was glued to my seat from beginning to end. With dynamic direction and intelligent writing, this is not a show to be easily missed.

 

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The Sleeper, Anima Theatre Company @ The Space

3 – 14 April, 2018

Written & directed by Henry C. Krempels

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On an overnight train across Europe, a British woman finds a Syrian refugee in her bed. Longlisted for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, The Sleeper unfolds as a fascinating and thought-provoking exploration of some of the twisted morality that surrounds the Syrian refugee crises.

The play draws largely from a real-life incident of writer/director Henry C Krempels, and the play very much feels like Krempel’s attempt to come to terms with his deeply affecting experience. We watch and rewatch the discovery of a young refugee girl on the train by a British woman and the train’s manager. These characters attempt again and again to uncover the truth about their unexpected guest before, suddenly, the narrative is flipped inside-out to be told from the refugee’s perspective. And by ‘the refugee’s perspective’, I actually mean ‘the actor’s perspective’.

It gets a little surreal.

The meta elements become fairly extreme, with actors breaking the fourth-wall and talking about the play analytically, questioning the narrative and characters that have been built and developed up to that point.

On the one hand, I found this incredibly jarring. Literally being told by the actors that everything you’ve just seen is meaningless goes quite a long way to undermine all narrative tension and development built to that point.

And yet, on the other hand, it’s this level of self-analysis that makes the play as unique and thought-provoking as it is. Touching on themes of privilege, moral obligation and guilt, it’s a sharp reminder that our views on the global refugee crisis can be woefully out-of-touch.

The story is helped along by it’s simple and creative set (by Jasmine Swan), and the strong cast. Sarah Agha brings wonderful power to her role. A refugee character is so often reduced to being nothing but a victim of circumstance, and one of triumphs of the play for me was seeing something a lot deeper. A refugee who is angry; frustrated by her predicament and by our overly-simplistic understanding of her narrative. Michelle Fahrenheim gives a sympathetic performance as a kind, yet naïve British traveller, whilst Joshua Jacob does a superb job as the pragmatic and occasionally sinister train conductor.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, The Space programs incredibly ambitious and interesting work. Though I don’t always agree with every creative decision made in its walls, it’s a venue worth supporting, and the shows leave you thinking. The Sleeper is a case in point.

 

 

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Mirrors Siobhan McMillan @ Leicester Square Theatre

28 March – 14 April
Written and performed by Siobhan McMillan
Directed by Gabbi Maddocks

Mirrors 4. Pic Credit Thomas Ashton.JPG

Mirrors, Siobhan McMillan’s comedy at the Leicester Square Theatre, is as strange as it is dark. It is a playful, disturbing romp through a world of fairytales, online beauty bloggers, and female desperation.

McMillan begins the show as ShyGirl, a wildly unsuccessful youtube personality tormented by being constantly undervalued and stood up, and her own insecurities. In her desperation, she summons Shivvers, a witch, whose cunning and ruthlessness are matched only by the fragility of her ego.

Most of the piece follows Shivvers, on a quest to find (and murder) the woman who has usurped her throne as “the fairest of them all.” On her way to this goal, she meets a series of strange characters, each exploring a different element of ShyGirl’s insecurity.

Shivvers is played by McMillan, along with all of the other characters. McMillan brings a lively and playful energy to her roles, and has a genuine, self-deprecating comic energy that breathes life into the story. It felt as though some of the storytelling in the piece could have been made a more clear, as so much of the audience’s experience relies on McMillan’s narration, and I found we were occasionally left behind as our storyteller jumped to the next moment before we had fully grasped the last one.

Though the piece explores some very interesting feminist themes, I personally would have preferred if more work had been done to make the message surrounding those themes somewhat clearer. Though I eventually came to realize that (spoiler alert?) Shivvers was travelling through ShyGirl’s subconscious, that relationship was never made completely clear, and by the end I was left slightly befuddled as to what, exactly, the piece was saying. It was clear we were following an evil character committing evil deeds in the name of toxic female competition and false beauty standards, but what exactly McMillan and director Gabbi Maddocks wanted to communicate about that never quite made it across.

Though some of the themes seemed unclear, and the storytelling sometimes left me behind, Mirrors is a largely enjoyable dark fairytale romp. It creates a world, one of deep shame and insecurity, that can only be soothed with ruthless aggression and vicious competition.
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Thirsty! Tori Scott @ The Vaults

14th March- 18th March
Performed by Tori Scott

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Tori Scott’s Thirsty! is a freewheeling hour of cabaret, filled with salacious humour and honestly affecting songs. Scott slings together risqué vignettes taken from her own life with numbers ranging from Judy Garland to Janelle Monae. The result is ribald fun and an authentic New York cabaret atmosphere.

Tori Scott’s comedy is generously self deprecating, and she delivers punchlines with hilarious frankness. Her stories all riff on the theme of “thirst,” whether that be thirst for booze, and the joyfully depraved places that’s led her, or plain old sexual desire. At some point in the performance she refers to the piece as a cautionary tale, but there’s no real narrative connecting the stories, nor does our heroine seem to learn any real lessons from her experiences. Tori Scott doesn’t really want to teach us anything, she just wants to entertain, and on that level she certainly succeeds.

What surprised me was exactly how she goes about doing that. While the humour is bawdy and the comedy sharp, the real joy for me came from the singing, accompanied by Scott’s appropriately named band, The Shame Spirals. Scott is an extremely talented and skillful singer, and the generosity that she brings to her comedy is doubly present in her singing. She sings with both self-assured panache and honest, soul-baring emotion. It caught me off guard: one moment I was hearing a particularly suggestive bit about making eye contact with a public masturbator on the New York subway, and the next I was hearing a surprisingly soulful cover of Hozier’s ‘Take Me To Church.’ Like mixing sweet and salty, the contrast makes both stronger, and the variety brings a zesty flavour to the proceedings.

I did feel that the performance was slightly let down by its venue. Not by the Vault Festival in general (which is a perfect match for Scott, with its neon underground atmosphere and ready access to alcohol) but by the Crescent theatre specifically. The Crescent is a fairly conventional, pros-arch space, about as conventional as one can get in a disused underground tunnel. I’m no expert in cabaret, but to my understanding it’s most often performed in more of a pub or comedy club atmosphere, with audiences sat around tables and, crucially, the ability to get up and order more drinks. The dead-on nature of the proscenium arch and “latecomers will not be admitted” atmosphere all felt a bit too formal, and jarred slightly with the very loose energy of the show. However, I’m nitpicking, as the fun electric vibes of the Vault festival more than make up for the slightly over-formal structure of the Crecent.

If Thirsty! sounds like it would appeal to you, here’s my advice: Show up early. Take a few friends with you. Preferably, some or all of you will be gay men. This is to best enjoy Tori Scott’s many references to gay culture, terminology, and dating apps, but is by no means a requirement. Spend some time at one of the Vault Festival’s many bars, soak in the underground atmosphere, and have at least a couple of drinks. Then, get ready to sit back and enjoy some raunchy, entertaining cabaret.

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Frankenstein Burn Bright Theatre @ The Space

20th February – 10th March
Burn Bright Theatre 
Adapted by Isabel Dixon
Directed by Katherine Timms
Starring Danielle Winter and Elizabeth Schenk

Danielle Winter Frankenstein

Sam Elwin Photography

Though thought-provoking, and grotesquely thrilling, Burn Bright’s Frankenstein is held back by its decision not to diverge more from the original novella. The first and most pressing way that this manifests is in its plotting. The decision to remain faithful to Shelley’s work is understandable (Frankenstein is a brilliant book after all), but it causes some problems in the pacing of the show. The story of the novella is structured in a series of arcs: the framing scenes on the arctic expedition, Frankenstein’s creation of the Monster and his flight from his home, the Monster’s description of its time living among the family in the cottage, etc. Each of these arcs serves as a self-contained episode of the story, with its own central conflict and emotional climax. Though this works well in the novella form, a problem arises when the same story is adapted to the stage — there are too many “big moments,” and not enough time spent on each one for any of them to have real weight. Why not elide some of these plot points, or cut them altogether? Why can’t we spend more time on the good stuff?

And there is a lot of good stuff to be had here. The core performances are stellar: Danielle Winter bestows this particular version of Doctor Frankenstein with a compelling mix of magnetic obsession and humanizing doubt, and Elizabeth Schenk’s Creature is truly fascinating. A loping, electric, gleeful presence, equally terrifying and beguiling. She charges the room with real horror whenever she appears, and sends a chill through the audience when we hear her bounding and cackling around us, in the shadows. Together, they achieve some wonderful moments of on-stage dread. The scene in which the Monster is first “born” was both nightmarish and exhilarating.

Supporting these performances is some legitimately thrilling direction from Katherine Timms and movement work from the rest of the cast. The scenes in the lab, in which the ensemble form the various mechanical and occult grotesques that Frankenstein uses to achieve her ghoulish ends, are particularly thrilling, macabre fun.

But most interesting of all are the ways that the piece chooses to diverge from the original. The most obvious of these is the decision to make both the Doctor and the Monster women. There are some thought-provoking ways they adapt the plot of the novella here: the Doctor in this version is Elizabeth Frankenstein, adopted daughter of the Frankenstein family. The Monster is also played by a female-presenting person, and though it was less explicit in the text of the piece (the Doctor tends to use the genderless “it” pronoun when referring to the creature) the implication seems to be that it is also female. Unlike Victor Frankenstein, Elizabeth Frankenstein cannot attend university. In this story, she is an entirely self-made and self-taught woman, learning to create life itself through the power of her will and intelligence alone. She is also unable to leave her family home after the death of her father, implying her obsession with reanimation might be an expression of her suffocated freedom. If she cannot defy the laws of the era and attend university, she will defy the very laws of mortality. There is also a fascinating parallel drawn between Elizabeth’s desire for acceptance, as both a woman in a misogynistic society and as an adopted child in close-knit household, and the Monster’s desire for acceptance by humanity.

However, the structural flaws prevent the piece from really diving into these ideas. Whenever we start to explore the very interesting territory that these choices open up, the piece is forced to move on to the next plot point. As a result, the play feels unfocused. In hewing so close to the plot of the novel, it tries to cover too much ground, and misses out on a chance to explore the really fascinating questions that make it special. I would have loved to see this piece if it was a little tighter in scope, and a little more willing to twist and mould the original story to its own ends. There is the nugget of a truly inspired story in this piece, one that explores what happens to a brilliant mind when it is not allowed to freely express itself, one that riffs off of Mary Shelley’s original story and develops its themes into a unique artistic statement. However, because the play doesn’t allow itself the time to tell that story, it never really comes to fruition. We the audience just see glimpses of it, peeking through a faithful but unfocused adaptation of Shelley’s classic novella.

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Hilda and Virginia @ Jermyn Street Theatre

27th February – 3rd March, 2018

by Maureen Duffy

Directed by Natasha Rickman
Performed by Sarah Crowden

Sarah Crowden in Hilda and Virginia, Jermyn Street Theatre, credit of Harry Livingstone. (10)

Part of the ‘Scandal’ season at the Jermyn Street Theatre, the play is a double-bill following the stories of two remarkable women. The first is Virginia Woolf, who uncovers the secrets, affairs and scandals behind her novels. The second is Hilda of Whitby, a rebellious saint from the 1st century BCE who faces a crisis of faith.

Both women are played by Sarah Crowden in this ambitious duel-story one-woman show.

Crowden’s gives an often sympathetic and charming performance. The characters are distinct and often lovable. The design changes completely between halves, going from book-filled writing office to medieval chamber incredibly effectively. Books and skulls, candles and tapestries help deliver the worlds of the play convincingly.

The action in the play however suffered from a distinct lack of subtlety. ‘I’m brilliant!’ declares Virginia, standing on a chair, before clambering down for the next line as if nothing had happened. ‘I took drugs’ she confides, extracting a bottle from a hollow book, showing us, and then taking a swig to illustrate the point. Then, whenever angry, she knocked the books to the ground.

These sorts of actions permeated the performance. Sometimes they worked, but more often they didn’t. They sometimes left the production feeling as hollow as the books.

The text itself provides interesting glimpses into the personalities of Hilda and Virginia. Insights into their lives and inner-conflicts. Duffy’s writing and Crowden’s performance elicited giggles frequently witty from the audience, who, to be fair to the show, seemed to enjoy themselves far more than I did.

So, maybe it was just me, but I was unmoved. I was unconvinced as to the reason these stories were forced together as a double-bill, and why the stories needed to be told in the first place. They felt almost entirely disconnected. If the experience of one character was meant to provide insight on the dilemma of the other I didn’t get it.

One-person shows are a tough ask for any performer. Keeping an audience engaged for any amount of time is not easy, especially on one’s own (as anyone who has ever spoken in public can attest). I admire Crowden for how well she did, but a 2-hour run-time with two mostly disconnected stories left me nonplussed.

For the most part anyway.

Make up your own mind, see what you think, and let me know?

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