Into the Woods @ The Cockpit

All Star Productions and Trilby Productions
Written by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Tim McArthur
23 May – 24 June 2018

For those who don’t know it, Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical is a crossover fairytale saga which is more Grimm than Disney, following an ensemble cast including Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack (of beanstalk fame), Little Red Riding Hood, and a baker and his wife who are determined to lift a witch’s curse and have a child. All these characters’ quests take them into the woods, where they cross paths and purposes, and by the end of the first act, all the storylines are resolved more or less as you’d expect. But the second act takes us beyond Happily Ever After and into somewhere darker…

Image result for into the woods at the cockpit

Ensemble (photo credit: David Ovenden)

This was the third or fourth production I’ve seen of Into the Woods, and right from the moment my eyes adjusted to the initial gloom of the stage space, I saw that this one would be different. Most productions use a normal proscenium arch stage, with classic panto-style fairytale backdrop, and old-timey Disney-esque costumes. Not so with this production. The Cockpit stage is theatre in the round, with the audience seated in ascending rows on four sides (the front row shares the floor with the characters, which feels very immersive but which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend, as I was in constant fear of tripping the actors up, and got a bit of a strained neck from the awkward viewing angle also. I moved back a row at interval). The floor is covered in wood chip – I was constantly in awe of the Cinderella-story ladies’ abilities to walk and dance over such tricky terrain in towering heels – and the set pieces are constructed from rough wooden scaffolding (into the wood? hehe).

The costumes, however, are the biggest change, taking the fairytale characters and tropes and plonking them right into the 21st century. Apparently inspiration was taken from a number of British reality TV shows, but as an ignorant recent immigrant, I’ve never watched a minute of TOWIE or Made in Chelsea or any of the others; as such, a lot of the cultural references were lost on me. However, the basic archetypes were quite easy to recognise: the chavvy teenaged mum (Glaswegian accent as subtle as her hot pink thong), the husband-hunting Real Wives of Stepfamily, the bag lady witch, the ‘yahing’ public schoolboys, etc etc. I was quite surprised at how well a lot of these modernisations worked, and the extra layer of meaning they added to certain characterisations, especially Jack’s and his mother’s – but in other cases, such as drug-snorting Rapunzel, it felt at times gimmicky and inconsistent instead. In any case, the modernisation certainly didn’t take anything away from the performance, and sometimes added to it, so while it didn’t blow me away, overall it paid off.

In some ways, however, this production of Into the Woods was similar to others, most notably the way in which it begins to drag along in the second act. The actors seemed to feel this too, as after a shining first act, they seemed to suffer a marked slump in energy and chemistry for the second; this is perhaps to be expected for the first Saturday in a month-long run, but unfortunate nonetheless. Sound issues cropped now and then, and when the Giantess’ voice made its debut, un-miked, I thought at first that this was another technical problem – however, as it persisted throughout the act, I realised that this must have been a deliberate choice, perhaps trying for the illusion of distance and therefore height? Unfortunately, it only made her sound confusingly small. As for the other characters, their caricature-like acting which had been employed to great effect in the first act didn’t manage to harness the pathos and emotion of the second act, so that the string of tragedies and heartbreak felt somewhat by-the-numbers and flat.

Into the Woods (photo by David Ovenden) (3).jpg

Michele Moran as the Witch (photo credit: David Ovenden)

Criticism aside, there was a lot to love about this production as well. Overall, the production qualities were extremely high, including the live band, the sound and visual effects, and the contrasting aesthetics of the heightened realism costuming, minimalistic symbolic props, and Joana Dias’ excellent set design. This last was beautiful in its rough simplicity, a standout moment being when the Witch climbed a ladder which lit up in fairy(tale) lights in time with her steps and the music. Speaking of Michele Moran’s Witch, she was excellent, both in her shuffling creepy form and glamorous haughty reincarnation. Her Irish accent tied in well with her Celtic-esque costume design (gotta love a good torc), and her swan song hit all the right notes including unhinged, vulnerable, desperate, reckless, and downright scary. The standout performance, however, was from Abigail Carter-Simpson’s Cinderella, with her soaring voice, beat-perfect comedic acting, and heights and depths of emotion.

The rest of the cast had a mix of strengths and weaknesses: Jack’s mother was at times a little one-note, but that note was wonderfully bolshy; the Princes hadn’t the strongest voices but didn’t need them to be hilarious; the Baker’s Wife tended to misjudge her comic timing but got us deeply invested in her through pure likability; Red and Jack were endearing but perhaps not entirely convincing children; Rapunzel and her gorgeous voice were somewhat short-changed by the unconvincing character arc (I loved her final moments sitting cross-legged on stage with a beautifully wistful smile); the Narrator suffered in the modernisation of the play, losing his point of difference, but was still very compelling with his wide-eyed wonder and earnest investment; supporting characters Steward, Stepmother, Stepsisters, Grandmother, and Old Man were all strong, and as a result felt somewhat underutilised. Director Tim McArthur was thoroughly eclipsed in his role as the Baker by the rest of his cast, however we have him to thank for the production’s vision and, I gather, its outstanding choreography.

Overall, this production of Into the Woods is fresh and fun, particularly in the crackling first act. The second failed to pack as much oomph, but I do suspect I just caught them on a bad night. If you are a fan of Sondheim, fairytales, or just musical theatre in general, I would encourage you to check this production out before its run ends.

Tickets

Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star HALF 2

Adam & Eve, Broken Silence Theatre @ The Hope Theatre

Writer: Tim Cook
Director: Jennifer Davis
22 May – 9 June 2018

I walked out of this play feeling quite sure that I had seen some very affecting and high-quality theatre, but unsure what it had meant. ‘How many stars will you give it?’ asked my companion. ‘Four, I think, maybe four and a half,’ was my reply, ‘I just have to do some processing – figure out what its message was.’ On the Tube home we spent as much time discussing this play as we had watching it, and by the time I walked in my front door, my feelings towards it had completely changed. I’d realised some things.

Perhaps appropriately, this is much the same way that the play’s plot progresses. (It is going to be extremely difficult to review and discuss Adam & Eve without spoiling its ending or at least hinting at it, so maybe you should stop reading now if you want to maintain your ignorance in that respect.) Adam and Eve have recently moved to the country, where they have bought a house and gotten right down to the business of baby-making. Everything seems to be going ideally until Adam – a high school English teacher – is accused of having a sexual relationship with one of his students, a precocious, pretty teen called Nikki. For the most part, we follow Eve as she struggles to come to terms with this hammer blow that takes apart her happily domestic life, and as she tries to ascertain the truth. Are these allegations against Adam true? Partially true? Totally false? If false, why is Nikki making them? We see all three characters run a gamut of emotions and relationships throughout the space of the play, and their actors (Lee Knight and Jeannie Dickinson as the titular couple, with Melissa Parker joining them as Nikki) absolutely shine throughout. They build vibrant, entertaining, believable, flawed, and ultimately very human characters, with just the right touch of pathos at the right moments. Dickinson, in particular, creates an Eve who is both intelligent and naïve, capable and vulnerable, who stands up for herself yet clearly longs for affection and security. Watching her heart break throughout the play broke mine along the way.

The staging is minimalistic (a typically small and basic pub theatre room, capacity 50), with the audience forming the four sides of this theatre in the round/square – one row of audience seating is a church pew, a nice tie-in to the play’s theme of marriage. The only items on stage are two chairs, and basic props sometimes carried by the characters, such as an iPad, toothbrush, notepad, etc. Hovering above the stage space is a light installation, a cloud made of what looks like white wedding serviettes, which is illuminated in various different colours throughout the play. Yet despite the lack of setting markers, there is never any doubt where a scene takes place, and the plot, acting, and the quality of the dialogue is enough to make the sparsity of the stage space melt away into irrelevance. The pacing is excellent, the dialogue crackles, the story sucks you in, the characters are compelling, none of that is the problem.

The problem is that hidden under the well written play and all that high quality is an argument that is unethical, ugly, and regressive.

Again, I don’t want to spoil the ending, but let’s just say that in this play, Adam and Eve’s Eden is a happy, traditional, heteronormative marriage, with a mortgage and a baby on the way, and Eve ruins this by taking the poisoned apple offered up by an Old Nick who is effectively a strawman for a sort of vicious, misandrist hyperbole of third wave feminism. This play is inextricably enmeshed in the current climate of #MeToo and sexual abuse, but instead of punching up at the abusers, it is punching down at the survivors. It laces in all the arguments of ‘maybe the men who are accused are the real victims’, and ‘women have total power to ruin a man’s life with a nothing but a single accusation’ (which is statistically untrue, and even within the plot of this play I found it hard to suspend my disbelief there is chance authorities would have taken Nikki seriously given the paucity of hard evidence – but I digress), and ‘we can never know what the truth is when it’s her word against his, so it would be wrong to punish him’.

Not that any of this is particularly obvious – the irony is that this play is better at gaslighting and manipulation than any of its characters. All these messages are insidiously couched in a mimicry of #MeToo and third-wave feminist rhetoric, which is then undercut and subverted into the polar opposite.

It’s a well done play, but rehashing the story of the Fall of Man with no changes to the gender dynamics, except to portray the devil as a young woman, is not fresh or original. A story where women are either weak and fallible or scheming home-wreckers who use their sexual attraction to manipulate and punish men is not original. Even this story’s twist and the characters’ names are not original – they are almost identical to those of The Shape of Things by Neil Labute. The parallels to Jane Eyre would have been a nice touch had they not been manipulated to push an agenda less progressive than the novel written hundreds of years ago. So despite the excellent acting, production values, and overall quality of Adam & Eve, I cannot give it four and a half stars that all these things merit; but neither will I let my overall rating be wholly determined by my moral objections to the play’s values and lack of originality.

You’ll have to be satisfied with a solid three.

Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)

Three Sisters (Tour), RashDash/Royal Exchange Theatre @ The Yard

22 May – 9 June 2018
The Yard, Hackney

12 – 16 June, 2018
Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

Turning classical theatre upside down in the most brilliant way.

RashDash - Three Sisters Production Photos (photographer credit The Other Richard) (3)

Feminist theatre company RashDash take on Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov and turn it into a modern version with a new perspective with a drum kit, electric guitars and a brilliant sense of daring and nerve.

This version was a wonderful example of taking a classical play, turning it on its head and adapting it to fit a young 2018 audience. There are lots of Theatre companies which try to adapt classical plays to fit a modern audience, most commonly to be set in a modern environment but the majority are all very similar to each other. However the RashDash adaptation was original, absurd and hilarious. It was an almost perfect example of a classical play adapted to fit a modern audience.

RashDash strip the male parts out of the play and focuses on the titular sisters and the relationship between them. Olga, Masha and Irena are played by Abbi Greenland, Helen Goelen and Becky Wilkie, who each are exceptional actors, whose on-stage relationships are wonderful and full of natural chemistry. The play explores what the three sisters would talk about if they lived in our current society, the dialogue was very relatable and funny. It was fantastic to see recognisable ‘normal’ modern woman represented on stage. I cried with laughter at points in the show. The music too is exceptional, and the two actor/musicians Chloe Rianna and Yoon-Ji Kim were very entertaining.

This show is really fun. It’s filled with bright lights, nudity, funny conversations and some cracking music. It’s not only a great piece of theatre but also a great night out. Go and see this show to experience Chekhov as you’ve never seen it before.

Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)

Tickets

How To Survive A Post-Truth Apocalypse @ Battersea Arts Centre

Written and performed by Francesca Beard
17th to 19th May, 2018, then touring the UK

Francesca Beard is not a shaman, or a storyteller, or a hero; she is a poet, and she is a liar.

Post-Truth Apocalypse 03 credit Claire Haigh_preview

Images courtesy of Claire Haigh

I tend to go into shows with no preconceptions or expectations. I’d like to pretend that this is a conscious decision with the aim of maintaining my unbiased integrity as a reviewer, but honestly? I’m usually just too lazy to do any research beforehand. Whew, that was an exercise in truth-telling – as is much of this one-woman show which is currently wending its way throughout the UK. Anyway, as I was saying, I didn’t know what I was expecting to happen when the show started, but it certainly wasn’t for a woman wearing an explorer’s jumpsuit and felt goggles to dramatically emerge, shrouded in smoke and lights, booming ominous/prophetic/cultish mumbo jumbo… And then to undercut all this by shrugging off the mask and awkwardly introducing herself with a goofy smile as Francesca, our guide.

This mix of high melodrama and mild self-deprecation, serious introspection and gentle meta-humour, came to define much of this 70-minute show. It was evident in the aural landscape we travelled through, which ranged from exquisite soundscapes (think birdsong and wind chimes) to freakish otherworldly laughter to an out-of-tune ditty about awkward/nasty truths. It was evident in the dramatic contrast between the slick projection art which set the magical scene, and the gaudy, tacky props and costumes worn by creatures who inhabited this land (press-ganged audience members). It was evident when Beard guided us from (intentionally) lame gags into raw spoken-word poetry about loneliness and reckless behaviour bordering on self-harm. In an echo of its theme, the production moved from fiction to reality and through the grey spaces inbetween; it was a lot to navigate on the meagre rations of a single goji berry.

The supposed plot of this piece was that we were on a heroes’ journey to find The Truth to save humanity from the post-truth era we find ourselves in. Less political commentary and more faux-fantasy saga, we trekked through the Forests of Desire, the Obsidian Cliffs, the Lava Mountain (?) and a number of similarly named locations. Each one required us adventurers to pass a test, complete a ritual, or reenact a myth. With the help of her Shaman Manual (not sure why Shamanual wasn’t punned, but oh well), various props and scrolls, and some of the braver front-row audience members, we finally made our way to the Oracles of Truth, on a journey which sometimes lagged and foundered, but was mainly quite enjoyable. I won’t reveal what we found there – you’ll have to go on your own post-truth odyssey.

Post-Truth Apocalypse 01 credit Claire Haigh_preview

Images courtesy of Claire Haigh

The strengths of this production lay in Beard’s endearing charm, the lovely set design (dual projectors shining through haze, Pixar-esque anthropomorphic lamps crowded around artifacts, love poetry comically dropping from the ceiling on a string), and the audience interaction, which was always inclusive without being pushy or intimidating, funny and bantery without ever being mocking or disrespectful. Beard touched on some interesting concepts around the topic of truth and artifice, but never really teased out any viewpoints which were particularly complex or original, and the substance suffered from a lack of specificity or subtlety. Despite (or perhaps because of) the through-thread of the Quest plot, many segments of spoken-word poetry or musing stream of thought seemed disjointed, as if they didn’t really belong, like the adolescent Francesca at her boarding school. That said, the spoken word poetry was clearly the artistic heart of this project, and it provoked images and emotions which stirred and shone in my mind.

How To Survive A Post-Truth Apocalypse didn’t leave me feeling any better equipped to deal with a world of fake news, or even sure whether lies are a good or bad thing (good? I think? Sometimes? Depends if you’re Hitler or going on a first date?), but it provided me with some gorgeous mental and visual imagery, and over an hour of gentle entertainment which made me smile but not laugh, sigh but not weep, and check my watch but only once or twice. In a theatre climate which is full of very dense, challenging, depressing, and at times pretentious art, it was nice to see something light, self-aware, and kind-hearted for a change. Believe me.

Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)

P, Soup-Stained Arts @ Wandsworth Fringe

19th-20th May 2018

Written, directed and performed by Leila Herandi
Wandsworth Arts Fringe Festival

Finding a job is hard. Keeping one is harder… well, for her it is anyway. Our [protagonist/antagonist] (delete as appropriate) is an eternal optimist who can’t see the world crashing around her for the rose-tinted glasses she doesn’t realise she’s wearing, as she naively bumbles her way through life.

Soup Stained Arts on their website say, ‘Creating an important dialogue doesn’t need to be a serious task’.

Which is beautiful and couldn’t more relate to what I saw on stage this evening.

Penned and performed by Leila Herandi, seamlessly moving from storyteller, ‘P’ (the character) and moving back to Leila, she brought such electricity to the small, under the arches space in Putney.

It was the story of a young woman, quite different and out of place in this world; navigating finding a job, being a young person (however strange) and falling in love in the strangest of ways. Shall I say strange again for strangeness’ sake?

This was an excellent and very different version of storytelling.

We made a vow as audience members at the start. Including to turn off our mobile phones.

One of the audience members was roped in to tick off the sequence of the story.

There were flashbacks.

An overhead projector from primary school days.

And halfway through a snack break.

Leila Herandi relished and rejoiced in the difference of ‘P’, the difference in this piece and the technical difficulties that occurred.

She brought perfection to the imperfections.

The story itself, was different and bizarre yet completely relatable to your own failings in love, life and growing up.

For me this is the best of fringe theatre, I had a little giddy moment where I smiled gleefully thinking ‘This is what I bloody love!’

It still feels like a work in development; which is a joyous thing and I’m excited to see how this show continues, grows and develops.

Look out for where this show, company and performer go next. You will not regret heeding my recommendation.

 

Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)

Click for details of future shows.

 

 

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

2018.01.05+UXO+photo+by+Theo+Cote.web.23

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.

 

 

Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)

Tickets / www.barbican.org.uk/

Grotty, Damsel Productions @ The Bunker

1 – 26 May 2018
By Izzy Tennyson
Directed by Hannah Hauer-King

Grotty, The Bunker - Courtesy of The Other Richard (4) Rebekah Hinds, Izzy Tennyson and Anita-Joy UwaJeh.jpg

Rebekah Hinds, Izzy Tennyson, and Anita-Joy Uwajah in Grotty. Images courtesy of The Other Richard

Grotty is a semi-autobiographical work by Izzy Tennyson (who also plays the lead role as a younger, fictionalised version of herself, “Rigby”).

Rigby is socially awkward, depressed, anxious, indecisive, sometimes nasty, insecure, superficial, and annoying; she has problems with drugs, alcohol, sex, her relationships, self-image, family, and existentialism; she lies to, manipulates, and displays an enormous lack of respect for herself and everyone else on the planet. All of this is entirely self-aware, but that doesn’t always make it more palatable. Tennyson plays her character to be “grotesque”, with an over-exaggerated hunch, screwed-up face, jutting lower jaw, messy hair, scowl, open mouth, and twisting hands. She speaks so fast that I could barely understand her. She doesn’t seem to display any sort of character development throughout the period of the play, despite coming oh-so-close at the end to admitting to her therapist that all her problems are of her own making. She is constantly slagging off everyone around her, but reserves some of the worst bitterness as ammunition against herself.

There is a moment when Rigby, in conversation with her straight friend Kate, dismisses the suggestion that she find herself a “nice girl” by asserting that nice lesbians don’t exist (echoing her friend Josie’s declaration that “women are bitches, mate”). Kate responds, straight-faced (sorry), with “that’s a bit homophobic, Rigby.” Cue a comedic pause as Rigby raises her eyebrows at the audience – the punchline, of course, is I’m the lesbian here, I can’t be homophobic! The thing is, Kate was absolutely on the money.  Women can be misogynistic (most characters in this all-woman cast are), people defying gender norms can still reinforce them (every lesbian character’s cruelty about Toad’s weight), and members of the LGBTQ community can still be transphobic, biphobic, or homophobic (Rigby and her lovers/friends are all of these!). I know, I know, these are not “nice girls” and the criticism of their behaviours and opinions is implicit in the tone of the play, but when subtle digs like these are woven throughout the play and never really criticised, let alone outright condemned, it normalises it.

In one particularly sickening scene, Rigby and Josie effectively date-rape a “bicurious” Russian woman. This is an act which is admittedly not portrayed sympathetically, but Rigby shows no regret or guilt about it, it has no repercussions, and is never alluded to again. This was merely the most violent manifestation of a through-thread of vitriol towards bisexual women, described variously as attention-seeking, “fucking scum”, and “breeders”, who don’t belong in queer spaces, which should be “safe” for gold-star lesbians. As I said, I realise that this entire play was intended to be a portrayal of the human tendency to respond to disenfranchisement by paying the cruelty forward, but as a bisexual woman in what I had thought would be a queer safe space, I felt betrayed and alienated. Although I am a firm believer that comedy should always punch up, I could perhaps forgive a play that punches inwards – as Grotty mainly tends to – but punching down, or sideways, while you’re at it? I’m not so sure.

To give the play its due, there were some moments which were genuinely insightful and powerful. These included when Rigby reveals that she was assessed as being ineligible for Phase 2 of NHS mental health treatment (“suicidal but not suicidal enough… Next time, I’ll come back in a body bag!”), the observations that the lesbian community is relegated to the fringes of queer society by the louder, more flamboyant gay men and drag queens scene, and the guilt Rigby feels at being selfishly glad that her mother with cancer had been taken to hospital and was no longer in the house. Tennyson’s writing is beautiful stylistically, revealing her spoken word poetry background and a knack for making her audience laugh. The problem was, the play touched on so many complex and heavy topics – mental health, grief, love, sex, sexuality, gender roles, inter-generational conflict, addiction, trauma, etc etc – that it could not do proper justice to any of them. As a result, it felt thematically both crowded and overwhelmingly negative.

The cast of supporting members – in particular Rebekah Hinds (Toad/Kate), Grace Chilton (Witch/Elliot), and Anita-Joy Uwajeh (Natty/Josie) – shone in their various and varied roles. Often on the peripherals of the stage, seated in armchairs positioned amongst the front rows of the audience, they played Rigby’s memories of characters rather than the actual characters herself, summoned from the periphery of her consciousness when narrative required it. The contrast between the characters of Witch (older, abusive, psychopathic, fetishist) and Elliot (young, vulnerable, insecure, questioning her sexuality) meant that Chilton in particular had the opportunity to display her versatility. I was especially impressed by the variation in her vocal tones – as Witch, her voice was lower, more clipped, flatter, and almost robotic, even in the scene in which she revealed her one emotional weakness (superbly done – this character was such an unambiguous, almost cartoonish villain, and yet I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her in this monologue), whereas Elliot was oozing hurt and desperation for love with every awkward word she said.

Grotty, The Bunker - Courtesy of The Other Richard (7) Grace Chilton and Izzy Tennyson.jpg

Grace Chilton as Elliot and Izzy Tennyson as Rigby. Images courtesy of The Other Richard.

I cannot fault Hauer-King’s direction of this piece, and her use of the unique stage space that is The Bunker. Characters make use of every inch of available space, as well as backstage, so that the performance bleeds into the audience, feeling raw and immediate. The set and props are minimalistic – nine black boxes which can be manoeuvered into a bed, a table and chairs, a dancefloor, and much more, as well as a bench at the back of the stage resting against a jumble of mirrors, representing the fractured nature of Rigby’s world. Props are used sparingly and suggestively – there is a hat, a dog collar, a ball gag, a blanket, a number of plastic cups, some white powder, and not much more. The economy of materials means that each item is used to great effect, and nothing onstage is unnecessary or distracting.

Damsel Productions are, according to the programme, committed to “the crucial movement addressing both the misrepresentation and under-representation of women in theatre”. Ultimately, increasing the amount of (stage)space given to women in the industry can only be a good thing, as can widening the sorts of roles and narratives which women are able to portray. Women in theatre should be able to be not just beautiful or strong or likeable, but also messy, nasty, dysfunctional, ugly, grotesque, annoying, rude, and every other point on the human spectrum. It is absolutely possible to write an unsympathetic, repellent female character in a play that is also insightful, clever, affecting, or funny. However, Grotty feels like it aimed for shock factor rather than anything meaningful, and unfortunately, being edgy is not the same as being deep.

Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)

The Bekkrell Effect, Groupe Bekkrell @ Roundhouse

Images courtesy of Massao Mascaro

When I saw the description of this show – French riot-grrrl feminist circus with an all-female cast, inspired by punk and nuclear physics – I had already decided that I was going to love it. Further cementing my confidence that this would be a wonderful night was the fact that I greatly enjoyed the last Circus Fest show I saw at the Roundhouse, RUHM. However, as much as I wanted to love this show, I ultimately left feeling underwhelmed.

The first act was slow to warm up, and consisted mainly of the four performers marching around the stage in stuffy tweed business suits. Parody of masculinity was quickly established as a running theme for the show, with the performers acting out displays of machismo, violence, and dominance with props such as swinging pulleys for genitals (pictured below) and mouthguards to transform their speech into ape-like grunting. The second act was the most interesting, as it contained the most of the show’s actual circussy, acrobatic elements, making creative and often slapstick use of a teeterboard, pole, tightrope, and simple yet effective pulley rope system. The small child in the row behind me giggled his way through this act, which is exactly the delighted response such clowning ought to elicit. However, he was very silent in the third act, which was much more abstract and conceptual, and included moments such as all four performers gathered around a hanging noose-like rope, asking it apparently nonsensical existential questions. The disjointed chaos of this act meant that it tended to drag, and I could feel my own attention wavering at around the same time that the child behind started getting restless and fidgety.

Images courtesy of Massao Mascaro

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the feminist theory behind this show. Circus is one of the performing arts in which roles for women are still sadly limited and one-note, usually centred around graceful, beautiful feats of aerial acrobatics, and featuring petite, pretty women in tight if not outright provocative costume, whereas their male counterparts get the lion’s share of clowning and comedic roles. Seeing Groupe Bekkrell take a stand against this was wonderful. When one performer had a very no-nonsense costume change onstage (no sensual stripping, just completely utilitarian clothes removal and replacement), a male audience member in the front row had the gall to wolf-whistle her; she and her stagemates whipped their heads around to glare at the offender and if looks could kill… In any case, he didn’t do it twice. The acrobatic feats the performers engaged in were similarly desexualised, and it was refreshing to see the women displaying their impressive physical skills without any veneer of performance for the male gaze.

However, the problem was that the show needed to do more than just challenge gender roles to be entertaining, and unfortunately it just didn’t have the substance necessary. We caught glimpses of the performers’ formidable acrobatic skills, but I couldn’t help but feel that they were holding back from properly exhibiting these talents or challenging themselves (and us) in any way except perhaps intellectually. It was too niche and conceptually obscure for a huge, classic circus venue such as the Roundhouse. And I didn’t see much evidence of the promised punk or radioactivity.

Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star HALF 2

Tickets

 

 

For King and Country @ The Colab Factory

8th April – 10th June 2018

Directed by Owen Kingston

KCaCO_34s-1200x800-optimised

It’s December 1940 and a German invasion force has landed on the south coast of England.

For several weeks the invaders have been building up their forces on the coast, while the mighty Luftwaffe have pounded the RAF into submission. As the invasion force prepares to strike north and capture London, King Edward VIII refuses the resignation of British Prime Minister Lord Halifax, triggering a constitutional crisis. It is Britain’s darkest hour.

Parliament is recalled, and with all the members of both houses meeting in Westminster, a small group of backbench MPs and their families – designated survivors – are taken to a secure location south of the river Thames. They are completely unaware of the imminent events that will thrust them into the limelight and put the fate of the nation in their hands.

You are among those designated survivors. Your decisions will shape the course of history. Can you save the British people from the invading forces, or will the war be over by Christmas?

 

 

‘Another WW2 Immersive Experience?’ I hear you ask.

Why yes indeed and ENTIRELY different.

For the tacticians or secret logistic experts or people who just love a jolly good debate, this show will be entirely for you.

On arrival, myself and my companion were greeted by Douglas Remington-Hobbs and handed identity cards stating our position or whether we were ‘just’ a plus one’. Mr Remington-Hobbs would be running the evenings events and guiding us as group.

We were walked down into the space and asked whether we wanted to exchange our new-fangled modern money for shillings in order to spend said shillings at the bar.

I really liked this element as it gave us as audience members a chance to shed off our modern identities and step into a new space and the world of the piece.

We were then briefed on the situation in a type of war cabinet style space and the plus ones (myself being one of them) were escorted out of the ‘war cabinet’ as we would not be participating. Rather ironically, we were both women. We discussed with the female character who had escorted us about our right to vote and she encouraged that we speak up for ourselves.

Which we did. The first call of debate however was whether we should.

This got the ball rolling and connected us as a group participating in the further and more increasingly difficult choices at hand.

As a group we had to vote for a prime minister, deputy prime minister, foreign secretary, war minister and propaganda minister.

We then had the chance to go into different parts of the space getting involved in different activities, projects, and further choices, then coming back together again for renewed debate based on what we’d done.

I made the choice to wander round overhearing pockets of conversation, different interactions with characters and the various war missions. You could however devote yourself to one or many depending on your role or general temperament.

Without giving too much away as I really encourage this as a show to be experienced blindly, various things are revealed, and you can invest and investigate as much as your heart should desire.

Each show will be entirely different based on your choices as audience members and the way the show is constructed.

Each character is entirely engaging and interesting and a lot of time and devotion has been put into making them real, believable and people that you want to connect with.

I loved that the group I was a part of was a real eclectic mix of people, not just artsy theatre types. A group of ladies, a few young couples and an older pair dressed like they were from WW2.

For my taste, and it was possibly because I chose to actively stand back and watch others rather than entirely engage, there wasn’t enough variety in activities in the show and the stakes didn’t nearly feel high enough until the last moment. I discussed this with my companion and he entirely disagreed which I feel is important to state.

A very engaging and lively evening and another success for Colab Theatre.

More immersive experiences please and thank you.

Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star HALF 2

Bismillah! (An ISIS Tragicomedy), Wound Up Theatre @ Pleasance Theatre

24th Apr – 13th May 2018
By Matthew Greenhough
Directed by Jonny Kelly

Bismillah! An ISIS Tragicomedy 2.jpg

The Downstairs theatre space at Pleasance Theatre is a temporary structure, and walking into it feels like entering a shipping container, or perhaps a bunker, which sets the mood well for this play which takes place in an ISIS interrogation cell. The thrust stage is mainly empty (vaguely wartime-looking debris littered around the edges) except for a man in ripped and stained Army-ish attire, handcuffed to a pole, with a black bag over his head. He is dancing along to Queen.

The audience settles in, chattering over the blaring music, only watching the pathetically dancing figure from the corners of our eyes. We cycle through a few tracks, and when the opening chords to I Wanna Break Free play, my friend chortles, “appropriate!” Then the actor starts to manically sing along. We discover there is a reason he’s in comedic theatre rather than musical.

The music is dramatically cut short, and the other actor enters: a glowering Middle Eastern man in guerilla combatwear, brandishing a pistol and some basic rations. The play proper begins, and the next 75 minutes are the best of my week, as I am expertly guided between laughter, sombre socio-political reflection, fear, tension, and emotional investment in the characters and their fates.

Before entering, I had some reservations about Bismillah! (An ISIS Tragicomedy). Making light of topics such as extremism, Islam, the war in Iraq, and West vs East is a risky business, and when written by and starring a white Englishman, I was concerned that the perspectives could be reductive and one-sided, punching down rather than up. These concerns proved to be completely unfounded. The play’s two characters laugh at each other and themselves in equal measure, and while both are clearly pining for home in England, at no point is the West held up as being inherently superior to the East. The distinction between radical Islam and actual, everyday Islam is made subtly but firmly. “Danny’s” experiences of racism and disenfranchisement in the UK are realistic and affecting, as are Dean’s feelings of economic insecurity and individual powerlessness in the 21st century world. A number of complex socio-political debates are touched upon with sensitivity and nuance, even between the dick jokes and pop culture references, and this play does not profess to hold all the answers, but it examines various perspectives with honesty and nuance. I had brought along a Northener friend as my plus one/cultural guide, who afterwards explained to me a number of the local references and insults which had gone over my Aussie head. In the end, my friend and I agreed that our only criticism of the show would be of the quality of its sound effects, but even that was very minor.

Bismillah! An ISIS Tragicomedy 3

Both actors shone in this production, especially writer-performer Matthew Greenhough. Ricocheting between comedy and tragedy, bants and terror, compassion and anger, the portrait he painted of an unrefined but good-hearted English lad was compelling and believable. At first I wasn’t totally convinced by Elliot Liburd’s portrayal of Danny – I thought his acting was somewhat overdone, and his constant frenetic energy came off as nervous – but as the play progressed and we learnt more about his character, I realised that these were probably conscious choices which meant that later when Danny’s mask began to drop, his vulnerability was all the more affecting. Liburd’s comedic skills, especially his facial acting, were excellent, veering just close enough to ridiculousness without being too absurd for the genre.

Watching Bismillah, I was forcibly reminded of a classic Australian play from the 60s called Norm and Ahmed, by New Wave playwright Alex Buzo. I think Buzo would agree with me that Bismillah is the 21st-century, English version of this same play, in terms of genre and format (back-and-forth between two men who are cultural and political opposites, but who find shared ground in common human experiences), a shocking ending (no spoilers!), and racial and political commentary. The main ideological difference is that Bismillah is about two young men: they are of the generation with the chance to define the future. The strains of terror, humanity, violence, anger, compassion, insecurity, and hilarity all intertwine with one of hope. Hope, for Dean’s survival and escape, Danny’s redemption, and for the future of the Earth and its warring inhabitants. Is this hope ill-placed? Is it too late for Dean, Danny, and for us? You’ll have to make your way to the Pleasance Theatre before Bismillah’s run is over to find out.

Tickets

Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star.svg (1)Gold_Star HALF 2