REVIEW! Before I Was A Bear by Eleanor Tindall @ The Bunker Theatre

Directed by Aneesha Srinivasan
Performed by Jacoba Williams
Produced by Salome Wagaine
Presented by Broccoli Arts
12th – 23rd November 2019

The first show I ever saw at The Bunker Theatre was also the first I reviewed for Theatre Box: Devil With The Blue Dress, a play examining the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the light of #metoo. It seems fitting that, as the news is announced that The Bunker will be closing in March 2020 after three and a half years of being an amazing “temporary” theatre space, I should revisit it for a play so thematically similar and so very good.

Cally is a bear. She had a crazy run-in with a famous, hot, charming TV detective actor, responded the way anyone would, and now has any number of problems on her furry paws. She wasn’t always ursine, though – she used to be normal, like you. And that is the beauty of this piece: the life story we’re treated to is, up until that certain point, so very normal and relatable. From her pre-teen years, through adolescence, and into the first tastes of freedom that come with moving out of home, Cally travels through personal trials and tribulations that will sound deeply familiar for anyone in the audience who had the dubious honour of experiencing girlhood and the transition to womanhood. Eleanor Tindall’s crackling writing takes these common themes and treats them with poignancy and humour, showcasing that rare knack of taking the mundane and making it quirky, even deep. The world of schoolgirl friendships, adolescent crushes, celebrity obsessions, and first forays into sexuality are all-consuming and devastatingly impactful to those who are experiencing them, and Tindall offers us a glimpse back into that existence which we all (with varying degrees of thankfulness) have left behind.

Enter Jacoba Williams in Before I Was A Bear. Image courtesy of Tara Rooney

Of course, it’s not all down to Tindall alone. The casting of Jacoba Williams as Cally is excellent: she jumps with perfect precision between childhood vitality, teenaged insecurity, young adult hedonism, and recently-turned-bear angst, always balancing physical and verbal comedy deftly against pathos and piercing social commentary. Director Aneesha Srinivasan brings her own creative flair to the staging, adding even more layers of meaning to an already-fertile script, as do designer Grace Venning and lighting designer Martha Godfrey, with touches that perfectly complement the play’s style and substance.

Before I Was A Bear is inspired by Ovid’s myth of Callisto, a story ripe for modern interpretation through feminist and queer lenses, which is exactly what Tindall has done. The bare bones of the plot are quite true to the source material, and there is little attempt to disguise this (anyone with a basic knowledge of Greek/Roman myth should be able to guess who a character named “Bolt” is based on, and that an affair with this figure probably won’t end well). A number of parallels are more subtle and clever, however – I really enjoyed the subtextual discussion of heteronormativity determining what “counts” as female sexuality, and the sub-inter-textual implications that perhaps Artemis and her gang of gal pals weren’t as platonic as male-dominated academia would have us believe. It is always refreshing to see portrayals of bi women which treat their female trysts as more than just physical (or for the male gaze), and [SPOILER] the theme of redemption through the love of other women – both platonically and romantically – is beautiful.

Jacoba Williams in Before I Was A Bear. Image courtesy of Tara Rooney

Honestly, there is so much to unpick in this one-woman show that I’m wary of writing yet another review-turned-essay here… Cally’s journey is crammed with so many topical topics that it sometimes feels a little heavy-handed, although they are mostly treated with admirable nuance and deftness. (Others remain more obscure – I have some theories about the meaning behind the progressively-revealed voicenote, but I’m not sure how much it really added to the piece.) It’s absolutely the kind of show that you should go and see with your wokest queer feminist artsy theatre friends (these were certainly the types who comprised 90% of the audience on the night I was there, which made me feel very at home) and dissect afterwards over cheap pub wine in order to get the most out of it. This is not to say, however, that you need a degree in Gender Studies or even a Tumblr account to enjoy this show – social philosophising aside, it’s just bloody good dark comedy, masterfully delivered. Make sure you catch it before the run finishes, or the regret may be unbearable.

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Previous review: Crisis? What Crisis? @ COLAB Factory

GUY, Leoe&Hyde @ The Bunker

Music, Production by Stephen Hyde

Book, Lyrics by Leoe Mercer

Directed by Sam Ward

16 June – 7 July

GUY is a fun, fresh musical about friendship, love and Grindr. The music was slick, catchy computer pop – think SOPHIE and Sam Smith – and the lyrics were packed with word play and nerd references. It’s a minimalist show, with four actors, an almost empty set and a pre-recorded score but it does so much with this. Each actor displayed a polished, engaging performance – singing, dancing, deploying excellent comedic timing and dramatic chops. I couldn’t identify a stand out performer, since all four were strong talents who were a joy to watch.

It speaks to the the paucity of media by and for queer people, but it was relieving to see a story with no straight people in it. It’s not a story about homophobia or coming out or finding your identity, or even AIDS – all worthy stories to be sure, but it’s nice to see what’s essentially a gay rom-com. Which is not to say the story takes place in a queer utopia – Grindr, the story’s framing device, is famous for distilling racism, sexism and body dismorphia into the callous dismissal: “No fats, no femmes, no asians”. All these issues are identified and addressed in the show – there are shades of Cyrano De Bergerac in that so many characters feel they have to hide themselves from those they love due to perceived prejudice.

The show has the breezy positivity you want from a musical about falling in love, and the exceptional cast keep you engaged throughout an hour and a half run with very little lag. I recommend this show.

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Kiss Chase, Second Circle @ The Bunker

Written and directed by Hannah Samuels

Devised by the company 

11 June – 7 July

Kiss Chase is an interesting piece of interactive devised theatre which combines short monologues and audience participation to present varied and unique perspectives on romance and relationships.

At first glance, the theatre seems like it’s set up for an ice breaking, team building activity that corporate insists will be good for sales. It’s like speed dating, but less fraught by sexual tension. Audience are given numbered labels which correspond to a clip board that waits for them on a chair. Everyone starts the night with a partner, though we’re warned that we’ll be swapping throughout – the point is not to find true love, but just connection. There’s an emphasis, as the show progresses, on secrets: what kind are kept, and for what reasons.

Our “hosts” Ben and Ruth (well played by Topher Collins and Rayyah McCaul) are warm, if a little tense, and talk us through a series of activities designed to get you to spill your guts. There’s some kind of undercurrent between them throughout the show – not exactly romance, but something they need to talk about. Some of the guests are also playing roles – spotlighted and speaking their thoughts to the whole audience. Each of the actors were talented in their moment, and I expect fairly good at improvisation – one of my partners from early in the show turned out later to be a character, which made our conversation about our jobs both weird and impressive. Some audience members volunteered to share their own thoughts on relationships, and I would have enjoyed if this happened a little more. The show would benefit if there was more time and encouragement, because all the actual audience participation was fascinating.

There’s no particular plot or resolution to the show, which accurately reflects the real world – brief connections, half glimpsed secrets, unanswered questions.

It was an interesting, creative and fun show that felt at times a little underdeveloped.

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Don’t Panic! It’s Challenge Anneka, on the button @ The Bunker

29 May – 9 June 2018
Devised and performed by Sophie Winter
Directed and co-devised by Ben Hadley

Don't Panic! It's Challenge Anneka - courtesy of Paul Aitchison (4).jpg

Sophie Winter as Anneka Rice (photo courtesy of Paul Aitchison)

I am a woman with anxiety on my way to see a show about a woman with anxiety, when I realise that I have put the coordinates for the wrong theatre into Citymapper and now have to power walk one kilometre to the correct one. Not a great start. I arrive sweaty and red, puffing and panting, five minutes after the performance has begun, trying to kid myself that arriving to this show in a state of high anxiety is basically just a Stanislavski-esque reviewing technique.

However, as soon as I am calmly and forgivingly ushered into the dark subterranean space of the Bunker Theatre, my heartbeat starts to return to normal. The performer is wearing a bright blonde wig, a terrible 80s puffer jacket, a bum bag, and a welcoming smile. The stage is empty except for a large cartoonish old-style TV, a big rug with rainbow stripes reminiscent of TV colours bars, and a mound of cushions in cheerful colours. There is a nice comfy cushion on my seat. This feels like a safe space – I am reminded strongly of my kindergarten teacher’s classroom.

I have done some basic googling on my way to the theatre, so I know that Challenge Anneka was a TV series from 1989-95 (with a brief 2006-7 reboot) starring Anneka Rice, who completed – on camera – charitable projects in a very short timeframe. This woman in front of me looks like an approximation of that blonde, confident, almost manically capable woman. Her challenge today? To cure the anxiety of one of her biggest fans, Holly. Over the course of this challenge, we meet a wide variety of characters (all portrayed by versatile comedian Sophie Winters), both onscreen and onstage (I loved the various dialogues between a character onstage and another onscreen, which must have been tricky to memorise and get to the point where they were natural, well-timed, and comedic!). A number of methods for tackling anxiety are floated by various characters encountered – from yoga to facing your fears to having sex to Zoloft – and Anneka and Holly delve into her experience of anxiety, its symptoms, causes, and effects. There is light audience interaction, and I am required to give up my cushion in order to help Holly move house, but I don’t mind. A man offers Holly gummy bears while she’s having a panic attack, and I am strongly reminded of Tom Baker’s Doctor. But that’s not really relevant to this review.

Don't Panic! It's Challenge Anneka - courtesy of Paul Aitchison (2).jpg

Sophie Winter as Holly (photo courtesy of Paul Aitchison)

For the most part, Don’t Panic! It’s Challenge Anneka is light, playful, and feels like an educational children’s show, with just enough of a wink-wink self-awareness to make its silly premise work. The audience is never the butt of any jokes, and when Holly is, it’s clear that we are laughing with her and not at her, or her anxiety, which is important. However, there are times when it strays into more serious territory: the moments when Holly has a panic attack on the Tube, and another while a UCL scientist gives us a lecture on neuroscience, for example. The blurred vision, multiple conflicting intrusive thoughts, heavy breathing, and descriptions of claustrophobia and nausea hit a little too close to home for me, but thankfully weren’t taken too far for my limits. It helped that throughout, Winters was (in character) only ever kind, empathetic, and understanding to her audience and any sufferers of anxiety. The final resolution was, as admitted by the temporarily character-less narrator, not very dramatically satisfying, but it was realistically, cautiously optimistic about life with anxiety. A special video cameo at the end hit the perfect final note and left the show feeling balanced and well concluded.

My only criticisms of this performance would be the following: 1) It sometimes meandered a little, and could have done with more narrative tension or structure – perhaps something as simple as a checklist of “tasks” Anneka would complete? Or a countdown, to mimic the original TV series? 2) For sufferers of stronger anxiety than mine, some of the themes and staging decisions could be somewhat confronting and/or triggering – if a warning to that effect was in place, I might have missed it in my late rush, but one was probably necessary. 3) The descriptions of anxiety were very basic-level and at times reductive; I realise that this show was intended as Learning About Anxiety 101, but some discussions about the different types of anxieties, the history of the disorder, and social causes (rather than just neurological) would have been welcome to make the show a little more interesting and thought-provoking for those more familiar with the topic.

On balance, this show was a well-researched, sensitively crafted, gently humorous, and simply a kind exploration of what it’s like to live with anxiety. I would especially recommend it for older children and young adults, those who are just starting to wonder if they might have anxiety, and anyone who has a friend or loved one with anxiety and who wants to learn more about their experiences. Tackling anxiety is certainly a challenge, but just like Anneka, you don’t have to do it alone.

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Devil with the Blue Dress @ The Bunker Theatre

by Kevin Armento
Directed by Joshua McTaggart
The Bunker Theatre, Seaview Productions, and Desara Bosnja
29th March – 28th April, 2018

Devil With The Blue Dress, The Bunker (Flora Montgomery and Kristy Phillips) - courtesy of Helen Murray

Photography by Helen Murray

‘This play exists in the space between awake and asleep… Being that kind of space, things aren’t totally realistic. It’s dimly lit. It’s set to music. And it’s where memory lives…’

Walking into The Bunker Theatre for their production of Devil With the Blue Dress really does feel like stepping into some sort of liminal space between past and present, UK and US, fiction and reality. In the cosy, brightly-lit foyer, friendly bartenders joke with patrons as they pour themed cocktails (amber-coloured for Clinton, blue for Lewinsky); step through the doors into the theatre, and you enter a space of shadows and hushed conversation, with the honeyed notes of a jazz saxophonist floating down from the corner. There is no phone signal down here – well, it is a bunker – and the thrust stage is empty, with only three sets of feet visible behind the back curtain, like puppets waiting for their strings to be pulled. The action begins when Hillary, played by Flora Montgomery resplendent in a pink pantsuit, steps out to introduce us to the play and its characters.

The two women in the spotlight in this play are, of course, Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. The three other major characters – Chelsea Clinton, Bill’s secretary Betty, and Republican Linda Tripp – exist mainly to facilitate these women’s storytelling and offer alternative perspectives on events. They also play other roles where needed, most notably that of Bill Clinton. All three actresses did excellent impressions of the erstwhile president and were able to signal the switch into his role with no costume changes or visual cues except accent, mannerisms, and facial expressions (my favourite Bill was the version by Kristy Philipps). As a result, the Bill Clinton we saw on stage was both a shadowy, insubstantial figure, and a caricature; he was given no character arc or hidden motives, and all three-dimensionality was reserved for the women of the story, which I think was a powerful and effective decision.

The timing of this production, one year into the Trump presidency and at the height of the #MeToo movement, was of course no accident. Although neither topic is specifically named, much of the play’s philosophical depth comes from this contemporary context and challenges us to consider tough questions. Is consent really consent with such extremes of power differences at play? (“But of course she had a choice / But of course she didn’t”) How do we reconcile conflicting expectations of womanhood within modern feminism? (“None of you have a monopoly on how to be a woman!”) Why do we hold women in power up to impossibly high standards, when the same isn’t true for men? (“People feel like I’m corrupt, or untrustworthy, even if they can’t put their finger on why.”)

The most powerful moment in this play comes towards the end, when the narrative reaches the trial and the Clintons, their presidency, and Monica all begin to fall apart. Hillary, Monica, Betty, and Linda begin hurling accusations and insults at each other, shifting the blame, verbally tearing each other apart, and as the shouting reaches a climax, Chelsea interrupts to deliver the unvoiced central truth of the scandal. Philipps’ performance here sent shivers down my spine.

My only criticism of Devil with the Blue Dress was its metatheatrical elements. There was so much food for thought in this performance, it really didn’t need to have that extra dimension of Hillary referencing the fact that this was “her play”, and alluding throughout to the nature of theatre (the observation that politics and theatre are both centred around spectacle is certainly an interesting one, but was not explored in enough depth to merit its introduction). In addition, the premise that everything on stage was taking place in Hillary’s memory or imagination seemed to be at odds with how much of the action did not involve Hillary, and often explored the thoughts, feelings, and perspectives of other characters. Changes in character, setting, and time were made clear enough without self-referential signposting – I feel that writer Kevin Armento should have had more faith in his audience to catch on, without needing to add a metatheatrical component which felt cumbersome to the story and performance.

This play and production are both unapologetically pro-Hillary in attitude (there are even “I still stand with her” badges on sale in the foyer) and at times portrays her with a level of sympathy (and artistic license) that almost strays into hero worship territory (interestingly, the casting decisions meant that this production’s Hillary towers over its Monica in a way that serves to reinforce the political and moral high ground she inhabits, although in reality Hillary is marginally shorter than Monica). However, this partisanship is unlikely to overtly bother anyone who has chosen to enter The Bunker; they know their audience, and this is definitely a sermon designed for the choir. As a side note, if you are planning on seeing this play, which I would highly recommend, it could be a good idea to brush up on your knowledge of the Lewinsky scandal; as a non-American who was in primary school when these events took place, I no doubt missed some of the political and historical allusions which flew thick and fast across the stage.

There is so much to unpack in this ferociously intelligent production about history, power, gender, and heartbreak – I may have to see it again before its run ends at the end of April. I hope to see you there in the foyer – the question is, which cocktail will you pick, whose side will you take?

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Read our interview with Joshua McTaggart here

Electra, DumbWise Theatre @ The Bunker

27 Feb – 24 March, 2018

by Sophicles
Directed by John Ward
DumbWise Theatre

Photography by Lidia Crisafulli

The DumbWise Theatre Company has reinvented Electra. It’s unexpected and wild at times but it’s a beautiful production and something you can get behind.

The plot surrounds the murder of Agamemnon, the King of Argos by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus. After his upheaval, the two living children of Agamenon, Electra and Orestes fray into the background of Aegisthus’ rule. 10 years pass and we learn that Clytemnestra has subjugated Electra under her wiry fingers and before the upheaval, Electra smuggled her younger brother out of the city. This is where it picks up for us with Orestes on the edge of the world and Electra being tormented by her would-be father and tyrant mother.

The two act play is a long ride from here on out and the individual performances are a spectacle because of this. I was really interested in Dario Coates as Orestes. He was wet with passion for the whole two and half hour runtime. And Sian Martin is terrifying as Clytemnestra. She had two scenes in particular where she was being interviewed by a news anchor and we, the audience, play the role of the people of Argos witnessing her speak about Agamemnon and Orestes for the first time. Martin oozed her way out of dangerous questions and played her sovereign role with an effortless confidence. But there was an unnerving sense that at each moment, she was draped with the fear of Orestes shadow. It was really beautiful to watch as an aspiring actor myself. This action was broken up by intermittent moments of punk rock to clarify scene changes or climactic moments.

The stage was fairly scarce apart from the instruments upstage. Neon lights lined the back wall and would change colour depending on the feeling of the scene. Brutal moments were highlight by a red glow and calmer parts were washed with blue.

Matt brewer who played Aegisthus was another actor to mention. Aegisthus’ growing frustration dread as the supports of his power crumble shone through clearly. Lydia Larson who played Electra was also wonderful to watch. The moments where she let out her pent up hatred were immensely powerful.

John Ward has directed something both beautiful but intense and primal at the same time. You feel the Greek earth under the feet of Orestes as he stands off with Aegisthus and you hear the Greek wind sweep you along as characters cry out in pain.

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INTERVIEW with Bunker Theatre director Joshua Mctaggart!

For my readers who aren’t aware of your work, who are you?

I’m Joshua Mctaggart, I’m the artistic director of the Bunker theatre, which is an off-west end venue in London Bridge. The space used to be an abandoned car park when we first got the lease, it was very much in disarray. And then in 2016 we transformed it into a 110 seater studio theatre space with a small bar. We celebrated our first birthday last October, so just over a year now.

This season we’re launching a new season and new bar, which is exciting!

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Joshua Mctaggart – Photo by Simon Paris


One of the articles I read on you described you as the accidental artistic director, how did that happen?

I founded the Bunker with Joel Fisher (the current executive producer at the Bunker). He and I met in 2015 through the springboard program at the Young Vic, and we realized we had similar beliefs about how off-West End theatre should be run in a way that empowers artists. As so often happens in the arts, we sat around having coffee, talking about things we didn’t like about the industry and things we wanted to change. I was always very open about my dream of running a venue one day, with the aim of bringing collaborators together and forming artistic connections in a space.  I think there’s something really exciting about the spaces where audiences and performers meet and where people gather, and something really important about cultural and community spaces. Joel and I had similar beliefs about how we could go about creating a space like that.

Then, about two years ago, Joel and I met with a landlord to discuss this abandoned underground car park that he was using as an ad-hoc rehearsal space. It had no health and safety sign-off, no ramp, no wheelchair access. A Southwark tcouncillor told me it was a car-crash waiting to happen, which I took as a challenge! So, I spent the next 6-8 months overseeing a building site, and we eventually got the licensing and the legals and the sign off, announced in August, and opened with a full season of work in August 2016. We launched with Skin a Cat, which I thought was a very clear statement of intent for the Bunker about what we’re interested in artistically: work from points of view that we don’t always hear from, work that challenges social taboo and gender identity, feminist stories. I think it was a real calling card for us.

Since then we’ve had some huge shows, like La Ronde, which is the first play in several years to be nominated for the Best Off-West End category of the What’s On Stage awards.

Electra - Megan Leigh Mason, Lydia Larson and Samuel Martin (Credit - Lidia Crisafulli)

Electra (27 Feb – 24 Mar) – Photo by Lidia Crisafulli


You’ve talked previously about wanting Off-West End theatre to be produced differently. What precisely did you mean by that?

Well there’s two levels, there’s the creative level and the financial level. On a creative level, it was about the event of seeing the play. All too often, when people go to a play they show up five minutes before, they see the play, and they go straight home. But I’m fascinated by spaces, and so I thought it was critical for people to really inhabit that environment. Because of the nature of the Bunker, we keep the bar open until the end of the night, and we keep the doors open so that people can go back inside. I think it’s really exciting to be able to be right next to a set and be able to have those post-show conversations.

On the financial level, I’m mostly concerned with finding models of producing off-West End theatre that ensures everyone is compensated fairly, while remaining financially viable.


“Beautiful things start, and beautiful things end, but beautiful things will start again. 
I’ve found that as long as you can hold on to that,
you can get through”


What is important to you in deciding what creators you want to work with?

I’m constantly impressed by the way every creative I interact with functions in their everyday life. The challenges of being freelance and of balancing work, play and creation are enormous, and I’m always very impressed by the work people are making and the strides people are taking to be heard. I think what’s really important is that there’s a story that really needs to be told, and a passion for that story. I think it’s much more important that a story have a fire behind it than that it be ‘marketable.’ So, I seek out artists that are passionate about the stories they’re telling, and that share a passion for storytelling. Sometimes you can tell, there are some people that seem to radiate with that passion.

Electra - Dario Coates (Credit - Lidia Crisafulli)

Electra (27 Feb – 24 Mar) – Photo by Lidia Crisafulli

Electra is the next show to go up at the Bunker. Greek tragedy can be quite difficult to pull off, what gave you faith in this particular production?

When someone sits down with you and says ‘I want to take the story of Electra and make it a punk rock performance with actor-musicians. Here’s this really poetic script we’ve been working on.’ It’s impossible to say no, really. Every time you embark on producing a show there’s an element of risk, and what really emboldened me with Electra was the creators behind it, both on the writing and musical side and on the producing side.

Also, they’re a Bristol-based company (DumbWise Theatre), and I think as a London venue it’s important that we don’t get stuck in the rut of only producing work from London-based companies. It’s critical that we develop those artistic relationships and nurture those connections with artists from other cities.

 

After Electra, you’ll be putting on Devil with the Blue Dress. What excites you about American work?

I’m excited about American practitioners, to be precise. What fascinates me about America, and why I think it’s still important for us to look at it as a country, is that America is an experiment: how free can people be while still having a structure of government in place. That’s the question that America poses, and that question leads to really fascinating culture and really fascinating politics. The UK is so very different from America, and so I think that cultural exchange is very important.

I also think it’s fascinating how this particular piece has evolved as the world shifts around it. The play was written before the 2016 election, and at that time it was very much intended to be about where the first female president came from. Then the election happened, and the play became about how Hillary Clinton lost. Now, in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the many reports of sexual misconduct in Hollywood and beyond, it’s become about abuses of power by men, and the way we as a society react to those abuses.

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Devil with the Blue Dress (29 Mar – 28 Apr)


What is your message to creators who want to work at the Bunker?

I’m amazed by how many people come and ask me to have a cup of coffee with them who don’t know about the work we do. From a purely practical perspective, if you’re going to sit down and speak with the artistic director of a venue, it would help to have a clear understanding of the ethos of that venue. I’m generally very open to talking to people, but I would say my advice is “know why you want to be at the Bunker.” why should your story be at the bunker? Who is the audience? Where is the passion for that story? And if it comes back to storytelling and a passion for telling that story, then that’s exciting. Don’t come and tell me the story you think I want you to tell, tell me the story that you want to tell. I think that applies both to the Bunker and the industry at large.

 

Finally, is there a piece of work that changed your worldview, personally?

There are two paintings, one in the National Gallery and one in the Tate Britain, both by Turner. One is called the Rise of Carthage and one is called the Fall of Carthage. They’re two epic, beautiful paintings, one about the arrival of Dido in Carthage and the other about the expulsion from Carthage. One time, I went to the National Gallery and looked at the Rise, then walked across the river and looked at the Fall, and then I walked back and looked at the Rise again; and that reminded me that beautiful things start, and beautiful things end, but beautiful things will start again. I’ve found that as long as you can hold on to that, you can get through, whether that applies to art, relationships, or life itself.

 

 


Massive thanks to Joshua and Tilly for their time and patience, and to @samwellswriting for all his help!

FCUK’D, Eastlake Productions @ The Bunker

11 – 30 December 2017

Written & directed by Niall Ransome
Performed by Will Mytum

Produced by Eastlake Productions

Will Mytum in FCUK'D, credit of Andreas Lambis (4)

“There are only so many times you’re called shit before you start to believe it”

To stop his little brother being taken by child protection services, a teenage boy takes him and flees their council estate in Hull. Being pursued with no plan and less prospects, the Boy struggles to survive against the elements and his conscious. It’s an hour-long one-man show, written in verse, that immerses you in the thoughts and dilemmas of the boy and his emotional bond with his little brother.

 

We previously interviewed the writer/director Niall Ransome about the project, read the interview here.

 

It’s a remarkable performance of a remarkable text.

Will Mytum gives an immensely charismatic and engaging performance. It’s hard to look away. It’s vulnerable and full of conflict, filled with guilt, fear, loyalty and love. Mytum dances the Boy through swaggering arrogance, to comedy, through painful emotion, and back.

Ransome has done an incredible job at balancing the verse and the action, the pace of the text rockets you through the play, while still leaving plenty of room for the language to breathe, and like a lot of great verse, you often forget that you’re listening to verse.

The language is not only perfect for pacing, but also for the character and ambience. The Northern, urban flavour drips deliciously from every syllable. The poetic way in which the scenes and imagery are painted by both words and performer is stunning. The scenes of the play unfold in front of you cinematically, like a pop-up book. You can see the identical brick council estates, the characters and the cars, and the relationship between Boy and his brother Mattie is palpable and heartfelt, despite their being only one person on stage. There are some beautiful moments where the whole world grows behind Mytum as he performs, and it feels like you’re there with him.

The plays themes aren’t all as easy to experience. Ransome has done an incredible job in exploring the moral grey zone within the characters and scenarios. You don’t always agree with the Boy’s actions, he is foul mouthed, impulsive, and destructive, but his heart is in the right place and watching him go through what he goes through, hurts. It dissects some of what’s really wrong with modern Britain. It’s a beautiful punch in the gut.

During my chat with Niall he talked about wanting audiences to walk away from the production more open minded, moved by the capacity of people who we may have most misjudged.

It worked on me.

 

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Interview with Niall Ransome on FCUK’D

FCUK’D @ The Bunker Theatre

11 December – 30 December 2017
Monday – Saturday at 7pm
Saturday Matinees at 4pm

£10-15

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So, I guess starting off with an easy one for those who don’t know you and your work, who are you?

Well, my name’s Niall Ransome, I’m an actor from Hull which is a lovely city up north in Yorkshire. I trained at Guildhall, but I did a year at LAMDA before Guildhall and that’s sort of how I got involved with all the Mischief Theatre people [The Play that Goes Wrong, Peter Pan Goes Wrong, A Comedy About a Bank Robbery]. FCUK’D is a show that I’ve written sort of outside that.

Will Mytum in FCUK'D, credit of Andreas Lambis (8)

Niall Ransome, credit of Andreas Lambis

And what can you tell me about FCUK’D?

It’s a one hour beat poem really. It’s all written verse and it’s about two young brothers who flee their council estate. The character Boy is the protagonist, he’s a young carer and he’s looking after his little brother. Since writing and making the piece longer I’ve researched a lot into what does it mean to be a young carer, how does it affect their lives, their well-being, and how it affects their chances of adulthood. And, child runaways really. 100,000 children run away from home a year. A lot of children return home and there are some who return home for a while, but there are a small percentage who never come back, and you sort of think ‘well, what’s happened there?’ It’s that unknown which I find interesting.

I’ve wanted to write for a long time. At drama school you can miss one of your big shows in third year and instead of doing those write your own 15-minute monologue. So, I always wanted to do that. Plus, at the same time I thought, well at drama school you want people to see you, so what better way than being like ‘I’m going to do a 15-minute monologue that’s just me!’ So, a lot of people in my year did that. And I think by the end of it I had this monologue which was the starting point for FCUK’D and I thought “I really like this! I’m really proud of it and I think it has legs to be a show”. From then it sort of grew really, I performed at the Royal Theatre in Holland – they asked me to go out and perform there. And I’ve done various scratch nights around London, did a few evenings in pub theatres. Earlier in the year we did two nights at the Vault Festival and that was its first full length hour long version I guess.

I’ve no longer been performing it so I cast a really old friend and a really wonderful actor called Will Mytum, and we’ve just built this team really to make this play as good as we think it can be.

 

“The play is a love letter to Hull, and a love letter to the city, and to the loyalty of those people”

 

In doing the research did you come across any particular stories that helped inspire the performance?

I read a lot. I read a lot of articles and newspapers about children running away, I wanted to lean away from basing it in true story. Purely because the story was about Mattie and Boy from the beginning of the monologue itself, and I wanted to honour it as its own story and not change the real stories by just putting them in. I very much felt that this is a runaway piece to try and encompass multiple aspects of that, as opposed to “these are based on these two people that this happened to”.

Again, it was just reading a lot of articles, looking at certain censuses and collections of data. Figures really, and I always think figures are strange because it’s just a number on a page and when you see 100,000 it’s just a number, but when you actually sit and think about how many children that is, and the equivalent to how many school’s worth of children that is.

Just to think of everyone in my old school times by whatever amount, and then of those people going missing. It’s terrifying.

I think it’s something that will always be within our consciousness because it’s always within the media. Whether it’s happening or whether it’s dramatized. There was The Missing programme with James Nesbitt a year or two ago, and there are always parents, so there’s always going to be that concern for what happens if your child does run away.

The play is a very particular story. The boys are forced to run away by their circumstance. There’s no father at home and their mother is an alcoholic. In the play I very much steer clear of painting her as a bad person or a person who’s made loads of poor choices, she’s certainly a strong woman who has had bad things happen to her. I think that’s another thing I really want to explore in the play and something I hope people take away from the play is – I think one of the problems we have in the media now is that we paint people as black and white, as good and bad, and I think that’s when we get into a dangerous territory of “well, this person said this about this group of people”.

Whether that’s young people, or that’s Muslims, or whether that’s the homosexual community, or women. We immediately want to tie something to a cause or to a belief system as opposed to thinking, “we’re all people, we’re all capable of making both good and bad decisions”. They’re not good and bad people, they’re just good and bad decisions.

I think that’s what I’m trying to say with the play. I really love the idea of the audience coming in and seeing this lad in trackies and trainers. He’s muddy, and he’s got an attitude, and he’s got a swagger, and I love the idea of an audience immediately having a impression of that lad and thinking ‘I know that type of guy, I don’t like that type of guy’, and it’s the job of the play to completely change your views.

By the end you leave hopefully feeling a bit more understanding to what he’s gone through and what’s happened to him. Because I think we don’t take the time necessary to understand what has happened in the situation, particularly in newspaper, you read the story and immediately are like “well obviously he was insane, and she was unhinged”, and actually you don’t know because you weren’t there. You’ve got the facts, but you haven’t got the feelings of it.

 

“We live in an epic time, we always do”

 

I’ve heard you talk before about ‘writing what you know’, so as well as the research are there elements that are autobiographical? About where you’re from?

I think it’s a little bit about Hull yeah, but not about Hull in terms of to put it down, because I love Hull and I’m very proud to be from Hull. I like to think I wear my accent with pride and all that sort of stuff. And I was very lucky, I have two lovely parents, I’ve got a lovely sister, I’ve got a nice supportive family. But I went to quite a bad school when I was younger.

It didn’t perform very well in surveys or OFSTED, it was always a very low performing school. There were many children from different backgrounds. Children like myself who came from quite loving families, but there were also children who came from backgrounds where there wasn’t parental support there, whether they just lived with the one parent or they lived with grandparents or uncles and aunties.

I remember there were certain kids in my year or in my class that if they’d get something wrong or they didn’t want to do work today they’d throw a chair across the room and then leave. Or there was one girl I remember was kicked out of a language lesson because she set fire to the curtains.

Again, it’s taking the time to realise that they’re not bad children, there’s nothing wrong with them. They’re lacking support, they’re lacking care and love and they haven’t had any of that unconditional love that you need as a child in order to approach things with more of an open mind as an adult.

I think there’s one line in the play that I keep coming back to which is “There’s only so many times you’re called shit before you start to believe it.” And I do believe that children will come in and swear and be abusive to other kids at school if that’s what they see at home. Because that’s what they’ve built in their mind of, well that’s what my parents do, that’s what I should be doing to my friends to make some sort of connection.

But I think one thing I would say about my school, is even though it was not a great performing school and not everyone came from the best backgrounds, by the end it was the most loyal connected group of people. Whether you were – I really hate to put labels on people – but people would refer to themselves as a chav, or an emo, or a rocker, or a library person. They would conform to those groups. And they existed in my school, absolutely, but everyone got on.

It didn’t matter from what group you were. It was this unifying This is England vibe of “well, it’s shit, but it’s our shit” and we earn it, and we can take ownership of that, and we can take pride in it. And I think going home and revisiting that school, just as it was being knocked down as I started writing the play – now it’s this beautiful multi-million-pound academy, which is excellent – but it was strange being there. Knowing that all the echoes of these kids who’d been there and lived there were sort of gone now. But they weren’t. School’s always a weird thing if you go back – I don’t know if you’ve ever been back to an old school – but it’s very weird isn’t it?

So, the play is a bit of love letter to Hull, and a love letter to the city, and to the loyalty of those people. It’s an aspect of Hull, and something we don’t see enough in theatre. That loyalty, that real familial bond you had with people.

I think we live in a time in theatre where everyone is fighting for their right to be heard. Which is absolutely right, every story should be able to be heard by anyone. It’s a platform. And I am definitely trying to push forward the working class. Like female presence in the arts, like diversity in the arts, the working class falls in that bracket that don’t necessarily have their voices heard, and it’s a story you want people to know about. To say “I think about that person in a different way because of what I saw. Maybe next time I walk in the streets and see someone who’s homeless I’ll give ‘em a pound. I won’t turn around and shrug”.

There’s starting to be this shift changes in the arts, particularly in the fringes. Fringe theatre, pub theatre, they’re particularly exciting to me. Those are the new writers, the new actors. The ones who go “I have something to say, and I’m going to say it”.

 

“It’s Greek tragedy in Tesco. Sort of like Medea meets Vicky Pollard”

 

Speaking of voices, why did you write in verse?

I love poetry, always have. I really loved it in school. Hull is very rich has a very rich history of poetry itself – Philip Larkin is one the country’s greatest poets. You also have Stevie Smith, ‘Not Waving but Drowning’, she’s a fantastic, fantastic poet who wrote these fantastic, quite brutal poems.

So, with Hull having such a rich history of poetry, and enjoying poetry myself. It just sort of happened, it just became that way. It was instinct, the weight of the character, and his swagger, and his age, and his accent. The verse, in a weird way really, really suits it.

There’s something so interesting about this classic verse poetry being juxtaposed. You know, it’s Greek tragedy in Tesco. Sort of like Medea meets Vicky Pollard, which works in a weird way. It makes it contemporary, and it shows that both are the same thing

You look at classic text, the Greeks, and Shakespeare, and it’s very rich, very reverential, very sacred-to-what-we-do masterpieces. And in some cases, you think “yeah of course”. But in others you think, “no, they’re stories and we’re going to find different ways to tell them”.

In the newspaper you read these horrible, horrible stories, but remove the pictures and the modern references and it’s Greek. You read a horrible story in the newspaper about a husband who has killed his own children before killing himself, but because he does that now, in certain place, in a certain time, it becomes very trivial because it’s in the newspaper. But, if you just think ‘father kills his sons before killing himself’ and you put that in the Acropolis, or medieval England, suddenly it becomes epic. We live in an epic time, we always do, and the verse heightens that.

So, it just sort of happened! I enjoy writing in verse!

It’s very loose verse, not Oxford/Cambridge. It’s just what the words need to be.

 

How has being an actor informed the way you write?

I think dramatically, just understanding how I would have approached it as an actor. But it’s liberating to step back as an actor and say ‘whatever I’ve done, whatever you’ve seen me do, forget it. Let’s get it on its feet, let’s go!’ And we found some completely different thing I would never have thought of watching Will pick up the part. Just getting to hear Will read it, and feeling ‘wow!’ it’s really exciting.

 

“1% percentage of the world get to do what they really want to do, and if you find yourself in that percentage – embrace it!”

 

How does it feel to go from the comedy of Mischief Theatre to something like this?

I love Mischief Theatre, and I’ve been so lucky to be a part of them for so many years. I’ve seen The Play That Goes Wrong go from selling 11 tickets in a pub theatre, to sitting in the stalls watching it on Broadway. I’m in A Comedy About a Bank Robbery now. I filmed Peter Pan Goes Wrong last Christmas. It’s a very intense environment, everyone is exceptionally funny, so everyone has to be funny all the time.

But I’ve always been interested in lots of different things. One of the things I love about Mischief is that we made it, and we created it. But being Northern and wanting to write myself, I really questioned what is it I wanted to say. It’s been tiring to do A Comedy About a Bank Robbery, and hear all these people manically laughing, and during the day dive into this.

At the same time, I try not to approach them as different things. In The Play that Goes Wrong it’s only really be funny, if within those comic moments the characters themselves feel like it’s a tragedy.

And I think with FCUK’D, it’s Northern, it’s at Christmas, it’s runaways on a council estate. There are moments of humour in it. It’s warm. At its core it’s about two brothers. It’s the Bunker Theatre’s alternative Christmas show because it is set over Christmas, and Christmas is about family, and what will you do with your family over Christmas. Will you be watching films? Will you be putting up a Christmas tree? Will you be running away from police? What will you be doing?

So, I try and approach everything the same. You just have to focus on the character and be truthful, because that’s what’s important.

 

What advice would you have for other aspiring actor/writer/directors? What would you want to say to those people who are just starting out?

I certainly wouldn’t try sound like I know it all, I still feel like I’m at the beginning of creating work and putting it on. I’ve been very lucky for the experience I’ve had, but for anyone who does want to write, and who does want to put things on… You’re your own worst critic. So, embrace that.

Work incredibly hard, and when you work as hard as you think you can on something, there’s always a little bit more to go.

Don’t censor yourself when you have an idea, mine it for all it’s worth.

I’ve always enjoyed letting people read stuff I’ve written to just get feedback, even if someone gives you a note you disagree with its food for thought.

I always think there’s no one to stop you doing things except yourself. There are so many factors of why this industry is difficult and why it’s difficult to put on work, but at the bottom level it comes down to you.  And it can be simple, there’s guy from my drama school who’d pick a play, cast it and we would just go and read the play. And even that is keeping yourself active and doing something. See a lot, read a lot. And enjoy it!

1% percentage of the world get to do what they really want to do, and if you find yourself in that percentage – embrace it! I always think if you’re going to fail, fail at something you enjoy,

With FCUK’D, it’s a play I’ve worked very hard on, that a lot of people have worked very hard on for a good few years. And I don’t know how it’s going to work, I hope it does well but there’s always a possibility people won’t enjoy it, it’s one of those go-down-the-ship mentalities, built your ship, be proud of your ship, sail in it and enjoy it! Know what I mean? And if it sinks enjoy being a skeleton at the bottom of the ocean, enjoy your Viking funeral!

If you want to put on work, just do it, you’re the only person stopping yourself. Even if it’s just an hour a week. I think that’s the way to look at it!

Cast & Creatives for FCUK'D, credit of Andreas Lambis.jpg

Cast & Creatives for FCUK’D, credit of Andreas Lambis

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A massive thanks to Niall for giving up his time to speak with us, as well as to Poppy for organising it, and to Becca for all her immeasurable help this week in geting this piece online.