REVIEW! Crisis? What Crisis? @ COLAB Factory

Presented by Parabolic Theatre
Written by Tom Black
Directed by Owen Kingston
Featuring Jaya Baldwin, Tom Black, Zoe Flint, Beth Jay, Owen Kingston, Chloe Mashiter, Christopher Styles, and Angus Woodward
16 November – 8 December 2019

It is the Winter of 1979, or, as the journalists are calling it (to your chagrin), the Winter of Discontent, and the Labour government of which you are a small but essential component is teetering on a knife’s edge; a vote of no-confidence is looming, one that, if lost, will propel That Woman to Downing Street, workers across the country are in uproar, and you have only minutes to prepare for a meeting with George Deakin, one of the country’s most powerful unionists, in an attempt to stem the tide of disastrous industrial action that threatens to sweep your government away.

Crisis What Crisis, Courtesy of Russell Cobb (3)

Image courtesy of Russell Cobb

This is the high stakes pitch at the start of Parabolic Theatre’s latest offering, Crisis? What Crisis? at the Colab Theatre, and the start of a thrilling evening of interactive theatre, live gaming, and bureaucratic insanity.

As you enter the space (a charmingly convincing shabby office, replete with period furnishings, charts and maps galore, and a miniscule television looping historical news footage), you are given your Labour party membership card and it becomes very easy to forget that you are in the back rooms of the Colab Theatre circa 2019. As the experience commences you are adroitly introduced to the world and its dangers; the core areas of engagement are with the Economy, Civil Unrest, and Politics, and it is up to you to decide which you want to tackle. In my journey I started off in Civil Unrest, where I was responsible for brokering our first deal with the unions, and eventually found my way over to the politics area where I spent most of the remainder of the night brokering deals with MPs on both sides of the aisle to ensure their loyalty or defection in the upcoming vote of no confidence. The one I barely touched was Economics, but the its influence was felt keenly in every area as we had to double check any major decisions against the Treasury Index and the looming spectre of spiralling inflation.

Crisis, What Crisis, The Colab Factory, Courtesy of Owen Kingston (2).JPG

Image courtesy of Russell Cobb

If that brief summary sounds confusing and baffling then I have in some part succeeded in communicating the experience of Crisis? What Crisis? to you. There is an awful lot going on in the course of the evening, and you’re likely to only ever catch a small vignette of if, indeed these types of experiences often live as much in the retelling as they do in the moment. Every decision you make sets a line of dominoes falling, and every decision another attendant makes does the same. My understanding is that the crew are in large part administering a monolithic spreadsheet that tracks the various interactions between different parts of the world, all of which they manage to do while also answering countless phone calls and chopping and changing between dozens of different characters. Special mention must go out to all of the performers who do so much to create and define the world, managing to be helpful and informative fixtures without dominating, and infuse a twinkle of humour to every interaction.

Crisis? What Crisis? is not a passive experience, and if you go into the evening with the mindset of your typical West End theatre-goer you are unlikely to get much out of it. As with all such creations, you tend to get out of it what you choose to put in. So jump in the deep end, volunteer for leadership positions, choose something to care about and carve out a niche that you can thrive in. Go in knowing that, as is always the case in such events, those with the most social confidence, self-assuredness, or simply the loudest voices will often come to dominate proceedings; that said, if you do not thrive in high-intensity social interaction or manufactured stress, there are still enjoyable interactions available in quieter corners of the room, and a designated do-not-bother-me sofa space for audience members who feel overwhelmed.

Crisis, What Crisis, The Colab Factory, Courtesy of Owen Kingston (6)

Image courtesy of Russell Cobb

If, however, the brief summary I have been able to give sounds intriguing to you, then I cannot recommend Crisis? What Crisis? highly enough. The experience is tight and engaging, and no two performances will ever be the same (without giving too much away, some friends went to a performance two nights later and had fumbled their way into a much darker timeline than we did). Once again Parabolic Theatre have shown themselves to be among the premier innovators in the hard-to-define world that they inhabit, so avoid a personal crisis and book tickets now.

Tickets

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Previous review: The Play at Eight: The Monkey’s Paw by Storyfleas @ The Space Theatre

REVIEW! The Play at Eight: The Monkey’s Paw by Storyfleas @ The Space Theatre

Written by Jack Williams and Sara Butler
Directed by Matthew Jameson
Featuring Jordan Baker, Becky Coops, Matthew Jameson, Jack Williams, and Matthew Walker
15 – 19 October 2019

I didn’t really know what to expect from this show, as radio has never really been my thing (I don’t even listen to podcasts), I’d never heard of “Foley artistry” in my life, and I’m a huge wuss who usually avoids anything mildly spooky. However, not only did I thoroughly enjoy last Saturday’s matinee performance of The Play at Eight, I even returned for the evening slot!

A radio play within a play, the setting for this show is a radio studio of the 30s, and we the audience its studio audience. At first, the radio sound engineer-slash-announcer (co-writer Jack Williams) was the only one on stage, introducing us to the British Empire Radio Corp, the era, and the aesthetic of pomaded hair and rolled Rs. We listened to pre-recorded advertisements for Alka-seltzer and Zonite until the other cast members emerged. The Director was played by real-life director Matthew Jameson, and the two actors – Nancy and Dick Everett – by Jordan Baker and Becky Coops respectively.

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Becky Coops, Jordan Baker, and Jack Williams in The Play At Eight: The Monkey’s Paw. Photography by Natalia Queirolo.

The Everetts are an unhappily married showbiz couple, a bundle of easy tropes tied together with makeup and snark – he’s an alcoholic and a scoundrel, she’s a gold-digger and a nag. This tired old dynamic was made tolerable to a 2019 audience by the casting of women in both roles; Coops was excellent as the swaggering, bucolic, greasy Dick, even sleazing on an audience member throughout the course of events (yes, I had the honour). Her facial expressions and body language were spot-on, and she modulated her voice so well that I often forgot she wasn’t a middle-aged man with the plummy vowels of the early 20th century. Jordan Baker (with the perfect name for the era) as Nancy also had the accent of the era down pat, along with self-applied makeup and hair styling. Her dramatic flourishes and acidic asides to the audience were delivered with impeccable comic timing, and she did well in bringing layers of performance to an otherwise two-dimensional character.

The three male actors (Jameson, Williams, and sound technician Matthew Walker who has a highly comic cameo as Professor Swan) were clearly having a great time inhabiting their characters, playing off each other with cheeky charisma. The set was furnished by Williams with an assortment of olde-worlde knickknacks, and the authenticity and charm of this play’s dressing – not just the props, but also the lovingly crafted recording booth, and the vintage-style artworks – was a major strength of the production (set and graphic designer Sam Moulsdale is to be congratulated).

After some scene-setting, replete with bubbling tension between the actors and spite-laced practical jokes, the radio play began. The lighting dimmed, with only the two tables (one for the actors, one for the Foley engineer) as islands of illumination. We were urged to close our eyes for full immersion in the radio experience, and the gothic horror tale of The Monkey’s Paw began.

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Matthew Jameson in The Play At Eight: The Monkey’s Paw. Photography by Natalia Queirolo.

This was originally a short story written in 1902 by W. W. Jacobs, and has been adapted for various different media formats over the century since. This version has been edited by Williams and Butler for a smaller cast and to allow for some world-building embellishments. With its imperial British setting, there are a number of rather unfortunate references to “quaint superstitions” and “primitive natives” etc, but I excused these as being relics of Jacobs’ time. However, in researching for this review, I stumbled across the original text from 1903, and was surprised to see that almost none of these now-racist tropes were actually present in the original. Were they added in a later 20th-century adaptation for extra exoticism, or written in by Williams and Butler especially for this Play at Eight? Either way, I would highly recommend reconsidering this for future iterations of the play, as it doesn’t add anything particularly valuable to the performance and is very out of place in a piece of modern writing.

This is part of one of the weaknesses of this show – it is highly entertaining, equal measures funny and spooky, but doesn’t have much weight to it or anything particularly interesting to say. It’s something of a missed opportunity to skirt discussions such as colonialism or repatriation of museum artifacts, particularly with a character from the British Museum! Of course I understand that not every piece of theatre needs to be explicitly political, but questions of race, culture, gender expectations, etc are inherently political and it is simply not enough any longer to portray antiquated attitudes uncritically.

That said, The Play at Eight: The Monkey’s Paw really is jolly good fun, as evidenced by my decision to see it twice! The loving attention to detail, spirited performances by talented actors, and self-aware humour both scripted and improvised, ensure a fun hour. The element of Foley artistry (creation of audio special effects live on stage) was an added bonus, and excellently pitched for entry-level Foley audiences such as myself. I would love to see this piece developed further and taken on tour – if it happens, I’ll be right there in line for a third ticket!

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Previous review: Mission Creep by Bee Scott @ The White Bear Theatre

REVIEW! Hitler’s Tasters by Michelle Kholos Brooks @ The Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Directed by Sarah Norris
Presented by New Light Theater Project
Greenside (Infirmary Street)

2nd – 24th August

Mary Katherine Kopp, Kaitlin Paige Longoria, and Hallie Griffin in Hitler’s Tasters. Image courtesy of Hunter Canning

Here’s the thing: for undergrad, I did a triple major in History, German Language & Culture, and Theatre Studies. Has this combination ever really come in useful? Until now, no, but when I saw the description of this show, I thought my moment had finally come. As it turned out, you don’t really need to know that much about German or History to understand Hitler’s Tasters. This disappointed me a little (as well, I suspect, as the American lady in the queue in front of me who promised her son that this would be an historically educational experience), but even if there wasn’t too much there to stimulate my German/History nerdery, it was still an engaging and technically interesting piece of theatre.

A new play by American playwright Michelle Kholos Brooks, Hitler’s Tasters follows the story of four girls – Hilda, Margot, Anna, and Liesel – who were conscripted to serve their country as tasters for the Fuehrer. It is true that there were a number of such women during WWII who were selected for this role of sampling all Hitler’s meals before he touched them, to check that the food was safe from poison, and one of them (the only survivor) was called Margot; but that’s about as far as the historical accuracy of this play stretches. Everything else is highly stylised invention, dressed in a superficial understanding of German history and culture.

This lack of historical accuracy, however, is something embraced by the play, which is more focused on exploring a thematic concept. To this end, it merges a historical setting with very modern elements, to create a strangely effective atmosphere of timelessness. The girls snap selfies on their phones and then gossip about the attractiveness of Clark Gable; they dance frenetically to electronic pop, then fret over how Aryan they are, and how marriageable. They spend interminably slow hours locked in a room, waiting for symptoms of poison to manifest, and they fill this time with exactly what you’d expect of teenaged girls from any era. They snipe, gossip, play Truth or Dare, braid each other’s hair, swap confessions and fears, philosophise about life and death, and descend into giggling fits of ecstasy over male celebrities. There are power plays, spiteful insults, and betrayals… as well as declarations of sisterhood and support. Each girl is given a distinctive personality, which the talented actors fine-tune and portray with skill. There is an interesting interplay between stereotypical teenaged girl cattiness and the undercurrents of very real  social danger – the knowledge hanging in the air that if one of these girls were to turn on another and report her for social non-conformity, the consequences would be much more serious than the normal high school ostracism.

Image courtesy of Hunter Canning

At first I found it a very distracting stylistic choice to have all the girls speak in heavy American accents, with heightened “valley girl” vocal inflections. I reasoned that it was probably to help the audience draw parallels with modern pop culture texts such as Mean Girls, and the image of the millennial teenaged girl which is distilled in its most concentrated and exaggerated form in American media. Upon realising that it was an entirely American production, with American actors and having toured in America, I now wonder if this was simply intended to be a functionally invisible accent choice, as Southern English accents probably would be if it were a British production. If so, that’s an interesting side effect of having taken the play trans-Atlantic, and not necessarily a negative one. I would, however, advise that the director and cast should do a quick bit of research into the pronunciation of those occasional German words sprinkled throughout – mainly for “father” and “mother” – as they sounded quite ridiculous spoken in American.

A stylistic choice that I did really enjoy was the abstract nature of the framing scenes; these were used to represent the actual meal tasting, which was presented as highly ritualised, with slickly choreographed physical movement and unsettling sound and lighting effects (kudos here to choreographer Ashlee Wasmund and production manager Christina Tang). Overall, the production values of this show were excellent, maintaining a consistent high quality throughout, from usage of the stage space through to the costume design. Sarah Norris is to be congratulated on her tight direction and evocative interpretation of the text. It is particularly relevant to us today to be reminded that fascism and far-right brainwashing can happen so insidiously that the end results just look like normal people; these young girls are both victim and complicit, and remain emphatically human throughout.

Kaitlin Paige Longoria and Hallie Griffin in Hitler’s Tasters. Image courtesy of Hunter Canning

Overall, I do realise that my gripes with Hitler’s Tasters are very subjective, and largely due to expectations of historical interest which the show never actually promised me. In the end, I’m sure the young boy in front of me in the line learned some snippets of history – even if it was just that Hitler was a vegetarian and loved his dog, that teaches the important lesson that evil doesn’t always seem it. Even though I think there was a missed opportunity for more historical, political, and social complexity within the text, this play still demonstrates the importance of empathy and trust, independent thinking, and bravery.

Tickets

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Previous review: Knot by Nikki & JD @ The Edinburgh Fringe Festival

REVIEW! Spitfire Sisters @ The Space Theatre

Written by Three of a Kind (Doc Andersen-Bloomfield, Catherine Comfort and Heather Dunmore)
Directed by Adam Hemming
Produced by Grace Chapman
2 – 6 July 2019

Attaboys. That was the affectionate name given to pilots of the ATA, the Air Transport Auxiliary, a civilian organisation set up during World War II to ferry aircraft between factories and military sites, thereby freeing up RAF pilots for front line service. Except that many of the “boys” were women, who joined because, unlike with the RAF, they could be accepted into the ATA regardless of gender, age or disabilities.

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Faye Maughan (Phyllis Griggs). Photo courtesy of Liz Isles

Spitfire Sisters tells the as-yet little-known stories of several of these women, following their daily lives at the airbase, awaiting their assignments under the constant threat of air raids, doing their best to live in a country torn by war. It follows a year in their lives during the war as they navigate their way through a society where they were not only largely invisible, but also actively put in harm’s way: women were only allowed to fly if they did so without instruments. Considered too unskilled to learn how to use the same tools as men, they were given a compass and a map, and nothing else.

The background of the fight for gender equality, with women dealing with the same problems and dangers as their male counterparts while having to prove their worth every step of the way, is unfortunately a familiar one to this day. The struggle is depressingly real, and so are the women’s attitudes towards it, from unwavering dedication to the cause, to complete indifference, to casual interest, to a resigned acceptance of their status.

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Photo courtesy of Liz Isles

The script shines in how it portrays the diversity of voices and backgrounds of these women, who joined out of a need to find freedom from social constraints, to prove their self-worth to themselves and others, to follow a bright-eyed fascination with machines, to flee a home that had no place for them, to create a better life for themselves, to fight for their country and find closure to the traumas of the war.

Their love of flying is the common ground, as all-encompassing as the rumble of the Merlin engines. The top notch quality of the cast, who are absolutely believable in their individual portrayals and in their relationships to one another, brings this to the foreground, and ties the otherwise loose story together. The scenes when all the women are together, either celebrating rare moments of respite or mourning yet another unthinkable loss, felt genuinely joyous and/or heart-wrenching. Every emotion here is layered, from blind devotion and self-sacrifice, to self preservation and independence, carefree affection, quarrels and rivalries between friends, lovers, colleagues, superiors. Mary Roubos stands out as the vivacious Georgia, while Chloe Wade’s Jessie combines fierce determination with genuine compassion.

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Ali Shinall (Cornelia Wood). Photo courtesy of Liz Isles

Unfortunately, the powerful moments make the less effective parts of the script conspicuous in comparison. The scenes featuring the only male character felt particularly weak, his coarse manner and outbursts a jarring contrast to the women’s nuanced portrayals. Perhaps this was on purpose, but it felt unnecessary. Finally, the aesthetic choice of having the cast smoke on stage may have helped to create an accurate atmosphere, but it made my head and lungs ache as much as the poignant scenes made my heart ache. I didn’t notice any warning in the programme about this involuntary audience immersion, and it is something that should be flagged for future performances, for asthmatics and non-smokers like myself.

Ultimately, these are stories that deserve to be known, told in a way that shows genuine care and enthusiasm for the source material. Take it from a female aviation enthusiast who grew up being told that women don’t have what it takes to become pilots! However, even if you don’t fall in love with the sound of an engine, you will find something here to delight you.

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Previous review: Kill Climate Deniers by David Finnigan @ The Pleasance Islington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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After taking Cordite… Photo Credit: Chris Bishop

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

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

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