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! How To Catch A Krampus, Sink the Pink @ Pleasance Theatre

Writer, Director, Designer: Ginger Johnson
Musical Direction: Sarah Bodalbhai
Produced by Glyn Fussell for Sink The Pink and Nic Connaughton for Pleasance
Featuring: Ginger Johnson, Lavinia Co-op, David Cumming, Mairi Houston, Mahatma Khandi, and Maxi More
13 Nov – 23 Dec 2018

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Ginger Johnson in How To Catch a Krampus. Images courtesy of Ali Wright

I was instantly drawn to this show when I read its title: the figure of the Krampus, a devilish Central European counterweight to Saint Nicholas, has always held a particular dark fascination to me. The image of a dark, cold, snowy land, inhabited by sinister figures and child-punishing monsters, forms the very antithesis to the jolly, magical, family-friendly wonderland which we in the West associate with Christmas. I was not disappointed by this production, which used exactly this creepy Gothic horror setting (kudos to sound and lighting designers, Alicia Jane Turner and Clancy Flynn) to tell a panto story that was both fabulously dark and silly – featuring history’s campest Krampus!

Ginger Johnson, a veteran London drag queen, wrote and stars in this story about a charlatan spirit medium who embarks on a quest to return a stolen child to his grieving and impoverished family. In the process, Ginger is forced to confront her own past and its associated demons – she may have lost her son to the Krampus, but she is the only person who can stop history from repeating itself. Along the way we meet a motley assortment of characters, encompassing a crew of highly comic Morris dancers, a coven of genuinely chilling demonic witches, an Italian opera diva and her questionable translator, an elderly prostitute with a colourful history, a Rocky Horror-esque German mad scientist, and many many more.

As you can probably imagine, many of these skits did not link up with each other in any sort of narrative sense, and at times this could be disorienting as your brain tried to fit together pieces drawn from different puzzles. However, all fit perfectly with theme of a deliciously dark and naughty Christmas panto, showcasing the performers’ skills at spoof and spook, dance and drama, slapstick and soprano. Musical highlights included:

  • 67-year-old Lavinia Co-op blending class and crass in a slowed-down parody of Rihanna’s S&M;
  • An all-cast a capella (I think?) and actually goosebump-raising rendition of MJ’s Thriller;
  • Dancing from Morris, Morris, Morris, Morris, Morris, and Susan;
  • A side-splittingly chaotic version of The Twelve Days of Christmas;
  • Houston sweetly singing Not While I’m Around from Sweeney Todd whilst attempting patricide;
  • Look, basically every other moment of the show…
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Lavinia Co-op and Mairi Houstin in How To Catch a Krampus. Images courtesy of Ali Wright

While each performer got their time in the spotlight, much of this show’s charm came from the chemistry between its characters. Mairi Houston as the token non-drag actor had a wonderful dynamic with Ginger Johnson, acting as a perfectly contrasting counterpart to the flamboyant larger-than-life queen. How To Catch A Krampus is bookended by comedic collaboration/confrontation between Ginger Johnson and David Cumming, whose relationship sparks with friction and hidden tensions – when they revealed the twist ending to the fable, the theatre erupted with shocked gasps.

A warning: this production is not for the faint-hearted, prudes, traditionalists, or children. Expect jump scares (the very first moment of the performance had me violently spilling my red wine over my neighbour’s yellow jacket, ooops), partial nudity, jokes about swords being semi-sexually inserted into various orifices, and all sorts of outrageous stunts. But a riot is rarely a safe event, and How To Catch A Krampus is certainly a riotously good time for the open-minded.

Tickets

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Previous review: Cuckoo by Lisa Carroll @ Soho Theatre

Frankenstein, Tea Break Theatre @ Sutton House

Read the interview with writer/director Katharine Armitage.

Written and Directed by Katharine Armitage
Featuring Jeff Scott, Molly Small, Jennifer Tyler, Chris Dobson, Katy Helps. 
17 October – 3 November 2018

Frankenstein, Sutton House - Courtesy of John Wilson (4)200 years after it was first published by a teenage girl writing under a pseudonym, Frankenstein finally gets the women it deserves.

The show in many ways feels like what Peter Jackson is going for with his recent project of colourising and dubbing WW1 footage. Mary Shelley’s novel finds new life, colour and dimension in this innovative immersive, in-situ production.

The gothic tale begins with pop-rock streaming from a tinny cassette player, welcoming us to the world of the real-life squatters who occupied Sutton House during the 1980s. Clever scripting weaves together the three layers of stories – that of the squatters, of Mary Shelley, and of Frankenstein – and before you know it you’re in the story.

By ‘in the story’, I do mean in the story. The immersive elements embed the audience not just in the house, but within the home of the Frankensteins. Never allowed to become too comfortable, each audience group follows different actors around the house, and like the characters themselves we only see windows into the world. Despite some ‘dead time’ (forgive the pun) created by this, it felt like an orchestra in which you get to know the flute player as a human rather than just an instrument.

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The biggest ‘pop’ of reality, however, comes from what director Katharine Armitage calls “finding the women”. Commendations must go to Katy Helps (Justine) and Jennifer Tyler (Elizabeth) for rescuing the female characters from the constraints of the 19th century, and to Molly Small (The Creature) for a performance that carried the extra burden of a gender layer to the questions raised about monstrosity, creation and destruction.

Although occasionally unsubtle in its delivery, this production of Frankenstein is nonetheless a wonderful and innovative adaptation that is recommended to everyone from the life-long Frankenstein fans to those whose only pre-existing image is of a green man with a bolt through his neck.

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Tickets

REVIEW! The Agency @ The Old Red Lion Theatre, London Horror Festival

Written and Directed by Davey Seagle
Ponydog Productions / Old Red Lion Theatre
London Horror Festival
9th-11th October 2018

In Davey Seagle’s The Agency, nothing is quite as it seems.

As soon as you enter the theatre you become immersed in the dystopian future of 2029, where justice is privatised, and your actions as an audience determine how the show ends. Faced with various scenarios, you, as an audience, vote digitally via your phone on the play’s dilemmas, with each decision you make building towards the play’s climax. Votes are displayed via projection on the back wall, and, thankfully for an interactive show, audience members can participate as much or as little as they want. You can suggest solutions, vote, debate, sit quietly, or in the case of some of my fellow theatregoers, turn into bloodthirsty maniacs.

I left feeling transported, slightly shaken, and immensely entertained.

It’s a fast-paced and witty dark comedy, with a hard-hitting moral core, and it raises some fascinating ethical questions. If a murderer’s incarceration costs £50 000 a year (which it does), is it ethically better that money is rather spent on a dozen cancer treatments? If the murderer is in prison 20 years, that’s the equivalent of

£1mil of taxpayer money. So if you had the choice, would you rather than pay for 140 cancer treatments? Or give the money to the bereaved?

But if you don’t lock them up, what do you do with the murderer? And what for that matter do you do with the cancer patients?

The Agency lets the audience decide, and you might be surprised where your moral compass takes you. And due to the multiple branching choices within the plot, it’s hard to tell what was written and what’s improvised. It’s not a show likely to end the same way twice.

Glueing the together is its impressive cast. Niamh Blackman and Chris Elms in particular shine as Chuck and Cherry, your guides through the treacherous realms of satirical corporate bureaucracy (much funnier than it sounds). Their energy, quick thinking, and earnestness give the show its structure, humour, and much of its emotional impact. Georgie Oulton too provides a sympathetic and powerful twist as Bunny, while Davey Seagle occasionally chimes in hilariously as the obnoxious and multi-tasking lighting man.

Not to say that there weren’t problems. There were definitely hiccups in the show. A tech breakdown, laggy internet issues that were a plague to the pacing, the more improv-heavy sections occasionally being bogged down by rowdy audience members before adroit ship-righting by Elms and Blackman, and perhaps some ham-fisted writing during Bunny’s monologue scene. But overall it’s an extraordinary show, and I’d like to see what this team could accomplish on more than their shoe-string pub theatre budget.

Tickets

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