REVIEW! BIRTH @ Pleasance Courtyard , Edinburgh Fringe

Conceived & Directed by Guillaume Pigé
Devised by The Company
Performed at Edinburgh Fringe until 25th August

In the busy queue amongst the Edinburgh Fringe goers the excitement for Theatre Re’s BIRTH was high, and rightly so! As this was one of the most beautiful pieces of theatre I have ever seen.

Theatre Re, known for their international success Nature of Forgetting (which I was lucky enough to see last year), has not let the bar drop with this new production BIRTH. Guillaume Pigé has directed another wonderfully human and tremendously moving performance, this time exploring the sensitive subject of child loss and foundations of family.

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The black box theatre was minimalist; with a dimly lit dining table centre stage. As soon as the performance started the mesmerising music, composed and performed live by Alex Judd, gently guided us into the world of physical storytelling and I was completely immersed within seconds.

Ultimately, it was the continual flow of the performance which I found most impressive – the energy never dropped. Not even during transitions, which can sometimes be a productions biggest flaw, however Theatre Re found an aesthetically creative and efficient way to slip into the next scene; by flowing a giant sheet over the whole stage as characters appeared and disappeared almost like a beautiful magic trick.

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The story follows three generations of women in one family; non-chronologically showing each of their lives and how their experiences intertwine with each other. One of the highlights of the piece being when Emily, played by the extremely talented Eygló Belafonte, gives birth. Instead of the generic panting and pushing, Theatre Re have found an amusing and artistic way of portraying this with a detailed dance between the husband and wife, and ending with a marathon sprint with cheers of encouragement from the whole family, this may sound simple but it was so unbelievably effective.

Throughout the performance I heavily reflected on my childhood, my family, and my sisters, and was certainly not the only one with tears in my eyes. It is safe to say that Pigé has created such a memorable and dynamic piece of work, which should be performed all over the world. The company have an astounding ability to devise such original and heart felt moments, I congratulate them on their much deserved success.

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REVIEW! Twelfth Night @ The Rose Playhouse

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Adam Nichols
Musical direction by Tom Cagnoni
23rd April – 5th May 2019

This jukebox interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s awkward comedies is a fun romp, showcasing a widely talented cast.

Photography Credit – Lou Morris Photography

Set on a 1920’s cruise ship, the production runs to a tight 90 minutes, necessary as the semi-excavated historic Rose Playhouse has no heating or bathrooms. Behind the narrow shelf of the stage is a cavernous pit where the 400 year old structure is being revealed – in this production, the pit becomes the sea.

The 1920’s setting gives reason to the characters’ manias and hedonism – the war is over, and now we can drink, play pranks and fall in love. Duke Orsino (Will Forester playing him as frankly bi-curious) is our captain, Olivia (Emma Watson at full glamour) a famous actress. The innocent, plucky Viola (Lucy Crick) washes up on board and finds herself stuffing her trunks to convince people that she is worth employing – still a legitimate concern, even in the post-war relaxing of gender roles, women should not be alone with men.

The small staging space was cleverly used, the primary set piece being a modified piano that provided backing music as well as serving as a prop. The fourteen actors played music, sang and clowned, keeping the audience laughing and clapping along. Not all the songs felt entirely necessary – it’s not that they were poorly performed as much as they didn’t add much to our understanding of the characters. I don’t really need to hear the jazzy redux of the Thong Song in its entirety to know that Toby Belch is gross, or a cover of Alessia Cara’s Here to know that Feste feels out of place.

Photography Credit – Lou Morris Photography

There tends to be little to add to Shakespeare’s comedies, which play with gender and expectation in a cultural context we have no experience of. It’s common enough to cast Feste the fool as a girl, and Hannah Francis-Baker does a fine job as a grinning Greek chorus, using re-arranged pop songs to comment on the action of the play. This production, however, really leaned into the amorality of charismatic drunk Lady Toby (Anna Franklin as a washed up music hall star) and her crew, making a female Malvolia (Faith Turner playing priggish perfection) suffer – it’s more distressing to see a woman stripped to yellow stockings and taunted for thinking she might be loved than it is a man. In between that and the gentle, pitiably foolish Sir Andrew (James Douglas, at peak upper class twit), the play ends on a curious note, perhaps commenting on the torment of being the butt of jokes. It doesn’t entirely land – as it maybe can’t, without adding a post-script to Shakespeare’s play.

This production is worth your attention, appropriate for fans of pop, comedy and Shakespeare.

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Previous Review: H.M.A.S. Pinafore @ The King’s Head Theatre

REVIEW! Welcome to the UK by PSYCHEdelight @ The Bunker

Director and Lighting Design: Sophie NL Besse
Assistant Director: Gareth Watkins
Music and Songs: Tamara Astor
Movement director: Peter Pearson
Running Dates: 22nd January – 16th February 2019

Welcome to the UK is a carnival comedy with a heart of gold. Created and performed by PSYCHEdelight – a company dedicated to giving asylum seekers a voice – whom are well known for their successful 2016 satire comedy Borderline. Welcome to the UK is the next chapter after Borderline, with a cast from 13 different countries all sharing moments of their personal journey through epic theatre techniques.

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Welcome to the UK Cast on stage at The Bunker. Photo: Jose Farinha

The fun circus style and patriotic set design of union jack coloured bunting and flags gave us a warm welcome as we entered the space. Opening with burst from the energetic compère, played by Reuben Williams, we are immediately asked to think of a dream and blow it into the balloon left on our seats. After direction we all threw our airy dreams (pardon the pun) onto the stage… only to realise the balloons were for the rifle range at this warped carnival and it was perhaps not going to be all fun and games after all.

The next 70 minutes was a whirlwind of fun fair activities masking the challenges refugees face when trying to claim asylum and build a future in the UK; menacing pigs in the haunted house portraying the fear in an arranged marriage, a home office interview displayed as a series of ridiculous questions from a mystical gypsy, a refugee’s struggle to meet tight deadlines reworked as a UV video game. Each scene was imaginative and comedy fuelled, however the show lacked slick transitions and the energy on stage regularly fluctuated.

Aesthetically the piece was very strong; the diverse ensemble using physical storytelling (such as a literal emotional roller-coaster, which certainly made me giggle), the bright (and sometimes sparkling) costumes, and most of all the intricate lighting design which was effectively utilised to change the atmosphere throughout.

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A scary Teresa May (Left) controlling the hamster whirl effect. Photo: Jose Farinha

The hostile environment created for the asylum seekers was a reflection of the UK’s decisions and policies, and this was clearly conveyed. There is no denying the importance of the show and the extremely current issues surrounding the topic. Watching the talented asylum seekers perform with such enthusiasm (particularly Mohand Hasb Alrsol Badr, who made me chuckle constantly) and listening to their experiences in a way that we can all learn and laugh was brilliant.

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An overly sympathetic ‘Mary Poppins’-esque character. Photo: Jose Farinha

PSYCHEdelight has again produced a platform for expression, and whilst making us giggle they provoke us to think, to consider, to empathise. During this wacky performance there was one particularly powerful and unsettling image; Abdulrahman Salama (a Syrian refugee) sat alone on the top of a ladder throughout with a single orange balloon, holding his phone and waiting in distress for news of his family. A constant reminder of the harsh reality between the laughs.

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Previous review: Outlying Islands, Atticist @ King’s Head Pub Theatre

Bury the Hatchet, Out of the Forest Theatre @ The Hope Theatre, Islington

24 July – 11 August

Written by Sasha Wilson, further devised by the company
Cast: Joseph Harrison, David Leopold and Sasha Wilson
Design: David Spence
Lighting Design: Will Alder
Produced by Joseph Cullen, Sarah Divall and Claire Gilbert for Out of the Forest Theatre

Photo Credits: Reg Madison/Liam Bessell

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Bury the Hatchet is a re-visiting of the famous Lizzie Borden story, performed in the black-box studio of The Hope Theatre, Islington. Upon entering we find Sasha Wilson, the actor who plays Lizzie and herself as the playwright, kneeling on the floor in a lace black dress (wearing matching Etsy style earrings of Lizzie Borden) at the centre of radiating family portraits splattered with red blood. Sasha copies details from a hefty history tome into a notebook, presumably crafting the play we’re about to see. Above, a lit hatchet dangles from a rigged loop of rope.  Stringed instruments – a violin, a banjo, etc. – crowd the back of the stage. A resonant whistle fills the space as Joseph Harrison and David Leopold enter, completing the ensemble cast, and we’re off.

What follows is an investigation of the persevering mystery, nagging happenstance, and odd Victorian social hang-ups that contributed to the peculiar and unresolved case of Lizzie Borden, who was accused of the murder of her father and step-mother by hatchet in 1892. (Lizzie Borden took an axe, And gave her mother forty whacks…etc.)

In the play, Sasha claims that she initially set out to write a historically accurate show. What results is an interesting frisson between Lizzie Borden pop-lore, the dramatisation of primary sources and the beginning of the playwright’s inquiry into both Lizzie’s motivation and her own fascination with the story, set to a gorgeous prairie bluegrass soundtrack.

Sasha’s exploration feels strongest when the playwright reflects on what she finds interesting about the murder and its circumstance – weaving together a possible psychology for Lizzie, before revising her theories with a new set of supporting facts. Her desire to find something else in Lizzie’s motivations, and Lizzie’s relationships with her sister Emma and the family maid Bridget, even if only through supposition, brings new life to the nursery rhyme.

Joseph Harrison and David Leopold had a markedly generous energy and seamlessly led the audience through the thorny mystery, expertly playing a bevvy of supporting characters. The ensemble was silly and charming, the piece defined by a meta-humour that buoyed along the more serious themes, allowing a critique of the original trial, both with facts, fictions and digressions.

The atmosphere was intimate and immersive, aided by a subtle choreographed movement, well-articulated by the actors and magnetic in the space. Within the studio, Will Alder created a moody, oil-painting lighting scape, with wisps of more electric horror, highlighting the ensemble’s striking arrangements (both musical/physical) beneath the ever-hanging hatchet.

The style sang best when it positioned its author as architect of the inquiry. Sasha Wilson is particularly compelling when she filters Lizzie through the lens of her own experience, reflecting on the awakening Lizzie might have felt after her first European tour, or interrogating her own relationship with death. While the details of the crime are teasingly interesting, the question of what is true remains locked in time and I found the pursuit of what might be understood, or re-interpreted from the vantage of now, to be far more engaging.

Overall, the piece was rich and evocative, expertly conjuring the feeling of vaudevillian horror as well as identifying something at the heart of our ongoing fascination with “guilty” true crime celebrities and Lizzie’s relatable, out of time refusal to have less.

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Medea Electronica, Pecho Mama @ The Ovalhouse

30th January – 10 February
Created and performed by Pecho Mama: Mella Faye, Sam Cox and Alex Stanford

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With Medea Electronica, Pecho Mama have found some kind of sorcery.

The piece, a retelling of the tragedy of Medea, is half play, half live concept album. The members of Pecho Mama persistently blur the line between these two halves. They place their synthesizer and electronic drum kit prominently on either side of the stage. Front and centre is a mic stand. The stage looks like it’s set up for a concert, rather than Greek tragedy. It’s about to host both.

As the piece begins, we come to understand how this is possible.

The play dances effortlessly between song and scene. One moment, Mella Faye’s Medea will be comforting her children, or speaking to their teacher, or confronting her traitorous husband. Then, instantly, seamlessly, her reaction to that scene is pulsing all around us. It’s broadcast through musicians Sam Cox and Alex Stanford’s instruments and Mella Faye’s own soulful voice. Through this back and forth Pecho Mama weave an unbroken thread of tension through the piece. This thread grows tighter and tighter until, of course, it snaps. To glorious and terrifying effect.

Mella Faye portrays Medea as a meek, ordinary woman, pushed to the extreme end of violence by circumstance. As an audience we view her transformation with a mixture of fear, awe, and pity. We are conflicted. It’s electrifying to see her claw back her power, but the lengths to which she goes are horrifying.

Propelling the piece forward is Pecho Mama’s evocative, exciting music. Cox and Stanford’s synths are constantly driving the piece forward. They are ever-present, accompanying moments of dialogue with atmospheric drones or sharp, percussive beats. They give the piece a persistent musicality and rhythm that keeps the story flowing forward at a breakneck pace. They make music that feels true to the story’s roots as an ancient verse play, and keeps the intensity building until its inevitable breaking point. It helps as well that they’re just fun to listen to, mixing elements of 80’s synth-electronic with prog-rock to form a suitably epic and energetic sound, cleverly composed and performed with panache.

What makes the piece so spellbinding as a whole, however, is how every element comes together to amplify the emotional intensity of the piece. Medea delivers all her lines into her microphone. This, counter-intuitively, makes the piece feel more intimate. Her voice comes from speakers all around the audience, making us feel like we’re experiencing the story from inside her mind. The only people on stage are Faye, Stanford and Cox, and of the three of them only Faye plays a character. The rest of the world flows around us, just out of view. Characters pass through the world invisibly, represented solely by their voices. It is testament to the skill of all of the actors involved, and sound designer Simon Booth, that I could not tell if these voices were pre-recorded or performed live off-stage. Every moment felt completely natural, despite the layers of technological artifice.

Seeing it feels like witnessing magic, as Pecho Mama seem to conjure a whole world out of thin air. This spellworking is facilitated by Jack Weir and Mella Faye’s excellent lighting design, which begins subtle and atmospheric but gradually becomes more striking and impressionistic as our heroine’s inhibitions are stripped away; and Marie Kirkby’s costuming, which highlights Medea’s transformation beautifully.

Through their combined efforts, Pecho Mama seem to summon the truth of the story, driven forward by their music and channelled through Mella Faye.

The effect is an exquisite piece of theatre, brilliantly executed and not quite like anything I’ve seen before.

 

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