REVIEW! Rosa @ The Courtyard Theatre

Written and performed by Carlota Arencibia

Directed and designed by Justine Pickering

Produced by Volva Theatre

Upon entering The Courtyard, a theatre which I had not yet visited, I was intrigued to see this new play Rosa, performed by debut writer Carlota Arencibia. And throughout my curiosity only grew.

Carlota Arencibia as Rosa

Walking into the black box theatre I was first met with loud, upbeat, modern day music and the extreme contrast of a frosty white wooden set against the dark stage. Arencibia, as the protagonist Rosa, was full of energy dancing around the set in a white bra and boxers, talking towards the audience to an unseen character Miss Kauffman.

Rosa battling sleep

Rosa, we soon learn, is unusual. She has such depth to her and, with the accidental hilarity in her characteristics, she soon becomes captivating. I feel her story is almost told backwards, firstly exploring her current situation – her day to day life being obsessed with time – all of which she explains to this mysterious Miss Kauffman. Within this continuous monologue we are gradually given pieces of her past, of her childhood, of her mother, of her past lover. And we are left to piece them together how we like, which is wonderfully refreshing as well as fitting to the absurd style. However, I did feel the beginning introduction to character and place took slightly too long, and that I was almost waiting for the story to develop further.

The set design, by Justine Pickering, was bold and clever. As the play evolved it seemed to me that this is what her world looks like through her eyes and to see the same as her was both intimate and poetic.

Her morning routine

From the coffee making routine, to the psychotic episodes, from the pillow clitoris, to the indepth dream sequence, the play was absurd… but simultaneously mesmerising.

For a premiere production of a new play I was very impressed. Arencibia has written a text which is both fluid and dynamic, and she was certainly committed to the character of Rosa. There is a lot potential in these upcoming artists, and I urge you to keep your eyes peeled for further productions of Rosa by this female led company Volva Theatre.

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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

REVIEW! Mission Creep by Bee Scott @ The White Bear Theatre

Directed by Paul Anthoney
Presented by Controlled Chaos Theatre Company
Featuring Carmella Brown, Charlie Maguire, and Emilia Stawicki
15 – 19 October, 2019

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Tess and Liam are flatmates and best friends, united in queerplatonic solidarity. As the planet hurtles towards destruction, they’re determined to get out alive – their ticket, an alien- and British government-funded programme looking for fertile heterosexual couples willing to procreate amongst aliens, for science. For asexual Tess and bisexual Liam (whose boyfriend is en route to an apocalyptic hedonism cult in Wales), this seems doable; all they have to do is bluff through the interview process and then they’ll figure it out once they’re off-world. Unfortunately, while they concentrate on the immediate plays before them, the powers that be keep shifting the goalposts. How much of their identities are they willing to sacrifice, and is it even possible to draw any lines in the sand of a nuclear wasteland?

The world, we gather, is rapidly disintegrating due to international nuclear strikes, the radiation from which has also rendered large swathes of humanity infertile. While this is a reliable trope (Scott gets the Handmaid’s Tale references out of the way early) and provides decent excuses for several plot points, not attributing the apocalypse even in part to climate change seems something of a missed opportunity in the light of current events. However, the socio-political setting is not the point of this play; Mission Creep shines in its nihilistic humour and its commentary on friendships and the queer experience.

Emilia Stawicki and Charlie Maguire as Tess and Liam are dynamic and relatable, oozing platonic chemistry and that quintessentially millennial anxiety-fueled humour. Stawicki in particular is hilarious as she dials facial expressiveness and physical humour up to 11, making it all the more devastating when emotional trauma shocks her into silence and she retreats into herself. Maguire plays more of the (not-)straight guy to her exaggerated comedy, which is a nice reversal of the usual gender roles, and ties in well with their American-British cultural differences. His reaction to the biphobic barbs thrown about throughout the play is perfectly done – a wince, gritted teeth, and smiles that don’t reach the eyes.

Carmella Brown as Mary – the face of the unnamed company overseeing the Earth side of the interstellar breeding programme – commands the small space of the White Bear Theatre whenever she enters it, stalking the stage like a corporate tiger with red blazer and crisp Scottish accent. It is a pleasure to see her apparent inhumanity built up and then deconstructed throughout the hour’s run time, creating a compelling and complex (if utterly unlikable) antagonist.

Staging, lighting, and sound effects are minimal but effective when deployed, and Paul Anthoney’s deft direction ensures that the space is well-utilised, all movement worked such that audience on both sides of the stage have clear views, yet it still feels natural. It is easy for any low-budget pub theatre to stray into tackiness, and this goes doubly for on-stage sci-fi. However, the standout talent here lies with the playwright, Bee Scott, for embracing two challenging genres (sci-fi and queer theatre) and pulling them off with humour and humanity. What’s more, you don’t need to be a Star Trek fan or gay yourself in order to enjoy Mission Creep – it’s low on technobabble and LGBTQI jargon but high on observational humour, meaning it should be enjoyable by both newcomers to the genre and veterans. I feel lucky to have seen the premier performance of this piece of new theatre. The one piece of constructive criticism I would offer is that the third act could do with some tightening, as the dramatic tension was lost when certain secrets were revealed, and without this through-thread the plot lost its momentum and instead became more of just a series of escalating events. However, I am sure this is something which could easily be reworked for future productions.

Mission Creep is playing at The White Bear Theatre until this Saturday – make sure you’re on that spaceship before it sails!

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Previous review: Gutted by Sharon Byrne @ Churchill Studio, Bromley

REVIEW! Baby @ Bread and Roses Theatre, Clapham Fringe

Written by Rebecca Saffir
Directed by Jenny Horsthuis
Assistant directed by Sam Moody
Produced by Ellika Heribertson and Holly Salewski

Baby is a current, comic and poignant new play written by and starring Rebecca Saffir, and directed by Jenny Horsthuis. Focusing on love, in almost every sense, and the realisation of what it means to become an adult, this impressive premiere production took place at the Bread and Roses Theatre as part of Clapham Fringe.

Baby brings a difficult, and sometimes heartbreaking, slice of life to our attention. The protagonist; a young woman Vee, played by Rebecca Saffir, is suffocated by her home city travels to London to her lively friend Tash, played by Harriet Leitch. The raw, emotional and comical reunion ends in a spontaneous night of dance, drugs, and a funny yet conceivable one night stand with an overly confident male character Elliot, played by Lewis Page. This swift yet clear introduction of Vee’s life is then followed by a tough decision which, she believes, will not only affect Vee’s life but hundreds of others – all depending on the gender. Resulting in Vee having 4am bursts of doubt and struggling between the ethical logistics of what is right and what she truly believes to be only choice. The story line was captivating, yet the second half was slightly fragmentary in comparison to the depth at the beginning. Nonetheless, this first performance of the show was superbly executed and fully understood by the audience.

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Rehearsals: Rebecca Saffir, as protagonist Vee.

Saffir’s deft writing keeps the energy charged through out and continuously builds on the relationships between characters. It was refreshing to see brilliant new writing directed and performed to its potential. The cast were dynamic and engaging in their performance, and certainly brought life to the intimate black box theatre. Harriet Leitch, as Vee’s ardent best friend, nailed comical moments with her zealous expressions and her perfect timing. All the actors, under Jenny Horsthuis’ direction, make good use of the space and you immediately accept the minimalist design. With no set or costume changes, the piece relies on the entrances of characters and the occasional apt dance music to transport us, which works reasonably well in the compact Bread and Roses theatre, however some costume changes may work in favour of the plot, especially if performed on a larger scale.

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Rehearsals: Harriet Leitch and Rebecca Saffir as Tash and Vee.

Royal Court alumnus and creator of Baby, Saffir says, “The seed for this play was planted when I noticed how often I thought to myself, ‘Men are trash. ’ I became interested in following and exploring what might happen when you follow that thought to its most extreme conclusion. I wrote Baby to discover what happens to those of us who have read their theory and know their facts, and then have to bring those beliefs to bear on the real world.”

A play of contemporary relevance, talented actors, and emotionally striking text, Baby certainly has a bright future after this exciting premiere.

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Previous review:  BIRTH @ Pleasance Courtyard , Edinburgh Fringe

REVIEW! We Know Now Snowmen Exist @ The Space

Written by Michael Spencer
Directed by Lexie Ward
Presented by Highly Suspect Theatre
19-23 March

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Image credit: Stuart Walker

Combining quick-paced, raucous dialogue with a seething sense of dread, the script of this play – the first original play script from a company known for their interactive murder mysteries – is very strong. Tension is built gradually over ninety minutes, between casual comments and unexplained incidents.

Conversation topics between this small group of women who’ve been trekking up a Scottish mountain for eleven days range from orgies to exes to religion to TV to conspiracy theories to friendship. The voices of these characters ring true, as do their problems, which unfold gradually, along with the reason they’re there – to raise awareness and money for suicide prevention. Caustic and hilarious, Hayley has been hurting herself. Mouthy and shameless, Rachel is undergoing a crisis of faith. Sensible nerd Lisa finds things sliding out of her control. Adorable and fun Chloe feels the pressure of being an emotional lynch pin. Zoe, quiet and sweet, feels on the outside of everything.

The actors, who originated their roles, winning a Cumbria Fringe award for the play, embody the characters well. They feel like any of the groups of girls you might have sat around a uni pub with, hanging shit on boys and playing word association games to pass the time. It’s fun to watch, until the strange horror of the play impinges on the small, safe world of the tent.

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Image credit: Stuart Walker

The story is based on the real unsolved mystery of Dyatolov Pass. In 1959, a group of 9 experienced Russian hikers died in bizarre circumstances – their tent torn open from the inside, bodies found kilometers from their camp, dressed inadequately, some wearing each other’s clothes. Most died of hypothermia, others of injuries from unknown sources. It is reported that a piece of paper with the phrase “We now know that snowmen exist” was found in the remains of the tent. Some kind of similar fate awaits our characters, in present-day Scotland. We are told at the beginning of the action, and reminded at the end there are no survivors.

The play is in the round, which means here that half the casts’ backs are to you at any given moment, which made some of the dialogue hard to follow. The sparse set – a cramped space surrounded by emptiness – works well enough when all the characters are in one scene, but the actors simply stand behind the audience when they’re not performing, which can be a little distracting. Overall though, staging aside, it’s a thrilling and tight play that’s well worth your time, especially if you like women sounding like women and a mystery that leaves you questioning what you’ve seen.

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Previous review: GEORGE @ Camden People’s Theatre

REVIEW! Cacophony, Almeida Theatre @ The Yard

By Molly Taylor and The Almeida Young Company
Directed by Michael Bryher
Presented by Almeida at The Yard Theatre
19th – 22nd February

Cacophony at the Yard Theatre. Annie Hawkins (front). Photo credit Bronwen Sharp (15).JPG

Image credit: Bronwen Sharp

Cacophony is a new play from upcoming writer Molly Taylor. Set in modern Britain, it tells the story of a group of young people whose lives are rocked by a tragic incident at a protest. In its aftermath, central figure Abbie (played by Annie Hawkins) pens a moving blog post about her experience at the protest, and is unexpectedly catapulted into the spotlight as a prominent feminist activist. Articulate, passionate, intelligent, and pretty, she becomes a Twitter celebrity in short order, finding herself featured on talk show panels and invited to speak at conferences. However, Abbie has a secret that she’s not telling, and it threatens to bring her tumbling down from her new heights of fame, with disastrous consequences.

There is a phenomenal energy to this production, thanks to the powerhouse cast of 17 young actors who play their (often multiple) roles with precision and punch. The story is told as conceptualised flashbacks, a desperate investigation into the past to find how events led to the cliffhanger on which the play ends. I always appreciate theatre with ambiguous endings, and it is especially effective here.

Taylor’s writing is witty and razor-sharp, crackling with humour and social commentary. Michael Bryher has achieved the feat of directing a large cast on a minimalist stage in such a way that it never feels crowded or sloppy – the movement of myriad characters around and over the space is done with exactitude and grace, and the audience’s attention is always focused just where it is supposed to be. Cacophony hums with tension throughout its 80 minutes. Sound, lighting, and visual effects complement and enhance the drama without ever distracting from it. And, again, I must come back to the superb performances from the entire cast, who bring these characters to messy, beautiful, flawed, and vibrant life.

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Image credit: Bronwen Sharp

As is often the case with my reviews, my only criticisms here are more about the social politics of the writing rather than the staging of this production. Although there is a powerful scene in which one of Abbie’s (black) friends points out that Abbie is riding on fame only available to her due to her image as a pretty, young, educated white girl, this doesn’t change the fact that this is a story in which a white girl is placed front and centre while her black friends orbit her – often incapacitated, unwilling to speak, or awed by her. Abbie is a complex, flawed character and this is wonderful, but the final monologue from her (also black) best friend seems to whitewash all her sins and paint her as the character for whom we should have the most admiration and sympathy in this story, despite the fact that… it’s not her, but a black character who is almost killed for her beliefs, and then sidelined for most of the play. Feminist art is almost always dominated by the stories of white women, and this phenomenon is almost painfully obvious in Cacophony. 

That said, this is an awesomely slick, hard-hitting piece of theatre with a lot to say. I am reminded in story and themes of Feed by Theatre Témoin @ Pleasance Dome, which I reviewed during last year’s Edinburgh Fringe – the subject of online activism and the meteoric rises and falls of its darlings is certainly very topical, as is that of the effects of social media on identity and mental health. I hope this production and cast has more performances still to come, and would highly recommend Cacophony to anyone who wants to see some excellent theatre.

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Previous: REVIEW! Hotel Paradiso, Lost in Translation Circus @ Jacksons Lane Theatre

REVIEW! Chutney, Flux Theatre @ The Bunker

Writer: Reece Connolly
Producers: Flux Theatre & Zoe Weldon

Director: Georgie Staight
Cast: Isabel Della-Porta and Will Adolphy
6 November – 1 December 2018

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Images ©Rah Petherbridge Photography

Claire and Gregg are young, attractive, and successful. They have their own place with a spacious backyard, a stylish modern kitchen, a spare bedroom, and a John Lewis blender. He teaches English at the local school, she works a 9-5 (well, more like 8:30-6 and sometimes weekends) office job, and together they cook vegetarian meals, drink wine, watch telly, and brutally kill neighbourhood pets in the dead of night. The question is: is it true that couples who murder together, stay together?

Chutney is a black comedy with a white set, and the ethics of its narrative are pretty black-and-white to match: animal cruelty is wrong, and Claire and Gregg are basically evil, no matter how much they assert that they are simply ‘good people who do bad things’. And yet, they are shockingly, hilariously, relatably normal people, grappling with the challenges and mundanities of modern life. This is most evident in Claire, who is bored of her job and scornful of her colleagues, for all that she wants to impress them. When a workmate gifts her a kitschy singing fish for her birthday, its refrain – 9 to 5 by Dolly Parton – kicks off an existential panic attack: is this all life is? Working 9-5? Ticking boxes, keeping up appearances, saving up for an orangery? What the fuck even is an orangery, anyway??

Isabel Della-Porta is absolutely phenomenal as Claire. She is at once every go-getter young professional I’ve ever worked with (or for), a chilling Lady-Macbeth-slash-Cruella-de-Vil, and even myself when at my darkest and most morbid. I am reminded strongly of assassin Villanelle (portrayed by Jodie Comer) in BBC America’s recent series Killing Eve; both actors manage to create characters with fascinating capacities for viciousness and vulnerability, seductiveness and savagery, intelligence and insensitivity. Della-Porta moves like a shark around the stage, perfectly in control of the space and her character down to every syllable and facial twitch. Will Adolphy as Gregg is pulled along in her wake – accomplice, consort, subject, partner – and evokes the perfect mixture of pity and scorn in the audience as he sinks lower and lower into depravity trying to please her. He knows she is free-falling, and all he wants is to fall with her. Their chemistry is magnetic.

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Images ©Rah Petherbridge Photography

Both actors – as well as voice actor Rosalind McAndrew, who plays the narrator (Bertha the singing fish, don’t question it) – are brilliantly directed by Georgie Staight. I also have only good things to say of the various creative designers (Jasmine Swan on set and costume, Matt Cater on lighting, and Ben Winter on sound), whose contributions are crisp, effective, clever, and beautifully complement the script.

And of course the script, from up-and-coming writer Reece Connolly, is bitingly funny and ferociously intelligent. The dialogue crackles and the mood ricochets between hilarity, brutality, and desperate pathos. The satire of modern society and life is cutting without being patronising, and the thematic questions are explored with insight and self-awareness. In an increasingly artificial world, are we out of touch with our own human natures, and if so, is that such a bad thing? Are we all so concerned with maintaining a perfect facade that we are sacrificing all structural integrity, and crumbling as a result? How can we find meaning and stability in lives which seem increasingly hollow and precarious? Does anyone really connect anymore? Is ground-up bone meal really a good fertiliser for hanging plants?

Get yourself down to The Bunker Theatre, and you might just find out.

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Previous review: Mirabel by Chris Goode @ Ovalhouse

The Distance You Have Come by Scott Alan @ The Cockpit

Book, Music, Lyrics, and Direction: Scott Alan
Arrangements, Orchestrations, and Musical Direction: Scott Morgan
Producers: Sevans Productions & Krystal Lee
Cast: Andy Coxon, Adrian Hansel, Emma Hatton, Jodie Jacobs, Dean John-Wilson, Alexia Khadime
Set and Costume Design: Simon Daw
16-28 October, 2018

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Alexia Khadime as Laura and Dean John-Wilson as Joe. Image courtesy of Darren Bell.

The Distance You Have Come is a song cycle by proficient and beloved songwriter Scott Alan, featuring a star-studded cast of talented West Enders. Running at an hour forty-five minutes plus interval, the piece follows the lives of six characters as they navigate love, heartbreak, inner demons, ambition, insecurity, parenthood, and the perils of modern dating. There is very little in the way of dialogue or real plot (which is why it is billed as a “song cycle” rather than a “musical”), and the characters usually inhabit the minimalistic central stage as a sort of unreal reality, a dreamscape or place of memories. Live musical scoring floats down from an elevated bandspace above the performance space, and the actors are miked such that the music and vocals swell throughout the entire theatre, enveloping the audience.

It must be said that the stars of its show are its music and, well, its stars. Each actor is offered and capitalises on the opportunity to shine in multiple solo pieces, as well as duets and ensemble pieces. All are possessed of a strong and beautiful voice, however my personal favourites in terms of vocals were Andy Coxon as Brian and Alexia Khadime as Laura, with performances so nuanced and exquisite that they made my heart vibrate in key. Dean John-Wilson demonstrates devastating emotional depth as Joe, a lost boy battling to overcome alcoholism, the loss of love, and the trauma of childhood abuse. His character’s story reaches its nadir with the heart-rending song “Quicksand”, his anguish and hopelessness accentuated by evocative lighting design (by Andrew Ellis) and creepy costuming (Simon Daw). Daw’s set design also complemented the production perfectly, covering the theatre-in-the-round stage space with the intricate veins of a battered leaf, balanced by a beautiful cascade of leafy branches interwoven with bare lightbulbs suspended from the high ceiling. The only items of set were a swing and a park bench (doubling as a sort of water trough), which were put to flexible use throughout both acts.

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Emma Hatton as Maisey. Set design by Simon Daw. Image courtesy of Darren Bell.

Unfortunately, despite the aural and visual feast provided by this production, there was very little substance to it in terms of content, and equally little variation in tone. Scott Alan is renowned as a songwriter whose works are staples in musical theatre audition rooms everywhere, however a show close to two hours long which consists mainly of generically emotional power ballads is quite exhausting and becomes monotonous at times. There are some respites, largely provided by Jodie Jacobs as fickle, lascivious, maybe-lesbian-maybe-bisexual Anna; Jacobs’ excellent comedic abilities perfectly accentuate Alan’s lighter pieces and even provide a welcome layer of irony to some of his more earnest ones. But we needed more comic pieces like these, and fewer of the heavier ones. I feel that the show could benefit from being condensed and streamlined – a number of the songs simply did not make sense in the context of their characters’ storylines, and felt like they had been shoehorned in on very thin pretexts.

Adrian Hansel and Andy Coxon are largely spared angsty material as sugar-sweat lovebird couple Samuel and Brian, and it is wonderful to see two gay characters given such a pain-free storyline, culminating in a healthy, happy, loving family. Indeed, the representation in The Distance You Have Come is refreshingly diverse, with straight characters numbering only two of six, fifty-fifty white/POC actors, and gender parity. However, it is a shame that the “sad lesbians” trope was perpetuated, as was the implication that self-realisation and happiness are only achievable through marriage and child-raising, and the portrayal of Anna’s sexuality flirted with the border between funny and problematic. Despite the diversity of orientations and races onstage, there was very little diversity of perspective or personality: all characters (with the possible exception of Jacobs’ Anna) seemed to speak with the voice of writer and director Scott Alan.

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Andy Coxon and Adrian Hansel as Brian and Samuel. Image courtesy of Darren Bell.

Overall, The Distance You Have Come was a treat for the ears and the eyes, boasting top-quality acting, design, music, and technical execution; where it fell down was in the writing of the book, and in pacing and tone. It functions well as a showcase of its individual actors’ talents, but does not quite have the coherency or substance to make a whole as great as the sum of its parts.

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Elephant and Castle, Tom Adams and Lillian Henley @ Camden People’s Theatre

9th – 20th October 2018

Presented by Tom Adams and Lillian Henley

Elephant and Castle is a haunting, experimental piece of gig-theatre presented by husband and wife Tom Adams and Lillian Henley exploring the science and romantic impact of Adam’s parasomnia – sleep talking/walking.

A mattress propped up at the back of the stage begins to shake before creeping forward towards the audience – we hear a recording of someone whimpering, crying out layered with sounds of electrocution. It’s unsettling, to say the least. But then the mattress flips down and Henley and Adams bounce onto the bed in match-clash paisley pyjamas, find us with their eyes, and begin to sing their story, regaling us with when they first met and their later struggles with Adam’s parasomnia.

Henley’s hauntingly beautiful voice heightens the domestic tragedy of the songs, indicative of the show’s off-beat, quirky humour. This is a show that is not afraid to sit in its authored awkwardness. Elephant and Castle is equally generous and odd – cocooned by a Lynchian atmosphere. Recordings made over 3 years sample the strangeness of Adam’s night time ramblings, and are played in the darkness between transitions.

Henley plays her own long-sufferance to the cheek of Adam’s parasomnia – luminous, still, her voice transcendent, both eerie and beautiful. Adam’s mischief offers an appealing counterpoint, and they have a distinct chemistry that makes the spirit of this work unique. It delves into some darker territory, questioning what parasomnia can reveal, the threat it offers, never losing its idiosyncratic charm.

I especially enjoyed the use of a hand-held projector, projecting what looked like go-pro sleepwalk footage onto the back of the again upturned bed. It was immersive, lulling me into the logic of a dream-like state. The show’s composition and design converged in a fully realised atmosphere. As I sat, trying to grasp at shapes in the figurative footage, slipping out of definition, I happily gave myself over to its flow.

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit…* @ Finborough Theatre

Written by Halley Feiffer
Directed by Bethany Pitts
Featuring Cara Chase, Robert Crouch, Cariad Lloyd, and Kristin Milward.
Presented by Arsalan Sattari Productions in association with Neil McPherson
Tuesday, 2 October – Saturday, 27 October 2018

*Okay, so the full title of this piece was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City, but that made this post title far too long!
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Set design by Isabella Van Braeckel. Photo by James O Jenkins

My experience of the pub theatre scene in London has spanned an eclectic mix of plays, from tried-and-true classics to material still in the rough work-in-progress stages, from the clever to the dumb, high calibre to low. A Funny Thing… was easily the highest quality piece of theatre I’ve seen in this range.

From the moment the plasticky pastel green divider curtains are pulled aside to reveal an excellently-executed hospital ward, complete with two patients who remain slumbering in their identical beds throughout the majority of the play. Isabella Van Braeckel is to be commended on her flawless set design, which is not only hyper-convincing but also features wonderfully sardonic touches such as the winkingly vaginal abstract artworks on the walls.

As the play starts to develop, however, the dialogue is quickly revealed to be less convincing and realistic than the set. Characters Karla and Don meet in the gynecologic oncology unit where they are both visiting their (probably) dying mothers; she is a young, foul-mouthed millenial who works as a stand-up comedian, and he is an awkward middle-aged slob with an unstable temperament. Their initial interaction is explosively confrontational, and the following 180-pivot of their their relationship also beggars belief, particularly since a lack of onstage chemistry makes it feel somewhat forced. As the characters rush to bare the crevices of their minds in all their filth and generosity, I couldn’t help feeling a slight British distaste for what seemed like a very American type of candid emotional display, with all the subtlety and hidden meaning of a sledgehammer.

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Kristin Milward as Marcie. Photo by James O Jenkins

That said, as the play progressed and it became clear that it was to be a sustained artistic and thematic choice, this brutal honesty and unflinching examination of its characters’ psyches grew on me. The three individuals of Don, Karla, and her mother Marcie are revealed to be riddled with flaws, yet each has their own vulnerability, inner strength, and moments of shining kindness. Each grows as a person during the course of the play, and learns to form stronger, healthier connections with those around them. And along the way, they are harshly hilarious – particularly Kristin Milward as Marcie, who managed to steal scenes despite being confined to a bed and drip and, largely, unconscious. For every snarky burn or crass joke, there is a witty observation, a crackle of deliciously dark humour, or a burst of shared joy, and it is in these moments that the play is at its strongest.

My enjoyment of this clever comedy was only slightly marred by a sprinkling of unnecessary shock-value jokes; for the most part, the play was “edgy” in a good way, but it did occasionally cross the line into ableism or homophobia which didn’t add anything to the value of the play. Although these cracks detracted slightly from the moral weight of the play, they can at least be partially justified by the fact that none of its characters are, especially at the beginning, particularly good people.

Overall, A Funny Thing is an excellent, funny, poignant new piece of dark comedy and social commentary from American playwright Halley Feiffer. I felt buoyed by every shameless celebration of female sexuality and masculine vulnerability, and touched by the emotional rawness of these complicated relationships. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart… but in the end, for a show that is largely about death, disease, and dissatisfaction with life, there is a remarkable amount of cautious optimism and love woven in.

Tickets.

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Cariad Lloyd and Robert Crouch as Karla and Don. Photo by James O Jenkins