GUY, Leoe&Hyde @ The Bunker

Music, Production by Stephen Hyde

Book, Lyrics by Leoe Mercer

Directed by Sam Ward

16 June – 7 July

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

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

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

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Kiss Chase, Second Circle @ The Bunker

Written and directed by Hannah Samuels

Devised by the company 

11 June – 7 July

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

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

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

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

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

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Machinal @ The Almedia Theatre

4th June-21 July 2018

by Sophie Treadwell

Directed by Natalie Abrahami

One of the best plays I’ve seen in a long time. 

Love!- What does it amount to! Will it clothe you? Will it feed you? Will it pay the bills?”

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Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 play ‘Machinal’ is set in modern day New York City and at times it is scarily relevant to the climate today. The directorial decision to set this play in the modern world makes for a very interesting and eye-opening evening.

Machinal is inspired by the true story of Ruth Snyder who was executed for murdering her abusive husband. The play is spilt into nine episodes which each give a different insight into the main character’s life e.g business, home and family life. These short bursts of action are intimate and explosive making the play very gripping throughout the entire piece.

The performances by the whole company are very captivating. The ensemble represent a machine in several scenes which is done flawlessly. The leads Emily Berrington and Jonathon Livingston are both excellent. There were times I felt hate for Jones (played by Jonathon Livingston) and both empathy and fear for Emily Berrington’s character. The characters are fascinating and it was very easy for me to connect with them.

The set design by Miriam Buether is stunning. A cleverly placed mirror gives another view of the stage which I found myself watching at times and this portrayed some beautiful imagery.

Every aspect of the theatre process comes together beautifully in this play and the whole piece feels like a machine, which perfectly represents life in a busy city. Emily Berrington’s portrayal of the main character leaves the audience to decide whether they believe she is a victim of circumstance and abuse or a mentally ill person. The eerie play finished on the line of ‘I will not submit’ which feels like a woman rebelling.

I would thoroughly recommend seeing this play for its interesting portrayal of the 1928 feminist play and the incredible set design.

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Grotty, Damsel Productions @ The Bunker

1 – 26 May 2018
By Izzy Tennyson
Directed by Hannah Hauer-King

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Rebekah Hinds, Izzy Tennyson, and Anita-Joy Uwajah in Grotty. Images courtesy of The Other Richard

Grotty is a semi-autobiographical work by Izzy Tennyson (who also plays the lead role as a younger, fictionalised version of herself, “Rigby”).

Rigby is socially awkward, depressed, anxious, indecisive, sometimes nasty, insecure, superficial, and annoying; she has problems with drugs, alcohol, sex, her relationships, self-image, family, and existentialism; she lies to, manipulates, and displays an enormous lack of respect for herself and everyone else on the planet. All of this is entirely self-aware, but that doesn’t always make it more palatable. Tennyson plays her character to be “grotesque”, with an over-exaggerated hunch, screwed-up face, jutting lower jaw, messy hair, scowl, open mouth, and twisting hands. She speaks so fast that I could barely understand her. She doesn’t seem to display any sort of character development throughout the period of the play, despite coming oh-so-close at the end to admitting to her therapist that all her problems are of her own making. She is constantly slagging off everyone around her, but reserves some of the worst bitterness as ammunition against herself.

There is a moment when Rigby, in conversation with her straight friend Kate, dismisses the suggestion that she find herself a “nice girl” by asserting that nice lesbians don’t exist (echoing her friend Josie’s declaration that “women are bitches, mate”). Kate responds, straight-faced (sorry), with “that’s a bit homophobic, Rigby.” Cue a comedic pause as Rigby raises her eyebrows at the audience – the punchline, of course, is I’m the lesbian here, I can’t be homophobic! The thing is, Kate was absolutely on the money.  Women can be misogynistic (most characters in this all-woman cast are), people defying gender norms can still reinforce them (every lesbian character’s cruelty about Toad’s weight), and members of the LGBTQ community can still be transphobic, biphobic, or homophobic (Rigby and her lovers/friends are all of these!). I know, I know, these are not “nice girls” and the criticism of their behaviours and opinions is implicit in the tone of the play, but when subtle digs like these are woven throughout the play and never really criticised, let alone outright condemned, it normalises it.

In one particularly sickening scene, Rigby and Josie effectively date-rape a “bicurious” Russian woman. This is an act which is admittedly not portrayed sympathetically, but Rigby shows no regret or guilt about it, it has no repercussions, and is never alluded to again. This was merely the most violent manifestation of a through-thread of vitriol towards bisexual women, described variously as attention-seeking, “fucking scum”, and “breeders”, who don’t belong in queer spaces, which should be “safe” for gold-star lesbians. As I said, I realise that this entire play was intended to be a portrayal of the human tendency to respond to disenfranchisement by paying the cruelty forward, but as a bisexual woman in what I had thought would be a queer safe space, I felt betrayed and alienated. Although I am a firm believer that comedy should always punch up, I could perhaps forgive a play that punches inwards – as Grotty mainly tends to – but punching down, or sideways, while you’re at it? I’m not so sure.

To give the play its due, there were some moments which were genuinely insightful and powerful. These included when Rigby reveals that she was assessed as being ineligible for Phase 2 of NHS mental health treatment (“suicidal but not suicidal enough… Next time, I’ll come back in a body bag!”), the observations that the lesbian community is relegated to the fringes of queer society by the louder, more flamboyant gay men and drag queens scene, and the guilt Rigby feels at being selfishly glad that her mother with cancer had been taken to hospital and was no longer in the house. Tennyson’s writing is beautiful stylistically, revealing her spoken word poetry background and a knack for making her audience laugh. The problem was, the play touched on so many complex and heavy topics – mental health, grief, love, sex, sexuality, gender roles, inter-generational conflict, addiction, trauma, etc etc – that it could not do proper justice to any of them. As a result, it felt thematically both crowded and overwhelmingly negative.

The cast of supporting members – in particular Rebekah Hinds (Toad/Kate), Grace Chilton (Witch/Elliot), and Anita-Joy Uwajeh (Natty/Josie) – shone in their various and varied roles. Often on the peripherals of the stage, seated in armchairs positioned amongst the front rows of the audience, they played Rigby’s memories of characters rather than the actual characters herself, summoned from the periphery of her consciousness when narrative required it. The contrast between the characters of Witch (older, abusive, psychopathic, fetishist) and Elliot (young, vulnerable, insecure, questioning her sexuality) meant that Chilton in particular had the opportunity to display her versatility. I was especially impressed by the variation in her vocal tones – as Witch, her voice was lower, more clipped, flatter, and almost robotic, even in the scene in which she revealed her one emotional weakness (superbly done – this character was such an unambiguous, almost cartoonish villain, and yet I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her in this monologue), whereas Elliot was oozing hurt and desperation for love with every awkward word she said.

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Grace Chilton as Elliot and Izzy Tennyson as Rigby. Images courtesy of The Other Richard.

I cannot fault Hauer-King’s direction of this piece, and her use of the unique stage space that is The Bunker. Characters make use of every inch of available space, as well as backstage, so that the performance bleeds into the audience, feeling raw and immediate. The set and props are minimalistic – nine black boxes which can be manoeuvered into a bed, a table and chairs, a dancefloor, and much more, as well as a bench at the back of the stage resting against a jumble of mirrors, representing the fractured nature of Rigby’s world. Props are used sparingly and suggestively – there is a hat, a dog collar, a ball gag, a blanket, a number of plastic cups, some white powder, and not much more. The economy of materials means that each item is used to great effect, and nothing onstage is unnecessary or distracting.

Damsel Productions are, according to the programme, committed to “the crucial movement addressing both the misrepresentation and under-representation of women in theatre”. Ultimately, increasing the amount of (stage)space given to women in the industry can only be a good thing, as can widening the sorts of roles and narratives which women are able to portray. Women in theatre should be able to be not just beautiful or strong or likeable, but also messy, nasty, dysfunctional, ugly, grotesque, annoying, rude, and every other point on the human spectrum. It is absolutely possible to write an unsympathetic, repellent female character in a play that is also insightful, clever, affecting, or funny. However, Grotty feels like it aimed for shock factor rather than anything meaningful, and unfortunately, being edgy is not the same as being deep.

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For King and Country @ The Colab Factory

8th April – 10th June 2018

Directed by Owen Kingston

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It’s December 1940 and a German invasion force has landed on the south coast of England.

For several weeks the invaders have been building up their forces on the coast, while the mighty Luftwaffe have pounded the RAF into submission. As the invasion force prepares to strike north and capture London, King Edward VIII refuses the resignation of British Prime Minister Lord Halifax, triggering a constitutional crisis. It is Britain’s darkest hour.

Parliament is recalled, and with all the members of both houses meeting in Westminster, a small group of backbench MPs and their families – designated survivors – are taken to a secure location south of the river Thames. They are completely unaware of the imminent events that will thrust them into the limelight and put the fate of the nation in their hands.

You are among those designated survivors. Your decisions will shape the course of history. Can you save the British people from the invading forces, or will the war be over by Christmas?

 

 

‘Another WW2 Immersive Experience?’ I hear you ask.

Why yes indeed and ENTIRELY different.

For the tacticians or secret logistic experts or people who just love a jolly good debate, this show will be entirely for you.

On arrival, myself and my companion were greeted by Douglas Remington-Hobbs and handed identity cards stating our position or whether we were ‘just’ a plus one’. Mr Remington-Hobbs would be running the evenings events and guiding us as group.

We were walked down into the space and asked whether we wanted to exchange our new-fangled modern money for shillings in order to spend said shillings at the bar.

I really liked this element as it gave us as audience members a chance to shed off our modern identities and step into a new space and the world of the piece.

We were then briefed on the situation in a type of war cabinet style space and the plus ones (myself being one of them) were escorted out of the ‘war cabinet’ as we would not be participating. Rather ironically, we were both women. We discussed with the female character who had escorted us about our right to vote and she encouraged that we speak up for ourselves.

Which we did. The first call of debate however was whether we should.

This got the ball rolling and connected us as a group participating in the further and more increasingly difficult choices at hand.

As a group we had to vote for a prime minister, deputy prime minister, foreign secretary, war minister and propaganda minister.

We then had the chance to go into different parts of the space getting involved in different activities, projects, and further choices, then coming back together again for renewed debate based on what we’d done.

I made the choice to wander round overhearing pockets of conversation, different interactions with characters and the various war missions. You could however devote yourself to one or many depending on your role or general temperament.

Without giving too much away as I really encourage this as a show to be experienced blindly, various things are revealed, and you can invest and investigate as much as your heart should desire.

Each show will be entirely different based on your choices as audience members and the way the show is constructed.

Each character is entirely engaging and interesting and a lot of time and devotion has been put into making them real, believable and people that you want to connect with.

I loved that the group I was a part of was a real eclectic mix of people, not just artsy theatre types. A group of ladies, a few young couples and an older pair dressed like they were from WW2.

For my taste, and it was possibly because I chose to actively stand back and watch others rather than entirely engage, there wasn’t enough variety in activities in the show and the stakes didn’t nearly feel high enough until the last moment. I discussed this with my companion and he entirely disagreed which I feel is important to state.

A very engaging and lively evening and another success for Colab Theatre.

More immersive experiences please and thank you.

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Bismillah! (An ISIS Tragicomedy), Wound Up Theatre @ Pleasance Theatre

24th Apr – 13th May 2018
By Matthew Greenhough
Directed by Jonny Kelly

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The Downstairs theatre space at Pleasance Theatre is a temporary structure, and walking into it feels like entering a shipping container, or perhaps a bunker, which sets the mood well for this play which takes place in an ISIS interrogation cell. The thrust stage is mainly empty (vaguely wartime-looking debris littered around the edges) except for a man in ripped and stained Army-ish attire, handcuffed to a pole, with a black bag over his head. He is dancing along to Queen.

The audience settles in, chattering over the blaring music, only watching the pathetically dancing figure from the corners of our eyes. We cycle through a few tracks, and when the opening chords to I Wanna Break Free play, my friend chortles, “appropriate!” Then the actor starts to manically sing along. We discover there is a reason he’s in comedic theatre rather than musical.

The music is dramatically cut short, and the other actor enters: a glowering Middle Eastern man in guerilla combatwear, brandishing a pistol and some basic rations. The play proper begins, and the next 75 minutes are the best of my week, as I am expertly guided between laughter, sombre socio-political reflection, fear, tension, and emotional investment in the characters and their fates.

Before entering, I had some reservations about Bismillah! (An ISIS Tragicomedy). Making light of topics such as extremism, Islam, the war in Iraq, and West vs East is a risky business, and when written by and starring a white Englishman, I was concerned that the perspectives could be reductive and one-sided, punching down rather than up. These concerns proved to be completely unfounded. The play’s two characters laugh at each other and themselves in equal measure, and while both are clearly pining for home in England, at no point is the West held up as being inherently superior to the East. The distinction between radical Islam and actual, everyday Islam is made subtly but firmly. “Danny’s” experiences of racism and disenfranchisement in the UK are realistic and affecting, as are Dean’s feelings of economic insecurity and individual powerlessness in the 21st century world. A number of complex socio-political debates are touched upon with sensitivity and nuance, even between the dick jokes and pop culture references, and this play does not profess to hold all the answers, but it examines various perspectives with honesty and nuance. I had brought along a Northener friend as my plus one/cultural guide, who afterwards explained to me a number of the local references and insults which had gone over my Aussie head. In the end, my friend and I agreed that our only criticism of the show would be of the quality of its sound effects, but even that was very minor.

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Both actors shone in this production, especially writer-performer Matthew Greenhough. Ricocheting between comedy and tragedy, bants and terror, compassion and anger, the portrait he painted of an unrefined but good-hearted English lad was compelling and believable. At first I wasn’t totally convinced by Elliot Liburd’s portrayal of Danny – I thought his acting was somewhat overdone, and his constant frenetic energy came off as nervous – but as the play progressed and we learnt more about his character, I realised that these were probably conscious choices which meant that later when Danny’s mask began to drop, his vulnerability was all the more affecting. Liburd’s comedic skills, especially his facial acting, were excellent, veering just close enough to ridiculousness without being too absurd for the genre.

Watching Bismillah, I was forcibly reminded of a classic Australian play from the 60s called Norm and Ahmed, by New Wave playwright Alex Buzo. I think Buzo would agree with me that Bismillah is the 21st-century, English version of this same play, in terms of genre and format (back-and-forth between two men who are cultural and political opposites, but who find shared ground in common human experiences), a shocking ending (no spoilers!), and racial and political commentary. The main ideological difference is that Bismillah is about two young men: they are of the generation with the chance to define the future. The strains of terror, humanity, violence, anger, compassion, insecurity, and hilarity all intertwine with one of hope. Hope, for Dean’s survival and escape, Danny’s redemption, and for the future of the Earth and its warring inhabitants. Is this hope ill-placed? Is it too late for Dean, Danny, and for us? You’ll have to make your way to the Pleasance Theatre before Bismillah’s run is over to find out.

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The Nature of Forgetting, Theatre Re @ Shoreditch Town Hall

Review by Lauren Russell

24 – 28 April, 2018

by Theatre Re
Conceived & directed by Guillaume Pigé

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Photography by Danilo Moroni

Tonight, at Shoreditch Town Hall, I watched one of the most tremendously moving pieces of theatre I have ever seen. ‘Theatre Re’ has hit the nail on the head with this physically astounding show ‘The nature of forgetting’.

A likeable, agile, committed cast of 4 performers, one of which conceived and directed this phenomenon; Guillaume Pigé, took the stage by storm and filled the space with contagious energy. They explored the raw essence of what it is to be human by delving into the mind of 55 year old Tom who has dementia. His memories vividly played out before us, from his mother prepping him for school, to his first kiss, his first love, his first loss.

Due to the play being utterly captivating throughout it is difficult to pin point the highlights as the energy never once dropped. However I particularly like the use of the bicycle, which comes when Tom remembers riding to school, and the way he and Isabelle (whom was played by the amiable Louise Wilcox), as school children, innocently play with one another. Their pure enjoyment on stage was certainly mirrored by the audience.

It has to be said, ‘The Nature of Forgetting’ had one of the greatest live soundtracks I have heard accompany such talented performers, composed by Alex Judd it was satisfyingly brilliant, and without such music the piece would not hold the same weight. Complicité was achieved through the perfectly organic connections from actors to the choreography to props to music to lighting. The complex mime sequences throughout were clear enough to understand regarding the storyline, yet were also wonderfully open to an individuals emotional interpretation (So glad there was no spoon-feeding malarkey).

Ultimately, this is not to be missed. I could have watched this show a thousand times over and still noticed something new. The whole audience was inspired; the young were motivated to create the greatest of memories, the old were reminded of their fondest moments. An incredible achievement to create something so physically intricate yet simply beautiful. ‘Theatre Re’ are certainly worth watching, and ‘The Nature of Forgetting’ is absolutely unforgettable.

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Merchant of Venice, Sh*t-faced Shakespeare @ Leicester Square Theatre

21 April – 2 June, 2018
Directed by Lewis Ironside
Magnificent Bastard Productions

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Image credit: Rah Petherbridge

Look, Sh!t-faced Shakespeare basically does what it says on the tin: a production of one of the Bard’s plays, in which one (classically trained) actor is horrendously drunk. A liver-protecting schedule means that it’s a different actor each night – on Thursday, for Press Release night, it was Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Louise Lee). I honestly don’t know how someone her size managed to down the alleged eight bottles of lager and double vodka & orange without becoming catatonic, but actors are well known for their alcohol tolerance, I suppose!

We were welcomed to the show by Saul Marron in a ridiculous outfit introducing the rules of the drinking game artistic conceit of the production and disparaging an audience member’s inability to blow a bugle. (Two audience members were given noise-making devices to use if they wished to make the actor take another drink; a third had the less fun task of… holding a bucket.)

Then the play proper began, and with it, the suspicion that any and every character might be the hammered one – but when she stepped on stage it was instantly obvious that she was the one. The Merchant of Venice is not one of my favourite Shakespeares and I don’t know it intimately, but I’m fairly sure the original doesn’t have any Monty Python references, incest, calls to the Yorkshire cops, cabbage-related murders, or intermittent squawks of “aaaaaaaaaaargh” when a line went missing (which was… often). It was difficult to tell whether Lee’s level of intoxication was genuine or played up, but either way, she was certainly embracing it, and the audience was in fits of laughter as she stumbled and babbled her way through the play. The other actors’ reactions to her improvisations – and subsequent references to them throughout the play – were almost as comedic; it was clear that everyone in the cast was having an absolute ball, and taking the audience along with them.

Merchant of Venice is, of course, a tricky play to stage as a comedy in modern times due to its anti-Semitic nature and extremely problematic ending; the last production I saw of it, at the Globe, tackled this by having the tone take a dramatic turn at the end, flipping from comedy to tragedy. Needless to say, Sh!t-faced Shakespeare’s version was a far cry from the Globe, but I actually preferred their revisionist change to the ending, which entirely circumvented the grotesque tragicomedy of the original script (as I’m not sure how much was improvised and how much planned, I won’t spoil how this was achieved). However, this whole-hearted commitment to silly, crude comedy did mean that some of the play’s most affecting moments – if you prick us, do we not bleed? – felt cheapened and flat.

The question that kept running through my mind as I sat in the audience was, What would Will think if he were here watching this? I suspect the answer would be a) he wouldn’t understand a word of the improvisations because language has changed so much, but also b) if he did understand it all, Shakespeare would love it. The high school English curriculum can be blamed for drying out Shakespeare’s plays to the point of desiccation, and the resulting impression that his work is stuffy, serious, highbrow stuff, but I suspect that what I saw on Thursday night was probably closer in spirit to what Shakespeare’s troupe would have performed in his time. I am all for a return to accessible Bard.

All that said, there’s really not much to Sh!t-faced Shakespeare’s production of Merchant other than its titular gimmick, and having to cram a condensed script as well as improvised drunken shenanigans into 70 minutes took its toll on the material. If you’re after a belly laugh, and are already a few drinks the worse/better for wear yourself, this production will make for a fun evening with a few mates; but don’t expect much more than that.

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Reared, Bold & Saucy @ Theatre503

4 – 28 April, 2018
by John Fitzpatrick
Directed by Sarah Davey-Hull

Bold & Saucy Theatre Company

Reared Production PhotosTheatre 503

Photography courtesy of The Other Richard

BAFTA nominated writer John Fitzpatrick has delivered a moving and marvellously engaging fly-on-the-wall family drama. It’s a character-driven piece full of surprises, dark comedy and heartfelt moments held together by a terrifically talented cast as three generations of women clash and struggle in a too-small house.

Shelley Atkinson is pitch-perfect in the role of strained wife Eileen, vainly trying to keep her household from falling apart as tensions mount. Paddy Glynn is wonderful as Nora, the acerbic and increasingly senile mother-in-law whose performance pendulums from hilarious to heart-breaking. Danielle Phillips’ rebellious teenage Caitlin too is a joy to watch, unexpectedly delivering my favourite rendition of a Lady Macbeth speech that I’ve ever seen, along with bitter sarcasm and vulnerable moments of confession as she tries to find her way. Adding to the chaos and comedy are Daniel Crossley as the avoidant and ineffectual father, and Rohan Nedd who is side-splitting as a clueless teenage love interest. They are all an absolute pleasure to watch.

In addition, Sammy Dowson has designed a set that feels like it’s been moved wholesale from someone’s actual house. It’s incredibly detailed, reeling you in from the moment you enter the space. A half empty bottle of washing-up liquid and drying dishes sit by the sink, empty wine bottles stand by the recycling bin, childhood memorabilia hang from the walls, and innumerable other pieces of family detritus clutter every available surface.

The play leaves some unanswered questions, but I was glued to my seat from beginning to end. With dynamic direction and intelligent writing, this is not a show to be easily missed.

 

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Devil with the Blue Dress @ The Bunker Theatre

29th March – 28th April, 2018

by Kevin Armento
Directed by Joshua McTaggart
The Bunker Theatre, Seaview Productions, and Desara Bosnja

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

Photography by Helen Murray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Read our interview with Joshua McTaggart here