REVIEW! A Dog’s Heart, Xameleon Theatre @ Theatre 21

Based on the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov
Director: Konstantin Kamensky
Producer: Vlada Lemeshevska
Cast: Oleg Sidorchik, Sergey Kotukh, Alexey Averkin, Eimas Minkelis, Vlada Lemeshevska
22 – 24 November 2018

Bulgakov’s satirical novel was, like much of his work, banned in Soviet Russia for over sixty years. The plot, somewhere between Frankenstein and Animal Farm, centers around a successful surgeon experimenting with eugenics by transplanting animal organs into humans, to create a peak human at peak health.

The opening of the book and the play is a far cry from these lofty ideals: an injured, desperate dog foraging through trash in the middle of winter. The dog is played with exceptional empathy and physicality by Sergey Kotukh. He’s not wearing any particular make up or costume but did make me forget, at times, that he was not a dog. He makes such a good dog, it’s even more painful to watch his slow transition into a terrible man.

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He is adopted, from the street, by the successful Professor Preobrazhensky (a name derived from the Russian word for transformation), who brings him back to his apartment and starts spoiling him. He gets a collar and is named Sharik – the Russian equivalent of Rex or Rover. He’s just becoming comfortable in his role as a gentleman’s dog when he’s sedated and operated on – the new subject of an experiment to see what happens when the pituitary gland and testicles of a man are transplanted into a dog.

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The Professor, Oleg Sidorchik, is as much a parody of the anti-communist bourgeois as the uncouth Sharik is a parody of the proletariat – there are no ethically sound characters or decisions in this show, only an uncomfortable black humour and dissection of class struggle. Is the issue with Sharik, who never asked for this? With the Professor, a stubborn, snobby nepotist who uses his connections to protect himself? With the fact that Sharik’s donor organs came from a criminal (who’s name may or may not have been a punning reference to Stalin)? How can we ask anyone to change their heart?

It’s a small, highly talented cast with excellent timing, performing in Russian. There are English surtitles, as you’ll often find in operas. It can be a little distracting to look back and forth – the action of the play moves faster, with more jokes than an opera. There are also multiple, mobile screens which partition the stage and have videos projected onto them. This worked extremely well in the first act, as a clever combination of live and recorded black and white video helped us understand the perspective of Sharik as he is adopted. These many projections became increasingly difficult to follow and focus on as the play progressed – I got the impression that the show had been designed for a differently shaped theatre entirely.

Despite the overuse of technology, the strength of the play is its cast. It’s a bleak story, distressingly relevant nearly one hundred years after it was written. It’s a funny, moving, thought-provoking play that’s well worth watching.

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Previous Review: How To Catch A Krampus by Sink the Pink @ Pleasance Theatre

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.

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Unexploded Ordnances (UXO), Split Britches (Tour)

15 – 19 May, 2018 @ The Barbican

by Lois Weaver, Peggy Shaw, & Hannah Maxwell
Directed by Lois Weaver

More dates in Glasgow, Battersea and more – click here for details

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Photography by Theo Cote

 

 

American duo Split Britches bring their unique exploration of anxiety to our shores. UXO is a conversation about calamity, built heavily around the themes and imagery of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).

The production is not your usual theatre piece, but rather a public discussion using theatrical elements. Audience members are invited onto the stage to form a ‘Council of Elders’ in a perfectly designed Dr. Strangelove Situation Room.

It’s an interesting show. It’s a look at that feeling of inescapable dread that seems to permeate everything nowadays. Cleverly, it uses the metaphor of unexploded ordinances as both symbol of the hidden dread around us, and of unexplored desires waiting to burst forth. Doom and hope.

The characters, inspired by George C. Scott’s General Turgidson and Peter Sellers’ President Muffley, are hilariously performed. Played by Weaver and Shaw, the pair give worthy tribute to some of the film’s iconic moments. They are wonderfully comic performers.

Lois Weaver duels as the night’s MC and head panellist to the ‘Council of Elders’. She leads the discussion, talking to the Council about their desires and fears (with social media being the overwhelmingly main concern tonight. As a non-elder I can’t help but feel our generations receive our existential dreads from vastly different places, but I digress…)

They provoked some interesting discussion, but as the show relies on its Council for its content, it’s at the mercy of those audience members to provide the meat of the show. It’s the audience that ultimately provides the biggest laughs and the most moving moments.

One problem with this is that not every audience member is created equal in the oratory department, and though managed well, not every audience member necessarily opens the lid on an issue with the same nuance. It also means that the discussion lacks a single direction therefore can’t go particularly deep.

On the other hand, some of the anecdotes and human moments that were brought to the stage tonight were often funny and really touching, and the mission to discuss these fears; to have an open public sharing of anxieties and attempt to find creative solutions, is an important one.

So yes, an interesting and thought-provoking show, though not one that gets the heart pounding.

 

 

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Tickets / www.barbican.org.uk/

The Sleeper, Anima Theatre Company @ The Space

3 – 14 April, 2018

Written & directed by Henry C. Krempels

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On an overnight train across Europe, a British woman finds a Syrian refugee in her bed. Longlisted for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, The Sleeper unfolds as a fascinating and thought-provoking exploration of some of the twisted morality that surrounds the Syrian refugee crises.

The play draws largely from a real-life incident of writer/director Henry C Krempels, and the play very much feels like Krempel’s attempt to come to terms with his deeply affecting experience. We watch and rewatch the discovery of a young refugee girl on the train by a British woman and the train’s manager. These characters attempt again and again to uncover the truth about their unexpected guest before, suddenly, the narrative is flipped inside-out to be told from the refugee’s perspective. And by ‘the refugee’s perspective’, I actually mean ‘the actor’s perspective’.

It gets a little surreal.

The meta elements become fairly extreme, with actors breaking the fourth-wall and talking about the play analytically, questioning the narrative and characters that have been built and developed up to that point.

On the one hand, I found this incredibly jarring. Literally being told by the actors that everything you’ve just seen is meaningless goes quite a long way to undermine all narrative tension and development built to that point.

And yet, on the other hand, it’s this level of self-analysis that makes the play as unique and thought-provoking as it is. Touching on themes of privilege, moral obligation and guilt, it’s a sharp reminder that our views on the global refugee crisis can be woefully out-of-touch.

The story is helped along by it’s simple and creative set (by Jasmine Swan), and the strong cast. Sarah Agha brings wonderful power to her role. A refugee character is so often reduced to being nothing but a victim of circumstance, and one of triumphs of the play for me was seeing something a lot deeper. A refugee who is angry; frustrated by her predicament and by our overly-simplistic understanding of her narrative. Michelle Fahrenheim gives a sympathetic performance as a kind, yet naïve British traveller, whilst Joshua Jacob does a superb job as the pragmatic and occasionally sinister train conductor.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, The Space programs incredibly ambitious and interesting work. Though I don’t always agree with every creative decision made in its walls, it’s a venue worth supporting, and the shows leave you thinking. The Sleeper is a case in point.

 

 

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