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! Maggie May by SDWC Productions @ the Finborough Theatre

Music and Lyrics: Lionel Bart
Book: Alun Owen
Director: Matthew Iliffe
Musical Director: Henry Brennan
Choreographer: Sam Spencer-Lane
Review by Peter Hoekstra-Bass and Sophia Halpin

James Darch and Kara Lily Hayworth in Maggie May at Finborough Theatre (courtesy Ali Wright) (4).jpg

Image credit: Ali Wright

When one hears of a revival of a musical that hasn’t seen the London stage for over fifty years, it is understandable to respond with a measure of scepticism. The stage is always hungry for vibrant musical productions, whether old or new, and five decades of West End silence do not speak well to a show’s calibre. The production at the Finborough Theatre proudly touts their season of Maggie May as the first professional UK production in over fifty years. I went in with moderated expectations.

Inspired by the folk ballad of the same name, Maggie May tells the story of two young lovers: Pat Casey, son and heir apparent of the once-and-future king of the docklands unionists, and Pat’s sweetheart – the titular heroine, a Liverpudlian sex worker-with-a-heart-of-gold. The show is unrepentantly political and working class, as most of the action is given over to the struggles of Casey and his friends against the establishment, personified in their corrupt union leader Willie Morgan.

While the refrains of “Solidarity Forever” seem to echo over almost every scene, the political backdrop of the story is rarely more than that, as the broad beats of the story could be put over any narrative aesthetic and work just as well. Indeed, in his role as the son of a union organiser murdered by the police and heir presumptive to his father’s position, Patrick Casey has more of Aragorn about him than he does Enjolras. And while the themes of social stratification, exploitation of workers, and economic hardship may still ring true today, the piece shows its age in its one-note depictions of women. It’s certainly the sort of mid-twentieth century musical in which the boys sing about politics, social change, identity, and personal destiny, and the girls sing about… boys.

Joshua Barton, Kara Lily Hayworth and Michael Nelson in Maggie May at Finborough Theatre (courtesy Ali Wright).jpg

Image credit: Ali Wright

By a significant margin, the weakest element of this revival of Maggie May is the book itself, which is to say that this is an excellent production of some mediocre material.

The cast (seemingly impossibly large for the pub-theatre scale of the production) is uniformly excellent, and it was hard to believe they had only been performing together for a few days. Whether in their roles as friends or foes, lovers or rivals, the chemistry was always vivid and convincing between all the characters, and the obvious comfort the cast had with each other was keenly felt by the audience.

In his role as the pauper prince Pat Casey, James Darch was charming and endlessly watchable; twinkle-eyed when he needed to be, but effortlessly powerful when he assumed his father’s mantle. Similarly, Kara Lily Hayworth inhabited the admittedly thin role of Maggie May with ease and made more of her Bechdel-Test-failing scenes than should have been possible. David Keller as the elder statesman and unionist true believer was always entertaining, and Mark Pearce’s slimy union leader brought just the right amount of Fagin and Thénardier to his scenes. Indeed, there is almost no member of the cast who does not deserve singling out, and some of the strongest scenes in the production were when the small, pub-theatre stage was filled to bursting with singing, dancing Liverpudlians.

Which brings me to one of the highlights of the production, namely: the dancing. Choreographer Sam Spencer-Lane has worked magic with this production, as her dance numbers, executed ever-so-tightly by the cast, seemed to grow the small venue to that of a West End theatre. This masterful use of the space, combined with Jonathan Simpson’s bold but effective lighting, made it easy to forget I was in a cosy attic upstairs of a pub – although, sat as I was in the front row, I did sometimes feel that I could catch a high kick to the face at any moment!

Michael Nelson, Kara Lily Hayworth and Joshua Barton in Maggie May at Finborough Theatre (courtesy Ali Wright).jpg

Image credit: Ali Wright

Before summarising my overall impression of this production of Maggie May, I must preface with a reiteration that the original text is not strong. There is certainly charm and linguistic interest in the language used – an appealing if often unintelligible docklands mixture of Scouser, Irish Gaelic, and Welsh – but the plot often felt as grey and grimy as Liverpool bilge water. What really brought this show to life was the superb skill and energy of the creatives involved, most especially the director, choreographer, and actors. While emotional investment in Liverpool and/or trade union politics of the 60s would probably enhance the experience, all you really need is a love of musical theatre to enjoy this show. But hurry, Maggie will be gone by May!

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Previous review: Sick @ Kings Head Theatre

REVIEW! Cuzco by Víctor Sánchez Rodríguez @ Theatre503

Directed by Kate O’Connor
Translated by William Gregory
Produced by Daisy Hale
Featuring Dilek Rose and Gareth Kieran Jones
23rd January – Saturday 16th February 2019

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Images courtesy of Holly Lucas

Many of us in the Western world have, at one stage or another in our lives, fallen into the trap of thinking that we can escape our troubles by travelling to a distant corner of the world. Sometimes, this even works, if just temporarily – but often we find instead that our problems have followed us on the journey.

This is the case with the unnamed Spanish couple in Cuzco. As soon as they arrive in their hotel room in Peru, the cracks in their relationship begin to show. She is afflicted by altitude sickness – or so she claims – and while he is keen to explore the city with newfound friends (another Spanish couple on the same Inca Trail tour), she refuses to leave the hotel. When she does, she is quickly overwhelmed by the city’s culture, so familiar and yet alien to her own, as well as the locals’ aggressive pursuit of Western tourist cash. The echoes of colonialism and the pervasive poverty of Latin America repulse her, but somehow attract her too, and as she is drawn deeper into the mysticism and injustice of the country, her relationship with her partner crumbles into irreparable ruins.

This is the first time Cuzco has been staged in English rather than its native Spanish, and I can honestly say that it is the best translation of a foreign language play that I have ever seen. Of course, this is despite the fact that I don’t speak a word of Spanish, and so have no way of knowing how faithful it was to the original – but often, translators become almost like secondary playwrights, moulding a text in their own creative image as they translate, and I suspect this was the case here. Chatting with a cast member afterwards, I was told that translator William Gregory was very present throughout the rehearsal process, and the result is poetic dialogue which flows beautifully in its friction, humour, tension, pathos, and conflict.

The performances from Dilek Rose and Gareth Kieran Jones are excellent. Rose is compelling throughout, even when utterly dislikeable, and while Jones’ performance is less consistently strong, his final monologue (“see, I can speak your language”) is gut-punchingly powerful. Another reviewer I spoke to was of the opinion that the two lacked onstage chemistry, but I feel this was absolutely an intentional and effective choice – this is a couple who don’t connect anymore, who haven’t slept together in a year, who almost never even look at each other as they talk. Instead, they largely face out towards the audience when speaking, or sit in silence, face turned away and emotions inscrutable. This partial view into their relationship is echoed by the staging; we see them in three different hotel rooms, each time from a different angle, and never outside these rooms. We come to feel that it is the only place their paths really cross as they have two very different and incompatible travel experiences.

Cuzco, Theatre503 (Dilek Rose and Gareth Kieran Jones) Courtesy of Holly Lucas (4).jpg

Images courtesy of Holly Lucas

This production is both slick and cuttingly sharp, modern and timelessly relevant, and I can only applaud the acting, translating, directing, and lighting, stage, and sound design. The only way in which it is let down is through its writing. Sánchez Rodríguez tries to include so many meaty topics – tourism, sexism, racism, mental illness, gender roles, colonialism, cultural imperialism, class privilege, child abuse, and more – that none of them are truly unpicked to the extent needed. Indeed, at times these topics are dealt with so shallowly and stereotypically as to be distasteful and disrespectful. This also means that the play is constantly running at high tension and drama that verges on melodrama, without the lulls and comic relief needed to provide emotional pacing for the audience (with the exception of a couple of truly witty anecdotes, such as one about a run-in with another, Dutch, tourist). I felt drained by the time we reached the play’s final climax, and found it difficult to care about the inevitable breakdown of the couple’s relationship, or her surreal existential journey. I do wonder if this can be attributed to cultural differences – perhaps Spanish theatre is simply turned up to a higher intensity than is normal in Britain.

That said, it took a couple of days of mulling over for me to come to the conclusion that the underlying writing of Cuzco wasn’t for me. Walking out of the theatre, I was incredibly impressed by what was an excellent production, and which I would certainly recommend for those who like their theatre at full emotional saturation.

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Previous review: Romeo and Juliet: Mad Blood Stirring by China Plate @ Albany Theatre

Free Solo @ The Drayton Arms Theatre

17 April – 3 May, 2018

by Jack Godfrey & Celine Snippe
Produced by Alice Greening

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Free Solo is a fantastic new musical written by Jack Godfrey and Celine Snippe, directed by Nick Leos and musically directed by Flora Leo. It follows the story of the Robinson Family in the lead up to John Robinson’s daredevil Free Solo Rick climb. Based on the true story we watch as, eleven years on, Robinson’s daughter Hazel reflects on the events that led up to her father’s climb.

Set to a folk-rock score, this new musical is sensitive, with fantastic movement and really human moments. Cecily Redmann was delightful as Hazel Robinson. Her voice was strong, and she safely navigated the changes between young and old Hazel. Simone Leonardi was an absolute stand out as the infamous John Robinson. His voice beautifully conveyed the sensitivity behind the music and gave a fantastic, human approach to the character.

Despite a few technical hitches, this musical was a thoroughly enjoyable watch, highlighting the importance of family and raising questions about responsibility and identity.

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Plastic, Poleroid Theatre @ The Old Red Lion

3 – 21 April, 2018

by Kenneth Emson
Directed by Josh Roche

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Images courtesy of Mathew Foster

Heading up the stairs from the pub to see Plastic at the Old Red Lion builds the right kind of excitement. Plastic takes us to a quintessential Essex school football pitch as we follow the lives of three students. Lisa, jack and Ben, as well as Lisa’s older boyfriend, Kev. We open on a football field, reliving the past. This is perfect, as the seating is somewhat bleacher-like and we are all able to take drinks in with us – it already felt like a football match. Kev is scoring in the Essex cup final, before we are introduced to all the characters, hearing their hopes and dreams in Kenneth Emson’s beautifully lyrical writing. In fact, if there is one reason to go and see this play – it is the writing. Lines intersect each other and seamlessly carry the story, using everyday language in an elevated, poetic way. It’s like Shakespeare, only fully accessible.

Director Josh Roche, and Lighting designer Peter Small and Sound designer Kieran Lucas have brilliantly designed and realised this play. This is a play where all the elements in design and visual direction helped bring this story to light. It was as thought through and well-crafted as the writing. The stage was simply pained up with white lines, creating a football pitch. It was only after the play that I noticed that in particularly tense moments, the cast neared the goal. The soundscape served to heighten the mood and parts from one strongly and somehow misplaced piece of classical music, was noticeably effective. The lighting was cool and was used perfectly to segment moments, change days and create atmosphere.

Look, it’s difficult to find any fault with this play. It was sublimely acted. All four actors skilfully handed rhyming verse, making it seem as though they thought in pattern naturally. Madison Clare was a standout as Lisa, skilfully walking the line of innocence and mischievousness. Louis Greatorex was fantastic, pulling all the right heartstrings. His performance was the most nuanced and alive – even when his character was simply watching what was happening on stage. Thomas Coomes served a suitably volatile Ben. His job was the hardest, his character the most outwardly charged and turbulent and he pulled this off solidly. I think he had us all worried with his violent mantra repeated throughout. Mark Weinman gave a fantastic performance as Lisa’s boyfriend. He created a performance that carried the play through it’s narrative. I can’t gush enough about the acting here – it was incredible.

I think I should mention that the themes of this play are bold and daring and horribly close to home. We deal with sex, playground politics and a nobody whose mantra is a list of school shootings. The cast navigates these beautifully. There are laughs in amongst the general electric foreboding. I don’t think anyone left the theatre in the same mood they came in. Thought provoking and tense throughout, I strongly recommend you get a ticket before it closes on the 21st.

 

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