REVIEW! Canary by Fun In The Oven @ Circomedia, Bristol

Director & Dramaturg: Andrea Jiménez
Movement Director: Noemi Fernández
Cast: Katie Tranter, Robyn Hambrook, Alys North
Next Show: 30th Nov 2018 (Newcastle)

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The three Canary Girls receiving their beloved letters. Photo Credit: Chris Bishop

I watched Canary at the UK’s largest circus centre; Ciromedia, in the heart of Bristol, and what a magnificent stage for an energetic company like ‘Fun in the Oven’ to perform on. There was an abundance of space but every inch was kept alive throughout by the capable performers, the genius comedy, and the representation of such a strong topic.

This topic being WW1’s Canary Girls (don’t worry, no one watching knew of them either!), thousands of courageous British women doing more than just ‘their bit for the war effort’. Due to the lack of men, these ‘unsung war heroes’ were assembling TNT bombs everyday in factories; extremely dangerous work which gave them a number of health issues… one of which turned their skin yellow! (hence the makeup choice in Canary). 

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Playing ‘Truth or dare’. Photo Credit: Chris Bishop

Whilst addressing this unique gem of history the talented cast showed us the life of three workers; confident supervisor Agnes, naive football lover Betty, and a slightly older upper class volunteer called Anne. After a quick clip of footage displaying some overly happy WW1 propaganda, Fun in the Oven takes hold our emotions, making us laugh, cry and in awe of their slick physically and strong ensemble. This was particularly prominent when they demonstrated how the women assemble the bombs, taking us through a conveyor belt of movements with a brilliant cheery voice over (by Lawrence Neale) encouraging them along.

After an air raid hits the factory we watch as their friendship blossoms even further and their hopes and fears unravel. We laughed through familiar games of truth or dare, secrets being shared, and were shocked by harsh realities. Although the most hard hitting moments were always cleverly uplifted with comedy, and superbly executed.

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Preparing to leave each other and return to their homes after the war ended. Photo Credit: Chris Bishop

One of the highlights of this performance (pardon the pun) was when the girls ate cordite. This is a dangerous explosive used for ammunition, but also gave the girls a buzz which made them work faster and let off some steam. This sequence of crazy facial expressions and comedy madness allowed for their characteristics to explode (I’ll stop with the puns) and was extremely well received by the audience. It also lead us through an emotional discovery of how the women perceived themselves within society and hierarchy during the early 1900’s.

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After taking Cordite… Photo Credit: Chris Bishop

Canary is a strong piece of physical theatre addressing and remembering these female heroes of Britain (and rightly so). You will not be able to take your eyes off these three talented performers, and you will certainly leave with your eyes open to a wonderful snippet of history and your cheeks aching from all the laughter. It would be utterly mad not to grab a ticket to this show!

Follow the link for more info: http://www.funintheoventheatre.com/

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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! 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 Wild Duck, after Henrik Ibsen @ The Almeida Theatre

Cast and Creatives:
Nicholas Day, Grace Doherty, Nicholas Farrell, Andrea Hall, Kevin Harvey, Edward Hogg, Lyndsey Marshal, Clara Read, Rick Warden
After Henrik Ibsen, in a new version created by Robert Icke
Design: Bunny Christie
Light: Elliot Griggs
Sound: Tom Gibbons
Casting: Julia Horan CDG

15th October- 1st December

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A bold re-imagining of classic Ibsen

I was very excited to see this piece at The Almeida Theatre, being a fan of director Robert Icke; Icke’s previous credits for The Almeida include Hamlet and Mary Stuart.

The Wild Duck explores the family life of James and Gina Ekdal and exposes the life-destroying secrets which lie behind the couple’s happy pretenses. Icke has modernised the production and it has a Brechtian feel. The actors break the fourth wall constantly by explaining their characters feelings and what is going on in the scene. This is a very interesting technique which at first keeps the near three hour piece feeling snappy and fresh. However, as the play went on this technique became slightly patronising.

All actors in this remarkable piece are excellent. The play is extremely captivating due to their fantastic storytelling skills. When the disastrous consequences are revealed for the Ekdal family, the audience were gasping and muttering. It felt like the audience were part of the family, which is what made the play so moving and heartbreaking.

The show is beautifully designed by Bunny Christie. The set is minimal and naturalistic but turns into a beautiful garden at the end of the piece.

The Wild Duck is a fantastic modern take on Ibsen’s classic play. It is exceptionally well directed and all the performances brilliant and captivating. This is a piece which is not to be missed.

Also, there is a real live duck on stage!

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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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Truth, Helen Chadwick Theatre @Southbank Centre

Created by Helen Chadwick
Directed by Stephen Hoggett
Performed by Victoria Couper, Krystian Godlewski, Liz Kettle, Helen Chadwick
Presented by Helen Chadwick Song Theatre and November Productions
Co-commissioned by Birmingham Repertory Theatre
Touring the UK until March 2019

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Image by Toby Farrow

Truth is a devised musical performance. Four performers deliver an exquisite hour-length choral performance of intricate and ever-shifting melody. The ensemble is reminiscent of a Greek chorus that gather to share the ‘testimonials’ collected by researcher and creator Helen Chadwick. It’s a little bit like an evening of short stories. Each scene unfolds a little world where a character shares their experience of deceit, dishonesty or delusion.

The stories are told through a creative combination of melody, lyric and gesture. Occasionally the highly-choreographed movement and inclusion of lights as props compete with the narrative at hand, but for the most part, it’s an absorbing and affective spectacle.

Unfortunately, while the nuance given to the technical execution of the production is impeccable, this highly conceptual show fails to deliver a coherent message.

“Truth” is a challenging topic, and the impulse to explore a big idea through the microcosm of personal stories makes sense at first glance, but the attempt to tie a collection of disparate human stories together with the common thread of ‘deceit’ is a tenuous strategy.

I felt particularly uneasy about the conflation of highly contextual human experiences, several of which involved trauma, being bundled into the same framework. For instance, an account from a victim of sexual abuse, a petty disagreement over a recipe between a couple, a worker lying on their resume and an individual experiencing gender dysphoria are all described by the chorus as ‘lying to oneself.’

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Image by Toby Farrow

Generalisations about the truth itself also felt problematic. A recurrent lyric was “never be afraid to raise your voice for truth”, delivering the sweeping conclusion that the truth (whatever that topic may be) should always be voiced regardless of the context of the situation.

Do we not lie for the ones we love? To protect ourselves? Because we have no other choice? The truth is not always beautiful, safe to tell, nor does confronting it necessarily set one free. Truth tells stories that demonstrate all these complexities, but the intricacies become lost and the core message incoherent.

I was left feeling unsure as to whether the ensemble was aware that the truth is so simple it can be reduced to platitudes, or whether they hoped to convey that it is so complex and highly contextual that we can’t pin it down. For what it’s worth, I think it is the latter.

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Square Rounds, Proud Haddock @ Finborough Theatre

Written by Tony Harrison
Directed by Jimmy Walters
Set and Costume Design by Daisy Blower
Lighting Design by Arnim Friess
Music by Jeremy Warmsley
Musical Direction by Adam Gerber
Sound Design by Dinah Mullen
Movement Direction by Depi Gorgogianni
Cast: Eva Feiler, Gracy Goldman, Rujenne Green, Amy Marchant, Philippa Quinn, Letty Thomas

4 September – Saturday, 29 September 2018

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Photo by Samuel Taylor

Proud Haddock presents Tony Harrison’s all-female war drama Square Rounds at the Finborough Theatre, re- staged for the first time in 30 years to mark the 100-year anniversary of the First World War.

Proud Haddock’s emphatic work explores the ethical duality of scientific progress and how the best human intentions are behind some of the most horrific atrocities.

The play is a lyrical, lilting, odd work that jumps across time, employing magician stage craft, movement and live songs to deliver a message on repeated folly and hubris.

Daisy Blower’s set draws on the work’s thematic concerns, with a white box outlined on the black floor and multi-purpose white and black boxes with squares movable between scenes. The centrepiece is a large black box that is alternately used as a toilet cubicle, magician’s box, display case, blackboard, gas chamber, and more. A canny piece of design well incorporated into the action and reinvented in use by the cast. War time and historical footage are projected over the set, only registering as subtle movement on the black, visible in its white.

The ensemble cast was energetic and charming, hurtling through the verse, offering a contrast between the earnestness of the characters with their historical tragedy. While this dramatic irony was successfully fulfilled, I found myself wanting a more detailed irony and humour grounded in the language and characterisation: some of the ideas might have been more expressly served if tied to human motivation or relationships, as exemplified in the stand-out, rousing performances of Gracy Goldman and Philippa Quinn arguing as German-Jewish chemists and spouses Fritz Haber and Clara Immerwahr, Quinn as Haber defending her invention of chlorine gas. The actors as a whole did artful, attentive work within the production.

This re-staging of Square Rounds felt intellectually relevant, but because of this detached, historical quality did not offer a deeper connection with our present time or an understanding of its related but unique set of concerns.

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Caterpillar, Alison Carr @ Theatre503

29 August – 22 September 2018

Writer: Alison Carr
Director: Yasmeen Arden
Producer: Michelle Barnette
Design: Holly Pigott
Lighting: Ben Jacobs
Sound: Jac Cooper
Cast: Judith Amsenga as Claire, Alan Mahon as Simon and Tricia Kelly as Maeve

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Small Truth Theatre premieres Alison Carr’s Caterpillar at Theatre503, a finalist of their 2016 Playwriting Award, with a continued run at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.

Caterpillar takes place at a closed seaside B&B run by grandmother Maevis who is recovering from a recent stroke that’s paralysed the left side of her body. Her daughter Claire has been living in to help look after her and seems unwilling to leave to return to her own life as a mother. Unexpectedly, guest Simon arrives late one night, to participate in a Red Bull style hang-gliding event taking over the town, the last request of his now dead girlfriend.

Set in Maeve’s living room, Holly Pigott’s naturalistic design is characterised by welcoming, coastal themed décor, all seemingly sourced from the local seaside gift shop, giving it a cosy but identifiably curated feel.

Alison Carr has an ear for natural dialogue and a knack for embedding comedy in her characters’ voices, offering up engaging, complex portraits of humanity. Yasmeen Arden’s quietly confident direction lets the charm and warmth of the text shine.

The production is a slow-burn, taking its time to introduce us to the world and unfurl the secrets at the heart of its characters. However, some of the darker reveals and decisions later in the piece feel unseeded in earlier action, especially stacked as they were in the second act.

The actors gave striking, well-drawn performances; credible and nuanced. Tricia Kelly as Maeve is a commanding combination of saucy humour and iron pragmatism, a vitality offset by the vulnerability of the character’s age and health issues. Alan Mahon disarms with a warm (later creepy) earnestness and Judith Amsenga assuredly balances tenderness, aggression and a biting wit.

Alison Carr’s writing finds fresh vision in familiar themes. I found the mother-daughter dynamic to be the strength of the piece: a mixture of loyalty, kind-cruelty, blindness and unmet expectations, and wish there had been greater attention given to this relationship as the linchpin of the play’s concerns, which sometimes felt unfocused. Caterpillar has interesting things to say about performative caring and reflects on constrictive roles both in and out of family structures.

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Additional performances:
27 – 29 September 2018                 Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

Feed by Theatre Témoin @ Pleasance Dome

Devising Cast: Jonathan Peck, Louise Lee, Nina Cassells, Yasmine Yagchi
Director: Ailin Conant
Creative Producer: Fiona Mason
Contributing Playwrights: Eve Leigh, Erin Judge
Produced by Theatre Témoin in co-production with The Lowry and Everyman Cheltenham
August 1-27 at Pleasance King Dome, Edinburgh

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Photo by Nathan Chandler

Feed is a devised show about a bunch of things which are at risk of becoming meaningless buzzwords: social media, fake news, the Internet, the post-truth era, integrity in journalism, etc. But where Feed has its point of difference from other devised shows on these topics is how it explores them through the microcosm of four characters: Lucy, a “feminist lesbian progressive” journalist; Simon, her creepy, manipulative, possibly sociopathic, SEO (search engine optimisation) specialist brother; Clem, Lucy’s Palestinian photographer girlfriend; and Mia, a school-aged beauty vlogger. The story unfolds on the morning of Lucy and Clem’s anniversary. Over breakfast, the two enjoy some cute banter about romance and foie gras, before the moment is punctured – not, judging by Clem’s expression, for the first time in their relationship – by Lucy’s ringtone. A story she wrote about a murdered young boy in Gaza is going viral, but there’s only problem: its sudden fame is built on a lie.

As the story progresses, it and its characters spiral further and further into madness, losing their grip on reality and humanity as they disappear into the clutches of the Internet. Jonathan Peck is wonderfully demonic as Simon, who becomes less and less a real character and more an impish embodiment of all the worst temptations offered by online culture; this is visually accentuated by his gradual removal of costume pieces to reveal a full-body Lycra morph suit in green-screen green. The modern offspring of Puck and Iago, he whispers in Mia and Lucy’s ears, urging them to do whatever it takes to chase online fame and power, past all morality or reason. The only one to resist his influence is Clem, and eventually, she seems to be the only real human left in the story, and we are trapped with her in a splintered nightmare of garbled dialogue and conceptual images. This, I gather, was intended to reflect an online feed which has been twisted and fractured by algorithms until only the most shocking and bizarre content remains… and boy, was it effective.

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Photo by Nathan Chandler

Leaving the theatre was like waking from a fever dream of colliding hashtags and rampant digital capitalism. As I emerged, dazed and blinking in the watery Scottish sunlight, with a suddenly-grotesque nursery rhyme echoing through my brain, I tweeted “this one’s going to need some digesting before writing the review!” Three days later, I think I can finally deliver a verdict: Feed is a sharp, incisive, and very disturbing portrayal of the state of online communication in 2018, for all that its themes are nothing new, and despite a slight tendency to get sidetracked by its own cleverness. Whereas anti-digital artistic content is usually produced by baby boomers and born of mistrusting fear, Feed was created by and with young people, “Digital Natives” adept at navigating the online world and with a good understanding of its workings, and this is what makes it so effective. We all know that today’s society operates largely on an “attention economy” born of digital over-exposure and emotional desensitisation, but Feed brings it home in a way that is visceral and affecting. Just don’t go if you’re squeamish about force-feeding or finger removal.

Feed will play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until the end of this week, and tour regionally in Spring 2019.

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Ladykiller, The Thelmas @ Pleasance Courtyard

1st – 27th August 2018

Director:  Madelaine Moore

Writer:  Madeline Gould

Designer:  Baska Wesolowska

Lighting Design:  Jennifer Rose

HER: Hannah McClean

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Ladykiller is a darkly humorous examination of the social expectations of female serial killers, and more broadly, instructive of how to find advantage within a system geared to disempower you, to take it down from the inside.

Upon entering Bunker One we find a woman, dead, face down on the floor with blood spreading beneath her. Hannah McClean enters as the character HER in a French maid’s uniform, her apron and hands wet with blood. She begins a defence of the murder, telling the story of how the now dead hotel guest attacked her and how she had no choice but to protect herself.

Ladykiller challenges the idea of victim-hood in a post me-too world. It explores the intersection of both being a woman and working in minimum wage as abused roles, but the power/access that can come out of that. It further critiques how successful this position of being underestimated can be, offering an unresolved question about the relationship between trauma, cycles of violence and whether harsher consequence should be the way to change behaviour. It spun together familiar ideas and made them feel fresh, its comments novel. The image of HER standing over another woman’s body a potent image at the centre of the work.

Ladykiller is entertaining, funny, engaging, and an effective allegory for challenging gender roles in contemporary society. The writing is relevant and well executed. Hannah McClean has perfect comic timing, adeptly handling the pacing of the show’s meandering associations, expertly inhabiting the stage with her impressive pretence, stick-shifting our expectations like she’s driving at the Formula One.

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Bunker One, Pleasance Courtyard, 60 Pleasance, EH8 9TJ

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