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.

Tickets

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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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Tickets

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.

Tickets

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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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Tickets

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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Tickets @ Theatre503

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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The Song of Lunch, by Christopher Reid @ Pleasance Courtyard

Directed by Jason Morell
Featuring Robert Bathurst and Rebecca Johnson
Animations by Charles Peattie
Produced by Thirty/20 Theatre and Suzanna Rosenthal of Something for the Weekend
1 – 27 August at 2:20pm at The Pleasance Courtyard, Forth theatre

Picture by Karla Gowlett

Robert Bathurst’s unnamed character in The Song of Lunch is a man who wishes he could turn back time. A stuffy older white man, working in the publishing industry and determinedly inhabiting a fantasy London in which he can still brush shoulders with literary greats in the streets of Soho, he has summoned his ex from her comfortable life and family in Paris to meet with him for lunch in an old trattoria. What is he hoping for? Pleasant reminiscences on old times? To rekindle their lost love? As lunch progresses and the Chianti bottles empty, the Publisher’s defenses are slowly stripped away under his companion’s mercilessly incisive gaze, and we see the foibles of his psychology laid bare.

This play is staged in the tucked-away and packed-out Pleasance Forth theatre, and its audience comprises almost entirely of older middle-aged theatregoers who recognise Robert Bathurst from Cold Feet and Downton Abbey. The simple, rhythmic elegance of its lyrical writing and the minimalist staging – supported by gorgeous animations by Charles Peattie – feels a world away from the raucous variety of attention-grabbing artistic gambles which characterise usual Fringe shows. Like the haute cuisine enjoyed by its characters, this play appears light and bite-sized on the surface, but has layers of subtle complexities and flavours which mean that the subsequent analytical discourse forms half the pleasure. I feel that I would need a whole essay to unpack the meaning of this piece, in an operation as delicate as the lady character’s dissection and consumption of her sea bass. If pressured, I would summarise thus: this story is about an individual’s (or a country’s? An empire’s? A social class’s? A gender’s?) inability to accept that, through his own failings, the sun is setting on his glory days and a new era is beginning to dawn without him. Rather than taking responsibility for his shortcomings and adapting to make the best of the changing times, he clings desperately to an unattainable and rosy-filtered image of the past. Like Orpheus, in succumbing to the temptation to look backwards instead of forwards, he throws away the chance of a brighter future.

All the talk of tragedy and pathos aside, this play is also incredibly witty and had the audience chuckling and chortling both with and at the charming yet pathetic Publisher. Rebecca Johnson as the “old flame” is also wonderful, embodying poised self-confidence and providing an empathetic yet no-nonsense balance to the narrator’s self-indulgence (the golden tones of her hair and the warm lights she is often bathed in provide welcome relief from Publisher’s cooler, almost anaemic colour scheme).

The playbill includes a note from the playwright which suggests that, though originally intended to be a ‘piece of pure comedy, a light farce’, during the writing process the play had found its own, darker shape, in a process of which he ‘was only partially aware’. This is evident from the contrast between the light, optimistic, playful mood of the beginning in contrast to the somewhat bleak ending, and the piece’s tangled deeper meanings (teasingly self-parodied when the Flame suggests a convoluted counter-interpretation to the Publisher’s poetry, and is met by a blank response of ‘…you’re going to have to run that past me again’). However, this very vulnerability of the piece is what lends it its charm: beneath all the witticisms and self-deprecation, this play provides a glimpse of someone who is disappointed in their past and scared of their future… I think all of us, at some time in our lives, can relate to that.

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Picture by Karla Gowlett