Review: The Boy Who Climbed Out Of His Face (The Jetty, London)

Shunt artwork - A5 RGB 72dpiRating: ****

In A Nutshell

A wildly experimental event that will push you senses, your courage, and your perceptions of theatre.

Overview

Renowned (and arguably infamous) “event” company, Shunt, take up a six week residency at new south London arts venture, The Jetty. This new show promises a wild multi-sensory 45 minute experience inside shipping containers, drawing influences from both Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies and Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness.

Writing

With so much secrecy about the actual content of the containers (which I’ve been asked to keep) it’s difficult to say much about what happens inside them. However, if you think it near impossible to combine The Water Babies and The Heart of Darkness together, on account that these couldn’t be any more polemic to each other, you won’t be surprised to find that they don’t. Whilst there is a definite sequence of events inside the containers, if you go expecting a narrative in the traditional sense, you’ll only be left baffled and confused. However, if you go open to an experience, then you’ll get a lot more out of it than you would otherwise.

You genuinely have no idea about what is going to happen next as everything is supremely surreal and nonsensical. There are moments that are literally in your face, disorientating, or just downright creepy. These are made even more unnerving as there are moments where continuing on with the experience means that you, and your fellow audience members, must swallow your fears and press on to the next area; you may be singled out as an individual, or simply left to your own devices as a group in this strange and surreal landscape, with moving forwards being  your only option. Given just how bizarre and unsettling the events are, this is sometimes easier said than done.

The only major criticism is that the show is too short. 45 minutes fly by, and just when you’ve found you’ve steeled your courage enough to carry on deeper into Shunt’s twisted world, you find you’re at the end twitching for more. Furthermore, the climax is so subdued, although beautifully staged, that it feels like a big let down given everything that has been building up towards it. But at a humble £10, you definitely get your money’s worth, even if you’d like to stay longer or wanted a bit more from the event’s apex.

The Boy Who Climbed Out Of His Face: Official Trailer

Production

With Shunt’s emphasis on senses and how their theatre can make you feel, it’s no surprise that the quality of production and attention to aesthetics is superlative. Everything from lighting, set, costume, and even optical illusions, all work in tight cooperation with every other component and is as essential as the last. It all works perfectly in unison to create a netherworld of madness that makes Alice’s trip through the looking glass seem like a stroll around Ikea.

Visually there are more than a couple of incredibly arresting visuals that become images that will really stick with you. This is set design at it’s most ambitious but also most artistic, with some scenes that are as high-quality and striking of those in large scale operas. There’s some particularly good use of lighting, sound, and video throughout, demonstrating that Shunt aren’t scared of experimenting with different mediums to create a truly unique world.

Most interesting is bringing the sense of touch to the fray. By asking all audience members to remove their shoes and their socks, what you feel with your feet is just as quintessential. But this is also a very clever experiment on forcing an audience out of their comfort zone by heightening how they perceive the world around them, and making them do something that you wouldn’t do anywhere else.

Cast

Whilst difficult to say much without giving much away, Shunt has an indefatigable cast that are as intense as the production itself. They make an effort to thrill and disturb as excellently as the rest of the show. But you also get the feeling that they’re willing to push themselves as performers in their roles as much as the production pushes the audience, making them as integral and as striking as any other part of this experiment.

Verdict

If you want something unique and off-the-wall, then you’ll love this. If you want something more traditional, then you’ll probably loathe it. Go with an open mind (and possibly some Dutch courage) and experience one of the most exciting and different pieces of theatre that London has to offer. Short, contained, and intense, this is the sideshow reinvented for the 21st Century and Generation WTF. Terrifying and intoxicating, this is the stuff of both dreams and nightmares.

The Boy Who Climbed Out Of His Face will run at The Jetty, London, SE10 0FL, from 14 August – 28 September 2014. Tickets are £10. To book, visit www.barbican.org.uk. For more information about Shunt and the production, visit www.shunt.co.uk.


Review: Revolution Farm (Newham City Farm, London)

 

Andreas Angelis (centre) as Smoothy and Nicola Alexis (right) as Daddy Love. Photograph: Courtesy of www.broadwayworld.com.

Andreas Angelis (centre) as Smoothy, and Nicola Alexis (right) as Daddy Love. Photograph: Courtesy of http://www.broadwayworld.com.


Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

Visceral and twisted, this bold reworking of Orwell’s masterpiece is supported by a savage cast.

Overview

The animals are revolting. Tired of their lot, the animals take over their farm by force. But after the death of Old Boy who led the first revolution, a new and dangerous regime has crept in.

This modern adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm  uses modern language and imagery to explore just how relevant Orwell’s text is today in the wake of social unrest and austerity. The company, Community Links, also involves the participation of local school children throughout.

Writing

James Kenworth’s adaptation is as raw and ready as they come. The dialogue employs common vocabulary and slang instead of any eloquence or clever wording. Yet Kenworth loses nothing by doing so, and if anything makes it more vibrant. Whilst all the main characters and plot points are there, what this modern setting does is help you connect it so much more readily to the current socio-political climate, often scraping a little too close to home truths. For example, the younger animals berating education and opting for ignorance becomes particularly unnerving, especially when it’s performed by Newham’s young residents themselves. It’s overall a pretty brutal and certainly strikes all the chords that the original book had meant to.

Kenworth has also adapted the novel well for the space. Whilst the ‘humans’ are completely cut from appearing and the battles only suggested they are far from absent. It means that their significance in the tale is still present, but means the production doesn’t labour itself in doing something which it wouldn’t be able to execute properly for want of a bigger cast and production resources.

Direction & Production

Director James Martin Charlton does well to pilot the show around the small farm spaces, including the picnic area, the barn, and a paddock, making good use within these spaces to separate characters to create distance and enmity between characters as well as closeness and intimacy.

However, the production as a whole results in the only main criticism of the show: it starts to drag noticeably towards the end. Promenade performances are always prone to suffering from a dipping of pace due to the nature of needing to break the momentum by moving actors and audience around. But the bareness of the production doesn’t help matters. There are moments where lighting and sound design could help keep the atmosphere and the tension going, as well as colour the performance spaces better to bring out an aesthetic engagement. However, it’s possible that these things are simply not doable due to the constraints of the production’s budget and/or the venue itself. But it is a bit frustrating because, when you imagine the show being done in a more traditional theatre with the same cast and text but more scope for production, you can see the potential for Kenworth’s adaptation to be even more thrilling than it currently is.

Otherwise, Ian Teague’s costume’s are wonderfully twisted. Face paint, hoodies, and masks distort the faces of the cast into some uneasy hybrid of modern masked vigilantes and animals. Indeed, sometimes you do wonder whether Kenworth’s characters are actually animals like they are in the book, or a disguised angry young human mob. Again, this really helps the connection of Orwell’s themes to a more modern day relevance, but also serves for quite a dramatic transformation of the pigs into humans, especially given the casts physical performance abilities.

Kevin Kinson (left) as Warrior, and Katie Arnstein (right) as Lil' Monster. Photograph: Courtesy of www.broadwayworld.com.

Kevin Kinson (left) as Warrior, and Katie Arnstein (right) as Lil’ Monster. Photograph: Courtesy of http://www.broadwayworld.com.


Cast

Chartlon and his team have done an excellent job of finding a troupe of professional actors to act alongside the community’s youth for this production. Particularly, their physical performance abilities are striking. If Teague’s costumes didn’t already make the cast look enough like modern half-human half-beast atrocities, the way the cast twitch, grunt and snort in such a base and animalistic manner will have you questioning the nature of the creatures beneath the masks. In fact, they’re so absorbing to watch, that you quickly forget the idiosyncrasies of the venue, such as the rather out of place ping-pong table, and forgive the bareness of the production as it’s them that you become engrossed in.

At the same time, they are also all particularly powerful actors who’ve really embraced Kenworth’s vision: they’re as slick , streetwise, and energetic as the students they perform alongside. Particular mention must go to Kevin Kinson, as Warrior, who’s brute force in presence, voice, and physicality really drives the show. He also brings a sweet tenderness in his chemistry with Katie Arnstein, as Lil’ Monster, teasing out a more human side to Orwell’s dystopic catastrophe. Furthermore, Nicola Alexis, as Daddy Love, revels marvellously in her role as the smarmy and charismatic leader figure. She comes across consistently psychotic and dangerous, oozing rabid megalomania through every inch of her body and vocals, and frighteningly, in her eyes also.

It’s also great to see Community Links working with the local populace to be involved in a professional production. The enthusiasm of the younger members, particularly those playing the hens and dogs, really pays off and makes them feel as valuable an asset to the production as the professional actors.

Verdict

Kenworth’s inspired and brutal adaptation is both bold and powerful, especially when executed by this savage cast. The novelty of seeing the show on an actual  farm quickly turns into a deep immersion in a relevant and disconcerting take on Orwell’s revered cautionary satire.

Revolution Farm plays at Newham City Farm, London, E6 5LT, until 24 August 2014. Tickets are £10 (concessions available, £5 for Newham residents). To book, visit www.revolutionfarm.ticketsource.co.uk.


Camden Fringe Review: Ernie (Tristan Bates Theatre, London)

James Craze as Ernie.

James Craze as Ernie. Photograph: Courtesy of End of the Line Theatre.

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

An irrepressibly charming biography of heart and honesty, bolstered with an exceptional performance.

Overview

Ernie Hort is a man who believed he’s done little of any worth, describing himself as, “just the guy next door”. But none the less, we’re taken through his life from growing up in the poor East End of London on the outbreak of World War II, to his enrolment and service in the navy. Hort’s biography is written and performed by his own real life grandson, James Craze. As Craze takes us through his grandfather’s life, we’re introduced to the dozens of different characters that Ernie met during his lifetime.

Writing

What’s so refreshing about how this play portrays Ernie’s life is just how frank and non-sensational it is. In a year where many theatres are remembering the horrors of the First World War, it’s nice to see a more matter-of-fact and less dramatic account and military life and conflict. But that’s not to say the piece is without interest and climax; Ernie gives his accounts of nights in bomb shelters, the ambush on the flotilla his corps were escorting, and getting chased by an angry and violent mob in Egypt. Its just that nothing is embellished or told with a view to be provocative. It’s just a man, casually going through the facts, regaling his achievements and revelling in memory. Beneath all this is a humour and honesty that is irrepressibly charming. Everything about the play feels very real and personal. Craze, through his writing and performance, makes it effortless to connect and empathise with his grandfather and his life.

Craze’s writing also ensures that the show never feels like granddad drolling on to himself. He introduces myriad characters that Ernie knew and interacted with. Although all performed by Craze and Craze alone, the play is brimming with a full West-End sized cast that interacts with our hero, making the text as dynamic and as electric as they come, making this a solo show in name only. The only criticism  is that Ernie’s accounts are so ‘as is’ that you’re aching to know about what else happened. What japery did he and his comrades get up to in Hong Kong? What was the first kiss with his wife-to-be like? Did the cocky Scotsman ever get what was coming to him? It’s at these points you realise that you’re completely hooked, and by the time the hour is up it feels as if you’ve be sat down for mere minutes. Despite Ernie, in his own words, “never climbing any mountains or contributing to modern medical science”, for 60 minutes he is the most fascinating person you’ve ever met.

James Craze as Ernie. Photograph: Courtesy of End of the Line Theatre.

James Craze. Photograph: Courtesy of End of the Line Theatre.

Performance

Craze’s performance is also one of the most astonishing on the London stage right now. He is one of the most dexterous and talented physical performers in London. He not only snaps between characters in the blink of an eye, but is always completely unrecognisable from the last. He masterfully exaggerates small little quips and ticks in voice and physicality to glorious effect, making him distinct in every person he becomes, whilst simultaneous still leaving an impression of the last in the air around him. As well as tackling over 30 characters with an insatiable energy and stamina,  Craze is a performer that knows that the devil is in the detail, and this is what makes his performance incredible. I could have almost sworn he was an actual man of many years when he first came on stage, and after flipping 70 years into the past become a younger Ernie, I then watched him almost literally grow older before my eyes. It’s an absolutely magical feat, making this a performance that is utterly inescapable. Not only has Craze written a well paced and engrossing text, his performance is so ecstatic it’s addictive.

Production

There isn’t a director, per se, as Craze himself making the space his own, darting around it making good use of the space’s depth and width. But he is supported by a superlative production consisting of Sara Huxley and Alex Jordan’s lighting and sound designs. With nothing more than a chair, a couple of costumes, and an old crate, their audio and lighting beautifully colour the show. They’ve a keen eye for artistry and aesthetic that elevates the show even further beyond Craze’s exceptional performance. Lighting changes, such as the soft spot down-lighting for Neville Chamerblain’s declaration of war to a well timed black out, are genuinely striking. They demonstrate that Huxley and Jordan are not a production team that are content with doing the minimum, but find ways to actively augment Craze’s work.

Verdict

Ernie is inescapable and indescribable in person and in text. Seldom does writing, performance, and production come together so perfectly to create something so astounding. You’ll leave the auditorium dizzy and elated, as well as with a small lump in your throat. An enthralling, personal, and heartfelt show like no other.

Ernie plays at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London, WC2H 9NP, until 23 August 2014 as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. Tickets are £10 (concessions available). To book, visit www.camdenfringe.com.


Camden Fringe Review: Go! A Mini Disaster Musical (Phoenix Artist Club, London)

GoRating: **

In A Nutshell

Clichéd characters, bewildering musical numbers, and tawdry innuendo distract from moments of the otherwise nuanced pathos of a powerful songstress.

Overview

Flight GO999 takes off, but never makes it to its intended destination. Seven characters on board the flight, both passengers and crew, relate to us in song their lives, aspirations, and libidos.

I feel quite bad about giving this such a bad review, especially as cabaret star and creator of this piece, Nikki Aitken, allowed me to review the production after I’d contacted her directly to do so as the blurb sparked my interest. However, I can’t bring myself other than to be honest about this show, so here goes.

Book

After Mile High – The Musical I have been left thinking that there is very little more that anyone can prise out of airline comedies. Unfortunately, Aitken has not managed to make me disparage this opinion.

Characters are generally clichéd: posh English gent it posh and English, loud American gal is American and loud, and oversexed “mincing” gay air steward is still the irritating stereotype that we’re apparently still defaulting to for comedy. The attempt at humour mostly falls flat. For the most part it relies of a few snippets of innuendo that’s a cross between some budget Pam Ann and a Great British Bake Off soggy bottom. Otherwise, we’re expected to find jokes in the characters that are over the top, unbelievable, and less than compelling.

Yet there are a few flits of depth here and there. Aitken’s momentary pause to explore the failed relationship and charisma of said English gent is actually quite sweet and enchanting, with traces of nuanced pathos. As is another character’s exasperation about her Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which is pursued with quirk and interest: a genuinely human look at living with such a condition. But otherwise, there’s little to go on that engages. It seems Aitken works best when she’s not trying to be funny and actually trying to find a degree of humanity in what she’s doing.

The plot development is scant and implausible, lacking drama or drive. It makes a quick landing before it even gets a chance to take off. Even the salvation from the mild peril our characters are placed in doesn’t really lead to much or instigate any substantial arousal.

Songs

Much like the book, the songs are mostly misses with a few hits. There’s a boringly burlesque song about a baggage-handler in love, a bewildering romp through the airline’s safety demonstrating, and a Black Box a la Barry White soul number. But again, coinciding with the flits of character exploration as mentioned above, there are a couple of solid songs that reflect a more pensive and insightful side to Aitken’s intelligence. There are even moments of musical originality, in the form of melodic quips and less than ordinary turns of phrases, marking Aitken out as someone who has talent somewhere among all this.

Performance

Aitken certainly has a voice. When she lets rip you really know about it. It’s her singing talent that’s the most sure-fire thing about this production: a testament to the reputation she’s garnered.

However, her ability to portray multiple characters in quick succession doesn’t measure up to her vocal prowess. She doesn’t have the physical acumen to create the tangible detail that would define and personify the characters she’s trying to channel. At some points, it wasn’t clear who she’s playing, not helped by the fact that sometimes Aitken would remain stationary through several characters changing only her voice, rather than trying to embed herself in the spaces that her characters would otherwise be in. If the personality of the characters didn’t endear enough to begin with, it’s hard enough to believe that they have manifested in the theatre space.

Verdict

It’s a real shame that Go! A Mini Disaster Musical hasn’t worked as there is evidence that Aitken could achieve something much better. But whilst writing comedy musical theatre may not be her calling, her powerful voice, small peeks at a keen poignancy, and moments of musical originality, means that she won’t be a performer as forgettable as this show.

Go! A Mini Disaster Musical runs at the Phoenix Artist Club, London, WC2H 8BU, until 21 August 2014 as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. Tickets are £10 (concessions available). To book, visit www.camdenfringe.com.


I’m Cycling from London to Brighton for Terrence Higgins Trust

DSC_0235

Because a picture of me in my cycling gear would have likely put you off donating!

50+ miles and one hell of a hill at the end of it! I’m reviving my 2012 performance of cycling from Brighton once more, for the greater good.

So far, I’ve been cycling my little socks off training for this big event, doing 15 mile loops into work and even 50+ miles over the North Downs to get myself fit enough for this mammoth effort. Why? Charity of course (why else)! By doing this craziness I will be raising money for Terrence Higgins Trust (THT). But why them?

I’m not someone living with HIV (I’m HIV- last time I had my regular check), but that doesn’t mean I can’t or shouldn’t be supporting THT. The support they give to those living with HIV, which includes several friends of mine, is invaluable. More so, as well as being there for those who have HIV, they do myriad work and campaigning to help prevent the spread of HIV, as well as disseminating some superlative information and materials on sexual health. Although THT is heavily associated with LGBT (particularly gay men) they’re actually open to and target all genders and sexualities, so this is far from about supporting a “gay” charity because I’m gay.

So, please join me as I make it increasingly difficult for me to handle stairs, by sparing a few quid to support the fantastic work that they do. You can donate to my cycle at my Virgin Money Giving Page: www.virginmoneygiving.com/jameswaygood.

THIGHS OF STEEL, ACTIVATE!

My cycle will take place on 7 September 2014. For more information about the Terrence Higgins Trust, please visit www.tht.org.uk.


Camden Fringe Review: The Actors Nightmare (Phoenix Artists Club, London)

actors nightmareRating: ***

In A Nutshell

A nice giggly diversion of theatrical wit and heart, but steps on the jokes too much and could do with better comic pacing.

Overview

George is an understudy and has been called on to replace the lead. However, he’s not quite sure how he’s become an understudy because the last time he checked he was an accountant, not an actor. What’s more, he’s never been to a rehearsal and doesn’t even know what play he’s in: not helped by the fact that it keeps changing. Can George ever wake up from his nightmare?

Writing

I would be incredibly surprised if this play wasn’t based on actual nightmares of actual actors. For starters, this is a genuine nightmare I have myself: ending up on the stage in a production from school or university, unsure of my lines in-front of a full house! Writer Christopher Durang has very accurately made this feel like a very real bad dream, having things change on a dime with everything already jumbled up, including lines that aren’t at all in any of the plays George ends up in. What this does is give Durang a space to lovingly satire some theatrical staples, specifically Noel Coward, William Shakespeare, and Samuel Beckett. These are done incredibly wittily, especially Durang’s send-up of Coward. He teases out the foibles and idiocies of these beloved writers through George’s blunders, blending nightmare and piss-taking seamlessly at times.

However, there are moments when some of the jokes are stepped on a bit too much, specifically George’s never-ending soliloquy: after a while, you do want to end not just for George’s sake but your own. Also, the pace between skits and jokes drops a little too often. Something like this would benefit from a more rapid-fire application of the humour instead of letting the audience wind down too much between the laughs.

But otherwise, it’s a great concept and is genuinely funny. Whilst it could certainly do with some tweaking and tightening, it’s already more than halfway to being a great piece of new writing. In fact, especially given the brief 45 minutes run time, it’s a shame that Durang only limits us to the playwright’s he’s torn into here. You feel he can certainly tackle other notable writers with just as much grace and guffaws as those he already has, in a much longer play.

Direction & Production

It’s always difficult to comment on direction and production in such a sparse small space: its a challenging environment to work in, let alone comment on. But Deborah Charnley handles it really well. There is some great use of space and lighting, managing to add variety of scene and pace as well as tricking the audience into thinking that the performance space is much bigger than it is. A solid and earnest effort that really pays off firmly supporting the laughs to be had in the script.

Cast

The cast really get the jokes – which you’d hope in a play entitled The Actors Nightmare! But because of this, they really revel in them, squeezing out every bit of humour that’s already there, especially in the over-the-top portrayals of our affectionately mocked playwrights’ characters. Particularly, Amelia Owen (playing Ellen on the night I saw it) wonderfully delivered her spoken stage directions in a thick South Wales accent to wonderful effect. Lead Giovanni Bienne (playing George on the night I saw it) really comes comically into his own when frantically neurotic, making it difficult to not raise a smile throughout, as well as getting you on board the concept of this being a nightmare.

Verdict

Certainly worth dropping in if you need a good giggle for less than a tenner and an hour of your time. It might be a work that certainly has room for development and improvement, but even in it’s current state it’s still entertaining and is guaranteed to make you laugh.

The Actors Nightmare plays at the Phoenix Artist Club, London, WC2H 8BU, until 24 August 2014 as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. Tickets are £7 (concessions available). To book, visit www.camdenfringe.com.


Musical Review: Dogfight (Southwark Playhouse, London)

Laura Jane Matthewson (left) and Jamie Muscato (right). Photograph: Darren Bell.

Laura Jane Matthewson (left) and Jamie Muscato (right). Photograph: Darren Bell.

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

A forceful and energetic production of a surprising and captivating musical.

Overview

Based on the 1991 film of the same name, Peter Duchan (book) and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics) won acclaim Off-Broadway. Now, Danielle Tarento and her multi-award winning team brings the production to Europe for the first time.

US Marine Eddie is on his last night out with his comrades in San Francisco before being shipped off to Vietnam. They put together a “Dogfight” – where each marine competes to bring a date to a party, and the marine with the ugliest date wins a cash prize. Eddie thinks he’s on to a winner with Rose, but quickly sees past her frumpy veneer and connects with her sweet and docile personality. Remorsefulness of his actions, can he undo the hurt he’s caused her before he faces the horrors of ’63?

Book

Duchan’s adaptation of the film manages to combine all of it’s main elements, but also expands it to add more narrative substance and intelligence on what is otherwise a bit of a whistle-stop and slightly unbelievable story. Particularly, his lambaste of military hubris has created one of the most instantly unlikable protagonists on the stage. Brash, oversexed, and grossly arrogant, Eddie and his band of “B”s are as odious as they come. Though setting-up a rather easy juxtaposition between Eddie and Rose, Duchan exploits the vast room to explore a less direct, more humorous, heartfelt, and satisfying redemption for Eddie. There’s no fairytale transformation, but a rough and bumpy gradual change that is entertainingly convincing.

Furthermore, Duchan also manages to brutally bring the futility and tragedy of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War to the stage, as well as the ire it garnered from the American public. It explores a real sense of loss and regret that crescendos to a most devastating finale, making it brutally moving as well as adorably sweet.

The only criticism is that, having penned such a high-octane and riotous first act, Act II does slump as the narrative becomes less hectic and more tender. But thankfully, you never lose engagement with the show and are with it all the way to the end, even though you want it to move just a little quicker and as giddy as Act I during the second half.

Laura Jane Matthewson as Rose. Photograph: Darren Bell.

Laura Jane Matthewson as Rose. Photograph: Darren Bell.

Music and Lyrics

It’s easy to compare the score to Spring Awakening, especially as there have been many poor imitations since. Composers and lyricists Pasek and Paul certainly following suit with writing a score in this very American modern rock musical in style; in many ways is very comparable to Duncan Sheik’s masterpiece. However, just when you think you’ve heard it all before, Pasek and Paul put in twists in melody, style, timbre, and pace that prick up you ears and reel you right in. There are so many surprises in the music that despite it being very definite of genre,  it’s one of the freshest and original scores to come from America in a long time.

Their orchestrations and choral harmonies are part of the excitement they build into their work. Whilst these intriguing intricacies are rich and rousing, they are always used sparingly and only when it is best suited. The result is an incredibly dynamic score that goes from riotous to tender and lyrical from moment to moment, tossing the audience from wonderment to arousal with masterful strokes.

Lyrically, Pasek and Paul have an incredible grasp on language. The rhymes are seldom obvious, and words are toyed and played about with intelligent and immense wit. Most importantly, they manage to embrace a very real essence of Duchan’s characters. Flits of very homely and unembellished personality comes through every now and then, cutting through the clever language and smarts, giving us flashes of real and believable charisma. An example is Rose quipping, mid-ballad, about the bad choice in dress colour during “Pretty Funny”, which is otherwise one of the most lilting and heartbreaking songs in the whole score. Elsewhere, nothing ever feels silly, clumsy, or forced in the score. Pasek and Paul have the ability to write songs fluidly as if everyday chatter, and it’s astonishing.

Production and Direction

Tarento has done it again, despite not working with her regular partner in crime, Thom Southerland, who is in New York looking after the transfer of Titanic: The MusicalBut director, Matt Ryan, works just as well with Tarento and the rest of the team to create what is another superb production for the Southwark Playhouse. Lee Newby’s set evoking the Golden Gate Bridge sets the scene with whimsy and charm, whilst also giving the orchestra somewhere to sit and a higher level for Ryan to work with at points. But it’s main purpose is to create a sizeable thrust area as somewhere for the bulk of the action takes place. Though there’s little else by way of scenery, Newby’s set allows  Ryan to direct the show in a manner that simply allows the musical itself to do the talking, rather than the production.

Other noticeable aspects of the production is Lucie Pankhurst’s choreography. It’s as high-voltage, slick, and lively as they come. Given the relatively limited space has by no means contained Pankhurst either. Though during the large chorus numbers when there’s limited space for the 11-strong cast as there is, the performance area is filled to the brim but with an exhilarating amount of intricate moves fittingly together like some extraordinary human-Difference Engine. Newby’s attention to detail with the props and costume, too, is something of note. Laura Jane Matthewson, playing Rose, is by far an “ugly” creature, but Newby still managesd to find what is quite possibly the most hideous dress to have ever graced the stage to exaggerate Rose’s frumpiness, making Matthewson look less like Alice in Wonderland and more like Alice in Primark!

Whilst Ryan fills the space action and energy around the various props that are brought in, there are times where he doesn’t quite handle the thrust space entirely well. If you’re sat on the sides you’ll see mostly a character’s back for significant periods of times. There are some very basic directional attempts to try and overcome this, such as sing to this side first then turn and sing to this side, but it’s still a bit of irk to be left to admire an actors back pocket for too long. Whilst it really is difficult to avoid completely, these moments could probably be contained and limited a bit better.

The only other criticism is the sound levels. There are more than a few moments where it’s difficult to hear Pasek and Paul’s great lyrics because it’s drowned out by the level of the band. It’s difficult to know whether this is because of an inability to adjust the sound properly or because of the problems that come with the intimate size of the venue. Whilst the band and the performers are all mic-ed up, part of the problem is that the audience are still getting the sound of the natural acoustic sound that the band makes. This is something which isn’t necessary going to be picked up by the sound engineers who will be listening mostly to just what’s being picked up by the mics. But hopefully this will be corrected in the next few performances because, unless you’re already familiar with the score, you miss out on some of the brilliance of the songs.

Jamie Muscato as Eddie. Photograph: Darren Bell.

Jamie Muscato as Eddie. Photograph: Darren Bell.

Cast

Tarento has managed to find a superlative cast for the production. Making her debut, Matthewson is sensational. Not only has she got a voice that is both soft and powerful at the same time, she portrays Rose in such a sweet and naive manner that it’s impossible not to love her. See draws instant empathy from the audience making you cheer her on every step of the way, as well as struggle to get through “Pretty Funny” with anything less than a tear in your eye.

Jamie Muscato as Eddie is also absolutely fantastic. His ability to make every song his own is nothing short of marvellous, never being afraid to break from singing and actually act moments of a number. His big solo, “Come Back”, is not only an apex of the show but the height of his performance. He sings it with a crushing and deafening force that is worthy of every possible accolade that can be thrown at him.

Special mention must go to Rebecca Trehearn as Marcy, too. Her duet with Matthewson in “Dogfight” was sang with an incredible rawness and spite that made the number absolutely exhilarating.

The rest of the supporting cast are also brilliant, throwing every inch of energy they can muster into the show to create a piece of theatre that has the Southwark Playhouse vibrating with force. No-one sings flat or sharp, no-one feels like they’re dragging their feet, and everyone feels as integral and vital to the production as the show’s leads.

Verdict

Tarento has once again demonstrated that she’s a formidable producer to be reckoned with, with an exceptional cast and production behind her. Plus, this is a new American musical that could only have been fresher and more original if it came foil-packed. This production absolutely blows the mundane fare of Theatreland clear out of the water, and should have the West End shaking in it’s boots. A barnstorming and phenomenal show.

Dogfight plays at the Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1 6BD, utnil 13 September 2014. Tickets are £22 (concessions available). TO book, visit http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk.


Camden Fringe Review: Ladylogue! (Tristan Bates Theatre, London)

Rhiannon Story in "Cake" by Maud Dromgoole. Photograph: Vincent Rowley Photography.

Rhiannon Story in “Cake” by Maud Dromgoole. Photograph: Vincent Rowley Photography.


Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

A wide selection of hilarious, challenging, and heartbreaking plays on female identity and womanhood executed with grace, variety, and interest.

Overview

Tired of the gender imbalance in British theatre writing, The Thelmas – director Madelaine Moore and producer Rhiannon Story – have given six of the UK’s most formidable female writers the carte blanche of writing a short play for a solo female actor. The result is an interesting mix of love, loathing, obsession, loneliness, and courage that explore womanhood, femininity, and female identity.

Cake, by Maud Dromgoole

Opening the hour was probably one of my least favourite. But that’s not to say it’s the weakest, or that it’s badly written or produced; it’s just the most challenging. Dromgoole’s Year 9 teenage girl blurs the line between feminism and sexism – spurning her teenage-mother friend for tying herself down with a child, whilst giving into dizzy infatuation over a 15 year old boy and imagining herself as a subordinate “good wife”. Although, the general tone of the piece is comic, strong sexist language and submissive sexual imagery makes it dark and uncomfortable at points. Whilst it does make you think about how modernism is defined and portrayed to young women, it’s a little difficult to wholly connect in how uneasy it makes you feel, especially when other audience members are laughing at these more twisted moments when they probably really shouldn’t be!

Rhiannon Story acts out the role with a real youthful electricity, both in her energy and her body language. Even if she can’t quite cream the butter for her cake on stage properly, she exudes a fizzing personality that she uses to bounce off the audience, making them feel very much a part of Droomgoole’s character’s world.

Candyman, by Tina Jay

Again, whilst by no means is badly written or produced, this is another of my least favourites because it’s the least surprising. It tells the story of an older single woman who becomes obsessed with a male escort. But Jay’s character-centric approach to the subject lifts it from being ordinary. It really is a no-holes barred look at one woman’s unhealthy obsession with the idea of a perfect gentleman that she is literally buying into. The erotic is mixed seamlessly with the remorseful, and although we do get a hint of dangerous desperation towards the end, her character is natural and real, never becoming a person that is sensationalised or exaggerated. Despite the extreme situation the narrative has placed her in, she’s not the crazy or deranged spinster which she so easily could have been, she’s a character of human depth and reality.

This is bolstered by a superb performance by Louise Templeton. She constantly fidgets and twitches with addiction and anticipation whilst emanating a slick and devilish “cougar” quality, all juxtaposed with a devastating vulnerability. A superlatively tragic femme-fatale if I ever saw one.

Sukh Ojlah in "Coconut" bu Gulereeane Mir. Photograph: Vincent Rowley Photography.

Sukh Ojla in “Coconut” by Guleraana Mir. Photograph: Vincent Rowley Photography.


Coconut, by Guleraana Mir

Cultural identity is a difficult enough subject to brooch without bringing cultural perceptions of womanhood into the equation. However, Mir manages to tackle these head-on and with a crystal-tipped wit and honesty that makes this monologue one of the most uproariously laugh-out-loud segments of the evening. Mir’s tale of the perils of being a late-twenties Pakistani “coconut” (brown on the outside, white on the inside) is blunt to the point of hilarity. The wry observations of the people and the perceptions surrounding her character are brazen but bristles with the humour that can only be found in a fondness and affection. Whilst there isn’t any “happy ending” per se, it’s an incredible and heart-warming look at culture vs. femininity that is enlightening as it is rib-tickling.

Sukh Ojla demonstrates her ability as a barnstorming comic actress. Her timing and timbre is enough to put some comedians to shame. She exalts the comedy of Mir’s text with real gusto, but also with a real connection and empathy. If it wasn’t for the programme notes, you’d have been fooled into thinking that Ojla had actually written this herself given the organic ownership she takes of the performance.

ELLA_O’MALLEY_AUDITION.MOV, by Katie McCullough

Body image is a subject that is littered with a lot of extreme and sensational stories. Yet McCullough, through her character, has crafted a monologue that brings a quiet and heartbreaking humanity back to the issue. It starts off somewhat comic, with her character finding a cheerfully sweet sense of self-deprecation about her weight. But as she begins to open up, we start to see a darker more destructive side to the damage body image can do to someone. It soon becomes a crushing account of how low and emotionally destroyed body fascism can bring someone, and is touching to the point of tears. The framing device of Ella making an audition tape cleverly puts the audience in the place of invisible voyeurs – ever prying whilst distant and detached, augmenting Ella’s sense of isolation through judgemental peers.

Jayne Edwards gives a wonderfully natural performance as Ella. Her portrayal of the distraught state she’s been bullied into is incredibly raw and affecting, leaving the audience haunted.

Danielle Nott in "Take A Look At Me Now" by Serena Haywood. Photograph: Vincent Rowley Photography.

Danielle Nott in “Take A Look At Me Now” by Serena Haywood. Photograph: Vincent Rowley Photography.


Take A Look At Me Now, by Serena Haywood

Haywood, who’s show Pause was a tremendous success at last year’s Camden Fringe Festival, presents something a little more light-hearted and completely unhinged for Ladylogue!. Her character is preparing for the ultimate imaginary date with Phil Collins in the comfort of her own living room. Absolutely mad cap, there are some side-splittingly funny jokes and quips in this over-the-top examination of female romance and sexual fantasy. Haywood’s handle of one-liners, including a spot of “dildo-blindess”, are supreme and really give the piece a fire-cracker quality. But what’s great is that, despite how outrageous it is, Haywood still manages to find a relatable sanity, especially in the slightly darker undercurrent of her character being driven to this mania through the small cruelties of her previous partner. But otherwise, it’s tender, truthful, and completely nuts!

Danielle Nott also gives an incredibly energetic and adorable performance that’s hilarious to watch. Her movement and voice are wonderfully exuberant, delivering a brilliantly comic performance

I Would Be Brave, by Sarah Hehir

Undoubtedly the most different and serious piece of the evening. Hehir’s glance at domestic violence from the viewpoint of a concerned neighbour with limited resources to help is original and moving. Making this particularly powerful is that her character, whilst trying to do her best in a culture that would rather leave others to themselves, is having to face the realities of her own health and relationship. Hehir writes with a deft and colourful poetry that vividly paints scene and emotion through her words, making it incredibly as engrossing to listen to as to watch being performed. There are also some powerful little bits of imagery, like the wall at the end of the lane blocking off the rest of the world, fortifying the feeling of the intense microcosm that the character finds herself in. It’s these touches that really elevate the short into being a complex and intelligent piece of writing. There is a good deal of ambiguity that runs throughout, leaving the audience to ponder and wonder about some of the things that are unsaid but also, more importantly, why they’re being unsaid. But it does mean that it’s a little unsatisfying as these are never tied-up in any conclusion. Otherwise, it’s an incredibly different and emotive piece.

Amanda Reed’s performance/recitation is prefect. She trips dexterously through the metre and language of Hehir’s poetry whilst exerting a strong character and presence on the stage. It’s impossible to think of any better casting for this monologue.

Verdict

A varied and exuberantly entertaining evening of some brilliant new writing. Whilst some pieces are more original and accessible than others, the bar set by these “ladies who ‘logue” is as dizzying and astonishing as the pieces they’ve produced.

Ladylogue! runs at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London, WC2H 9NP, until 16 August 2014 as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. Tickets are £12 (concessions available). To book visit www.camdenfringe.com.


Opinion: See the Best Theatre in London (Members Only)

Pay up, pay up, for the greatest show in London!

Pay up, pay up! For the greatest show in London!

Benedict Cumberbatch has sold out. I’m not talking artistically; I’m talking about the fact that, in less than a day, the Barbican’s production of Hamlet has been absolutely booked-up. Tickets to see Cumberbatch’s last London foray at the National Theatre in Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein were also rather difficult to get hold of. But the story of tickets selling quicker than a flash of summer lightning is not a new one. Gillian Anderson is also currently cramming in the punters at the Young Vic, contributing to what has been the fastest selling show in London’s theatre history, David Tennant caused a booking frenzy when he visited the capital with his interpretation of Hamlet, and James McAvoy in Macbeth meant you had to possibly commit regicide yourself to get in on the show.

So how does one go about procuring some of London’s hottest tickets? The answer: pay up!

Friends With Benefits

Many theatres have membership schemes. These are where you make a yearly “gift” to get a certain amount of extras as a thank you for financially supporting the venue. The most valuable of these benefits is priority booking. This is when these exclusive members get the chance to book seats before the rest of the plebs fight it out.

And it’s not just theatre that offer this priority perk either. The British Film Institute (BFI) also has a membership scheme which really comes into its own for the London Film and Flare (formerly London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival) festivals, where being a member is really the only way you’ll be a good shot at tickets for almost all their showings. Even mobile carrier O2 offers priority ticket allocations for its customers for events at its music/entertainment venues, meaning free mobile-to-mobile calls between pretty much everyone at Kate Bush’s upcoming tour.

A Costly Relationship

So if you really want to be sure to get tickets, committing yourself to a theatre is probably the best way to go. But how much will it cost you?

Well, that really depends on the theatre and how good a “friend” you want to be. The National Theatre has the cheapest basic membership that offers priority booking, at a mere £15 per year. But then, membership fees for higher tiers and other theatres can go for £100 or more. More philanthropic members of the public can even purchase packages for up to £50,000 (Almeida)!

But it’s worth it to be able to get those hot “tiks”, right?

“La membri teatro è mobile!”

Membership only gives you a better chance of getting seats by offering this priority period. Despite being part of an exclusive crowd that has first dibs, there are still stories of members having to fight for tickets among themselves, with servers and booking lines become so overload that they go down even when it’s just the presumably exclusive few who are able to book. Members who have been unable to get tickets during these priority periods, due to the theatre or member priority allocation selling out, then have battle it out with the rest of the public during the general booking period: sometimes ending up with no tickets at all.

Therefore, some theatres, like the Barbican, Donmar Warehouse, and Old Vic, have extra priority booking periods for members who are able to buy into a higher tier of membership, from £65 (Old Vic) upwards to £350 (Donmar Warehouse). So if you really want to get those seats, you’re looking at paying an additional up to two, three, or nearly ten times more per year than the actual ticket price itself for that extra level of chance.

James McAvoy and Claire Foy as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Photograph: Courtesy of the Ambassador Theatre Group.

James McAvoy and Claire Foy as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Photograph: Courtesy of the Ambassador Theatre Group.

I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Off The Stage

Part of the problem is that theatres and productions keep pulling in big acting names and causing massive box-office pandemoniums. It’s a marketing ploy and one that works. Create a hype, get someone involved that everyone’s going to want to see, and the show is a sell-out success even before the critics can get a sniff at the actual quality of direction, production, or in some cases, the play itself. The reliance on having a renowned star in a show is becoming a bit of a bore and a cynical exercise. A production doesn’t need a celebrity to be brilliant. Shakespeare in Love currently on in the West End is getting rave reviews despite no big-name brands appearing in it. Famously, when Tennant was unable to make several performances for Hamlet, his understudy, Edward Bennett, did a fantastic job receiving standing ovations, and was arguably a bigger smash than the Dr. Who actor himself.

But to suggest that the resolution to this problem is to keep the stars off the stage is an unfair one. Many of them can offer just as nuanced and interesting an interpretation of a character as any other professional actor, and should be free to do so. To disallow them to play these roles would be a loss to theatre, especially as many of today’s TV and film stars steeled their craft on the stage to begin with, and in many cases have really added something to a show that is unique and incredible. Whilst they should be allowed to appear on London’s stages, their presence really isn’t helping the situation.

A Costly Compromise

Memberships to artistic ventures and venues are nothing new, and have been around for decades as a way of supporting theatres and the work they do. These days, with sweeping funding cuts to the arts, theatres are having to rely more on the kindness of strangers (well, “Friends”) to enable them to continue putting our some rather marvellous shows. Theatres like the Old Vic have even taken to auctioning props on eBay to make up the funds they need. It might seem greedy on the surface, especially given the number of critical and sell-out hits they’ve had, but there are huge costs involved in putting on shows. For all the success and money the public see being poured into the theatre from ticket sales, there’s a lot more going out of it then you’d realise.

But what this creates is a very sad and uneasy compromise. The most anticipated and sought after theatre is becoming a thing that only those who can afford membership, particular the higher tears, can get a decent change of accessing. With London theatre officially having a bigger audience than the Premier League, you begin to realise the potential amount of theatre goers who will end up being priced out of seeing some great shows, especially if they don’t have they the tenacity and sheer luck needed during the general booking period.

Whilst the fringe still, and always will, offer some brilliant shows for much more reasonable prices, actors like Cumberbatch, Anderson, Tennant, and McAvoy shouldn’t be kept merely at the pleasure of those who can cough up the cash. They should be able to be seen by everyone.

Smiley happy members having fun. Photograph: Courtesy of Ambassador's Theatre Group.

Smiley happy members having fun. Photograph: Courtesy of Ambassador Theatre Group.

Members Only

It’s difficult situation to come up with a solution to. Limit the number of membership priority seats and/or stymie the priority booking period and you get a lot of disgruntled people who have paid-up for nought, causing theatres to lose that level of commitment and funding. Without the reliance on those who can act as such mini-philanthropists, we would probably lose some of our best theatres and wouldn’t be able to even have imagined productions such as Frankenstein, A Streetcar Named Desire, Hamlet, or Macbeth. Celebrity stars are unfortunately a key ingredient to ensure a production actually makes money rather than run at a loss and/or close prematurely (usually), so getting rid of those won’t solve things either. But without trying to give the general public more and fairer opportunities to get to see these shows, theatre may well become the playground for the relatively wealthy, enjoying an elitism that has stereotypically been seen as the reserve of opera.

But that’s not to say theatres are at all giving up on the general more cash-strapped public. Many still offer discount and low-cost tickets for shows. But these seem to be getting fewer, not because their allocation is shrinking but because their demand is growing. You just need to get up early enough to see the lengthy queues forming as early as 7am for returns and day tickets for some productions. Even broadcasting theatre to cinemas, another well-meaning and noble way of opening up the accessibility and increasing an audience outside of auditoriums, feels like a cheap consolation prize. In reality, you’re pretty much seeing a film and not a theatre show: it’s just not the same. It’s great that theatres are still looking to cater to those on lower budgets, but the truth is that, for want of trying, the provisions are becoming rather inadequate.

It’s a tricky conundrum, but one that should probably be seriously considered in order to keep theatre for everyone, even if there isn’t an immediate answer. This is made more pertinent when theatre groups, such as the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), have come under intense scrutiny about how they make their money recently.

But ultimately, there are a lot of people who would have liked to have seen Cumberbatch play the Prince of Denmark but lost out because they couldn’t pay for priority booking: not just because of a lack of availability. Theatre shouldn’t be proud of this.


Camden Fringe Review: Miraculi (Tristan Bates Theatre, London)

s1Rating: ****

In A Nutshell:

A crushingly human Zeitgeist on a world displaced, though bold physical theatre distracts from solid writing.

Overview

Lampedusa is an island that is officially the southernmost point of Europe, located in the Mediterranean Sea and politically part of Italy. For the past 20 years, as well as tourists, the local population has witnessed a growing increase in the number of refugees and immigrants coming to the island, using it as a foot-in-the door to Europe. However, not all of them make it to the island and those who are there live in limbo. After spending three years of research on Lampedusa, Théâtre Senza, led by Valentina Zagaria, has created this collaboratively devised piece, forging accounts and of the locals, holiday makers, and the migrants into bold physical theatre.

Writing

There’s a wonderful depth, humour, and honesty that the company employs here. They manages to find really human and truthful aspects about the people and stories they’re depicting, blending joviality and affection seamlessly with desperation and remorse. Despite some of the issues with the physical stylisation (see below), you can still get a certain scope and real grasp of the characters in the play, making them feel like there are real people behind them. It’s these personable insights into life disrupted and displaced on Lampedusa that make for shocking and troubling viewing. As the humdrum collides with the horrific, they create a forceful and brutal portrait of this community caught in the middle of a tourist boom and humanitarian crisis, struggling to come to terms and adjust to their lot. It’s a stark reminder that whilst there’s plenty of dramatic world events covered by the news, we sometimes forgot or not notice the other atrocities that continue regardless, affecting things beyond the sensations we’re let to see.

The framing device of the local community preparing for their Madonna procession adds direction and drive, but does seem a little superfluous, as the diverse and myriad stories introduced to the fray have little connection to this. Given that the procession itself is the apex of the production, it does dull the impact of everything else a little.

Direction & Production

The most interesting and complicated aspect to Miraculi  is the stylistic approach to the scenes. Directing, Zagaria does well the create an ethereal landscape the flits from comedy to tragedy, evoking emotion and scene through sound, movement, and lighting dramatically: from the cramped square of light that represent the human-stuffed hold of an immigrant ship, to using height to represent the global politicians that bray and bargain over the situation in Lampedusa. She also makes great use of the space with minimal and minimalist effort. Using nothing but five black boxes and a few bits of colour clothing and materials, she conjures up everything from an army training ground, to rocky beaches, and political podiums, using all three dimensions of the performance space – width, depth, and height: sliding and constructing a world using only these featureless boxes and the cast’s bodies.

But at the same time, it’s the stylisation that takes a little away from the show’s success. With the solid writing, and some brilliant sound effects from both created by the cast and recorded sound, makes the play more of an aural affair than visual. The physical theatre, though earnest and bold, does sometimes cause a detachment from the subject matter: the movement feeling a little too inorganic to the text or too ostentatious. With very few visual climaxes to go on, bar a chilling scatter of colourful clothing washed ashore from a wreck, Miraculi could really work as well, if not better, as a radio play. The impetus on sound, and the piece’s detailed and honest characterisations, means you could close your eyes for the entire play and still be shaken by it.

Senza-Shoot1917Cast

Zagaria’s cast are all very talented physical performers harvested from an international pallet. The physical signifying traits of individual characters are very well executed helping them to quickly throw themselves from one person to another, creating a living and thriving town of inhabitants alien and local, without so much of a lick of hesitation. But sometimes, they can sometimes stop you connecting with characters as they just seem that bit too unreal. Particularly there’s a juxtaposition of accents, whether purposeful or unintentional, that can jar you away from the scene a little. But overall, it’s the same criticism that the physical theatre can take away from the engagement with the text. They’re all very good at what they do, but they manage to drive little wedges between you and the subject with their physical charisma and prowess.

Verdict

The fact that it’s a piece of physical theatre rather than something more natural stops Miraculi from being brilliant. It’s not that the physical theatre is bad: far from it. It’s just that it’s not completely effective here. But none the less, this is an important, stark, and arresting piece of writing about refugeeism and a community in turmoil that absolutely deserves to be seen regardless of its faults.

Miraculi played at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London, WC2H 9NP, from 4 – 9 August 2014 as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. For more information about the festival, visit www.camdenfringe.com.


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