Tag Archives: Camden Fringe 2014

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.

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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.


Camden Fringe Review: The Five Stages of Waiting (Tristan Bates Theatre, London)

five stages of waitingRating: *****

In A Nutshell:

A devastatingly funny and human play that finds sublime humour in all the wrong places, and heartbreaking tenderness in all the right ones.

Overview

Liz, Jen, and Sara’s mother is in hospital: she has a brain tumour. As they come together in these unfortunate circumstances in the hospital waiting room at various stages of their mother’s care, their separate ways collide in an environment of anxiety and uncertainty. What reconciliation can they make in themselves with their mother’s possible death on the horizon? And when is it not ok to laugh?

Writing

Caro Dixey is a writer that I’ve had on my radar for some time, having been wowed by her short plays previously. Therefore it’s great to see her full-length writing faring just as well. What I’ve always loved about Dixey’s writing is just how upfrontly human it is. She manages to get right into the real heart and nature of personalities and the human condition, portraying them on stage in such a natural and effortless way.

Here, Dixey’s talent is finding a pitch-black humour alongside tender observations in everything from the mundane to the maudlin is supreme. It’s all executed with an incredible honesty, consistently feeling organic and never contrived. Humour wise, there are moments that are just out-rightly hilarious, even when they absolutely should not be, finding wonderful juxtaposition, absurdity, and bad jokes in sorrow and plight, playing intelligently into the understanding of an audience as an observer. But Dixey is able to dish out heartbreak just as readily using these same skills of observation and empathy: sometimes simultaneously alongside the jokes. At points, I found my jowls wobbling with laughter whilst my chin quivered with anguish. There is, in her unbelievably believable characters, a chime that can make you burst into tears as instantly as guffaw with laughter. It all stems from a savage embrace of truth and photographic considerations of human life that very few playwrights offer.

The writing is also technically brilliant, especially in using the differences in personalities of characters to subtly tease out plot and back-story form their counterparts, and well placed red herrings and ambiguities to keep you intrigued and unknowing. The pacing never drags across the play’s 90 minutes; no scene feels better panned out or lack lustre to any other. It only suffers in that, being flung from one polar feeling to another at break-neck speed, you want the play to end sooner just because you’re mentally exhausted. Dixey’s toying with the audiences sensibilities is an emotional marathon that’s just as elating as it is heartbreaking. But it’s you that flags, not the play.

Direction and Production

Sophie Moniram is a director that astutely understands Dixey’s text. Every effort has been made to make the action feel as bone-fide as the characters. She’s not afraid of making long awkward silences just that, or have people talk over each other just like they would in real life. Some of this is even employed theatrically to create a sense of tension and drama as well as a sense of reality. But most importantly, Moniram allows the cast as much time as they need to be their characters, never feeling that they’ve not been given enough space to be who they are, or cutting short what they are doing.

Henry Regan and Dixey’s production is also superlative. The set is done well enough to easily evoke a hospital waiting room, as well as quickly become the living room of the sisters’ mother’s house. But it’s the fact that it’s awash with very deliberate minutia that really is its coup de grace. Everything from the wonky wall clock to the quiet significance of the choice of Salvador Dali painting, has a place and a role even if it looks like mere dressing at first.

Cast

Dixey and Moniram could not have found a better cast for this production, with every member being fantastic. Even Pauline Menear’s short appearance as Patient is smoothly and wonderfully carried out. But it’s the three leads that are really phenomenal. It’s a real surprise when you find out that Sara Winn playing Liz, Sophie Spreadbury playing Jen, and Charlie Blackwood playing Sarah aren’t actually real life sisters. This isn’t just because they look vaguely like they could be related, but because they manage to forge an astonishing sense of on-stage sisterhood among their chemistry. They each organically embrace their characters to create performances that are completely flawless, connecting with each of their co-star’s on-stage personalities as much as they do their own.

Verdict

An astonishing piece of new writing that is perfectly executed. Dixey has proven once again that’s she’s a formidable playwright and producer in creating one of the most brutally uplifting and joyously upsetting shows of this year.

The Five Stages of Waiting plays at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London, WC2H 9NP, until 9 August 2014 as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. Tickets are £12 (concessions available). To book, visit http://tristanbatestheatre.co.uk. To find out more about the Camden Fringe Festival, visit www.camdenfringe.com.


Camden Fringe Review: The Gentlemen of Horror (Phoenix Artist Club, London)

the gentlemen of horrorRating: ****

In A Nutshell:

James Goss’s fusion of trivia and deft wit creates a charming tale of fame and friendship.

Overview

We first join Christopher Lee in a makeshift green room with Peter Cushing in 1957, working on the Hammer Horror film, The Curse of Frankenstein: Lee was Frankenstein’s monster, whilst Cushing was the titular role. From then on, we join them in the back rooms spread across various films, striking up a life-long companionship. But will their friendship last as Cushing’s lot dwindles whilst Lee rises to fame?

Writing

James Goss has had a good career in professional geekery, having looked after the BBC’s Cult website as well as writing Doctor Who audiobooks, other radio plays, and published several Whovian anthologies. But what’s great is that, turning to these two titans of the halcyon days of the British horror B-Movies, he’s managed to combine his wealth of cult trivia with a crystal-tipped but subtle wit to weave an affectionate and endearing narrative. In contriving these imaginary meetings off-set, Goss extrapolates a tale of  their friendship, careers, and families that’s as touching as they are engrossing. Pop in some wonderful pieces of knowing hindsight, and the result is a funny and ultimately charming text of quips, golfing, personal aspirations, and the quiet private lives of two acting behemoths, forming intriguing plot-points out of nuanced fandom.

The only problem is that this piece is ultimately niche. Unless you’re a fan of either Cushing, Lee, or Hammer Horror, some of the impact of the play risks being lost. Thankfully, Goss generally ensures that the characters are properly introduced, as if assuming a certain level of audience ignorance. If viewed as if a piece of fiction, there’s still plenty within the play that establishes Cushing and Lee as rounded characters complete with solid backgrounds. So, even if you haven’t a clue who they are, you still get an easy sense of what’s actually going on as well as the wider cultural significance. But still, those interested in these two characters and the films they starred in and produced will certainly get more out of the show than those who don’t.

Direction and Production

There is little by the way of production here – nothing but a coat rail, a table, and two chairs – as this is actually a play that doesn’t actually need much production at all as it’s the writing that does the talking. However, director Kate Webster does well to garnish the play with nice little touches, such as audio clips from film trailers between scenes to set up the next period the play takes place in. Webster could also have obsessed over trying to replicate the costumes and make-up from the films that both Cushing and Lee represent. For example, Lee’s Frankenstein’s monster mask is replaced by a rag-bag of bandages. Whilst the reference to Lee having to eat through a straw whilst wearing the mask sits a little at odds because of this, it ultimately doesn’t deter from the reference it’s making. It looks far better than instead using some cheap Halloween mask or trying to make do with a poor-man’s replica: better to succeed in evoking than fail in imitating.

In short, Webster has placed enough of a well-founded assurance in Goss’s text and her actors that all she needs to do is embellish a few points and chaperone things along to make this work well, which she does confidently and competently.

Cast

The problem is always going to be how do you capture the immense presence and charismas of Cushing and Lee without being second-rate emulations. The answer is, you can’t. Unfortunately, Matthew Woodcock playing Cushing, and William McGeough playing Lee, seem to be trying a little too hard at the beginning of the play, coming across a little forced: McGeough especially seeming more voice than personality. But quickly both Woodcock and McGeough start to relax and begin to become believable as people rather than trying to be mistaken for Cushing and Lee. Eventually they start to really bounce off a close sense of companionship and chemistry as mere characters, really lifting the text and doing justice to Goss’s writing, making them very sweet and cosy to watch.

Verdict

Hammer Horror fans and film-buffs will really appreciate this enjoyable riff on Cushing and Lee’s off-screen relationship. But even if you’re not endowed with encyclopaedic knowledge of the world of celluloid, this shouldn’t put you off what is otherwise a cheekily delightful and heart-warming play.

The Gentlemen of Horror plays at the Phoenix Artist Club, London, WC2H 8BU, until 7 August 2014. Tickets are £7.50. To book, visit www.camdenfringe.com.


Camden Fringe Review: The Words I Should Have Said to Phoebe Lewis (Phoenix Artist Club, London)

press-shot---full-(website-and-social-media)Rating: *****

In A Nuthsell:

Bittersweet, hilarious, and honest to the point of wonderful absurdity, this is a tremendous piece of new writing with an outstanding cast.

Overview

Wannabe young writer, Frank, is a bit messed up after the death of his mother, causing an estrangement with his father and the rest of his family. Instead of going to university to study creative writing, he’s stuck in Sidcup in debt, a freezing cold flat with his friend Bailey, and a relationship with Shropshire girl Chelsea for all the wrong reasons. But out of the blue comes Phoebe Lewis and Frank’s life turns even more turbulent. As drug-dealing becomes a means of keeping him and Bailey afloat, can Frank keep it together and overcome his cowardice when it comes to crunch-time?

Writing

Writer, Jim English, is pretty fresh out of Rose Bruford College having only graduated last year. However, his lack of experience is made up for an incredibly deft gift for observation and insight. His characters feel incredibly real and personable, steering well clear of turning them into clichéd working-class caricatures, and avoiding forced funniness and being over maudlin. It’s this ability for fine characterisation that really drives the entire play. Everything is outrightly honest and straightforward, just like real people are in all their little idiosyncrasies and inanities. English manages to make you easily connect with them through their humility and humour, making the jokes and laughs come naturally, never feeling contrived. It’s the most brutally honest observations that are the most absurd and side-splitting, yet the more emotional moments are surprisingly near heartbreaking for the same reasons.

The real genius behind English’s text is that when it comes to the climax. It feels so grounded and real you really can’t predict which way events are going to turn as it’s as feasible that it could go either way, making it genuinely thrilling. You quickly realise that this is because you’re actually with the characters for the entire show rather than getting caught up with the narrative. The whole affair feels as if it’s something palpable and true-life rather than fabricated and predictable.

In short, you’re with the play’s people through and through, gripped in both fascination and through a wonderfully casual connection.

Direction & Production

It’s very difficult to find much to say about direction and production in a space that’s so compact and Spartan. However, David Zoob ensures that nothing is static despite being so cramped. Yet he also cherishes the stillness in moments that don’t require much activity, particularly employing some nice little stylistic touches to explore intimacy and fantasy, making great use of what little space there is.

Steph Hammersley also employs some great sound design, with music and background ambience creating time and place aurally in lieu of any set. Whilst subtly colouring the production, it leaves plenty of room to allow English’s writing and the cast’s ability to do the rest of the work.

Cast

It might be a small ensemble, but you can’t really find a better six actors for this play. All embody their characters and perpetuate the believability that English so effortlessly writes. Leads James Craze, as Frank, and Sara Huxley, as Chelsea, are really exceptional at doing this. Both revel in their roles, even bringing little physical quirks to them, like Craze’s little wiggle when getting in and out of his onesie. Craze also does a brilliant job at really building a rapport with the audience in his asides to the audience, cherishing and reacting to the responses he gets from them. Huxley, on the other hand, really exudes a presence of both sensuality and sensitivity as a headstrong girl who has naively fallen in love with the wrong guy: all portrayed with a really endearing air of sweet vulnerability. Together, there’s a really touching reluctance and awkwardness in their chemistry as well as charming tenderness.

Verdict

This is some of the best new writing I’ve seen to date, not to mention supported by a top-notch cast who really get English’s text. It’s such rare serendipity to find it pop up among the great wash of shows that is the Camden Fringe. You’ll absolutely laugh, and probably almost cry, at this elating and effortlessly human tale of Nandos, “Mandy Moore”, and finding the strength in yourself as a person.

The Words I Should Have Said to Phoebe Lewis plays at the Phoenix Artist Club, London, WC2H 8BU, until 2 August 2014, as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. Tickets are £8 (concessions available). To book, visit www.camdenfringe.com.