Tag Archives: Camden Fringe Festival 2014

Review: Fishcakes (Etcetera Theatre, London)

1409320444Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

A laugh/cry out loud play of intelligence and honesty, and an utterly charming portrait of a relationship.

Overview

Reece and Jen meet on a date. It doesn’t go “well”. But none the less, they embark on a long term relationship. But what happens when the little niggles grow into big problems? And just what can tragedy reveal about a person you’d rather not have wanted?

Writing

Elizabeth Bartram’s new piece of writing sets itself out to be a exploration of people and relationships, and boy, this is executed with an immense wit and observation. We start off with writing that is supremely comedic. You’d be hard pressed not to roll about laughing at the pratfalls both characters keep making and their idiosyncrasies. But what’s great is that, among the guffaws, are two sweet and charming people that you just can’t help but adore. They feel incredibly natural and real and you could absolutely imagine them being the people sat next to you in the auditorium, rather than just two actors on the stage. Bartram also has tapped into little compatibilities and incompatibilities in her characters to bring out pace, humour, and pathos, all acutely and realistically portrayed.

But what’s really outstanding is that, as the play goes on and the relationship starts to lose its sheen, the play also starts to become less funny: but that’s the point. The laughs fade in correlation to the creeping lack of lustre in their life together. What happens is that you, as an audience, go on a similar emotional journey to Reece and Jen, but via laugher and tears as observers, rather than in love as lovers.

The only issue is that the heartbreaking conclusion at the end of this relationship is perhaps a bit too much of a punch to the gut. In itself it’s a very honestly and devastatingly written, touching on some brutal emotions and revelations that come out in tragedy. It would be easy to scoff at this as being too readily turning on the melodramatics, but it’s so free and natural that makes for an incredibly deft piece on loss and its effect on people. However, it makes the end perhaps a little too intense, especially juxtaposed against the hilarity of the beginning of the show. Despite it’s expert writing, it could possibly be better in another play where it won’t feel so abrupt.

But in saying that, this is but a trivial criticism. As it is, this is the perfect modern embodiment of both comedy and tragedy. Both elements are excellently implemented for a smart rip-roaring and mascara-running microcosmic montage about people and relationships.

Direction & Production

There isn’t a credited director and producer as such, with Bartram and her associates pretty much running the show. None the less, nothing suffers theatrically. Whilst there’s nothing but a bare set, a gaggle of props – including several bags of popcorn and a panettone – and three boxes, Bartram and her team still manage to turn the stark space of the Etcetera theatre into everything from urban scrub to a homely flat. Space is well utilised, and even though there are but three actors on what is a quite generous fringe stage, it never feels too big or under used.

Particularly, there’s some very good sound design that supplement Bartram’s writing, from choice pieces of music that pop up on cue, and even some cheekily purposeful anomalies such as the music being too loud to properly hear the conversation that Reece and Jen are having in the bar. Despite it being a small and humble production, it’s resourceful and effective without ever feeling amateur.

Cast

Bartram is join on-stage alongside Ben Nelson as Reece. They are so natural and charming together that it’s hard to believe that these two aren’t a real life couple. Although Bartram wrote the piece, Nelson’s feels like he actively contributes by sliding so naturally into his character and his role. If you didn’t know better, you’d think that both Nelson and Bartram were creating the piece there and then before your eyes. The energy and chemistry that both bring to the production really augments the writing and the reality that they co-inhabit. You really fall in love with them as they fall in love with each other, and tangibly feel their anguish at the end of it all.

Verdict

One of the most adorable and slick pieces of new writing to have emerged from the Camden Fringe. Absolutely worth catching when it comes around again.

[youtube http://youtu.be/ebi5tj_tMKk]

Fishcakes played at the Etcetera Theatre, London, NW1 7BU, between 11 – 13 August as part of the Camden Fringe, and several other dates since.

Advertisements

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.


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.


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.