Tag Archives: Camden Fringe

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.

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

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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.


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 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.


Interview: Caro Dixey

Caro DixeyOften, critics and audience members don’t always see eye to eye. Shows that have been infamously panned by critics, like We Will Rock You, have gone on to enjoy huge profits and lengthy runs. Likewise, sometimes critical acclaim just can’t stop a show from closing early, such as was with I Can’t Sing: The X-Factor Musical.

As a reviewer myself, I was initially unconvinced about the Old Red Lion’s Old Red Line night, which sees a paying audience give direct and instant feedback on a playwright’s new work. What do mere patrons know about the finer points of playwriting? But maybe I’m missing the point somewhere, and there’s an untapped worth somewhere in this exercise.

In order to find out, and hopefully disprove my preconceptions, I spoke to playwright Caro Dixey, who recently had her new play The Five Stages of Waiting put through the Old Red Line’s process. A few months ago, I found her sat in the Greenwich pub where we arranged to meet, tablet PC in her hands and papers strewn across the table: all flanked by a large glass of chilled white wine. She seems particularly excited. Not only because she had just confirmed the venue for the premier of the work, but also because this the first time she’s been interviewed, much to my surprise.

Dixey, an incredibly fresh writer on the London fringe circuit, has already begun to make waves with the short pieces she’s written for The Pensive Federation, among other things. These were performed alongside other established fringe playwrights such as Sarah Pitard and Serena Haywood. With The Five Stages of Waiting being one of her first full length pieces to be fully produced, this is a big advance for her. So was the process beneficial?

Been There, Done That 

Dixey is in a unique position as a playwright: she previously trained as a dramaturge. Because of this, she holds constructive feedback from any outside party in high regard.

“I need a dramaturge, and I can’t do that myself with my own writing,” she tells me. “You can get lost in your own world of witty comments and clever dialogue. But that doesn’t matter if it doesn’t connect with an audience. I’m very about opening it up [and] asking other people’s opinion. If it’s a thing that no-one can look at, then I don’t know why you’re writing.”

Indeed, putting the play forward for Old Red Line wasn’t the first time The Five Stages of Waiting had been given a critical platform. She first submitted the first ten minutes of the play to Vertical Line Theatre, a production company championing new writing through smaller audience feedback initiatives. Artistic Director, Henry Regan, took a shine to the piece during this initial exposition, and then took larger segments of the play through some of Vertical Line’s other initiatives, cumulating in the full draft being scrutinised at Old Red Line: a direct project of Regan’s.

Although now familiar with some exposure to the brutal world of audience opinion, Dixey’s previous training also prepared her from the perils of merciless patrons.

“It is a really interesting situation to be put in,” she admits. “I knew it was going to be difficult [and] I prepared myself for the worst. As a dramaturge, I was given a lot of training and advice about how to approach playwrights: how to discuss their work and how to be sensitive. It was quite interesting to see how people do exactly what I was told not to do.”

Original promo for  The Old Red Line.

Cause and Effect

Of course, my prime interest in speaking to Dixey was to get her point of view of how well it all went. She illuminates to me just how inglorious some of the audience members where. Broad, sweeping, and damning statements were made by some, chastising some of main facets of the work. Thought Dixey admits that she could have easily enabled these to dent her confidence, instead, she managed to find an unlikely positivity in it all.

“People were writing. People wrote on both sides of the [feedback] sheet. Even when it was quite critical, it meant that someone’s actually taken the time to write two sides of comments. I had their attention for an hour and ten minutes, and they hadn’t run straight back to the bar. They’ve been bothered to write feedback. Even if they hated it, at least they were engaged enough to give me feedback.”

But was there any more positive and constructive feedback, and if so, has it affected the play?

“Definitely,” Dixey declares, with unwavering gumption. “I was at a bit of a turning point with a couple of the characters, and needed to make a decision. When people start saying that they don’t understand what [the character is] doing there, or they don’t understand their line of thought, it reaffirmed ideas.”

In fact, she tells me that she has even kept some of these pieces of paper pinned to where she does her writing, to spur her on in and give her encouragement. “I’m working on a rewrite, and it’s going to be a new draft. But I’m very excited about that draft.”

Neil, J. Byden (left) and Laura Kim (right) enjoying a first/last dance in "Done". Photograph: Courtesy of The Pensive Federation.

Neil, J. Byden (left) and Laura Kim (right) enjoying a first/last dance in Caro Dixey’s “Done”, as part of The Pensive Federation’s “Rewritten” festival. Photograph: Courtesy of The Pensive Federation.

Repeat Performance 

As the process seemed to have gone quite well this time, I ask if she thinks that this is something she’d do again.

“Yes,” says Dixey, although I detect a little hesitation in her voice. On enquiring further, I find out that the scintilla of reluctance I sense wasn’t so much about the process, but more about the readiness of her next piece to be put through it.

“With The Five Stages of Waiting, I’ve been working on it for the last seven and a half years. So I know this play, I know what I want from it, and I know that I feel very secure within it. I’ve got a new play that I’ve just finished about six months ago. That has never been produced. It’s a first draft, and I certainly wouldn’t put that up for this.”

She continues to explain that having this lack of confidence and certainty in direction would mean that such broad comments would likely change the very essence of the play, rather than just ironing out the kinks. Engaging an audience is more about letting her improve certain points of the play, rather than having them write one for her.

To Dixey, she feels that those who are at the early stages of a playwriting career can really benefit from this process, providing they’re confident with the play they’re putting forward. It gives writers a different type of criticism to what theatre professionals can give, creating a window into the minds of those you’re writing for.

“[When] you’re still learning your craft, sometimes feedback from a director or a script consultant or a dramaturge can be quite daunting. When it’s Joe Bloggs saying,  ‘I really like that bit, but I don’t understand that;’ that’s the sort of feedback you might get from an audience; instead of the structure, the character development, and the technical ideas.”

Most surprisingly, Dixey’s experience on the more technical side of theatre production means she’s discovered that the audience are more of an informed benchmark than us critics give credit for.

“If your writing is good, then the audience feedback will reflect the views of the company or the artistic director, nine times out of ten.”

Epilogue

I left my time with Dixey far more positive than I thought I would be. Her enthusiasm for the tangible benefits she claims to have received from engaging an audience at a creative level have intrigued me. It’s actually diminished the contempt that I can sometimes hold an audience in; both unwittingly and out of the arrogance that comes with the territory of reviewing.

None the less, my initial cynicism has led way to anticipation for seeing for myself the positives of audience insight and participation in the writing process. I have already witnessed Dixey’s writing first hand and found it be a staggeringly impactful and powerful. So this can only improve it, right?

The Five Stages of Waiting will be performed as part of the Camden Fringe 2014, on 4 – 9 August 2014, at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London, WC2H 9 NP. Tickets are £12 (concessions available). To book, visit http://tristanbatestheatre.co.uk.

For more information about the Camden Fringe Festival, visit www.camdenfringe.com.

For more information about Caro Dixey, visit www.carodixey.com.


Theatre Review: Rewritten (Tristan Bates Theatre, London

Neil, J. Byden (left) and Laura Kim (right) enjoying a first/last dance in "Done". Photograph: Courtesy of The Pensive Federation.

Neil, J. Byden (left) and Laura Kim (right) enjoying a first/last dance in “Done”. Photograph: Courtesy of The Pensive Federation.

Rating: ****

Déjà vu – noun the experience of perceiving a new situation as if it had occurred before.

Ever get that feeling that you’ve seen something somewhere else before? Well, you’ll definitely get that this week at the Tristan Bates Theatre. The Pensive Federation are at it again, exploring new approaches to new writing by asking writers to explore themes through strict criteria. This time, each writer has been given a three page script as inspiration, with certain caveats as to certain plot points, character names, and props that they must use. The result is a varied and intriguing hour of theatre.

Cat Robey directs all four plays featured, joined by the same two actors for each text, Neil J. Byden and Laura Kim. Writers for this mini-festival include Jo Pockett, Caro Dixey, Serena Haywood, and Sarah Pitard.

Robey, once more, shows off her prowess as a director. Despite only two characters, an amount of props you can count on one hand, and absolutely no set, she manages to give each piece a sense of energy and momentum. By subtly moving the action around the performance space gives them all a sense of flow, never becoming static physically or abstractly. But it’s never so much that it ever looks or feels restless. It’s these little details that make Robey such a talented director. Other little details include enjoying small pauses for the audience to take in a moment, either to enhance comic effect or augment heart-wrenching tragedy.

Byden and Kim are also two actors with a great deal of stamina and the ability to switch effortlessly between four very different characters through the space of the show. Each one they embody is believable and charming.

It also helps that the plays themselves are of a high standard. Haywood’s outrageous romp of geeks, sabotage, animal activism, and over-elaborate flirting, is a joy to watch. Despite how far-fetched the situation is, Haywood manages to create some wonderfully believable characters meaning that we’re really sucked into this twisted tale.

Pitard’s piece looking at friendship, semantics, and support, is also incredibly charming. Although one of the most concise narratives of the lot, it’s insight into friends sharing a space and their lives together is heart-warming and humorous. Furthermore, as the final play, it cheekily and ambiguously ties together some of programme’s earlier plays to it, really teasing you with that feeling of déjà vu.

But the most outstanding piece of all was Dixey’s Done. Never have I seen the subject of assisted suicide approached with such tender humanity and sensitivity. Her characters are incredibly real and honest. But what’s more, despite the grim situation, Dixey still manages to find a heartbreaking sense of humour. Furthermore, Kim and Byden really pull out all the stops for this piece, as the determined woman wishing to end her life, and the steely and mysterious assistant she has hired to help her do so. The result is one of the most intense, affecting, and haunting 15 minutes of your life.

Pockett’s play, however, is the weakest of the quartet; but by no means weak. Despite a very down-to-earth and warts-and-all portrayal of her characters, the problem is that her protagonist/antagonist is so deluded and insufferable that he’s difficult to believe or connect with, causing as much irritation for the audience as with his long-suffering friend. Otherwise, Pockett does well to balance punch-lines and pathos in this look at extreme denial.

The only other issue I can pick with the production is that having the characters re-dress to music between plays does drag. But when the only alternative is to have the audience sit in silence and/or with nothing to look at, it’s a small price to pay for what is otherwise a wholly unique and entertaining evening out.

Rewritten plays at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London, WC2H 9NP, until 23 August 2013, as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. Tickets are £8. To book, visit www.tristanbatestheatre.co.uk. For more information about the Camden Fringe Festival, visit www.camdenfringe.com. For more information about The Pensive Federation, visit http://pensivefederation.com.