Tag Archives: Caro Dixey

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.

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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.


The Significant Other Festival (Park Theatre, London)

Post image. Photograph: Courtesy of The Pensive Foundation.

Poster image. Photograph: Courtesy of The Pensive Foundation.

Rating: ****

The Park Theatre is only a fortnight old. Hosting the second year of this short play festival run by The Pensive Federation it has already set a high bar for its programme under artistic director Jez Bond. The Significant Other Festival is the first public performance in the Morris Room at the theatre.

The concept is simple. Ten playwrights each write a play that lasts ten minutes. The play must be based around the phrase “significant other”, taken either to mean a romantic partner, or someone important or close in someone else’s life. Each play is produced by a single director and performed by two actors, and staged in just five days. This year, instead of giving these playwrights and directors free reign, producers Neil J. Byden, Serena Haywood and Laura Kim assign a specific genre for each play: from murder to musical, and comedy to crime.

The result is a wonderful and varied selection of theatrical treats. Almost all the plays are very well written and explore their assigned genre incredibly well. But the real success is just how well the directors cope with the limitations of a space that is supposedly finished. There’s nothing but a few black curtains over the windows, plain whitewashed walls, a few spots on a rig or two, and bits of bare plasterboard.

But The Pensive Federation and their collaborators demonstrate that you don’t have to be Peter Brook to create good theatre in an empty space. But this incomplete space is no hurdle to the directors and actors, and does little damage to this evening of great theatre.

There are, however, a few standout pieces.  Penny Faith’s COYI is a gripping romantic comedy where football, gambling, and love collide. You’re cheering for the couple, played intensely by Lucy Fazey and Ryan Wichert, the whole way through this wonderful rollercoaster short. Whilst Caro Dixey’s Eastbound is a wonderfully deep yet playful look at friendship and belonging that doesn’t fail to charm and chime. Nina Moniri and Nathalie Pownall give some wonderfully natural, warm, and grounded performances here. And Mike Carter, Lemon Otter, and Franner Jordan’s A Month and Five Days is an uproarious minute musical.

Other pieces of note are those that really defy the studio space’s limitations. In particular how certain directors manipulate such minimal lighting resources. Cat Robey’s use of shadows for the comedy-cum-sinister noir achieves some great effects and is as a great opener to the programme. Whilst Bryony Thomas use of a torch in tense thriller It’s Not You is incredibly chilling.

The only play that didn’t really work was Rip It To Shreds. It has a really interesting premise, but its execution is muddied. Both the writing and direction is done in a way that you’re not quite sure what time period you’re in at any given point. Along with some stilted dialogue, its bleakness and clever narrative is overshadowed by this irksome execution.

Furthermore, the space is also a cumbrance. In fairness, the Morris Space is designed more as a rehearsal and workshop area than a performance space, especially when compared against the high-tech stages of theatres below. As a performance space its crowded and hot (the air conditioning didn’t appear to be working, and if it did it would have probably been a noisy distraction). Its flat quality also means that any action nearer the floor is an inevitable mystery to everyone but the front row.

But none the less, the novelty of the festival’s remit gives way to some wonderfully innovative and fun theatre. A great evening.

The Significant Other Festival plays at the Park Theatre, London, N4 3JP, until 25th May. Tickets are £10. To book, visit http://parktheatre.co.uk.