Tag Archives: comedy

Theatre Review: The Collective Project (Camden People’s Theatre, London)

the_pensive_federation_cup1Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

The Pensive Federation’s pressure-cooker remit brings out a breadth of variety and ingenuity.

Overview

The Pensive Federation has tasked eight writers to team up with eight directors and twelve actors to create twelve minute pieces inspired by a collective noun and explore power and gender. The result is a really interesting collection of new writing. In Artistic Directors Neil J. Byden and Serena Haywood’s own words,

“…we believe that the time pressure has a an unlocking effect on peoples’ creativity.”

Whilst it certainly has done that, the most interesting element is not so much tapping into a latent talent within each writer, but the clear evidence of each collaboration within each piece, especially with the actors. Across the pieces, you start to see each actor playing similar roles: almost type-casting themselves. But in doing so, both the writing and performance are well delivered and feel effortless when this happens. The same can be said for the direction in certain pieces, where the collaboration has brought out an expert directional vision too.

Whilst only a handful of pieces have managed to create something truly surprising, given the race against the clock, all works are of a solid quality.

Squad, by Martin Malcolm
Dir: Eduard Lewis
Rating: ***

Certainly the most current of the piece, set in a shopping mall during a Black Friday sales. It starts off as a growing and brutal look at small-minded authority, where power corrupts abhorrently. Yet, just as things start to get really dramatic, Malcolm pips in with comic relief that destroys any tension and gravitas, feeling like things are hurriedly tied-up as the twelve minute gong approaches. Malcolm doesn’t quite capitalise on the subject’s potential perhaps because of this imposed brevity, and is something that might be more powerful if it were a longer and more paced piece.

Faculty, by Sherhan Lingham
Dir: Neil J. Byden
Rating: *****

Teacher dramas are nothing new, but none the less Lingham has managed to find a fresh narrative through embracing The Pensive Federation’s remit. Here, she really plays with ideas of separate characteristics, personality clashes, and collectivism, whilst cleverly drawing parallels between bullying among children and adults. Lingham manages to create a story from start to finish that doesn’t feel squeezed into it’s twelve minute window, and remains organic throughout.

The entire cast here also embrace their characters here incredibly well. John Rayment gives a commanding performance as the smug and conniving headmaster. Jared Rodgers, as the member of staff on the fringes of the clique upon who’s actions everything hinges upon, takes the pace to a wonderful apex of suspense.

Chapter, by Alan Flannigan
Dir: Madeline Moore
Rating: *****

Perhaps my favourite piece of the evening. Flannigan, like Lingham, has really embraced the remit to create something that’s clever and intelligent as well as pacey. Particularly, the exploration of a sense of togetherness despite the fact that the characters and dialogue are isolated and fractured from each other. It starts off incredibly enigmatic leaving you wondering what the narrative is, until it all starts to slowly piece together with different perspectives from all angles. As the picture slowly unveils itself, a gripping drama unfolds.

This is also a piece where the direction is just as inspired as the writing. Moore isn’t scared of silences to build drama and tension, and manages to keep a sense of pace and activity despite the fact that for the majority of the piece everything is static. Yet, there is one slow crescendo of movement pointing towards the climax, and it’s engrossing.

Bouquet, by Dan Nixon
Dir: Laura Attridge
Rating: ****

A mob family, a partner kept in the lurch, and a black sheep-cum-florist. Nixon subverts the concept of a group by focusing on the outcast of an otherwise tight-knit throng. It’s an incredibly interesting idea, and Nixon’s setting of this among a family of East End gangsters is one that offers drama and intrigue. Yet, as clever and as engaging to watch as it is, you get the feeling that there’s a bigger piece behind the snapshot here. When the twelve minutes are up you really want to see it go further, especially given the relationship you build with the central long-suffering character.

The collaboration between writer and director is also really strong here. There’s a flurry of action that goes on around the central character, for which they’re very much stuck powerless in the background for. Yet Nixon and Attridge write and direct in a manner that mean’s they’re not lost or forgotten about, even if everything that goes on around them doesn’t at all involve them. It’s incredibly meticulous and well executed, with just the right amount of interjections to remind you that the main character is still there, whilst directionally making sure the character is visible and central, though dis-attached, to the action at all times.

Rodgers, again, proves his ability for playing a withdrawing character, this time with a real tenderness and charm that strikes a rapport and an empathy with the audience without really trying.

It’s just a shame the piece feels more like an extract than a microcosm. More of this, please!

Audience, by Isla Gray
Dir: Jessica Radcliffe
Rating: ***

Game shows are ridiculous, and this is something that Gray really brings out. A group of contestants must work as a team against each other. Gray’s rainbow of characters and ridicule of trash TV certainly brings out some great observational jokes. Yet overall, this piece doesn’t seem to say too much or go very far with regards to plot progression. In fact, the build-up to the crux seems to be padded out: one of the pieces where it feels like twelve minutes is a little too long instead of being too short. An amusing diversion, but one that has the least amount of impact in exploring the themes of “collection”, especially when compared to the others. Whilst there would otherwise be some great fodder for character exploration, all personas involved feel a little too shallow to really amount to much other than a few laughs and a flash-in-the-pan comedy.

Bench, by Guleraana Mir
Dir: Neil Sheppeck
Rating: ****

This is a sweet little piece, looking at a bunch of misfits who go to play football every weekend, although invariably mostly ending up on the bench watching their team lose. There’s certainly some charming interactions between the cacophony of characters here, bringing out a homely humanity between them. Even if the narrative doesn’t really go anywhere in the twelve minutes, it’s still a satisfying still-life of how and why six people who couldn’t be more opposite find solace in coming together, even if it never goes the way they expect it to. A great little piece of character comedy.

Murmuration, by Kate Webster
Dir: Rhiannon Robertson
Rating: ***

Another piece that’s very current, looking at homelessness at Christmas. Two volunteers have set out to host a Christmas party for those who have been displaced; one a regular volunteer, and the other there out of circumstance rather than of charity. Webster’s exploration of the different types of people and personalities that make up both the homeless and the volunteers is refreshing and doesn’t linger or labour on any easy stereotypes. Their characters are fully realised and all are believable and interesting people.

Yet, although a nice exploration how group dynamics can bring out different things in different people, it doesn’t offer anything overly surprising, despite one of the characters’ back-stories. What’s more, towards the end the catalysts start to come too quick and too obviously, feeling less than organic. Again, a sense that it’s trying to rush through its epiphanies and tie everything up before time runs out. Otherwise, there’s potential for a something deep and meaningful if it had a bit more space to breathe and develop.

Host, by Camilla Whitehill

Dir: Chloe Mashiter
Rating: ****

Whitehill has created a wonderfully comic titbit despite the stringent remit. She creates a situation and a cast of characters that naturally finds the funny rather than trying to force something through. However, Whitehill still manages to keep it within the essence of the showcase. Playing wonderfully with the title, Host, Whitehill toys with both the singular and the collective meaning of the noun: a strong leader among the group of friends, trying to support one of their own via an intervention.Only one or two of the jokes are over-laboured a little, but otherwise, it’s a strong piece of comedy. It’s tight, it’s funny, and it’s all you can really ask for to round off the evening.

Again, this is another example of where the actors and writer have worked well together to create a piece that capitalises on their talents and personalities. Katherine Rodden is fantastic as the down and out misanthrope; Neil J. Byrden brings out some great visual moments as the fool of the piece, and Helen Jessica Liggat is steadfast as the mastermind and head of the group of friends. A strong piece that really embraces and excels in what the evening has set out to do.

Verdict

Everything showcased here is certainly solid and an achievement given the remit. But some writers have certainly thrived better than others. But even then, whilst some might not have prospered in the twelve day, twelve minute window given, they’ve still come up with potential for developing their ideas into longer works. An intriguing evening of intelligence and ingenuity.

The Collective Project took place at the Camden People’s Theatre, London, NW1 2PY from 17-20 December 2014. For more information about The Pensive Federation, visit http://pensivefederation.com.

Advertisements

News: Meet A Python! Terry Jones to Make Book Signing Appearance This Saturday

Official artwork for 'Nicobobinus'.

Official artwork for ‘Nicobobinus’.

Terry Jones, Monty Python’s Flying Circus alumni and children’s author, is the inventive genius behind 5* “…maelstrom of colour, activity, and wonder” Nicobobinus, currently playing at the LOST Theatre, London.

After the matinee showing of Nicobobinus on Saturday 20th December, Jones will be signing copies of his book from 4:30pm. Fans of Jones’ children’s book, young and old alike, should not only miss this opportunity to have him scrawl something on a beloved personal item, but should absolutely, definitely, see Red Ladder and DumbWise’s stupendous musical adaptation.

[youtube http://youtu.be/hqR4ZWg4klI]

Nicobobinus plays at the LOST Theatre, London, SW8 2JU, until 3 January 2015. Tickets are £15 (concessions and family tickets available). To book, visit http://losttheatre.co.uk.


Theatre Review: Eric and Little Ern (St James Theatre, London)

Jonty Stephens (left) and Ian Ashpitel (right) as Morecambe and Wise. Photograph: Courtesy of Geraint Lewis.

Jonty Stephens (left) and Ian Ashpitel (right) as Morecambe and Wise. Photograph: Courtesy of Geraint Lewis.

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

A blissful eulogy to two of Britain’s greatest comedians. Touching, never too sentimental, and roaringly funny.

Overview

We find Ern in a private room in hospital. Out of the blue, he sees a vision of his old comic partner, Eric. They go over all memories and catch up after 15 years since death did they part. Then, Eric makes Ernie an offer he can’t refuse: to do one last show together.

Familiar bedfellow. Ian Ashpitel (left) and Jonty Stephens (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Geraint Lewis.

Familiar bedfellow. Ian Ashpitel (left) and Jonty Stephens (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Geraint Lewis.

Writing

The process that actors and creators of this piece has been a long time in the making, but good things come to those who wait. What Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stephens have managed to do in their devised piece is capture an essence of Morecambe and Wise that really does the duo justice. The capture of this essence means that everything about the show incorporates a sense of flexibility and spontaneity which is crucial to who they’re paying tribute to: it’s something you simply can’t portray Morecambe and Wise without. Even in the more obviously structured first act, there’s still a fresh sense of fun and unpredictability that runs through it, driving the comedy at every point.

It’s difficult to think that there are many out there who are unaware or have never seen at least one of their shows or sketches. Even I, almost two generations younger than when they were in their prime, can’t fail to recognise them. But even so, Ashpitel and Stephens put just enough background, seamlessly woven into the shenanigans, to paint a deeper picture of their lives, careers, and relationship, including some much loved material from their shows by Eddie Braben, Dick Hills, and Sid Green. It’s done in such a way that it never feels like a history play, and instead colour their personas making the show more accessible for those who may not know the duo as well as throw in a few titbits of trivia for an older audience.

In the second act, Ashpitel and Stephens have created a 30ish minute front of curtain show, drawing on some of their most memorable routines. There’s really not much to say about it other than it’s a blistering performance that the real Morecambe and Wise would have been proud of themselves. Again, here there’s plenty of room for flexibility and spontaneity, meaning it doesn’t feel like a mere emulation but a fluid and living piece of comedy. There are a few references to personalities of their age that will may go over the head of much younger fans, but these are few, and, for the catering-sized pack of laughs they deliver elsewhere, are certainly forgiven if not forgotten.

What’s great though is that, as touching as it is in places, especially in exploring the rich relationship Morecambe and Wise had between them, Ashpitel and Stephens never linger upon sentimentality. Morecambe and Wise are best know for the joy and laughter they brought to the world, and this is how both Ashpitel and Stephens go about creating this blissful eulogy. If you’re moved to tears, it’s not because they’ve purposefully pulled on the heartstrings with maudlin manipulation, but it’s because they’ve touched a deep and personal remembrance through a shared happiness: true justice to these behemoths of entertainment.

Direction & Production

Even though the main focus really is Ashpitel and Stephen, there’s still a solid production behind it. Simon Scullion’s set for Act I believably looks like a private hospital room, and even the curtain for Act II is wonderfully recreated and instantly recognisable. But  detail aside, what Scullion, Director Owen Lewis, and the rest of the production team from musical director to lighting do, is give Ashpitel and Stephens the space and materials they need to perform unhindered, from props to music cues. There’s really not much other to be said about direction and production here because it all works so well that you hardly notice them. It’s Ashpitel and Stephens that are the main focus, and the production steadfastly supports them and never takes attention away from them. This is exactly what a production of this kind should be doing.

Jonty Stephens (left) and Ian Ashpitel (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Geraint Lewis.

Jonty Stephens (left) and Ian Ashpitel (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Geraint Lewis.

Cast

Ashpitel and Stephens are uncanny as Eric and Ernie. Not only are they are near physical doppelgängers to the genuine articles, but they’ve got their physical and vocal mannerisms and ticks down to a ‘t’. But even so, what is most astonishing about these two is that they are far from a stale emulation or tribute act. Whilst both embrace the recognisable personas and mannerisms of who they’re playing, what Ashpitel and Stephens do is find a wonderful rapport between themselves upon with they capitalise. The result is that there’s as beautiful sense of brotherhood between them as there was between Morecambe and Wise.

Furthermore, they are as expert as comic performers as the real Eric and Ernie were. In the second act, in particular, they feed off the audience’s reactions and each others bluffs to create a side-aching routine. Even in recreating established tropes, such as Eric’s famous paper-bag trick, the skits are delivered in such a way that it still made the entire audience bellow with glee: finding a way to make an old joke be delivered as if it were never seen before.

Verdict

A remembrance most remarkable: marvellously funny and heartfelt. As the closest to the real thing as we can ever get since their passing, it’s a must for long-term fans, and a pure comic rush for those less familiar.

Eric and Little Ern runs at the St. James Theatre, London, SW1E 5JA, until 11 January 2015. Tickets are £10 – £45. To book, visit www.stjamestheatre.co.uk.


Musical Review: Nicobobinus (LOST Theatre, London)

Official artwork for 'Nicobobinus'.

Official artwork for ‘Nicobobinus’.

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

An utterly spellbinding adaptation of Terry Jones’ much loved children’s book. Has children and adults alike awestruck and enrapt.

Overview

Nicobobinus is a boy who can do anything! But one day, when a Golden Woman turns his arm into pure gold, him and his best friend Rosie must travel to the Land of Dragons in search of the only known cure: dragon’s blood. But their journey is fraught with peril, including murderous monks, surgeon pirates, and moving mountains.

Aye, you! Eilidh Debonnaire (front) as the Golden Woman, and Max Runham (rear) as Nicobobinus. Photograph: Courtesy of Ellie Kurttz.

Aye, you! Eilidh Debonnaire (front) as the Golden Woman, and Max Runham (rear) as Nicobobinus. Photograph: Courtesy of Ellie Kurttz.

Writing

Monty Python’s Flying Circus alumni has written a children’s book with wild imagination and whimsy. Characters are flamboyant and improbable who both amuse and wonderfully boggle. John Ward’s adaptation absolutely embraces and matches Jones’ creative mind, but also adds a theatrical imagination that wholly and inescapably charms.

Ward’s adaptation is one definitely aimed at a younger audience. It’s face paced, silly, and larger than life enough to keep the smaller ones involved at every moment of the way: laughing, gasping, and even quivering at dragons and dangers. It’s an epic weave of a tome with tremendous highs and perilous climaxes. Taking on Jones’ novel, Ward seems to tap into a humour that children thrive and love – just the right amount of silly and unpredictable: a posturing precisely honed at the level for small-folk. But simultaneously, there’s plenty for the adults too, including things like Monty Python and even Les Miserables reference jokes intelligently and unexpectedly placed. But most fantastically, there’s a universal comedy and tone that both parties involved lap up with relish.

The only thing that could possibly be lingered upon is that new-age morality that Jones injects, and that Ward perhaps stays on this a little too long at points. But even in doing so, it doesn’t take away from anything that Jones and Ward have conjured, or even dampens the pace and wonderment that the production adds to it. It’s just a noticeable thing rather than anything critical.

But overall, the fact that a two hour long show can keep children’s attention hook, line, and sinker without them fidgeting or chattering, is a mammoth achievement.

Life's a drag(on). Lloyd Gorman (left), Jofre Alsina (centre) and Eilidh Debonnaire. Photograph: Courtesy of Ellie Kurttz.

Life’s a drag(on). Lloyd Gorman (left), Jofre Alsina (centre) and Eilidh Debonnaire. Photograph: Courtesy of Ellie Kurttz.

Music & Lyrics

Eilidh Debonnaire’s score is beautiful, catchy, and energetic. It’s simple enough to grab the attention of the younger audience and to keep it, but complex and varied enough not to sound infantile in the slightest. Her scoring for an eclectic gaggle of instruments, from double basses and various saxophones to accordions, adds a rich and quirky sound which is just as interesting as the songs are sweeping and bouncy. But it’s not just in the songs that Debonnaire excels. There’s also some wonderful underscoring that replicates the imagination, rhythm, and the energy of the rest of the production.

Lyrics are straightforward and easy to understand for children, but still have a basic poetry that makes them skip and aurally intrigue. There’s really nothing bad I can say about the score: it’s pitch perfect for our pint-sized patrons, and also delights the parents.

Row, Rosie, row, Samantha Sutherland as Rosie. Photograph: Courtesy of Ellie Kurttz.

Row, Rosie, row, Samantha Sutherland as Rosie. Photograph: Courtesy of Ellie Kurttz.

Direction & Production

DumbWise and Red Ladder theatre companies have produced a spellbinding production using incredibly resourceful means. All there is by means of set is the stage painted like a giant map, and two moving halves of a bridge that alter their positions to suggest everything from the canals of Venice, to giant walls, and even a pirate ship. Couple with this projected images and textures upon the set and stage, it prompts a fervid imagination among the audience to fill in the blanks. Where imagination can’t quite deliver, Joshua Pharo’s video work keep the pace going using luscious animated illustrations. It adds to further wonder and variation that keeps adults and children engrossed. Elsewhere, Ward, also directing, ensures that there’s rarely a static moment, also using length, breadth, and height of the space to almost dizzying effect!

Everything in this production is spot on and well thought out. A maelstrom of colour, activity, and wonder: it’s captivating.

Golden Boy. Max Runham as Nicobobinus. Photograph: Courtesy of Ellie Kurttz.

Golden Boy. Max Runham as Nicobobinus. Photograph: Courtesy of Ellie Kurttz.

Cast

If the adaptation, the music, and the production wasn’t perfect enough, there is also an amazing cast involved. Max Runham as titular Nicobobinus is exceedingly sprightly, bounding about the stage with ferocious energy. Indeed, on press night his fervour and dedication was so much so that he ended up sustaining an injury, coming on for final bows with a bloodied nose! Samantha Sutherland as Rosie matched him stride for stride, and together they’re exude an almost exhausting power and child-like quality between them, perfect for the roles of our exuberant hero and heroine.

But they are supported by a trio of supreme comic talent: Debonnaire, Jofre Alsina, and Lloyd Gorman. As excellent entertainers, they are side-splittingly hilarious to watch. Excelling at everything from facial physicality to physical high jinx and marvellous vocal characterisations, they keep both adults and children in roars of laugher throughout. They also work effortlessly together to create a close-knit ball of comic energy that is unbearably funny.

Verdict

Out-rightly one of the most magical pieces of theatre I’ve seen as both a child and an adult. A dazzling Christmas show that will have each and every member of the family utterly dumbstruck with amazement.

[youtube http://youtu.be/hqR4ZWg4klI]

Nicobobinus plays at the LOST Theatre, London, SW8 2JU, until 3 January 2015. Tickets are £15 (concessions and family tickets available). To book, visit http://losttheatre.co.uk.


Panto Review: Booty and the Biatch (LOST Theatre, London)

bootyRating: ****

In A Nutshell

A fantastic anarchy of panto, satire, and general filth, exploding into a larger new home with hilarious bombast.

Overview

In the French village of Ashby-de-la-Zouche, a cold-hearted prince is turned into a biatch and given sh*t Netflix connection as punishment for his insolence. In order to break the spell he must learn to love. Enter Beauty (aka Booty), who is trying to be wooed by UKIP candidate Nigel Garage. Her father, Crazy Old Maurice, after being capture by The Biatch, makes a pact to exchange his freedom for Beauty’s imprisonment. With a gaggle of mal-transformed servants, can Beauty teach Biatch how to love and break the curse, and enable Mrs. Pots to finish Orange Is The New Black?

Writing

Paul L. Martin, who until recently did bi-yearly adult pantos aboard the Battersea Barge, moves into the more generous confines of the LOST Theatre on Wandsworth Road. He continues to employ his trademark wit and knowing with gusto to create a colourful and daring panto, despite it being more risqué than the norm. All the trappings are there, including rousing songs and sing-a-longs, and high-spirited dance numbers. What’s great about Booty and the Biatch, though, is the cutting and no-prisoners-taken approach to satire, sending up everything from UKIP and Operation Yewtree, to the Disney version of the fairy tale on which the show has heavily stolen from based itself upon.

Whilst it’s not as out-rightly filthy as the capital’s other adult panto offerings, such as Sleeping Booty!, it doesn’t mean that Martin has lost any flare or frivolity. There’s still jokes about bum-sex and more than a few naughty words that slip through, but Martin still manages to ensure that a joy and magic that is crucial to panto is there every step of the way. Creating a solid panto as a basis for the evening is what takes precedence here, and therefore where the focus lies. If you take away the smut and the rudeness, you’d still be left with something that’s a hoot of a show because of this. With plenty of knowing jokes about the industry and it’s rivalries, along the sexual references and the send-ups, and you’ve got blistering funny moments left, right, and centre.

But most wonderful, as always, with Martin’s pantos, is just how relaxed they are. Yes, there is (vaguely) a script, but Martin and his company thrive in the fact that things are allowed to go wrong. In fact, these are some of the best moments.

Everything isn’t perfect, though. There are parts of the show aren’t as tight as others, and moments where the cast (and the audience) run away with themselves just a little too much. But it’s still all part of the fun, and are foibles that can be forgiven through affection, rather than becoming any major detriment.

Direction & Production

As well as these pantos have always worked very well in the claustrophobic space of the Battersea Barge, Director Vanessa Pope really embraces the larger venue. Even thought the audience is now bigger and more formally arranged, they are still as integral a part of the panto as before and are involved at every given opportunity, even if it is to trample through them and steal their booze! But specifically, what’s certainly most spectacular about this venue transfer, is that Pope has gone to wonderful lengths to include wonderfully ambitious song and dance numbers that were not possible before, and they’re delivered effortlessly. Couple this with Matt Overfield’s glitzy choreography, and you’ve got a fringe panto that can rival the shazam of larger more affluent affairs. For a company which is used to a very small space, you wouldn’t have known it seeing as how comfortable they seem here at the LOST Theatre. Pope also knows how to get the best out of panto pacing, whilst leaving enough flexibility for her cast to interact and improvise according to how the audience respond/heckle.

Birgitta Kenyon’s involvement on stage as Musical Director also adds a really nice sense of live music and interaction which the cast thrives off, adding fun and spontaneity that a backing track just can’t provide. Also, despite budget constraints, Miranda Evan’s costumes find a humour in their resourcefulness that forms as much a part as the panto’s jokes as Martin’s script.

Cast

Martin and his team couldn’t have assembled a better panto cast. Martin, as the dame/Mrs. Pots is not only fantastically camp, saucy, and ridiculous, but brings a side-splitting psychosis to his character, especially when interacting with Chip.

To point out but a few of the fantastic performances; Jamie Anderson as The Biatch is also as fierce as they come commanding an outlandish queeny bitchiness, with quick-fire put-downs and heels as sharp as his remarks; and Becky Finlay Hall is preposterously funny as Cogsworth, pulling in the laughs with her lovey-dovey professional-actor-in-panto demeanour, rapaciously sending up an actor’s sensibilities. But that’s not to say that these particular cast members are better than the rest. Everyone involved, even the cameo from the stage manager, all expertly contribute in propelling the illicit Pandemonium of this rip-roaring evening.

As a company, they all work off each other’s charisma, feeding off their own energy as well as the audience’s. Most surprisingly, however, is how well they actually sing together. There’s a real power, punch, and immaculate sound that they bring to the big numbers that makes them as incredibly slick as they are silly. It’s a unexpected touch of talent and professionalism for a production that knowingly postures itself as a little ramshackle.

Verdict

An anarchy most splendid. A manic panto with added naughtiness guaranteed to make you laugh your party hat off!

Booty and the Biatch plays at the LOST Theatre, London, SW8 2JU until 17 December 2015. Tickets are £18.35. To book, visit www.paullmartin.com.


Theatre Review: This Is Not A Christmas Play (Top Secret Comedy Club, London)

Jordan Kuoame (left) and MAtthew Leigh (right) getting a little board. Photograph: Courtesy of Sofi Berenger.

Jordan Kouame (left) and Matthew Leigh (right) getting a little board. Photograph: Courtesy of Sofi Berenger.

Rating: ***

In A Nutshell

Some great comic turns and fresh ideas, but is let down by some awkward pitching and pacing.

Overview

David and Tim, have made a pact: to sit through Christmas Day without mentioning and acknowledging it. Will David’s ex turn up for dinner? Will Tim pay this month’s rent? And just who are the torrent of bizarre characters that keep coming in and out of their flat?

Proud Mary! Alice Coles (;left) and Jordan Kouame (right). Photograph: Sofi Berenger.

Proud Mary! Alice Coles (left) and Jordan Kouame (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Sofi Berenger.

Writing

Robert Wallis and Liam Fleming of Encompass productions turn their hand to providing an alternative but fun and frivolous seasonal titbit that does away with the trappings of British Christmas theatre. It’s a comedy, and it starts off as such. There are some wonderfully comic turns in the script, especially in it’s knowing nods at the fact that you just can’t quite escape the holidays. Some of these moments are laugh out loud, especially when executed with some of the impeccable comic timing from the cast. There are also great reference moments that, if you do get, are incredibly well placed and delivered.

However, Wallis and Flemming then start to turn the play into a farce, and this is where This Is Not A Christmas Play starts to lose its lustre. Farce is perhaps the most difficult theatrical genre to master: it requires an astute ability for punchy timing and just the right of amount of silliness. Thankfully, Wallis and Flemming never make the on-stage shenanigans too over-the-top and unconvincing: one of the easiest mistakes to make in farces make. But the problem is that the gags just don’t have the requisite energy and weight to meet the very high bar needed. Unfortunately, this isn’t something that good direction can fix: it’s a pacing that needs to already be there in the writing. This is not helped that sometimes it lingers a little to long on an attempt to make the character’s have too emotional an epiphany, as this ends up dragging the pace down even more. It’s something that could have comfortably have had it’s placed in a more straightforward comedy, but something that really irks the pace of a farce.

What this means is that, in trying to tread water in an area between comedy and farce, the pacing and therefore the pitch of the play is somewhat awkward. The energy is never consistent meaning everything stops and starts too often. But that doesn’t mean that Wallis and Flemming fail at either genres. especially as there are some inspired gags that are well set-up and executed. It’s just that they don’t excel at both.

I have a great deal of admiration for any writers who turn a hand at farce, because it’s something that can so easily go wrong. But despite Wallis and Flemming not hitting the mark, it’s still a solid and promising attempt. And even if it is uneven and sometimes ineffectual, the comedy that they do get right provide for a an enjoyable and grin-inducing hour.

Un-civil service. James Unworth (left)  and Jordan Kouame (right). Photograph: Couresty of Sofi Berenger.

Un-civil service. James Unworth (left) and Jordan Kouame (right). Photograph: Couresty of Sofi Berenger.

Direction & Production

Sarah Buller’s set does a wonderful job of turning the bare space of the Top Secret Comedy Club into a squalid flat. Everything from the snack detritus to grimy carpets are wonderful little details. But despite its grotty appearance, Buller has managed to turn the stage into something that, but for some much needed deep cleaning, is quite homely.

Director Johnathan Woodhouse and Associate Director Rachel Owens also make good use of the space, especially with regards to movement. In the chase scene/climax, it really does brim with a manic energy and sense of fun, with unexpected little turns and quips. Elsewhere, Woodhouse and Owens make sure that the comedy that does works really comes through: nothing else gets in the way of the good jokes, understanding the turnaround from punch-line to laughter thus giving the audience the space they need to react appropriately.

Virgin active! Alice Coles (left), Matthew Leigh (centre) and Jordan Kouame (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Sofi Berenger.

Virgin active! Alice Coles (left), Matthew Leigh (centre) and Jordan Kouame (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Sofi Berenger.

Cast

This Is Not A Christmas Play certainly has a great comic cast. Jordan Kouame, especially, has a wonderfully lightness and knowing in everything he does that really enhance his share of the gags. His physicality is also spot on for his comic moments, too. Although an actor who has a natural physical dominance, there’s still room for comic nuance in his presence. Furthermore, despite the clash of personality against his counterpart, Matthew Leigh as David, together they bounce their opposing charismas off each other to make themselves out as a wonderful odd couple.

James Unsworth, as Clive, embodies very similar qualities to Kouame in churning out another comic performance of a high standard, but has the added luxury of looking surprisingly dashing in just a pair of shiny hot pants!

Alice Coles, as Mary, as also enacts some wonderful moments of colourful melodrama. Between her and Unsworth, they carry the moments where the farce almost works, injecting a hilarious shot of gusto and fun as the piece’s unlikely villains.

Verdict

Despite stumbling somewhere between the two genres it tries to straddle, it’s still a giggly-good evening for all that does work with it. A fun alternative for those who come out in a cold sweat at the thought of panto or Christmas shows, but still embracing a warm sense of fun and good cheer that comes with all the festive fuss.

[youtube http://youtu.be/YJSHv-0XnNo]

This Is Not A Christmas Play runs at the Top Secret Comedy Club, London, WC2B 5PD, until 4 January 2015. Tickets are £12 (concessions available). To book, visit www.encompassproductions.co.uk/this-is-not-a-christmas-play.


Theatre Review: Back Door (Tristan Bates Theatre, London)

Laura Louise Baker (front) and Jaacq Hugo (back). Photograph: Courtesy of Jules (Philter Photography)

Laura Louise Baker (front) and Jaacq Hugo (back). Photograph: Courtesy of Jules (Philter Photography)

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

A twisted powder-keg thriller blending reality and fiction for a sharp and glamorous play looking at truth, fact, and obsession.

Overview

Associated Press photographer, Tabitha Montgomery, lives in Paris. After badly spraining her ankle in Montmartre, she’s housebound with only her American houseboy, John, an arsenal of wine, and the luxury of spying on her neighbours across the courtyard to keep her company. Female impersonator and film artists Violette moves in across the way, for which Tabitha has the perfect view of from her apartment window. One night, Tabitha is awoken by a scream and the sound of glass breaking. When she spies Violette with blood on her hands, Tabitha is convinced that Violette has murdered her dance partner, and starts on a quest to prove her suspicions. But at what cost? And when does investigative intuition turn into dangerous obsession?

Writing

Polis Loizou combines the influence of real life female impersonator, Barbette, in an art-Deco resetting of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window: gender-bending and twisting the characters involved.

Taking on something that is arguably Hitchcock’s most acclaimed film is something that is always going to be difficult to live up to. Thankfully, Loizou doesn’t try to emulate Rear Window but merely use it to frame his own unique razor wit and a colourfully imaginative exploration of the thin line between fact and fiction and paranoia and prejudice. The result is an uncanny and debauched comic-thriller, which, although laced with plenty of catty quips and flamboyant put-downs, still manages to intensely explore its themes, throw in a few marvellous red herrings, and keep an absolutely tight and suspenseful grip on the audience to the very last beat. It’s as if Loizou was the love-child of Noel Coward and Agatha Christie: cheeky, yet masterfully capricious.

As much Loizou captures the sass and dirty glamour of 1920s Paris, what’s most astonishing about the writing is Loizou’s turn at suspense. This is not just in re-enacting Hitchcock’s infamous scene where Jeff watches Lisa snoop around the apartment opposite for clues, but in the play’s climax. It gets so intense that you honestly can’t tell for love or money which way things are going to pan out, especially as one of the possibilities places a character in considerable peril. You’re absolutely hooked in this nail-biting crescendo whilst, amazingly, Loizou manges to simultaneously deliver a bewitching finale that leaves you haunted.

Laura Louise Baker as Tabitha. Photograph: Jules (Philter Photography)

Laura Louise Baker as Tabitha. Photograph: Jules (Philter Photography)

Direction & Production

Whilst this is an incredibly small scale and humble touring fringe production, Andrew Denyer’s set, whilst simple, does it’s job marvellously. The three windows attached to Tabitha’s apartment also double as those at Violette’s far away abode. It looks a bit odd at first, with the issue of proximity being hard to ignore. But cast ability and direction draw the audience’s attention and imagination to do the work for them, suspending the belief and building the suspense. It’s a straightforward yet inventive solution to what could have been the biggest problem and tripping point for the entire production. It also bristles with wonderful art-Deco style that really compliments the wit and epoch that the show is set in.

There are also some really striking uses of projected image, fractured and distorted by being projected directly onto the set, adding a real atmosphere of sinister enigma especially given the wonderfully Man Ray-esque nature of Loizou’s video work here. It’s a production of real ingenuity that pays dividends in lieu of having the means to do something grander: an exquisite execution of essence beyond budget.

Cast

This three hander is also incredibly well delivered by the small company’s cast. Loizou takes on the role of John, and has plays him with a wonderful coy campness that crumbles into boyish vulnerability when Tabitha manipulatively picks apart his façade. Fragile, yet brimming with energy and venomous wit, he marvellously toys with the writing’s unexpected juxtaposition of camp hilarity against brooding jeopardy.

Laura Louise Baker as Tabitha is a little difficult to warm to initially, playing Tabitha as too steely, hurried, and terse to begin with. But quickly, she starts to command her performance and really dominates the stage. She brings a stark authority to Tabitha that, for better or for worse, exudes a gravitas that has you completely convinced that she’s the one closer to the truth than anyone else. Severe and expertly conniving, both her and her character are forces not to be reckoned with.

Jaacq Hugo is ethereal as the Barbette-inspired Violette. He oozes a mysterious suavity that is so chic it hurts. But most the astonishing aspect of his performance is when Violette is not Violette. Here, he turns into a brutal adversary of unnerving power, adding to the twisted and dangerous feel of the play. His switch from fay siren to threatening hulk is tremendous.

Together, the three conspire and clash meticulously, playing both sides of their characters off whatever face the other decides to reveal. It’s these constant slick and untrusting fraught interactions between them that really compel.

Verdict

A riot of Deco daring and wit. Suspense and comedy collide to create one of the most inspired and surprising plays this year. Tight, cutting, and edge-of-you seat thrilling, it’s murderously good.

[youtube http://youtu.be/t9wrJWFwLDg]

Back Door played at the Tristan Bates Theatre 9-10 December 2014. For more information about the production, including upcoming tour dates, visit www.offoffoffbroadway.co.uk.


Operetta Review: The Mikado (Charing Cross Theatre, London)

If you're wondering who they are... The cast of The Mikado. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

If you’re wondering who they are… The cast of The Mikado. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Rating: ***

In a Nutshell

An exquisite vision and lavish production from Thom Southerland, but fails to capture the “oomph” that is key to a great Gilbert & Sullivan (G&S) show.

Overview

W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s renowned opera set in fictional Titpu, Japan, is given a 1920’s British make-over. 2nd trombonist, Nanki-Poo, returns to Titipu when learning that Ko-Ko, the ward and fiancé of his beloved Yum-Yum, is set to be executed. But we he arrives, he finds that small town corruption and impossible politics have seen Ko-Ko promoted to Lord High Executioner. As Nanki-Poo tries to weave a way to regain his love whilst saving the neck of his chief adversary, the solution causes more problems that it solves. After all, Nanki-Poo is not quite the wandering minstrel he purports to be.

Rebecca Caine (left) as Kitisha and Steve Watts (right) as Pooh-Bah. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Rebecca Caine (left) as Kitisha and Steve Watts (right) as Pooh-Bah. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Music & Libretto

Gilbert and Sullivan create a wonderful farce that’s scathingly satirical and blissfully funny. Like with any of their works, they unmercifully send up the establishment and anyone caught in its wake. Here, romancing exotic Victorian ideas of the Far East, the text is also full of very tongue in cheek Japan-isms, especially such as the names of the characters. But they still lambastes government shenanigans and the idiocy of the gentry in doing so. A mad-cap farce of love and corruption, The Mikado has endured to make it one of the best known works from their anthology due to its scintillating wry libretto and memorable music.

As well as great comic numbers, what is perhaps most endearing about this particular operetta are several beautiful arias that are pricked with pathos, providing sublime diversion from the silliness. Particularly, “The Sun, Whose Rays Are All Ablaze” is just as much as a pull for the opera as it’s comedy. This results in a wonderful mix of pathos and humour that surprisingly compliment each other incredibly well and provides for a show with as much variety as laughs.

Unique to this and every production is the carrying on of the tradition where Ko-Ko’s “list” gets updated for each run to include modern references, sending up contemporary villains and celebrity nuisances. Here, the company does an excellent job of doing this, possibly providing bigger laughs than Gilbert & Sullivan’s text itself. However, the production also goes the extra mile to also give the same treatment to “A More Humane Mikado Never Did Exist in Japan”, which is just as bellowingly cheeky and hilarious.

Getting carried away! Matthew Crowe (centre) as Nanki-Poo. Photograph: Courtesy of Steve Rylander.

Getting carried away! Matthew Crowe (centre) as Nanki-Poo. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Direction & Production

Award winning director Thom Southerland has brought all the high quality hallmarks of his career to this production. The concept, setting the Mikado in a 1920s British Japanese fabric factory/shop, looks wonderful and provides a feast of visual fun. The blend of geisha glamour and Charleston glitz (with a dash of Weimar cabaret) gives Southerland plenty of ammunition to create a visual spectacular. Particularly, McKneely’s immense choreography really embraces Southerland’s vision, and ends up driving both the energy and the humour that runs through it. Then there are little visual quips too, such as the cast eating cucumber sandwiches using chopsticks which is just as delightful as the bigger more noticeable gags. Jonathan Lipman’s costumes are also sumptuous and are impressively detailed, brimming with colour and intricacies embracing this culture-crossover of east meets west. Everything about the production is lavish and well thought out. It’s as glorious an off-West End production as they come.

However, Southerland’s decision to turn to directing G&S, attempting to bring operetta to a theatre audience, is perhaps one of worthy but misplaced ambition. Despite an enthusiastic cast and gorgeous production, it’s a show that doesn’t quite get the essence of operetta, meaning that it falls flat and drags more than it should. The problem is that Southerland seems to be trying to direct The Mikado as if it were a theatrical comedy. Therefore, whilst it has the kitsch, it doesn’t have the camp energy that is essential to bring this to life in the way that it needs to.

A wandering minstrel, he. Matthew Crowe as Nanki-Poo. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

A wandering minstrel, he. Matthew Crowe as Nanki-Poo. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Producing and directing G&S is almost an academic affair. Notably, there are several highly acclaimed companies that specialise in performing there, such as the Charles Court Opera Company and D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. What they understand is that G&S operettas are pretty much the panto of opera: literally. Gilbert spent a lot of his early career writing pantomimes, and a lot of that is arguably incredibly prevalent in his work with Sullivan, and forms the basis of the style of the their operettas. Therefore, an unshakable and unabashed energy must run through it at all times. Characters needs to be larger than life rather than something more natural, and the pace must be unrelenting and over the top where it needs to be. This is something that Southerland hasn’t quite been able to capture here, although he starts getting close to this ideal in Act II.

Furthermore, it is beyond me why anyone would put on an operetta and have less than half the cast as trained classical singers. As talented a professional West End cast as this boasts, there is a power in a chorus and leading members that only classical training provides and is absolutely required even in operetta. This adds to the flagging energy at times as it means the show misses the aural “oomph” as much as the stylistic one. The bits that work best are when these involve the members of the cast who are classically trained, namely Rebecca Caine as Katisha, Mark Heenehan as The Mikado, and Leigh Coggins as Yum-Yum. Whilst the others match their comic performance skills, none ever quite capture the power and richness of their voices and the correct tonal and timbre treatment of the songs. For example, leading man Matthew Crowe as Nanki-Poo, is a well versed and celebrated musical theatre actor. But he’s not a classical tenor, meaning that in many of his songs he’s constantly resorting to using falsetto, meaning volume and power is instantly lost. Therefore, despite his reputation and skill, he becomes the weakest member of the cast because of this. It’s not at all his fault and is merely an error in casting.

Other missteps include things such as insisting on acrobatic movements during patter songs. A lot of the glorious libretto is lost in numbers such as “There Is Beauty in the Bellow of the Blast” because it’s just plain difficult for a cast to annunciate these already quick-tongued songs without being expected to roll about on the floor!

In short, this is a striking production, but there’s a reason why specific G&S companies exist and why operetta is classed in an entirely separate genre to both opera and musicals. It’s something Southerland strives towards, but doesn’t at all achieve.

Such a beautiful left elbow. Rebecca Caine as Katisha. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Such a beautiful left elbow. Rebecca Caine as Katisha. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Cast

Caine absolutely steals the show as Katisha. There’s a power and playfulness in everything she does to make her an expert villain, making Cruella DeVille look like Marry Poppins by comparison. Yet, she brings a tenderness and unexpected humanity for her more reflective arias, especially “Alone, And Yet Alive” that is as unexpectedly striking.

Other mentions must go to Hugh Osborne and Steve Watts as Ko-Ko and Pooh-Bah respectively. These two roles are pretty much the only two roles you can get away with not casting classically trained singers in, and they’ve been cast wonderfully. Osborne’s timid, ambitious, and fretful Ko-Ko and is complemented by Watt’s marvellous pompous and “grossly insulted” crocked aristocrat. They’re a formidable double-act that reel in the laughs and are a joy to watch.

Verdict

A very worthy and slick attempt at bringing G&S to new theatre audiences. But as slick as and meticulously produced as it is, it’s missed the mark by trying to treat operetta as a musical theatre rather than try to achieve the specialist approach that these famed pieces require. None the less, it’s still enjoyable and entertaining in spite of this, and is a fun and lavish evening out.

[youtube http://youtu.be/EX6TOmMMOkI]

The Mikado runs at the Charing Cross Theatre, London, WC2N 6NL.,until 3 January 2015. Tickets are £22.50 (concessions available). To book, visit www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk.


Face to Face Review: Betty Has To Go Now (LOST Theatre, London)

Betty-Oct-2014_y7t55n3kRating: ****

In A Nutshell

Joyful, inappropriate, and very very funny.

Overview

Take one part woman obsessed with Betty Crocker, add a pinch of nuclear Holocaust paranoia, season with a dash of menopause, and bake until outrageous.

Writing

Deirdre Strath’s culinary creation is a direct product of previous Face to Face festivals. The piece had a life as a 15 minute segment of last year’s festival, and for this year she has worked with Colin Watkeys to develop it into a full 50 minute show.

Strath’s creation is a homely taste of American hospitality combined with twisted and off-kilter world views, and tempered with an almost religious dedication to the queen of American home cooking. It’s inspired and riotously original and a character like no other to have graced the new writing. This volatile and unique concoction, whilst one cherry short of Bakewell tart, paves the way for outlandish and incredibly witty points of view as well as the cream of some comic moments, icing the show with unexpected smarts.

What’s best is that Strath peppers her dialogues with some of the most unexpected and tongue in cheek quips, all recited with incredibly creative application of language, most joyously her astonishing allegory of amazingly astute alliterations. You never quite see where they’re going to come from, and most of the time you’re left in a state of humorously winded and in awe. But behind it all is also the pathos of a woman on the edge; going through menopause, genuinely worried about international atomic warfare, and eating and drinking through the increasingly strained relationship with her son. When these rise above the laughter, you get a dark and touching portrait of a woman staving off a nervous breakdown, and who is as vulnerable as the rest of us.

The only issue is that parts of the extended text lacks the quick-fire punch of other moments. But nothing ever feels like padding and this is essentially just Strath’s comprehensively created character just being less funny for a moment rather than being less interesting and engaging.

[youtube http://youtu.be/9PizyE8Fd-g]

Performance

Strath really does embody her character ever atom of the way, to the point it’s difficult to see where she ends and her Crocker-acolyte begins. But as well as delivery the zingers and outlandish one-liners with slick ability, Strath also produces a gaggle of props which she also utilises with as much zest and comic timing as her text. Cue delicious cakes and cookies willing dished out to the audience, customised cocktails, mini blow torches, and a rather “explosive” creation made especially for a certain East Asian dictator. She takes the time to welcome the audience into her make-shift kitchen and make them feel at home, adding even more to her ineffable charm and demeanour.

But there were times where she slips up a little, sometimes forgetting her lines and stumbling a little through the order of her narrative. But where she does she rolls marvellous with the punches and recovers well to the point you wonder whether it was all purposeful to begin with. But you can’t come away without loving Strath’s character (and her cakes) and having seen the bright light of gospel of Betty Crocker…and the hydrogen bomb.

Verdict

Forget the Great British Bake off. Deirdre Strath serves up an evening with more sass, glamour, and flavour, than Mary Berry’s soggy bottom ever will.

[youtube http://youtu.be/C0srgX52wCU]

Betty Has To Go Now was performed as part of the Face to Face Festival of Solo Theatre which took place at the LOST Theatre, London, SW8 2JU, between 6 – 10 October 2014. For more information about the festival, visit www.solotheatrefestival.co.uk.


Theatre Review: Fairy Dregs and Friends (Caravan Theatre, London)

NOTE: Having stumbled upon this show completely accidentally last week, I endeavoured to get this up last weekend whilst it was still on. Indeed, I had even completed the initial draft of the review on the Friday. However, with my weekend turning into something of a exhaustion induced coma, things didn’t go to plan. However, if the Caravan Theatre and writer/performer Sammy Kissin can forgive me, I still think what I saw deserves a written testament. So although this review goes up rather late, it does so with with my sincerest apologies.

fairy dregsRating: ****

In a Nutshell

Two rich and imaginative solo pieces that enchant and rivet.

Overview

Writer and performer Sammy Kissin performs two short works in a golden caravan parked outside the Tate Modern, as part of the Merge Festival. Dregs is a piece about a fairy who gets trapped inside a bottle of merlot, and Mary Louise lets us in on the musings and reminiscences of a ship’s figurehead up for auction.

Writing

Across both pieces, Kissin demonstrates that she is a writer of incredible imagination, lilting language, and playful pathos. In Dregs, she clashes both the mystical with the mucky, as we hear the sad tale of how Dregs, a fairy, gets lured into a wine bottle by a troll, only to start what would become a descent into alcoholism. Whereas in Mary Louise, Kissin turns her creativity to personifying the life and experiences of a busty and bolshy ship’s figurehead. Everything she writes is well thought out and full of aching tragedy and fascinating intelligence. These are characters on the fringes of both our world and theirs, that still somehow manage to connect and speak to both the mind and the soul, through the glory and the grit of their tales.

Most impressive, though, is Kissin’s employment of language. Rich and luscious, there’s a splatter of the Jacobian greats in how it bounces and trips through vocabulary and metre. There’s an incredible sense of poetry that runs through both pieces from start to finish. Kissin is almost like a modern-day Marlowe, and it’s so rare to hear performance prose of such beauty crop up on the London new writing scene, let alone in such an unexpected and obscure place.

Performance

Kissin really embraces her prose and her characters, performing with a delicate but sturdy energy. But there’s two things that really hold back what would otherwise be an exemplary show. Firstly, whilst I’m all for theatre in odd spaces, the golden caravan as charming and as out-of-place as it is on the banks of the Thames is perhaps a bit too small. It’s not that it’s a tad too “cosy” for the audience (of which up to eight cuddle up at any given performance), but you get the sense that it’s too cramped for Kissin as well: not so much physically, but for her presence. You really get the sense that her performance needs to space to breath, and here, her charisma extends beyond the confines of the fibreglass box you’re squeezed into.

Secondly, there are times when you get the feeling she’s just a little too absorbed in her character. Ironically, despite the closeness of the venue, there are moments of distance put between her and the audience as she wanders off into a musing, leaving the punters to watch rather than engage. Given the opportunity to produce some incredibly intimate and responsive theatre here, it’s an aspect that’s just a touch overlooked.

But overall, in both of her characters, she’s ineffably charming and engrossing to watch, and is as talented a performer as she is a writer.

Verdict

Two surprisingly sublime nuggets of dramatic gold, if you happened to serendipitously stumble upon this last weekend.

[youtube http://youtu.be/FrOpB8EPnH0]

Fairy Dregs and Friends plays at the Caravan Theatre, Bankside, SE1 9TG, as part of the Merge Festival. For more information about the festival, visit http://mergefestival.co.uk.

.