Tag Archives: drama

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.

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Theatre Review: Fear In A Handful of Dust (COG ARTSpace, London)

Jack Morris as Simon. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Jack Morris as Simon. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

A powerful and indescribable monolith to the human spirit. Surprising and brutal.

Overview

Simon, an Englishman raised in India, is stuck by himself in a Great War trench in 1916, awaiting his rescue. Then, out of the blue comes Irish private Buck: sloppy, talkative, and exacerbating. Although their personalities and background could not be any more different, each form a strong bond and preserve each other through the horrors of World War I’s front line.

Writing

Sevan K. Greene, discovered through Henry Regan’s support of new writing with Vertical Line Theatre, has written a piece of great visceral and intense energy, but perhaps not quite in the way that you’d expect from a Great War play. As much as it explores some of the more harrowing aspects of the war – lice, rats, and mustard gas – it’s main focus is actually on camaraderie and how the two characters develop a strong bond of brotherhood in the most extreme of scenarios. Greene plays off the characters’ polemic personalities quite well, but always uses the clashes to reveal something deeper and an unexpected. His characters always surprise you: the cocksure and capricious Buck is perhaps not as heroic as he seems, and the uptight and fretful Simon is far more down to earth than his airs and graces would suggest. They are characters born of a deep and empathetic imagination, with a complexity that is incredibly impressive.

But it’s the compassion that these two people develop for each other is what’s heartbreaking, especially as Buck’s state of health deteriorates as the show goes on. It’s an exploration of the human spirit, once pride and prejudices are put aside, that makes this a truly devastating play.

There are just a few small flaws. For starters, Buck barges in boisterous and overbearing trying too hard to quickly break Simon’s rigid exterior at first, which is just a bit short of being easily believable: it’s sort of the point, but it just sits a bit oddly. Also, the pace can jump about a bit too much, from nuanced and deep character exploration to high action drama at the drop of a hat. Whilst this undoubtedly this mirrors just how quickly the situation on the front line can change, it makes it a little difficult to adjust to as an audience when it happens.

Otherwise, it’s a piece of great emotional intelligence and complex character writing, prising something beautifully beyond ordinary from a subject that we already have seen a lot done with this year.

Direction & Production

Traverse productions are a rare occurrence in London, but Director Jonny Collis has transformed the performance area of the COG ARTSpace into a traverse space and has worked wonders by doing so. It makes you feel like you’re trapped in a trench: claustrophobic with two high walls at either side of you. It also helps give a significant spacial depth that Collis expertly spins moments of high drama, with characters cowering far from the enemy line, or putting a physical distance to their personality chasm. It’s a set-up that works incredibly well in this intimate space and one that is particular inspired and well executed, putting the audience at the very core of the text.

Lighting and sound design, by Dan Cornwell, are also superlative. As well as doing well to light up requisite parts of the elongated set in different ways, creating an interesting pallet of hues rather than just a wash, he also plays with lighting from ground level as well from the rigging, creating some striking moments of shadow and colour. His sound design, comprising of high quality sound effects and atmospheric music, are piped through a sound system of equal standard: distant cannons and immediate gunfire and crisp and palpable, drawing in the audience rather than distracting them like the unconvincing effects you can too often find on the fringe.

Put this together with Anne Stoffels and Ed Hollands detailed period costumes and props, and Isa Shaw-Abulafia’s purposefully ramshackle set of corrugated iron and mud, it’s a production that creates a reality the really does Greene’s writing justice, assisting the audience in involving themselves in this stark and terrifying world.

Jack Morris (left) and Henry Regan (right) as Simon and Buck. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Jack Morris (left) and Henry Regan (right) as Simon and Buck. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Cast

Regan as Buck, and Jack Morris as Simon, are two superb actors. Both are utterly convincing and manage to really get to the depths of Greene’s characters, resulting in them being impressively compelling in their roles. Morris really exudes a handsome and formal authority in everything that he does, but also enables a deep underlying compassion to come through un-muddled and uncomplicated. Regan, particularity, commands a hauntingly ethereal performance in the throngs of a delusional fever, really galvanising one of the most powerful moments of the play.

The only thing I could possible pick at is that Regan’s accent is perhaps a bit too thick. Dialect Coach, Michael O’Toole, has done perhaps a bit too well a job, as, if someone is not used to the accent, they can easily lose some of Regan’s lines.

Verdict

Incredibly slick and deeply moving Fear In A Handful Of Dust is a Great War play with surprising heart and intelligence. A heartbreaking and heroic piece of writing with an incredibly impressive production behind it.

Fear In A Handful of Dust plays at the COG ARTSpace, London, N1 3JS, until 9 January 2015. Tickets are £12 (concessions available). To book, visit www.cogartspace.com.


Theatre Review: It’s A Wonderful Life – The Radio Play (Bridge House Theatre, London)

Wonderful! Sophie Scott (left) and Gerard McCarthy (right). Photograph: courtesy of Anton Hewins.

Wonderful! Sophie Scott (left) and Gerard McCarthy (right). Photograph: courtesy of Anton Hewins.

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

Proof that all you need for great theatre is a good story and brilliant storytellers. The production finds an ineffable charm in its resourcefulness.

Overview

George Bailey is a man with great ambitions. Yet his good nature has meant he has never been able to leave the sleepy up-state New York town of Bedford Falls. And now, things have come to a head and he’s contemplating suicide. But can rookie second class angel, Clarence, intent on earning his wings, be the one to convince him that he really has a wonderful life?

Writing

If I’m going to be upfront about things, I’m going to have to admit that, for all it’s praise, I’m not a huge fan of the film of It’s A Wonderful Life: even though it’s synonymous with Christmas and considered one of film’s all time greats. Yet famed radio-playwright, Tony Palermo, in his scaled back and succinct adaptation, has managed to find a different and hidden magic in the tale through it’s resetting. It might just be actors speaking into microphones accompanied by live sound effects, but he’s managed to still find a pace and an imagination that is difficult not to get drawn into. It’s an excellent radio play, even it’s being performed on stage. Palermo’s focus is, in his own words:

“…presenting theatre audiences with an authentic and delightful experience of radio drama in its heyday.” – www.ruyasonic.com.

He achieves this wholly and effortlessly.  Most astonishingly is, that despite the bareness of the concept, the children in the audience were completely hooked: something I had not expected, and speaks volumes for the show’s ability to engage and enchant.

The production’s setting the show as a local Penge 1949 live radio broadcast adds even more charm, including 1940s style adverts for actual business. Actor Daniel Hill also does a wonderful job of playing the broadcasts’ host too, working the crowd and creating a friendly and festive atmosphere. All in all, it not just create a sense of nostalgia but a palpable sense of time-travel.

Direction & Production

If you think that mainly getting a cast together to speak into microphones would make for lazy direction, you’d be wrong. Guy Retallack ensures that he never drops the ball and adds wonderful nuances throughout the production. There’s still plenty of interaction between characters, and they often ignore the mics and focus on each other, responding directly both physically and emotionally among themselves rather than just at the microphones. Retallack also makes great use of the small stage space, having actors muster and perform at the back of the stage even if it be feet away from the front, as well as make use of the passageway towards the dressing rooms. In fact, you almost forget the microphones are there and are engaged in the action as if it were a play rather than a radio broadcast. Retallack has added myriad visual details to something that doesn’t require it, and in doing so has incredibly elevated it into something extra special.

Elsewhere, Susan Burns on the sound effects is always on cue, adding an aural colour where visuals are missing. Whilst Fiona Martin’s minimal set of retro mics and “On Air” sign, coupled with the beautifully tailored period costumes, add further suspension of disbelief that the theatre space is a time casual fresh from 70 years ago.

It’s an incredibly resourceful production, but it has ensured that at every step of the way it’s frugal necessity is converted into inescapable charm.

Cast

I really can’t think of anyone to pick out in particular from the cast as they’re all top notch. Each and every one of them are not just great actors, but brilliant storytellers. Working with nothing but themselves and very few props, they manage to conjure up a lost era of a small town far overseas without having to force anything or try too hard. They’re as integral to the magic as the script and the production, and have the audience hang on every word and command their every attention when executing their craft: it’s utterly bewitching.

What’s more, as many of them play several characters, they switch instantly between them, not just in voice but in stature and physical characteristics that gives a striking visual difference as well as an aural one.

Verdict

It’s a Wonderful Life – The Radio Play is a wonderful time-warp. A warmth and heart that’s moving, unfathomably cosy, and steadfastly brilliant. Palermo’s writing and Retallack’s cast and production add an unexpected and surprising magic to, and perhaps even bettering, a story that has long been a pinnacle of Christmas.

It’s A Wonderful Life – The Radio Play plays at the Bridge House Theatre, London, SE20 8RZ, until 4 January 2015. Tickets from £10. To book, visit www.bhtheatre.co.uk.


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.


Theatre Review: Tom & Jerry: A Love Story (Drayton Arms Theatre, London)

A cat and mouse game! Denholm Spurr (left) as Tom, and Pearce Sampson (right) as Jerry.

A cat and mouse game! Denholm Spurr (left) as Tom, and Pearce Sampson (right) as Jerry.

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

Tender and truthful with some great writing, lifting what is otherwise something too familiar.

Overview

Tom meets Jed in a club. Tom is straight laced and prim, whilst Jed is hyperactive, self-absorbed, and queeny. However, after a bump and a spill, they end up in an unlikely relationship. But can domestic bliss endure their clash of personalities?

Writing

This new piece by Nick Myles is not exactly original, in the sense that there are already countless plays looking at how opposites attract as well as repel. However, even if the narrative doesn’t break any new ground, you forget the familiarities of such a tale due to some marvellous writing.

For starters, Myles explores the issues with an absorbing level of intelligence and truth. His characters, their thoughts and their feelings, clearly come from a very real and heartfelt place, giving the play a tangible humanity. Particularly, he proves that you can include stereotypical characters without them coming across at two-dimensional. Even Jed, with all the mincing irritation that his shallow persona embodies, is still a vulnerable, responsive, and feeling character. You may be able to see where the story is going, but nether the less you’re still intrigue by the nuance and personality that Myles writes with.

Furthermore, there are some wonderful little moments where Myles employs his writing technically. At one point, he creates a wonderful moment toying with of distance and closeness. At the apex of the relationship, he has the characters recount the day it all fell apart, taking turn individuals talking directly to the audience, which wonderfully isolates themselves from each other through the text, despite director Niall Phillips creating a physical closeness they have on the stage: a wonderful visual and atmospheric contrast that lifts the already emotional opening up of the characters. There’s also moments when he toys with inner-dialogue to peek into the psyches of the characters as they interact, ensuring the audience don’t take away everything at face value.

The only other criticism aside from originality, is that Myles takes a bit too long to explore the issues sometimes, causing some moments to drag, especially where there’s an absence of the little dramatic tricks he employs elsewhere. It’s clear that Myles wants to explore the issues and feelings he’s meticulously dissecting as fully as possible. But the tenderness that comes across from the writing, even in these lulls the slower pacing, is by no means a negative trade off for a text that so easily and earnestly resonates with anyone who’s ever been in a failed relationship.

Direction & Production

Phillips works wonders with very little by means of space and set. Opting to not use the generous (if not awkward) space of the Drayton Arms Theatre doesn’t mean that it looses anything. There’s certainly enough space for the cast to interact with each other and tell the story, and enough simple props to create the various scenes and places.

As well as little embellishments that augment Myles’ writing (such as the aforementioned physically placing the characters close together when they’re at their most distant), Phillips handles scene changes in a wonderful way too: as the characters set up the props, they move and interact to tells succinctly and charmingly the emotions and story of the time inbetween. The problem is that some of them go on just a bit too long, overstaying the point and the picture that they’re trying to make/paint. Otherwise, it adds a wonderful sense of continuity to Mile’s play, whilst visually colouring the characters beyond what the text already says about them.

There is also a very natural approach to the text too. Phillips isn’t worried about actors talking over each other or forcedly interrupting a sentence during an argument or excited discussion due to being caught up in the heat of the moment. It gives the whole play an even more realistic charm that helps us to identify with the characters more. The cast handle this approach incredibly well too, but always without drowning each other out or drawing undue dominance. It creates a believable insight into what could be a very real relationship, and were it for the fact you know this is a play, you’d swear that actors Pearce Sampson and Denhlom Spurr were a real life ill-fated couple.

Cast

Both Sampson and Spurr handle their characters effortlessly organically. Sampson especially manages to bring a human depth to a character who is otherwise monstrously superficial in nature. Spurr is also great at exploiting the cracks in his character’s uptight veneer to reveal some touching repressed emotions. But it’s the chemistry between them that is most interesting to watch. Even at their most intimate, there’s always a sense of distance, and likewise, when there’s distance between them, there’s still a simmer of passion and longing that draws them together: a picture-perfect capture of Tom and Jed’s dynamic.

Verdict

A warm and affecting look at when love doesn’t go the way it should when personalities clash, with writing that carries and intrigues in a narrative that you that doesn’t necessarily offer anything too new.

[youtube http://youtu.be/y3yaHBZrmZs]

Tom & Jerry: A Love Story was performed at the Drayton Arms Theatre, SW5 0LJ.


Theatre Review: The Glasshouse (Tristan Bates Theatre, London)

Sonnie Beckett as Mary Boden. Photograph: Courtesy of Vincent Rowley.

Sonnie Beckett as Mary Boden. Photograph: Courtesy of Vincent Rowley.

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

A most provocative and powerful account of pacifism in the extreme, combined with a stark reminder of the human horrors of the First World War.

Overview

Pip was sent to the French trenches during the First World War. However, he is a pacifist and is imprisoned as a “conscientious objector”. He is locked up in a barn with another “conchy”, Moon: an Irish boy suffering from severe shell-shock. As the war rages on and his sentence approaches, Pip not only makes unexpected friends and starts small personal revolutions in the people he meets, but he has his stance on pacifism pushed to an absolute extreme at the hands of a sadistic fellow soldier.

Sam Adamson as Moon. Photograph: Courtesy of Vincent Rowley.

Sam Adamson as Moon. Photograph: Courtesy of Vincent Rowley.

Writing

Max Saunders Singer makes his playwriting debut, after his artistic input in RIP and his award nominated performance in Mojo. For a piece that is a first attempt, it’s pretty damn impressive.

Particularly, Saunders Singer’s handling of narrative development is the play’s strongest point. Rather than delivering a piece that comfortably praises and skims through pacifism as an ideology, he takes the time to question it’s appropriateness by testing the character to the very limits. Although the action itself is shocking, at the same time he provides a brutal but balanced examination of pacifism that is engrossing. Likewise, Pip as a character that is incredibly deep, adding intrigue to what Saunders Singer puts him through. Devoutly religious, but with the suggestion of a much darker past, Pip is far from a textbook Figure A, prompting more questions than we would usually end up asking ourselves about his stance.

Other characters in the play are well thought out and well placed catalysts the move this dramatic discussion forward. From the connection he builds with Sergeant Harper, to the stinging rebuffs of his proud Captain brother; everything lifts and colours Pip as a character and complicates his ideals.

Furthermore, Saunders Singer is unflinching in his portrayal of the violence of The Great War. There are some incredibly violent and unsavoury scenes, but everything always feels organic rather than gratuitous, especially as a tool to put pacifism under the microscope. If we’re asked to never forget their sacrifices, this is a stark and important reminder of what it was they went through, without sensationalism or exaggeration.

The only, and somewhat small, problem with the writing is pacing: there are points where the action drags a little too much. It’s very difficult to get pacing right in a play like this as, given the intensity of the action and the subject explored, the audience tend to tire very quickly emotionally and physically and thus don’t fancy hanging around much. Saunders Singer has gone for a more naturalistic dialogue and pace which, whilst creates an organic sense of scene, creates too much of a lull in the action meaning you lose attention a little.

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glasshosue 2

Max Saunders Singer as Pip. Photograph: Courtesy of Vincent Rowley.

Production and Direction

This is by far some of the most impressive production values I’ve seen on the fringe, no doubt in thanks to the show’s Kickstarter patrons. DoBo Designs’ set is an incredibly impressive cross section of an old barn, with splintered wood, cobwebs, and rusting farm tools to boot. There are umpteen other little touches as well, from wet mist pouring from the shell hole in the roof, to realistic doves, and the most gruesome things a butcher can provide in lieu of actual human torture. The level of detail is phenomenal and really adds to lift the horrific reality of the piece.

Sebastien Blanc, rejoining Saunders Singer after their last partnership in Mojo, also superbly directs the piece. There is always something going on in the fringes of the set, to add a living sense of reality to the scenes. But despite this constant nature, Blanc ensures that nothing unintentionally distracts whilst ensuring the space where the main events take place in a scene gives room for it to develop and breathe, despite the limited space it takes place in. Teaming up with fight director Matt Gardener, the stage becomes a brutal and slickly executed powder-keg that lights Saunders Singer’s intent.

Simon Naylor (left) Sam Adamson (centre) and Max Saunders Singer (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Vincent Rowley.

Simon Naylor (left) Sam Adamson (centre) and Max Saunders Singer (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Vincent Rowley.

Cast

You couldn’t ask for a more phenomenal cast. Although there are the usual misgivings of a writer being involved in the acting (usually, one of those, if not both, suffers), Saunders Singer makes sure that his recent nomination was not something thrust upon him without merit. His performance is an affectionate and empathetic one which captivates the audience through and through, most likely coming from the fact that he intrinsically knows Pip as a person through having written him. Simon Naylor is also fantastic as Sergeant Harper, and confidently charts the journey from bullish authority to a man crumbling from the weight of guilt and uncertainty, with nuance and respect.

Sam Adamson, however, fresh out of training with this being his first professional role, is astonishing, giving an uncomfortable and harrowing visceral performance as shell-shocked Moon. The energy and dedication to every flinch and fit is extraordinary, augmenting the utter heartbreak of his character’s demise. John Askew as Private Blythe, the piece’s antagonist, is also as evil and maniacal as they come; out-rightly one of the most despicable and dangerous villains I’ve ever witnessed to have graced the stage. He’s enraging and ghastly to watch to the point it’s a little worrying that he can so agilely and naturally portray such sick and craven masochist!

Verdict

Horrifying and immensely provocative, this is a WWI centenary play that has an intelligence and power beyond expectations. A show that shreds heartstrings and decimates sensibilities, it’s theatre at it’s most outstanding.

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The Glasshouse plays at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London, WC2H 9NP, until 22 November 2014. Tickets are £16 (concessions available). To book, visit http://tristanbatestheatre.co.uk.


Face to Face Review: The Helen Project (LOST Theatre, London)

Helen3Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

An original and surprising examination of the personal plight of Helen of Troy: the face that launched a thousand ships.

Overview

Six actors become Helen, each taking on an aspect of key moments of her life in Homer’s Iliad. They explore what her thoughts and feelings would have been as history’s most infamous beauty queen.

Writing

There is a wonderful depth and humanity here to a character we too often see as a prize rather than a human being. Each moment paints Helen as a flawed but deep and thoughtful character. Caught between fate, her own vanity, and violent patriarchy, she’s faced to consider things like abandoning her children, and being the cause of death for thousands. Writers Megan Cohen and Amy Clare Tasker have hit on some very real and challenging questions about how we view Helen, by portraying here as a simple, albeit beautiful, woman.

What’s wonderful is the mixture of anachronisms in the text. There are some very modern references within it that have the potential to jar against the otherwise very ancient Greek setting of the actual narrative. But these little idiosyncrasies, instead of alienating the audience from the story, actually manage to bring them further into it. This is because it makes the actors on stage seem more real and believable as people and the issues more relevant bringing about a very involved engagement with the piece.

Furthermore, there is some intense moments within the text. Moments where Helen talks of her children are pretty tough to sit through bringing home of the horrors of the story and highlighting some tough decisions that you’d never have thought Helen would have made: a stark reminder that Helen, for all the academic analysis of her part in the classic legend, was still a woman and a mother. Furthermore, there are moments where Helen turns into rabid poet, especially Last Night of the War Helen. Cohen and Clare Tasker’s writing here is at it’s most rhythmic, descriptive, and dark, especially at points where we see Helen mock the human contents of the wooden horse that has turned up on her doorstep. It’s ravishing and riveting. Throughout all of this we’re privy to some very intelligent provocations challenging our thoughts on patriarchy, beauty, and gender.

Scenes are also cleverly interspersed with sound walls of cold essays and unfeeling analysis of the story combined with impactful physical theatre from The Face, making us consider just how easy it is to callously we pore over Helen. This provides some wonderful juxtaposition and variation of pace throughout the piece.

Direction & Production

In transferring the show to the LOST Theatre for the festival, Clare Tasker and fellow director Sharon Burrell have made some bold decisions. Under the advice of festival director Colin Watkeys, they have switched the performance from having all six Helens being on stage at the same time to each coming out only when it’s their part: a slight twist on Watkeys’ own exploration of his “chorus of one” as executed in Adult Child/Dead Child earlier on in the festival. It absolutely works as we’re able to fully focus our attention on the actor and the character than potentially get distracted by Helens who wait to have or have had their turn.

Furthermore, Clare Tasker and Burrell make great use of the LOST’s space. For example, using the hidden openings in the cyclorama/building structure to add height and drama to The Face during scene changes. Elsewhere, they capitalise upon the generous stage making sure that their cast use it as giving them room and space to breath and explore. With nothing but a few props evoking a more ancient time, each actor makes use of the stage without ever seeming overwhelmed or lost in it. Clare Tasker and Burrell’s lighting, complimented by Xander Edwards sound designs, add elements of aesthetic that really lifts the piece. Specifically, the subtle but striking sunrise pouring out from the wings, accompanied by the sound of distant burning at times, is a lavish garnish that really lifts the show.

Most interestingly, the choice of cast is another very meticulous vehicle for using Helen’s plights as a means of exploring gender and beauty. Each of the cast members bring their own individual sense of physical attraction, each with a unique body type and all of which look stunning in their own skin. This makes us question our own notions of beauty, and what exactly were the parameters that made Helen so universally “beautiful” to cause such a catastrophe of mythic proportions. It’s a clever little nuance that marks the piece out as something that’s as thoughtful as it is entertaining.

Cast

It’s so difficult to pick out any particular performance, as all the cast as superb, relishing their moment as Helen on the stage and bringing their own distinct watermark of interpretation to the character. For example, Rachel Handshaw is vicious as Helen with her manipulative scheming about how she should be found by her victor, and taunts at the heroes patiently trapped inside the horse. Angela Bull, however, emobodies and wonderfully dry and snide take on Helen’s personality that’s a hoot. Yet, you get the impression that if you swapped any of the Helens into different roles, you’d get just as interesting and varied an anthology as you would in the way that it was done here. In short, each actor wholly owns their part, and they work wonders by doing so.

Verdict

Poignant, provocative, and engrossing, you’ll never look at the Iliad in quite the same way again.

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The Helen Project was performed at the LOST Theatre, London, SW8 2JU as part of the Face to Face Festival of Solo Theatre, which took place 6-11 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.

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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.

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Face to Face Review: Adult Child/Dead Child (Lost Theatre, London)

claire dowieRating: *****

In A Nutshell

Colin Watkey’s “chorus of one” treatment – using several actors to explore the same character – makes for an intense exploration of Claire Dowie’s acclaimed look at bad childhood and mental health.

Overview

What happens when a child when it receives a lack of love? How does it affect their mind, and their health? We watch Claire Dowie’s character grow up through a troubled family life, right through to dealing with schizophrenia as an adult. Festival founder and director Colin Watkey’s, in reviving Adult Child/Dead Child, experiments in seeing how using several actors playing the same role effects the piece.

Writing

What’s most beguiling about Dowie’s writing is not only how free and natural the central character is, using unembellished and down-to-earth anecdotes and experiences, but the simple yet incredibly effect poetry that runs throughout the entire piece. It really emphasises and brings out the emotions and certain plot points that hook you right into the character’s story and plight without any effort at all. This poetic grasp of language really adds a simple yet lavish texture and rhythm to the text that makes the piece incredibly easy to listen to and engage with, but without adding any unnecessary theatre or pretence to someone who is very definitely a human character.

It takes us on a heartbreaking and absorbing journey of a child who has been let down at every step of the way into adulthood, resulting in a life on the edge of both reason and sanity. Laced with little garnishes of humour, it’s a deep, honest, and angry look at mental health, complete with gorgeously devastating insights into the fragility of human mentality. Nothing is exaggerated or over-dramatic, which is what makes it speak so directly to an audience and makes it so affecting. It taps so effortlessly into the uncomfortable delicacy of the human condition, and how easy it is to be destructively cruel to someone.

Direction

Watkey’s direction, as well as employing his “chorus of one”, succinctly embodies his views on what solo theatre should be through his direction here. His stage expands to include the entire auditorium, embracing the view that the audience are the “other character” of any solo show. Actors rest in seats within the audience and pop up next to them, or even perform their part at the back of the stalls. It’s audience immersion at it’s most simple, bringing the play, and therefore it’s themes and issues, physically to the audience.

The treatment of having seven actors play moments of the same character adds not just a certain sense of variety, but also intrigue. We don’t get seven interpretations of a character, per se, but several different perspectives. The issues explored within the piece always stay the same throughout, but the angle and empathises of them is slightly different from performer and performer. It’s fascinating, whilst always ensuring the narrative and clarity of the piece is never muddied. This is heightened by the fact that the actors cast here constitute a wonderful cross-section of gender, age, and culture, meaning you really get kaleidoscopic points of view that are difficult not to connect on at least one level by drawing on the performers own charismas.

Additionally, the decision to use Stephen Oxley as a makeshift “narrator” during the poetic interludes between scenes adds a sense of relief and momentum, especially as Oxley adds such elegant gravitas in doing so.

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Cast

It’s impossible to pick out any particular performer as being better or any more outstanding than the other. Even as exhilarating as it is to see Dowie perform part of her own work nearly 30 years after she first wrote it, she isn’t any more or less exceptional than any of the other cast.

There are moments, however, that really stick in your mind about a each performer’s contribution. To pick a few, Martin Stewart’s playful nuances not only manage to provide some light relief through characterisation rather than script, making the character even more charming and tragic. Lola Kotey is marvellously manic and just that a little bit twisted in her exploration of mental health and its labels and stereotypes. And when Deirdre Strath’s charming and eloquent American homeliness suddenly crumbles into raw distress, it just makes something inside you break.

But what’s most extraordinary about the entire cast is how they feed off the audience. You get the feeling that some of the writing could come across more light and comic at various points throughout. But as the audience ended up having a bit more of a severe reaction to the show for this particular performance, each performer works with this rather than against, responding and complimenting the atmosphere augmenting it’s effect on people to an astonishing apex.

Verdict

An excellent experiment in what solo theatre is and means that has paid dividends. Dowie’s piece is lifted to intense new highs by an inspired vision and an impeccable cast.

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Adult Child/Dead Child was performed as part of the Face to Face Festival of Solo Theatre, which took place between 6-11 October 2014 at the Lost Theatre, London, SW8 2JU. For more information about the festival, visit www.solotheatrefestival.co.uk.


Review: Next Fall (Southwark Playhouse, London)

Martin Delaney (left) and Charlie Condou (right). Photograph: Robert Workman.

Martin Delaney (left) and Charlie Condou (right). Photograph: Robert Workman.

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

A beautifully sardonic and heart-shattering piece, written from a place of love, humanity, and anguish.

Overview

Adam and Luke have been together for five years. Adam is in his 40s and an aetheists, whilst Luke, much younger, is a Christian and still in the closet to his parents. Their life has always been one of compromise where they’ve failed to reach an understanding, but tenderness in the close affinity that they can. But when an accident happens to Luke, Adam Is forced to face and rely upon a family who are less than accepting of homosexuality, and have no idea who he is and what he means to Luke.

Writing

Geoffrey Nauffts’ play was nominated for “Best Play” at the Tony Awards 2010, and now see’s it transfer to London four years later. One of the reasons for its success is it’s incredibly satisfying dry wit which permeates the entire piece. However, for those who are well versed in gay plays and other LGBT arts productions, especially issues surrounding religion vs. sexuality, there’s nothing particularly ground-breaking in the themes and arguments that many will have heard before. So whilst the humour is certainly entertaining and extremely sharp, the first act just feels a little too familiar.

However, it’s in Act II that the play really comes into it’s own. Whilst Nauffts might not be offering much with regards to new point and counterpoint to the subject, it’s how he uses the characters to frame the issues discussed that is the real triumph of the play. For starters, Nauffts’ characters are all substantially flawed. You can never quite get behind Adam as a protagonist as, although long suffering, he’s more unlikeable than likeable. Likewise, Butch, the Bible-thumping alpha heterosexual patriarch, is not all he seems, causing us to think and rethink what prejudices we ourselves are judging him by.

What this results in is, rather than a greying of the arguments’ clarities, Nauffts’ blurs the emotional lines on the subject. There is no distinct binary of how we should be feeling and thinking here that would otherwise serve as an simple catharsis or a shallow rally-call for an established campaign. But instead we get a difficult and challenging walkthrough of the issues where there aren’t any easy hero or villain figures. Because of this, the show, as well as being marvellously humorous, is also achingly moving. The characters feel very real and, despite their faults, you still deeply care for them. But also, the show is frustratingly realistic. You just want the characters to scream and kick-off, leaving Adam and Luke to emerge victors and live their happily-ever-after. Nauffts, however, settles for a reality. Though painful and despondent as it is, it ultimately leaves you with as much poignancy and anger as it does sore sides and wet cheeks.

Mitchell Mullen (left) and Nancy Crane (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Robert Workman.

Mitchell Mullen (left) and Nancy Crane (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Robert Workman.

Direction & Production

The production sits very cosily in the smaller theatre space at the Southwark Playhouse but loses nothing despite the fact that it could probably have just as easily filled the main space. David Woodhead’s set wonderfully feels homely enough to be a minimalistic and sleek New York apartment, but just clinical enough to double as an unforgiving and soulless hospital waiting area: a wonderfully agile duality.

The most interesting aspect of the production, however, is how Director Luke Sheppard and lighting designer Howard Hudson work together to bring out some nice little touches. When it comes to scene changes, whilst the other cast start to move and replace props, there’s a spot that lingers on the central character of the scene, just as they do. This  creates an omnipresent feeling of lingering and detachment from what’s going on, and really augments the strife that the characters go through both past and present within the story. This marks Sheppard out as a director who clearly empathises with the piece, endeavouring to give the issues and the feelings involved prominence and justice.

Cast

Charlie Condou, most famous for his role in Coronation Street, is the main draw here, especially as an openly gay actor and parent. But whilst he handles himself well, it’s the rest of the cast that really deserve the praise. Condou’s on-stage counterpart, Luke, played by Martin Delaney, is adorably charismatic and carefree, playing up to his character’s youthful naivety with a wonderful sense of grace. Indeed, he’s the perfect antidote to Condou’s fretful and self-absorbed Adam, and the pair’s chemistry is the most electric when their relationships is most strained. However, they’re still still able to conjure a sweet cuteness for their happier and more intimate times together that is comfortably numbing, making all the more for a heart-wrenching tragedy.

Mitchell Mullen as Butch also deserves a mention as he superbly growls and spits as Luke’s close-minded and zealot father, but letting the audience peep through chinks into something that is more scared and vulnerable rather than completely proud and despotic. Likewise, Nancy Crane’s Southern charm as Butch’s wife, Arlene, slowly cracks in a majestic and tender fashion, as a warm and repentant woman trying hard to atone and keep it together for all her past faults.

Verdict

Whilst the writing is of a familiar set of ideas and arguments, Nauffts’ characters and emotional framing makes for a crushing and human play. With wonderful directional flourishes, and a stunning cast, you’ll be hard pressed to fight back both laughter and tears.

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Next Fall plays at the Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1 6BD, until 25 October 2014. Tickets are £18 (concessions available). To book, visit http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk.