Tag Archives: face to face festival 2014

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.


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.


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.


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.


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

[youtube http://youtu.be/L67eKQEYsc0]

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.

Face to Face Review: Martha Gellhorn – The Troubles Seen (Lost Theatre, London)

Martha Gellhonr (second from left) and Ernest Hemingway (second from right) with unidentified Chinese officers.

Martha Gellhorn (second from left) and Ernest Hemingway (third from right) with unidentified Chinese officers.

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

A powerful and entrancing mini-biography about a most remarkable woman, with an even more remarkable performance.


Performer, Sian Webber, and solo theatre writer extraordinarie, Jack Klaff, team up to create this minuscule history play about one of the world’s most notable war correspondents of the 20th century, who also just happened to be one of the wives of Ernest Hemingway.


Klaff is no stranger to adventurous solo pieces, after his barnstorming performance of his biography of Sir Isaac Newton at last year’s festival. Now, teaming up with Webber, Klaff turns to exploring an iconic female member of the species.

What’s most spectacular about the writing is that, for want of having had the privilege to know Gellhorn in real life, this is the closest you’ll ever get, as what Webber and Klaff present what could be a dead-ringer for her if you were none the wiser. Gellhorn, as a character, is authoritative as you can get: gushing with brash confidence and American cocksure that, worthy of the place on the pedestal that history has given her. Natural but bolshy, Klaff and Webber’s writing has created a behemoth that is as believable as is beguiling.

Most interesting here is a minimum use of Klaff’s maxim that “everyone is a crowd”. Webber is only made to play an entirely separate character only the once during the entire show, turning her stance and stature to a more timid second-hand testament in explaining why the subject of her marriage to Hemingway was something to be skirted around with Martha. It had the potential seem out of place, but somehow it didn’t at all stick out, adding a nice, if not brief, garnish of variety.


Webber is absolutely indomitable in her role as Gellhorn. In fact, you could absolutely believe that she could be Gellhorn herself, in just how effortless she is in the role. Specifically, her interaction with the audience as an integral, living, and responsive part of the production is stupendous. It’s like you’ve got your own private audience with the legend herself, and you’re just as an important part of the conversation as she is. You do end up listening rather than speaking, but you feel that’s your choice rather than what you’re expected to do. Making Webber’s Gellhorn even more realistic are myriad little performance nuances she adds, such as the opening of the top of her blouse when she gets a little hot, or the hesitation in putting down her glass of water whilst she digests the accounts she’s just revisited. It all seems natural and completely spontaneous rather than something rehearsed, and is an epiphanous example of performance sheen.

The most fascinating facet of her performance is just how straightforward she is as she recounts her life: there isn’t any unnecessary exaggeration or drama where there so easily could have been. But that’s not to say that it ever comes across as unfeeling, as behind it all are always the little spikes of horror and trauma of the things she has witnessed, from the Spanish Civil War to the carnage of the WWII Normandy beach landings. Webber does a marvellous job of balancing this bullish air of glamour against the underlying distress and dissatisfaction of her witness of human beings behaving at their worst or most resilient. Whilst it seems like a little thing, it really encapsulates Gellhorn as a person and as a historical figure: someone who reported what they saw, accountable and measured, but not without profound personal contemplation and reflection.


The final result is a wholly engrossing, elating, and surprisingly personal experience. If you didn’t know who Martha Gellhorn was before this, you are left feeling educated and in awe. If you did, you feel like you’ve come into contact with a living, breathing, and fascinatingly palpable legacy that you can’t help but be completely involved in with every single syllable Webber produces.

[youtube http://youtu.be/kIzADrty8rg]

Martha Gellhorn – The Troubles Seen was performed as part of the Face to Face Festival of Solo Theatre, which took place at the Lost Theatre, London, SW8 2JU, 6th– 11th October 2014. For more information about the festival, visit www.solotheatrefestival.co.uk.

Face to Face Review: The Fall Of The House of Usher (Lost Theatre, London)

Jamie-West-Usher_i8a8prwpRating: ****

In a Nutshell

An ambitious reduction performed with intoxicating and engrossing theatricality.

NOTE: This piece is a work in progress.


As part of the Face to Face Festival of Solo Theatre’s evening of experimentation, musician Jamie West reduces the prog rock opera by Van De Graaff Generator front-man, Peter Hammill, with libretto by Chris Judge Smith, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, for solo performer.

The narrator is summoned to the house of Roderick Usher. Upon the apparent death of Roderick’s sister, Madeline, he convinces the narrator that she should be buried in the vaults below the house. But all is not what it seems and, days later, things start to go bump in the night in the tombs below.

Music & Libretto

Hammill’s opera is wonderfully accessible in the fact that his prog rock riffs and melodies are quick to hook. Judge Smith’s libretto also blends Poe’s Gothic prose with more natural language meaning that the high-poetry doesn’t stifle the flow of the music or seeming awkwardly inserted, but still gives the glory of Poe’s wordsmithing room to pierce through.

West has made some adjustments to the music, in trying to make it possible to perform it as a solo musician on only a single given instrument at any time. But West also admits changing some of the harmonies to make them more accessible and chime more with him personally as a performer. Whilst it might seem sacrilege to make changes to the actual operatic score beyond what is necessary, unless you’re a die-hard fan of the opera you’d never have realised it unless you already knew that this was the case. Even so, it still manages to flow and be catchy without feeling like a cheaper or changed version.

[youtube http://youtu.be/NehTc1nZPI4]


West has an astonishing voice that really lends well to the piece. His incredibly rich baritone voice is garnished effortlessly with subtle but thrilling vibrato. But whilst West’s voice is certainly divine to listen to, what makes him astonish here is his stage presence and sense of theatricality. The stage figuratively shrinks when he starts to perform, as he’s a musical story-teller of the finest pedigree. You hang on every note and blissful tremelando. He does a superb effort in bringing out the high drama and dark devices of Poe’s story and Hammill’s music.

One small criticism is that it;s sometimes difficult to get a grasp of what character’s voice is coming through at any given moment: it’s not immediately clear that it’s the narrator when spoken and Roderick when sung. Also, there’s currently the absence of Madeline from West’s reduction, with gender and vocal range being an obstacle he’s yet to tackle.

The main grumble is that, in it’s current form, the piece is far too short. Whilst you’re really starting to become utterly absorbed in the rich world West conjures, it suddenly ends, leaving you gasping for more. But hopefully as the piece continues to develop, the show will expand to be even more inviting and more satisfying than it currently is.


Musically thrilling and astonishingly performed, this bold reduction keeps the piece well away from the grave. Dark and hypnotic, it’s a dark and dexterous show that should only get better as it develops.

[youtube http://youtu.be/OYyIoeqdZIM]

The Fall Of The House Of Usher was performed as part of the Face to Face Festival of Solo Theatre, which took place at the Lost Theatre, London, SW8 2JU, 6th– 11th October 2014. For more information about the festival, visit www.solotheatrefestival.co.uk.