Tag Archives: Face to Face Festival of Solo Theatre

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.

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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.

[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.


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.

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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.

Overview

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.

Writing

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.

Performance

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.

Verdict

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.

Overview

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]

Performance

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.

Verdict

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.


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.

[youtube http://youtu.be/1_6k_oARrC4]

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.

[youtube http://youtu.be/2xHXdeho1UE]

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.