Tag Archives: fringe

Opinion: Which “Sweeney Todd” to See?

Sarah Ingram (centre) dishing out one hell of a performance.

Sarah Ingram (centre) dishing out one hell of a performance.

It’s pies all round this season, for some reason, as London gets no less than THREE productions of Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim’s masterful Gothic musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Going on right now is the production at the Twickenham Theatre that has had all the critics raving (including myself), and soon we’ll be getting another production in London’s oldest pie shop done by the Tooting Arts Club (TAC), and then the English National Opera (ENO) will stick it’s finger in by bringing Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson into the fray.

Recently, the ENO’s publicity shots have been getting a lot of flack because they look so SO bad, with professional West End photographer Darren Bell saying they made it look like “Mary Berry The Musical”.

But as much as it’s easy to scoff at these incredibly misjudged press images, there is the question is whether any of these productions are actually worth seeing.

ENO

Go?

Thompson as Mrs. Lovett may well be something quite special. She’s an incredible actress with a long an illustrious career, so seeing her take will undoubtedly be something unique. Furthermore, the chance to hear Sondheim’s incredibly rich and complex score played by a full orchestra is one not to be passed up.

Don’t Go?

I’m really unsure about this, for two reasons. Foremost, is the inclusion of Bryn Terfel. Now, that’s not to say I don’t rate Terfel as an opera singer. I think he’s marvellous, and seeing him as Wotan in Das Rhiengold at the Royal Opera House was something rather wonderful. But I have a massive pet peeve about opera singers doing musicals. Opera is a completely different style of singing to that of a musical. Every time I hear opera singers doing musical numbers or even pop songs, I cringe. It doesn’t sound right because it’s not the right style. Likewise, I wouldn’t expect Connie Fisher to handle La Boheme, and the very thought of Michael Ball’s opera album (this actually exists) brings me out in a cold sweat.

As beautiful a bass voice as Terfel has, I can’t see how adding operatic bellows to Sweeney’s part is really going to enhance it. In fairness, Sweeney isn’t a new experience for Terfel, having already done this semi-staged performance earlier this year at the Lincoln Centre, and also in a concert performance at the BBC Proms in 2010. From videos you can readily find on YouTube, he does seem to tone it done a bit. But compared David Badella and Ball’s acclaimed performances, it still sounds a bit out of place and far too arch. Though Sondheim himself, in his published collection of annotated lyrics Finishing the Hat describes Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street as a “dark operetta”, it’s not really an excuse to ramp up the vibrato, no matter how established an opera star is.

[youtube http://youtu.be/ba6U4mZpG6Y]

Secondly, the fact that the ENO are only going to do a semi-staged production is really disheartening. Given the capability of the stage and some of the marvellous sets they’ve done for almost all of their productions, it seems incredibly lazy. It certainly works for the Lincoln Centre due to it’s lack of space but rather marvellous acoustics. But when you’ve got one of the largest stages in London at your disposal, it’s insulting to do so little with it. Plus, when tickets are going for as much as £155, far more than the top priced tickets for Chichester’s celebrated West End transfer, you’d expect at least some glitz and production value (although, there will be 300 £10 seats at each performance)! Thankfully, the terrible publicity shots belay the fact that the semi-staging still looks brooding. But I can’t see how it would better than the 2001 concert version in San Francisco with Patti LuPone, George Hearn, and Neil Patrick Harris. Here it was these behemoth performers that carried the show, rather than relying on moody lighting and some people dropping a grand piano on its back.

[youtube http://youtu.be/D3-4JHLO12Y]

Tooting Arts Club

Go?

You get pre-performance pie, a gin cocktail, and a sense of novelty.

Don’t Go?

Lynn Gardener recently wrote a very interesting piece on the gimmick of site-specific/”immersive” theatre. Ultimately, she states that, more often than not, it’s a term used as a sales pitch more than anything else. With only taking an audience of 32 into the tiny pie shop at a time, my misgivings is that it’s going to be very difficult to create a performance that’s of much substance, let alone conjurer up the wide variety of scenes and locations within the musical in what will be a very restrictive space. Therefore, on the face of it, this seems like a prime example of the cynical selling-point theatre companies undertake to lure in the punters. If you’re just going to sat be watching Sweeney Todd in a pie-shop, where’s the immersion in that? And what will take the production beyond shallow novelty to warrant something site-specific?

Harrington's Pie & Mash, Tooting.

Harrington’s Pie & Mash, Tooting.

That’s not to say it’s impossible. Derek Anderson’s production at the Twickenham Theatre is brimming with little innovations and tenacities that manage to reduce this massive musical into the tiny sardine-can space. But TAC will have to come up with something seriously good to even contend with the Twickenham production. In saying that, they have been getting a lot of praise for their recent site-specific theatre productions, so they could still pull a coup de grace none the less, and perhaps I should have a little more faith.

Twickenham Theatre

Go?

There’s not been any review that’s been less than 4*s. But particularly, Anderson’s characterisations played out by Badella and Sarah Ingram are astonishing and superbly performed.

Don’t Go?

Because you’ll be hard pressed to get a ticket! The show originally sold out its entire run, BUT there have been a few extra shows added, extending the run until 12 October. Buy them quick!

[youtube http://youtu.be/nG0AyrAdnGk]

Verdict

Given that it’s tried and tested, the Twickenham Theatre production is a version that you just can’t go wrong with. Therefore, if you have the chance, try and see this above others. Mind you, such an opinion is only based on the apprehensions I’ve outlined above, and am certainly not saying that either the ENO or TAC’s productions won’t be worth your time and money.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street plays at:

English National Opera, London, WC2N 4ES, between 30 March and 12 April 2015. Tickets are £10 – £155. To book, visit www.eno.org.

Harrington’s Pie & Mash, London, SW17 OER, between 21 October – 29 November 2014. Tickets are sold out. For more information about tickets, visit www.tootingartsclub.co.uk.

Twickenham Theatre, London, TW1 3QS, until 12 October 2014. Tickets are £15 (concessions available). To book, visit www.twickenhamtheatre.com.

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Review: Fishcakes (Etcetera Theatre, London)

1409320444Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

A laugh/cry out loud play of intelligence and honesty, and an utterly charming portrait of a relationship.

Overview

Reece and Jen meet on a date. It doesn’t go “well”. But none the less, they embark on a long term relationship. But what happens when the little niggles grow into big problems? And just what can tragedy reveal about a person you’d rather not have wanted?

Writing

Elizabeth Bartram’s new piece of writing sets itself out to be a exploration of people and relationships, and boy, this is executed with an immense wit and observation. We start off with writing that is supremely comedic. You’d be hard pressed not to roll about laughing at the pratfalls both characters keep making and their idiosyncrasies. But what’s great is that, among the guffaws, are two sweet and charming people that you just can’t help but adore. They feel incredibly natural and real and you could absolutely imagine them being the people sat next to you in the auditorium, rather than just two actors on the stage. Bartram also has tapped into little compatibilities and incompatibilities in her characters to bring out pace, humour, and pathos, all acutely and realistically portrayed.

But what’s really outstanding is that, as the play goes on and the relationship starts to lose its sheen, the play also starts to become less funny: but that’s the point. The laughs fade in correlation to the creeping lack of lustre in their life together. What happens is that you, as an audience, go on a similar emotional journey to Reece and Jen, but via laugher and tears as observers, rather than in love as lovers.

The only issue is that the heartbreaking conclusion at the end of this relationship is perhaps a bit too much of a punch to the gut. In itself it’s a very honestly and devastatingly written, touching on some brutal emotions and revelations that come out in tragedy. It would be easy to scoff at this as being too readily turning on the melodramatics, but it’s so free and natural that makes for an incredibly deft piece on loss and its effect on people. However, it makes the end perhaps a little too intense, especially juxtaposed against the hilarity of the beginning of the show. Despite it’s expert writing, it could possibly be better in another play where it won’t feel so abrupt.

But in saying that, this is but a trivial criticism. As it is, this is the perfect modern embodiment of both comedy and tragedy. Both elements are excellently implemented for a smart rip-roaring and mascara-running microcosmic montage about people and relationships.

Direction & Production

There isn’t a credited director and producer as such, with Bartram and her associates pretty much running the show. None the less, nothing suffers theatrically. Whilst there’s nothing but a bare set, a gaggle of props – including several bags of popcorn and a panettone – and three boxes, Bartram and her team still manage to turn the stark space of the Etcetera theatre into everything from urban scrub to a homely flat. Space is well utilised, and even though there are but three actors on what is a quite generous fringe stage, it never feels too big or under used.

Particularly, there’s some very good sound design that supplement Bartram’s writing, from choice pieces of music that pop up on cue, and even some cheekily purposeful anomalies such as the music being too loud to properly hear the conversation that Reece and Jen are having in the bar. Despite it being a small and humble production, it’s resourceful and effective without ever feeling amateur.

Cast

Bartram is join on-stage alongside Ben Nelson as Reece. They are so natural and charming together that it’s hard to believe that these two aren’t a real life couple. Although Bartram wrote the piece, Nelson’s feels like he actively contributes by sliding so naturally into his character and his role. If you didn’t know better, you’d think that both Nelson and Bartram were creating the piece there and then before your eyes. The energy and chemistry that both bring to the production really augments the writing and the reality that they co-inhabit. You really fall in love with them as they fall in love with each other, and tangibly feel their anguish at the end of it all.

Verdict

One of the most adorable and slick pieces of new writing to have emerged from the Camden Fringe. Absolutely worth catching when it comes around again.

[youtube http://youtu.be/ebi5tj_tMKk]

Fishcakes played at the Etcetera Theatre, London, NW1 7BU, between 11 – 13 August as part of the Camden Fringe, and several other dates since.


Musical Review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Twickenham Theatre, London)

David Badella (left) and Sarah Ingram (right).

David Badella (left) and Sarah Ingram (right).

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

Perhaps the most ingenious and tenacious of productions ever, the brand spanking new Twickenham Theatre opens with a production of Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece that all future versions will be judged by.

Overview

One of Stephen Sondheim’s most celebrated and well known works, this musical thriller draws its influence from similar tales appearing in Victorian penny dreadfuls that have since become urban legend. A barber murders his customers and packs their dismembered bodies into pastries to be sold in the pie shop below, forming part of a larger revenge plot.

Book

Hugh Wheeler’s book combines together the rag-bag of grim horror stories, sold for a penny on the streets of Victorian London (hence, ‘penny dreadfuls’), and weaves from it a plot of revenge and dastardly companionship. Sweeney is given the back story of being transported, as a ploy by a judge to snatch his beautiful wife: thus giving him a mens rea for his murderous spree. Mrs. Lovett is the long-time and besotted companion of Mr. Todd who abets him by literally using his crimes to flesh out her ailing pie business.

But what’s best about Wheeler’s book is that he also seasons this tale with a ghastly sense of humour. He creates a varied tapestry that takes audiences through everything from the frenzied to the funny, and from the tender to the tense, sometimes simultaneously. His characters are colourful, and each play an integral and in the story’s complex development. No-one feels like a superfluous after-thought, and character development (and dispatching) slides neatly into the main narrative without being forced in. It’s a meticulous and well constructed book that puts most other musicals to shame. Everything has a purpose, place, and pace here.

Music & Lyrics

Some, including myself, would argue that this is probably one of Sondheim’s richest and most complex scores. Particularly, it has some of his most memorable songs with very few (if any) of the numbers here being forgettable or lacking in lustre. But the real genius is his use of leitmotifs throughout. By themselves they are sweeping and notable, marking a character with aural dexterity and giving them an extra layer to their persona of their written role. But the real genius is how these keep cropping up in incredibly complex quartets or echoed subtly in the orchestral underlay. It’s a score that meticulously holds everything in place as much as it drives the action.

Sondheim’s music manages to compliment Wheeler’s characterisations and plot development, embracing both the manic and the magical. Sondheim really compliments the many juxtapositions and little in-jokes that Wheeler toys so well with. Particularly, numbers such as “Joanna” in the Second Act, where Sweeney wistfully laments the distance between him and his daughter whilst causally cuts the throats of his victims, is one of the most outrageous and memorable moments of the entire musical. But then there are numbers such as “City on Fire” that is a tense and fretful, crescendoing to the musical’s climax.

Lyrically, Sondheim pens a libretto that is as poetic and playful as his music. Internal rhymes and rhythm being a speciality. There aren’t any predictable or groan-worthy couplets here: just surprising and joy-inducing lines that bounce through the score and really draws you into the music.

David Badella (centre) and the cast of 'Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street'.

David Badella (centre) and the cast of ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’.

Direction & Production

For a musical that was originally penned for a vast Broadway stage with a full orchestral score, and has since been done recently as such in the West End, reducing the show into the minuscule space was always going to be a challenge. But producers David Adkin and Tony Green have ended up with some of the most tenacious, inspired, and innovative productions to have ever happened on the fringe. Whilst some of the text has been given the chop to make the small-scale production flow unabated, nothing of the charm of the musical has been lost. Their myriad surprises and ingenuities don’t just merely accommodate this behemoth of a musical, but manages to enhance it.

Most of this can be found in Rachel Stone’s set design. It’s essentially the one set that suggests all those that happen, with nothing but a few wooden boxed to play with. But there are many surprises that help the audience imagine and distinguish each place and moment from the last. Tables rise up out of the floor,and  gauzes uncover hidden cubby-holes. particularly ingenious is Sweeney’s chair. In countless production has usually opted for a vertical setting, Stone doesn’t let the absence of a below stage pit deter her from making it work just as effectively. Whilst it seems like a trifle to go on about a piece of furniture, once you’ve seen the musical you’ll understand just how critical getting the chair right in relation to the rest of the musical.

But it’s other little touches that are absolutely fantastic. Particularly, the tangled network of piping in the ceiling that look purely decorative, actually drip water onto cast iron grates at one point, creating an stunning soundscape that is a jaw-dropping coup de grace. Stone’s set is also greatly augmented by Simon Getin Thomas’ lightening, that does some marvellous things with colour and back-lighting to help bolster what’s happening on stage, and really denote those changes of place without props of scenery.

Derek Anderson also does a brilliant job at directing the show with a small cast on an even smaller stage. He manages to not only find space for the busy going-ons of Sweeney’s London, but sometimes turns it into a meticulous maelstrom of tightly knit activity. The only things that remind you of the size of the theatre space is that fact that, if you’re in the front row, your knees are literally up against the stage, and if at the ends of them, you’ll end up having to have actors squeezing past you down the aisle to reach the stage at points.

But it’s Anderson’s treatment of the characters that is the most interesting. Whereas countless productions of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street see’s Sweeney as a formidable and domineering character, and Mrs. Lovett as mad and completely delude, Anderson has tried something different. Here, Mrs. Lovett is conniving and in total control of her faculties. What’s more, she’s a lot more aware of Todd’s ever-distancing interest in her, rather than holding onto some obsessed pipe-dream. In contrast, Sweeney here is almost too mild mannered and docile to be believed capable of carrying out his blood-soaked spree: a bit too weedy and pathetic to actually do anything about the gross injustice he’s suffered. Thus, you get the sense that Mrs. Lovett is the brains and means of the entire operation, rather than just a clingy, and somewhat batty, convenience to Sweeney. Whilst it’s a bit difficult to accept if you know the musical, and it’s most famed productions – especially Sweeney’s characterisations – it’s actually one that works, even if it initially irks.

Sarah Ingram (centre) dishing out one hell of a performance.

Sarah Ingram (centre) dishing out one hell of a performance.

Cast

You could not ask for a better cast here. Headlining, is the indomitable David Badella in the title role. But Badella, although brilliant here, isn’t actually the main event. Even though the chance to see him perform with his utterly lucious crushed-velvet baritone voice of his in such close quarters, he’s upstaged (in minutia, might I add) by Sarah Ingram and the rest of the cast.

Mark McKerracher as Judge Turpin is suitably unhinged and devious, accompanied by a wondrously flamboyant Chris Coleman as Beadle Banford, who minces about like some fiendish incarnation of Larry Grayson. Mikeala Newton is also wonderful as Tobias Ragg, injecting a wonderfully boyish innocence into the fray, as well as performing “Not While I’m Around” with a sweet and lilting grace.

But Ingram really steals the show. Embracing every inch of Anderson’s interpretation of Mrs. Lovett, she’s supreme. Streetwise, manipulative, direct, and in charge, she’s a revelation. Every moment of her time on stage is viscous and elating. You almost feel her character should have gotten what she wanted at the end of it all, rather than what she gets. Ingram is a presence that puts both Angela Lansbury and Patti LuPone (my two favourite Mrs. Lovett’s) to shame as a theatrical force beyond reckoning.

Verdict

If you’ve never seen this before, or if you have only the film adaptation to go by, this is the perfect gateway drug to Sondheim and the beginning of a lifelong addiction to this musical. But what really marks this production out as spectacular is that if, like me, you know the musical inside out, you should still be prepared to be surprised and astonished every crotchet and throat-slit of the way: a real testament to just how outstanding this production is. This is a production that every future version of this musical will be judged by. The West End? Let them eat pie!

[youtube http://youtu.be/nG0AyrAdnGk]

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street plays at the Twickenham Theatre, London, TW1 3QS, until 4 October 2014. Tickets are £15 (concessions available). To book, visit www.twickenhamtheatre.com.


Musical Review: Tess of the d’Urbervilles (New Wimbledon Studio, London)

17304_fullRating: ***

In A Nutshell

A rich, dramatic, and inventive score, but a show that is far too long for its own good.

Overview

Based on Thomas Hardy’s romantic melodrama, we see farm-girl Tess’ life turned upside down when her family learn that they’re the surviving heirs to an ancient aristocratic lineage. But her attempts to re-affiliate their family to the bloodline only ends in heartbreak and violence, causing Tess’ world to crumble around her in tragedy most bleak.

Writing

Award winning musical playwright, Alex Loveless, makes an incredibly comprehensive attempt at adapting Hardy’s celebrated novel into a musical. Indeed, there is very little, if anything, that is missing from the book in the musical. But whilst this is an incredibly worthy effort to stay as true to the original novel as possible, it also is the show’s major downfall as Alex Loveless’ work is a stark reminder at how complex and lengthy the original novel is. Given the story’s heavy emphasis on melodrama and tragedy, at over 2.5 hours long (including interval) – with Act I an epic 80 minutes long – it’s very difficult to stay engaged, even with such a solid score behind the production.

Not helping is that important plot points feel a bit rattled through whilst minor aspects of the story are dwelt upon for longer than needed. For example, Tess’ first meeting with Angel, accompanied by a wonderfully lilting romantic song, ‘I Saw Your Face’, feels disappointingly truncated, whereas later on we get almost a full four minutes of the ensemble singing about milking cows. There are more than a handful of moments and musical numbers that could have easily have been axed to speed the show along and make it more digestable. But instead, the audience are left to become fatigued for want of trying to stay focused, being made to sit through a truly mammoth amount of material.

Music & Lyrics

Score and songs is certainly Alex Loveless’ strong point. Having already picked up several awards for his work, including the Howard Goodall Award for composition, it’s no surprise that his score here is as solid here as elsewhere. For starters, Alex Loveless is not afraid to experiment a little, giving Tess of the d’Urbervilles a unique and inventive sound that marks it out from other new musicals. Here, Alex Loveless really embraces not just a modern musical style, but also the sounds, harmonies, and rhythms of English folk and pastoral music. Behind these he also puts behind a lot of thought and emotion, resulting in such stirring numbers like ‘Children of the Earth’ and ‘Joyfully, We Praise’, to soaring and rich numbers like ‘I Hear Your Voice’.

But not everything Alex Loveless writes works though. There are several weaker numbers such as ‘Saturday Night’ that is just too unwieldy and messy to be entertaining, and ‘The Belly of the Beast’ that is just a bit too unorthodox making it stick out like a sore thumb as it doesn’t gel with the timbre of the rest of the score.

Lyrically, whilst Alex Loveless doesn’t emulate the arch-poetry of Hardy’s style, he does bring an own sense of wit and creativity to the libretto that really compliment and augment the emotions he’s encapsulating in his music. There are more than a few unique and attention grabbing songs that demonstrate that Alex Loveless’ reputation is by no means one garnered from false praise.

Direction and Production

The production behind the show is also of a high standard and is as impressive as the new musical writing on offer here. David Shields stage design does a good job of portraying several of the abstract themes. His dilapidated arches, with peeling wood panelling and painted with drab pastoral scenes, very handsomely represent the ideas of a waning aristocracy and nature being unforgiving and harsh, not to mention easily conjuring up Stonehenge: where the novel’s climax takes place.

Director Chris Loveless also makes great use of the space. Particularly in capitalising on the nooks and crannies among Shield’s flats, meaning that actors end up being framed dramatically, appear, disappear, or be hidden with ease. Working closely with  Movement Director, Lucy Cullingford, there are also bits of choreography and physical theatre that really add energy and slick showmanship to parts of the show. It’s just a shame that these excellent production values can’t stop the show from labouring.

Cast

Kudos to Casting Director Benjamin Newsome for finding a cast that can also play a plethora of instruments on stage without sacrificing acting ability. It’s really great to find such multi-talented performers, and make full use of their many skills. Particularly, Emma Harrold, Sarah Kate Howarth, and Jessica Millward are a trio of ladies who not only interact and bounce high-spirits and impish energy off each other, they work just as close-knit and refined an ensemble on violin, flute, and viola respectively.

However, Jess Daley in the titular role really steals the show. She’s astonishing at being the heartbroken heroine, balancing out devastating misery with a wonderful sense of romantic hope and feminine tenacity. You really feel the inner pain and turmoil that is written clear across her face, and even if you find yourself flagging because of the length of the show, it’s still easy to get lost in her the beautifully tragic portrayal of Tess.

Verdict

Certainly worth a look if you’re a hardy Hardy fan, or keen on supporting some really great new British musical writing. Whilst the score is rich, vibrant, and original, be prepared for a show as long as the book is thick!

[youtube http://youtu.be/uTKh3pLmZ_U]

Tess of the d’Urbervilles plays at the New Wimbledon Studio, London, SW19 1QG, until 27 September 2014. Tickets are £15.40 (concessions available). To book, visit www.atgtickets.com.


Review: Mojo (White Bear Theatre, London)

mojo flyer imqge_1Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

An intense tinder-box production that brings Jez Butterworth’s phenomenal first play into quarters so close that the tension is unbearable.

Overview

Potts, Sweet, Skinny, and Baby all work at a Soho club. Their boss, Ezra, is about to make it big over a deal concerning a hit young singer, Silver Johnny. But as they celebrate, Ezra gets murdered and the club is set under siege. Can this drugged-up band of misfits keep it together, defend the club, and save their hides?

Writing

This play took the Royal Court by storm when Butterworth presented it as his début back in 1995. It was praised for its dark humour and unflinchingly fluid dialogue. Rather than this being a play about gangsters, it’s more a play about the camaraderie of a group of men who believe they’ve grown up but have done everything but.

Butterworth is quite open that Harold Pinter is a huge influence on his work, and here it’s really apparent. But in bringing out these seemingly inane repetitions and circular conversations, we find some very real and wildly charismatic characters. Despite these very definite text stylisations, it actually compliments the fact that they’re mostly off their faces on narcotics, and later broken of spirit, mind, and sense. As unlikeable and/or pitiful as they are, they’re still utterly absorbing to watch through Butterworth’s masterful handling of the text.

He manages to prise a deft and bleak comedy out of the characters, dialogue and situations. The characters often go off on bewildering and audacious tangents, belittling the dire situation that they’re trying to face turning the severe into guff as hilarious as it is ridiculous, at the drop of the hat. It’s an exhausting switch of pace and timbre that’s both unsettling and ecstatic.

But whilst the comic element of the play is one it’s most noticeable facets, the real coup de grace is the tight and tense action that Butterworth has created here. You genuinely can’t tell where the story is going to take you next and there’s more than several surprises. Darker themes are explored unapologetically, augmenting the sense of tense mystery, foreboding, and general twisted nature of the plot. But when the proverbial really hits the fan, it’s a complete edge-of-your seat adrenaline rush: a slick and violent comic thriller that gives Tarentino a run for his money.

Direction & Production

Director Sebastien Blanc has really struck gold with this production. Rather than finding the intimate space of the White Bear Theatre a challenge, he works with it in perfect accord to lift the production into something that’s absolutely phenomenal. It does still feel like a tiny space, but he really uses it to create a claustrophobic sense of cabin theatre that is just perfect for this play. He also manages to meticulously pilot the pace and action, making sure that nothing is left to wobble or be diminished by misplaced timing. He also ensures everything is as vividly visceral and natural as it can be. You never doubt the authenticity or the plausibility of the plot, as there’s a real sense of flow and organic quality to everything that happens.

In addition, Blanc has got an exceptional production team behind him. Particularly, set designer Joana Dias has spared no effort in her contribution. The set is brimming with tiny details and nuances, from untidy stacks of poker chips, saucy pin-up posters, clutters of drink cans, to dirty, tattered, and musty period furniture. You could swear that you had actually found yourself in this dingy back room of an actual 1950s Soho club, rather than the theatre space of a humble 2010s Kennington sports pub. It just adds to the sense of realism, helping the audience gets sucked into this broken and debauched world. Even the contents of the dustbins, which cannot even be seen by most of the audience, are approached with just as much eye for detail and sense comprehensive quality as the rest of the set. Not to mention some special effects that are certainly not for the squeamish. Productions of this scale of detail are rare to find on the Fringe, and this is incredibly impressive, giving the play a palpable sense of reality that compounds the already intense experience.

The only fault I can find is that there’s a gunshot sound effect that breaks the suspension of disbelief at a rather crucial moment. But this is certainly excused given just how meticulous the rest of the show is.

Cast

The cast, too, are also extraordinary. They revel in the play’s text and really embrace their characters to the core. What’s more, is that they really bounce off each other’s personalities and energies, especially juxtaposed to Oscar Blend’s staunch and bullying Mikey, who tries to make order out of his colleagues chaos. However, certain members of the cast really shine through.

Max Saunders Singer is fantastic as Potts. He gives an incredibly high spirited performance throughout. Especially, mind-riddled with narcotics, he twitches and splutters tremendously through his part, making him fascinating to watch. What’s more, is that he not only has a grand command over his stage presence as an actor, but is also able to channel this into his character’s presence and dominance of Pott’s associates. Charming yet conniving, he excels as being the unlikely wrist attempting to turn the screw.

But Luke Trebilcock is the real show stealer. Detached and unhinged, he gives an electric and unprecedented performance. Incredibly controlled and taut, Trebilcock gives a performance of power and might that will make you feel tangibly afraid of Baby’s unsound and scattershot state of mind. He’s as creepy and unnerving as they come, and really adds to the fizzing and dangerous energy of the show.

Verdict

Shows like this are the reason I’ll always love the fringe, as this is a theatrical experience that you just can’t extrapolate to bigger stages. The play is already like a tightly pact piece of plastic explosive with a slow-burning and suspenseful fuse. But in the hands of Blanc and his company, stuffing it into the intimate space of the White Bear Theatre, it turns into an unbearably tense and nerve-shredding thriller of epic proportions. I don’t want to see another toffee apple for a long time!

[youtube http://youtu.be/SF0FKmNOHOA]

Mojo runs at the White Bear Theatre, SE11 4DJ, until 21 September 2014. Tickets are £14 (concessions available). To book, visit http://whitebeartheatre.co.uk.


Tips: The Boy Who Climbed Out Of His Face (The Jetty, London)

Shunt artwork - A5 RGB 72dpiShunt’s new show, The Boy Who Climbed Out of His Face is wildly inventive, and something that I found to be quite brilliant. However, I’m completely aware that this is the type of theatre that is going to be quite divisive when it comes to opinion, already demonstrated in The Stage’s luke-warm review, and the comments on Time Out’s review of the show. This is because it’s as far away from the traditional type of theatre, and far more unhinged and off-the-wall than other promenade experiences that have happened in London such as The Drowned Man and In The Beginning Was The End.

So if you’re a little undecided about whether to go or not, or simply want to know how to make the best of your visit then here are some tips from myself.

Getting There

The walk from North Greenwich Underground station is quite straight forward, but it will take around 10 minutes minimum! So make sure you leave plenty of time to get there. However, don’t panic if you’re running a little late. Audience members for a booked time will be let in at several intervals within that half-hour. But still try to make it there on time as the last thing the show needs is people bottlenecking towards the end of each half hour slot: it’ll probably frustrate you a little too.

Dress the Part

1. Wrap up and keep dry.

Although the show takes place inside shipping containers, it’s not entirely inside them. Also, the pop-up food and bar area is uncovered which is where you’ll be held until you’re summoned into Shunt’s intense microcosm. So, as September draws on, remember that things can get a bit wet and chilly.

2. Wear small shoes.

You WILL be required to take off your shoes and socks to enter – no exceptions – and you’ll then be carrying them around with you in a shoe box. Therefore, I wouldn’t recommend boots, high heels, or platforms (!?) because it’s likely you’ll end up carrying two shoe boxes around with you (one per shoe) like I noticed some people did on the night I went. You don’t want to be distracted by cumbersome luggage as this may take away from your enjoyment.

It’s also an easy, but not short walk from North Greenwich station. So probably best to wear something comfortable so you don’t tire out those poor feet before even getting there.

3. Be clean.

You’re barefoot. For the comfort of other audience members, please ensure that you have clean odour-free feet.

Make a Night Of It

1. Try pie. Try.

The venue is not just about the show. It also has its own pop-up bar and food area. The food is certainly worth staying for. It’s reasonably priced with decent sized portions and is more than a little delicious! With the bar and food are open from 5pm – a full hour before the performances kick off – and after the last lot have been in, there’s no reason why you can’t catch a tasty bite.

Highly recommended is the pulled pork: spicy, sweet and succulent, it’s delicious but quite distinct from pulled pork you may have otherwise tasted. Also, be sure to try their homemade rum & raisin ice cream, laced with Kraken Rum. :Q_

2. Stay for the Entertainment

Whilst the show is obviously the main draw, The Jetty will also be putting on a programme of live music and other entertainment in their bar area throughout the duration of the run (schedule tba). So why not plan your evening to take in some of the other things they have to offer.

Remember, the O2 is also a short walk away, so if you could easy take in a film before or after, or even a gig if you time things properly.

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/102237384]

The Boy Who Climbed out Of His Face: Official Trailer.

Enjoying the Show – Dos and Don’ts

1. DON’T expect a narrative. DO open yourself to the experience.

As mentioned in my review, whilst there is a definite sequence of events, there isn’t a narrative as such. So don’t expect to try and find one. Instead, open yourself to being whisked through areas of amazing detail and design, and don’t be afraid to get yourself emotionally stuck in this intense and multi-sensory journey. Try to think of it more like a piece of walk-through art. It might not make complete sense, but it’s a spectacle none the less.

This is not a traditional theatre experience. If you don’t like anything outside of traditional theatre experiences, stick to traditional theatre experiences. However, I would encourage everyone to expand their theatrical horizons should they have the time to, even if you end up hating this.

2. DON’T go if you’re scared of dark confined spaces, suffer from photo-sensitive epilepsy, have access needs, or are offended by male nudity.

You’re going to be inside shipping containers for 45 minutes, and some parts of it are quite dark and a little cramped. Several parts of the show also include total black outs. There are also some flashing lights, at points – although never strobe – so those who suffer from photo-sensitive epilepsy should seriously be aware that this could trigger their condition.

Unfortuantely, given the nature of the show and the fact that it’s inside shipping containers, it is completely inaccessible for theatre goers who use a wheelchair. For those who require assistance to get around, do be aware that it is not level and there are steps and obstacles throughout that you’ll be required to move through at a good speed.

As for male nudity, that’s your problem. Not Shunt’s.

3. DON’T be afraid to be afraid. But DO be brave and participate.

As I and Time Out have mentioned, there are parts of the show that are actually terrifying. So expect to be at least a little unnerved. But even so, there are points where you as an individual and/or as a group are singled out and/or left to your own devices. So go with a “can do” attitude and a willingness to put yourself out there, even if it is a little petrifying.

4. DO go with friends.

Relating to the point above, going with friends is actually a good idea here. Whilst for shows like The Drowned Man and In The Beginning Was the End audience members were encouraged to go off individually to explore and have an individual experience, there’s not really much scope to do that here. Therefore, find strength in numbers by a coercing a loved one or a couple of mates come along with you, especially if you want to go but feel you might get a little too scared to go solo.

However, do be prepared for the possibility that a member of your group might be split off from the rest at various points. But don’t worry, nothing horrifying will happen to you or them should that happen: this isn’t Sweeny Todd’s!

5. DO make use of the bar. DON’T turn up drunk.

You’re probably going to need a drink afterwards, but I’d also recommend you have one before. Dutch Courage would certainly help some of the more nervous patrons, but it’ll also hopefully loosen you up a bit a really get yourself stuck into the show and open your mind a little.

That said, I can’t imagine anything worse than going through the show intoxicated, or worse, arriving under the influence of narcotics. This is a supremely surreal, scary, and intense show that’s enough of a crazy trip as it is when sober. Arriving off-your-face will most likely make you freak out, not to mention become a pain and spoil the experience for the rest of the audience.

6. DO hang around at the last scene.

Even though the last scene is a bit of a let down compared to how much you’re built up before it, it’s pretty striking and beautiful. The loop for this scene is also around 15-minutes and is actually really relaxing and subdued as well as visually arresting. It’s a nice wind-down even if you could have done with a bit more of the main show itself.

[youtube http://youtu.be/jsuvL1_XoLM]

The Boy Who Climbed Out Of His Face will run at The Jetty, London, SE10 0FL, from 14 August – 28 September 2014. Tickets are £10. To book, visit www.barbican.org.uk. For more information about Shunt and the production, visit www.shunt.co.uk.


Review: The Boy Who Climbed Out Of His Face (The Jetty, London)

Shunt artwork - A5 RGB 72dpiRating: ****

In A Nutshell

A wildly experimental event that will push you senses, your courage, and your perceptions of theatre.

Overview

Renowned (and arguably infamous) “event” company, Shunt, take up a six week residency at new south London arts venture, The Jetty. This new show promises a wild multi-sensory 45 minute experience inside shipping containers, drawing influences from both Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies and Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness.

Writing

With so much secrecy about the actual content of the containers (which I’ve been asked to keep) it’s difficult to say much about what happens inside them. However, if you think it near impossible to combine The Water Babies and The Heart of Darkness together, on account that these couldn’t be any more polemic to each other, you won’t be surprised to find that they don’t. Whilst there is a definite sequence of events inside the containers, if you go expecting a narrative in the traditional sense, you’ll only be left baffled and confused. However, if you go open to an experience, then you’ll get a lot more out of it than you would otherwise.

You genuinely have no idea about what is going to happen next as everything is supremely surreal and nonsensical. There are moments that are literally in your face, disorientating, or just downright creepy. These are made even more unnerving as there are moments where continuing on with the experience means that you, and your fellow audience members, must swallow your fears and press on to the next area; you may be singled out as an individual, or simply left to your own devices as a group in this strange and surreal landscape, with moving forwards being  your only option. Given just how bizarre and unsettling the events are, this is sometimes easier said than done.

The only major criticism is that the show is too short. 45 minutes fly by, and just when you’ve found you’ve steeled your courage enough to carry on deeper into Shunt’s twisted world, you find you’re at the end twitching for more. Furthermore, the climax is so subdued, although beautifully staged, that it feels like a big let down given everything that has been building up towards it. But at a humble £10, you definitely get your money’s worth, even if you’d like to stay longer or wanted a bit more from the event’s apex.

The Boy Who Climbed Out Of His Face: Official Trailer

Production

With Shunt’s emphasis on senses and how their theatre can make you feel, it’s no surprise that the quality of production and attention to aesthetics is superlative. Everything from lighting, set, costume, and even optical illusions, all work in tight cooperation with every other component and is as essential as the last. It all works perfectly in unison to create a netherworld of madness that makes Alice’s trip through the looking glass seem like a stroll around Ikea.

Visually there are more than a couple of incredibly arresting visuals that become images that will really stick with you. This is set design at it’s most ambitious but also most artistic, with some scenes that are as high-quality and striking of those in large scale operas. There’s some particularly good use of lighting, sound, and video throughout, demonstrating that Shunt aren’t scared of experimenting with different mediums to create a truly unique world.

Most interesting is bringing the sense of touch to the fray. By asking all audience members to remove their shoes and their socks, what you feel with your feet is just as quintessential. But this is also a very clever experiment on forcing an audience out of their comfort zone by heightening how they perceive the world around them, and making them do something that you wouldn’t do anywhere else.

Cast

Whilst difficult to say much without giving much away, Shunt has an indefatigable cast that are as intense as the production itself. They make an effort to thrill and disturb as excellently as the rest of the show. But you also get the feeling that they’re willing to push themselves as performers in their roles as much as the production pushes the audience, making them as integral and as striking as any other part of this experiment.

Verdict

If you want something unique and off-the-wall, then you’ll love this. If you want something more traditional, then you’ll probably loathe it. Go with an open mind (and possibly some Dutch courage) and experience one of the most exciting and different pieces of theatre that London has to offer. Short, contained, and intense, this is the sideshow reinvented for the 21st Century and Generation WTF. Terrifying and intoxicating, this is the stuff of both dreams and nightmares.

The Boy Who Climbed Out Of His Face will run at The Jetty, London, SE10 0FL, from 14 August – 28 September 2014. Tickets are £10. To book, visit www.barbican.org.uk. For more information about Shunt and the production, visit www.shunt.co.uk.


Camden Fringe Review: Ernie (Tristan Bates Theatre, London)

James Craze as Ernie.

James Craze as Ernie. Photograph: Courtesy of End of the Line Theatre.

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

An irrepressibly charming biography of heart and honesty, bolstered with an exceptional performance.

Overview

Ernie Hort is a man who believed he’s done little of any worth, describing himself as, “just the guy next door”. But none the less, we’re taken through his life from growing up in the poor East End of London on the outbreak of World War II, to his enrolment and service in the navy. Hort’s biography is written and performed by his own real life grandson, James Craze. As Craze takes us through his grandfather’s life, we’re introduced to the dozens of different characters that Ernie met during his lifetime.

Writing

What’s so refreshing about how this play portrays Ernie’s life is just how frank and non-sensational it is. In a year where many theatres are remembering the horrors of the First World War, it’s nice to see a more matter-of-fact and less dramatic account and military life and conflict. But that’s not to say the piece is without interest and climax; Ernie gives his accounts of nights in bomb shelters, the ambush on the flotilla his corps were escorting, and getting chased by an angry and violent mob in Egypt. Its just that nothing is embellished or told with a view to be provocative. It’s just a man, casually going through the facts, regaling his achievements and revelling in memory. Beneath all this is a humour and honesty that is irrepressibly charming. Everything about the play feels very real and personal. Craze, through his writing and performance, makes it effortless to connect and empathise with his grandfather and his life.

Craze’s writing also ensures that the show never feels like granddad drolling on to himself. He introduces myriad characters that Ernie knew and interacted with. Although all performed by Craze and Craze alone, the play is brimming with a full West-End sized cast that interacts with our hero, making the text as dynamic and as electric as they come, making this a solo show in name only. The only criticism  is that Ernie’s accounts are so ‘as is’ that you’re aching to know about what else happened. What japery did he and his comrades get up to in Hong Kong? What was the first kiss with his wife-to-be like? Did the cocky Scotsman ever get what was coming to him? It’s at these points you realise that you’re completely hooked, and by the time the hour is up it feels as if you’ve be sat down for mere minutes. Despite Ernie, in his own words, “never climbing any mountains or contributing to modern medical science”, for 60 minutes he is the most fascinating person you’ve ever met.

James Craze as Ernie. Photograph: Courtesy of End of the Line Theatre.

James Craze. Photograph: Courtesy of End of the Line Theatre.

Performance

Craze’s performance is also one of the most astonishing on the London stage right now. He is one of the most dexterous and talented physical performers in London. He not only snaps between characters in the blink of an eye, but is always completely unrecognisable from the last. He masterfully exaggerates small little quips and ticks in voice and physicality to glorious effect, making him distinct in every person he becomes, whilst simultaneous still leaving an impression of the last in the air around him. As well as tackling over 30 characters with an insatiable energy and stamina,  Craze is a performer that knows that the devil is in the detail, and this is what makes his performance incredible. I could have almost sworn he was an actual man of many years when he first came on stage, and after flipping 70 years into the past become a younger Ernie, I then watched him almost literally grow older before my eyes. It’s an absolutely magical feat, making this a performance that is utterly inescapable. Not only has Craze written a well paced and engrossing text, his performance is so ecstatic it’s addictive.

Production

There isn’t a director, per se, as Craze himself making the space his own, darting around it making good use of the space’s depth and width. But he is supported by a superlative production consisting of Sara Huxley and Alex Jordan’s lighting and sound designs. With nothing more than a chair, a couple of costumes, and an old crate, their audio and lighting beautifully colour the show. They’ve a keen eye for artistry and aesthetic that elevates the show even further beyond Craze’s exceptional performance. Lighting changes, such as the soft spot down-lighting for Neville Chamerblain’s declaration of war to a well timed black out, are genuinely striking. They demonstrate that Huxley and Jordan are not a production team that are content with doing the minimum, but find ways to actively augment Craze’s work.

Verdict

Ernie is inescapable and indescribable in person and in text. Seldom does writing, performance, and production come together so perfectly to create something so astounding. You’ll leave the auditorium dizzy and elated, as well as with a small lump in your throat. An enthralling, personal, and heartfelt show like no other.

Ernie plays at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London, WC2H 9NP, until 23 August 2014 as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. Tickets are £10 (concessions available). To book, visit www.camdenfringe.com.


Camden Fringe Review: Go! A Mini Disaster Musical (Phoenix Artist Club, London)

GoRating: **

In A Nutshell

Clichéd characters, bewildering musical numbers, and tawdry innuendo distract from moments of the otherwise nuanced pathos of a powerful songstress.

Overview

Flight GO999 takes off, but never makes it to its intended destination. Seven characters on board the flight, both passengers and crew, relate to us in song their lives, aspirations, and libidos.

I feel quite bad about giving this such a bad review, especially as cabaret star and creator of this piece, Nikki Aitken, allowed me to review the production after I’d contacted her directly to do so as the blurb sparked my interest. However, I can’t bring myself other than to be honest about this show, so here goes.

Book

After Mile High – The Musical I have been left thinking that there is very little more that anyone can prise out of airline comedies. Unfortunately, Aitken has not managed to make me disparage this opinion.

Characters are generally clichéd: posh English gent it posh and English, loud American gal is American and loud, and oversexed “mincing” gay air steward is still the irritating stereotype that we’re apparently still defaulting to for comedy. The attempt at humour mostly falls flat. For the most part it relies of a few snippets of innuendo that’s a cross between some budget Pam Ann and a Great British Bake Off soggy bottom. Otherwise, we’re expected to find jokes in the characters that are over the top, unbelievable, and less than compelling.

Yet there are a few flits of depth here and there. Aitken’s momentary pause to explore the failed relationship and charisma of said English gent is actually quite sweet and enchanting, with traces of nuanced pathos. As is another character’s exasperation about her Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which is pursued with quirk and interest: a genuinely human look at living with such a condition. But otherwise, there’s little to go on that engages. It seems Aitken works best when she’s not trying to be funny and actually trying to find a degree of humanity in what she’s doing.

The plot development is scant and implausible, lacking drama or drive. It makes a quick landing before it even gets a chance to take off. Even the salvation from the mild peril our characters are placed in doesn’t really lead to much or instigate any substantial arousal.

Songs

Much like the book, the songs are mostly misses with a few hits. There’s a boringly burlesque song about a baggage-handler in love, a bewildering romp through the airline’s safety demonstrating, and a Black Box a la Barry White soul number. But again, coinciding with the flits of character exploration as mentioned above, there are a couple of solid songs that reflect a more pensive and insightful side to Aitken’s intelligence. There are even moments of musical originality, in the form of melodic quips and less than ordinary turns of phrases, marking Aitken out as someone who has talent somewhere among all this.

Performance

Aitken certainly has a voice. When she lets rip you really know about it. It’s her singing talent that’s the most sure-fire thing about this production: a testament to the reputation she’s garnered.

However, her ability to portray multiple characters in quick succession doesn’t measure up to her vocal prowess. She doesn’t have the physical acumen to create the tangible detail that would define and personify the characters she’s trying to channel. At some points, it wasn’t clear who she’s playing, not helped by the fact that sometimes Aitken would remain stationary through several characters changing only her voice, rather than trying to embed herself in the spaces that her characters would otherwise be in. If the personality of the characters didn’t endear enough to begin with, it’s hard enough to believe that they have manifested in the theatre space.

Verdict

It’s a real shame that Go! A Mini Disaster Musical hasn’t worked as there is evidence that Aitken could achieve something much better. But whilst writing comedy musical theatre may not be her calling, her powerful voice, small peeks at a keen poignancy, and moments of musical originality, means that she won’t be a performer as forgettable as this show.

Go! A Mini Disaster Musical runs at the Phoenix Artist Club, London, WC2H 8BU, until 21 August 2014 as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. Tickets are £10 (concessions available). To book, visit www.camdenfringe.com.


Camden Fringe Review: The Actors Nightmare (Phoenix Artists Club, London)

actors nightmareRating: ***

In A Nutshell

A nice giggly diversion of theatrical wit and heart, but steps on the jokes too much and could do with better comic pacing.

Overview

George is an understudy and has been called on to replace the lead. However, he’s not quite sure how he’s become an understudy because the last time he checked he was an accountant, not an actor. What’s more, he’s never been to a rehearsal and doesn’t even know what play he’s in: not helped by the fact that it keeps changing. Can George ever wake up from his nightmare?

Writing

I would be incredibly surprised if this play wasn’t based on actual nightmares of actual actors. For starters, this is a genuine nightmare I have myself: ending up on the stage in a production from school or university, unsure of my lines in-front of a full house! Writer Christopher Durang has very accurately made this feel like a very real bad dream, having things change on a dime with everything already jumbled up, including lines that aren’t at all in any of the plays George ends up in. What this does is give Durang a space to lovingly satire some theatrical staples, specifically Noel Coward, William Shakespeare, and Samuel Beckett. These are done incredibly wittily, especially Durang’s send-up of Coward. He teases out the foibles and idiocies of these beloved writers through George’s blunders, blending nightmare and piss-taking seamlessly at times.

However, there are moments when some of the jokes are stepped on a bit too much, specifically George’s never-ending soliloquy: after a while, you do want to end not just for George’s sake but your own. Also, the pace between skits and jokes drops a little too often. Something like this would benefit from a more rapid-fire application of the humour instead of letting the audience wind down too much between the laughs.

But otherwise, it’s a great concept and is genuinely funny. Whilst it could certainly do with some tweaking and tightening, it’s already more than halfway to being a great piece of new writing. In fact, especially given the brief 45 minutes run time, it’s a shame that Durang only limits us to the playwright’s he’s torn into here. You feel he can certainly tackle other notable writers with just as much grace and guffaws as those he already has, in a much longer play.

Direction & Production

It’s always difficult to comment on direction and production in such a sparse small space: its a challenging environment to work in, let alone comment on. But Deborah Charnley handles it really well. There is some great use of space and lighting, managing to add variety of scene and pace as well as tricking the audience into thinking that the performance space is much bigger than it is. A solid and earnest effort that really pays off firmly supporting the laughs to be had in the script.

Cast

The cast really get the jokes – which you’d hope in a play entitled The Actors Nightmare! But because of this, they really revel in them, squeezing out every bit of humour that’s already there, especially in the over-the-top portrayals of our affectionately mocked playwrights’ characters. Particularly, Amelia Owen (playing Ellen on the night I saw it) wonderfully delivered her spoken stage directions in a thick South Wales accent to wonderful effect. Lead Giovanni Bienne (playing George on the night I saw it) really comes comically into his own when frantically neurotic, making it difficult to not raise a smile throughout, as well as getting you on board the concept of this being a nightmare.

Verdict

Certainly worth dropping in if you need a good giggle for less than a tenner and an hour of your time. It might be a work that certainly has room for development and improvement, but even in it’s current state it’s still entertaining and is guaranteed to make you laugh.

The Actors Nightmare plays at the Phoenix Artist Club, London, WC2H 8BU, until 24 August 2014 as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. Tickets are £7 (concessions available). To book, visit www.camdenfringe.com.