Tag Archives: Henry Regan

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

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

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

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

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

Overview

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

Writing

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

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

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

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

Direction & Production

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

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

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

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

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

Cast

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

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

Verdict

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

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


Theatre Review: Line-Up (Greenwich Theatre, London)

LineUpRating: ****

In A Nutshell

A brilliant smorgasbord of newly nurtured writing at the hands of the Vertical Line Theatre company/collaborative.

Overview

Five writers meet with five directors, and the result is a showcase consisting of 10-15 minute excerpts of a new play, performed to a discerning paying audience.

Concept

Vertical Line Theatre is a company that I’ve come across before, engaging with the end result of one of the shows that they’ve chaperoned into becoming a fully realised and top-notch play: The Five Stages of Waiting by Caro Dixey. This is also the company and concept that gave us the award-winning Superhero Snail Boy. So it’s a thrill to suddenly get to see the process from further back along the production line, with five potentially scintillating pieces.

Although it’s another new writing night in London, where it differs from initiatives like Bare Essentials is that it’s a vehicle for proofing lengthier ambitions of new writers with a view to develop well received ones further, rather than just provide a showcase platform for new writing. What this provides is an opportunity to gauge a direct response from dedicated theatre goers to these new pieces.

As per my #FreshOffTheStalls video review, as it’s a bit difficult to really rate out of five any of these pieces of writing as they’re all excerpts,  I’ll apply a traffic-light rating as to whether this is a play I would like to see more of (green = yes, amber = maybe, red = no).

Emoti(con), by Andrew Maddock
Dir: Anne Stoffels
Rating: Green

In this play about cyber bullying, there is so much more that meets the eye beyond your usual high school cautionary tale. Maddock intersperses scenes with wonderfully imaginative and rich poems, as well as prying intelligently and truthfully into the sinister depths of the issue. But even within this small snippet of a larger play, Maddock weaves a web of intrigue and enigma that takes the characters and the message of the piece beyond something shallow and as juvenile as the students it involves.

Director Stoffels also compliments these artistic interludes with an intricate fuss of movement and physical theatre that mesmerises as much as it enchants.

An intriguing subtle thriller full of teenage kicks.

Someone Borrowed, Something New, by Sevan K Greene.
Dir: Adam Slepowronski
Rating: Green

Greene tears down ideas of what constitutes love and relationships in this riotous comedy. As well as providing a scenario that very intelligently toys with perceptions of sex, marriage, and affection, Greene writes characters with some amazingly hilarious comic ticks and traits. Because Greene’s comedy comes from the very nature of how the characters behave and interact, it augments the issues and arguments that are being made here. Even when things get a little serious you hardly notice that the pace of the comedy has dropped a little because you’re actually incredibly involved in the characters’ predicaments themselves.

Actors Alexa Hartley, Darryl Oakley, and Greta Wray work marvellously together in bouncing oddball chemistries off each other, and really understand and push through the comical aspects of the characters they inhabit. A raucous yet surprisingly provocative chuckle.

Underneath, by Joe Lidster
Dir: Ahmed El-Alfy
Rating: Amber

Seeing as Halloween had just recently happened, it was nice to see something supernatural in its remit: a comedy where two characters fall asleep on a tube and end up in what they assume is Epping. The comedy is created by Lidster capitalising on the everyday prejudices of the characters through eavesdropping in on their internal monologues, providing some wonderful character-driven laughs in the midst of a more sinister unfolding narrative.

However, it does have some significant flaws. The back and forth (and internalised) banter just feels a bit untidy, drawing focus and procrastinating away from the overarching narrative that’s supposed to be developing. Also, there are some technical plot points that are a little overlooked, such as the lack of attempt at emergency exits, which feels a little obvious. It’s also difficult to distinguish whether a character is speaking externally or internally, confusing the action just a touch.

But there is real potential in the piece, especially in it’s audacious and original concept. Despite the grumbles about the play’s pacing and messiness, I certainly keen to see what spooky spooky goings on will become of it. It just needs some definite tidying up and more meticulous tweaking.

Parade, by Perditta Stott
Dir: Elliot Brown
Rating: Green

One of the most powerful pieces of the line-up, as Stott looks at sectarian culture and racism in Belfast through the eyes of a child. Brutally honest and innocent, its both a heart-warming and unnerving look at The Troubles. Stott’s writing is wonderfully child-like and were it not for the visible comparative maturity of the actors, you’d have thought the stage was awash with children’s’ chatter.

Enhancing the marvellous text is some creative direction from Elliot Brown. Not only does Brown capitalise completely on the bare set (just a row of wooden chairs) to build walls and bonfires, there’s also elements of puppetry to represent other characters involved in the story, particularly the main character’s toddler brother. The result is a production that as playful as it is inventive.

The cast here are also excellent. Not only do they embody a real child-like charm and energy, those that do play several characters throughout this excerpt through their efforts into playing the others as well.

Back, by Tina Jay
Dir: Jonny Collis
Rating: Green

Tina Jay is a new writer that I’ was first introduced to as part of Ladylogue! and it’s great to see her appear here too with something just as polished. Jay presents what is certainly the most difficult piece of the evening, but by no means making it the least interesting or entertaining.

What makes it difficult is the subject: something that is already trigger-saturated and uncomfortable without it being put through Jay’s narrative. Therefore, it takes a while to settle into the issues being discussed, but once you do, you start to notice how intricate the writing is as well as it being incredibly emotive. Jay’s piece leaves little breadcrumbs along the entire way for the audience to pick up and follow. You never, at any point, get the full picture, leaving you intrigued and wondering what the real story is behind the confrontation that we’re witnessing on stage. But every so often, another fact is suddenly unveiled significantly changing the meaning and perception of what’s happening. This keeps you constantly involved and curious as to where the narrative is going to turn next, and is a plot that’s as unforgiving and intense as the issues discussed.

Unfortuantely, the excerpt means that we don’t get the Full Monty of this teasing reveal: all the more reason to hope it’ll see a full-length realisation soon!

Verdict

An excellent and surprising evening of new writing of an incredibly high calibre, demonstrating that the successes of Superhero Snail Boy and The Five Stages of Waiting are by far the apexes of this initiative.

[youtube http://youtu.be/JVYfssQ32YU]

Line-Up took place at the Greenwich Theatre, London, SE10 8ES, on 1 November 2014. For more information about Line-Up and the work of Vertical Line Theatre, visit 


Camden Fringe Review: The Five Stages of Waiting (Tristan Bates Theatre, London)

five stages of waitingRating: *****

In A Nutshell:

A devastatingly funny and human play that finds sublime humour in all the wrong places, and heartbreaking tenderness in all the right ones.

Overview

Liz, Jen, and Sara’s mother is in hospital: she has a brain tumour. As they come together in these unfortunate circumstances in the hospital waiting room at various stages of their mother’s care, their separate ways collide in an environment of anxiety and uncertainty. What reconciliation can they make in themselves with their mother’s possible death on the horizon? And when is it not ok to laugh?

Writing

Caro Dixey is a writer that I’ve had on my radar for some time, having been wowed by her short plays previously. Therefore it’s great to see her full-length writing faring just as well. What I’ve always loved about Dixey’s writing is just how upfrontly human it is. She manages to get right into the real heart and nature of personalities and the human condition, portraying them on stage in such a natural and effortless way.

Here, Dixey’s talent is finding a pitch-black humour alongside tender observations in everything from the mundane to the maudlin is supreme. It’s all executed with an incredible honesty, consistently feeling organic and never contrived. Humour wise, there are moments that are just out-rightly hilarious, even when they absolutely should not be, finding wonderful juxtaposition, absurdity, and bad jokes in sorrow and plight, playing intelligently into the understanding of an audience as an observer. But Dixey is able to dish out heartbreak just as readily using these same skills of observation and empathy: sometimes simultaneously alongside the jokes. At points, I found my jowls wobbling with laughter whilst my chin quivered with anguish. There is, in her unbelievably believable characters, a chime that can make you burst into tears as instantly as guffaw with laughter. It all stems from a savage embrace of truth and photographic considerations of human life that very few playwrights offer.

The writing is also technically brilliant, especially in using the differences in personalities of characters to subtly tease out plot and back-story form their counterparts, and well placed red herrings and ambiguities to keep you intrigued and unknowing. The pacing never drags across the play’s 90 minutes; no scene feels better panned out or lack lustre to any other. It only suffers in that, being flung from one polar feeling to another at break-neck speed, you want the play to end sooner just because you’re mentally exhausted. Dixey’s toying with the audiences sensibilities is an emotional marathon that’s just as elating as it is heartbreaking. But it’s you that flags, not the play.

Direction and Production

Sophie Moniram is a director that astutely understands Dixey’s text. Every effort has been made to make the action feel as bone-fide as the characters. She’s not afraid of making long awkward silences just that, or have people talk over each other just like they would in real life. Some of this is even employed theatrically to create a sense of tension and drama as well as a sense of reality. But most importantly, Moniram allows the cast as much time as they need to be their characters, never feeling that they’ve not been given enough space to be who they are, or cutting short what they are doing.

Henry Regan and Dixey’s production is also superlative. The set is done well enough to easily evoke a hospital waiting room, as well as quickly become the living room of the sisters’ mother’s house. But it’s the fact that it’s awash with very deliberate minutia that really is its coup de grace. Everything from the wonky wall clock to the quiet significance of the choice of Salvador Dali painting, has a place and a role even if it looks like mere dressing at first.

Cast

Dixey and Moniram could not have found a better cast for this production, with every member being fantastic. Even Pauline Menear’s short appearance as Patient is smoothly and wonderfully carried out. But it’s the three leads that are really phenomenal. It’s a real surprise when you find out that Sara Winn playing Liz, Sophie Spreadbury playing Jen, and Charlie Blackwood playing Sarah aren’t actually real life sisters. This isn’t just because they look vaguely like they could be related, but because they manage to forge an astonishing sense of on-stage sisterhood among their chemistry. They each organically embrace their characters to create performances that are completely flawless, connecting with each of their co-star’s on-stage personalities as much as they do their own.

Verdict

An astonishing piece of new writing that is perfectly executed. Dixey has proven once again that’s she’s a formidable playwright and producer in creating one of the most brutally uplifting and joyously upsetting shows of this year.

The Five Stages of Waiting plays at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London, WC2H 9NP, until 9 August 2014 as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. Tickets are £12 (concessions available). To book, visit http://tristanbatestheatre.co.uk. To find out more about the Camden Fringe Festival, visit www.camdenfringe.com.


Interview: Caro Dixey

Caro DixeyOften, critics and audience members don’t always see eye to eye. Shows that have been infamously panned by critics, like We Will Rock You, have gone on to enjoy huge profits and lengthy runs. Likewise, sometimes critical acclaim just can’t stop a show from closing early, such as was with I Can’t Sing: The X-Factor Musical.

As a reviewer myself, I was initially unconvinced about the Old Red Lion’s Old Red Line night, which sees a paying audience give direct and instant feedback on a playwright’s new work. What do mere patrons know about the finer points of playwriting? But maybe I’m missing the point somewhere, and there’s an untapped worth somewhere in this exercise.

In order to find out, and hopefully disprove my preconceptions, I spoke to playwright Caro Dixey, who recently had her new play The Five Stages of Waiting put through the Old Red Line’s process. A few months ago, I found her sat in the Greenwich pub where we arranged to meet, tablet PC in her hands and papers strewn across the table: all flanked by a large glass of chilled white wine. She seems particularly excited. Not only because she had just confirmed the venue for the premier of the work, but also because this the first time she’s been interviewed, much to my surprise.

Dixey, an incredibly fresh writer on the London fringe circuit, has already begun to make waves with the short pieces she’s written for The Pensive Federation, among other things. These were performed alongside other established fringe playwrights such as Sarah Pitard and Serena Haywood. With The Five Stages of Waiting being one of her first full length pieces to be fully produced, this is a big advance for her. So was the process beneficial?

Been There, Done That 

Dixey is in a unique position as a playwright: she previously trained as a dramaturge. Because of this, she holds constructive feedback from any outside party in high regard.

“I need a dramaturge, and I can’t do that myself with my own writing,” she tells me. “You can get lost in your own world of witty comments and clever dialogue. But that doesn’t matter if it doesn’t connect with an audience. I’m very about opening it up [and] asking other people’s opinion. If it’s a thing that no-one can look at, then I don’t know why you’re writing.”

Indeed, putting the play forward for Old Red Line wasn’t the first time The Five Stages of Waiting had been given a critical platform. She first submitted the first ten minutes of the play to Vertical Line Theatre, a production company championing new writing through smaller audience feedback initiatives. Artistic Director, Henry Regan, took a shine to the piece during this initial exposition, and then took larger segments of the play through some of Vertical Line’s other initiatives, cumulating in the full draft being scrutinised at Old Red Line: a direct project of Regan’s.

Although now familiar with some exposure to the brutal world of audience opinion, Dixey’s previous training also prepared her from the perils of merciless patrons.

“It is a really interesting situation to be put in,” she admits. “I knew it was going to be difficult [and] I prepared myself for the worst. As a dramaturge, I was given a lot of training and advice about how to approach playwrights: how to discuss their work and how to be sensitive. It was quite interesting to see how people do exactly what I was told not to do.”

Original promo for  The Old Red Line.

Cause and Effect

Of course, my prime interest in speaking to Dixey was to get her point of view of how well it all went. She illuminates to me just how inglorious some of the audience members where. Broad, sweeping, and damning statements were made by some, chastising some of main facets of the work. Thought Dixey admits that she could have easily enabled these to dent her confidence, instead, she managed to find an unlikely positivity in it all.

“People were writing. People wrote on both sides of the [feedback] sheet. Even when it was quite critical, it meant that someone’s actually taken the time to write two sides of comments. I had their attention for an hour and ten minutes, and they hadn’t run straight back to the bar. They’ve been bothered to write feedback. Even if they hated it, at least they were engaged enough to give me feedback.”

But was there any more positive and constructive feedback, and if so, has it affected the play?

“Definitely,” Dixey declares, with unwavering gumption. “I was at a bit of a turning point with a couple of the characters, and needed to make a decision. When people start saying that they don’t understand what [the character is] doing there, or they don’t understand their line of thought, it reaffirmed ideas.”

In fact, she tells me that she has even kept some of these pieces of paper pinned to where she does her writing, to spur her on in and give her encouragement. “I’m working on a rewrite, and it’s going to be a new draft. But I’m very excited about that draft.”

Neil, J. Byden (left) and Laura Kim (right) enjoying a first/last dance in "Done". Photograph: Courtesy of The Pensive Federation.

Neil, J. Byden (left) and Laura Kim (right) enjoying a first/last dance in Caro Dixey’s “Done”, as part of The Pensive Federation’s “Rewritten” festival. Photograph: Courtesy of The Pensive Federation.

Repeat Performance 

As the process seemed to have gone quite well this time, I ask if she thinks that this is something she’d do again.

“Yes,” says Dixey, although I detect a little hesitation in her voice. On enquiring further, I find out that the scintilla of reluctance I sense wasn’t so much about the process, but more about the readiness of her next piece to be put through it.

“With The Five Stages of Waiting, I’ve been working on it for the last seven and a half years. So I know this play, I know what I want from it, and I know that I feel very secure within it. I’ve got a new play that I’ve just finished about six months ago. That has never been produced. It’s a first draft, and I certainly wouldn’t put that up for this.”

She continues to explain that having this lack of confidence and certainty in direction would mean that such broad comments would likely change the very essence of the play, rather than just ironing out the kinks. Engaging an audience is more about letting her improve certain points of the play, rather than having them write one for her.

To Dixey, she feels that those who are at the early stages of a playwriting career can really benefit from this process, providing they’re confident with the play they’re putting forward. It gives writers a different type of criticism to what theatre professionals can give, creating a window into the minds of those you’re writing for.

“[When] you’re still learning your craft, sometimes feedback from a director or a script consultant or a dramaturge can be quite daunting. When it’s Joe Bloggs saying,  ‘I really like that bit, but I don’t understand that;’ that’s the sort of feedback you might get from an audience; instead of the structure, the character development, and the technical ideas.”

Most surprisingly, Dixey’s experience on the more technical side of theatre production means she’s discovered that the audience are more of an informed benchmark than us critics give credit for.

“If your writing is good, then the audience feedback will reflect the views of the company or the artistic director, nine times out of ten.”

Epilogue

I left my time with Dixey far more positive than I thought I would be. Her enthusiasm for the tangible benefits she claims to have received from engaging an audience at a creative level have intrigued me. It’s actually diminished the contempt that I can sometimes hold an audience in; both unwittingly and out of the arrogance that comes with the territory of reviewing.

None the less, my initial cynicism has led way to anticipation for seeing for myself the positives of audience insight and participation in the writing process. I have already witnessed Dixey’s writing first hand and found it be a staggeringly impactful and powerful. So this can only improve it, right?

The Five Stages of Waiting will be performed as part of the Camden Fringe 2014, on 4 – 9 August 2014, at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London, WC2H 9 NP. Tickets are £12 (concessions available). To book, visit http://tristanbatestheatre.co.uk.

For more information about the Camden Fringe Festival, visit www.camdenfringe.com.

For more information about Caro Dixey, visit www.carodixey.com.