Tag Archives: James Craze

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.

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Camden Fringe Review: The Words I Should Have Said to Phoebe Lewis (Phoenix Artist Club, London)

press-shot---full-(website-and-social-media)Rating: *****

In A Nuthsell:

Bittersweet, hilarious, and honest to the point of wonderful absurdity, this is a tremendous piece of new writing with an outstanding cast.

Overview

Wannabe young writer, Frank, is a bit messed up after the death of his mother, causing an estrangement with his father and the rest of his family. Instead of going to university to study creative writing, he’s stuck in Sidcup in debt, a freezing cold flat with his friend Bailey, and a relationship with Shropshire girl Chelsea for all the wrong reasons. But out of the blue comes Phoebe Lewis and Frank’s life turns even more turbulent. As drug-dealing becomes a means of keeping him and Bailey afloat, can Frank keep it together and overcome his cowardice when it comes to crunch-time?

Writing

Writer, Jim English, is pretty fresh out of Rose Bruford College having only graduated last year. However, his lack of experience is made up for an incredibly deft gift for observation and insight. His characters feel incredibly real and personable, steering well clear of turning them into clichéd working-class caricatures, and avoiding forced funniness and being over maudlin. It’s this ability for fine characterisation that really drives the entire play. Everything is outrightly honest and straightforward, just like real people are in all their little idiosyncrasies and inanities. English manages to make you easily connect with them through their humility and humour, making the jokes and laughs come naturally, never feeling contrived. It’s the most brutally honest observations that are the most absurd and side-splitting, yet the more emotional moments are surprisingly near heartbreaking for the same reasons.

The real genius behind English’s text is that when it comes to the climax. It feels so grounded and real you really can’t predict which way events are going to turn as it’s as feasible that it could go either way, making it genuinely thrilling. You quickly realise that this is because you’re actually with the characters for the entire show rather than getting caught up with the narrative. The whole affair feels as if it’s something palpable and true-life rather than fabricated and predictable.

In short, you’re with the play’s people through and through, gripped in both fascination and through a wonderfully casual connection.

Direction & Production

It’s very difficult to find much to say about direction and production in a space that’s so compact and Spartan. However, David Zoob ensures that nothing is static despite being so cramped. Yet he also cherishes the stillness in moments that don’t require much activity, particularly employing some nice little stylistic touches to explore intimacy and fantasy, making great use of what little space there is.

Steph Hammersley also employs some great sound design, with music and background ambience creating time and place aurally in lieu of any set. Whilst subtly colouring the production, it leaves plenty of room to allow English’s writing and the cast’s ability to do the rest of the work.

Cast

It might be a small ensemble, but you can’t really find a better six actors for this play. All embody their characters and perpetuate the believability that English so effortlessly writes. Leads James Craze, as Frank, and Sara Huxley, as Chelsea, are really exceptional at doing this. Both revel in their roles, even bringing little physical quirks to them, like Craze’s little wiggle when getting in and out of his onesie. Craze also does a brilliant job at really building a rapport with the audience in his asides to the audience, cherishing and reacting to the responses he gets from them. Huxley, on the other hand, really exudes a presence of both sensuality and sensitivity as a headstrong girl who has naively fallen in love with the wrong guy: all portrayed with a really endearing air of sweet vulnerability. Together, there’s a really touching reluctance and awkwardness in their chemistry as well as charming tenderness.

Verdict

This is some of the best new writing I’ve seen to date, not to mention supported by a top-notch cast who really get English’s text. It’s such rare serendipity to find it pop up among the great wash of shows that is the Camden Fringe. You’ll absolutely laugh, and probably almost cry, at this elating and effortlessly human tale of Nandos, “Mandy Moore”, and finding the strength in yourself as a person.

The Words I Should Have Said to Phoebe Lewis plays at the Phoenix Artist Club, London, WC2H 8BU, until 2 August 2014, as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. Tickets are £8 (concessions available). To book, visit www.camdenfringe.com.