Tag Archives: new writing

Theatre Review: The Collective Project (Camden People’s Theatre, London)

the_pensive_federation_cup1Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

The Pensive Federation’s pressure-cooker remit brings out a breadth of variety and ingenuity.

Overview

The Pensive Federation has tasked eight writers to team up with eight directors and twelve actors to create twelve minute pieces inspired by a collective noun and explore power and gender. The result is a really interesting collection of new writing. In Artistic Directors Neil J. Byden and Serena Haywood’s own words,

“…we believe that the time pressure has a an unlocking effect on peoples’ creativity.”

Whilst it certainly has done that, the most interesting element is not so much tapping into a latent talent within each writer, but the clear evidence of each collaboration within each piece, especially with the actors. Across the pieces, you start to see each actor playing similar roles: almost type-casting themselves. But in doing so, both the writing and performance are well delivered and feel effortless when this happens. The same can be said for the direction in certain pieces, where the collaboration has brought out an expert directional vision too.

Whilst only a handful of pieces have managed to create something truly surprising, given the race against the clock, all works are of a solid quality.

Squad, by Martin Malcolm
Dir: Eduard Lewis
Rating: ***

Certainly the most current of the piece, set in a shopping mall during a Black Friday sales. It starts off as a growing and brutal look at small-minded authority, where power corrupts abhorrently. Yet, just as things start to get really dramatic, Malcolm pips in with comic relief that destroys any tension and gravitas, feeling like things are hurriedly tied-up as the twelve minute gong approaches. Malcolm doesn’t quite capitalise on the subject’s potential perhaps because of this imposed brevity, and is something that might be more powerful if it were a longer and more paced piece.

Faculty, by Sherhan Lingham
Dir: Neil J. Byden
Rating: *****

Teacher dramas are nothing new, but none the less Lingham has managed to find a fresh narrative through embracing The Pensive Federation’s remit. Here, she really plays with ideas of separate characteristics, personality clashes, and collectivism, whilst cleverly drawing parallels between bullying among children and adults. Lingham manages to create a story from start to finish that doesn’t feel squeezed into it’s twelve minute window, and remains organic throughout.

The entire cast here also embrace their characters here incredibly well. John Rayment gives a commanding performance as the smug and conniving headmaster. Jared Rodgers, as the member of staff on the fringes of the clique upon who’s actions everything hinges upon, takes the pace to a wonderful apex of suspense.

Chapter, by Alan Flannigan
Dir: Madeline Moore
Rating: *****

Perhaps my favourite piece of the evening. Flannigan, like Lingham, has really embraced the remit to create something that’s clever and intelligent as well as pacey. Particularly, the exploration of a sense of togetherness despite the fact that the characters and dialogue are isolated and fractured from each other. It starts off incredibly enigmatic leaving you wondering what the narrative is, until it all starts to slowly piece together with different perspectives from all angles. As the picture slowly unveils itself, a gripping drama unfolds.

This is also a piece where the direction is just as inspired as the writing. Moore isn’t scared of silences to build drama and tension, and manages to keep a sense of pace and activity despite the fact that for the majority of the piece everything is static. Yet, there is one slow crescendo of movement pointing towards the climax, and it’s engrossing.

Bouquet, by Dan Nixon
Dir: Laura Attridge
Rating: ****

A mob family, a partner kept in the lurch, and a black sheep-cum-florist. Nixon subverts the concept of a group by focusing on the outcast of an otherwise tight-knit throng. It’s an incredibly interesting idea, and Nixon’s setting of this among a family of East End gangsters is one that offers drama and intrigue. Yet, as clever and as engaging to watch as it is, you get the feeling that there’s a bigger piece behind the snapshot here. When the twelve minutes are up you really want to see it go further, especially given the relationship you build with the central long-suffering character.

The collaboration between writer and director is also really strong here. There’s a flurry of action that goes on around the central character, for which they’re very much stuck powerless in the background for. Yet Nixon and Attridge write and direct in a manner that mean’s they’re not lost or forgotten about, even if everything that goes on around them doesn’t at all involve them. It’s incredibly meticulous and well executed, with just the right amount of interjections to remind you that the main character is still there, whilst directionally making sure the character is visible and central, though dis-attached, to the action at all times.

Rodgers, again, proves his ability for playing a withdrawing character, this time with a real tenderness and charm that strikes a rapport and an empathy with the audience without really trying.

It’s just a shame the piece feels more like an extract than a microcosm. More of this, please!

Audience, by Isla Gray
Dir: Jessica Radcliffe
Rating: ***

Game shows are ridiculous, and this is something that Gray really brings out. A group of contestants must work as a team against each other. Gray’s rainbow of characters and ridicule of trash TV certainly brings out some great observational jokes. Yet overall, this piece doesn’t seem to say too much or go very far with regards to plot progression. In fact, the build-up to the crux seems to be padded out: one of the pieces where it feels like twelve minutes is a little too long instead of being too short. An amusing diversion, but one that has the least amount of impact in exploring the themes of “collection”, especially when compared to the others. Whilst there would otherwise be some great fodder for character exploration, all personas involved feel a little too shallow to really amount to much other than a few laughs and a flash-in-the-pan comedy.

Bench, by Guleraana Mir
Dir: Neil Sheppeck
Rating: ****

This is a sweet little piece, looking at a bunch of misfits who go to play football every weekend, although invariably mostly ending up on the bench watching their team lose. There’s certainly some charming interactions between the cacophony of characters here, bringing out a homely humanity between them. Even if the narrative doesn’t really go anywhere in the twelve minutes, it’s still a satisfying still-life of how and why six people who couldn’t be more opposite find solace in coming together, even if it never goes the way they expect it to. A great little piece of character comedy.

Murmuration, by Kate Webster
Dir: Rhiannon Robertson
Rating: ***

Another piece that’s very current, looking at homelessness at Christmas. Two volunteers have set out to host a Christmas party for those who have been displaced; one a regular volunteer, and the other there out of circumstance rather than of charity. Webster’s exploration of the different types of people and personalities that make up both the homeless and the volunteers is refreshing and doesn’t linger or labour on any easy stereotypes. Their characters are fully realised and all are believable and interesting people.

Yet, although a nice exploration how group dynamics can bring out different things in different people, it doesn’t offer anything overly surprising, despite one of the characters’ back-stories. What’s more, towards the end the catalysts start to come too quick and too obviously, feeling less than organic. Again, a sense that it’s trying to rush through its epiphanies and tie everything up before time runs out. Otherwise, there’s potential for a something deep and meaningful if it had a bit more space to breathe and develop.

Host, by Camilla Whitehill

Dir: Chloe Mashiter
Rating: ****

Whitehill has created a wonderfully comic titbit despite the stringent remit. She creates a situation and a cast of characters that naturally finds the funny rather than trying to force something through. However, Whitehill still manages to keep it within the essence of the showcase. Playing wonderfully with the title, Host, Whitehill toys with both the singular and the collective meaning of the noun: a strong leader among the group of friends, trying to support one of their own via an intervention.Only one or two of the jokes are over-laboured a little, but otherwise, it’s a strong piece of comedy. It’s tight, it’s funny, and it’s all you can really ask for to round off the evening.

Again, this is another example of where the actors and writer have worked well together to create a piece that capitalises on their talents and personalities. Katherine Rodden is fantastic as the down and out misanthrope; Neil J. Byrden brings out some great visual moments as the fool of the piece, and Helen Jessica Liggat is steadfast as the mastermind and head of the group of friends. A strong piece that really embraces and excels in what the evening has set out to do.

Verdict

Everything showcased here is certainly solid and an achievement given the remit. But some writers have certainly thrived better than others. But even then, whilst some might not have prospered in the twelve day, twelve minute window given, they’ve still come up with potential for developing their ideas into longer works. An intriguing evening of intelligence and ingenuity.

The Collective Project took place at the Camden People’s Theatre, London, NW1 2PY from 17-20 December 2014. For more information about The Pensive Federation, visit http://pensivefederation.com.

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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.


Musical Review: Apartment 40c (London Theatre Workshop, London)

Cosy. The cast of 'Apartment 40c'. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Cosy. The cast of ‘Apartment 40c’. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

Despite narrative faults, Apartment 40c is a surprising and engaging new musical, marking Tom Lees and Ray Rackham as a musicals writing duo to watch out for.

Overview

One apartment, three couples, six lives. Apartment 40c in New York has seen many occupants of the years. Some of them have loved, some of them have lost, and some of them have found each other. By blurring time and place, it would appear that despite the age and era of its occupants, they have more in common with each other than you’d think.

Nova Skipp (left) and Peter Gerald (right) as Kathryn and Edward. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Nova Skipp (left) and Peter Gerald (right) as Kathryn and Edward. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Book

Librettist Ray Rackam’s almost sci-fi multiverse approach to three different couples is an interesting experience as the stories cross and interact indirectly in very interesting ways, creating a curious enigma about how, and even “if”, these sets of people are linked together. By doing this, Rackham frames the way for some astute exploration of the human condition in surprising ways. Even if you don’t quite connect with the characters on a personal level, or aren’t entirely convinced by their situations, there’s a very clear and intelligent empathy that chimes whenever they open up. It’s never over the top when this happens either. Everything is very honest and as is, meaning you as an audience member take away what you want from each emotional encounter, rather than being told what to feel. This casual and arms length approach continues even when looking at some of the more severe circumstances the characters are placed in, such as loosing a loved one. The result is a musical that is very personal to each audience member.

However, not everything in the actual narrative is as slick as it could be. Some of the couples and their situations aren’t really convincing. For example Eddie and Katie’s double-booked apartment is a bit far-fetched, but not as bewildering as the situation they end up in at the end of a single evening. Elsewhere, plot points and revelations feel contrived, adding to disbelief rather than the suspension of belief.

But it’s Rackham’s ability to make an audience feel and think that’s the main event, despite the sometimes ropey narratives. Plot faults are therefore small niggles rather than major issues. So what if the story is a little unconvincing? The point is how we emote rather than whether we believe.

Alex James Ellison (left) and Alex Crossley (right) as Eddie and Katie. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Alex James Ellison (left) and Alex Crossley (right) as Eddie and Katie. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Music & Lyrics

At first, Tom Lees music seems a bit too recognisable: something along the lines of the American rock music style than has been replicated (often poorly) ad naseum since Rent. However, though familiar, Lee’s music is far from derivative. In it are little shocks and indiscretions with regards to tone and rhythm, deviating away from the formula enough to prick your attention. Lees has found a way to really make the style his own, and by doing so keeps your attention. There are a couple of really haunting ballads that are incredibly beguiling. “Fairy Tales” was my personal highlight from the score: a mixture of childhood innocence and adult pathos with a sweeping melody, performer perfectly by Alex Crossley.

Rackham meets Lees’ musical idiosyncrasies by including unexpected internal rhymes and phrases. They don’t always work well with some feeling more clumsy than others, but they’re certainly interesting. Elsewhere, Rackham employs a more lyrical approach to exploring the themes and feelings that he’s already prying into, using alternative and more abstract imagery to achieve deeper understanding. This is where Rackham as a librettist really shines through, with an unmatched wit and imagination.

Lees arrangements for piano, violin, and cello also work really well. Despite the humility of the ensemble, Lees prises a rich and tender sound from the trio that undulates and colours each musical number. It’s a shame that we only hear Lees’ music and arrangements during the songs, and perhaps a bit of underscoring wouldn’t have gone amiss given just how enchanting it is.

Music and lyrics is certainly the strongest aspect of Lees and Rackham’s partnership. In fact, even if you go wanting to hate this, it’s simply not possible. Yes, you can pick at the smaller foibles, but the score has an absolute and inescapable charm. Maybe, with a different narrative and/or a dedicated book writer, Lees and Rackham can be the new British musicals writers that we’ve been waiting for.

Direction & Production

Jonti Angel and Evie Holdcroft’s set is incredibly striking, turning the upstairs theatre space of the Eel Brook Pub into a real doppelgänger for a New York apartment. It’s brimming with detail and minutia that really lifts the show.

Lees and Rackham,also directing, make good use of the generous space, often having all characters on set at all times, and sometimes choreograph their movements the intricately intersect each other, sometimes recognising but often ignoring their time-bound counterparts. It certainly adds even more enigma and questions to just how closely are these people interlinked. It’s a slickly executed show despite its fringe credentials.

Lizzie Wofford (left) and Drew Weston (right) sharing a tender moment as Kate and Ed. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Lizzie Wofford (left) and Drew Weston (right) sharing a tender moment as Kate and Ed. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Cast

Lees and Rackham have a solid cast on board, although some of the younger actors come across as a little inexperienced alongside more established talents. But overall, it’s very difficult to really pick out anyone particularly outstanding.

If any warrant a particular mention, it’s Lizzie Wofford as long-suffering and good wife, Kate. She has a lot of fun with her character in the little humours she puts up around her as things don’t quite go her way. Her on-stage chemistry with partner Drew Weston as Ed, is really natural and wonderfully sweet too, helped by the fact that he seems to really enjoy playing his role too. However, when push comes to shove, there is a real strength that she finds in her character’s vulnerability, powering on despite the difficult situation she ends up in without completely breaking down. She’s a powerful actress to watch perform in perhaps the strongest of the musical’s roles.

Verdict

It’s not only impossible not find something to like, but something to love. Original and beguiling, this is a thoroughly enjoyable musical penned by a duo with astonishing promise.

Apartment 40c plays at the London Theatre Workshop, London, SW6 4SG, until 20 December 2014. Tickets are £15 (concessions available). To book, visit http://londontheatreworkshop.co.uk.


#Pantomonium Sneak Peak – EXCLUSIVE Clip from ‘Nicobobinus’

In just over a week’s time, I’ll be launching a serial feature on my YouTube channel, #FreshOffTheStalls. Starting on 1 December 2014 “#Pantomonium” will take a look at pantomime and Christmas shows past and present, and look at the state of current day seasonal theatre.

Featured in the series will be DumbWise theatre company, who are bringing their family musical adaptation of Monty Python’s Flying Circus star Terry Jones’ children’s book, Nicobobinus, to the LOST Theatre this year in association with Red Ladder Theatre Company.

As well as chatting to them about what makes a Christmas show and how this differs from pantomime, I was allowed to film them during a rehearsal. Therefore, as a sneak peak for the series and an EXCLUSIVE clip of their upcoming show, I’m proud to present a rehearsal excerpt of “Morning In Venice”, the show’s opening number.

[youtube http://youtu.be/jiGI8eHKyCw]

Nicobobinus will run at the LOST Theatre, London, SW8 2JU, from 11 December 2014 – 4 January 2014. Tickets are £15 (concessions available). To book, visit http://losttheatre.co.uk.


Theatre Review: Tom & Jerry: A Love Story (Drayton Arms Theatre, London)

A cat and mouse game! Denholm Spurr (left) as Tom, and Pearce Sampson (right) as Jerry.

A cat and mouse game! Denholm Spurr (left) as Tom, and Pearce Sampson (right) as Jerry.

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

Tender and truthful with some great writing, lifting what is otherwise something too familiar.

Overview

Tom meets Jed in a club. Tom is straight laced and prim, whilst Jed is hyperactive, self-absorbed, and queeny. However, after a bump and a spill, they end up in an unlikely relationship. But can domestic bliss endure their clash of personalities?

Writing

This new piece by Nick Myles is not exactly original, in the sense that there are already countless plays looking at how opposites attract as well as repel. However, even if the narrative doesn’t break any new ground, you forget the familiarities of such a tale due to some marvellous writing.

For starters, Myles explores the issues with an absorbing level of intelligence and truth. His characters, their thoughts and their feelings, clearly come from a very real and heartfelt place, giving the play a tangible humanity. Particularly, he proves that you can include stereotypical characters without them coming across at two-dimensional. Even Jed, with all the mincing irritation that his shallow persona embodies, is still a vulnerable, responsive, and feeling character. You may be able to see where the story is going, but nether the less you’re still intrigue by the nuance and personality that Myles writes with.

Furthermore, there are some wonderful little moments where Myles employs his writing technically. At one point, he creates a wonderful moment toying with of distance and closeness. At the apex of the relationship, he has the characters recount the day it all fell apart, taking turn individuals talking directly to the audience, which wonderfully isolates themselves from each other through the text, despite director Niall Phillips creating a physical closeness they have on the stage: a wonderful visual and atmospheric contrast that lifts the already emotional opening up of the characters. There’s also moments when he toys with inner-dialogue to peek into the psyches of the characters as they interact, ensuring the audience don’t take away everything at face value.

The only other criticism aside from originality, is that Myles takes a bit too long to explore the issues sometimes, causing some moments to drag, especially where there’s an absence of the little dramatic tricks he employs elsewhere. It’s clear that Myles wants to explore the issues and feelings he’s meticulously dissecting as fully as possible. But the tenderness that comes across from the writing, even in these lulls the slower pacing, is by no means a negative trade off for a text that so easily and earnestly resonates with anyone who’s ever been in a failed relationship.

Direction & Production

Phillips works wonders with very little by means of space and set. Opting to not use the generous (if not awkward) space of the Drayton Arms Theatre doesn’t mean that it looses anything. There’s certainly enough space for the cast to interact with each other and tell the story, and enough simple props to create the various scenes and places.

As well as little embellishments that augment Myles’ writing (such as the aforementioned physically placing the characters close together when they’re at their most distant), Phillips handles scene changes in a wonderful way too: as the characters set up the props, they move and interact to tells succinctly and charmingly the emotions and story of the time inbetween. The problem is that some of them go on just a bit too long, overstaying the point and the picture that they’re trying to make/paint. Otherwise, it adds a wonderful sense of continuity to Mile’s play, whilst visually colouring the characters beyond what the text already says about them.

There is also a very natural approach to the text too. Phillips isn’t worried about actors talking over each other or forcedly interrupting a sentence during an argument or excited discussion due to being caught up in the heat of the moment. It gives the whole play an even more realistic charm that helps us to identify with the characters more. The cast handle this approach incredibly well too, but always without drowning each other out or drawing undue dominance. It creates a believable insight into what could be a very real relationship, and were it for the fact you know this is a play, you’d swear that actors Pearce Sampson and Denhlom Spurr were a real life ill-fated couple.

Cast

Both Sampson and Spurr handle their characters effortlessly organically. Sampson especially manages to bring a human depth to a character who is otherwise monstrously superficial in nature. Spurr is also great at exploiting the cracks in his character’s uptight veneer to reveal some touching repressed emotions. But it’s the chemistry between them that is most interesting to watch. Even at their most intimate, there’s always a sense of distance, and likewise, when there’s distance between them, there’s still a simmer of passion and longing that draws them together: a picture-perfect capture of Tom and Jed’s dynamic.

Verdict

A warm and affecting look at when love doesn’t go the way it should when personalities clash, with writing that carries and intrigues in a narrative that you that doesn’t necessarily offer anything too new.

[youtube http://youtu.be/y3yaHBZrmZs]

Tom & Jerry: A Love Story was performed at the Drayton Arms Theatre, SW5 0LJ.


Face to Face Review: Betty Has To Go Now (LOST Theatre, London)

Betty-Oct-2014_y7t55n3kRating: ****

In A Nutshell

Joyful, inappropriate, and very very funny.

Overview

Take one part woman obsessed with Betty Crocker, add a pinch of nuclear Holocaust paranoia, season with a dash of menopause, and bake until outrageous.

Writing

Deirdre Strath’s culinary creation is a direct product of previous Face to Face festivals. The piece had a life as a 15 minute segment of last year’s festival, and for this year she has worked with Colin Watkeys to develop it into a full 50 minute show.

Strath’s creation is a homely taste of American hospitality combined with twisted and off-kilter world views, and tempered with an almost religious dedication to the queen of American home cooking. It’s inspired and riotously original and a character like no other to have graced the new writing. This volatile and unique concoction, whilst one cherry short of Bakewell tart, paves the way for outlandish and incredibly witty points of view as well as the cream of some comic moments, icing the show with unexpected smarts.

What’s best is that Strath peppers her dialogues with some of the most unexpected and tongue in cheek quips, all recited with incredibly creative application of language, most joyously her astonishing allegory of amazingly astute alliterations. You never quite see where they’re going to come from, and most of the time you’re left in a state of humorously winded and in awe. But behind it all is also the pathos of a woman on the edge; going through menopause, genuinely worried about international atomic warfare, and eating and drinking through the increasingly strained relationship with her son. When these rise above the laughter, you get a dark and touching portrait of a woman staving off a nervous breakdown, and who is as vulnerable as the rest of us.

The only issue is that parts of the extended text lacks the quick-fire punch of other moments. But nothing ever feels like padding and this is essentially just Strath’s comprehensively created character just being less funny for a moment rather than being less interesting and engaging.

[youtube http://youtu.be/9PizyE8Fd-g]

Performance

Strath really does embody her character ever atom of the way, to the point it’s difficult to see where she ends and her Crocker-acolyte begins. But as well as delivery the zingers and outlandish one-liners with slick ability, Strath also produces a gaggle of props which she also utilises with as much zest and comic timing as her text. Cue delicious cakes and cookies willing dished out to the audience, customised cocktails, mini blow torches, and a rather “explosive” creation made especially for a certain East Asian dictator. She takes the time to welcome the audience into her make-shift kitchen and make them feel at home, adding even more to her ineffable charm and demeanour.

But there were times where she slips up a little, sometimes forgetting her lines and stumbling a little through the order of her narrative. But where she does she rolls marvellous with the punches and recovers well to the point you wonder whether it was all purposeful to begin with. But you can’t come away without loving Strath’s character (and her cakes) and having seen the bright light of gospel of Betty Crocker…and the hydrogen bomb.

Verdict

Forget the Great British Bake off. Deirdre Strath serves up an evening with more sass, glamour, and flavour, than Mary Berry’s soggy bottom ever will.

[youtube http://youtu.be/C0srgX52wCU]

Betty Has To Go Now was performed as part of the Face to Face Festival of Solo Theatre which took place at the LOST Theatre, London, SW8 2JU, between 6 – 10 October 2014. For more information about the festival, visit www.solotheatrefestival.co.uk.


Theatre Review: The Glasshouse (Tristan Bates Theatre, London)

Sonnie Beckett as Mary Boden. Photograph: Courtesy of Vincent Rowley.

Sonnie Beckett as Mary Boden. Photograph: Courtesy of Vincent Rowley.

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

A most provocative and powerful account of pacifism in the extreme, combined with a stark reminder of the human horrors of the First World War.

Overview

Pip was sent to the French trenches during the First World War. However, he is a pacifist and is imprisoned as a “conscientious objector”. He is locked up in a barn with another “conchy”, Moon: an Irish boy suffering from severe shell-shock. As the war rages on and his sentence approaches, Pip not only makes unexpected friends and starts small personal revolutions in the people he meets, but he has his stance on pacifism pushed to an absolute extreme at the hands of a sadistic fellow soldier.

Sam Adamson as Moon. Photograph: Courtesy of Vincent Rowley.

Sam Adamson as Moon. Photograph: Courtesy of Vincent Rowley.

Writing

Max Saunders Singer makes his playwriting debut, after his artistic input in RIP and his award nominated performance in Mojo. For a piece that is a first attempt, it’s pretty damn impressive.

Particularly, Saunders Singer’s handling of narrative development is the play’s strongest point. Rather than delivering a piece that comfortably praises and skims through pacifism as an ideology, he takes the time to question it’s appropriateness by testing the character to the very limits. Although the action itself is shocking, at the same time he provides a brutal but balanced examination of pacifism that is engrossing. Likewise, Pip as a character that is incredibly deep, adding intrigue to what Saunders Singer puts him through. Devoutly religious, but with the suggestion of a much darker past, Pip is far from a textbook Figure A, prompting more questions than we would usually end up asking ourselves about his stance.

Other characters in the play are well thought out and well placed catalysts the move this dramatic discussion forward. From the connection he builds with Sergeant Harper, to the stinging rebuffs of his proud Captain brother; everything lifts and colours Pip as a character and complicates his ideals.

Furthermore, Saunders Singer is unflinching in his portrayal of the violence of The Great War. There are some incredibly violent and unsavoury scenes, but everything always feels organic rather than gratuitous, especially as a tool to put pacifism under the microscope. If we’re asked to never forget their sacrifices, this is a stark and important reminder of what it was they went through, without sensationalism or exaggeration.

The only, and somewhat small, problem with the writing is pacing: there are points where the action drags a little too much. It’s very difficult to get pacing right in a play like this as, given the intensity of the action and the subject explored, the audience tend to tire very quickly emotionally and physically and thus don’t fancy hanging around much. Saunders Singer has gone for a more naturalistic dialogue and pace which, whilst creates an organic sense of scene, creates too much of a lull in the action meaning you lose attention a little.

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Max Saunders Singer as Pip. Photograph: Courtesy of Vincent Rowley.

Production and Direction

This is by far some of the most impressive production values I’ve seen on the fringe, no doubt in thanks to the show’s Kickstarter patrons. DoBo Designs’ set is an incredibly impressive cross section of an old barn, with splintered wood, cobwebs, and rusting farm tools to boot. There are umpteen other little touches as well, from wet mist pouring from the shell hole in the roof, to realistic doves, and the most gruesome things a butcher can provide in lieu of actual human torture. The level of detail is phenomenal and really adds to lift the horrific reality of the piece.

Sebastien Blanc, rejoining Saunders Singer after their last partnership in Mojo, also superbly directs the piece. There is always something going on in the fringes of the set, to add a living sense of reality to the scenes. But despite this constant nature, Blanc ensures that nothing unintentionally distracts whilst ensuring the space where the main events take place in a scene gives room for it to develop and breathe, despite the limited space it takes place in. Teaming up with fight director Matt Gardener, the stage becomes a brutal and slickly executed powder-keg that lights Saunders Singer’s intent.

Simon Naylor (left) Sam Adamson (centre) and Max Saunders Singer (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Vincent Rowley.

Simon Naylor (left) Sam Adamson (centre) and Max Saunders Singer (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Vincent Rowley.

Cast

You couldn’t ask for a more phenomenal cast. Although there are the usual misgivings of a writer being involved in the acting (usually, one of those, if not both, suffers), Saunders Singer makes sure that his recent nomination was not something thrust upon him without merit. His performance is an affectionate and empathetic one which captivates the audience through and through, most likely coming from the fact that he intrinsically knows Pip as a person through having written him. Simon Naylor is also fantastic as Sergeant Harper, and confidently charts the journey from bullish authority to a man crumbling from the weight of guilt and uncertainty, with nuance and respect.

Sam Adamson, however, fresh out of training with this being his first professional role, is astonishing, giving an uncomfortable and harrowing visceral performance as shell-shocked Moon. The energy and dedication to every flinch and fit is extraordinary, augmenting the utter heartbreak of his character’s demise. John Askew as Private Blythe, the piece’s antagonist, is also as evil and maniacal as they come; out-rightly one of the most despicable and dangerous villains I’ve ever witnessed to have graced the stage. He’s enraging and ghastly to watch to the point it’s a little worrying that he can so agilely and naturally portray such sick and craven masochist!

Verdict

Horrifying and immensely provocative, this is a WWI centenary play that has an intelligence and power beyond expectations. A show that shreds heartstrings and decimates sensibilities, it’s theatre at it’s most outstanding.

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The Glasshouse plays at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London, WC2H 9NP, until 22 November 2014. Tickets are £16 (concessions available). To book, visit http://tristanbatestheatre.co.uk.


Theatre Review: Bare Essentials (Take Courage Theatre, London)

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

Encompass Productions’ stripping back of performance to just an actor and little production budget brings out the best in some exciting new writing.

Concept

The more cynical may think that the gimmick of there being no gimmick is probably something born of pretence more than substance. But Encompass Productions very firmly proves doubters otherwise. Their ethos of having minimum/no production budget means that focus is squarely on the writing itself, with no smoke and mirrors to distract from it: just the text, the actors, and directors.

Their choice of pieces to showcase in this evening is also strong, and they gone for ones that are different and daring rather than pieces that are more familiar. That’s not to say all of them work or are as brilliant as each other. But overall, they certainly have a real eye for new and original works; the sort of stuff that is perfect for this treatment.

Elsewhere they have an excellent collective of actors and directors on board who bring the pieces to life, and in some places take them beyond what any complicated lighting and scenery could ever do. Their emphasis on essence really makes these plays grip and astound.

Yet it’s a bit of a crime that the focus is more on the writering than everything else, because some of the most astonishing feats achieved in the evening are also directional. With only actors to work with, this is direction at it’s most pure. So, as good as Bare Essentials is for tipping you off on the writers to watch, exactly the same can be said of some of the exemplary directors involved in the evening.

Freya Parsons in "Poison". Photograph: Courtesy of Encompass Productions.

Freya Parsons in “Poison”. Photograph: Courtesy of Encompass Productions.

Poison, by Rebecca Robinson
Dir: Jonathan Woodhouse
Rating: **

An unlikable, obnoxious, and boring office worker is late for work after a bit of a bender the night before. Then, they go about being unlikeable, obnoxious, and boring throughout their day. Oddly, the problem here not that the characterisation is bad. On the contrary, Robinson and actor Freya Parsons actually do an excellent job in creating someone who is believable as much as they are odious.

However, the narrative spends a lot of the time endearing you less and less to the character to the point you don’t care about them anyone, losing interest and sympathy too quickly after a few cheeky little laughs at the beginning. When the proverbial hits the fan, you just can’t muster any remorse or empathy, making some of the more serious points the piece tries to make lost to the accidental apathy it’s created.

Noor Lawson in "Rebekah: Female Soldier". Photograph: Courtesy of Encompass Productions.

Noor Lawson in “Rebekah: Female Soldier”. Photograph: Courtesy of Encompass Productions.

Rebekah: Female Soldier, by Nicola O’Connor
Dir: Alice Kornitzer
Rating: ***

What’s best about this is O’Connor’s red herring. Whilst so much could be explored about the conflict in Afghanistan from a female perspective, O’Connor instead chooses to have her character, Rebekah, talk about class and her upbringing on a housing estate. The writing is very descriptive and almost poetic, but here-in lies the problem. You just don’t ever feel like the words being spoken by actor Noor Lawson are that of the character’s. They feel very much like the musings of the author. That’s not to say they’re not insightful and surprising, but it’s that the disconnect between character and text is just a bit too off-putting. Despite this, Lawson does a brilliant job in engaging the audience, by interacting with them by way of acknowledgement, with little touches like moments of direct eye-contact with those she’s speaking with. She makes you want to listen to the story, even if you feel it’s not exactly hers.

Laurie Harington and Carly Haise in "The Art of Tea. Photograph: Courtesy of Encompass Productions

Laurie Harington and Carly Haise in “The Art of Tea”. Photograph: Courtesy of Encompass Productions

The Art of Tea, by Daniel Damiano
Dir: Rachael Owens
Rating: ****

New York writer, Damiano, takes a loving pot-shot at British sensibilities creating a comic piece of nuance and intrigue. Everything is very well observed, from the faux pas of licking the sugar spoon before putting it back into the bowl, and the small delusions we can create out of decorum and etiquette.

What’s great about this is that Damiano manages to keep you completely unaware of where the narrative is going to go, with a wonderfully unhinged character played superbly by Laurie Harrington, making it a real quiet thriller of a comedy. Hats off to Owens too, who ensures that Damiano’s nuances are brought to the fore, thus elevating the piece.

Alexander Pankhurst and Robert Wallis in "Love in Freefall". Photograph: Courtesy of Encompass Productions.

Owen Collins and Robert Wallis in “Love in Freefall”. Photograph: Courtesy of Encompass Productions.

Love in Freefall, by Simon Jackson
Dir: Liam Flemming
Rating: ****

Another comedy nugget, this time from Scottish playwright, Jackson, placing a soap opera-esque storyline in an unusual and outrageous situation: infidelity and sabotage mid sky-dive. However, what makes this piece shine is Flemming’s direction. Whilst an amusing and entraining piece, there are better written plays amongst the rest of the programme. But Flemming’s direction makes this one of the better performances, turning it from something funny to something outrightly hilarious. He uses space and the actors’ physicality to bring additional humour to the piece, with superb aplomb. The entire cast, Alexander Pankhurst, Owen Collins, and Robert Wallis, really revel and enjoy their roles making this piece a heck of a lot of fun.

Steven Mortimer, Marcella Corelli, and Zuri Warren in "End Up Like Julie". Photograph: Courtesy of Encompass Productions.

Steven Mortimer, Marcella Carelli, and Zuri Warren in “End Up Like Julie”. Photograph: Courtesy of Encompass Productions.

End Up Like Julie, by Ilan Wachsman
Dir: Jonathan Woodhouse
Rating: *****

Certainly the most daring and original piece of the evening from Israeli writer Wachsman. Mixing absurdism and existentialism, we get two polar but close friends arguing over the meaning of workouts/life in the gym over the corpse of their dead-ish friend, Julie. Dark, sharp, and wonderfully suspect, it’s one that pricks your attention and then keeps it with just how subtly mad and sinister it is. There are some brilliantly energetic and subtly caricatured performances from all three actors too, making this a deep and thrilling dark horse of a piece.

Matthew Leigh, Jordan Kouame, and Zara Malik in "Sniper". Photograph: Courtesy of Encompass Productions.

Matthew Leigh, Jordan Kouame, and Zara Malik in “Sniper”. Photograph: Courtesy of Encompass Productions.

Sniper, by John Foster
Dir: Michaela Frances Neal
Rating: *****

Award-winning screen actor, Foster, uncomfortably probes the shallow sensationalism of crime and layman criminal psychology that we see in the media. We join the ghost of a killer in purgatory with his victims, as he recounts his motives and his reasons with us and the people he killed.

Foster’s use of brutal language – short, awkward, and evocative sentences – creates an incredible tension to the piece. James, his main character, becomes a presence that is both intensely sardonic and intimidatingly sadistic, and it’s almost terrifying.

Actor Jordan Kouame gives the performance of the evening with an unsavoury carefree, playful, and downright despicable portrayal of James, making him a petrifying presence to be in. Actors Zara Malik and Matthew Leigh also add a stinging sense of ethereal fluidity mixed with pathos and disdain as the victims and the voices of the prying and voyeuristic media.

Frances Neal’s direction here is also excellent, using the proximity of the characters to each other to really bring out the uneasy and oscillating power shift between perpetrator and victims, bolstering Foster’s text with a visual depth on top of the casts’ electric performances.

The best was certainly saved until last in this utterly thrilling piece, and would have been worth the ticket even if the rest of the evening wasn’t as good as it was.

Verdict

An excellent evening of using the least the bring out the most in some new and exciting writing. Anyone who’s into new theatre writing should definitely be sure to attend their next showcase: it’s unmissable theatre.

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Bare Essentials was performed at the Take Courage Theatre, London, SE14 6TY, between 22 – 24 October 2014. For more information about Encompass Productions, visit www.encompassproductions.co.uk.


Theatre Review: Fairy Dregs and Friends (Caravan Theatre, London)

NOTE: Having stumbled upon this show completely accidentally last week, I endeavoured to get this up last weekend whilst it was still on. Indeed, I had even completed the initial draft of the review on the Friday. However, with my weekend turning into something of a exhaustion induced coma, things didn’t go to plan. However, if the Caravan Theatre and writer/performer Sammy Kissin can forgive me, I still think what I saw deserves a written testament. So although this review goes up rather late, it does so with with my sincerest apologies.

fairy dregsRating: ****

In a Nutshell

Two rich and imaginative solo pieces that enchant and rivet.

Overview

Writer and performer Sammy Kissin performs two short works in a golden caravan parked outside the Tate Modern, as part of the Merge Festival. Dregs is a piece about a fairy who gets trapped inside a bottle of merlot, and Mary Louise lets us in on the musings and reminiscences of a ship’s figurehead up for auction.

Writing

Across both pieces, Kissin demonstrates that she is a writer of incredible imagination, lilting language, and playful pathos. In Dregs, she clashes both the mystical with the mucky, as we hear the sad tale of how Dregs, a fairy, gets lured into a wine bottle by a troll, only to start what would become a descent into alcoholism. Whereas in Mary Louise, Kissin turns her creativity to personifying the life and experiences of a busty and bolshy ship’s figurehead. Everything she writes is well thought out and full of aching tragedy and fascinating intelligence. These are characters on the fringes of both our world and theirs, that still somehow manage to connect and speak to both the mind and the soul, through the glory and the grit of their tales.

Most impressive, though, is Kissin’s employment of language. Rich and luscious, there’s a splatter of the Jacobian greats in how it bounces and trips through vocabulary and metre. There’s an incredible sense of poetry that runs through both pieces from start to finish. Kissin is almost like a modern-day Marlowe, and it’s so rare to hear performance prose of such beauty crop up on the London new writing scene, let alone in such an unexpected and obscure place.

Performance

Kissin really embraces her prose and her characters, performing with a delicate but sturdy energy. But there’s two things that really hold back what would otherwise be an exemplary show. Firstly, whilst I’m all for theatre in odd spaces, the golden caravan as charming and as out-of-place as it is on the banks of the Thames is perhaps a bit too small. It’s not that it’s a tad too “cosy” for the audience (of which up to eight cuddle up at any given performance), but you get the sense that it’s too cramped for Kissin as well: not so much physically, but for her presence. You really get the sense that her performance needs to space to breath, and here, her charisma extends beyond the confines of the fibreglass box you’re squeezed into.

Secondly, there are times when you get the feeling she’s just a little too absorbed in her character. Ironically, despite the closeness of the venue, there are moments of distance put between her and the audience as she wanders off into a musing, leaving the punters to watch rather than engage. Given the opportunity to produce some incredibly intimate and responsive theatre here, it’s an aspect that’s just a touch overlooked.

But overall, in both of her characters, she’s ineffably charming and engrossing to watch, and is as talented a performer as she is a writer.

Verdict

Two surprisingly sublime nuggets of dramatic gold, if you happened to serendipitously stumble upon this last weekend.

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Fairy Dregs and Friends plays at the Caravan Theatre, Bankside, SE1 9TG, as part of the Merge Festival. For more information about the festival, visit http://mergefestival.co.uk.

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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.

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