Tag Archives: physical theatre

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: Miraculi (Tristan Bates Theatre, London)

s1Rating: ****

In A Nutshell:

A crushingly human Zeitgeist on a world displaced, though bold physical theatre distracts from solid writing.

Overview

Lampedusa is an island that is officially the southernmost point of Europe, located in the Mediterranean Sea and politically part of Italy. For the past 20 years, as well as tourists, the local population has witnessed a growing increase in the number of refugees and immigrants coming to the island, using it as a foot-in-the door to Europe. However, not all of them make it to the island and those who are there live in limbo. After spending three years of research on Lampedusa, Théâtre Senza, led by Valentina Zagaria, has created this collaboratively devised piece, forging accounts and of the locals, holiday makers, and the migrants into bold physical theatre.

Writing

There’s a wonderful depth, humour, and honesty that the company employs here. They manages to find really human and truthful aspects about the people and stories they’re depicting, blending joviality and affection seamlessly with desperation and remorse. Despite some of the issues with the physical stylisation (see below), you can still get a certain scope and real grasp of the characters in the play, making them feel like there are real people behind them. It’s these personable insights into life disrupted and displaced on Lampedusa that make for shocking and troubling viewing. As the humdrum collides with the horrific, they create a forceful and brutal portrait of this community caught in the middle of a tourist boom and humanitarian crisis, struggling to come to terms and adjust to their lot. It’s a stark reminder that whilst there’s plenty of dramatic world events covered by the news, we sometimes forgot or not notice the other atrocities that continue regardless, affecting things beyond the sensations we’re let to see.

The framing device of the local community preparing for their Madonna procession adds direction and drive, but does seem a little superfluous, as the diverse and myriad stories introduced to the fray have little connection to this. Given that the procession itself is the apex of the production, it does dull the impact of everything else a little.

Direction & Production

The most interesting and complicated aspect to Miraculi  is the stylistic approach to the scenes. Directing, Zagaria does well the create an ethereal landscape the flits from comedy to tragedy, evoking emotion and scene through sound, movement, and lighting dramatically: from the cramped square of light that represent the human-stuffed hold of an immigrant ship, to using height to represent the global politicians that bray and bargain over the situation in Lampedusa. She also makes great use of the space with minimal and minimalist effort. Using nothing but five black boxes and a few bits of colour clothing and materials, she conjures up everything from an army training ground, to rocky beaches, and political podiums, using all three dimensions of the performance space – width, depth, and height: sliding and constructing a world using only these featureless boxes and the cast’s bodies.

But at the same time, it’s the stylisation that takes a little away from the show’s success. With the solid writing, and some brilliant sound effects from both created by the cast and recorded sound, makes the play more of an aural affair than visual. The physical theatre, though earnest and bold, does sometimes cause a detachment from the subject matter: the movement feeling a little too inorganic to the text or too ostentatious. With very few visual climaxes to go on, bar a chilling scatter of colourful clothing washed ashore from a wreck, Miraculi could really work as well, if not better, as a radio play. The impetus on sound, and the piece’s detailed and honest characterisations, means you could close your eyes for the entire play and still be shaken by it.

Senza-Shoot1917Cast

Zagaria’s cast are all very talented physical performers harvested from an international pallet. The physical signifying traits of individual characters are very well executed helping them to quickly throw themselves from one person to another, creating a living and thriving town of inhabitants alien and local, without so much of a lick of hesitation. But sometimes, they can sometimes stop you connecting with characters as they just seem that bit too unreal. Particularly there’s a juxtaposition of accents, whether purposeful or unintentional, that can jar you away from the scene a little. But overall, it’s the same criticism that the physical theatre can take away from the engagement with the text. They’re all very good at what they do, but they manage to drive little wedges between you and the subject with their physical charisma and prowess.

Verdict

The fact that it’s a piece of physical theatre rather than something more natural stops Miraculi from being brilliant. It’s not that the physical theatre is bad: far from it. It’s just that it’s not completely effective here. But none the less, this is an important, stark, and arresting piece of writing about refugeeism and a community in turmoil that absolutely deserves to be seen regardless of its faults.

Miraculi played at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London, WC2H 9NP, from 4 – 9 August 2014 as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. For more information about the festival, visit www.camdenfringe.com.