Tag Archives: play

Theatre Review: Lionboy (Tricycle Theatre, London)

Roaring to go. The cast of 'Lionboy'. Photograph:  Courtesy of Sarah Ainslie.

Roaring to go. The cast of ‘Lionboy’. Photograph: Courtesy of Sarah Ainslie.

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

A show of sound, fury, and splendour. A big top of imagination and ingenuity bringing Zizou Corder’s modern fairytale to vivid life.

Overview

In a future were mobile phones are powered by the sun and cars are banned, corporations are more powerful than countries. When Charlie Ashanti’s parents, who were working on a cure for asthma, get kidnapped by The Corporacy, he enters into a world of corruption, danger, and misapplied science. Oh, and Charlie can also speak to cats…

Writing & Adaptation

Zizou Corder, the alias of mother and daughter writing team Louisa Young and Isabel Adomakoh Young, has created an incredibly modern and current children’s book. Lionboy is choc-full modern issues from bad science, to identity and belonging, to environmentalism, and even a complex lesson in avarice and wealth. An older audience might think that such issues might be a bit too mature for younger audiences. But this is proved wrong given the age of one half of Corder, and, looking at the reactions to some of the more youthful patrons in the theatre, it goes to show that children are far more savvy than we give them credit for. Simultaneously, it gives enough meat for older audiences to get stuck into too. As well as a wealth of colourful imagination and vision, this books’ depth and a complexity is miracle-fodder for acclaimed theatre company, Complicite, in adapting this prize-winning trilogy into a blistering piece of theatre.

Complicite throw everything they’ve got at the show – puppetry, physical theatre, circus skills, and shadow-work – to create a smorgasbord of visuals and energies that inject an overwhelming assault on the senses. This adds a vital variety to the show that will dazzle elders and keep younger ones engaged.

However, this is perhaps the show’s only drawback. Each trope carries it’s own identity and flow, and having so many of these causes the pacing to fly around a little unwieldy at times, also making slower more intimate moments of the show a little sluggish by comparison. Ultimately, whilst Complicite may have found many things which connect with the audience in many ways, there’s not a consistent overall sense of atmosphere and direction.

However, in saying that, the central essence of the show is storytelling. For all the tricks and spectacles they bring out, nothing is allowed to distract from a very pure and glorious focus on this. Everything that makes the show beguiling is the story’s words and how they’re delivered to the audience. All the stagecraft that is used on top of this just grabs your attention and decorates this most crucial element of the show. The simple weaving a world from words is still there, breaking the fourth wall often and regaling the audience directly with enchanting silver tongues. Even without the kaleidoscope of stagecraft, you’d still be hooked by the tale’s delivery.

[youtube http://youtu.be/pAiaXrqYOxU]

Direction & Production

There are far too many things going on in the production to try and cover everything. But in it’s very basic form, imagination is what drives the entire show. The steeply raked circus stage and giant flyable screen form a focal point for everything that goes on around it. But otherwise the show creates scenes from very little, such as chrome walls and hidden passages from steel ladders, eels from rubber tubing, and even a pursuit through the bustling streets of London using only boxes and bits of rope.

One thing that is incredibly remarkable and works wonders is the sound design. A collection of deafening soundscapes and soundtracks are blasted into the audience, submerging people aurally as well as visually. In addition, there is a bevy of live percussion that augments the thunderous noise that Complicite produce. It’s literally tremendous, making building and persons shake with its sheer sound and effect.

Couple this with face paced and exotic visuals, peppered with blinding and dazzling lighting, and you’ve got a production that can only be described as “otherworldly”. Directors Clive Mendus and James Yeatman constantly stir the senses, seldom letting the audience have any reprieve until at least the interval: leaving you dumb and astonished for most of the show. If you’re you’ve not found yourself in a stupor for even a small part, then you need to get your humours checked.

Cast

Complicite has an exceptional cast on board for this revival with all actors being expert storytellers of the finest pedigree. Martins Imhangbe particularly, as Charlie the Lionboy gives an exquisite physical performance, switching between him and the felines he converses with, embodying cat and human with astonishing believability and lightning change.

It’s so difficult to pick out any other favourite moments from the rest of the cast without making this review into an essay. Needless to say, each bring their own talent and personality to all the multiple roles they play. They all each have wonderful turns in interacting with interacting with the audience too. As a company they’re a sheer delight to watch.

Verdict

Bombastic and beautiful, Complicite is the cat with the cream of London theatre in the return of their celebrated adaptation of this modern and current children’s epic. A family spectacular like no other, there’s no excuse for “lion” about and not seeing this show!

[youtube http://youtu.be/_jFNajmYEUg]

Lionboy plays at Tricycle Theatre, London, NW6 7JR, until 10 January 2015. Tickets are £16 – £23.50 (concessions and family rates available). To book, visit www.tricycle.co.uk.

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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.


Theatre Review: Eric and Little Ern (St James Theatre, London)

Jonty Stephens (left) and Ian Ashpitel (right) as Morecambe and Wise. Photograph: Courtesy of Geraint Lewis.

Jonty Stephens (left) and Ian Ashpitel (right) as Morecambe and Wise. Photograph: Courtesy of Geraint Lewis.

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

A blissful eulogy to two of Britain’s greatest comedians. Touching, never too sentimental, and roaringly funny.

Overview

We find Ern in a private room in hospital. Out of the blue, he sees a vision of his old comic partner, Eric. They go over all memories and catch up after 15 years since death did they part. Then, Eric makes Ernie an offer he can’t refuse: to do one last show together.

Familiar bedfellow. Ian Ashpitel (left) and Jonty Stephens (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Geraint Lewis.

Familiar bedfellow. Ian Ashpitel (left) and Jonty Stephens (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Geraint Lewis.

Writing

The process that actors and creators of this piece has been a long time in the making, but good things come to those who wait. What Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stephens have managed to do in their devised piece is capture an essence of Morecambe and Wise that really does the duo justice. The capture of this essence means that everything about the show incorporates a sense of flexibility and spontaneity which is crucial to who they’re paying tribute to: it’s something you simply can’t portray Morecambe and Wise without. Even in the more obviously structured first act, there’s still a fresh sense of fun and unpredictability that runs through it, driving the comedy at every point.

It’s difficult to think that there are many out there who are unaware or have never seen at least one of their shows or sketches. Even I, almost two generations younger than when they were in their prime, can’t fail to recognise them. But even so, Ashpitel and Stephens put just enough background, seamlessly woven into the shenanigans, to paint a deeper picture of their lives, careers, and relationship, including some much loved material from their shows by Eddie Braben, Dick Hills, and Sid Green. It’s done in such a way that it never feels like a history play, and instead colour their personas making the show more accessible for those who may not know the duo as well as throw in a few titbits of trivia for an older audience.

In the second act, Ashpitel and Stephens have created a 30ish minute front of curtain show, drawing on some of their most memorable routines. There’s really not much to say about it other than it’s a blistering performance that the real Morecambe and Wise would have been proud of themselves. Again, here there’s plenty of room for flexibility and spontaneity, meaning it doesn’t feel like a mere emulation but a fluid and living piece of comedy. There are a few references to personalities of their age that will may go over the head of much younger fans, but these are few, and, for the catering-sized pack of laughs they deliver elsewhere, are certainly forgiven if not forgotten.

What’s great though is that, as touching as it is in places, especially in exploring the rich relationship Morecambe and Wise had between them, Ashpitel and Stephens never linger upon sentimentality. Morecambe and Wise are best know for the joy and laughter they brought to the world, and this is how both Ashpitel and Stephens go about creating this blissful eulogy. If you’re moved to tears, it’s not because they’ve purposefully pulled on the heartstrings with maudlin manipulation, but it’s because they’ve touched a deep and personal remembrance through a shared happiness: true justice to these behemoths of entertainment.

Direction & Production

Even though the main focus really is Ashpitel and Stephen, there’s still a solid production behind it. Simon Scullion’s set for Act I believably looks like a private hospital room, and even the curtain for Act II is wonderfully recreated and instantly recognisable. But  detail aside, what Scullion, Director Owen Lewis, and the rest of the production team from musical director to lighting do, is give Ashpitel and Stephens the space and materials they need to perform unhindered, from props to music cues. There’s really not much other to be said about direction and production here because it all works so well that you hardly notice them. It’s Ashpitel and Stephens that are the main focus, and the production steadfastly supports them and never takes attention away from them. This is exactly what a production of this kind should be doing.

Jonty Stephens (left) and Ian Ashpitel (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Geraint Lewis.

Jonty Stephens (left) and Ian Ashpitel (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Geraint Lewis.

Cast

Ashpitel and Stephens are uncanny as Eric and Ernie. Not only are they are near physical doppelgängers to the genuine articles, but they’ve got their physical and vocal mannerisms and ticks down to a ‘t’. But even so, what is most astonishing about these two is that they are far from a stale emulation or tribute act. Whilst both embrace the recognisable personas and mannerisms of who they’re playing, what Ashpitel and Stephens do is find a wonderful rapport between themselves upon with they capitalise. The result is that there’s as beautiful sense of brotherhood between them as there was between Morecambe and Wise.

Furthermore, they are as expert as comic performers as the real Eric and Ernie were. In the second act, in particular, they feed off the audience’s reactions and each others bluffs to create a side-aching routine. Even in recreating established tropes, such as Eric’s famous paper-bag trick, the skits are delivered in such a way that it still made the entire audience bellow with glee: finding a way to make an old joke be delivered as if it were never seen before.

Verdict

A remembrance most remarkable: marvellously funny and heartfelt. As the closest to the real thing as we can ever get since their passing, it’s a must for long-term fans, and a pure comic rush for those less familiar.

Eric and Little Ern runs at the St. James Theatre, London, SW1E 5JA, until 11 January 2015. Tickets are £10 – £45. To book, visit www.stjamestheatre.co.uk.


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: It’s A Wonderful Life – The Radio Play (Bridge House Theatre, London)

Wonderful! Sophie Scott (left) and Gerard McCarthy (right). Photograph: courtesy of Anton Hewins.

Wonderful! Sophie Scott (left) and Gerard McCarthy (right). Photograph: courtesy of Anton Hewins.

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

Proof that all you need for great theatre is a good story and brilliant storytellers. The production finds an ineffable charm in its resourcefulness.

Overview

George Bailey is a man with great ambitions. Yet his good nature has meant he has never been able to leave the sleepy up-state New York town of Bedford Falls. And now, things have come to a head and he’s contemplating suicide. But can rookie second class angel, Clarence, intent on earning his wings, be the one to convince him that he really has a wonderful life?

Writing

If I’m going to be upfront about things, I’m going to have to admit that, for all it’s praise, I’m not a huge fan of the film of It’s A Wonderful Life: even though it’s synonymous with Christmas and considered one of film’s all time greats. Yet famed radio-playwright, Tony Palermo, in his scaled back and succinct adaptation, has managed to find a different and hidden magic in the tale through it’s resetting. It might just be actors speaking into microphones accompanied by live sound effects, but he’s managed to still find a pace and an imagination that is difficult not to get drawn into. It’s an excellent radio play, even it’s being performed on stage. Palermo’s focus is, in his own words:

“…presenting theatre audiences with an authentic and delightful experience of radio drama in its heyday.” – www.ruyasonic.com.

He achieves this wholly and effortlessly.  Most astonishingly is, that despite the bareness of the concept, the children in the audience were completely hooked: something I had not expected, and speaks volumes for the show’s ability to engage and enchant.

The production’s setting the show as a local Penge 1949 live radio broadcast adds even more charm, including 1940s style adverts for actual business. Actor Daniel Hill also does a wonderful job of playing the broadcasts’ host too, working the crowd and creating a friendly and festive atmosphere. All in all, it not just create a sense of nostalgia but a palpable sense of time-travel.

Direction & Production

If you think that mainly getting a cast together to speak into microphones would make for lazy direction, you’d be wrong. Guy Retallack ensures that he never drops the ball and adds wonderful nuances throughout the production. There’s still plenty of interaction between characters, and they often ignore the mics and focus on each other, responding directly both physically and emotionally among themselves rather than just at the microphones. Retallack also makes great use of the small stage space, having actors muster and perform at the back of the stage even if it be feet away from the front, as well as make use of the passageway towards the dressing rooms. In fact, you almost forget the microphones are there and are engaged in the action as if it were a play rather than a radio broadcast. Retallack has added myriad visual details to something that doesn’t require it, and in doing so has incredibly elevated it into something extra special.

Elsewhere, Susan Burns on the sound effects is always on cue, adding an aural colour where visuals are missing. Whilst Fiona Martin’s minimal set of retro mics and “On Air” sign, coupled with the beautifully tailored period costumes, add further suspension of disbelief that the theatre space is a time casual fresh from 70 years ago.

It’s an incredibly resourceful production, but it has ensured that at every step of the way it’s frugal necessity is converted into inescapable charm.

Cast

I really can’t think of anyone to pick out in particular from the cast as they’re all top notch. Each and every one of them are not just great actors, but brilliant storytellers. Working with nothing but themselves and very few props, they manage to conjure up a lost era of a small town far overseas without having to force anything or try too hard. They’re as integral to the magic as the script and the production, and have the audience hang on every word and command their every attention when executing their craft: it’s utterly bewitching.

What’s more, as many of them play several characters, they switch instantly between them, not just in voice but in stature and physical characteristics that gives a striking visual difference as well as an aural one.

Verdict

It’s a Wonderful Life – The Radio Play is a wonderful time-warp. A warmth and heart that’s moving, unfathomably cosy, and steadfastly brilliant. Palermo’s writing and Retallack’s cast and production add an unexpected and surprising magic to, and perhaps even bettering, a story that has long been a pinnacle of Christmas.

It’s A Wonderful Life – The Radio Play plays at the Bridge House Theatre, London, SE20 8RZ, until 4 January 2015. Tickets from £10. To book, visit www.bhtheatre.co.uk.


Theatre Review: Back Door (Tristan Bates Theatre, London)

Laura Louise Baker (front) and Jaacq Hugo (back). Photograph: Courtesy of Jules (Philter Photography)

Laura Louise Baker (front) and Jaacq Hugo (back). Photograph: Courtesy of Jules (Philter Photography)

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

A twisted powder-keg thriller blending reality and fiction for a sharp and glamorous play looking at truth, fact, and obsession.

Overview

Associated Press photographer, Tabitha Montgomery, lives in Paris. After badly spraining her ankle in Montmartre, she’s housebound with only her American houseboy, John, an arsenal of wine, and the luxury of spying on her neighbours across the courtyard to keep her company. Female impersonator and film artists Violette moves in across the way, for which Tabitha has the perfect view of from her apartment window. One night, Tabitha is awoken by a scream and the sound of glass breaking. When she spies Violette with blood on her hands, Tabitha is convinced that Violette has murdered her dance partner, and starts on a quest to prove her suspicions. But at what cost? And when does investigative intuition turn into dangerous obsession?

Writing

Polis Loizou combines the influence of real life female impersonator, Barbette, in an art-Deco resetting of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window: gender-bending and twisting the characters involved.

Taking on something that is arguably Hitchcock’s most acclaimed film is something that is always going to be difficult to live up to. Thankfully, Loizou doesn’t try to emulate Rear Window but merely use it to frame his own unique razor wit and a colourfully imaginative exploration of the thin line between fact and fiction and paranoia and prejudice. The result is an uncanny and debauched comic-thriller, which, although laced with plenty of catty quips and flamboyant put-downs, still manages to intensely explore its themes, throw in a few marvellous red herrings, and keep an absolutely tight and suspenseful grip on the audience to the very last beat. It’s as if Loizou was the love-child of Noel Coward and Agatha Christie: cheeky, yet masterfully capricious.

As much Loizou captures the sass and dirty glamour of 1920s Paris, what’s most astonishing about the writing is Loizou’s turn at suspense. This is not just in re-enacting Hitchcock’s infamous scene where Jeff watches Lisa snoop around the apartment opposite for clues, but in the play’s climax. It gets so intense that you honestly can’t tell for love or money which way things are going to pan out, especially as one of the possibilities places a character in considerable peril. You’re absolutely hooked in this nail-biting crescendo whilst, amazingly, Loizou manges to simultaneously deliver a bewitching finale that leaves you haunted.

Laura Louise Baker as Tabitha. Photograph: Jules (Philter Photography)

Laura Louise Baker as Tabitha. Photograph: Jules (Philter Photography)

Direction & Production

Whilst this is an incredibly small scale and humble touring fringe production, Andrew Denyer’s set, whilst simple, does it’s job marvellously. The three windows attached to Tabitha’s apartment also double as those at Violette’s far away abode. It looks a bit odd at first, with the issue of proximity being hard to ignore. But cast ability and direction draw the audience’s attention and imagination to do the work for them, suspending the belief and building the suspense. It’s a straightforward yet inventive solution to what could have been the biggest problem and tripping point for the entire production. It also bristles with wonderful art-Deco style that really compliments the wit and epoch that the show is set in.

There are also some really striking uses of projected image, fractured and distorted by being projected directly onto the set, adding a real atmosphere of sinister enigma especially given the wonderfully Man Ray-esque nature of Loizou’s video work here. It’s a production of real ingenuity that pays dividends in lieu of having the means to do something grander: an exquisite execution of essence beyond budget.

Cast

This three hander is also incredibly well delivered by the small company’s cast. Loizou takes on the role of John, and has plays him with a wonderful coy campness that crumbles into boyish vulnerability when Tabitha manipulatively picks apart his façade. Fragile, yet brimming with energy and venomous wit, he marvellously toys with the writing’s unexpected juxtaposition of camp hilarity against brooding jeopardy.

Laura Louise Baker as Tabitha is a little difficult to warm to initially, playing Tabitha as too steely, hurried, and terse to begin with. But quickly, she starts to command her performance and really dominates the stage. She brings a stark authority to Tabitha that, for better or for worse, exudes a gravitas that has you completely convinced that she’s the one closer to the truth than anyone else. Severe and expertly conniving, both her and her character are forces not to be reckoned with.

Jaacq Hugo is ethereal as the Barbette-inspired Violette. He oozes a mysterious suavity that is so chic it hurts. But most the astonishing aspect of his performance is when Violette is not Violette. Here, he turns into a brutal adversary of unnerving power, adding to the twisted and dangerous feel of the play. His switch from fay siren to threatening hulk is tremendous.

Together, the three conspire and clash meticulously, playing both sides of their characters off whatever face the other decides to reveal. It’s these constant slick and untrusting fraught interactions between them that really compel.

Verdict

A riot of Deco daring and wit. Suspense and comedy collide to create one of the most inspired and surprising plays this year. Tight, cutting, and edge-of-you seat thrilling, it’s murderously good.

[youtube http://youtu.be/t9wrJWFwLDg]

Back Door played at the Tristan Bates Theatre 9-10 December 2014. For more information about the production, including upcoming tour dates, visit www.offoffoffbroadway.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.


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.

[youtube http://youtu.be/8Y5-Z8szMfg]
glasshosue 2

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.

[youtube http://youtu.be/B7i5uTXC7Lc]

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: Night of the Hellhound: Live! (LOST Theatre, London)

182763074_origRating: ****

In A Nutshell

An unexpected and wholly original Halloween show that, whilst delivering more satire than scares, produces chills and festive fun in abundance.

Overview

The remains of the infamous Lambeth Hound, aka the London Devil Dog, has returned to its home borough. At the LOST Theatre, we join a live radio show for this special and spooky unveiling. With an esteemed professor and a celebrity “psychic medium” invited as guests, things soon descend into stupidity. But beyond it grows a sinister and supernatural threat.

Writing

Robert Valentine and Jack Bowman’s approach of supplying chills and frights through this imaginative alternate reality really is different and unusual from your usual Halloween offerings. We’re the audience of a live radio broadcast unveiling of a supposedly cursed artefact: the mummified remains of a Bronze Age dog that was ritualistically slain. It’s not an overtly gothic setting: in fact it’s quite the opposite.  But it’s the first step in creating something that’s as unexpected as it is original when it comes to Halloween frights.

Valentine and Bowman have gone to some great and effective lengths to create what could otherwise be a very real history and watertight academia surrounding it. In fact, unless you knew better, you’re otherwise pulled in hook, line, and sinker into believing there is an actual legend about a demonic dog that roams Wandsworth Road. Everything is almost believable in it’s presentation. If it weren’t for the fact that you know that GLCR (106.66fm) isn’t a real radio station, you’d be completely fooled. Their efforts to purport this alternate reality, extending to websites, Twitter accounts, and even a celebrity cardboard cut-out in the foyer, really pay off: you’re involved at all levels of the story as it envelops you from every corner. The theatre’s staff also make cameos in going about their business as the show descends into a nightmare.

Audiences certainly shouldn’t expect a scare-a-minute outing along the lines of The Woman in Black or Ghost Stories. Valentine and Bowman aren’t trying to emulate these and are more about creating something new and different, and succeed in doing so. Therefore you won’t find yourself jumping out your set every five seconds. Indeed, Night of the Hellhoud: Live!’s scares and creepiness are rationed quite effectively. Overall, the show is more satire than screams, sending up bogus mediums, ghost hunting television programmes, and just how ridiculous local media can be. But when things start to get spooky, they really are quite chilling.  You always feel like something’s going to happen, but it seldom does, creating and uneasy sense of suspense juxtaposed against the farce being played out on stage

At the very end, it does get a bit unbelievable. But it’s been such a good show that you’re actually with it through to the bitter end and revel in the supernatural climax. It’s a blast from start to finish and something that’s a unique and wonderfully enjoyable.

[youtube http://youtu.be/5APrv9ohK0M]

Direction and Production

The overall production of the show really is top-notch. Nothing looks out of place or lack lustre anywhere; from the live video feed on a bowl of dog biscuits to some excellent surround sound effects. Particularly, the mummified remains of the Lambeth Hound look particularly gruesome and unnerving, being a slick doppelgänger for a real-life mummy.

Bowman’s direction is meticulous too. There’s always something going on somewhere, from the professor’s sardonic fidgeting, to the production assistants fretful wanderings around the audience. These constantly catch your attention and make you wonder what exactly is happening. Even if they are red herrings (or not) there’s never a moment when you lose interest or disengage with the broadcast’s shenanigans in this meticulously executed mystery.

Cast

The entire cast are really excellent in taking on their respective characters. Particularly, the constant squaring off of cynical Professor Jonathan Purvis, played by Tom Blyth, and exuberant psychic medium Josh Bartell, played by Troy Hewitt, is a real treat. They are always a great source of entertainment and really holds the show forth: Blyth being as wonderfully dry and severe as any real life academic is and Hewitt supernaturally channelling the likes of Derek Acorah. Marie Rabe as star presenter Michelle Mead captures wonderfully the ego of a small-time local celebrity, bouncing between arrogance and fraught mayhem when she starts getting out of her depth. As a company, each member put’s in a real gusto in bringing the show to frightful life, and are just as instrumental in the show’s sense of joy and spookiness as the rest of the production.

Verdict

It’s great to see something new for Halloween that’s not derivative, and instead is inventively original. But importantly, between the frights and frolics this is an incredibly fun show.

[youtube http://youtu.be/sM3VbewlHqA]

Night of the Hellhound: Live! plays at the Lost Theatre, London, SW8 2JU, until 31 October . Tickets are £15 (concessions available). To book, visit www.losttheatre.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.

[youtube http://youtu.be/FrOpB8EPnH0]

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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