Tag Archives: Rachel Owens

Theatre Review: This Is Not A Christmas Play (Top Secret Comedy Club, London)

Jordan Kuoame (left) and MAtthew Leigh (right) getting a little board. Photograph: Courtesy of Sofi Berenger.

Jordan Kouame (left) and Matthew Leigh (right) getting a little board. Photograph: Courtesy of Sofi Berenger.

Rating: ***

In A Nutshell

Some great comic turns and fresh ideas, but is let down by some awkward pitching and pacing.

Overview

David and Tim, have made a pact: to sit through Christmas Day without mentioning and acknowledging it. Will David’s ex turn up for dinner? Will Tim pay this month’s rent? And just who are the torrent of bizarre characters that keep coming in and out of their flat?

Proud Mary! Alice Coles (;left) and Jordan Kouame (right). Photograph: Sofi Berenger.

Proud Mary! Alice Coles (left) and Jordan Kouame (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Sofi Berenger.

Writing

Robert Wallis and Liam Fleming of Encompass productions turn their hand to providing an alternative but fun and frivolous seasonal titbit that does away with the trappings of British Christmas theatre. It’s a comedy, and it starts off as such. There are some wonderfully comic turns in the script, especially in it’s knowing nods at the fact that you just can’t quite escape the holidays. Some of these moments are laugh out loud, especially when executed with some of the impeccable comic timing from the cast. There are also great reference moments that, if you do get, are incredibly well placed and delivered.

However, Wallis and Flemming then start to turn the play into a farce, and this is where This Is Not A Christmas Play starts to lose its lustre. Farce is perhaps the most difficult theatrical genre to master: it requires an astute ability for punchy timing and just the right of amount of silliness. Thankfully, Wallis and Flemming never make the on-stage shenanigans too over-the-top and unconvincing: one of the easiest mistakes to make in farces make. But the problem is that the gags just don’t have the requisite energy and weight to meet the very high bar needed. Unfortunately, this isn’t something that good direction can fix: it’s a pacing that needs to already be there in the writing. This is not helped that sometimes it lingers a little to long on an attempt to make the character’s have too emotional an epiphany, as this ends up dragging the pace down even more. It’s something that could have comfortably have had it’s placed in a more straightforward comedy, but something that really irks the pace of a farce.

What this means is that, in trying to tread water in an area between comedy and farce, the pacing and therefore the pitch of the play is somewhat awkward. The energy is never consistent meaning everything stops and starts too often. But that doesn’t mean that Wallis and Flemming fail at either genres. especially as there are some inspired gags that are well set-up and executed. It’s just that they don’t excel at both.

I have a great deal of admiration for any writers who turn a hand at farce, because it’s something that can so easily go wrong. But despite Wallis and Flemming not hitting the mark, it’s still a solid and promising attempt. And even if it is uneven and sometimes ineffectual, the comedy that they do get right provide for a an enjoyable and grin-inducing hour.

Un-civil service. James Unworth (left)  and Jordan Kouame (right). Photograph: Couresty of Sofi Berenger.

Un-civil service. James Unworth (left) and Jordan Kouame (right). Photograph: Couresty of Sofi Berenger.

Direction & Production

Sarah Buller’s set does a wonderful job of turning the bare space of the Top Secret Comedy Club into a squalid flat. Everything from the snack detritus to grimy carpets are wonderful little details. But despite its grotty appearance, Buller has managed to turn the stage into something that, but for some much needed deep cleaning, is quite homely.

Director Johnathan Woodhouse and Associate Director Rachel Owens also make good use of the space, especially with regards to movement. In the chase scene/climax, it really does brim with a manic energy and sense of fun, with unexpected little turns and quips. Elsewhere, Woodhouse and Owens make sure that the comedy that does works really comes through: nothing else gets in the way of the good jokes, understanding the turnaround from punch-line to laughter thus giving the audience the space they need to react appropriately.

Virgin active! Alice Coles (left), Matthew Leigh (centre) and Jordan Kouame (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Sofi Berenger.

Virgin active! Alice Coles (left), Matthew Leigh (centre) and Jordan Kouame (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Sofi Berenger.

Cast

This Is Not A Christmas Play certainly has a great comic cast. Jordan Kouame, especially, has a wonderfully lightness and knowing in everything he does that really enhance his share of the gags. His physicality is also spot on for his comic moments, too. Although an actor who has a natural physical dominance, there’s still room for comic nuance in his presence. Furthermore, despite the clash of personality against his counterpart, Matthew Leigh as David, together they bounce their opposing charismas off each other to make themselves out as a wonderful odd couple.

James Unsworth, as Clive, embodies very similar qualities to Kouame in churning out another comic performance of a high standard, but has the added luxury of looking surprisingly dashing in just a pair of shiny hot pants!

Alice Coles, as Mary, as also enacts some wonderful moments of colourful melodrama. Between her and Unsworth, they carry the moments where the farce almost works, injecting a hilarious shot of gusto and fun as the piece’s unlikely villains.

Verdict

Despite stumbling somewhere between the two genres it tries to straddle, it’s still a giggly-good evening for all that does work with it. A fun alternative for those who come out in a cold sweat at the thought of panto or Christmas shows, but still embracing a warm sense of fun and good cheer that comes with all the festive fuss.

[youtube http://youtu.be/YJSHv-0XnNo]

This Is Not A Christmas Play runs at the Top Secret Comedy Club, London, WC2B 5PD, until 4 January 2015. Tickets are £12 (concessions available). To book, visit www.encompassproductions.co.uk/this-is-not-a-christmas-play.

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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.

[youtube http://youtu.be/6X9Y6WxAO9Y]

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.