Tag Archives: Sebastien Blanc

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.

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Review: Mojo (White Bear Theatre, London)

mojo flyer imqge_1Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

An intense tinder-box production that brings Jez Butterworth’s phenomenal first play into quarters so close that the tension is unbearable.

Overview

Potts, Sweet, Skinny, and Baby all work at a Soho club. Their boss, Ezra, is about to make it big over a deal concerning a hit young singer, Silver Johnny. But as they celebrate, Ezra gets murdered and the club is set under siege. Can this drugged-up band of misfits keep it together, defend the club, and save their hides?

Writing

This play took the Royal Court by storm when Butterworth presented it as his début back in 1995. It was praised for its dark humour and unflinchingly fluid dialogue. Rather than this being a play about gangsters, it’s more a play about the camaraderie of a group of men who believe they’ve grown up but have done everything but.

Butterworth is quite open that Harold Pinter is a huge influence on his work, and here it’s really apparent. But in bringing out these seemingly inane repetitions and circular conversations, we find some very real and wildly charismatic characters. Despite these very definite text stylisations, it actually compliments the fact that they’re mostly off their faces on narcotics, and later broken of spirit, mind, and sense. As unlikeable and/or pitiful as they are, they’re still utterly absorbing to watch through Butterworth’s masterful handling of the text.

He manages to prise a deft and bleak comedy out of the characters, dialogue and situations. The characters often go off on bewildering and audacious tangents, belittling the dire situation that they’re trying to face turning the severe into guff as hilarious as it is ridiculous, at the drop of the hat. It’s an exhausting switch of pace and timbre that’s both unsettling and ecstatic.

But whilst the comic element of the play is one it’s most noticeable facets, the real coup de grace is the tight and tense action that Butterworth has created here. You genuinely can’t tell where the story is going to take you next and there’s more than several surprises. Darker themes are explored unapologetically, augmenting the sense of tense mystery, foreboding, and general twisted nature of the plot. But when the proverbial really hits the fan, it’s a complete edge-of-your seat adrenaline rush: a slick and violent comic thriller that gives Tarentino a run for his money.

Direction & Production

Director Sebastien Blanc has really struck gold with this production. Rather than finding the intimate space of the White Bear Theatre a challenge, he works with it in perfect accord to lift the production into something that’s absolutely phenomenal. It does still feel like a tiny space, but he really uses it to create a claustrophobic sense of cabin theatre that is just perfect for this play. He also manages to meticulously pilot the pace and action, making sure that nothing is left to wobble or be diminished by misplaced timing. He also ensures everything is as vividly visceral and natural as it can be. You never doubt the authenticity or the plausibility of the plot, as there’s a real sense of flow and organic quality to everything that happens.

In addition, Blanc has got an exceptional production team behind him. Particularly, set designer Joana Dias has spared no effort in her contribution. The set is brimming with tiny details and nuances, from untidy stacks of poker chips, saucy pin-up posters, clutters of drink cans, to dirty, tattered, and musty period furniture. You could swear that you had actually found yourself in this dingy back room of an actual 1950s Soho club, rather than the theatre space of a humble 2010s Kennington sports pub. It just adds to the sense of realism, helping the audience gets sucked into this broken and debauched world. Even the contents of the dustbins, which cannot even be seen by most of the audience, are approached with just as much eye for detail and sense comprehensive quality as the rest of the set. Not to mention some special effects that are certainly not for the squeamish. Productions of this scale of detail are rare to find on the Fringe, and this is incredibly impressive, giving the play a palpable sense of reality that compounds the already intense experience.

The only fault I can find is that there’s a gunshot sound effect that breaks the suspension of disbelief at a rather crucial moment. But this is certainly excused given just how meticulous the rest of the show is.

Cast

The cast, too, are also extraordinary. They revel in the play’s text and really embrace their characters to the core. What’s more, is that they really bounce off each other’s personalities and energies, especially juxtaposed to Oscar Blend’s staunch and bullying Mikey, who tries to make order out of his colleagues chaos. However, certain members of the cast really shine through.

Max Saunders Singer is fantastic as Potts. He gives an incredibly high spirited performance throughout. Especially, mind-riddled with narcotics, he twitches and splutters tremendously through his part, making him fascinating to watch. What’s more, is that he not only has a grand command over his stage presence as an actor, but is also able to channel this into his character’s presence and dominance of Pott’s associates. Charming yet conniving, he excels as being the unlikely wrist attempting to turn the screw.

But Luke Trebilcock is the real show stealer. Detached and unhinged, he gives an electric and unprecedented performance. Incredibly controlled and taut, Trebilcock gives a performance of power and might that will make you feel tangibly afraid of Baby’s unsound and scattershot state of mind. He’s as creepy and unnerving as they come, and really adds to the fizzing and dangerous energy of the show.

Verdict

Shows like this are the reason I’ll always love the fringe, as this is a theatrical experience that you just can’t extrapolate to bigger stages. The play is already like a tightly pact piece of plastic explosive with a slow-burning and suspenseful fuse. But in the hands of Blanc and his company, stuffing it into the intimate space of the White Bear Theatre, it turns into an unbearably tense and nerve-shredding thriller of epic proportions. I don’t want to see another toffee apple for a long time!

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Mojo runs at the White Bear Theatre, SE11 4DJ, until 21 September 2014. Tickets are £14 (concessions available). To book, visit http://whitebeartheatre.co.uk.


Theatre Reivew: Boys’ Life (King’s Head Theatre, London)

Safety pants! Matthew Crowley (left) and Max Warrick (right). Photograph: Courtesy of One Fell Swoop (from the production at the Etcetera Theatre)

Safety pants! Matthew Crowley (left) and Max Warrick (right). Photograph: Courtesy of One Fell Swoop (from the production at the Etcetera Theatre)

Rating: ***

After its initial run at the Etcetera Theatre, One Fell Swoop’s production takes up a short transfer at the newly rebranded and reconfigured King’s Head Theatre. With Boardwalk Empire co-writer Howard Korder’s Pulitzer Prize nominated play at hand, it’s a sure fire hit, right?

Written and set in 1980s America, this production is polished and brimming with colourful nostalgia. Rock classic from The Stone Roses, Nena, and Men Without Hats blare out the speakers during scene changes, and Kellie Jane Walter’s costumes are as bright and neon as they come.

The young cast are also energetic and competent. Even if their American accents aren’t always convincing, their portrayal of their characters are, especially the trio of leads. Matthew Crowley is incredibly endearing as the charmingly handsome but reckless Don; Luke Trebilcock wonderfully desperate and morose without overdoing it; and Max Warrick is brilliantly distasteful, crass, and juvenile as the show’s antagonist/anti-hero.

So what makes it fall short? For starters, Korder’s examination of coming of age and the crisis of masculinity just doesn’t feel too relevant anymore. Whilst there are some interesting notions that still chime true, they’re nothing particularly shocking. We’ve dealt with the existential notions of what it means to be a 1980s guy and since moved right the way through the 1990s New Man and the Noughties Metrosexual. Thus, everything feels incredibly period and distant. It doesn’t help with director Sebastien Blanc keeping the original 1980s setting and deciding not to update the time period. Despite all the talk of imminent nuclear holocaust, resetting to a more contemporary era might have helped to make it feel more current and foster a better connection with the audience, especially bringing to the fore some of the play’s other themes such as ambivalence, apathy, and crisis of purpose.

But the main problem is that somewhere along the line both cast and company forget that Korder’s text is supposed to be a comedy. The delivery is far too serious, revelling in the rhetorical aspect of the text and trying to be gritty. For example, Anna Brooks-Beckham is intense as sculptress Lisa, but her severity doesn’t give any room for Crowley’s funny retorts to be just that. Elsewhere you hear other great little zingers, but because they’re not delivered as such you don’t find yourself laughing. The only definite comic highlight of the entire play is Charlotte Gascoyne’s buzzingly insane fortune teller-cum-cheap trick. But there’s not much beyond that besides the odd titter. Instead of giving us food for thought by way of some giggles, we’re stuck with something maudlin and philosophical. But thankfully, at only 80 minutes without interval, it’s something that just about stays its welcome and is wholly watchable, even though it’s frustrating that this really should have been a better comic diversion.

Other than that, with a talented cast and slick production there’s nothing outside of the treatment of the text that’s fundamentally wrong. One Fell Swoop is a company that shows it has real potential to create some great fringe theatre, but really needs to choose a better text or at least one they understand.

Boys’ Life plays on Sundays and Mondays at the King’s Head Theatre, London, N1 1QN until 23 June 2013. Tickets are £19.50 – £25.00 (concessions available). To book visit http://www.kingsheadtheatre.com.