Tag Archives: Tristan Bates Theatre

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.

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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.

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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.


Camden Fringe Review: Ernie (Tristan Bates Theatre, London)

James Craze as Ernie.

James Craze as Ernie. Photograph: Courtesy of End of the Line Theatre.

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

An irrepressibly charming biography of heart and honesty, bolstered with an exceptional performance.

Overview

Ernie Hort is a man who believed he’s done little of any worth, describing himself as, “just the guy next door”. But none the less, we’re taken through his life from growing up in the poor East End of London on the outbreak of World War II, to his enrolment and service in the navy. Hort’s biography is written and performed by his own real life grandson, James Craze. As Craze takes us through his grandfather’s life, we’re introduced to the dozens of different characters that Ernie met during his lifetime.

Writing

What’s so refreshing about how this play portrays Ernie’s life is just how frank and non-sensational it is. In a year where many theatres are remembering the horrors of the First World War, it’s nice to see a more matter-of-fact and less dramatic account and military life and conflict. But that’s not to say the piece is without interest and climax; Ernie gives his accounts of nights in bomb shelters, the ambush on the flotilla his corps were escorting, and getting chased by an angry and violent mob in Egypt. Its just that nothing is embellished or told with a view to be provocative. It’s just a man, casually going through the facts, regaling his achievements and revelling in memory. Beneath all this is a humour and honesty that is irrepressibly charming. Everything about the play feels very real and personal. Craze, through his writing and performance, makes it effortless to connect and empathise with his grandfather and his life.

Craze’s writing also ensures that the show never feels like granddad drolling on to himself. He introduces myriad characters that Ernie knew and interacted with. Although all performed by Craze and Craze alone, the play is brimming with a full West-End sized cast that interacts with our hero, making the text as dynamic and as electric as they come, making this a solo show in name only. The only criticism  is that Ernie’s accounts are so ‘as is’ that you’re aching to know about what else happened. What japery did he and his comrades get up to in Hong Kong? What was the first kiss with his wife-to-be like? Did the cocky Scotsman ever get what was coming to him? It’s at these points you realise that you’re completely hooked, and by the time the hour is up it feels as if you’ve be sat down for mere minutes. Despite Ernie, in his own words, “never climbing any mountains or contributing to modern medical science”, for 60 minutes he is the most fascinating person you’ve ever met.

James Craze as Ernie. Photograph: Courtesy of End of the Line Theatre.

James Craze. Photograph: Courtesy of End of the Line Theatre.

Performance

Craze’s performance is also one of the most astonishing on the London stage right now. He is one of the most dexterous and talented physical performers in London. He not only snaps between characters in the blink of an eye, but is always completely unrecognisable from the last. He masterfully exaggerates small little quips and ticks in voice and physicality to glorious effect, making him distinct in every person he becomes, whilst simultaneous still leaving an impression of the last in the air around him. As well as tackling over 30 characters with an insatiable energy and stamina,  Craze is a performer that knows that the devil is in the detail, and this is what makes his performance incredible. I could have almost sworn he was an actual man of many years when he first came on stage, and after flipping 70 years into the past become a younger Ernie, I then watched him almost literally grow older before my eyes. It’s an absolutely magical feat, making this a performance that is utterly inescapable. Not only has Craze written a well paced and engrossing text, his performance is so ecstatic it’s addictive.

Production

There isn’t a director, per se, as Craze himself making the space his own, darting around it making good use of the space’s depth and width. But he is supported by a superlative production consisting of Sara Huxley and Alex Jordan’s lighting and sound designs. With nothing more than a chair, a couple of costumes, and an old crate, their audio and lighting beautifully colour the show. They’ve a keen eye for artistry and aesthetic that elevates the show even further beyond Craze’s exceptional performance. Lighting changes, such as the soft spot down-lighting for Neville Chamerblain’s declaration of war to a well timed black out, are genuinely striking. They demonstrate that Huxley and Jordan are not a production team that are content with doing the minimum, but find ways to actively augment Craze’s work.

Verdict

Ernie is inescapable and indescribable in person and in text. Seldom does writing, performance, and production come together so perfectly to create something so astounding. You’ll leave the auditorium dizzy and elated, as well as with a small lump in your throat. An enthralling, personal, and heartfelt show like no other.

Ernie plays at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London, WC2H 9NP, until 23 August 2014 as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. Tickets are £10 (concessions available). To book, visit www.camdenfringe.com.


Camden Fringe Review: Ladylogue! (Tristan Bates Theatre, London)

Rhiannon Story in "Cake" by Maud Dromgoole. Photograph: Vincent Rowley Photography.

Rhiannon Story in “Cake” by Maud Dromgoole. Photograph: Vincent Rowley Photography.

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

A wide selection of hilarious, challenging, and heartbreaking plays on female identity and womanhood executed with grace, variety, and interest.

Overview

Tired of the gender imbalance in British theatre writing, The Thelmas – director Madelaine Moore and producer Rhiannon Story – have given six of the UK’s most formidable female writers the carte blanche of writing a short play for a solo female actor. The result is an interesting mix of love, loathing, obsession, loneliness, and courage that explore womanhood, femininity, and female identity.

Cake, by Maud Dromgoole

Opening the hour was probably one of my least favourite. But that’s not to say it’s the weakest, or that it’s badly written or produced; it’s just the most challenging. Dromgoole’s Year 9 teenage girl blurs the line between feminism and sexism – spurning her teenage-mother friend for tying herself down with a child, whilst giving into dizzy infatuation over a 15 year old boy and imagining herself as a subordinate “good wife”. Although, the general tone of the piece is comic, strong sexist language and submissive sexual imagery makes it dark and uncomfortable at points. Whilst it does make you think about how modernism is defined and portrayed to young women, it’s a little difficult to wholly connect in how uneasy it makes you feel, especially when other audience members are laughing at these more twisted moments when they probably really shouldn’t be!

Rhiannon Story acts out the role with a real youthful electricity, both in her energy and her body language. Even if she can’t quite cream the butter for her cake on stage properly, she exudes a fizzing personality that she uses to bounce off the audience, making them feel very much a part of Droomgoole’s character’s world.

Candyman, by Tina Jay

Again, whilst by no means is badly written or produced, this is another of my least favourites because it’s the least surprising. It tells the story of an older single woman who becomes obsessed with a male escort. But Jay’s character-centric approach to the subject lifts it from being ordinary. It really is a no-holes barred look at one woman’s unhealthy obsession with the idea of a perfect gentleman that she is literally buying into. The erotic is mixed seamlessly with the remorseful, and although we do get a hint of dangerous desperation towards the end, her character is natural and real, never becoming a person that is sensationalised or exaggerated. Despite the extreme situation the narrative has placed her in, she’s not the crazy or deranged spinster which she so easily could have been, she’s a character of human depth and reality.

This is bolstered by a superb performance by Louise Templeton. She constantly fidgets and twitches with addiction and anticipation whilst emanating a slick and devilish “cougar” quality, all juxtaposed with a devastating vulnerability. A superlatively tragic femme-fatale if I ever saw one.

Sukh Ojlah in "Coconut" bu Gulereeane Mir. Photograph: Vincent Rowley Photography.

Sukh Ojla in “Coconut” by Guleraana Mir. Photograph: Vincent Rowley Photography.

Coconut, by Guleraana Mir

Cultural identity is a difficult enough subject to brooch without bringing cultural perceptions of womanhood into the equation. However, Mir manages to tackle these head-on and with a crystal-tipped wit and honesty that makes this monologue one of the most uproariously laugh-out-loud segments of the evening. Mir’s tale of the perils of being a late-twenties Pakistani “coconut” (brown on the outside, white on the inside) is blunt to the point of hilarity. The wry observations of the people and the perceptions surrounding her character are brazen but bristles with the humour that can only be found in a fondness and affection. Whilst there isn’t any “happy ending” per se, it’s an incredible and heart-warming look at culture vs. femininity that is enlightening as it is rib-tickling.

Sukh Ojla demonstrates her ability as a barnstorming comic actress. Her timing and timbre is enough to put some comedians to shame. She exalts the comedy of Mir’s text with real gusto, but also with a real connection and empathy. If it wasn’t for the programme notes, you’d have been fooled into thinking that Ojla had actually written this herself given the organic ownership she takes of the performance.

ELLA_O’MALLEY_AUDITION.MOV, by Katie McCullough

Body image is a subject that is littered with a lot of extreme and sensational stories. Yet McCullough, through her character, has crafted a monologue that brings a quiet and heartbreaking humanity back to the issue. It starts off somewhat comic, with her character finding a cheerfully sweet sense of self-deprecation about her weight. But as she begins to open up, we start to see a darker more destructive side to the damage body image can do to someone. It soon becomes a crushing account of how low and emotionally destroyed body fascism can bring someone, and is touching to the point of tears. The framing device of Ella making an audition tape cleverly puts the audience in the place of invisible voyeurs – ever prying whilst distant and detached, augmenting Ella’s sense of isolation through judgemental peers.

Jayne Edwards gives a wonderfully natural performance as Ella. Her portrayal of the distraught state she’s been bullied into is incredibly raw and affecting, leaving the audience haunted.

Danielle Nott in "Take A Look At Me Now" by Serena Haywood. Photograph: Vincent Rowley Photography.

Danielle Nott in “Take A Look At Me Now” by Serena Haywood. Photograph: Vincent Rowley Photography.

Take A Look At Me Now, by Serena Haywood

Haywood, who’s show Pause was a tremendous success at last year’s Camden Fringe Festival, presents something a little more light-hearted and completely unhinged for Ladylogue!. Her character is preparing for the ultimate imaginary date with Phil Collins in the comfort of her own living room. Absolutely mad cap, there are some side-splittingly funny jokes and quips in this over-the-top examination of female romance and sexual fantasy. Haywood’s handle of one-liners, including a spot of “dildo-blindess”, are supreme and really give the piece a fire-cracker quality. But what’s great is that, despite how outrageous it is, Haywood still manages to find a relatable sanity, especially in the slightly darker undercurrent of her character being driven to this mania through the small cruelties of her previous partner. But otherwise, it’s tender, truthful, and completely nuts!

Danielle Nott also gives an incredibly energetic and adorable performance that’s hilarious to watch. Her movement and voice are wonderfully exuberant, delivering a brilliantly comic performance

I Would Be Brave, by Sarah Hehir

Undoubtedly the most different and serious piece of the evening. Hehir’s glance at domestic violence from the viewpoint of a concerned neighbour with limited resources to help is original and moving. Making this particularly powerful is that her character, whilst trying to do her best in a culture that would rather leave others to themselves, is having to face the realities of her own health and relationship. Hehir writes with a deft and colourful poetry that vividly paints scene and emotion through her words, making it incredibly as engrossing to listen to as to watch being performed. There are also some powerful little bits of imagery, like the wall at the end of the lane blocking off the rest of the world, fortifying the feeling of the intense microcosm that the character finds herself in. It’s these touches that really elevate the short into being a complex and intelligent piece of writing. There is a good deal of ambiguity that runs throughout, leaving the audience to ponder and wonder about some of the things that are unsaid but also, more importantly, why they’re being unsaid. But it does mean that it’s a little unsatisfying as these are never tied-up in any conclusion. Otherwise, it’s an incredibly different and emotive piece.

Amanda Reed’s performance/recitation is prefect. She trips dexterously through the metre and language of Hehir’s poetry whilst exerting a strong character and presence on the stage. It’s impossible to think of any better casting for this monologue.

Verdict

A varied and exuberantly entertaining evening of some brilliant new writing. Whilst some pieces are more original and accessible than others, the bar set by these “ladies who ‘logue” is as dizzying and astonishing as the pieces they’ve produced.

Ladylogue! runs at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London, WC2H 9NP, until 16 August 2014 as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. Tickets are £12 (concessions available). To book visit www.camdenfringe.com.


Camden Fringe Review: Miraculi (Tristan Bates Theatre, London)

s1Rating: ****

In A Nutshell:

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

Overview

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

Writing

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

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

Direction & Production

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

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

Senza-Shoot1917Cast

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

Verdict

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

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


Camden Fringe Review: The Five Stages of Waiting (Tristan Bates Theatre, London)

five stages of waitingRating: *****

In A Nutshell:

A devastatingly funny and human play that finds sublime humour in all the wrong places, and heartbreaking tenderness in all the right ones.

Overview

Liz, Jen, and Sara’s mother is in hospital: she has a brain tumour. As they come together in these unfortunate circumstances in the hospital waiting room at various stages of their mother’s care, their separate ways collide in an environment of anxiety and uncertainty. What reconciliation can they make in themselves with their mother’s possible death on the horizon? And when is it not ok to laugh?

Writing

Caro Dixey is a writer that I’ve had on my radar for some time, having been wowed by her short plays previously. Therefore it’s great to see her full-length writing faring just as well. What I’ve always loved about Dixey’s writing is just how upfrontly human it is. She manages to get right into the real heart and nature of personalities and the human condition, portraying them on stage in such a natural and effortless way.

Here, Dixey’s talent is finding a pitch-black humour alongside tender observations in everything from the mundane to the maudlin is supreme. It’s all executed with an incredible honesty, consistently feeling organic and never contrived. Humour wise, there are moments that are just out-rightly hilarious, even when they absolutely should not be, finding wonderful juxtaposition, absurdity, and bad jokes in sorrow and plight, playing intelligently into the understanding of an audience as an observer. But Dixey is able to dish out heartbreak just as readily using these same skills of observation and empathy: sometimes simultaneously alongside the jokes. At points, I found my jowls wobbling with laughter whilst my chin quivered with anguish. There is, in her unbelievably believable characters, a chime that can make you burst into tears as instantly as guffaw with laughter. It all stems from a savage embrace of truth and photographic considerations of human life that very few playwrights offer.

The writing is also technically brilliant, especially in using the differences in personalities of characters to subtly tease out plot and back-story form their counterparts, and well placed red herrings and ambiguities to keep you intrigued and unknowing. The pacing never drags across the play’s 90 minutes; no scene feels better panned out or lack lustre to any other. It only suffers in that, being flung from one polar feeling to another at break-neck speed, you want the play to end sooner just because you’re mentally exhausted. Dixey’s toying with the audiences sensibilities is an emotional marathon that’s just as elating as it is heartbreaking. But it’s you that flags, not the play.

Direction and Production

Sophie Moniram is a director that astutely understands Dixey’s text. Every effort has been made to make the action feel as bone-fide as the characters. She’s not afraid of making long awkward silences just that, or have people talk over each other just like they would in real life. Some of this is even employed theatrically to create a sense of tension and drama as well as a sense of reality. But most importantly, Moniram allows the cast as much time as they need to be their characters, never feeling that they’ve not been given enough space to be who they are, or cutting short what they are doing.

Henry Regan and Dixey’s production is also superlative. The set is done well enough to easily evoke a hospital waiting room, as well as quickly become the living room of the sisters’ mother’s house. But it’s the fact that it’s awash with very deliberate minutia that really is its coup de grace. Everything from the wonky wall clock to the quiet significance of the choice of Salvador Dali painting, has a place and a role even if it looks like mere dressing at first.

Cast

Dixey and Moniram could not have found a better cast for this production, with every member being fantastic. Even Pauline Menear’s short appearance as Patient is smoothly and wonderfully carried out. But it’s the three leads that are really phenomenal. It’s a real surprise when you find out that Sara Winn playing Liz, Sophie Spreadbury playing Jen, and Charlie Blackwood playing Sarah aren’t actually real life sisters. This isn’t just because they look vaguely like they could be related, but because they manage to forge an astonishing sense of on-stage sisterhood among their chemistry. They each organically embrace their characters to create performances that are completely flawless, connecting with each of their co-star’s on-stage personalities as much as they do their own.

Verdict

An astonishing piece of new writing that is perfectly executed. Dixey has proven once again that’s she’s a formidable playwright and producer in creating one of the most brutally uplifting and joyously upsetting shows of this year.

The Five Stages of Waiting plays at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London, WC2H 9NP, until 9 August 2014 as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. Tickets are £12 (concessions available). To book, visit http://tristanbatestheatre.co.uk. To find out more about the Camden Fringe Festival, visit www.camdenfringe.com.


Interview: Caro Dixey

Caro DixeyOften, critics and audience members don’t always see eye to eye. Shows that have been infamously panned by critics, like We Will Rock You, have gone on to enjoy huge profits and lengthy runs. Likewise, sometimes critical acclaim just can’t stop a show from closing early, such as was with I Can’t Sing: The X-Factor Musical.

As a reviewer myself, I was initially unconvinced about the Old Red Lion’s Old Red Line night, which sees a paying audience give direct and instant feedback on a playwright’s new work. What do mere patrons know about the finer points of playwriting? But maybe I’m missing the point somewhere, and there’s an untapped worth somewhere in this exercise.

In order to find out, and hopefully disprove my preconceptions, I spoke to playwright Caro Dixey, who recently had her new play The Five Stages of Waiting put through the Old Red Line’s process. A few months ago, I found her sat in the Greenwich pub where we arranged to meet, tablet PC in her hands and papers strewn across the table: all flanked by a large glass of chilled white wine. She seems particularly excited. Not only because she had just confirmed the venue for the premier of the work, but also because this the first time she’s been interviewed, much to my surprise.

Dixey, an incredibly fresh writer on the London fringe circuit, has already begun to make waves with the short pieces she’s written for The Pensive Federation, among other things. These were performed alongside other established fringe playwrights such as Sarah Pitard and Serena Haywood. With The Five Stages of Waiting being one of her first full length pieces to be fully produced, this is a big advance for her. So was the process beneficial?

Been There, Done That 

Dixey is in a unique position as a playwright: she previously trained as a dramaturge. Because of this, she holds constructive feedback from any outside party in high regard.

“I need a dramaturge, and I can’t do that myself with my own writing,” she tells me. “You can get lost in your own world of witty comments and clever dialogue. But that doesn’t matter if it doesn’t connect with an audience. I’m very about opening it up [and] asking other people’s opinion. If it’s a thing that no-one can look at, then I don’t know why you’re writing.”

Indeed, putting the play forward for Old Red Line wasn’t the first time The Five Stages of Waiting had been given a critical platform. She first submitted the first ten minutes of the play to Vertical Line Theatre, a production company championing new writing through smaller audience feedback initiatives. Artistic Director, Henry Regan, took a shine to the piece during this initial exposition, and then took larger segments of the play through some of Vertical Line’s other initiatives, cumulating in the full draft being scrutinised at Old Red Line: a direct project of Regan’s.

Although now familiar with some exposure to the brutal world of audience opinion, Dixey’s previous training also prepared her from the perils of merciless patrons.

“It is a really interesting situation to be put in,” she admits. “I knew it was going to be difficult [and] I prepared myself for the worst. As a dramaturge, I was given a lot of training and advice about how to approach playwrights: how to discuss their work and how to be sensitive. It was quite interesting to see how people do exactly what I was told not to do.”

Original promo for  The Old Red Line.

Cause and Effect

Of course, my prime interest in speaking to Dixey was to get her point of view of how well it all went. She illuminates to me just how inglorious some of the audience members where. Broad, sweeping, and damning statements were made by some, chastising some of main facets of the work. Thought Dixey admits that she could have easily enabled these to dent her confidence, instead, she managed to find an unlikely positivity in it all.

“People were writing. People wrote on both sides of the [feedback] sheet. Even when it was quite critical, it meant that someone’s actually taken the time to write two sides of comments. I had their attention for an hour and ten minutes, and they hadn’t run straight back to the bar. They’ve been bothered to write feedback. Even if they hated it, at least they were engaged enough to give me feedback.”

But was there any more positive and constructive feedback, and if so, has it affected the play?

“Definitely,” Dixey declares, with unwavering gumption. “I was at a bit of a turning point with a couple of the characters, and needed to make a decision. When people start saying that they don’t understand what [the character is] doing there, or they don’t understand their line of thought, it reaffirmed ideas.”

In fact, she tells me that she has even kept some of these pieces of paper pinned to where she does her writing, to spur her on in and give her encouragement. “I’m working on a rewrite, and it’s going to be a new draft. But I’m very excited about that draft.”

Neil, J. Byden (left) and Laura Kim (right) enjoying a first/last dance in "Done". Photograph: Courtesy of The Pensive Federation.

Neil, J. Byden (left) and Laura Kim (right) enjoying a first/last dance in Caro Dixey’s “Done”, as part of The Pensive Federation’s “Rewritten” festival. Photograph: Courtesy of The Pensive Federation.

Repeat Performance 

As the process seemed to have gone quite well this time, I ask if she thinks that this is something she’d do again.

“Yes,” says Dixey, although I detect a little hesitation in her voice. On enquiring further, I find out that the scintilla of reluctance I sense wasn’t so much about the process, but more about the readiness of her next piece to be put through it.

“With The Five Stages of Waiting, I’ve been working on it for the last seven and a half years. So I know this play, I know what I want from it, and I know that I feel very secure within it. I’ve got a new play that I’ve just finished about six months ago. That has never been produced. It’s a first draft, and I certainly wouldn’t put that up for this.”

She continues to explain that having this lack of confidence and certainty in direction would mean that such broad comments would likely change the very essence of the play, rather than just ironing out the kinks. Engaging an audience is more about letting her improve certain points of the play, rather than having them write one for her.

To Dixey, she feels that those who are at the early stages of a playwriting career can really benefit from this process, providing they’re confident with the play they’re putting forward. It gives writers a different type of criticism to what theatre professionals can give, creating a window into the minds of those you’re writing for.

“[When] you’re still learning your craft, sometimes feedback from a director or a script consultant or a dramaturge can be quite daunting. When it’s Joe Bloggs saying,  ‘I really like that bit, but I don’t understand that;’ that’s the sort of feedback you might get from an audience; instead of the structure, the character development, and the technical ideas.”

Most surprisingly, Dixey’s experience on the more technical side of theatre production means she’s discovered that the audience are more of an informed benchmark than us critics give credit for.

“If your writing is good, then the audience feedback will reflect the views of the company or the artistic director, nine times out of ten.”

Epilogue

I left my time with Dixey far more positive than I thought I would be. Her enthusiasm for the tangible benefits she claims to have received from engaging an audience at a creative level have intrigued me. It’s actually diminished the contempt that I can sometimes hold an audience in; both unwittingly and out of the arrogance that comes with the territory of reviewing.

None the less, my initial cynicism has led way to anticipation for seeing for myself the positives of audience insight and participation in the writing process. I have already witnessed Dixey’s writing first hand and found it be a staggeringly impactful and powerful. So this can only improve it, right?

The Five Stages of Waiting will be performed as part of the Camden Fringe 2014, on 4 – 9 August 2014, at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London, WC2H 9 NP. Tickets are £12 (concessions available). To book, visit http://tristanbatestheatre.co.uk.

For more information about the Camden Fringe Festival, visit www.camdenfringe.com.

For more information about Caro Dixey, visit www.carodixey.com.