Tag Archives: World War II

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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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.


Theatre Review: East of Berlin (Southwark Playhouse, London)

Jordan McCurrach (left) and  Jo Herbert (right). Photograph: Ori Jones Photography.

Jordan McCurrach (left) and Jo Herbert (right). Photograph: Ori Jones Photography.

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

Complex, uncomfortable, and daring, this is theatre at its most intense.

Overview

Anything that touches on the horrors of the Holocaust is always in danger of being too purile, shallow, or offsneive. Yet award-winning Canadian playwright, Hannah Moscovitch, has crafted a complex, daring, and unprecedented piece using an imaginative and intelligent slant on the aftermath of  the concentration camps atrocities. There aren’t any shallow shocks or crude politics here, just an unexpected and unnerving look at redemption and the human condition.

Rudi has grown up in Paraguay in a post-war German settlement, never knowing his father’s role in the Nazi effort. When his friend lets slip that his dad was an SS doctor experimenting on people at the camps, Rudi’s world is turned upside down causing him to flee from his family back to Berlin. But will the divided city provide the escape from his father’s past that he’s looking for? And just how fine are the lines between love, guilt, spite, and salvation?

Writing

Moscovitch’s is a formidable writer, having scooped up  many writing awards. Indeed, East of Berlin has toured and been performed internationally on the basis of Moscovitch’s talent. Despite the prickly subject, she approaches the narrative with a huge amount of intelligence and emotional depth. All characters here feel real, but most importantly, realistically flawed. Even as awkwardly ghastly as the play’s subject is, it feels organic and convincing, and not just some bad taste novelty. Moscovitch also knows just when, and how much, dark humour to employ, which not only lightens some of the heavier moments, but is used to explore character and issues with an inviting depth and grace.

In closer details, Moscovitch’s, writing really comes to the fore in her handle of language. Throughout, there are a lot of unfinished sentences and fragmented paragraphs. It feels a little awkward at first, but you soon realise that the metre is all about embodying the small self-censures and internal lies we, and the characters alike, subconsciously make. Suddenly, you start to see the high-intelligence behind the play.

All this, when crescendoing towards the play’s climax, cumulates in an absolutely overwhelming finale of shock and awe: a soul-shaking finish that is seldom pulled off so successfully in theatre.

Production

The production is also top notch with all parts of the team working incredibly well together. Holly Pigott’s set of cluttered archive shelves evoke a strange calm and clinical bleak backdrop for Rudi’s plight. There are also several little surprises hidden in the shelving’s mobility and hidden crannies. Ingeniously, these all slowly move and unravel parallel the gradual deterioration and destruction of Rudi’s life, giving the show a brilliant aesthetic intelligence alongside the writing.

Blythe Stewart’s direction ensures that the text and the action buzzes unceasingly around it. Even monologues have a real sense of drive and drama despite there visually being little to concern yourself with. She makes sure that it’s the characters and their thoughts that drives the pace, as this is where the theatre of the piece truly lies.

Particular note-worthy is Jasmine Robinson’s video design. Projecting directly onto the set’s shelving units, images and moving animations become distorted and broken by the unevenness of the files, boxes, and paraphernalia. These either quietly change the mood of a setting, or serve as surreal illustrations as to what’s going on. Robinson’s videos mimic Moscovitch’s use of fractured language; nothing is whole and everything has fissures which attempt to distort the truth, either aurally or visually.

In short, there’s a sheer amount of thought and subtlety that runs throughout the production. This is not a play that needs resources, pomp, or razzle-dazzle to work, but merely brilliant and ingenious minds that acutely understand the text. Stewart and her team lavish the show with just this, and more.

John McCurrach (left) and  Tom Lincoln (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Ori Jones Photography/

John McCurrach (left) and Tom Lincoln (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Ori Jones Photography/

Cast

The trio of actors are all excellent. In particular, they manage to always seem to be withholding something that they’re not letting on to their counterparts or the audience, creating a pervasive sense of guilty/traumatic enigma. Even Jo Herbert, as Sara, as bubbly and outgoing as she is, conceals a troubled past and interfering prejudices that makes her almost as couched and distant as Rudi at times. These cumulate in emotionally tactile and visceral performances from these three excellent actors.

Jordan McCurrach as Rudi, however, is particularly masterful, especially in his asides to the audience. He handles the dark humour handed to him by Moscowich with a blunt grace and dexterity perfectly suited to his character. McCurrach both endears and repels us from Rudi in equal measure, without ever making him caricature or overtly neurotic. He gives a quiet yet barnstorming performance of controlled power, revelling in the unsettling comi-tragic awkwardness of the narrative and Rudi himself.

Verdict

Immensely thought-provoking and incredibly intense, Moscovitch’s outstanding writing is supported by a supreme production and extraordinary cast. Uncomfortable and subtly shocking, it’s an extreme yet elating piece of theatre.

East of Berlin plays at the Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1 6BD, until 12 July 2014. Tickets are £18 (concessions available). To book, visit http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk.