Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Ambition To Live - Short film by One Umbrella Productions

There is an art to the short film and most of it relates to simplicity, in five minutes you don’t have the luxury to be complicated and the strongest are not. With Ambition to Live Jordan Pitt has written, produced and performed a piece that is well suited to the medium. In favour of music and inter-cut visuals we hear next to no dialogue. Here we are with Nathan inside his fight to live, inside the boxing ring, all the while watching his body on the road.

Internalising the story is a clever move, as it reduces what could be a very messy situation back to simply Nathan. Who he is; where he is going? We learn much of his character, strength and determination to live. To balance this, Director Fraster Ayres presents us with the reactions to Nathan’s accident from friends and the emergency services so we do get a very real sense of the outside danger. However, inside Nathan it is as calm and focused as if he was in the ring. To watch this in contrast to the distress of others is very moving. 

The production values of this short are strong. There is clearly vision in the filming and the colour palette is suited to both the ‘real’ accident scene and the more stylised internal world. There is an art to the short film, and with Ambition to Live One Umbrella Productions show that they get it. 

For more information you can find One Umbrella Productions on youtube.

The Bald Prima Donna - The Apocalypse Before Christmas

The Old Red Lion Theatre is all sparkles and tinsel this Christmas but all is not quite as it seems, for upstairs The Bald Prima Donna by Eugene Ionesco receives a sinister festive makeover this December. Presented by Tarquin Productions this is not your usual festive fair but it is a well worthwhile trip into mayhem.

The design for the space is wonderful. Jacob Hughes gives us a very simple but effective (and festive) bunker. Inside here things might be falling apart and disintegrating but outside it is burning. In a world that’s already so crazy, a bunker full of slightly hysterical adults dressed up in fancy dress is perhaps as hyper-naturalistic as an ‘English drawing room’ owned by a Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

The Bald Prima Donna is of course an energetic and absurd script and this interpretation doesn't forget the silly among the sinister. It is a clever re-imagining of the world of the original script that doesn't interfere with the original and it gives an edge to the words of the characters as they slip into nonsense. For instance, the ‘extraordinary coincidence’ sequence by Mr. and Mrs. Martin is given a distinctly tragic edge that injects new meaning to the classic text.

This was very much an ensemble performance, and the actors all played off each other’s pain and madness. This is likely to be the last Christmas for everyone and that isn’t far from anyone’s mind in spite of the fairy lights and tinsel. Benji Sperring’s direction never lets us forget that there is something outside this bunker worse than the madness inside.

Certain sequences of the play might seem perhaps at times too frenetic, with the subtlety of the language lost in hysterics, but really, if ever there was a time for hysteria it’s when the horsemen arrive on reindeer. So get booking! The Christmas Apocalypse is here and you’d better watch out! 

Saturday, September 14, 2013


The Pensive Federation

The point of difference of Rewritten from many other play festivals was billed as each of the plays starting from the same three page script and then being rewritten by four different playwrights. With all of the pieces performed by the same actors what emerged was a very tight and well rounded presentation.

Here we have two friends dealing with each other and the fallout at the end of His relationship. He in particular can’t get over Michael and She, well She knows a little bit more about Michael than She has let on before and the time has come finally tell Him what she really thinks. What results is the very friendship affirming I’m Okay, Are You? by Jo Pockett.

The second play Done operates on a very different premise. The most affecting of the pieces, it involves Him assisting Her in ending her own life. This subject is very delicately handled and superbly performed. It is a very touching representation of what love can be. Caro Dixey treads a fine line in her writing but it pays off well.

We then move into slightly cutesy territory when a couple of Animal Lib campaigners confront their politics and feelings whilst breaking into a University. The programming of Direct Action is an ideal pick me up after the previous emotional play. He likes her and She likes him and they both want to free the fluffy little animals, what could possibly go wrong? Serena Haywood clearly delights in the fun awkwardness of the characters.

The final play returns to friendship, but this time they are dealing with the fallout from then end of Her relationship. He’s just her housemate, but He values her so much more than the douche who has ruined her life. The Beginnings of Love by Sarah Pitard alludes to what might be ahead for the two of them in a sweet way that provides a satisfying conclusion to the evening.

The direction connecting these pieces together by Cat Robey is strong, but what is really satisfying about a production like this is the acting. You really get an excellent sense of how rounded the performers are when you see them in such different situations being different people. Both Neil J Byden and Laura Kim deliver complex performances and are very talented actors – it was a real pleasure to watch them.

Some of the connections between the plays felt a little bit forced – I am not convinced of the necessity of being quite so on the nose with the blue toy cat – but the lunchbox worked as a nice prop detail that echoed throughout each piece. The different covers of ‘And I love her’ echo through out the work and leave Rewritten with you long after you leave the theatre. Here’s to more intriguing concepts from The Pensive Federation!

Short Cuts 4: Metamorphosis Review

Short Cuts 4 showcases a well balanced platform of four short plays. It’s once again a tight package, that fills the Hens and Chickens with laughter and a warm evening of good quality theatre.

1. Taking Liberties – by Eliza Power
Two friends wake up somewhere they don’t know. It smells funny, they can’t get out and it all gets better when a lady out of the 1960’s informs them that they are in purgatory and await ‘down there’ unless they agree to some serious rehabilitation via reincarnation. Taking Liberties is strangely endearing though, for what it might have been. The crimes of these men are read out and it is hard to associate the violence with the frightened and desperate men meet. There is little cruelty in this world, and it is up to the preppy girl to remind us of the true consequences of why they are there.

2. Last Man in WatfordClaire Booker
In a world where men are reduced to animals, the matriarchy rules supreme and the zoo keeper is exasperated by her charge. He however is very excited at the young student coming to observe his behaviour. She has never even seen a man and is about to get involved in the kind of life changing relationship that will change her forever. Not him, you understand – he was made for this, if only the intervention had been delayed a few moments more… It’s a well executed idea but over a longer time perhaps it might have more space to be more roundly explored. For example the scenes involving the Man and his blow-up-doll ‘wife’ would have been nice to return to in light of his rejection; punishment and humiliation. Nevertheless it is well performed, directed and amusing enough to make us laugh and pause for reflection.

3. A Life Changing Experience – by Tom Jensen
A New Life. It’s an intriguing proposition, but when it doesn’t work out – what else are you expected to do but return to the shop in a rage and demand an exchange on a faulty item.  This play is a neat exploration of customer service and the way we blame others for our own troubles. It ticks the boxes of a short play, is very engaging and the ‘rebirth’ scene is very well directed. Also a pleasure are the small details of this piece that build a sense of the wider world – the relationship between the workers in the shop is an example that really works.

4. Wooky Lake – by The Grandees
It’s not easy being green (or hairy) and it’s not easy being funny. Fortunately the Grandees have little trouble being either most of the time. Here we receive another zany outing from the three comedians and their many weird and wonderful characters. Not quite as polished as their previous outing at Short Cuts 3 Wooky Lake still gave many laughs and was a fitting end to the evening. On the back of a successful Edinburgh season perhaps introducing an outside director/dramaturg to the Grandees’ team might be an idea to streamline their comedy genius into a structure more suited to a longer form performance.

Short Cuts returns for Halloween – with a creepy, horror based selection of further delights. You’ll be missing a trick if you miss this treat!  

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Letter to Canberra

Dear Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd,

I am writing this letter to you - not in the hope that you will read it (because let's face it, you are both well past caring what I think, aren't you)? but to remind you of a few things that you seem to have forgotten. 

You are representative of us.
You are employed by us.
You are elected by us.
You are accountable to us.

And so if we choose to elect Independents, Greens etc. in the lower house then you have no choice but to work with them. This is what a working democratic system means.  

Can you drop the self-entitled crap and remember this is not about you? It is about us, and if as a nation we decide that we equally despise both of you then it is your duty to respond to that situation and form a government that can actually function.

Might I remind you that whatever her faults Julia Gillard managed to get through the most amount of legislation that any government we have had - this was in a minority government with Independents and Greens and guess what, it worked. Overall it worked. It functioned, there was negotiation and things got done. Those speeches from Rob Oakshott and Tony Windsor said so much more about our elected government than any of the bitter and pathetic politicking from you on both sides  around our First Female Prime Minister.

And now here we are. Two nasty little men fighting over something they believe it is their god-given right to have. Well you know something, it isn't. It never was, and it never will be. Governing this country is not your right.

We've endured the last term of office with you two men in denial about the validity of the last election. Both of you really believing that it should have been you as PM for the entire term and you should both be held to account for this because it is a colossal misrepresentation of what politics should be about. 

I say it again. Governing this country is not your right.   

The last election ended in a hung parliament. It was a valid outcome. It happened. And if it happens again then it is not your choice to sit back and do nothing, blaming the other side.

It is a requirement of your job to sort it out and get on with it. 

Yours Sincerely,
A Soon To Be Well Hung Australia 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Courting Drama Review

Courting Drama
25th May 2013
Theatre Renegade at the Bush Upstairs

A good play to open proceedings, Extinct is about a relationship falling apart, exploding and two people reaching the end of a road – as a dinosaur wreaks havoc in their garden. There are some nice shifts and turns in the piece and Jamie Biddle’s central premise works well theatrically for the short form and metaphorically for the content.  

The second play is a romp. It is fun and endearingly performed. Steven O’Neil impresses with his dairy farmer up against his lactose intolerance love interest (a very sweet Jennifer Lim) and various nefarious villains all played by Abigail Unwin-Smith. The stylised writing works well on stage, and would probably transfer really nicely to radio as it is quite story-telling based.

Old Fools.
Sometimes theatre can catch you unawares and Old Fools by Tristan Bernays does just that. It is almost a dance as the couple, beautifully performed by Sophie Steer and Alex Gatehouse wind their way through their lives together – from when they first meet to the bitterness of when one is no longer able to remember. This piece hits you in the chest; it lulls you into light and laughter and then kicks out, hard. It’s heartbreaking, wonderful quite upsetting.

(It’s difficult in a short play evening when one play has such an impact, so it was very well scheduled before interval – I know I needed 20mins to recover! – So again, good programming).

Can I be straight with you?
After interval the tone picks up. This play pits two people across a dinner table. They’ve gone to school together, her mother figures she needs a bloke and he is in for a quick tumble but it isn’t what it seems at first. What follows is an interesting little power play between them and whilst you aren’t never really in any doubt about what is going to happen, the ride is enjoyable.

Only on Sundays.
Monologues are challenging beasts but well written, directed and performed they can be great drama. Only on Sundays was all of these are a good closer for the evening. Grant Leat performs a mean story and was captivating.

Courting Drama is a great platform for emerging creative partnerships and writing. This program in an intimate venue was very strong and is also promising for continuing showcases to come from this company.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Victorian in the Wall Review

The Victorian in the Wall
By Will Adamsdale
Royal Court Season.

Living in a Victorian Mansion apartment, has it’s advantages but when Guy’s girlfriend Fi heads overseas for a conference and leaves him in charge of supervising the kitchen renovations he doesn’t expect one of the to be the uncovering of a bona fide Victorian living in his wall. Also appearing in into Guy’s life this week is an extremely capable hipster-builder; a long lost son and seasons 1-3 of The Wire. It’s all go!

This Victorian, Mr. Elms has a story that might just get Guy off his ass and into action. Although it’ll likely take nearly the entire play. You see Guy is a writer, who shies from deadlines; has called in all his last favours and doesn’t actually like writing. I would say that Will Adamsdale did a very good job of making the somewhat unlikable main character bearable. To be honest, writers who sit about whinging about how ‘hard it is to write’ and harping on about ‘their award winning short stories’ can be extremely trying. Everyone knows that writing can be hard work and that is part of the process! It’s a line that the show treads neatly, with enough surrounding likeableness to carry Guy through to the other side as a pretty good bloke rather than a no-hoper. 

Chris Branch’s sound design and songs were a real highlight of the production. I do enjoy theatre that uses song well, and The Victorian in the Wall certainly did. Especially memorable was the one detailing Guy and Fi’s romance and the “knock-through” song – the refrain ‘knock it through please’ which still flows into my brain long after the show.

The set design was also inspired, in that it was so intrinsically connected with the direction, performance and the story that at times it was just magical. Michael Vale demonstrates considerable talent (although it must have been a bit of a nightmare to tour the show, with all the organised chaos).

I really enjoyed the craft of this work. It was clearly theatre made by people that both love and want to play with the form. Well performed, well directed, well designed and well written – The Victorian in the Wall is such a well-rounded production and it really proves the point that if you invest time in new writing you get excellent results. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Murder, Marple and Me Review

Murder, Marple and Me is a mystery story – appropriate in both the content and the telling. We are treated to a night in the company of three formidable women: strong willed and strong-boned actress Margaret Rutherford; crime authoress Agatha Christie and the wily Miss Jane Marple – on hand to unpick the pattern that draws the others together in friendship.

Each of these characters is performed with considerable gusto by Janet Prince. From early in the show she has the audience captivated and through the appearance of each character, she layered the performance beautifully. She is very well directed by Stella Duffy and seamlessly shifts between roles as gradually Miss Marple and Agatha Christie unpick Margaret Rutherford’s story.

Philip Meeks’ script is neat; the use of Miss Marple in particular is a warm addition to the tale. She is our guide through the story, the ‘little old lady’ in the corner of the stage who tells us what is to come and what we should look for beneath our expectations. There is a nice pace to the writing, it isn’t rushed and unusually for a one-person show the interval worked well. As is often a feature with one-person performances, the style often involves story telling and as such I actually think this is a play that would translate very well to radio.

It would have been interesting to perhaps explore more of the initial tension between Agatha and Christie and Margaret Rutherford. As it was there was no question of the secret not being discovered, no real threat of the movie not going ahead, and no sense of true antagonism above a short lived over-polite encounter over a cake. It is of course difficult when writing from history but a slightly more extended caper through the conflict would have been a welcome addition to the script.    

As a fan of Miss Marple (both the TV series and the books) I was a little apprehensive about her appearance on stage. I needn’t have worried, the writer, production team and actress clearly delighted in her presence and thus so did the audience. It is truly a delight to spend an evening in her company.

This play is quite cosy; there is warmth and a light humour to the drama which lulls you into smiles and laughter. But like Agatha Christie – these characters never actually let you forget the very real horror of murder and the ripples that remain for those left behind. Ultimately whilst it is human to perform, dance with princes and be seduced by lovely things it is also human to have secrets, be afraid and to eventually want to share your story. It is to his credit (and our benefit) that Philip Meeks is a writer who understands this just as well as Agatha Christie.

Murder, Marple and Me is playing at the Ambassador's Theatre. It has just finished a national tour and is produced by Gilded Balloon. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Red Balloon Puppet Show Review

I think it is safe to say whilst puppetry is having a renaissance, there isn’t a whole lot of marionette work being done. The Red Balloon is a delightful exception and has been touring nationally with a lovely, simple and gorgeously visual story about a boy and his balloon.

Presented and adapted by String Theatre from the Albert Lamorisse film, they provided a window into another world by creating a small marionette theatre within the much larger Norwich Puppet Theatre stage. It worked a treat in captivating little ones and adults alike and the focus was intense upon the little stage and the characters that danced (and floated) within it.

Accompanied by an emotive soundtrack these puppets did not communicate with words but instead the story was performed with a beautiful visual language that helped create an immersive world for the story. In terms of the puppets used, marionettes proves a great choice in terms of creating the balloon ‘character’ – there were no hands in the way of its flight and as everything else was also strung it worked perfectly in the world of the play. It was also a real treat to see the craft and the practice behind the performance of such a work, using such a form. From what I have seen of the film, it is shot quite expansively but this piece really worked in how it was shrunk down. The little puppets were incredibly expressive and the performance was enchanting.

The Red Balloon is not necessarily an uplifting story, there are real moments of sadness within it and these shone in this adaptation. There was though, enough playfulness to engage the smaller children and the theatre was full of a very moved and satisfied audience by the end of the show. There is certainly something very identifiable about a small boy and his love for a red balloon.

Dogs Don't Do Ballet Puppet Show - Review

Dogs Don’t Do Ballet by Anna Kemp and illustrated by Sara Olgilvi is one of my favourite books. Working as a bookseller in Melbourne I hand sold many copies of this beautifully illustrated, beautiful story. It’s gorgeous, it’s fun and it has a great message. When I first heard it was being adapted for the stage my heart sank. There is a building tradition for theses sorts of adaptations and occasionally they translate wonderfully but often they don’t.

I saw the puppet show on tour at the Norwich Puppet Theatre and I can reassure you that it was well worth it. It was gorgeous, well performed and the spunky very two-dimensional illustrations danced into a great three-dimensional puppet Keith Frederick’s puppet world very nicely. (No awkward Angelina Ballerina giant mouse heads here). Biff, the dog in particular was adorable. The creative team David Duffy and Andrea Sadler in conjunction with The Little Angel Theatre have produced a great interpretation. 

I would say that as with every adaptation it was a fine line between adding in more content and working with what you’ve got. In expanding the role of the dance teacher, we got excellent audience interaction but it did move away from Biff and Anna as the central characters a little bit. My favourite sequence of the show was lifted directly out of the book – where Biff follows Anna to her ballet class. It was done so cleverly and so well that it won me completely over. Tim Sykes’ set at this point was also transformed wonderfully, so it was visually engaging as well as using the original story effectively.

This puppet show deserves its acclaim and success and the little ones in the performance were held captivated for the entire show. I also though hope it encourages people to return to the book, because it still remains a favourite of mine and it will hopefully continue the magic of the show beyond the stage and into the imaginations of many little ballerinas.

Dogs Don’t Do Ballet is bound to pop up again, so make sure you see it when it does.

Bread And Roses Theatre Company The Platform - Review

The Platform – A Page to Stage Workshop or New Writing by presented by the Bread and Roses Theatre Company is rapidly growing as one of the strongest short work platforms in London. They are consistent in both quantity and quality and with this being the fourth successful one it looks set to continue for a good while. 

As the opening play, Johnny Did Not Come Marching Home by Sharon M. Andrews fitted very nicely. It was serious, dramatic, but at a length that did not completely overshadow the tone of the evening. It was well performed, and there is certainly great potential in the situation and the story of those left behind at home during WWII. It did feel that there was a lot going on in the script which might work better as a longer work, rather than a complete short but even as it was it packed a proper emotional punch.

Following the drama of the first play Just Desserts by Will Howells is a monologue that on the surface is amusing. Joanna Greaves was very engaging as an ‘after’ rather than a ‘before’ – a woman who used to be so out of control with her weight that when she loses it her life and loves spins away from her. 

Skeleton by David Payne concluded the first half of the evening. A slightly longer work, it was programmed well at this point in the Platform. It was a very tight two-hander between a mother and a daughter over lunch. In some ways a strength of this piece was in the ellipses and what was left out, I do think however that further exploring the relationship in a longer work would be interesting – and also give more space for the turns, twists and turning points to build up. Directed by Kuba Drewa, the performances of Alexia Whybrow and Fern McCauley were strong emotionally and physically and were a highlight of the evening.

Coming back from interval Cold Calling by Suzette Coon brought together generations. The older Suzanne (Judith Eveson) and the young and very wired Laura (Katie Richmond). They clash over windows and a porch but in a world with no future, what else is there to do but apologise for what you have become and reach out to those who are in a position to help.

It’s always great to finish with a good laugh and Hamlet in Hiding by Rich Rubin was just that. There has been a bank heist but unfortunately the robbers have been encumbered with perhaps the most annoying getaway driver in Belfast. This was a tightly written piece that was consistent in its comedy and performance.

This was an evening that saw: unwanted flowers, desperate men, Shakespeare, forced feeding and a ring being pulled off a finger. It was varied in content but everything was performed, written and directed to a high standard. This was another strong Platform by the Bread and Roses Theatre Company, here’s to many more!
More details about this, previous and future Platforms can be found on the Bread and Roses Theatre Company website.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Dante The Inferno - Review

Dante The Inferno
Leicester Square Theatre - lounge.

Adaptation can be difficult, just ask Charlie Kauffman and it requires a curious mix of skills to do well. A key point of the process is balancing creating something new and exciting whilst maintaining the integrity of the source. Dante The Inferno recently on at the Leicester Square Theatre didn’t quite achieve this balance but delivered some excellent performances that certainly gave a new perspective on the poem.
I have a certain level of cultural understanding of Dante’s Inferno - you can’t really gather creative degrees and not come into contact with the concepts - but haven't read the Divine Comedy. At many points in this production I felt lost, scrabbling around for cultural references that I could remember. For instance I knew that Dante’s journey when through nine the circles of hell and yet this adaption focused on three circles, which if contextualised within the piece wouldn’t have been a problem - but it wasn’t. The structure then was a writer character interacting with the devil in between weaving a separate stories around the circles ‘Lust’; ‘Gluttony’ and ‘Violence’. It was again, however unclear if these framework characters were witness to these stories, involved or just coexisting. Perhaps an audience who had read Inferno would be a little less lost than I was but accessibility is just as important for people without an intimate knowledge of the text - and would be an important point to consider if this adaptation was developed further.
Within the circles the writing and story was more assured. Although, it was a little unclear whose side we were supposed to be on in ‘Lust’ - the lovers or the murdering-Jack-the-Ripper type - who was being punished and for what was confusing. With ‘Gluttony’ there was a sad little moral tale of love and ‘Violence’ was given a contemporary voice with three short monologues about the potential life of one lost to gang violence. Whilst the style was quite different in each (influenced by three writers, adapter Nicholas Pelas, Natasha Jervis and Kevin Lee) this didn’t matter too much.
The performances throughout the show were strong. Rachel Summers as the ‘Satan character’ Roberta Fox, clearly revelled in her persona and it would have been nice to have unleashed the power of her character more. Peter Ravel-Walsh was suitable creepy and very versatile across his roles. He brought the necessary visceral physicality to ‘Gluttony’ that was quite confronting. The performance of Du’aine A Samuels was also impressive as his presence tormented the dreams of the one who had killed him. Overall the ensemble was cast well and the character well delivered.
In terms of design, the minimal set worked well and the costumes were good. A more free-flowing direction would have been better suited to the intimate space (less blackouts) but in writing, directing and performing Nicholas Pelas generally showed a solid graft. This work has good potential to develop as a longer project, but to do so should probably mean returning to the poem. For perhaps as much as anything else, adaptations should encourage you to engage with the source text, and seeing this production certainly did make me want to read the Divine Comedy.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Tartuffe by Molière Review

The Canal Café Theatre

Fringe repertory company, Paradigm presents the fourth and closing production of their inaugural season the French classic, Tartuffe. The stage is set, the red curtain moves a little bit and someone is playing the piano…

The thing about updating the context of a classic text however, is that you absolutely have to commit to it. Otherwise the assumed aesthetic can risk becoming glib, throwaway and at worst a distraction. Paradigm Theatre Company’s production of Tartuffe is a solid production of the play but fits somewhere in between the two extremes of updating a context. We are presented with a gorgeously costumed world, but at no point does the cabaret world actively interact with the text. This I feel is a missed opportunity because there is nothing quite like slightly seedy clubs to get the righteous and religious up in arms, and it would add another delicious layer to the devious nature of Tartuffe. A “godly” man all at see in a world of Cabaret would really draw out the parallels of the new context really nicely. When transporting the action of a classic text into the 1920s, it is preferable to embed the new context so that it becomes an intrinsic part of the play.   

Apart from the text, incorporating more cabaret into the style and direction of the performance would have also be a good idea. Some of the best moments of the production involve the sudden intrusion of live music and gorgeously stylised poses from the ensemble. To push this much further and integrate it throughout would be a risk that would have paid off in the Canal Theatre Café, a delightful venue really suited to the cabaret aesthetic. As mentioned previously though the costuming from Shoni Wilkinson was excellent but support from other elements would have lifted it to another level.   

Although, slow to start, the play quickly picks up as the complications in the Molière plot, layer and we are invited to share in the folly of young lovers Mariane and Valère sympathetically and endearingly played by Phoebe Batteson-Brown and John Rogers. The plight of the young all the more poignant as most their elders are proven fools in the face of Tartuffe’s lies. Only the quick-witted maid Dorine (Katherine Rodden) can truly help and she is only a servant. It takes the patriarch Orgon reaching new heights of professional and personal stupidity, going as far to sacrifice his family’s future over to Tartuffe, before the other adults finally work out a plan to out the con-artist and free family from his grip. When a brother’s words of wisdom have no ears, a wife’s virtue comes into play and the trap is set.

The ensemble cast really embraces the complications and the absurdity of the situation and as the show goes along, warm to the humour so by the time Tom Ward-Thomas interferes as Loyal we are as invested as they are in the fate of the family. A nice touch that reinforces this investment is the continual asides and the actors frequently moving throughout the audience tables. So grab a drink, make your way upstairs and enjoy what is currently on offer at The Canal Café Theatre until the 27th April.
Tickets available here.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Vagina Monologues - Eve Ensler Review

I had mixed reactions from people I told I was going to see The Vagina Monologues. There was polite interest, only one person I spoke to had seen it before, most had everyone had heard about it – but overall the sentiment expressed was along the lines of “oh that was important wasn’t it” – “it was a big thing at the time” – “aren’t we a bit past that whole vagina talking thing?” Well, this production organised and directed by Tessa Hart, assisted by Jessica Ruano proved that we well and truly are not.

Is it confronting to listen to people talking about their vaginas? Not particularly. It’s surprising how quickly it feels normal and completely not weird to be in this situation and hearing these women’s stories. And we meet vaginas grieving; vaginas that flooded; vaginas that were off limits; vaginas removed; vaginas raped; vaginas loved; vaginas as home wear furnishings; vaginas discovered; vaginas as cunts; vaginas receiving; vaginas as a village; vaginas giving; vaginas angry and vaginas jubilant.

Eve Ensler’s scripts strike a good balance between the hilarious and hysterical and pathos. There is much movement in emotion and voice across the monologues but they are united in their ultimate affirmation of love and life against what can sometimes be a violent world. Also, in each story and from each monologue there is a connection to each of us that comes directly from their source material being from real people. There was truth to much of the writing and it shone through the entire reading. And whilst the majority of the audience had thankfully not experienced sexual slavery – even in those harrowing stories there were startling small moments of recognition.

The actresses performing were Kate Smurthwaite; Rebecca Mordan; Sally Mortemore; Kate Rawson; Georgia Buchanan; Bonny Davis; Jenny Hsia; Jiin Jang; Lauren Karl and Lydia Lane. The ensemble were excellent and committed to the monologues and it is hard to separate out performances. But I will say that I particularly enjoyed Lydia Lane, Georgie Buchanan and Sally Mortemore’s monologues and their characters voices have really stuck with me.

This play is a celebration of who we are as women, and what we can be. It is a challenge to the potential in all of us to make a difference and to take a stand against cruelty and violence to women across the world. One Billion Rising is a growing network and charity that Eve Ensler founded – it involves dancing, reclaiming bodies (including vaginas) and standing tall against violence.

It always frustrates me when people are dismissive of plays that were written a few years ago, and doubly angry that if these were by a woman about a feminist issue they are even more disregarded. I think Tessa Hart and the people who worked on this understand this much more than anyone I spoke to before seeing this show. This play is as relevant as it ever was perhaps more so – and you don’t need to have a vagina to acknowledge that.

More details about the production here:

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Short Cuts 3 - A Box of Tricks

Short play nights can a mixed bag of sweets, it’s part of the program that you take the slightly underdone ones (chewy bananas)  with the fabulous (sours) - and all in all they are great evenings anyway, because of the variety of tastes. Theatre is subjective at the best of times so you also end up with people who prefer the chewy bananas over the sours and so generous audiences and generous applause fill the theatre. In the recent run of Short Cuts 3 at the Hens and Chickens the pick ‘n’ mix had been carefully selected so standard never dipped and indeed and it was all very good. 

1. Another Girl by Eliza Power

Tom Fava's Bryan cowers under the unleashed Joanna played by Eliza Power.

Well suited to the short form, this play revolved around what seemed to be an ideal couple. He gets just what he wants and she, well she is programmed to give him just that. That is until she is caught in an electrical storm, her circuits break and Bryan is left far more alone that he ever thought he would be again. An unsympathetic voice on the end of the phone doesn’t prove much solace and with through energetic performances the present and past collide into quite a dark love story. It might not be what he wants, but it might be what he needs.
2. A Dog Hotel by Nia Jones

Abla Kandalft as the broken but hopeful Glenna and Phoebe Price as the snippy and pragmatic Carly.

This one involved a box of memories left to two women who share nothing except an old friend who recently died. In terms of pacing it was a good choice to put this one second on the bill as it was moving and dealt with heavier content than the others. I think it might be worth exploring the situation further and developing the friendship between the characters - after all whilst friendships formed in high school often don’t last, at the time they are intense enough to leave traces all over who you end up becoming. These two? Who are Carly and Glenna? There is more there to work with, although the time we spent with them was tantalizing as they were both well performed characters that would be suited to a longer piece.

3. A is for Arsenic by Lexy Howe

Lexi Howe, Camila Fiori and Danielle Nott enjoying the pleasures of love and crime.

This play had a delightful and playful murder plot. It worked really well, was charmingly performed and had a nice snappy rhythm to the dialogue. In a good piece of direction there wasn’t much physical movement on the stage, so the resulting performance was tight, structured and played to the strengths of the text. April, Cecily and Joan - unlikely murder suspects but they have one thing in common - the man they all fell for separately and hated together.

4. The Little Wula written and performaned by the Grandees

Andrew Mudie as the creepy and springy Leaping Lizard taking control of Marny Godden as the  brave Little Wula.
Well, this play was absolutely crazy in the best kind of way. It was both bizarre and wonderful and absolutely hilarious. There is nothing quite as fun as being in the audience when actors are so enjoying themselves - but always feeling safe enough that they know what exactly they are doing. This one again as potential for further development, and it would be Interesting to see this comedy troupe develop it further, I think it would be quite suited to radio - but equally the staged dynamic is great and it is all a curious mix of that works very well - so perhaps a hybrid form? Either way I hope to see more of the adventures of Little Wula and Clobberguts, although the Leaping Lizard looks gone for good!
It was a good decision to have four plays in this presentation. It worked well and the timing of them all fitted nicely. They were well written, directed and produced and fittingly as Short Cuts is developing a good critical base it is going to be continuing to provide short play evenings throughout the year. Sweet!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Woman of No Importance - Or Somewhat Little Importance Anyhow Review

 Farce is a funny thing, for something so hilarious it is actually quite an intricate medium. A Woman of No Importance – Or Somewhat Little Importance Anyhow by Katherine Rodden is a good example of how it can be embraced by a contemporary setting. Lauren is pissed off at her parents, pissed off at her boyfriend, pissed off at Oscar Wilde, pissed off her at her agent but most of all just pissed. She is sinking into a delicious pool of wine infused self-pity when her mother arrives on her door step announcing she has left her father. What results is a weekend that unravels with both wit and physical comedy into very entertaining theatre.

In many ways it is a good decision to set the action in the one room, then all the characters have to pile into this small space and it adds to the physical comedy. The Hens and Chickens Theatre is a great intimate space and it is well suited to the play. Increasingly, it means there is a lot of movement going around the main character beyond her control that director Cat Robey uses this to great physical and comedic effect.

Interestingly, as the play goes on and gets more and more ridiculous the audience actually become more and more invested in Lauren’s parents’ row; in how much they might actually love each other and it is genuinely moving how we see them grow throughout the play. Alan Booty and Rachel Dobell are sublime as the injured parties, and their character’s quick wit is sharp enough at times to make you gasp as well as giggle.

They are ably supported in their craft by the amusing lawyers Geoffrey (Matt Houlihan) and Whathisname (Craig, played by Keith Wallis); Suitor Posh (Patrick Neyman) who is hilariously wonderful and Suitor Poor, the token lower class lad after Lauren’s heart is gamely played by David Hemsted. Both he and the lawyers bring the audience onside with just how ridiculous the toffs of this world are, before promptly diving down to their level. And then of course is Katherine Rodden playwright and protagonist as Lauren trying to make sense of the chaos.

As much as I did enjoy this in its current incarnation I feel there is space for this play to be developed further into a longer piece. I think Lauren’s character needs to discover something or change or move or be an active protagonist and the longer length will give space for her to grow. There will still need to be the one-liners and the marvelous choreographed fight scenes but working on the deep structure and movement of the play might make these even more rewarding. Sustaining the action further I don’t think would exhaust an audience, the farce was very warmly received and either way by the end we certainly all knew that that this woman is important!

A Woman of No Importance – Or Somewhat Little Importance Anyhow is currently playing at the Hens and Chickens Theatre. It is produced by Paradigm Theatre company.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Whitechapel TV Series Review

Whitechapel is a show I want to love. It has a dashing lead, historical mysteries to unravel and it got a strong stylised look. However, instead of combining these elements into something that really works, too often the show unravels into a puddle of “oh-look-at-me-aren’t-we-a-clever-boy” mess. This doesn’t mean at times it isn't enjoyable. I mean at times it is often mesmerising but overall there is something about it that just doesn’t click. 

The team lead by DI Joseph Chandler and DS Ray Miles is a good ensemble group of characters. It has been a pleasure watching them bind together to form a functioning unit across the three series. Incorporating the nutter - Edward Buchan into the team as an archivist was an inspired move and also brings a nice dynamic to the team. We get to know these people, we like these people and we appreciate the humanity they bring to the show.

Perhaps though the thing that Whitechapel is most is dark. Dark lighting, dark alleyways, dark murder - it seems as as though every frame has been shaded with a permanent. At times Rupert Penry-Jones’ pretty face is the only thing shining back at the dark, and his character’s OCD and obsession with order are clearly at sea in the darkness. This is a very intense style to commit to and it part contributes to the show being over-complicated and embellished with false-intrigue enough to smother what should be very engaging story lines.

A little too dark? A little too gruesome? A little too eager to gross you out rather than to trust in a compelling story? Perhaps. But here it is still on our screens, with another series in the pipeline. I for one won’t be counting down the days before it returns but if I end up watching it, I won’t be able to look away.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Aladdin - A Wish Come True Pantomime Review

Pantomime is a ‘thing’ isn’t it? One of those ‘things’ that you either get and love or you just aren’t with it enough to be a part of the ‘thing.’ It sounds ridiculous (Oh yes it does!) for such a traditional form of theatre to be a ‘thing’, but you know, bear with it for a bit. Because, following on the ‘thing’ way of ‘things’, every panto season we get people trying to do the ‘thing’ who just don’t quite get it. They just miss the mark, the length of the turn-up tight jean isn’t quite right and there isn’t enough substance to carry off the red socks. 

Aladdin - A Wish Come True was a pantomime just like that. It has a lovely pair of jeans and dashing socks but the outfit didn’t click. And it wasn’t to do with the performances, the set, the costumes (which were fabulous) or the live orchestra - all of which were strong elements but fundamentally I think the problem was someone along the way in the production process didn’t understand the ‘thing’ that is pantomime. What sets the tone; the feel; the warmth; the in-joke of the medium just wasn’t there. There was little magic to the fairy-tale.

I mean sure it is a stock story - that a considerable amount of the audience will be familiar with - but even so you have to love and work with what you have in the stock characters and story not just deliver it without due care. What this play really needed was a dramaturg to connect and weave everything together. Parts of the Roger S Moss script are genuinely funny but so often it is let down because characters haven’t been properly established and the humour falls flat. An example was the policemen Ping and Pong - who were played by talented actors and looked funny and yet in the first half they barely raise a chuckle. This is because we didn’t know who they were and why they were funny in the context of the play apart from them looking a bit silly. Setting up the characters wouldn’t have taken much, I mean, they are called Ping and Pong - word-play options abound - even introducing them could be hilarious. Missing out on this establishment meant that even as clowns they didn’t properly work within the story-world and thus take much longer to warm up the audience.  

In terms of the other characters Paul O’ Grady as Lily Savage was excellent - you’ve got a great character there and she was sensational and Darren Bennett as the evil uncle grew in menace and fun as the show went on. But Aladdin and Jasmine? I don’t think I have ever been less invested in a romance on the stage. Performance-wise they were good, she had a beautiful voice and he boundless enthusiasm but they didn’t have anything else. Stock characters aren’t about being completely flat and boring they are about meeting old friends. We recognise them and to a certain extent project our expectations but there still has to be something there.

There were some fun things that saved this evening - the little munchkin girls were cute, the costumes divine, the flying carpet impressive and the vocals and music were all strong (although not necessarily crowd raising) but again this all felt disparate and not connected. It didn’t feel written, or crafted this play. It was just there. There wasn’t enough for this show to work without its star attraction and it only just did with her divineness - and Ms. Savage would have been much better served if the entire package came along with her on her glittering train rather than paying lip service to it.

I saw this production on press night and chose not to write a review immediately. Call it festive spirit if you want but as an independent theatre reviewer sometimes I like to take the time until after the show has run before writing something up. That said, I think there is justifiable space for criticism - hence this is being published. It’s constructive and it comes from someone who does get the panto thing - so for what it is worth: get the script and the play itself into great shape and then the show will be marvelous regardless of how a baby elephant appears on stage.

Pantomime season is drawing to a close, it’s a seasonal ‘thing’ after all and not even Christmas jumpers will make it all the way through January, but remember, the next time your Gran buys you a ticket to panto that in many ways she might be more with it and hipster than you!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse Review

Julius Caesar. It’s a great play about honourable men. And yet in the Donmar Warehouse the play is currently being performed by an all female cast. Director Phyllida Lloyd returns to the stage to present a production of a Shakespeare classic in what appears to be an entirely appropriate context. In many ways though this production is a paradox. It is a play made up of excellent performances and it delivers the the famous Shakespeare speeches brilliantly and yet, however it does not satisfy because fundamentally it does not address what it arguably should be aiming to - the main drive of the production - the women.

For an all female cast, there are no female characters. We get a heart-breaking performance of Brutus (Harriet Walter) but we don’t get to see who she is at all, this woman beneath the Shakespearean eloquence. Equally Mark Anthony (Cush Jumbo) is as electrifying as ever at Caesar’s funeral, but who is she? The Cassius we see (Jenny Jules) is a wronged man but we do not see a wronged woman? We do not meet any of the women who we are watching on stage. This production of Julius Caesar is presented with minimal editing - not even the pro-nouns are changed (so there isn’t anything interesting going on in reclaiming an language for people who are denied it). We have “such men” the threat of Caesar becoming a king, above men and men going to war. But where were the women?

Actually, nowhere in the program notes does it mention a writer or dramaturg - it appears the entire construct of the women’s prison is just that. A directorial decision to justify the casting. Metatheatre is a wonderful but dangerous muse - it has to be used with care and consideration or it can be reduced to a gimmick. At minimum there should have been a break away from the ‘performance inside the performance’ during the first half. The internal logic of this world really needed to be established before a new world was created. I was waiting for these women to interact with the play. To question it; to feel it; to become consumed by it and for it to demonstrate something about their lives and experience. As it was there was a strange distancing effect of the Shakespeare words existing in a vacuum and floating above the setting.

What this play needed was more. It needed to become more than just Julius Ceasar by William Shakespeare. We needed to have established power relationships between the prisoners; we needed to know who was due for release soon; we needed to know why X had been cast as Brutus but Y was annoyed at playing his wife. Why Julius Ceasar? How into a world of women does a play about the world of men fit?

Thanks to Bunny Christie’s great set design at no point are we under the illusion that we are anywhere other than a female prison. We are so immersed in this world, even the theatre techs operating overhead are dressed as prison guards (one had a moustache!) and yet we are not given access to this. It doesn’t hold a mirror to the action, it doesn’t complement the action - it is reduced almost to a container for the action and little more. The sound design (Tom Gibbons) and lighting (Neil Austin) are also great but again disconnected and again the rawness of this energy needed to be grounded in the ‘real world of the prison’ as well as on the battlefields of Ancient Rome for it to be fully taken advantage of.

The only period where both worlds fully connect and make sense is the bookended scene where Cinna the Poet is lynched. By the time the flow of the Shakespeare is interrupted it is a relief but also doesn’t quite sit properly - and it becomes a little uncomfortable. Because the internal logic of the performance had not been fully established, it doesn’t sit right.

If the intended effect of this production was only to demonstrate that women can perform Shakespeare then it is successful. But the thing is, we know that. It might not be common to have all female casts but it does happen. Last year I saw an all female student production of Twelfth Night - again this was used in the marketing of the show, it was pitched as an exciting gender explorative performance. It wasn’t. What it was, was an enjoyable and well performed piece of Shakespeare but it could have been a mixed cast, an all male cast or all female and it wouldn’t have made any difference. The same could be said for this production. The female performers were all good but it didn’t mean anything beyond the play. This may have been a less of an issue if it hadn’t been set in a female prison where the power dynamics and hierarchies are an ideal space for drawing out the themes/ relationships and power of the Shakespeare. I feel it is good for theatre makers to justify why. To think hard about the implications of a particular setting and casting decision, to work with the politics of this and use them in the work.

Reception studies is the academic discourse around the contemporary productions of classical texts.There tends to be a preciousness about classical texts, perhaps people are afraid of tampering with audience expectations, of drawing criticism for embellishment, however if done properly with respect and an assured awareness of the original re-contextualising a classical work can be very rewarding. The key principle of bringing a classical work into a contemporary context is to use the new and working with the existing text create dynamic relationship between the two elements.

As an example I turn to Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona’s The Island. For not only is it an excellent example of post-colonial theatre but it is an successful re-working of Sophocles’ Antigone and one of our best examples of how metatheatre can work. Two cellmates in Robben Island perform Antigone, but in using their own story and experience there are layers to this work beyond the original text. John and Winston take the audience on a journey of personal discovery and provide a completely unique reading and understanding of the original play as well as reflecting on the horrors of Apartheid and the contemporary context of the characters.

People who might have argued Greek Tragedy has no place in South Africa might also make the case that Julius Caesar has no place in a female prison - but unlike The Island, this production doesn't present the case that it does.  

In fairness there are many productions of Shakespeare (including Julius Caesar) that play with the context little and also only use the play as it is. However productions such as that of the RSC recently that displaces Julius Caesar from Italy to Africa don’t have the conceit of people performing the Shakespeare play - it just is. Perhaps if the Donmar production was Julius Caesar actually playing out and happening within a women’s prison it might be different, but as is they are characters clearly performing it. The problem is we don’t know who. Or why. Or how. Or when. We are only given the what - and that is brilliant but I would argue not enough.

I think it says much of my experience of this production that I came out of theatre wanting to write it. For me the real play and the real story just wasn’t there. Just think how much more could have underlined the already impressive performances. Julius Caesar. It’s a great play about honourable men. And yet it could have been ever so much more about women.