clp 0260 So the old cow that grazes in Bristo Square, Edinburgh every August has made her way down South again for the Spring and early Summer! She still hasn’t found a way to stop noise from the surrounding bars creeping through her thin skin during performances, but, otherwise, a big welcome to her and to the Edinburgh-style programming of short and varied entertainments. A Simple Space is an hour-long acrobatic display created by the Australian ensemble Gravity and Other Myths. Simple? For the watching audience yes, but for the performers far from it. Showing strength, agility, balance and sheer guts, the seven acrobats (six men, one woman) fall, rise, leap, gambol, somersault, spin and contort themselves, hardly stopping to regain their breath for the show’s duration. They pile on top of each other to form columns, pyramids, squares, arches or just piles and a very competitive game of Strip Skipping could well set a new trend. The loser, who also serves as a musician, later goes on to use his own body as a percussion instrument. All this could have been fairly monotonous without dashes of humour, but there are generous helpings of it, all without a single word being spoken – these guys (and gal) know how work an audience and build up tension without resorting to speeches. The result is a show which flows seamlessly and never outstays its welcome. The show runs until 24 May, so a good idea might be to pop into see it after work and then grab a beer outside as the sun sets over the Thames, making sure that the next show’s audience hears you. Simply perfect!

Performance date: 23 April 2015

Photograph: Chris Herzfeld

Dead Royal*** (Ovalhouse)

Posted: April 23, 2015 in Theatre

Dress Rehearsal image - Dead RoyalThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

In the Summer of 1981 the Duchess of Windsor invited to her secluded villa in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris, the 19 year-old Lady Diana Spencer who was about to marry the Prince of Wales. Well maybe she didn’t, but Australian writer/director/performer Chris Ioan Roberts imagines such a meeting and makes it the basis for this 50 minute one man show. Wallis, The Duchess, is intent on dispensing pearls of wisdom, whist Diana has been sent on a mission to retrieve pearls of Queen Alexandra, “stolen” by her hostess years before. Both ladies have come to be regarded as ill-used, tragic heroines and fashion icons, making them ideal subjects for the high camp treatment given by Roberts, who plays both. His Wallis is a faded, embittered Southern belle who sees herself as Scarlett O’Hara, although another Vivien Leigh guise, that of Blanche DuBois, comes more readily to mind. Tara’s Theme plays in the background as Wallis quips that her life story could be entitled “Gone With the Windsors”. She is scornful of the ITV series Edward and Mrs Simpson, but still plays back VHS tapes of episodes and mimes to the lines. Her snobbishness runs to being unable to admit to having a seafood allergy because it could be regarded as “common”, preferring to make herself ill, regularly. The meeting that we all want to see is, of course, impossible with this format. Instead, halfway though the show, Roberts makes a slow change of costume and wig to become Diana, who is still blissfully unaware of what the future holds for her. She too has a link to Gone With the Wind, copping out of reading the paperback that Prince Charles has given her, but finding that her attention span does not run to watching the entire film either. This is a show of rich humour but little depth. With both characters, Roberts finds a good balance between refinement and vulgarity, but, whilst there is a natural pathos in his demeanour, he explores neither the sadness of Wallis nor the vulnerability of Diana. His portrayals are not impersonations, nor do they represent the two women exactly (for example Wallis came from the Baltimore area and not the Deep South); more he is mocking their public images and giving them very little in the way of dignity. The show works best as a vehicle for a string of very funny jokes at the expense of our Royal Family. Roberts’ Wallis delivers the sort of bitchy material that the late Joan Rivers would have been proud of, shooting from the hip at Princess Margaret, the Princes Andrew and Edward and, of course, the Queen Mother (“face like yesterday’s Eton Mess”). His Diana has fewer targets – Charles and, unwittingly, her own limited intellect. Wallis was not to know that the best advice she could have given to Diana would have been never to return to Paris. Roberts takes his show back to Brisbane next, but his return to our shores will be more than welcome.

Performance date: 22 April 2015

Photograph: Patricia Oliveira

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Caryl Churchill’s account of the English Civil War from the perspective of a group of insurgent agricultural workers tells a story which resonates still in the modern world. Her writing always seems acutely aware of this and the use of costumes that are not time specific in Lyndsey Turner’s production underlines the point. Yet, still this is a play that is packed with factual detail and its only driving narrative is that given to it by history. The common people are Saxon and they are spurred on to rise up against their Royalist masters, of Norman descent, because of poverty, brutal repression and the belief in a new Jerusalem beginning in 1650. Once the Royalist rule has ended, something has to replace it and almost a third of the first act is taken up with the Putney Debates of 1647, presided over by Oliver Cromwell (Daniel Flynn), in which protagonists line up across the stage and present their cases. The scene draws from actual records, but it is debate more than drama and it seems interminable. The arguments are elementary – in modern parlance, capitalism versus communism, rule of law versus anarchy – and there is a feeling throughout the play that, when Churchill is not using the actual words spoken, the fluency and colour in her writing masks their simplicity. The second act culminates in another long discussion on the influence which religion has in society. Churchill seems to conclude that Christianity had inspired the insurgents and given them a glimmer of false hope, but it is adept at wriggling free from any blame for failure. Turner’s staging, with sets designed by Es Devlin, is spectacular. Act I takes place on a banquet table covering almost the entire Lyttelton stage, with Royalists gorging themselves around the edges; for Act II, the table becomes farm land and the diners are replaced by Puritan scribes; an enormous overhead mirror reflects events throughout. Symbolism abounds, without adding very much to a play which has speaking roles for close to 30 actors and uses almost as many non-speaking extras (referred to as the “Community Company”). Extravagance indeed, but to what end as this is a work which is nearly all words and hardly any action? Occasionally and very fleetingly, some engaging performances emerge – Ashley McGuire and Alan Williams as resourceful vagrants, Joshua James as an evangelistic “gentleman”, Trystan Gravelle as a cynical fighter – but Churchill fails to flesh out their characters fully or to give them strong storylines and they fade back quickly into the mists of Turner’s bloated production. Churchill’s central point is that, here and throughout history, uprisings may disrupt things temporarily, but, for the lowest echelons of society, the status quo returns quickly. In this case, the names and faces of rulers and landowners change, but the poverty and repression continue and even the Monarchy is restored. Churchill’s history lesson is all good and worthy, but her messages would have been more easily digested if she had been able to wrap them in an absorbing drama.

Performance date: 21 April 2015

Scarlet**** (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: April 18, 2015 in Theatre

scarlettThis Review was originally written for The Public Reviews: www.thepublicreviews.com

“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them” says Scarlet, quoting a half remembered adage as she tries to explain to herself how she has arrived at a point of desperation. Scarlet has been the victim of sexual abuse – an intimate video has been shot whilst she was drunk and posted on the internet without her permission. Her life has been changed irrevocably, possibly ruined. Scarlet, the first full-length play by Samuel H Freeman, is a sharply-focussed and provocative examination of the causes and consequences of sexual abuse. Written in the style of a monologue, the play is in fact performed by four actors – Lucy Kilpatrick, Jade Ogugua, Heidi Reed and Asha Reid – all playing Scarlet and all playing other characters in the story. The four bring subtly different traits to the main role, particularly effective when they are arguing different sides in debates going on in Scarlet’s head. The perpetrator of the abuse is Will, a misfit who is laughed at by his friends over an incident involving Scarlet and driven to seek revenge on her. By telling us that Will is a victim of bullying, Freeman is not trying to excuse the inexcusable, rather he is showing us that abuse exists in different forms, consisting of many degrees of physical or mental violence and that one case of abuse can escalate and lead to another. Scarlet is not the victim of a date rape as such, but Freeman is able to make the case that the sexual abuse inflicted upon her is no less extreme for being less physical and he challenges what might be ingrained prejudices. When another woman, Scarlet’s friend Sasha, implies that what happened was her own fault for dressing alluringly, drinking too much and being promiscuous, the playwright is showing that prejudice is not specific to one gender and he is asking each member of the audience to question their own views. At the same time, Freeman also shows that attitudes toward female victims can be very different from those towards men. When Scarlet seeks revenge on her ex-boyfriend after their relationship has broken down in the wake of her misfortune, she posts sexually explicit photographs of him on the internet. Her life had been wrecked, but he shrugs it off, perhaps wallowing in his reinforced macho image. Joe Hufton’s lively and energetic production is staged on a central square platform, with extensions into the audience. For all the seriousness of the issues with which it deals, the play never resembles a dry tome and, blessed with four uniformly excellent performances, it moves effortlessly between humour and suspense. It also sends the audience home discussing the issues that it raises, which must be central to its purpose.

Performance date: 17 April 2015

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When a performance ends and you are sitting next to a gentleman who declines to lift a hand to applaud, even though he has just witnessed five of the most striking performances likely to be seen in London this year, you pretty well know that the play is going to divide opinions. If the said gentleman had come expecting to see something akin to Coward or Ayckbourn, then he is entitled to feel disappointed, because Simon Stephens’ vision of a dystopian present seems a likely challenger to Mr Burns, seen at the Almeida a year ago, to become champion for polarising views. In the case of Burns, I voted with the nays, although things could have been different had it been cut to the same length as this (90 minutes straight through); on this occasion, I go with the ayes. It is not often that we are asked to walk to our seats across the stage, edging our way around a near-dead bull, but this unnerving entrance gets us to expect the unexpected. The setting is the opera house in an unnamed European city, where Carmen is being performed. Stephens introduces us to five characters, the leading singer and four others, based loosely upon those in Bizet’s opera: Carmen (Jack Farthing) is a narcissistic rent boy, preening in a new designer shirt and planning his next pick-up; Don Jose (Noma Dumezweni) is a sorrowful cab driver, mulling over conversations with the son from whom she has been estranged; Escamillo (John Light) is a panic-stricken commodities dealer, struggling to retain an outer calm whilst filled with terror at the prospect of bankruptcy; and Micaela (Katie West) is a suicidal student, jilted by her boyfriend and getting out of her depth in the world of adult chatrooms. The singer (Sharon Small) has just flown in and is becoming increasingly disorientated, unable to remember the simplest facts about her life without reference to her smart phone, only able to survive thanks to a suitcase packed with prescription drugs. The five are joined on stage by a soprano (Viktoria Vizin), two cellists (Jamie Cameron and Harry Napier) and the aforementioned bull. They go about their business, absorbed in their own thoughts, only fleetingly aware of each other and the rest of humanity; they talk of smell and touch as if these senses had been newly discovered. A traffic accident between the opera house and the river disrupts their day and brings them to the same scene, but they never connect to each other. Stephens’ theme is solitude, developing the view that we are all at our most isolated when in crowded places, in the middle of bustling modern cities. Such a metaphysical concept can only be conveyed successfully if the writing and the direction are in as complete harmony as they are here. Stephens writes intercut mini-monologues in blank verse, stark and vividly descriptive. Michael Longhurst fills his production with haunting imagery that is balletic, operatic, poetic, hallucinatory and more, centring around the symbol of human brutality which lies at the centre of an otherwise bare, half-lit stage throughout. An astute use of music and a surtitles board with a mind of its own add to the effect. Rupert Gould’s Almeida has gone astray a couple of times recently, pursuing its policy of bold programming, but this time it comes up trumps.

Performance date: 16 April 2015

the glass protegeThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Classic black-and-white films are being screened as the audience enters the theatre for this emotional drama, serving as a reminder of the “golden age” of Hollywood. It was an era in which movie stars were treated as merely products by studios that, being concerned only with image, were prepared to control them and promote myths about their private lives which were at odds with reality. Dylan Costello’s play begins in 1949 with the arrival in Hollywood of Patrick Glass (David R Butler), a young British theatre actor. He has been cast to play opposite Jackson (Alexander Hulme), an established star who is rumoured to be gay, but has become adept at playing the deception game. The play, which tells of the development of an off-screen relationship between the two actors, is a revised version of one that was staged in London in 2010 under the title Secret Boulevard. Showing the long-term damage caused by lives being manipulated and lived in secret, the play also leaps forward 40 years to where an elderly Patrick (Paul Lavers) is now reclusive and embittered; “when you live your entire life in the closet, you start to cough up mothballs” he snarls. Instead of adopting a conventional flashback structure, Costello opts to relate a separate story set in 1989, running in parallel with the 1949 one and told in alternating scenes. That story concerns Ava (Sheena May), who arrives from the newly- liberated East Germany, having been “bought” as a bride by Patrick’s son (Stephen Connery-Brown). There is symmetry here in that Ava becomes a property to be used by others, just as Patrick had been during his film career, but the 1989 scenes prove to be much weaker and less convincing than the ones set earlier. Furthermore, the play’s structure impairs the build-up of tension in the 1949 scenes as Patrick and Jackson grow closer and threats to them become stronger. Not only is this build-up interrupted regularly, but the problem is compounded further when, on several occasions, the older Patrick reveals what is about to happen in the following scene. If we come to resent the intrusions of the 1989 story, perhaps that is a tribute to the strength of the core scenes, which are brought to life by sharp writing, taut direction and strong performances. Butler and Hulme develop a very believable chemistry, bringing out their characters’ vulnerability as they move from mutual suspicion to shared affection. Emily Loomes touches as an insecure leading lady with an unsavoury past, Roger Parkins is a ruthless studio boss and Mary Stewart a venomous gossip columnist. Matthew Gould’s production is performed on a traverse stage, dominated, for both stories, by a large, curtained four-poster bed. Overhead, the famed “Hollywood” sign appears for the 1989 scenes, becoming “Hollywoodland” for 1949, the year in which it was changed. The secret lives of many real stars of the 40s and 50s are now widely known, endorsing the truth underlying this fictional drama. Costello’s play is an interesting examination of the human cost of deception and loss of freedom. Incidentally, it also sets the mind thinking about what my lie behind the facade of modern day celebrity culture.

Performance date: 15 April 2015

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Animals**+ (Theatre 503)

Posted: April 14, 2015 in Theatre

Animal Production Photos at Theatre 503This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Economic forecasters warn us repeatedly that a growing aged population could soon become a burden too great for society to bear. Emma Adams’ new play takes place in 2046, in a world where the solution to this problem has been found in the drastic form of a lethal injection. A tsunami has engulfed Britain, “incomers” arrive freely and an authoritarian regime is now in place, imposing laws banning certain words and any discussion of the weather. Children’s status in life is determined by a test on their 18th Birthday and “Utility Inspectors” call on the over-60’s to determine whether they are of diminished use or of no further use at all. There may be an inclination to look for political messages in all of this, but very little emerges to be taken too seriously. In the early stages, it seems as if Adams is aiming for a drama about a dystopian nightmare, but the longer the play goes on, the more it becomes a black comedy with touches of absurdism. It rather resembles a re-working of Arsenic and Old Lace as we see batty old ladies, seemingly demure and refined, snorting amphetamines and getting up to all sorts of nasty things. The cantankerous Norma (Marlene Sidaway) is 77, trying to pass herself off as 40 years younger and her home help Joy (a splendidly flustered Sadie Shimmin) is 59. Pushed to extremes by the need to survive, they have taken the kitchen knife to visiting children, keeping their remains in the larder to be used as tasty sandwich fillings. Their neighbour Helen (Cara Chase), 70 and on the cusp of extinction, is drawn in unwittingly to the evil doings. Noah (Steve Hansell), oafish and not too bright, is a Utility Inspector about to visit the neighbourhood. He leaves the daughter on whom he dotes, Maya, in his car and she escapes into the clutches of the three ladies. Maya is one day short of her 18th Birthday but is written and played (by Milly Thomas) more like an overgrown 6-year-old, making the character irritating and unconvincing. Uncertainty of tone, illogical plot details and inconsistent characterisations mar parts of the first act and it is only in the later stages, when the play has established itself as a black comedy, that it gets fully into its stride. Staged on a cramped living room set, Liza Cagnacci’s production occasionally suffers from imperfect comic timing and this affects the flow; hopefully these problems will be resolved as the run progresses. Theatre 503 has recently established a senior writers group and, in a deliberate move, the actresses cast to play the three main characters are all in their 60s and 70s; this is consistent with the playwright’s strong feelings about the accurate representation of women. In the theatre at least, perhaps the future for the elderly is not as bleak as this play might suggest.

Performance date: 13 April 2015

Production photo: Richard Davenport

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