Archive for August, 2016

a tale of two citiesThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Plain wooden chairs fill the width of the stage in rows six deep. We await the arrival of an audience to face an audience, but the chairs remain vacant as if in a deserted church hall, leaving an eerie emptiness to be filled by just seven actors. They will bring to life Charles Dickens’ vision of a London, rife with greedy bankers and preying lawyers, looking across nervously at a Paris of post-revolution anarchy in which the innocent fear for their lives.

It is not a new idea to strip down a classic novel to its basics and reconstruct it for the theatre, but writer/director Jonathan Holloway finds inventive ways to trim all the fat from Dickens’ meaty work and replace it with striking images, sounds and atmosphere. The result is that the story’s core themes of revenge, passion and sacrifice shine through thrillingly. Voices echo from the back of the stage, haunting music (composed by Sarah Llewellyn) punctuates the action and subtly changing lighting takes us to dark places.

There are difficulties at first. Without period costumes or sets to point the way, we wonder who the characters are and whether they are in England or France, but confusion evaporates as strong performances replace it with clarity. Nicki Hobday’s Mme Defarge is fearsome, turned inhuman by grief and revenge following the loss of her child. The aptly named Cruncher, a bank porter who moonlights as a body snatcher, is played to chilling effect by James Camp who doubles as Charles Darnay, incognito heir to French nobility.

Graeme Rose’s surly Sydney Carton conveys perfectly the obsessive nature of a man who is an outsider, a hard drinking barrister so consumed by his love for Lucie Manette (Abby Wain) that he deludes himself to believe that one night spent with her will be enough to satisfy him. But Lucie is already betrothed to Darnay and the affair sets Carton on the path to the story’s famous climax that is played out here without cliché and with beautiful simplicity.

A co-production by Hong Kong’s Chung Ying company with the UK’s Red Shift Theatre Productions and Seabright Productions, Holloway’s adaptation is unconventional and memorable, not necessarily a far far better version than the original, but a vivid and stirring reimagining of it.

Performance date: 12 August 2016

trh-2

happy-dave-pleasance-courtyard-ed-fringeThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Happy Dave is contemptuous of today’s youngsters. He complains that earlier generations invented rock, punk and rave, but all we have now is the X-Factor Christmas single. Oli Forsyth’s new play begins in the 1990s when Dave was DJ at massive rave parties in open fields, until the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, brought them to an end. It then fast forwards 20 years to find Dave a model of conformity as an account executive with an advertising agency.

An air of disillusionment hangs over Andy McLeod’s Dave. The oldest by far in his office, his enthusiasm for activities perceived to be exclusively for those half his age is sneered at by colleagues, but, given the chance to dip his toes again in the rave scene, he jumps in at the deep end. For him, it is a drug habit that he cannot kick and returning to it is like going back home.

Dave’s passion, more than mere nostalgia, suggests a hankering for wilder, freer times when the law and health and safety obsessions had a lesser grip on our lives. With his disciples, played by Helen Coles, Kiell Smith-Bynoe, Lucy Hagan-Walker and the writer himself, he sets about organising raves, aided by the new tool of social media. He triggers a cat-and-mouse game with police and takes his chances in the face of career and financial ruin.

Forsyth’s 70 minute play does not yet feel fully formed, perhaps needing a stronger narrative drive to hold it together, but it makes bold and original statements about youth culture and Sam Carrack’s energetic, well acted production makes it shine.

Performance date: 11 August 2016

trh-2

Agent of InfluenceThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: www.thereviewshub.com

There seems no end to stories of heroism in World War II, but, despite initial appearances to the contrary, this is not an addition to the list. Sarah Sigal’s one hour monologue is an account given by Lady Pamela More, a socialite and fashion correspondent for The Times, of her recruitment to become a wartime spy on behalf of MI6.

Lady Pamela is the sort of woman who would brush aside the monumental in a quest to uncover the trivial. She is less concerned with the deeds of Fascist dictators than with the clothes that they wear and she believes Il Duce to be an opera singer. In early 1936, she is assigned to interview Mrs Wallis Simpson, whose involvement with the King was not known to the British public. Snootily, she nicknames the future Duchess of Windsor “the charwoman”, but they become acquaintances and she is assigned again in 1940, this time by MI6, to gather intelligence about the exiled Duke and Duchess, whose activities are causing concern to the Government.

Rebecca Dunn’s performance as Lady Pamela is a joy, suggesting an early prototype for a Patricia Routledge character. She is snobbish and ever so refined, but happily prepared to get down to her undies to be seduced by a handsome spy chief. The play’s humour derives from her anachronistic involvement in the grubby world of espionage.

Unfortunately, Sigal’s play promises much more than it delivers. Yes it is amusing, but there is none of the intrigue and suspense that we expect from a spy story. If Lady Pamela made any contribution to the war effort, it would appear to have been a minor one; she tells us that her discovery that the Duke of Windsor was plotting with Rudolf Hess to be reinstated as King in Nazi ruled Britain was already well known in Whitehall. So, no surprises for them and no surprises for us as this play fizzles out rather disappointingly.

Performance date: 11 August 2016

trh-2

all-aboard-the-marriage-hearse-ed-fringeThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

“Marriage is just porn for women” declares Sean to his long-time partner Amy as they return home together, half drunk, after a friend’s wedding reception. He has caught the garter, she the bouquet and, as Elvis croons It’s Now or Never in the background, Amy decides that now is the time to tie the knot while Sean remains adamant that it’s never.

The Wee Room at the Gilded Balloon seems a fitting setting for a play that gently takes the wee out of the grand old institution of wedlock. Amy (Jessica Moreno) is Jewish, a teacher, and stuck half way between embracing traditional values and those of a modern woman. Sean (Tom Pilutik) is a gentile, an atheist and a writer who is set on preserving the image of himself created in his magazine articles. The irresistible force meets the immoveable object and the whole relationship is the potential casualty of the clash.

American Writer/director Matt Morillo probes both sides of the argument, covering all bases. Is marriage an unnecessary addition when a loving and committed relationship already exists? Is it a public statement that will formalise and reinforce bonds? Is it just an outdated institution entered into only to conform with religious and social conventions and to gain tax and health care benefits? The debate is the play.

Setting the play in the Manhattan apartment of an arguing intellectual couple, Morillo goes deep into Woody Allen territory geographically as well as thematically. Biting Allen style wisecracks are few and far between and the debate is stretched a little thin over 70 minutes, but the dialogue is smart and snappy and the two performances are spot on. This show is lightweight but has much more substance than the average rom com.

Performance date: 11 August 2016

trh-2

diary of a madman

Al Smith’s new play (from Gogol) begins with two men painting  the Forth Bridge, one of them is named Matt White and he is a Chemistry graduate with an avid interest in watching paint dry. Jokes and puns flow thick and fast in the opening section, as Smith appears to be laying the foundations for a bland domestic comedy, but what follows is very much darker.

Liam Brennan gives a magnificent tragi-comic performance as Pop Sheeran, a man who dedicates his life to painting the Bridge over and over again. The geeky English lad Matt (Guy Clark) arrives from Edinburgh University to be his temporary assistant and Pop’s wife (Deborah Arnott) invites him to stay at the family home.  He catches the eye of their teenage daughter Sophie (Louise McMenemy).

When Sophie’s friend Mel (Lois Chimimba) introduces Pop to a smartphone app that traces ancestry, a demon in Pop’s head is activated and he becomes obsessed with the belief that he is descended from thanes. Sharing a favourite film ( Braveheart) with Osama.Bin Laden Scottish history and culture begins to drive him towards madness as iconic figures from William Wallace to Greyfriars Bobby appear to him. Christopher Haydon’s dynamic production demonstrates the onset of insanity vividly.

Probing deep into the heart of the Scottish psyche, the play unearths several things of which Nicola Sturgeon may not entirely approve. It is a searing commentary on nationalism in internationalism.

Performance date: 10 August 2016

bubble schmeisis We learn something new every day. A schmeisis is a traditional Jewish bathhouse. Few remain in London and, we are told, only one is of worth – in Canning Town.

Nick Cassenbaum is an amiable, genuine man. He takes the trouble to come outside, dressed only in his bath robes, to shake the hands of those queuing before leading us inside to his makeshift bathhouse, where ir is much drier. His one man (plus two musicians) show is an affectionate plea for the preservation of heritage in a changing world.

The central thread of his story is a chauffeur-driven journey from his grandfather’s home in Stanmore to Canning Town, where he would be introduced to the schmeisis. On the way, he passes South Mimms where he recalls congregating with a group of Jewish youngsters flying off from Luton to a Summer camp in Israel. He then passes White Hart Lane where unhappy memories flood back of his first (and probably only) Spurs match. He does not feel that he belongs either in Israel or with the Spurs “Yids”, but, at his schmeisis, he finds his spiritual home.

Directed by Danny Beaverman, this show is made to feel casual and unrehearsed, but the audience is embraced by its warmth. We learn that bagel should be pronounced “beegal” and, even if the traditions that are described so lovingly are not our own, we come to share Cassenbaum’s passion for preserving them.

Performance date: 9 August 2016

tell me anythingThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

David Ralfe makes his first appearance on stage wearing a large inflatable dolphin on his back. He explains that the creatures are known for helping people in trouble at sea to safety and have become a symbol for carers. He goes on to tell a story about Kate, a teenage girl suffering from anorexia, bulimia and self-harming tendencies, but the show that he has written is not really about Kate at all. It is about the dolphin.

Kate was David’s girlfriend when both were 15. She seemed troubled, so “tell me anything” he said and she did. With her parents oblivious to her problems, he bore the burden alone, being her sole confidante and the only witness to the extent of her mental and physical deterioration. Ralfe repeatedly interrupts Kate’s story with the bland reassurance “it’s not about me”, but his body language, the rhythm of his speech, his anger and his frustration all tell us that his torment is at least the equal of hers.

David does not fully understand what Kate calls her “thinspiration”, but efforts to seek help and guidance – a useless NHS drop-by centre, teachers and, eventually Kate’s father – all fail. Director Christopher Harrisson ensures that the show is much more than a simple monologue, adding sound and visual elements to heighten moods. A low-pitched humming, heard in the background throughout, gets louder at times of tension; upright tubes sit on the floor for David to rearrange frantically, as if trying to soothe his troubled mind or bring some sort of symbolic order to chaos; and subtle lighting changes (designer Alex Fernandes) add to the dramatic effect.

Maybe David’s story is commonplace, not filled with high drama or tragedy, but this show from On The Run Theatre punches well above its weight emotionally. It is constructed lovingly, staged imaginatively and marked throughout by total honesty.

Performance date: 8 August 2016

Photo: Alex Brenner

trh-2

mouse

In recent plays, Daniel Kitson has been pre-occupied with electronic gadgets, which made it seem reasonable to suppose that this one would have something to do with a small object that sits alongside a computer. Not so. We are dealing eith a living, furry creature with a fondness for Toblerone and an ability to communicate eith humans.

William (Kitson) rents a storage unit in which he has spent 12 years writing a story about a lonely woman and the aforementioned mouse. One evening he receives a telephone call in the unit, a wrong number, and to reveal too much of the conversation that follows would be a spoiler. Suffice to say that the play, a mix of comedy, pathos and the supernatural, consists of that conversation with an unseen voice, intercut with Kitson himself telling us about William – he forgot his lines quite a lot at this performance, but he probably does it deliberately.

Kitson as writer and performer is in top form – totally unpredictable, hilarious, moving and perceptive. The material is complex, often making the trivial seem profound, in places like the work of a philosopher. On the other hand, a lot of the fun comes from the niggling suspicion that it could all be utter rubbish. This mouse roars!

Performance date: 7 August 2016

partial nudity

Set in the dressing room of a Northern club, Emily Layton’s 45-minute one act play explores the role of striptease artists in modern culture. Darren (Joe Layton), a lad’s lad from Bolton is here to perform for a hen party, but his outer swagger hides his inexperience and lack of confidence. He is forced to share the dressing room with Nina (Kate Franz), an American student, who is an old hand at the game and self-assured as she prepares to entertain a stag party.

The writer, who also directs, lays the foundations for an amusing rom com, but does not really take the play anywhere and the sparring between the two protagonists is too predictable. Critically, the play takes far too long to get going and, for a piece as short as this, that is a pretty big problem. Towards the end, as Nina educates the naive Darren, there are some astute observations about the hypocrisy of attitudes to sex and gender, but, overall, the play does not bare enough about the world of strippers to be seen as anything more than a lightweight diversion.

Performance date: 7 August 2016

milk

Ross Dunsmore’s debut full length play is a remarkably confident mix of comedy and tragedy, directed with almost dreamlike fluency by Orla O’Loughlin. The narrative has three strands – a war veteran tends for his dying wife, a teacher and his wife nurture their new-born baby and two 14-year-olds fumble their way into the adult world.

The linking theme is sustenance. Baguettes, junk food Mars bars and milk feature in stories that deal with birth, coupling and death. They overlap each other, criss-cross and eventually connect. The three stories are simple in themselves, but, collectively, they say something profound. Funny and heartbreaking in turns, the play builds to a climax that will reduce all but the most hard-hearted to tears.

Performance date: 7 August 2016