REVIEW! Before I Was A Bear by Eleanor Tindall @ The Bunker Theatre

Directed by Aneesha Srinivasan
Performed by Jacoba Williams
Produced by Salome Wagaine
Presented by Broccoli Arts
12th – 23rd November 2019

The first show I ever saw at The Bunker Theatre was also the first I reviewed for Theatre Box: Devil With The Blue Dress, a play examining the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the light of #metoo. It seems fitting that, as the news is announced that The Bunker will be closing in March 2020 after three and a half years of being an amazing “temporary” theatre space, I should revisit it for a play so thematically similar and so very good.

Cally is a bear. She had a crazy run-in with a famous, hot, charming TV detective actor, responded the way anyone would, and now has any number of problems on her furry paws. She wasn’t always ursine, though – she used to be normal, like you. And that is the beauty of this piece: the life story we’re treated to is, up until that certain point, so very normal and relatable. From her pre-teen years, through adolescence, and into the first tastes of freedom that come with moving out of home, Cally travels through personal trials and tribulations that will sound deeply familiar for anyone in the audience who had the dubious honour of experiencing girlhood and the transition to womanhood. Eleanor Tindall’s crackling writing takes these common themes and treats them with poignancy and humour, showcasing that rare knack of taking the mundane and making it quirky, even deep. The world of schoolgirl friendships, adolescent crushes, celebrity obsessions, and first forays into sexuality are all-consuming and devastatingly impactful to those who are experiencing them, and Tindall offers us a glimpse back into that existence which we all (with varying degrees of thankfulness) have left behind.

Enter Jacoba Williams in Before I Was A Bear. Image courtesy of Tara Rooney

Of course, it’s not all down to Tindall alone. The casting of Jacoba Williams as Cally is excellent: she jumps with perfect precision between childhood vitality, teenaged insecurity, young adult hedonism, and recently-turned-bear angst, always balancing physical and verbal comedy deftly against pathos and piercing social commentary. Director Aneesha Srinivasan brings her own creative flair to the staging, adding even more layers of meaning to an already-fertile script, as do designer Grace Venning and lighting designer Martha Godfrey, with touches that perfectly complement the play’s style and substance.

Before I Was A Bear is inspired by Ovid’s myth of Callisto, a story ripe for modern interpretation through feminist and queer lenses, which is exactly what Tindall has done. The bare bones of the plot are quite true to the source material, and there is little attempt to disguise this (anyone with a basic knowledge of Greek/Roman myth should be able to guess who a character named “Bolt” is based on, and that an affair with this figure probably won’t end well). A number of parallels are more subtle and clever, however – I really enjoyed the subtextual discussion of heteronormativity determining what “counts” as female sexuality, and the sub-inter-textual implications that perhaps Artemis and her gang of gal pals weren’t as platonic as male-dominated academia would have us believe. It is always refreshing to see portrayals of bi women which treat their female trysts as more than just physical (or for the male gaze), and [SPOILER] the theme of redemption through the love of other women – both platonically and romantically – is beautiful.

Jacoba Williams in Before I Was A Bear. Image courtesy of Tara Rooney

Honestly, there is so much to unpick in this one-woman show that I’m wary of writing yet another review-turned-essay here… Cally’s journey is crammed with so many topical topics that it sometimes feels a little heavy-handed, although they are mostly treated with admirable nuance and deftness. (Others remain more obscure – I have some theories about the meaning behind the progressively-revealed voicenote, but I’m not sure how much it really added to the piece.) It’s absolutely the kind of show that you should go and see with your wokest queer feminist artsy theatre friends (these were certainly the types who comprised 90% of the audience on the night I was there, which made me feel very at home) and dissect afterwards over cheap pub wine in order to get the most out of it. This is not to say, however, that you need a degree in Gender Studies or even a Tumblr account to enjoy this show – social philosophising aside, it’s just bloody good dark comedy, masterfully delivered. Make sure you catch it before the run finishes, or the regret may be unbearable.

Tickets

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Previous review: Crisis? What Crisis? @ COLAB Factory

REVIEW! Crisis? What Crisis? @ COLAB Factory

Presented by Parabolic Theatre
Written by Tom Black
Directed by Owen Kingston
Featuring Jaya Baldwin, Tom Black, Zoe Flint, Beth Jay, Owen Kingston, Chloe Mashiter, Christopher Styles, and Angus Woodward
16 November – 8 December 2019

It is the Winter of 1979, or, as the journalists are calling it (to your chagrin), the Winter of Discontent, and the Labour government of which you are a small but essential component is teetering on a knife’s edge; a vote of no-confidence is looming, one that, if lost, will propel That Woman to Downing Street, workers across the country are in uproar, and you have only minutes to prepare for a meeting with George Deakin, one of the country’s most powerful unionists, in an attempt to stem the tide of disastrous industrial action that threatens to sweep your government away.

Crisis What Crisis, Courtesy of Russell Cobb (3)

Image courtesy of Russell Cobb

This is the high stakes pitch at the start of Parabolic Theatre’s latest offering, Crisis? What Crisis? at the Colab Theatre, and the start of a thrilling evening of interactive theatre, live gaming, and bureaucratic insanity.

As you enter the space (a charmingly convincing shabby office, replete with period furnishings, charts and maps galore, and a miniscule television looping historical news footage), you are given your Labour party membership card and it becomes very easy to forget that you are in the back rooms of the Colab Theatre circa 2019. As the experience commences you are adroitly introduced to the world and its dangers; the core areas of engagement are with the Economy, Civil Unrest, and Politics, and it is up to you to decide which you want to tackle. In my journey I started off in Civil Unrest, where I was responsible for brokering our first deal with the unions, and eventually found my way over to the politics area where I spent most of the remainder of the night brokering deals with MPs on both sides of the aisle to ensure their loyalty or defection in the upcoming vote of no confidence. The one I barely touched was Economics, but the its influence was felt keenly in every area as we had to double check any major decisions against the Treasury Index and the looming spectre of spiralling inflation.

Crisis, What Crisis, The Colab Factory, Courtesy of Owen Kingston (2).JPG

Image courtesy of Russell Cobb

If that brief summary sounds confusing and baffling then I have in some part succeeded in communicating the experience of Crisis? What Crisis? to you. There is an awful lot going on in the course of the evening, and you’re likely to only ever catch a small vignette of if, indeed these types of experiences often live as much in the retelling as they do in the moment. Every decision you make sets a line of dominoes falling, and every decision another attendant makes does the same. My understanding is that the crew are in large part administering a monolithic spreadsheet that tracks the various interactions between different parts of the world, all of which they manage to do while also answering countless phone calls and chopping and changing between dozens of different characters. Special mention must go out to all of the performers who do so much to create and define the world, managing to be helpful and informative fixtures without dominating, and infuse a twinkle of humour to every interaction.

Crisis? What Crisis? is not a passive experience, and if you go into the evening with the mindset of your typical West End theatre-goer you are unlikely to get much out of it. As with all such creations, you tend to get out of it what you choose to put in. So jump in the deep end, volunteer for leadership positions, choose something to care about and carve out a niche that you can thrive in. Go in knowing that, as is always the case in such events, those with the most social confidence, self-assuredness, or simply the loudest voices will often come to dominate proceedings; that said, if you do not thrive in high-intensity social interaction or manufactured stress, there are still enjoyable interactions available in quieter corners of the room, and a designated do-not-bother-me sofa space for audience members who feel overwhelmed.

Crisis, What Crisis, The Colab Factory, Courtesy of Owen Kingston (6)

Image courtesy of Russell Cobb

If, however, the brief summary I have been able to give sounds intriguing to you, then I cannot recommend Crisis? What Crisis? highly enough. The experience is tight and engaging, and no two performances will ever be the same (without giving too much away, some friends went to a performance two nights later and had fumbled their way into a much darker timeline than we did). Once again Parabolic Theatre have shown themselves to be among the premier innovators in the hard-to-define world that they inhabit, so avoid a personal crisis and book tickets now.

Tickets

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Previous review: The Play at Eight: The Monkey’s Paw by Storyfleas @ The Space Theatre

REVIEW! The Play at Eight: The Monkey’s Paw by Storyfleas @ The Space Theatre

Written by Jack Williams and Sara Butler
Directed by Matthew Jameson
Featuring Jordan Baker, Becky Coops, Matthew Jameson, Jack Williams, and Matthew Walker
15 – 19 October 2019

I didn’t really know what to expect from this show, as radio has never really been my thing (I don’t even listen to podcasts), I’d never heard of “Foley artistry” in my life, and I’m a huge wuss who usually avoids anything mildly spooky. However, not only did I thoroughly enjoy last Saturday’s matinee performance of The Play at Eight, I even returned for the evening slot!

A radio play within a play, the setting for this show is a radio studio of the 30s, and we the audience its studio audience. At first, the radio sound engineer-slash-announcer (co-writer Jack Williams) was the only one on stage, introducing us to the British Empire Radio Corp, the era, and the aesthetic of pomaded hair and rolled Rs. We listened to pre-recorded advertisements for Alka-seltzer and Zonite until the other cast members emerged. The Director was played by real-life director Matthew Jameson, and the two actors – Nancy and Dick Everett – by Jordan Baker and Becky Coops respectively.

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Becky Coops, Jordan Baker, and Jack Williams in The Play At Eight: The Monkey’s Paw. Photography by Natalia Queirolo.

The Everetts are an unhappily married showbiz couple, a bundle of easy tropes tied together with makeup and snark – he’s an alcoholic and a scoundrel, she’s a gold-digger and a nag. This tired old dynamic was made tolerable to a 2019 audience by the casting of women in both roles; Coops was excellent as the swaggering, bucolic, greasy Dick, even sleazing on an audience member throughout the course of events (yes, I had the honour). Her facial expressions and body language were spot-on, and she modulated her voice so well that I often forgot she wasn’t a middle-aged man with the plummy vowels of the early 20th century. Jordan Baker (with the perfect name for the era) as Nancy also had the accent of the era down pat, along with self-applied makeup and hair styling. Her dramatic flourishes and acidic asides to the audience were delivered with impeccable comic timing, and she did well in bringing layers of performance to an otherwise two-dimensional character.

The three male actors (Jameson, Williams, and sound technician Matthew Walker who has a highly comic cameo as Professor Swan) were clearly having a great time inhabiting their characters, playing off each other with cheeky charisma. The set was furnished by Williams with an assortment of olde-worlde knickknacks, and the authenticity and charm of this play’s dressing – not just the props, but also the lovingly crafted recording booth, and the vintage-style artworks – was a major strength of the production (set and graphic designer Sam Moulsdale is to be congratulated).

After some scene-setting, replete with bubbling tension between the actors and spite-laced practical jokes, the radio play began. The lighting dimmed, with only the two tables (one for the actors, one for the Foley engineer) as islands of illumination. We were urged to close our eyes for full immersion in the radio experience, and the gothic horror tale of The Monkey’s Paw began.

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Matthew Jameson in The Play At Eight: The Monkey’s Paw. Photography by Natalia Queirolo.

This was originally a short story written in 1902 by W. W. Jacobs, and has been adapted for various different media formats over the century since. This version has been edited by Williams and Butler for a smaller cast and to allow for some world-building embellishments. With its imperial British setting, there are a number of rather unfortunate references to “quaint superstitions” and “primitive natives” etc, but I excused these as being relics of Jacobs’ time. However, in researching for this review, I stumbled across the original text from 1903, and was surprised to see that almost none of these now-racist tropes were actually present in the original. Were they added in a later 20th-century adaptation for extra exoticism, or written in by Williams and Butler especially for this Play at Eight? Either way, I would highly recommend reconsidering this for future iterations of the play, as it doesn’t add anything particularly valuable to the performance and is very out of place in a piece of modern writing.

This is part of one of the weaknesses of this show – it is highly entertaining, equal measures funny and spooky, but doesn’t have much weight to it or anything particularly interesting to say. It’s something of a missed opportunity to skirt discussions such as colonialism or repatriation of museum artifacts, particularly with a character from the British Museum! Of course I understand that not every piece of theatre needs to be explicitly political, but questions of race, culture, gender expectations, etc are inherently political and it is simply not enough any longer to portray antiquated attitudes uncritically.

That said, The Play at Eight: The Monkey’s Paw really is jolly good fun, as evidenced by my decision to see it twice! The loving attention to detail, spirited performances by talented actors, and self-aware humour both scripted and improvised, ensure a fun hour. The element of Foley artistry (creation of audio special effects live on stage) was an added bonus, and excellently pitched for entry-level Foley audiences such as myself. I would love to see this piece developed further and taken on tour – if it happens, I’ll be right there in line for a third ticket!

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Previous review: Mission Creep by Bee Scott @ The White Bear Theatre

REVIEW! Mission Creep by Bee Scott @ The White Bear Theatre

Directed by Paul Anthoney
Presented by Controlled Chaos Theatre Company
Featuring Carmella Brown, Charlie Maguire, and Emilia Stawicki
15 – 19 October, 2019

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Tess and Liam are flatmates and best friends, united in queerplatonic solidarity. As the planet hurtles towards destruction, they’re determined to get out alive – their ticket, an alien- and British government-funded programme looking for fertile heterosexual couples willing to procreate amongst aliens, for science. For asexual Tess and bisexual Liam (whose boyfriend is en route to an apocalyptic hedonism cult in Wales), this seems doable; all they have to do is bluff through the interview process and then they’ll figure it out once they’re off-world. Unfortunately, while they concentrate on the immediate plays before them, the powers that be keep shifting the goalposts. How much of their identities are they willing to sacrifice, and is it even possible to draw any lines in the sand of a nuclear wasteland?

The world, we gather, is rapidly disintegrating due to international nuclear strikes, the radiation from which has also rendered large swathes of humanity infertile. While this is a reliable trope (Scott gets the Handmaid’s Tale references out of the way early) and provides decent excuses for several plot points, not attributing the apocalypse even in part to climate change seems something of a missed opportunity in the light of current events. However, the socio-political setting is not the point of this play; Mission Creep shines in its nihilistic humour and its commentary on friendships and the queer experience.

Emilia Stawicki and Charlie Maguire as Tess and Liam are dynamic and relatable, oozing platonic chemistry and that quintessentially millennial anxiety-fueled humour. Stawicki in particular is hilarious as she dials facial expressiveness and physical humour up to 11, making it all the more devastating when emotional trauma shocks her into silence and she retreats into herself. Maguire plays more of the (not-)straight guy to her exaggerated comedy, which is a nice reversal of the usual gender roles, and ties in well with their American-British cultural differences. His reaction to the biphobic barbs thrown about throughout the play is perfectly done – a wince, gritted teeth, and smiles that don’t reach the eyes.

Carmella Brown as Mary – the face of the unnamed company overseeing the Earth side of the interstellar breeding programme – commands the small space of the White Bear Theatre whenever she enters it, stalking the stage like a corporate tiger with red blazer and crisp Scottish accent. It is a pleasure to see her apparent inhumanity built up and then deconstructed throughout the hour’s run time, creating a compelling and complex (if utterly unlikable) antagonist.

Staging, lighting, and sound effects are minimal but effective when deployed, and Paul Anthoney’s deft direction ensures that the space is well-utilised, all movement worked such that audience on both sides of the stage have clear views, yet it still feels natural. It is easy for any low-budget pub theatre to stray into tackiness, and this goes doubly for on-stage sci-fi. However, the standout talent here lies with the playwright, Bee Scott, for embracing two challenging genres (sci-fi and queer theatre) and pulling them off with humour and humanity. What’s more, you don’t need to be a Star Trek fan or gay yourself in order to enjoy Mission Creep – it’s low on technobabble and LGBTQI jargon but high on observational humour, meaning it should be enjoyable by both newcomers to the genre and veterans. I feel lucky to have seen the premier performance of this piece of new theatre. The one piece of constructive criticism I would offer is that the third act could do with some tightening, as the dramatic tension was lost when certain secrets were revealed, and without this through-thread the plot lost its momentum and instead became more of just a series of escalating events. However, I am sure this is something which could easily be reworked for future productions.

Mission Creep is playing at The White Bear Theatre until this Saturday – make sure you’re on that spaceship before it sails!

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Previous review: Gutted by Sharon Byrne @ Churchill Studio, Bromley

REVIEW! Gutted by Sharon Byrne @ Churchill Studio, Bromley

Directed by Chris White
Produced by Vivienne Foster
Cast: Eleanor Byrne, Niamh Finlay and Sarah Hosford
Touring the UK 3rd – 30th October 2019

Gutted follows the vignetted lives of three Irishwomen living in a colourful 1980s Dublin, dark under the looming shadow of the Troubles. Generally speaking, however, our three protagonists are less concerned with sectarian violence than they are with boys, parties and the pursuit and attendance of both. Connected by their shared work at a fish processing factory (introduced in an engaging but slightly too long choreographed sequence portraying the draining monotony of the work) our three leads are Deidre (Naimh Finlay), the youngest and most naïve at fifteen, Delores (Sarah Hosford), barely an adult, from the wrong side of town and desperate to escape, and Breda (Eleanor Byrne), firmly into her twenties and with two children by her dead-beat ex-husband.

The show play out as a series of monologues as the proverbial camera shifts between the three women; when one character is in focus the other two performers become the background characters to their narrative until it is their turn to take up the mantle of storyteller. The performances given by all three of the actors are excellent, as they slip between characters and throw the focus back and forth between each other. The writing too, is sharp, funny and heartbreaking by turns, but the format collapses in on itself slightly, seeming better suited to a twenty-minute performance at a graduation showcase or scratch-night than the full hour that the production stretches to. Any ten-minute part of the play taken in isolation would be quite riveting, and makes the kind of writing actors love to mine for audition monologues, but taken as a whole it lacks the momentum to engage its audience all the way to the conclusion.

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The subject matter is coarse but realistic, though it leans heavily on clichés and tropes that offer little in the way of new insight to women’s experiences: art imitates life and almost all of the trials and tribulations the characters face are grounded in the predatory behaviours and toxic masculinity of the men in their lives. In the interest of content warning, the play deals quite graphically with rape and sexual assault. In the time since the play was first written and staged it is also notable that abortion has been legalised in Ireland, making Gutted, if anything, even more topical than it was when it first saw the stage.

Under the lighting and musical direction of Marty Langthorne, the play is effective in its minimalist, touring set, liberally adorned with lights of all kinds, lampshades and light bars and hanging globes and reading lights, all of which flicker and dim at the needs of the story and are transformed into people and props in the hands of the performers. Delores, Deidre, and Breda’s world is liberally informed by the music of the era, with songs from the parties and clubs the characters attend serving as the glue holding the three narratives together; particular attention is lavished on Soft Cell’s rendition of Tainted Love which weaves in and out of the play as an anthem reflective of all three character’s experiences.

Although there’s a lot of Irish theatre out there, the voices of young working class women are often conspicuously absent on the stage, or confined to the roles of love interest; it’s always refreshing to hear social experiences from a new perspective. If you are interested in seeing some excellent performances by some compelling young actors, get yourself a ticket to one of Gutted‘s touring locations before the end of the season.

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Previous review: Red Palace by Shotgun Carousel @ The Vaults

REVIEW! Red Palace by Shotgun Carousel @ The Vaults

Concept & Creative Producer: Laura Drake Chambers
Director: Celine Lowenthal
Writer: Cressida Peever
24th September 2019 – 12th January 2020

 

Images courtesy of Nic Kane Photography

A new immersive theatre/dining experience has taken over the labyrinthine Vaults Theatre for the rest of 2019: welcome to the Red Palace, a world of gothic delights and fanciful frights. Right now there’s a popular trend of re-imagining and remixing classic fairy-tales and fables, and Red Palace is an excellent example of this genre. Throughout the duration of an evening, your favourite childhood stories collide with snippets of more obscure folklore, their characters weaving together to play with and subvert assumptions and tropes. At the centre of it all is the Prince, your host in the palace – and the subject of an ominous prophecy…

I love cabaret, I love modern reinventions of fairy-tales, I love immersive theatre, and I love fancy dress, so in attending this show (and dragging two friends along with me) I was very much aware that I’d set myself up to be disappointed… and was pleasantly surprised not to be! It really was magical to explore the various chambers and meet their weird and wonderful inhabitants. Characters included Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf, Baba Yaga, Hansel and Gretel, and others I don’t want to give away (judging by the cast list, there were also a number whom I didn’t encounter, so perhaps I’ll have to go back for them during the run). These are not the folks you remember from childhood storybooks, however, they’ve grown up and had a makeover for 2019; Hansel is running a bar, Gretel is a cabaret performer, Snow White seems straight off TOWIE, and Little Red is basically a cross between Katniss Everdeen and a GoT wildling (with some serious childhood trauma). The cast multi-roles throughout the run so you may see very different versions of these characters to the ones I did, but I would like to make particular mention of a few performers:

  • Emer Dineen as Gretel, who effortlessly embodied the roles of barmaid, compere, cabaret performer, landlord, and palace gossip. She made us chuckle, gasp, whistle, cheer, and damn near cry when at dark secret was uncovered… Excellent displays of bravado, vulnerability, and sexiness, in all the right places.
  • Alice Morgan-Richards as Snow, who welcomed us into her “boudoir” for a pyjama party extraordinaire, complete with girl talk, a lesson in dance choreography, oodles of the colour pink, and a mystery party-crasher… Morgan-Richards absolutely threw herself into the role with joyful abandon, utterly shamelessly embracing the caricature and ensuring a fun time for all involved.
  • Joanna Vymeris as Cat, whose every movement evoked the supple and sinewy flexibility of a feline, and who managed to be both alluring and creepy at the same time.
  • Ella Prendergast as a character I shan’t name, who somehow has the act of awkward bumbling middle-aged male inventor down pat, despite being a very attractive young woman. In a cameo appearance in another character’s episode, she also went on to win hearts as a desperately hopeless Hugh Grant-esque would-be lover.

Images courtesy of Nic Kane Photography

The rest of the cast (all women and non-binary performers, what’s more) were also fabulous, whether holding court in their own domains or weaving through others’ stories to tie the overarching plot together. It must have been difficult to balance these performances with the logistical responsibilities of chivying groups of audience members along to their next destinations, but they remained confident and commanding at all times. The costume and set designer, Maeve Black, also deserves the highest of kudos not only for her magnificent costumes, but also for her bewitching transformation of these Vault spaces (which go by names such as “The Bricky One”, “The Long Wet One”, “The Short Wet One”, etc) into sets such as a fortune-teller’s tent, a bathhouse, a dark and dank forest, a prison cell, and more. Such vision and attention to detail is particularly crucial in immersive theatre, and doubly so when the show is centred around such sumptuous decadence and sensuality as Red Palace!

So, why didn’t this piece get the elusive five-star rating from me? Well, in short, it suffers from the teething problems which plague all immersive theatre productions, as it’s impossible to really know what works and what doesn’t until you start getting audiences through. Areas for improvement include:

  •  The “escape room” element of the prison cell. It was just far too easy! I already had the answer from moments after we stepped in thanks to some telltale dialogue, and had to bite my tongue to stop myself from giving it away too early.
  • The justification for it being a masquerade. This wasn’t woven into the plot quite convincingly enough, and as a result felt like quite a hollow pretext for an aesthetic choice. I think the “prophecy” could easily be expanded by a few words in order to give the Prince a clearer reason for demanding masks on all guests.
  • The audience interaction. Again, this is a common bugbear for immersive theatre: how do you involve the audience, while still remaining in control? Some audience involvement in Red Palace did successfully toe that line (for example, the “party trick” bit in the Gingerbread House), but when asked by one character to deliver a message to another, it became very obvious that our doing so did not actually have any effect on events. Perhaps a few additional mini-scenes could be written as character responses to such code words, or small items or tokens given to audience members, to achieve more of a feeling of having influenced the scene? As it is, it feels more like promenade theatre in a random order. Which brings me to…
  • The logistics of moving from scene to scene. This often involved queuing in front of stage spaces, with an usher ready to let us in at the allotted time, and somewhat disrupted the immersion. I have to compare this unfavourably to the smoothness of the Great Gatsby immersive experience, though I understand the mechanics were different there, as the scenes progressed through a plot rather than simply resetting.

Images courtesy of Nic Kane Photography

 

It’s also worth mentioning that Red Palace also offers a dining experience, which starts an hour earlier than the rest of the show and includes a three-course meal by Annie McKenzie of Masterchef fame, a complimentary glass of bubbly, and exclusive seating and performances. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it in time for this dinner, but I did see some poisonous green toffee apples on their way to being served, and they looked pretty appealing, not to mention apropos!

I realise I’ve hit 1000 words with this review already and risk a telling-off from the Theatre Box site manager, so I’ll have to skip dissecting the meta-plot and its themes, as well as aesthetic references to Poe and Atwood. The last point I really want to make is this: tickets for Red Palace start at £18, and if that’s not a bargain, then I don’t know what it is. London, this is your chance to experience some magical theatre and have a ball while doing it (pun intended). Don’t wait until the clock strikes twelve!

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Tickets and more information here.

Previous review: Baby @ Bread and Roses Theatre, Clapham Fringe

 

REVIEW! Hitler’s Tasters by Michelle Kholos Brooks @ The Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Directed by Sarah Norris
Presented by New Light Theater Project
Greenside (Infirmary Street)

2nd – 24th August

Mary Katherine Kopp, Kaitlin Paige Longoria, and Hallie Griffin in Hitler’s Tasters. Image courtesy of Hunter Canning

Here’s the thing: for undergrad, I did a triple major in History, German Language & Culture, and Theatre Studies. Has this combination ever really come in useful? Until now, no, but when I saw the description of this show, I thought my moment had finally come. As it turned out, you don’t really need to know that much about German or History to understand Hitler’s Tasters. This disappointed me a little (as well, I suspect, as the American lady in the queue in front of me who promised her son that this would be an historically educational experience), but even if there wasn’t too much there to stimulate my German/History nerdery, it was still an engaging and technically interesting piece of theatre.

A new play by American playwright Michelle Kholos Brooks, Hitler’s Tasters follows the story of four girls – Hilda, Margot, Anna, and Liesel – who were conscripted to serve their country as tasters for the Fuehrer. It is true that there were a number of such women during WWII who were selected for this role of sampling all Hitler’s meals before he touched them, to check that the food was safe from poison, and one of them (the only survivor) was called Margot; but that’s about as far as the historical accuracy of this play stretches. Everything else is highly stylised invention, dressed in a superficial understanding of German history and culture.

This lack of historical accuracy, however, is something embraced by the play, which is more focused on exploring a thematic concept. To this end, it merges a historical setting with very modern elements, to create a strangely effective atmosphere of timelessness. The girls snap selfies on their phones and then gossip about the attractiveness of Clark Gable; they dance frenetically to electronic pop, then fret over how Aryan they are, and how marriageable. They spend interminably slow hours locked in a room, waiting for symptoms of poison to manifest, and they fill this time with exactly what you’d expect of teenaged girls from any era. They snipe, gossip, play Truth or Dare, braid each other’s hair, swap confessions and fears, philosophise about life and death, and descend into giggling fits of ecstasy over male celebrities. There are power plays, spiteful insults, and betrayals… as well as declarations of sisterhood and support. Each girl is given a distinctive personality, which the talented actors fine-tune and portray with skill. There is an interesting interplay between stereotypical teenaged girl cattiness and the undercurrents of very real  social danger – the knowledge hanging in the air that if one of these girls were to turn on another and report her for social non-conformity, the consequences would be much more serious than the normal high school ostracism.

Image courtesy of Hunter Canning

At first I found it a very distracting stylistic choice to have all the girls speak in heavy American accents, with heightened “valley girl” vocal inflections. I reasoned that it was probably to help the audience draw parallels with modern pop culture texts such as Mean Girls, and the image of the millennial teenaged girl which is distilled in its most concentrated and exaggerated form in American media. Upon realising that it was an entirely American production, with American actors and having toured in America, I now wonder if this was simply intended to be a functionally invisible accent choice, as Southern English accents probably would be if it were a British production. If so, that’s an interesting side effect of having taken the play trans-Atlantic, and not necessarily a negative one. I would, however, advise that the director and cast should do a quick bit of research into the pronunciation of those occasional German words sprinkled throughout – mainly for “father” and “mother” – as they sounded quite ridiculous spoken in American.

A stylistic choice that I did really enjoy was the abstract nature of the framing scenes; these were used to represent the actual meal tasting, which was presented as highly ritualised, with slickly choreographed physical movement and unsettling sound and lighting effects (kudos here to choreographer Ashlee Wasmund and production manager Christina Tang). Overall, the production values of this show were excellent, maintaining a consistent high quality throughout, from usage of the stage space through to the costume design. Sarah Norris is to be congratulated on her tight direction and evocative interpretation of the text. It is particularly relevant to us today to be reminded that fascism and far-right brainwashing can happen so insidiously that the end results just look like normal people; these young girls are both victim and complicit, and remain emphatically human throughout.

Kaitlin Paige Longoria and Hallie Griffin in Hitler’s Tasters. Image courtesy of Hunter Canning

Overall, I do realise that my gripes with Hitler’s Tasters are very subjective, and largely due to expectations of historical interest which the show never actually promised me. In the end, I’m sure the young boy in front of me in the line learned some snippets of history – even if it was just that Hitler was a vegetarian and loved his dog, that teaches the important lesson that evil doesn’t always seem it. Even though I think there was a missed opportunity for more historical, political, and social complexity within the text, this play still demonstrates the importance of empathy and trust, independent thinking, and bravery.

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Previous review: Knot by Nikki & JD @ The Edinburgh Fringe Festival

REVIEW! Knot by Nikki & JD @ The Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Directed by Jean-Daniel Broussé, Nikki Rummer, and Rosamond Martin
Produced by Jacksons Lane 

Presented at the Assembly Roxy (Upstairs)
31st July – 25th August

Knot is a show about relationships. It is about relationships of all kind, romantic, platonic, professional, about the blurred lines between them and the lies we tell ourselves and each other in the pursuit and preservation of them, or in the creation of an interesting and credible piece of Fringe dance theatre.

The show is an excellent example of dance, acrobatics and circus skills by its two compelling performers, American Nikki Rummer and Frenchman JD Broussé. We are introduced to our two characters, playing heightened versions of themselves, as we find out how they met and began their relationship. But everything is not as it seems between our partners, as is explored over the subsequent hour of intense dance segments interspersed with minimalistic but effective monologues and duologues.

Nikki and JD - courtesy of David White  (2).jpg

Photo by David White

Particularly charming and enjoyable are the stylised, choreographed “fight” scenes between Nikki and JD, as they revert to child-like physicality, with all the pettiness and vindictiveness that youth can bring.

There is very little to this production from a technical standpoint. The stage is an entirely unadorned black box, there is nothing in the way of set or props (excepting the microphones the performers both use intermittently), they wear the simplest, most practical clothing (tight, acrobats’ garb in neutral colours), and the music is effective but unobtrusive, leaving nothing to distract the audience from the phenomenal acrobatic abilities of the performers. Were JD and Nikki less exceptional performers, the simplicity of the show that is built around them would be a detriment, but as it stands it places the focus exclusively where it should be.

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Photo by Laurent Cahu

This is unapologetically a piece of physical theatre, centring the bodies of its performers and the extraordinary things they can do with them. The narrative framing and snippets of acting accentuate and amplify the physical performances, and the emotion and nuance Nikki and JD are able to infuse into their dance and acrobatics all feeds back into the spoken segment. On their own, neither the physical performance nor the dialogue would make for a particularly engrossing show, but in combination they create an experience that is greater than the sum of its parts. Knot is not the most mind-blowing circus show you will see this Fringe, and it is not trying to be; but it is physically impressive, entertaining, and quietly subversive in its honesty.

This show may not, however, be the best introduction to physical theatre for the uninitiated. Its stark and minimalistic style does not give a viewer uncertain of their level of interest in the form a lot to hang onto. But for audiences with an established interest in acrobatics, dance, circus or physical theatre, Knot is a clean, crisp delight, an excellent palate cleanser between the often ostentatious and over-the-top norm of the Edinburgh Fringe.

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Previous review: Four Woke Baes by Jonathan Caren @ The Edinburgh Fringe Festival

REVIEW! Four Woke Baes by Jonathan Caren @ The Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Directed by Teddy Bergman
Produced by Hidden People and Something for the Weekend
Featuring Lyndsy Fonseca, Michael Braun, Matt Stadelmann, Quincey Dunn-Baker, and Noah Bean
Underbelly Cowgate (Belly Button)
1st – 25th August

With its faux-trendy, twitter friendly title it’s clear that Jonathan Caren’s Four Woke Baes wants to present itself as a funny, incisive examination of modern masculinity, its foibles, contradictions and conflicts. What it is instead is a fairly mundane comedy that embraces tropes and stereotypes of the “battle of the sexes” comedies that more belong in a past two decades gone than they do in 2019.

Dez (Noah Bean) is getting married, an occasion being marked by a bachelor party camping trip in the American wilderness with his three best friends, the bro-ish womaniser Boardman (Quincy Dunn-Baker), the neurotic vegan Sean (Matt Stadelmann), and the nine-year-marriage veteran Andre (Michael Braun). The drama comes when Emma (Lyndsy Fonseca), a provocative and beautiful nu-wave author, turns up, informs them that they are in her campsite, and begrudgingly agrees to share it.

Four Woke Baes (Courtesy of Karla Gowlett) (7) Noah Bean, Michael Braun, Quincey Dunn Baker and Matt Stadelmann.jpg

Photo by Karla Gowlett

Over the course of seventy five minutes, the failings of the four “woke baes” are revealed, and the apparent hollowness of their supposed progressive views laid bare. The problem is that the four baes are never shown to be particularly woke in the first place, giving them no high ground from which to fall, and all of their missteps are straw-mannishly contrived.

Credit must be given to Teddy Bergman’s direction of his cast, who make excellent work of the text. The various chemistries, romantic and bromantic, are believable, and the scenes themselves crackle along at a heady pace. Any ten minute snippet of the production could have easily been a pedestrian excerpt from a far more interesting show, but put all together the text is unable to support the skills of its actors.

Four Woke Baes (Courtesy of Karla Gowlett) (12) Quincey Dunn Baker, Noah Bean, Michael Braun and Matt Stadelmann.jpg

Photo by Karla Gowlett

With almost clockwork regularity every character has a twist, revelation or moment of character assassination that supposedly undercuts them or relationships in some way, I suppose to show the futility of attempting integrity in the modern world. The problem is that these beats never feel earned, so the next fifteen minutes of the play are spent justifying them post hoc, just in time for the next revelation to emerge and begin the cycle again. The show creates a cast of cliches and stereotypes, sets them up to fail, and then attempts to pass off passé cynicism as wisdom when they inevitably do.

But for the title and the occasional reference to Instagram or some other artifice of modern life, this play seems like an unwieldy transplant from the early 2000s, replete with manic pixie dream girl. Furthermore, for a show supposedly about “wokeness” it does an excellent job of objectifying its only female character, both in its centring of her as a sex object, and as a narrative one who exists only to facilitate the emotional journeys of the more fully realised male characters.

Four Woke Baes (Courtesy of Karla Gowlett) (11) Noah Bean and Lyndsy Fonseca.jpg

Photo by Karla Gowlett

In short this is a play about “wokeness” that seems to be written by someone who has heard of the concept but doesn’t actually understand what it is. One can claim satire, or irony, or provocativeness all one wants, but with such hollow lip service paid to its central conceit, such assertions inevitably ring false. The show is overtly heterosexual, white (the one non-white member of the cast was inhabiting the most cliched, American suburban, white picket fence character), and middle class; the very mention of feminism is almost a punch-line and speedily glossed over, where I was expecting earnest declarations of allyship from the baes, perhaps a misapplied “#metoo”.

I was excited by the idea of the show I thought I was seeing when I went into Four Woke Baes, but the truth of the performance did not live up to the promise of its title or its marketing copy. If you are looking for some idle entertainment, and the chance to recognise faces among the cast from American television, then Four Woke Baes is a decent enough way to pass an hour or so at the Fringe. Indeed, sitting in the theatre I was mostly enjoying myself, but with some distance from the show and the chance to reflect on its text and themes, even the excellent individual performances by the cast cannot hide its manifold flaws.

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Previous review: Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein @ Edinburgh Fringe Festival

REVIEW! Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein @ Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Presented by Underbelly and Manual Cinema
McEwan Hall, Bristo Square
31st July – 26th August 2019

I went into Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein having, as usual, done no prior research and with nothing but a vague preconception that as the description had included “shadow puppets” it’d probably be something quite small – cute and dinky. Upon entering the McEwan Hall, I instantly realised I was way off base. The domed hall is used for University of Edinburgh graduations, is decorated in Italian Renaissance style, and is huge (especially in comparison to most Fringe venues). The raked seating commanded a good view of the stage, cluttered with all sorts of technical paraphernalia, some of it quite weird and wonderful – very appropriate, given the story it would be used to tell. There were two large screens, one facing the audience and one perpendicular to us, a row of old-school overhead projectors, a camera, a number of musical instruments, and various seemingly random props. Then the house lights went down, and the show began.

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Photo by Michael Brosilow

It is so difficult to describe the breathtaking creative genius of this show, the mixture of art and technology, magic and science. Manual cinema really does seem the best description for it – we watched a film projected onto a big screen, while simultaneously watching it being created live on stage in front of us. It felt like watching a master pianist play the most exquisite symphony on a transparent piano, with all the inner workings laid bare. The end product, the film shown on the big screen, was elegantly beautiful in itself, but watching the cogs of the machine work with such perfect precision and ingenuity transformed the experience into something truly awe-inspiring.

The work takes the form of a story-within-a-story; we are first introduced to Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley, a novelist, pregnant and struggling to find artistic inspiration. Her husband, Percy, is a poet who loves his wife but unwittingly creates distance between them due to his devotion to his art. When Mary delivers her baby (“Clara”), she is overwhelmed with wonder at it as well as nervousness at the prospect of motherhood. When the baby dies unexpectedly in the night, it wounds her deeply, and creates a morbid preoccupation with death, the creation of life, and the deep bond between parent and child. Months later, on holiday in Geneva with her husband and Lord Byron, Mary enters into a competition with them to write a ghost story – and a nightmarish vision of her baby, reanimated in a flash of lightning, gives birth to the story which is said to have been the fore-runner to all sci-fi and gothic horror.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

I should note here: all of this is told without any dialogue, in black and white, with only silhouettic figures, using a bewitching blend of paper shadow puppetry and live actors, with soundscapes and backing music created onstage by live musicians. It is, frankly, exquisite. But as we now move into the secondary story – that of Frankenstein itself – another element is added into the mix: our actors (all women) move to the other side of the projection screen, and begin lending their faces as well as their silhouettes to the artwork in front of us. Mary undergoes a quick costume change to become her creation, Victor Frankenstein, and we step into his story. Eventually, a tertiary storyline and art style emerges, following the perspective of Frankenstein’s monster himself, brought to life as a physical puppet. The three storylines intertwine with incredible poignancy, drama, and just the right amount of gruesomeness.

Manual Cinema has taken some liberties with both history (Shelley wrote Frankenstein before her marriage to Percy, and Clara was her third child, not the first one who died in the night) and the tale of Frankenstein, but I doubt this will bother avid Frankenstein fans given how achingly true it is to the messages and sentiment of the original novel. The lack of dialogue, the old-fashioned silent movie stylings, the mechanical genius, the emotional depth, the melodramatic rendering, and the underlying mysticism make this quite possibly the best interpretation of the classic text ever to have been made (yep, I just said that). If you are at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year, you simply must see it (ignore the silly corniness of the posters, they’re a bad representation of this beautiful piece of art). In this production, Manual Cinema has brought life to a truly miraculous creation.

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Manual Cinema’s ‘Frankenstein’ Official Edinburgh 2019 Trailer from Manual Cinema on Vimeo.

Previous review: Mating in Captivity @ The King’s Head Theatre