Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), Royal Court

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American, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks doesn’t shy away from epic projects. Six years ago, she wrote a play a day to create 365 Days/365 Plays, then went on to write the nine-part Father Comes Home From the Wars. Parts one, two and three centre around Hero, a strapping young slave on a remote Texan farm. Spanning the Civil War, this epic story with influence from Greek myths and contemporary socio-political issues in Parks’ distinctive, poetic language takes its time to develop and has some discordant stylistic choices, but its narrative and historical interpretation is both compelling and important.

Each of the three parts has moments of profound brilliance and devastation, but Parks is in no rush to tell her story. The dialogue-driven script takes its time, meandering around a complex landscape of slavery, loyalty and race within this particular slave family. Though set in war time, there is little action – broader issues drive the conversation more so than current events. This is more of a kitchen sink drama than a wartime adventure story.

Part one solely takes place on the farm as Hero debates whether or not join his master in battle. The rest of the slaves take bets and try to persuade him one way or the other, but in the back of Hero’s mind is a promise from the Boss-Master – but is he likely to keep his end of the deal? Hero’s loyalty is split between his owner and his wife Penny, but the lure of the cast-off but smart uniform proves too much. Though little happens, the domesticity of part one has some of the tension that precedes a huge decision. Seeing a tall, strapping black man in the prime of his life wearing Confederate greys is most unsettling; this paired with the ingrained, accepted attitude that he is the property of his owner is a potent reminder that there has been insufficient progress in America’s attempts at racial equality.

Part two, though set at a particular moment in the midst of the war, has the calm of an eye of a storm and is by far the best of the three parts. Hero and Boss-Master have captured a Yankee prisoner whilst separated from their regiment during a battle. Hero’s loyalty is tested again, this time by his prisoner upon discovery of a secret that’s hidden in plain sight and only skin deep. Racial identity, individuality and freedom intertwine in an intoxicating allure of potential for Hero, who is still doggedly loyal to his owner. The powerful ending devastates in its frank depiction of ingrained attitudes of racial inferiority and liberal frustration with this mentality.

Part three is the more mature sibling to part one. The characters are older, wiser and more world weary in the face of Southern defeat. The pre-war certainty has given way to a chance at the great unknown of freedom, and for the first time they can choose where they live – anywhere in the great, wide world, or on the farm they have known forever. Penny and Hero’s devotion is destabilised in this irrevocably changed world that is now free, but cold and dangerous – and still is for black Americans today. The morality of freedom isn’t black or white here, but the ominous, thought-provoking grey of Hero’s, (now called Ulysses) uniform.

Neil Patel’s unforgiving desert of a set doesn’t have bells and whistles, but it’s sparsity highlights the richness of Park’s language and characterisation. Steve Toussaint is the remarkable Hero, painted with delicate light and shade. The rest of the cast are excellent in their own right, though lack the development of the initially appropriately-named lead.

Parks’ script is almost completely bedded in realism (that’s occasionally heightened), though a talking pet and some contemporary costumes slightly skew reality. Both are used sparingly and without any evident justification across the three parts so their inclusion feels jarring and unnecessary. The onstage musician, though very much a separate commentator, doesn’t clash the way these choices do.

For a play set during a war and a pivotal moment of America’s history, it is oddly detached from violence and conflict. Instead, Parks’ text goes after deeper themes within this transition from slavery to freedom. Though a greater sense of danger and looming dread would add needed further tension in parts one and two, the nuance that flows through the story is undeniably exquisite.

Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) run through 22 October.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Layla’s Room, Theatre Centre

Layla is fifteen years old. She’s the cleverest girl in her year, writes poetry, and has a supportive mum. The trouble is, her best friend Monica’s got with a proper rude boy who launches a full-on campaign of abuse against Layla. As the bright, happy girl monologues her ordeal around short scenes, the focus splits – though her treatment at the hands of her peers is a horrific primary storyline, other concerns arise. Issues such as body image, friendship, gender pay gap, education, dating and alternative families all find their way into Sabrina Mahfouz’s script. Mahfouz makes Layla a rounded, complex character with potential for numerous stories rather than becoming a single-issue driven vehicle; an excellent cast and supporting characters give the play depth and an appeal to its teenage target audience.

Shanice Sewell plays Layla with vivacity and charm. She is the daughter every mum wants – a good kid with ambition and warmth. Emma White’s Monica is a great foil who, although a girly contrast to Layla’s sporty boyishness, doesn’t alienate audience members who focus more on fitness, fashion and boys than school. Alex Stedman plays several male roles in a skilled display of multi-rolling. There is some lovely chemistry developing between the three actors that is sure to grow as the run goes on.

Though Monica’s choices come with clear moralising, it isn’t too heavy handed. She’s more misguided than a bad girl, demonstrating how easy it is to be lead astray. Her boyfriend Joe is a nasty piece of work, but contrasted by Layla’s doting father and quiet boy Reece, who’s long fancied her. Mahfouz commendably paints almost all of the characters as flawed, but positive – she and Theatre Centre totally get that preaching to kids doesn’t work.

The hour-long running time is spot on for the format. More scenes and fewer speeches would make the piece more dynamic were it longer but as is, it works. Designer Ele Slade’s monochrome set hints at the young people’s London without diminishing their colourful characterisation.

Layla’s Room, though clearly pitched to a teen audience, appeals more widely through its easygoing characterisation and approaching the ideas without condescension. The story is warm and caring, setting realistic examples without over-egging the message.

Layla’s Room tours through 23 November.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Feature: Silent Snacks

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Rejoice! If you are the sort of theatregoer who has signed the Theatre Charter, and is regularly outraged by the appalling behaviour from other audience members who may not have the same high standard of culture or upbringing as yourself, you will adore Today Tix’ latest initiative, Silent Snacks. No longer will you have to endure the incessant rustling of sweet wrappers, the crunch of crisps, the post-coke burps, the mobile phone lights, the whispers, the fidgeting, the breathing, the poor and the young wreaking utter havoc on your evening of cultural consumption in the proper Victorian fashion (I say, what did those Elizabethans know about theatre!). The selection of sophisticated, upper-middle class, white people snacks come delivered in red cloth pouches so at no point in the consumption process will they make a sound that could offend surrounding ears. They also contain enough elite ingredients to satisfy Whole Food shoppers, and are bland enough to not offend Home Counties and Middle England palates.

Available through the Today Tix app, savvy audience members can pre-order this etiquette cure-all that enables guilt free theatre snacking. It’s only too big of a shame that these snacks cannot be forced onto all audience members that dare to eat during a performance, especially the group of urban teenagers who never attended the theatre before.

First on offer are Quiet Pop(corn) bites. A base of ground popcorn and dates creates a truffle-y texture, but with the dates and coconut blossom nectar, they are more sweet than savoury. They don’t particularly taste of popcorn, but neither does any other flavour dominate. They lack a satisfying crunch, but are indeed silent. The crushed popcorn does tend to get in between the teeth, so there is potential for some discomfort until you are able to pick out the offending particles in private – we can’t have teeth picking in the stalls, obviously!

The flawless, leading lady of Silent Snacks are the Muffled Truffles: rich, dark chocolate indulgence. Instead of popcorn, smooth cocoa powder is blended with chewy dates. They are not one for commoners who prefer sweet, milk chocolate and are more substantial than conventional truffles due to the presence of the dates.Very classy and adult, like theatre audiences should be.

Silent Slices are dainty, soft slices of dried pear. Chewy and subtle, these tiny nibbles have no added ingredients and pear is such a delicate flavour that drying greatly diminishes it. Apple with a sprinkle of cinnamon would have a stronger taste, but the pear is less offensive to those with delicate constitutions and aversion to anything stronger than the blandest of foods.

These snacks would not be complete without a suitably refined beverage. The Anti-Gas Lime and Mint drink is a questionably lurid green concoction of grapefruit, lime, mint and water. Oral and anal gas expulsion is banished, as is the risk of noise in opening the container. A branded silicon cup is a smart vehicle through which to show off your culinary choices, despite terrible mouth feel and the bitter flavour of the drink.

Silent Snacks are available for a limited time only though Today Tix, so we can only hope that the entire theatregoing populace uses the app to procure their theatre tickets and sees the error of their noisily munching ways. Though we will mourn their eventual disappearance, we can hope their legacy lives on by serving to return theatre to it’s rightful, middle class audiences.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Party Trap, Shoreditch Town Hall

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Politicians and members of the press are hardly the best of bedfellows. Unrestrained and violent, Ross Sutherland’s Party Trap explodes this relationship in a dystopian TV interview between journalist Sir David Bradley and MP Amanda Barkham after a landmark decision classifying political criticism as hate speech. Sutherland sets himself the challenge of telling his story through a script that’s an extended palindrome – an impressive feat, were it executed with more of a focus on storytelling rather than showing off a clever concept.

The palindromic writing isn’t particularly pronounced; instead it creates a haunting sense of deja vu once the script passes the halfway point. The shift in power and control from David to Amanda, and the action’s dark turn prevents it from turning stale, but the script structure is still more of a hindrance than a help. The language takes precedence over story clarity, so the plot soon muddies. The slightly futuristic premise becomes less and less tenable, to the point that the entire reality of the piece is called into question. There is little solid ground on which to build a sturdy plot line; language isn’t enough even though this experiment is certainly an interesting one.

The performances are one of the biggest disappointments. Cold and detached, they are couched in venomous sarcasm and violence. Simon Hepworth as Sir David Bradley has some nice moments of vulnerability and depth, but these are too little and too late. Otherwise, he and Zara Plessard are ruthless, calculating and distant. Video performances of other characters are relied on to fill in for news broadcasts and line managers with disturbing agendas; these characters are as self-absorbed as the two on stage.

The design elements are unobtrusive and tie the production together well, with Sutherland’s projections and video being particularly slick.There is no question that Party Trap is well-planned and thought out, but the concept is so prominent that it prevents a story from shining through. It’s a worthy experiment, but one that doesn’t work.

Party Trap runs through 1 October.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

dreamplay, Vaults Theatre

August Strindberg’s expressionistic A Dream Play has inspired theatre makers since it’s debut in 1901. In the otherworldly Vaults, BAZ Productions reinvents the innovative work for a modern audience. A collage of loosely connected characters flit back and forth through time and space, never quite fully formed but too visceral to be wholly in the mind. This is no linear, unified world, but one that traverses several planes of existence. Live music and interaction fosters inclusivity, though some of the content is far from warm and cuddly. This dreamplay is certainly surreal and atmospheric, but overly broad themes and the lack of a strong through-line makes for a generalised moodiness that leaves little lasting impact beyond striking imagery.

Laura Moody’s acoustic cello and operatic vocals add richness and depth to the piece, and are the most striking feature of dreamplay. Even the softest tones echo through the Vaults’ tunnels and quite possibly still linger there in the darkness. There is not enough music to form a soundtrack, but any more of her music would cause it to lose its impact.

Four actors form the rest of the ensemble cast who take on multiple roles. With impressive CVs behind each of them, their performances are suitably engrossing even though the script’s scenes deliberately evade connection to others. Jade Ogugua particularly entrances as the non-verbal dancing girl who wears her heart on her sleeve, and Jack Wilkinson’s stage door keeper elicits laughter from his attempts to wrangle defiant performers.

The script has lovely individual moments that are beautifully realised fully formed by director Sarah Bedi, but beyond satisfying visual appetites, it lacks substance. The text draws the audience in, but after we are spit back onto the surface of Lower Marsh, it mostly fades. Flickering images remain as if on deteriorating film stock, but with no coherent message – a disappointing effect after such striking execution, even if this is reminiscent of a dream.

dreamplay runs through 1 October.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Interview: Isley Lynn on Skin a Cat

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The upcoming opening of new venue The Bunker has certainly generated plenty of buzz, but what has excited me most about their debut season is that Rive Productions is bringing back Isley Lynn’s Skin a Cat for a three-week run. Hugely deserving winner of Vault Festival’s Pick of the Year, Skin a Cat is the coming-of-age story of Alana, a young woman who, like most young people, just wants to lose her virginity – but there’s something in the way. I spoke with writer Isley Lynn about the importance of Alana’s story, why stories like hers need to be told and how Lynn is working for more diversity in British theatre.

TPTTUK: Why does Alana’s story need telling?

IL: I’ve always been most interested in telling stories I haven’t heard before. I get so bored and frustrated when I see a show that’s beautifully produced/designed/directed/written/performed but tells me nothing I didn’t already know, or shows me nothing I haven’t seen so many times over. The bar really is so low for new stories – stories about differently abled people, women-centred stories, unconventional stories of anyone non-white, I could go on. Stories that give us new perspective are so important and exciting that I want to spend my time telling them. And the stories about sex – especially first sex – never matched up with my own experiences, so I figured I should tell mine. It really was as simple as that, but that’s also why it’s important.

TPTTUK: You use several dramatic forms and styles in Skin a Cat. Tell me a bit about these choices and the reasons behind them.

IL: To be honest, the play was so easy to write that it came out without too much thought. The stylistic qualities were organic to the material – and I had plenty of lived material to work with! I felt the direct address was important because it allows Alana to be honest and open with the audience in a way she isn’t able to be with the characters onstage with her. In a play about the pressures of how others see you and what effort it is to please, it felt crucial to keep this [play focused on] her story, her testimony, her voice.

So much of the action happens mid-coitus, and I had no idea how to put sex on stage. All credit to our wickedly brilliant director Blythe Stewart for its staging (this was definitely the most fun I’ve ever had in rehearsals, and I’m still impressed with how she managed to create a representational, physical language without resorting to silly hip thrusts).

TPTTUK: What would you like audiences to take away from Skin a Cat?

IL: We only had six performances at the Vault Festival, but after every one I had someone approach me and share their own embarrassing story, or their own experience of sexual shame or difference. That’s exactly the reaction I hope for at the Bunker – I want people to be able to see themselves in Alana’s story, and feel emboldened to talk about their experiences with strangers and friends and loved ones, because that’s the only way we can start to realise how we all “fall short” of the expectations placed on us – and not just with sex, but in so many other areas of our lives – and how unimportant and unhealthy those expectations can be.

TPTTUK: What are the biggest issues in the theatre industry today? Is your work combating them?

IL: I hope I am – I’m trying to. So many of the issues in our industry have their roots in the lack of representation. I’ve already talked about how important it is to have a diversity of stories and that’s a big part of it, but the responsibility for that is at the feet of everyone, not just writers – It’s important to create opportunities for underrepresented people on the stage, but it’s worthless if those individuals are not in a position to take opportunities available to them because they can’t afford to work for low or no pay, for example, or if they couldn’t afford the outrageous drama school audition [fee] in the first place. I have no idea how to fix that with unpaid work being the foundation for any career (certainly mine) and so much the norm.

Often, only people with strong financial support behind them can take full advantage of what’s out there. There are great one-off schemes, and great venues doing their part (like the Hope Theatre with their Equity house agreement on pay), but until the entire industry is a viable career option [for anyone], we won’t have a community that reflects the world we live in, and that’s the primary job of the arts.

TPTTUK: Isley Lynn fans are dying to know: what’s coming up next?

IL: I’ve been working with one of my absolute favourite actors on a one woman show that, if all goes well, should have a life at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe and hopefully beyond. It’s about a English-Egyptian woman who takes up pole dancing when her husband leaves her for the revolution in Cairo. It’s going to be a unique perspective on the battle over women’s bodies and what that means when you have to navigate two very different worlds, when you’re not fully on one side or the other.

Skin a Cat runs 12 October – 5 November.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

The Awakening, Jack Studio Theatre

Johannes, a young man with pronounced learning difficulties, is in solitary confinement for raping and murdering a young girl. The prison captain Agnes, seeing goodness in the boy, introduces him to Christianity and gains permission for him to live and work on a remote island farm. Sadly, her good intentions don’t come to fruition in this story that disintegrates as quickly as its moral compass does. A strong cast of four help ease the discomfort that abuse and structural weakness encourages, though good performances aren’t enough to redeem The Awakening.

Unn (Joana Nastari) lives alone on the farm she runs whilst her brother is at sea fishing most of the year. Keen to have help, she seeks out Agnes for help finding a suitable farmhand. Nastari is the highlight of the show as she delicately guides Unn’s transformation from cold dictator to accommodating teacher; it’s a marvellous transformation despite the character’s questionable ethics. Alex Dowding’s Johannes is charming and innocent, with the added depth of a violent edge that could emerge at any moment. 

Despite the performances, Julian Garner’s script is the problem here. The plot becomes more and more choppy as it goes on, as if Garner cut entire scenes in the last third in order to meet a running time restriction, leaving the whole thing to collapse at sea. The ending offers no resolution or explanation for Unn’s choices, and supporting character Iversen is underwritten and implausible. An interval serves to fragment the story even further and the initial work on relationships to disappear.

The minimalist set by Florence Watts is versatile and indicative of the Scandinavian setting, complimented by Jennifer Rose’s sleek lighting. Director Medelaine Moore captures the rhythm of the scenes well, though she makes some questionable staging choices in the routes through and around the space – they become comical rather than indicative of a location change.

The Awakening feels like the work of an inexperienced playwright, though the production does a fairly good job at realising the characters and ideas that are lightly sketched in the script. It has the potential to be a challenging story; instead it drifts away into nothingness.

The Awakening runs through 24 September.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.