Britannia Fury, Hen & Chickens Theatre

2015-05-07 20.33.52 (2)“Never meet your heroes.”

This stark warning from one character to another foreshadows the absurd, disappointing story about to unfold. Part satire, part pantomime, part superhero spin off, Britannia Fury introduces us to Britain’s only real superhero. He is now an elderly alcoholic living in a council flat after his epic rise and consequential fall into obscurity, but a young reporter has located his address and is determined to share his forgotten story with the world. A mix of performance styles and a story that can’t quite seem to determine what it wants to say prevents the concept from developing into a strong script.

Mr Jameson (Kit Smith) is the exaggerated stereotype of an editor of The Daily London Leader. Loud and abrasive, he provides complete contrast to the nervous Charlie (Ethan Loftus), a young reporter not even on Jameson’s radar. Charlie has the scoop of the year and negotiates with Jameson to let him interview 70s and 80s superhero Britannia Fury, who saved the nation from villainy only to mysteriously retire and disappear. Charlie wants to share the story of this forgotten hero with the nation. Loftus plays Charlie naturalistically, with a quiet, geeky passion for Fury. Whilst both Smith and Loftus embody their characters respective styles well, they clash and cause the production concept to look like it lacks direction. The other characters add to the soupy style mash up rather than siding with one of the earlier, established performance styles. Fury (Geoffrey Kirkness) is a mix of stereotype and naturalism, which adds depth but only further confuses the production’s identity. This is an issue with the script and direction rather than the performers, but one that can be solved by the playwright choosing one approach and sticking with it across all the characters.

The storyline, with its clear premise, becomes convoluted as Charlie and Fury meet and delve into his past. There are some predictable plot twists that lead to a tragic end; again, the initial idea has good potential to explore the human condition through Fury’s story but this is glossed over and made light of with comedy and exaggeration. Charlie’s initial shock of meeting his fallen hero is underplayed, then forgotten, but his emotional journey hits some good points. Their interview occasionally drags, as if the play is trying to buy time rather than following the natural narrative arc and getting to the point. As Charlie delves deeper into Fury’s twisted Tory past, it becomes clear that Jameson’s initial warning rings true.

The idea of the fallen hero in modern times certainly has mileage and Hillcrest Artists begin to solidify interpretations of the theme but they don’t quite come to fruition. Is the play about politics? Is it about society’s short attention span? Or, is it smaller and about the relationship between two people? Is it making fun of superheroes? Is it about Fury’s humanity? Really, it is all of these things and more, but for a play not much longer than an hour, this is too much to try to address. There are some touching moments and witty dialogue but underlying substance doesn’t quite materialise in Britannia Fury.

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.

Perfect Lovers, Theatro Technis

Four men, two clocks and all po_N2A6465ssible relationship dynamics meet within different moments, in one bed. Scenes bounce back and forth across time supported by symbolic projections and lighting, each one intimately presenting a different couple combination. Individuals meet and connect for a brief moment in time, then inevitably move on. La Montanya’s Perfect Lovers is a new play that explores the ups, downs and transience of gay relationships, proving they are no different than straight ones. We all seek that perfect relationship even though no such thing exists.

This is the second play by Jazz Martinez-Gamboa. It episodically documents the dysfunctional but well-intentioned connections of four characters at different points in their lives. There was some detailed writing with good instinct for both comedy and pathos. After the first couple of scenes the rhythm settled into a consistency that needed more variation, but the director and actors could solve this easily through delivery. The script is a one act, but its current structure lends itself to easy expansion. It would need more of a plot arc to add variation of pace, and the characters are robust enough to withstand closer examination of their lives.

The performances are generally good, though energy and pace dipped at points. There were too many pauses, though it isn’t clear whether this is due to the script or the direction. Actors Chris Hoskins, Oliver Hewett, Joe Leather and Craig Deucher are a tight ensemble with seemingly natural chemistry. They contrast each other without playing to any particular gay stereotypes; instead they focused on individual loneliness and their characters’ need for meaningful connection.

The design is excellent. Richard Hillier’s lighting design blends seamlessly with Alex Wells’ projections. Two adjacent, synchronised clocks racing through time are a motif influenced by artist Felix Gonzalez Torres, emphasising our own transience as well as the temporary nature of our bonds with others. Characters cling to digital photo albums of their past lovers, friends and families as they continue to search for that perfect man who will change their lives forever. The set is a never-changing bed. An adjacent nightstand becomes more and more cluttered with the characters’ detritus ranging from tea lights ,to cups of tea, to lines of cocaine. The amount of action the room sees results in a set resembling Tracy Emin’s My Bed.

Even though this production can be categorised as LGBT theatre, that is far from its end message, merely a vehicle of communication. These characters could have been straight couples; in fact, it has strong parallels with Patrick Marber’s Closer though without a linear narrative. We are all people: broken, malfunctioning people, who reach for meaning in one another. It rarely works. But that’s what makes us gloriously human, which Martinez-Gamboa presents to audiences as if he stands before us and holds up a mirror.

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.

Iphigenia at Tauris, Rose Theatre

by Lidia Crisafulli

by Lidia Crisafulli

At the far edge of the Rose’s pool that preserves the remains of the original theatre, perches the temple of Diana. Blue and purple lighting reflects in the pool; waves are heard lapping at the shore. This is Iphigenia’s world where she serves as a priestess to the goddess on the island of Tauris, ruled by King Thoas. He loves Iphigenia and respects her wishes, but wants to kill the foreigners who turned up on the coast. She wants to not only save them, but escape with them.

Using rich, imagery-laden language, Goethe has adapted Euripides original tragedy, translated into English by Roy Pascal. The austere, Mediterranean set and rich sound design made this production a soothing but rich sensorial feast that compliments Goethe’s text. Unfortunately, unconnected performances and unvarying delivery from some of the cast who seem to focus more on the sound of their own voices rather than communicating their intentions makes a sleep-inducing affair.

The best work comes from Ben Hale as Iphigenia’s brother Orestes and his lifelong “friend” Pylades (Andrew Strafford-Baker). They contribute vibrant performances and excellent chemistry, a welcome respite from the indulgence presented to the audience prior to their entrance. Pylades’ comforting of Orestes as he is tortured by the furies for murdering his mother is the stuff fanfic is made of, it’s that homoerotic and genuinely lovely. Even though their behaviour is rather laddish (they came to Tauris to steal Diana’s statue from her temple), they are charming, passionate and a joy to watch. Their eventual clash with James Barnes’ Thoas is inevitable, but well contrast against Thoas’ steely reserve.

Title role Iphigenia (Suzanne Marie) is a complex character and could even be considered feminist despite the play premiering in 1779. Her reunion with her brother is underplayed, but her longing for her homeland is clear. She eventually uses her manipulation and womanly charms to talk down Thoas from attacking her brother and Pylades, but none of the character’s power comes across in the delivery that hasn’t altered from her opening speech. Marie shows obvious pleasure at speaking Goethe’s words but gives equal weight to most of them, causing much of meaning to be lost. Her pace could have done with being kicked up a few notches in more urgent situations, but her grief for her family was touching.

The staging was an excellent balance of the foreground and the rear of the archaeological site. It was used enough to not be ignored, but not so much that action was lost. The set and lighting from Diana’s temple along the back wall created plenty of atmosphere, even as a backdrop when the action was on the stage. Director Pamela Schermann worked well with designers Gillian Steventon and Petr Vocka to create such an evocative atmosphere. Sound design by Philip Matejtschuk really ties the rest of the design elements together. The constant waves remind on we are by the sea and perfectly suits the large pool that dominates the Rose. A cinematic soundtrack emphasises moments of conflict or suspense, ending in the start of a storm as Thoas relents. The only design letdown is the costumes. They attempt to replicate Greek tunics and robes, but they are obviously altered t-shirts held in with women’s belts and the footwear is painfully modern. Iphigenia’s flowing gown is beautiful though, and suitable to a temple priestess.

It is a play not staged often and one particularly suited for the unique space of the Rose, so it is disappointing that the lead performance let it down. Fortunately two of the supporting actors add life and energy to a beautifully crafted script. This is one of the most effectively staged productions I’ve encountered at the Rose with thoughtful design elements that can easily become the star of the show.

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.

Chef, Soho Theatre

Chef, Ed Fringe 2014, courtesy Richard Davenport 035“Incredible innit, Food.”

Sabrina Mahfouz’s Chef is a one-woman play in the kitchen of a women’s prison. It’s no Orange is the New Black, though. Jade Anouka’s nameless chef shares her passion for food, recipes and stories of broken families and prison life. Anouka’s captivating, nuanced performance and Mahfouz’s poetic, imagery-filled verse holds the audience’s attention for nearly an hour without faltering.

Anouka’s performance is the primary pillar that supports this production’s success. With an innate musicality and unwavering energy, she balances the character’s true love for her work with the traumatic tales of an abusive father, a shady boyfriend and an incident that happened in her prison kitchen yesterday. Her interpretation both honours and personalises Mahfouz’s character, bringing an infectious optimism to a character that has endured so much hardship. Though this play probably works best in intimate theatres like Soho’s upstairs space, it is a great shame to deny larger numbers of people from seeing her performance.

Mahfouz’s writing is the next pillar that makes this story into a great play. Her use of poetry flips back and forth with street slang and swears, a continual reminder that not all inmates have limited vocabulary or intelligence but still keeps her believable. She gives us a truly human character with all flaws and perfections laid bare. She creates devastating empathy for this unnamed young woman doing so well at rising from the ashes of her childhood by becoming a fine dining head chef, only to be locked away for a crime she swears she didn’t commit. (Though all convicts swear their innocence, don’t they?)

Mahfouz and Anouka have worked together previously, on Chef and another play. These two clearly make a fantastic team, but both are excellent, established artists in their own right. Mahfouz is certainly a playwright to watch out for, and Anouka is a performer not to be missed.

Despite the stellar performance and writing, the scene transitions occasionally felt abrupt. Line delivery and technical transitions could have slowed down slightly, though that may have caused energy levels to drop. Another uncertainty is who the audience is in relation to chef. She is in her kitchen alone. They are not questioning her about her suspected involvement in yesterday’s incident, nor do they seem to be fellow inmates. Anouka addresses directly, so they don’t seem to be in her imagination, either. Her story keeps audience focus nonetheless.

As brilliant as Orange is the New Black is, the vibrancy and depth in Mahfouz and Anouka’s chef makes the show feel shallow and stereotyped. Even though it works excellently as a stand-alone short play, this is a character that should be seen again. This is not a production to skip over, despite its diminutive size and the fact it’s a one-woman show.

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.

Jekyll & Hyde, everything theatre

“…The most immediately striking aspect of this production in the set. The floor and walls are covered in quotes and mathematical equations, floor to ceiling…The set is simple, but effective in evoking Dr Jekyll’s mental torture…

“Rory Fairbairn excellently plays the polite and reserved Dr Jekyll. He easily captures his professional motivation, his fear of Hyde and his love for his friends and family. Especially his relationship with his loving wife Penelope, played by Elizabeth Bryant, is very genuine, which makes her agony over Jekyll’s breakdown truly moving. Her relationship with her father is less credible…

“Wyatt Wendels plays Mr Hyde, Dr Jekyll’s evil alter-ego who is released through Jekyll’s academic research. Always present behind the huge golden frame, he is a constant reminder of the evil within us all. This character needs some refining, though…

“There are a few moments when the staging is effectively used to create suspense and give the audience a scare. Plenty of fog and low lighting add to the spooky atmosphere, but there are plenty of opportunities to make the production scarier that remain untapped, which is a shame particularly in the lead up to Halloween…

“…Some adjustments and development would certainly enhance the experience, but overall Jekyll and Hyde is a fun, creepy play perfectly suited to the chilly autumn nights.”

Read the entire review on everything theatre here.

Mother Courage & Her Children, everything theatre

“Royal Arsenal, a former WWI munitions factory, occupies a huge site bordering the Thames in Woolwich…Teatro Vivo and Greenwich & Lewisham Young People’s Theatre exploit this unique setting to stage an intimate production of Bertolt Brecht’s famous play

“When scene one begins, we meet Mother Courage and her three children who trundle over from the other side of the park with her cart. Mother Courage is played by the excellent Denise Orita, who gives her a more modern, bohemian interpretation with plenty of attitude. Tomi Ogbaro plays her son Eilif and Dane Stephens is her other son, Swiss Cheese…

“Mother Courage’s mute daughter Kattrin, despite being limited to non-speaking vocalisations, evokes the most pity…

“Brechtian staging conventions were adapted effectively by director Sophie Austin. Brecht’s trademark placards are replaced by the Narrator’s jarring interruptions by the loud hailer, providing vital context to a play whose action spans such a large time period.

“There are plenty of songs and the writing leaves us unable to empathise with the cast. Instead, we are disgusted by the world they inhabit and the lack of humanity in the characters themselves…”

Read the entire review on everything theatre here.

Bash, Etcetera Theatre

BashPoster_DetailsNeil Labute’s Bash is a distinctively 1990’s play containing three unrelated parts that are one-act plays in themselves. The component pieces have enough detail to stand alone and have unrelated characters, but a common theme: all of the characters are Mormon and commit horrific acts of violence. True to LaBute’s style, Bash exhibits the depravity that people sink to, despite these characters living on the supposed religious, moral high ground. This two-hander is the debut of Roonagh Productions, founded by Irish actors Stephen Gibbons And Sarah Purcell who perform all roles.

Act one. An unnamed man sits in his hotel room, sipping a glass of water. He has somehow convinced another guest to join him because he needs someone to talk to. What unfolds is the lengthy filicidal monologue from this fellow who seems to have it all: God, a wife, children, a good job. Gibbons initially plays the part nervously, not fully connecting with his character’s guilt. He finally relaxes when he moves onto talking about work and the fear of losing his job, but the first third of the scene had a constant, restrained delivery. When Gibbons connects his family to this prospect, all the pieces fall into place along with his performance. Though he could have more urgency and energy in the beginning of his speech, he eventually captures this calculatingly despicable man and unapologetically lays him at the audience’s feet for their self-righteous consumption.

Act two. A couple from Boston reminisces about a party in New York City they attended when they were students. Sue is sweet and wholesome; John is an all-American frat boy jock. Both characters are stereotypical and two-dimensional. Though there are two characters together on stage, they never talk to each other. Instead, they relay alternating lines to the audience in past tense, which has potential for tedium but Gibbons’ and Purcell’s work is dynamic and keeps the audience interested. John has a murderous, deliberate story similar to the man in first act, but Sue was asleep in the hotel room after the party and only has fond memories of the evening. The religion is more blatant in this story and a driving factor for John and his friend’s actions in a Central Park toilet at an early hour of the morning. The only particular issue in this part of the play is the choice of costume for Sue. If she’s a practicing Mormon, she certainly would not have worn a strapless dress.

Act three. Called “Medea Redux”, this is another monologue featuring Purcell in a police interview. Her story is by far the most complicated and sympathy-inducing but her crime is just as heinous as the previous two. When the woman was thirteen, she and one of her teachers had an ongoing affair; he then abandoned her when she fell pregnant with his child. She was fourteen. Driven to desperation by her lover’s abandonment of her, she repeats Medea’s final act of vengeance. Yes, her crimes are shocking but what is most frustrating is that she was the only character of the three criminals we’ve met who were caught. This is a much meatier role for Purcell, and she performs it with more nuance than she did Sue. This is the most interesting of the three stories, so fitting LaBute saves it for last.

The performances from the two actors are mostly good. There are a few accent slips and Irish intonations here and there, but perhaps not noticeable to British ears. Bash does feel rather dated now, but the writing and the characters are great. It’s an easy production to mount with little set needed, so a wise choice for a debut production. Purcell and Gibbons are older than your average early twenty-somethings thinking it’s cool to start a theatre company so even though there was nothing risky or inventive in this production, it was well done and chosen to suit their types and strengths. Besides, not all theatre has to be revolutionary. As long as its good theatre performed well, it is still to be commended.

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.

Pride & Prejudice, The Scoop

Nothing says summer quite like a spot of outdoor performance with a picnic. The Scoop between Tower Bridge and London Bridge is a great spot for such entertainment: a large amphitheatre on the river, with plenty of shops nearby in which to pick up food and drink to bring to the show. Best of all, the entertainment they lay on for the summer is free. The Pantaloons are at the Scoop for a few days before setting off on their summer tour with an adapted Pride & Prejudice is trademark Pantaloons style.

Fans of the novel and its various film and television incarnations are in for a treat, though this is unlike any Pride & Prejudice ever seen before. Five actors take on all the roles and add narration to keep the story moving at a brisk pace. They are decked in Regency costume other than brightly coloured trainers, capturing the feel of the play: genuine with a touch of playful irreverence. With the addition of improvisation, music and audience interaction, this is a jolly production that captures the joie de vivre of historical popular theatre.

Barring Alex Rivers as Elizabeth, the other actors multi-role, playing the more minor characters as panto caricatures. The Bennett girls’ friend Charlotte Lucas is a shallow, tea-drinking gossip. Christopher Smart is an amusingly pompous and geeky Mr Collins. Both Smart and the other male actor Edward Ferrow occasionally take on female roles, like a more sedate version of panto dames. These lighter moments involve much chatting with the audience and self-mocking any line fluffs. Wisely, the silliness is disregarded in favour of sincerity in the longer, more serious scenes. The show has the perfect balance between silly and serious, following Elizabeth and Darcy’s love story despite the compression of the plot. The entire cast give excellent performances, carrying though the challenge of working outdoors and attacking the script with energy and enthusiasm. They clearly love what they do.

Both audience and performers are relaxed and enjoying themselves. The script mocks more traditional versions of the story, but doesn’t take itself too seriously, either. With the audience free to come and go as well as the feel of a summertime community gathering, the event is reminiscent of The Globe, or a team of travelling players on their summer rounds to places great and small. Which is exactly what The Pantaloons are.

The play runs for about two and a half hours, with an interval. Whilst it is satisfying to see a full-length show for free, it began to feel like it could do with being shorter. Though the Scoop is a great venue, sitting on stone in the Thames wind does get rather uncomfortable after awhile. The length is probably more palatable in a sheltered park with deck chairs or blankets. Condensing the original novel to this length is commendable, but could do with being half an hour shorter. Considering the audience freedom, an interval isn’t particularly necessary either.

As The Pantaloons Pride & Prejudice travels through the country stopping off at scenic estates and venues, it is certainly worth catching this excellent example of summer popular theatre. Bring your friends, family and a picnic, and revel in the community enjoying and celebrating theatre accessable for everyone.

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.

Gypsy, Savoy Theatre

23725_fullWhen you think of musical theatre you think of singing and dancing. Sequins and jazz hands. Sparkling smiles and happiness. More recent musicals have been experimenting hugely with structure and form, but written in the 1950s, Gypsy was ahead of its time. With a focus on the main characters’ journeys rather glitz and glamour, this production creates a new standard for outstanding acting in musical theatre.

Imelda Staunton is without a doubt the star of the show. Rose’s tenacity and gradual unraveling is played with nuance, conviction and unfailing energy. Peter Davison’s Herbie contrasts Rose’s brashness with a quiet devotion, creating a lovely dynamic but that painfully mirrors every failed relationship. Though Lara Pulver’s journey from the shy Louise to the cold Gypsy Rose Lee is inevitable, it taps into the vulnerability of all characters involved. Her naïve devotion completes a charming, though dysfunctional threesome that eventually crumbles. None of these three principal actors relied on hackneyed, two-dimensional characterizations that are so easy to adopt in musical theatre.

The book certainly helps, providing a vigorous, well-constructed skeleton on which the actors lovingly add meat and flesh. The only point when the book lets down the show in the final scene. In this case, the ambiguity is unsatisfying. The show could have ended earlier, when Rose finally comes to terms with her actions, or she could have been left by Louise to face the loneliness of a life alone. Otherwise, this genre-defining book musical holds up wonderfully.

The Savoy is a splendid setting for Gypsy, capturing the grand bygone days of vaudeville and the sort of houses Rose yearns to play. The Savoy juxtaposes the meta-theatrical set of the shabby world of the regional houses Rose’s kids actually play. It’s omnipresent, just out of her reach as a shadow she can’t see properly beyond the footlights, but one that adds to the audience’s visual experience immensely. The sequins and glitter Rose eventually encounters bedeck intimidating, crude burlesque performers signifying the demise of the grand old days of vaudeville and the decent into the more sexualized, desperate world of the Great Depression.

This production is one to see for those people that are not keen on musical theatre but want the experience of brilliant acting and character development. Of course there are songs and dances, but they are not the focal point of the show. This is a musical that brushes the genre, but doesn’t overwhelm with anything other than some of the best British talent gracing the West End musical stage.

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.

Troilus & Cressida, everything theatre

“A single, long table spans the width of the stage, brightly decorated for a party. As the sixteen strong cast conga in and fill the stage, there is clearly something to celebrate. The Trojans are winning the war and Troy is having a party…

“…Pandarus is Cressida’s camp, matchmaking uncle, well played by Matt Butcher. His performance is the best of the production. Troilus (Nicholas Farr) and Cressida (Colette O’Rourke) follow, with a genuine portrayal of young love and devotion…

“The entire cast is onstage for the whole performance, making transitions instant and effectively enhancing the setting…Due to the extensive cuts, fast pace and the constant presence of the ensemble, the smaller roles are rather indistinct…

“Other standout performances come from Charlotte Mafham as Cassandra and CJ de Mooi as Thersites…The rest of the cast deliver the language fluidly and skillfully. Director Ricky Dukes certainly knows how to choose performers with an innate sense for Shakespeare’s linguistic nuances.

“Dukes is an accomplished director, having been running Lazarus Theatre Company for several years. He is committed to approaching and reinventing Shakespeare for modern audiences…If you want to see high-quality, cutting edge fringe Shakespeare, see one of his productions…”

Read the entire review on everything theatre here.