Jekyll & Hyde, Platform Theatre

4404a479-e69a-4d92-9600-3d8eb075ff6c-1390x2040Giant red paper lanterns float over a smoky Victorian London alleyway. Six actors in western clothes and eastern whiteface also marry East and West in what initially promises to be a vibrant, transnational reimagining of R. L. Stevenson’s gothic novel Jekyll & Hyde. With the addition of a female Jekyll and a textual deconstruction that incorporates a range of performance styles, there is a lot to process in Jonathan Holloway’s script and staging. Whilst each individual choice has merit, none are fully explored due to the overwhelming array of influences Holloway employs. The sum total creates a muddy hodge-podge of ideas rather less substantial than a focus on the development of one or two of them.

The show begins away from Stevenson’s story, with an older man in Chinese dress (who is not Chinese) sharing the discovery of a wonderful but horrific tale he wants to sell to a young woman in1920s dress, presumably a publisher. To pique her interest, he begins to tell the story contained in the tome’s pages. This unnamed pair reappear regularly as the story is acted out to the audience, using narration to preempt the action and distance the audience by reminding them it is indeed a story. This is one of several Brechtian devices employed; even though it is a useful one in plays addressing social issues, it is unclear what element of the story the alienation is meant to highlight and any contemporary social relevance.

The story that plays out from the old man’s book is the more traditional Victorian story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but Jekyll is a woman from Eastern Europe and the only woman doctor in the UK. It’s initially a great feminist touch, but the sex-crazed, manipulative Jekyll is hardly an empowering, feminist character. Having escaped war in her home country, she comes to London alone and uses her research to transform into a man. Though well-played by the physically expressive Olivia Winteringham, the character lacks depth and wears a costume that looks like it was put together in Camden Market rather than a costume workshop.

The set and lighting by Neil Irish are fantastic, though. Coordinated to create a horror film effect during particularly disturbing moments, they sumptuously support Holloway’s staging. Jon Nicholls’ sound design is atmospheric and sinister, well integrated with the other production elements. The costumes are somewhat inconsistent, with the men’s outfits appearing more historically accurate than the women’s. It is unsurprising that no costume designer credited.

The performances vary, with one of Chinese actors occasionally struggling to connect to the meaning in the language, creating unintended comedy. As this is a production incorporating two cultures, why shy away from using two languages? Other than a brief bit of either Cantonese or Mandarin at the start, the rest is in English. The story is well known enough to support a mix of languages, though with the melodrama, physical theatre, expressionism and naturalism already present, this would add further excess. As is, this adaptation feels predominantly English, with some East Asian design influence and a couple of Chinese performers. Though gorgeous to look at, the production never quite found the substance behind the façade.

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Greywing House, everything theatre

“One-person shows are extremely hard to create and perform effectively. It’s easy for them to be too long, too boring, too bizarre, too indulgent or too lots of other things. Greywing House uses poetic writing and language, puppetry and movement to craft a narrative that gradually exposes the otherworldly realities of coastal Greywing House and its proprietor, Miss Amelia…

“Miss Amelia is the epitome of polite restraint, akin to a 1950’s housewife…Mary Beth Morossa, the creator of the show, plays her with detail and sensitivity.

“The play mostly consists of lengthy monologues where we learn about Miss Amelia’s unfortunate family history…Most captivating are two tales told through puppetry…These are the most visual aspects of the show and excellent examples of storytelling…

“Morossa has an obvious gift for writing. She uses vivid imagery and poetry to draw in the audience. She tells the story clearly and with an effective narrative structure. There are moments of surprise and ambiguity that leave the audience questioning what is real and what is the product of madness. However, it is slow to develop…

“This is a one-person show that is not without potential but still needs development. Having debuted at the London Horror Festival last year, its creepiness works any time of year…”

Read the entire everything theatre review here.

Loaded, everything theatre

“…Loaded by David Brown, a one act play that has been around since 1998, still has the feel of new writing and is certainly innovative. Pete runs a garage, Mick and Hud are his employees. Carol is a firecracker who turns everything on its head whenever she drops by. The four characters’ hopelessness and desperation still rings true as they come up with moneymaking schemes and navigate doomed relationships in a dead-end job.

“The defining feature of this play is the writing…My favourite line is near the end, in a moment between on-and-off couple Pete and Carol. Carol comes to the garage after ditching Pete the night before in favour of having sex for money. When Pete confronts her, her brief but brutal response is, ‘I fuck other people because they aren’t you’…

“All of the performances are excellent. The sole female role, Carol (Gemma Paget), has a rock hard, mouthy exterior but we soon see this is because she is completely unable to cope with the failure that is her life…Pete (Andrew Murton), Mick (Nick Rogers) and Hud (Christopher Ward) all have very distinct characters that somehow manage to simultaneously clash and compliment each other…

“…Director Sean McGrath has great skill at bringing out the subtext and power struggles in the extremely masculine language. He also manages to finding touching moments of intimacy between these incredibly damaged people…

Read the entire review on everything theatre here.

Do We Do the Right Thing?, everything theatre

“…Having read the programme whilst waiting to enter the theatre, I looked out for the actors’ earpieces.

“This performance relies on a form of verbatim theatre called, “recorded delivery.” The programme explains this is when, “recordings of the actual interview are played to the actors in earpieces on stage during the performance. Rather than learning lines, the actors respond to the material during the performance and retell their interviewees’ stories word-by-word and breath-by-breath.”…

“The structure of the play consists of fragments of interviews with people affected by war, past and present. It also hears from some people who live in Wootton Bassett…The problem here was that the individual stories had scope for an excellent narrative on their own, but the numerous excerpts did not allow for any of the characters to have a substantial journey…

“The main issue with this play is that it tries to say too much and in doing so, says very little. Author Neil Walker writes this is, “a play which raises the broader issues about acts of remembrance, the public’s relationship with the military and war, father-son relationships and individual identity. The play poses important questions about the ripple effect of loss through military conflict and what happens post-2014…” A one-act play needs only to examine one of these themes…”

Read the entire review on everything theatre here.

Gorilla, Polka Theatre

Gorilla Revival - Polka TheatreHannah is a little girl that loves gorillas. She spends all day drawing them, watching programmes about them, and talking about them. She tries to share her love for these wonderful animals with her dad, but he’s too busy. Then, on the night of her birthday she received a small toy gorilla that comes to life and takes her on an adventure, teaching her about kindness and gratitude, and her dad then gives her the best birthday ever. This classic children’s book, Gorilla, is charmingly brought to life with two actors, two puppets and a detailed but lo-tech set for children aged four to eight at Polka Theatre.

The story is a wonderful little adventure, executed quietly and calmly, without special effects and updating to reflect present day. Even the music sounds like it comes from a 1970s lounge bar. Initially I found it all terribly old fashioned, but considering the technology children are bombarded with today, it makes a refreshing change and reminds us that children don’t need an ipad and hi-tech toys to entertain them by the time they’re 3. After Hannah’s introduction, the sequence to establish her day-to-day routine and dad’s busyness is rather repetitive; the children in the audience became a bit fidgety and chatty. Once Hannah’s birthday arrives and the adventure begins through puppet versions of the characters, the audience of little ones becomes quiet and focused. Set changes tend towards the lengthy side, but the reveals that come from the set flips, rope tugs and lighting changes are choreographic in and of themselves.

The puppets suit the design of the set, old fashioned but still detailed and expressive. Actors Ceri Ashcroft and Phil Yarrow are good, with lovely chemistry, though at times it was hard to hear Ashcroft during the songs. The barometer for children’s theatre is the children in the audience though, and these maintained a steady focus once Hannah and her gorilla friend meet. They took some time to settle and weren’t grasped by the beginning exposition, but the rest of the play more than compensated.

There were some lovely staging choices by director Roman Stefanski. Particularly notable are the puppets coming into the audience as it transformed into a cinema and watching the audience as zoo animals from outside the bars of the cage. Transforming the human sized set into a puppet sized one also enchanted the audience, both adult and child. This is particularly praise-worthy as the transitions were quite lengthy and all changes (or most of them) looked operated solely by the performers.

This was my first visit to the Polka. What I found most disappointing was that the house was only half full. The theatre could certainly do with the revenue full houses generate, and this production makes a refreshing change from the fancy bells and whistles of West End family shows. The building emanates a warm sense of community that local families should enjoy more often, and it’s a break from fast and loud modern life. After all, people my age and older thrived in a childhood without the internet and handheld gadgets. Gorilla not only tells a sweet story with a strong female child as a lead, it proves that children today can enjoy live entertainment that quietly focuses on old fashioned adventure storytelling.

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.

Shakespeare & The Alchemy of Gender, Rose Playhouse

At 19 years old, Lisa Wolpe fell in love with Shakespeare. She’s now performed more of Shakespeare’s male roles than any woman in history after founding Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company twenty years ago. She is currently touring the world with her solo show, Shakespeare & The Alchemy of Gender. Although it sounds like an academic lecture, it contains some of the best Shakespeare performances I have seen. The play pays homage to her father, telling the man’s story and how he affected her life. The man who killed himself when Wolpe was four is brought to life in a deceptively simple show that finds hope in a history of suicide, abuse and war.

Though to say the show is about her father’s life oversimplifies the content. Yes, a large portion is about him, but it also covers her life after he had gone, her relationship to specific Shakespeare characters, gender, performance, religion, Elizabethan society, family and alchemy – the transformation of a base material into something precious. These themes intertwine, with no moment unrelated or superfluous and the 55-minute show amazingly manages to not feel overloaded with messages. As she works through her life and her father’s, she relates Shakespeare’s characters to individual moments in time. As she reflects on her relationship with him now, she becomes Hamlet remembering his father’s ghost, in the best performance of the role I’ve encountered. Her father’s WWII escape and joining up with the Canadian forces as a double agent lead into Henry V. We also meet Richard III, Hermione, Shylock and others in relation to herself and her family’s history. Wolpe is not only adept as any man at embodying the male roles, she excels. She also effortlessly switches between men, women and herself, functioning in an androgynous state when addressing us out of character.

Wolpe is comfortable addressing us with an open honesty about difficult episodes in her life without coming across as confessional or masturbatory, as one-person shows run the risk of being when used to come to terms with the performer’s or writer’s issues, whatever they may be. The show is relaxed and conversational with the audience nodding, laughing, even verbally agreeing. The intimate venue helps, but she certainly has the energy to fill a huge theatre. She had a profound effect on the audience, particularly when sharing moments about her relationship with her family and dressing in boys’ clothes to defend herself against her predatory stepfather.

Her interpretation of the characters she performs seems rooted in physical and vocal distinctions, with her General American accent capturing the visceral-ness of the language that the more recently created RP/Standard English. These characters come from her gut, and she explains how she is able to relate to each one and perform them with truth. This is evidence of Shakespeare’s continuing relevance to modern life. Not only is Shakespeare: An Alchemy of Gender an excellent piece of solo theatre, it is also a lesson in performing the great Shakespearean roles of both genders and an encouragement for all to defy gender boundaries dictated by society.

Because this is a woman that must be experienced, here is an extract from her Iago. Enjoy.

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.

Clap Hands, Hackney Showroom

CLAP HANDS - Promo Image colourThere are always multiple perspectives on an individual’s actions within an event. At Hackney Showroom, one of the newest London fringe venues that oozes industrial hipster chic, Pluck. Productions drives this home with a dense, character-driven one act. In a tiny studio space that only seats 20 people, Clap Hands by Aaron Hubbard poses questions about human behaviour and cause and effect. Can children be inherently disturbed? Should they be locked away for endangering others? Does over-reactionary imprisonment for childish behaviour cause derangement? Or, are we all just pure evil?

Ana (EJ Martin) and Gogol (Philip Honeywell) are brother and sister, kept in a basement bedroom by their mother. Martin convincingly plays young Ana without generalising or playing at being a child. She imbeds the innocence, spontaneity and obsessions in her characterisation, which is an excellent contrast to Honeywell’s creepy, calculating teenaged Gogol. Gogol has an obvious agenda that Ana doesn’t see, so she is easily manipulated into carrying out his insidious plans for freedom. The adult Detective Olyphant (Jeremy Drakes) is the sole representative of the wider community who hints at past offenses that led to Ana and Gogol’s confinement for the last 15 years. As he slowly questions the children, the audience begins to wonder what is real and what is the product of manipulation. Are the adults tyrannical, or are the children? The length of imprisonment also brings Ana’s age into question. Was she born into it recently, or has isolation from a young age kept her in a childish state? A horrifying ending effectively places blame with all parties, showing that juvenile crime, justice and society’s treatment of “The Other” are all complex issues with many sides to each individual case.

Even though the play only runs at an hour and a quarter, it packs numerous interrelated themes. Despite this, it isn’t over-saturated. The excellent performances and energy keep the first half of the play building nicely until the climactic middle when Ana carries out a crime Gogol planned without understanding what she’s doing or the consequences. From this point, the second half is slower. Olyphant’s investigations gradually reveal more of the characters’ history, but the slowing pace causes attention to waver, determining the first half as the stronger. A couple of Neil LaBute-style shocks enhance the thread of human depravity that runs through the piece, but the ending removes it from any contemporary British reality. It feels firmly 1970’s – 1980’s until the final scene, then becomes something not quite dystopian. The disorientation it causes could be a deliberate choice by the writer, but it does eliminate cultural context. The shock is effective, but removing the specific setting weakens the message about societal decay.

Despite the additional questions the play raises at the end, it is otherwise an excellent piece of writing with a stellar cast. Pluck. Productions are a prime example of the just how good theatre can be when experienced practitioners decide to make the work they want to do rather than relying on others to create work for them.

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.