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.

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.

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.

Feature – Should Bloggers Strive Towards Income?

Money has always been an issue in the arts, and artists have stereotypically always been poor. Post-recession, this issue has worsened to such an extreme that the possibility of earning a living wage from theatre has become nearly impossible. Opinions on the issue vary from Douglas McPherson’s right wing tirade against government arts funding and Jonathan Jones bizarrely comparing crowdfunding to The Crusades, to Lyn Gardner’s examination as to just how badly paid we are in theatre and Equity’s “Professionally Made, Professionally Paid” campaign. Those who work in theatre believe they should be paid fairly, or at least this is how I assumed everyone thought about their time. On Tuesday night, I discovered a sub-group of people in the theatre industry where a number of them don’t believe they deserve to be paid for what they do, or think that pay is ever going to be a possibility – theatre bloggers.

Whilst taking part in a twitter chat for a fellow blogger’s MA dissertation research, my response to the question, “Where do you see the future for blogging in regards to West End theatre? Grow in popularity, decline, more impact, etc.,” agreed with another comment about how blogging is rising in popularity due to the fall in printed media. I then posed a question: if blogging is becoming more popular, what can bloggers do to generate income from their writing, or what changes can be made in the system to open revenue streams?

And, then it all exploded. I discovered my desire to earn a living from my reviewing is not only rare, but incredibly controversial, at least within this particular group of bloggers. It hadn’t even occurred to me that others would have such conflicting thoughts on the issue. Surely everyone wants to be paid for the time they put their skills and knowledge to use? A few agreed that money would be nice, but that it would never happen. Of course the likelihood of becoming a paid critic is incredibly slim, but so is making a living in other areas of theatre. What I found saddening is the certain belief that being a paid critic is utterly impossible. Others believe that complimentary tickets are payment enough.

One point that several people made repeatedly was that they didn’t initially go into reviewing to make money. Honestly? I didn’t either. I wanted to see more theatre, but couldn’t afford to do so. I thought it would be a good way to put my education and years of working as an actor/director/producer to good use during a career break that, at that time, I thought was permanent. Just because that was my original intention about three years ago doesn’t mean that my writing and career goals cannot change. I have always viewed myself as a theatre professional, so why can I not see my writing the same way? The opinion that another couple of bloggers shared was that we shouldn’t expect to be paid because there are so many of us. Does that mean actors should not be paid either?

The most extreme opinion came from one writer who adamantly insisted that any surplus funds in theatre (Ha!) should go to emerging companies and artists because they deserve it more. She finds it heartbreaking that fringe companies often operate at a loss. Even if bloggers are provided with press tickets, the time spent writing our responses operates at a loss. How is this not equally heartbreaking? An actor can no more pay their rent with an unpaid performance than a blogger can pay their rent with a review. If a critic thinks of herself as not deserving of payment, or less worthy than the artists who make the theatre, what can we expect the rest of the industry and its audiences to think we are worth?

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.

How Nigeria Became, everything theatre

“It’s 1914. The British government has merged the tribes and kingdoms to create modern Nigeria. King George V has sent Charles (Christian Roe) to visit Herbert Ogunde (Tunji Falana) to ask him and his theatre troupe to perform at the unity celebrations…

“The story the theatre troupe shares with Charles follows young girl Jenrola (Rita Balogun) on her quest to find the spear of Shango…Also looking for the spear are Aguzani (Stephanie Levi-John) and Obaze (Rebecca Omogbehin). The three women engage in a battle of wit and strength to see who can get to the spear first…

“The story of Charles, Herbert and his actors is framed by a Yoruba creation myth that starts and finishes the production…As lovely as this story was, it felt disconnected from the main plotline, even though it provided the background to the spear…

“All of the actors except Roe play multiple roles, and they do so incredibly skillfully. Falana…employs great physical skill to differentiate these characters and shows the inherent misogyny of 1914 Nigeria through comedy rather than nastiness…

“The set is simple but colourful and effective. The stage is a painting of a river delta and coast, forming the natural curve of the stage. There are mats and cushions on the front of the stage for young children, which gives them more of an opportunity to engage with the interactive elements of the production…

“This production is highly polished and engages the young members of the audience as well as the older ones. It was a great experience…seeing numerous young people engage with the action unfolding before them.”

Read the entire everything theatre review here.

Feature – Redefining “Emerging”

When I think of the word “emerging”, I picture the finite stage between pupae and butterfly: a damp, crumpled creature working it’s way out of a safe, confined shell, in a completely different form to what it was previously. Within that set time frame, the butterfly must climb upwards and into the sunlight so its wings can straighten and dry out. If it fails, it will not be able to fly and fulfill the potential of its adult form. The time in which the emerging must be accomplished is set; at the end it has either succeeded or failed and there is no going back.

“Emerging” is a commonly used theatre term used to categorise those that have finished their training and are in the process of finding their feet within the industry. It implies they haven’t found success yet, but it is a definitely achievable point in the not-so-distant future. “Emerging” indicates transition and must be completed within a determined time frame, after which “success” is reached. Many actors have a concrete idea of “success” at the onset of their careers and say they will give up if they haven’t “made it” within three years/five years/by the time they’re 30, and so forth. Of course, the reality is far different. This definition of “success” is often reconfigured as they navigate working in the arts. The problem with using the words “success” and “emerging” in such a fickle industry is that the elusive “success” “emerging” hinges on is unlikely to be achieved at all, let alone within a predetermined time. Also, an artist’s definition of success is likely to be reconfigured time and time again as they grow and change. They easily could, due to the realities of the business, be in a state of emerging forever.

In theatre, “emerging” also usually applies to those under twenty-six or more rarely, thirty. The general use of the term means an early-to-mid twenty something who completed training within the last few years. Until recently, the now-no-more IdeasTap briefs were almost exclusively available to artists in those age brackets. After enough feedback from members, they began to lift those age ceilings to allow their ageing membership to participate more widely. (Then they closed because the costs of running the organisation were no longer being met.) This is rare, though. I still widely see grants, internships, and participation programmes limiting ages. I even see jobs that are exclusively open to those under 26 and unemployed. What about the unemployed 28-year-olds? Or those even older?

I am most certainly not saying that young artists don’t need and deserve support, but that older artists do too. They may still be in the state of emergence, having never reached that elusive “success” even after many years in the industry working for free or low-paid. Or, they may have entered the profession at an older age. I have met numerous people (usually actors) that changed careers and began working in theatre and film in their 30s, 40s or even older. Last year I met Hugh Hemmings, who became an actor after he retired. There are also people in theatre who start working in one field, then moved to another. A common transition I have seen is from actor to director, or actor to producer. Other people straddle several roles within the industry. They were emerging too (and still may be), and deserve the support of any other emerging artist, even if their emergence does not fall into the general understanding of the word.

What that support looks like may be radically different from people in their early 20s. I recently wrote about the issue of childcare in the arts, which applies to artists at all stages of their careers, but particularly those that are not yet “successful.” Housing, particularly in London, is a primary issue for working artists. Why should any working adult have to live with their parents in a perpetually infantilised state in order to pursue a career? It’s now depressingly commonplace for young people to be living at home into their 30s if they work in low-paying fields. Over all of this is availability of funds, courses and programmes that are designed to support artists’ work, but as previously mentioned, these often come with an age limit.

So, let’s collectively re-examine our mindsets. Arts organisations and funding bodies must learn that “emerging” includes all ages and does not indicate how long someone has worked in the industry. It can include those who have taken career breaks, or changed their career path within the industry. In this precarious time of funding cuts, the last thing we need is to pigeonhole those that need support as “established” or “successful” when that couldn’t be further from the truth.

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.