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.


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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.