Empty Vessels, Rosemary Branch

Bethany runs a work-in-progress writers’ retreat on an idyllic Greek island. Her current guests are realty TV star lad’s lad Travis who is paying her to ghostwrite his autobiography, and Eric, a hippie idealist who chucked in his comfortable life to write a fantasy novel set in the present day based in Greek mythology. When mysterious biker chick Athena turns up looking for username Ferryman4 in response to his online advert of souls for sale, Eric’s fantasy starts to look rather like reality.

This dark comedy by Greg Freeman directed by Ken McClymont has an interesting premise and is chocka with witty one-liners. A couple of the characters could use a bit more detail and the dialogue can be a bit clunky, sometimes obviously spelling out plot development unnecessarily. The main thread of the plot is quickly predictable, but doesn’t interfere with enjoyment of the character-driven comedy. With nods to online identity vs. real life, narcissistic selfie culture, and the relevance of ancient history in the modern day, Empty Vessels shares socially relevant messages with a hefty dose of humour and without being preachy.

Travis (Tobias Deacon) is the most entertaining of the four characters, an amusingly abhorrent young man epitomizing the self-obsessed who determine the value of the life by the number of followers they have on social media. He and Eric (Ben Warwick) have some frustratingly funny opening clashes that resemble Christmas dinner with your UKIP voting cousin. Deacon gleefully gets stuck into Travis’s despicable character, but Warwick has less to work with as Eric, who comes across as well-intentioned but confused much of the time, which is less interesting to watch.

The set is simple but not sparse, probably quite cheap, and clearly indicates the setting with a couple of pillars, an army of potted plants, and concrete blocks. Constructed by Jules Darker and presumably designed by McClymont, it immediately evokes Greece. It’s a lesson in how fringe theatre sets don’t have to be sparse to save money, unless there really is no budget for one. Leo Steele’s lighting is warm and inviting, with sharp transitions to show change in time of day and mood. These transitions are wonderfully quick, with no lost momentum.

This one-act also looks at humanity in a positive light despite the mocking of Narcissus’ descendants. The final scene’s revelation is both funny and endearing after the Comedy of Errors-esque soul swapping. It also gives Sophia Hannides (Athena) a chance to showcase her range. Even with the self-obsession of today’s society fostered by the dominance of online presence, there are still gods amongst us who have the power to wake us up and refocus attention onto the real here and now rather than on a smartphone screen.

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Never Ending Night, The Vaults

“Immersive” is a trendy term that’s rather overused in theatre at the moment. But what is it, exactly? The same can be said for “site-specific” and “interactive” theatre. Audiences are seeking out alternative theatre experiences that aren’t just sitting in a dark room and watching actors tell a story, and theatre producers are obliging, using the aforementioned vocabulary often too liberally and consequently diminishing the words’ meaning. Established practitioners of immersive performance include Punchdrunk, probably the most well-known, Secret Cinema’s events that are part cinema and part theatre, and Coney’s use of game design to empower audiences. Many other companies and individual shows also describe their work as immersive; some definitely is whereas others is less concretely categorised. CCSD lecturer Dr. Gareth White says the accepted definition of immersive theatre is a production that contains “installations and expansive environments, which have mobile audiences, and which invite audience participation.” But is that entirely accurate?

Never Ending Night at the Waterloo Vaults is immersive in that the audience is freely mobile in a space fully kitted out as a bunker for the survivors of a global pandemic. The audience is first taken through decontamination, where personal effects are checked and white boiler suits and masks are provided. There is a distinct air of authority that the audience dares not violate. The first part of the performance is set outdoors in one of the two large rooms that contain the show. It’s a desolate street, with bodies of the living, barely living and dead. Lighting guides the audience to individual moments, promenade style. This provides clear, concise exposition to the world created. Narratives overlap, creating snapshot moments of grief and desperation, but it’s not frantic. Soldiers in boiler suits take the last survivors and the audience into the next room, where the rest of the play happens.

The audience can spend as much or as little time with any given character as they chose. There are several options: following a character, staying in one space to see what characters come and go, or move to scenes as they occur; each will create a totally different experience. The survivors have all been in this bunker for quite some time, and a reference to nearby Waterloo Station adds an element of site-specific performance, but doesn’t seem important to any particular narrative. The structure gives the audience autonomy, but with a large cast, individual characters have few scenes so it’s hard to connect to their experiences and learn about the little details of their lives.

There is no interaction between the audience and the actors, which raises the question of whether or not Never Ending Night is fully immersive. Can immersive theatre not be interactive? My initial instinct is to say no, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily correct, showing the issue with the lack of a standard definition. The audience here, even in provided costume, are merely observers with an unclear role. They are not residents of the facility, nor are they government officials. Even if they are there to observe, the reason why is never made clear.

Created by a company of actors trained in the Meisner Technique of character development, this quietly ending piece feels more like an extended acting exercise. It would certainly be possible for the audience and actors to speak to each other without disrupting the main scenes at any given moment, but create a new level of intimacy and depth. There characters are interesting enough to want to engage with them, but the audience was invisible. There are numerous encounters between characters and emotions are often running high, which make for excellent bursts of dramatic tension. These are too brief, within a form that goes on for too long, however. The ensemble cast remains excellent, with immense focus and emotional truth Meisner would commend. The gentle ending is a powerful anti-climax, after which the audience is set free into the night.

It is a well-managed, polished piece of ensemble theatre, but the opportunity to develop a relationship with the characters is not provided. They would continue to function and interact in their world with our without the audience present. Consequently, this is a great production for those looking for an unconventional theatre experience without the pressure of audience participation. The setting is clear, but what isn’t, is what the audience is meant to take from the experience. Still the performances are good, as is the design and it’s a worthy attempt at a form that is still developing, whether or not it really counts as immersive.

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Pomona, National Theatre

There’s an abandoned island in the middle of Manchester. One gated and guarded road goes in and out. Zeppo owns it, like much of the land in Manchester, but he doesn’t like to get involved in the goings on at his properties. Too risky. After Ollie’s twin sister disappears, Zeppo tells her to try looking for her on his abandoned island, Pomona. So she does.

A frenetically spiraling video game of a play, Pomona reminds us “it’s impossible to be a good person now” in our modern world where knowledge is power, but ignorance is bliss. Particularly when it comes to knowing what our fast food is actually made of. And what some people do for money. And that basically, life is really fucking awful and people treat other people appallingly. The characters that inhabit this dystopian world are brutally flawed and painfully alone in their horrible existences. But it’s a hold-your-breath-and-hang-on-for-your-dear-life, wonderful piece of theatre that captures the nature of existence for the Millennial generation.

Originally at the Orange Tree last year and now at The National, 27-year-old playwright Alistair McDowall’s play captures the Millennial generation’s pace of life, attention span, inability to have meaningful interactions with others and hopeless despair as they try to build a life of happiness in a crumbling world. A circular framework and an escapist D&D game quest provide some structure to the plot whilst drawing attention to the futility of the lives of both the misfit characters and an entire generation. The story manages to evade predictability, again mirroring the lives of young and youngish people trying to carve out a career, homeownership and a family from never-ending debt and exponentially increasing costs of living.

All of the characters are likeable in a painfully human sort of way, even if some are rather despicable. Though the play’s set in Manchester, it has a universality that could be anywhere. The minimalist set allows the audience to focus on the language and the story, and the actors to move around at high speed. Short scenes, loud noises and abruptly lit transitions evoke a video game, or comic book film. The ending reveal reminds us that its impossible to ever really know someone, and a person’s life is a many-sided dice of personalities and roles.

As a conventional, “audience sits down and watches actors” piece of theatre it works brilliantly, but there is potential to expand beyond the form. With a game within a play and numerous small choices that dictate the characters’ outcomes, I can’t help but feel there’s scope to develop an alternative, interactive version where the audience is able to follow their own paths within the story’s framework, like a video game/choose your own adventure book. McDowall’s language is highly visual as Ollie (Nadia Clifford) uncovers more and more information in her sister’s story, this could be seen as well as heard.

Pomona encapsulates a generation’s experience but is also a stunningly crafted piece of theatre that skillfully uses language and dynamic characters to tell a fascinating, albeit unpleasant story. As a piece of theatre and a social commentary, it is simply a must-see.

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.

The White Feather, Union Theatre

During WWI, men considered too afraid to enlist were given white feathers by those disapproving of their cowardice. Also common were boys too young to join up lying about their ages so they could experience the excitement of battle. Then there were the hundreds who were killed for desertion and cowardice in the face of the enemy. These young men suffered from PTSD, an ailment not understood or acknowledged until well after the war was over.

A cast of nine tells the story of 16-year-old Harry Briggs, who cheerfully joins up to escape humdrum village life, and his sister Georgina’s search for the truth of what really happened to her kid brother out on the front. Whilst trying to clear his name, she discovers hidden secrets of her fellow Suffolk villagers, learning more than she bargained for. Spanning several decades and touching on a wide range of issues including homosexuality, shellshock, the class system and the reality of life in the trenches, The White Feather is an intimate, provincial musical with a sturdy first act and excellent music, that reflects the close-knit and often overbearing aspect of life in a small place during wartime. The second act, shorter but covering a much longer period of time, is rather choppy and introduces an interesting subplot but too late to for much development.

Abigail Matthews flawlessly leads as the kind but tenacious Georgina Briggs, supported by wonderfully mouthy best friend, Edith (Katie Brennan). It’s not all about the girls though; David Flynn as the conflicted lord of the manor Adam Davey is the most complex character of the lot and deserves more focus than the script gives him. Edward Brown, played by Zac Hamilton, has a couple of great scenes showcasing his emotional range. This is a great cast size for a musical: enough voices to give the larger numbers a punch, but not so large that some characters are relegated to the ensemble.

A piano, violin and cello trio give the music richness but an acoustic, rural tone that beautifully suits the world of the musical. The book and music are well integrated and transitions from one to the other are mostly smooth. The act finales could stand to be a bit longer, but otherwise the music feels developed, albeit quite gentle. The book follows an evenly paced narrative arc for the first half, but several jumps feel choppy and disruptive after the interval. The programme helps with indicating the time leaps, but more could be added to the script and design to clarify them so the audience doesn’t have to regularly refer to the programme. The Adam Davey subplot could do with more than a single, brief reference in the first half in order to have greater plot integration later, but this could potentially detract from the main thread of Georgina’s quest for justice. Though the title can represent Harry’s perceived cowardice, there is little mention of the feather as a convention of the time. All of the focus points are worthy of presentation and add to the overall story, but perhaps the show is trying to do too much. Without lengthening it quite a lot, some aspects of the plot will remain under-developed.

With an engrossing first act, detailed and complimentary characters, The White Feather writers clearly Ross Clark and Andrew Keates have a gift for telling great stories. New musicals often disappear after their initial run, but this one is a mostly polished affair that deserves more development and larger houses. In the Union Theatre, it’s an emotionally charged, intimate experience not to be missed, even with its shortcomings.

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.

Trash, Rosemary Branch Theatre

Two estranged sisters dig through a rubbish tip after their mother’s funeral. Recovering heroin addict Becky, in a moment of anger, had thrown away an unopened letter from their mother containing important information. Older, responsible Diane insisted they recover it, so here they are in their funereal finery, ankle deep in trash, full of hatred, resentment and grief. New company Indigo Iris, founded by actor-producers Emma Shenkman and Georgina Philipps, debut with Arthur M. Jolly’s Trash, a two-hander with potential for absurd situation comedy that instead plays it straight, focusing on the complexity of sisterhood and familial responsibility.

Trash is a well-constructed play driven by long-standing conflict between Diane (Emma Shenkman) and Becky (Georgina Philipps). Their mother’s illness tested daughterly obligation: Diane fulfilled it, but Becky refused to and ran away. They haven’t seen each other since. Diane’s resentment spews forth in relentless verbal attacks that Becky coldly thwarts. Occasionally, the violence turns physical, with great fight direction by Gordon Kemp.

This is a tense, wordy production but the energy is full on, particularly from Shenkman. Her vicious, relentless performance counters Philipps’ low-key character and keeps the audience’s attention. Both have a hard veneer that rarely cracks and is truthful to their situation, though more emotional range would have been welcome to break up the near constant anger. As such, sympathy for either woman is difficult to summon, even though Becky doesn’t seem to by lying about being clean and Diane clearly had more than her share of trouble caring for their dying mother over the last three years. The script steers clear of a formulaic narrative arc but still satisfies through a gradual information reveal and an ending open to several possible outcomes. It’s not a happy ending, but not a stalemate either and avoids sentimentality. These women are damaged, and it will take much more than an hour in a dump together to repair their relationship.

The set design is simple but effective. Filled bin bags and a load of other stuff cover the stage, with a backdrop of an ominous gray envelope. Its ever-present dominance is a powerful signifier of the control their mother still has over them in her last attempt at communicating with Becky before her death.

This would make a good touring studio production due to its universal conflict and small scale. Indigo Iris have good instinct for choosing a well written, showcase production. Hopefully they’ll continue their producing journey with more plays less familiar to the London fringe that focused on character relationships through solid, well-crafted scripts.

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.

See What I Wanna See, Jermyn Street Theatre

Displaying The cast of See What I Wanna See at Jermyn Street Theatre. C Photography by Jamie Scott-Smith.jpg“The truth is rarely pure and never simple,” says Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest. Indeed. We often encounter conflicts or situations where opposing viewpoints create very different stories. Michael John LaChiusa adapts three Japanese short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, including “The Grove” on which Akira Kurosawa based his western hit Rashomon, intertwining them to create a production showing that, well, we often see what we want to see and that “truth” is a flighty creature that can never be pinned down and shown objectively. See What We Wanna See, a chamber musical produced by Aria Entertainment at Jermyn Street Theatre, is a delicate, intimate performance with a strong cast. However, LaChiusa’s trilogy with loosely connected themes has little else that links them and feels like an evening of short plays rather than a cohesive, full-length musical.

As the prelude to each act, “Kesa and Morito” shows a medieval Japanese couple recently discovered having an affair. They are seeing each other for the last time. Both have plans for their final encounter and blackouts preclude discovery of their fate. “R Shomon” follows as the bulk of the first half, a thriller set in 1950’s New York. Four characters tell totally conflicting witness statements to an unseen policeman. Who is telling the truth about the death of The Husband? How is this piece connected to the opening where Kesa shares her story in a single song? The audience never finds out. The ending to this mini-musical is deliciously ambiguous with some complex musicality in the songs, but the connection to the “Kesa and Morito” prologue is tenuous at best.

The second half is the same structure. Morito shares his side of the story for the duration of a single song, then “Gloryday” is the rest of the act. This is a more compelling story than “R Shomon” and could be a longer, standalone production. A disaffected priest creates a hoax miracle that takes post-9/11 New York City by storm, making some pointed criticism of Jesus and his followers by comparing them to the vulnerable that fall for his trick. The end has a poignant twist and reiterates the show’s focus on the fluidity of truth within deceit and crime. Whilst these are good stories and maintain audience interest, there is no linking transition or any comment on the three other than presenting them together. This emphasizes the timelessness of the theme, but takes no particular point of view on it. LaChiusa’s message is consequently unclear.

The cast of five is fantastic; in a small theatre with a four-piece band are quiet enough that the actors don’t need mics so detail isn’t lost through amplification. There is no week link; they all have the chance to play at least one substantial role with the others showcasing their range. Jonathan Butterell as the priest that loses his faith in the second act’s “Gloryday” is particularly touching. Mark Goldthorp as the reserved 1950s taxi company boss in the first half’s “R Shomon” is quietly enigmatic and counters the brashness of Marc Elliott’s Thief and Cassie Compton’s resentful Wife. The priest’s Aunt Monica as given by Sarah Ingram is light relief but still possessing emotional depth.

LaChiusa’s music is reminiscent of a gentler, simpler Sondheim with influences spanning different eras and cultures. Simon Anthony Wells’ design similarly captures the different worlds in the production. Despite compelling individual stories, great performances and some lovely songs, the audience is left questioning what they are meant to take from the production and unsatisfied by the lack of a deeper connection between the three component tales. It’s still definitely worth seeing the London premiere of this unique, cosy production by Aria Entertainment, a producer vital to musical theatre for staging new and rarely staged work.

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.

Rocky Horror Show, Playhouse Theatre

Though touring regularly, The Rocky Horror Show hasn’t appeared in the West End since 1990-1991. For a limited time, this camp, B-side parody musical returns to the Playhouse Theatre before embarking on a new UK tour. Devoted fans attend in costume and call out responses during the show, carrying on long-held traditions developed after the release of the film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Audience behaviour is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the West End and the regular punters don’t quite know what to make of the anarchy, but it’s a fun night out and a cultural awakening to this cult phenomenon. This is a polished revival with some inventive touches and great performances, but does the award winning musical from the 1970s withstand the test of time? Not so much.

The casting highlight for the fans is playwright Richard O’Brien as the Narrator. A small role, but an inspiring sight to behold considering the gent is in his 70s. From the applause and screams on his first entrance, fans regard O’Brien as a god among men, or an actual god. He’s charismatic, still has a wonderfully rich speaking voice and indulges the audience’s adoration. David Bedella as Frank-N-Furter is sexy with a dangerous edge and excellent comic timing, particularly in the bedroom at the beginning of Act II. Disappointingly, he corpses a couple of times at some of the more rare audience call-outs and often loses his flow. There’s no banter with the audience; instead long pauses cause frequent disruption to the pace as the actors wait for the audience to recover from the call-out humour. The performances are otherwise excellent from this highly experienced cast of thirteen, several who have been in previous Rocky Horror Show tours. The audience have the potential to become a character and do their best to make themselves known through the call-outs and bad behaviour, including talking at full volume, taking photos and shining torches, but they are largely ignored by the cast.

The design is nuanced, with elements of meta-theatre in the cinema reel edging to remind us of its root in the film world. Frank’s reveal in a striking backlit wardrobe is used enough to create impact but not overly employed. Hugh Durrant’s set richly contrasts Brad and Janet’s pre-Frank world with the castle interior. Haze is used enough to sharpen beams of light to make a laser effect with using actual lasers or an overkill on the smoke. Costumes match those in the film and are mirrored in the audience who chose to dress up.

There’s no denying that this is a slick production of a show that, to be frank, isn’t very good. Structurally, the first act has the best numbers and consistent momentum, albeit with clunky and rushed transitions into the songs. After the interval, the story and music loses its way with ballads and plot twists that don’t fit the conventions established in the first half. Some of the new sub-plots don’t even really make sense and are introduced too late to develop properly, such as the appearance of Dr. Scott in his brief scene. Most pointedly, The Rocky Horror Show is painfully misogynistic and offensive by current social standards: there’s slut-shaming, the antiquated term ‘transvestite’ (and the character labeled as such is a rather horrible villain), rape that’s justified by the victims’ enjoyment of it, objectification and sex slavery. It can be argued that it’s all in good fun and is a product of its time, but at the time it was written these were more socially acceptable behaviours that society has now rightly condemned and tries to move past. There is no element of moralizing in the story to draw attention to these actions’ unacceptability, nor are they new enough to theatrical content to make them edgy or shocking.

The fans drive the demand for The Rocky Horror Show and as such, it will never quietly fade away into retirement, despite its highly questionable themes. The skillful performances and high production values make the night enjoyable, but the story is an unpleasant relic from a time with a more limited understanding of human rights.

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.