The State vs John Hayes, King’s Head Theatre

Lucy Roslyn, The State vs John Hayes (c) Jemma Gross (7)Elyese Dukie is going to die tomorrow. Though she needs to get through tonight first, at least she’s not alone. We’re in there with her, in her cell on Texas’ Death Row in 1959, as is John Hayes. But we’re not really there, and neither is John. We’re all in Elyese’s head, a figment of her very ill mind, but she’s still going to get the chair in the morning because “they would never send John…but they would send me.” For one of fictional Elyese/John’s last hours, we join her on an exquisitely performed journey akin to riding a rollercoaster handcuffed and blindfolded as Elyese reviews the dark corners and glowing intimacies of her past that led her to this moment.

Epsilon Productions continues to mature with this topical, one-woman show that’s part of The King’s Head Theatre’s new, new writing festival, #Festival45. Lucy Roslyn’s script unfolds Elyese’s troubled past spiraling towards the moment she murders her husband Dale, lover Lorraine and births John Hayes, her killer alter-ego spawned from Schizophrenia, Multiple Personality Disorder or severe childhood trauma. Elyese certainly isn’t alone in her struggle against those that live inside her head but take over her body, what with 73% of female inmates in America currently diagnosed with mental health issues; the percentage of mentally ill prisoners in the less-aware 1950s is unimaginable.

Roslyn, who also performs, begins the piece as John. We only meet Elyese later. She embodies him with perfectly sculpted hand movements and a southern redneck accent, deep as John, light and fragile as Elyese. His/her charm and charisma is unquestionable but can turn to violence and grief on a hair trigger, showing Elyese as a victim of the system unable or unwilling to provide her with the care she needs. As such, it’s a powerful critique of the US justice system.

Lighting designer Sherry Coenen reminds us of John’s threatening presence with greenish pulses when Elyese is struck with a crippling back spasm, a symbol of the control he has over her. The subtle heartbeat in dangling filament lights is Elyese’s, which will cease all too soon as electricity surges through her slender, fragile-looking body. The current seating arrangement, irregular and with a thrust so deep it’s nearly in the round, didn’t quite work with the lighting – those sat along the back wall of the stage had lights in their eyes.

The script begins as a straightforward monologue to the audience, with John flirting and joking. The structure becomes fragmented as her mental state breaks down; though she evokes sympathy she also evokes fear. If John will kill those Elyese loves the most, anyone is at risk, though it’s understandable how people immediately fall for his charms. There are times where the text rambles, but these moments are few and lead up to important story points; Roslyn’s performance adds light and shade that keeps the momentum going. Her performance consistently captivates with its commitment and intensity as well as using high levels of detail to differentiate the two characters from each other. A political firecracker with a stellar performance and numerous layers, this Argus Angel winner packs one hell of a punch.

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Hello Again, Hope Theatre

Knickers, bras and other vintage undergarments (oh my!) dangle from the Hope Theatre ceiling in dim light, the discarded ghosts of sexual encounters long past. Arthur Schnitzler’s 1897 Reigen, or La Ronde as it is more commonly known from the French translation, is reinvented in musical form in Michael John LaChiusa’s early 1990s Hello Again. Not content with the original story, LaChiusa spreads Schnitzler’s shags, blowjobs and wanks over the 21st century, updates some of the characters, includes gay relationships and adds a nearly continuous score mostly of duets, with musical influences from a host of eras. The sex is seen rather than just talked about, but otherwise Schnitzler’s format is replicated. Five actors each takes two characters and accompanied by a solitary keyboard, create an intimately filthy but strangely moving chamber musical in one of London’s newest pub theatres.

Hello Again, though titillating, also looks at the desire for sexual satisfaction through entirely unromantic, desperate scenarios. In ten short scenes, we see an array of social classes, professions and sexualities get their jollies before they run out of time; there’s the married housewife in her affair with a student, the soldier and the nurse before he ships out and the gentleman and cabin boy on the sinking Titanic amongst others. One-off and long-running relationships are accompanied by a range of musical styles on a bare bones set, but the minimalism means nothing is held back and it’s practically in your lap if you’re in the front row. Though there’s plenty of bonking, little is seen – a bum here, cleavage there; the acts themselves are staged realistically rather than stylized or hinted at by director Tania Azevedo. In our porno-fied modern culture where hardcore images and video are a couple of clicks away, to show the grunting and thrusting act without the bits strikes an interesting balance between honesty and discretion. With the audience split over three sides, more diagonals could have been used in the staging to improve sightlines for everyone, but otherwise the small space with no backstage is used well.

LaChiusa keeps the scenes short, but this enhances the immediacy and primal nature of sex. There are some good numbers, but the hodge podge of styles prevents much in the way of recurring motifs. The settings and characters are clear and believable, though their brevity needs the characters to get to the point quickly. As we don’t really get to know these people before us, they become an everyman of their character type: they are us, and we could easily be them. The ensemble cast is consistently good, with newcomer Isabella Messarra and veteran Miles Western giving the most striking vocal performances. Messarra’s Nurse is a wonderful force that literally dominates the posh student she cares for, Western is the smug senator exploiting a beautiful but lonely film star.

This is an excellent and largely faithful adaption of Schnitzler’s play that doesn’t shy away from explicitly prurient moments all sexual human beings can relate to. LaChiusa’s characters speak to all of us, even if his music is less satisfying. Azevedo’s direction and multi-roll casting suits the piece, as the intimate venue fits this infrequently staged and rarely seen musical.

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 PayPal.

Payne Killer, London Horror Festival

rsz_1payneAny theatre festival programme is hit or miss if you aren’t familiar with individual shows or participating companies. So far, the productions I’ve seen at the London Horror Festival have ranged from ok to quite good, until Payne Killer. Lack of direction and a hackneyed story concept caused rushed, hammy performances and poor technical choices. There is also some awkward stage combat, no subtlety and a twist at the end ruined by the final moment. Phil Newman’s detailed set design helps provide some relief from the experience, as do a few moments in Rowan Dixon’s script that are probably quite funny if delivered well, but these two features aren’t enough to save the production from inflicting the horrors of bad theatre on its audience.

In a production that requires suspense, varied pace is a vital element, particularly at the beginning. The actors in this two-hander start off relentlessly, with no pauses to allow for phrasing or building up to the first major plot revelation. They tire and slow down just as things should be picking up, so they phone it in for the rest of the play. No director is credited so I assume that the two performers, also founders of producing company The Uplifters, self-directed – a mistake that could have easily been avoided and choosing otherwise would have had a hugely positive impact on the production. A director or a lighting designer could have also sorted out the cheesy lighting states during the characters’ reflective, confessional monologues that were also confusing and unnecessary: spotlights indicated soliloquies, but the other character could hear them and subsequently commented on the revealed information.

The set, a middle class, older woman’s living room, is unusually detailed for such a small theatre but fits the space well. Down to the newspaper holder and the trinket-filled bookcase, it creates the feel of a lived-in home that is well looked after, even if the furniture hasn’t been replaced since the 70s. It serves the production well, with only a slippery rug causing any interference to the actors.

Dixon’s script isn’t bad per se, but neither is it inventive or seemingly well researched. The characters are rather under-developed and cliched; something that research on serial killers may have helped. There are some nice moments, particularly when the two display some vulnerability, but due to the aforementioned performance issues these are glossed over.

A good production team, script rewrites and possible recasting might salvage Payne Killer, but The Uplifters may choose to move on and focus on the musicals they typically produce, which are familiar ground and probably better quality than their venture into horror theatre, a genre that should be scary for its content rather than its production values.

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 PayPal.

Ideomotor, London Horror Festival

By guest reviewer Michaela Clement-Hayes

There’s nothing quite like sibling rivalry and the hatred you feel for your brother or sister is only matched by one thing. The hatred you often feel for your flat mates. It doesn’t matter how much you love them, there are times when you just want to kill them. True to form, there’s not a lot of love lost between flat mates Charlie, Leo and Penny. Leo (Paul Duncan McGarrity) has just moved to London from up north and is trying to fit in. The trouble is, he goes to work all day and Charlie (David Ahmad) and Penny (Brydie Lee-Kennedy) don’t. They also don’t clean, cook or remember his birthday. So when Leo comes home to find the other two holding a seance for Lenny Henry (Penny’s AWOL hamster), tempers fray and lies begin to unravel. But is the ouija board being manipulated by one of his flatmates, or is it actually trying to warn them?

With Ideomotor, writer and director Gavin Innes has taken an everyday familiar situation and given it a slight paranormal twist. It seems like your average house-share drama – missing food, issues with the cleaning rota and a couple of accidents involving alcohol, but is there more to it? The script perhaps tries too hard to be funny in places but the audience do enjoy most of the jokes and although some of the twists are easy to guess, we are still left trying to piece the puzzle together following an ending that is quite creepy, but brilliantly executed.

The actors themselves are believable and while nerves perhaps get the better of them a couple of times, movement is slick and the space is used well. At first glance the set (designed by Isabella Van Braeckel) looks simple, but the attention to detail is actually very precise, from the discreet name labels on the jars of herbs to the reduced sticker on the pizza box and even the new 5p bags from Sainsbury’s.

Despite its weaknesses, Ideomotor is a story as dark as its humour is light, lulling the audience into a false sense of security before throwing them off their guard and leaving them with many unanswered questions.

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 PayPal.

The Tempest, Bloomsbury Festival


By a guest reviewer who wishes to remain anonymous:

This adaptation of The Tempest by Kelly Hunter was a one-off performance as part of the Bloomsbury Festival at the Bloomsbury Studio Theatre. Hunter specifically designed this piece to enable children on the autism spectrum to participate in the show with the actors. These children’s parents/carers are invited to sit and watch.

I think this was the most unique Shakespeare productions I’ve seen. Hunter and her excellent cast of six set themselves the challenge of using The Tempest as a means of interacting and helping several young people on the autism spectrum to improve their self expression and communication with each other. Initially, I was uncertain how this would work as, personally, I’ve always found the Tempest a tricky play to follow. As the story progressed I saw that The Tempest actually lends itself perfectly to this kind of devised, interactive theatre. The play of course deals in magic; there’s also a clear physicality to many of the characters and a certain playfulness which allows the actors to introduce the young participants to the world of the play. This was not a full production of the Tempest and nor did it need to be. Considering its aims, the production was undoubtedly a huge success. All of the participants seemed to benefit hugely from playing simplified versions of various scenes from the play with these very experienced stage actors. More importantly they, along with the parents and carers watching, seemed to really enjoy themselves. When the play ended there was a lovely, warm feeling in the room. Everyone seemed enlivened by the experience, adults and children alike.

I sincerely hope that Flute Theatre will continue its success producing this kind of work in the future. It is extremely important and valuable to non-traditional theatregoers.

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 PayPal.

Next Lesson, Pleasance Theatre

image1In 1998, Thatcher introduced controversial Section 28 that banned promotion of homosexuality, publishing materials that supported it and teaching its acceptability in schools. Playwright Chris Woodley, fascinated by the change in schools’ attitudes towards homosexuality in pupils and staff between his student years in the 1980s and his teaching career in the 2000s, documents the effects of Section 28 on those affiliated with schools: pupils, teachers, and staff and parents alike. The play loosely centres on the character Michael, a GCSE student at Beckenham High School in 1988, who returns to teach there in 1996. Though Section 28 was not repealed in England until 2003, difference becomes more acceptable as time passes but Woodley still shows the impact on individual lives through such bigoted legislation.

A diverse cast of characters populates Beckenham High over nearly 20 years with their day-to-day battles and victories of being gay during and after Section 28. Superbly acted and well-written, Woodley’s script contains excellent scenes but the story as a whole could use more focus on Michael, as his journey is partially eclipsed by episodes from the lives of other gay people working and studying at Beckenham High. Though their stories are equally valid, if this play were to be lengthened Michael’s character arc should move to the forefront to give the whole piece a stronger focus. The early part of the play shows Michael coming out to his mother, but the audience doesn’t see him again until years later as an English teacher. In the meantime, teachers battle against curriculum restrictions and the stigma of being out at work. Not that these are issues that ever disappear completely, but these early scenes capture the stress of being gay in a Section 28 world. During his teaching career, we meet other gay teachers and students who become increasingly comfortable with expressing their sexuality.

An ensemble of six adeptly play several roles each, except Stanley Eldridge as Michael. Director Andrew Beckett uses costume, small set changes, the year written on a chalkboard and music to indicate scene and character changes. Within the scenes, the direction is otherwise wonderfully unnoticeable. The cast is balanced, with no one standing out as stronger or weaker than the others and I’m hard-pressed to choose a personal favourite.

Some particularly good moments include Michael’s estranged mother surprising him at work on his birthday; the brightly coloured helium balloon and gift bag juxtapose his rage and her half-hearted apologies. The scenes discussing the impact of the Admiral Duncan bombing in 1999 on Michael’s life are powerfully moving and a reminder that the individuals cannot always speak for the entire gay community. Student Chloe (Anne Odeke) hilariously defends punching a male student after bullying her for being a lesbian to her form tutor. The script is filled with other great moments, but there was no singular moment of climax.

This is without a doubt an important play and introduces Woodley’s gift for creating excellent character-driven scripts. There is easily scope for this play to develop and it also deserves to be seen for its documentation of a moment in history that we have mercifully moved past, but its scars are still present in homophobia in and out of the classroom.

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Infection, London Horror Festival

Sam, Dominique and Will don’t always get on with each other. It doesn’t help that they’re under a lot of stress due to a zombie-alien invasion, and can’t work out if any other people survive in their town. Dom and Will are brother and sister who don’t have much in common, and Will has no patience with Dom’s bestie Sam, a vegan, weed-smoking student. Considering all of that, they do quite well for most of Infection, a new play by the Brighton-based Bath Street Productions. With scenes alternating between the past and the present and clear transitions making this is easy to follow, but performances vary according to emotional intensity, and some of the writing is similarly overwrought. There are some witty one-liners and moving moments that, with the absence of the zombie-aliens, prevents Infection from becoming too much like a zombie film, even with strong parallels to Shawn of the Dead.

The script by Faye Woodbridge has a clear dramatic arc and climax, with a format that facilitates suspense by starting in the present, than jumping back to the beginning of the invasion two weeks previously, moving the plot forward by jumping back and forth until we’re back in present. The story itself isn’t particularly inventive, especially as we never properly see the zombie aliens or learn about how the invasion started. Other survivors communicate through graffiti on the supermarket walls, but these are never seen either. Infection is a microcosm but lacks the scope present in zombie films, despite all of the references the characters bandy around. It suits a small-scale theatre space, but doesn’t quite capture the fear of the situation what with exclusively showing such a small group of characters. There’s no sense of scale. There are some minor anomalies – though the attacks are actually seen once, the three keep getting injured without clear explanation. How do zombie aliens sprain the girls’ ankles and dislocate their shoulders? Surely they’d go for something a bit more deadly? Despite the supermarket messages, the characters comment on the town’s emptiness. Even with these issues, it wouldn’t take much development to expand the play and make the invasion’s impact more widely felt, even without adding the invaders.

Writer Woodbridge also plays Dom, giving the most consistent and believable performance from the cast of three. Direction was occasionally obvious through mechanical blocking with no clear purpose; no individual director was credited in the programme, instead directorial credit lies with the production company. A designated outside eye not part of the cast would be able to provide more unity in movement. Martin Wright’s transition sound design is excellent, providing clarity and reinforcing the gravity of their situation.

The most interesting aspect of this script is the gender dynamics that emerge during a time of crisis. Will (Michael Williams) feels obligated to protect his young sister Dom, even though they’ve grown apart as adults and don’t really know each other anymore. He treats Sam (Katie Newman) more like a bloke than he does his sister, despite her diminutive size and more girlish tendencies. Will revels in being the big, strong man even though his foolhardiness and bravado cause further problems, and Dom’s insistence of proving that she can look after herself exacerbates the danger in their situation. The girls’ comic one-liners help draw attention to the ridiculousness of Will’s old-fashioned mindset, as well as add levity to the script.

Though this certainly is not a bad production, but in order to stand out in the zombie field something dramatically different needs to be done. It’s easy to go with a popular formula for success and this is a good representation of it, but not a particularly inventive one.

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 PayPal.