Skyline, Ugly Duck

rsz_278df7cf00000578-3032452-image-m-8_1429115791409It’s panto season, and our stages are filled with villains, heroes and dames. Playwright David Bottomley’s new work-in-progress has some passing resemblance to the characters in Britain’s traditional seasonal offerings, but his new play on the London housing crisis is darker, angering fare. Capturing its victims’ lack of power and its perpetuators’ greed, Skyline doesn’t offer a solution but still states a clear opinion on the issue. With a cast of five playing seven characters, the audience sees a microcosmic cross section of social classes who, with poetic and pointed language, are a powerful reminder of the importance of secure housing. There is still some work to be done on the script, but the staged reading in conjunction with a pre-show talk and an exhibition by Alternative Press makes a powerful point that something needs to change to prevent social cleaning through housing policy in London.

Bottomley has a clear gift with words. There’s a subtle poetry that effectively captures his characters’ feelings, laying them exposed and raw for the taking. There could be more differentiation between their rhythms and word choices, though. Drag queen Roxanne’s (Paul L. Martin) closing monologue is similar to that of unemployed single dad and grandfather from Africa, Rex (Kevin Golding). His 28-year-old daughter Tanya (Adelaide Obeng) occasionally sounds like her Tory MP Francesca (Karen Hill). He does well to go against stereotypes, but there’s a middle ground between them and homogenisation that hasn’t been completely reached yet.

His most complex character is Francesca. Despite being a Tory who’s having an affair with villainous property developer Jasper (Cameron Robertson), the favours she grants him directly conflict with her instinct to do right by her constituents, and values the old London that Jasper desperately wants to demolish. Her dialogue is occasionally overwritten, but she otherwise feels like a real, well-rounded individual. Jasper does as well, though not to the same extent. He could perhaps do with a touch more humanity to make him less cartoonish, even though there must be people out there as horrible as he is. Rex’s inner anguish erupts in balance to the calmer Tanya, who satisfyingly shows her true feelings in Francesca’s surgery. An interesting experiment would be to explore further integration of these characters: what if Rex and Jasper meet? Tanya and Roxanne? There’s space for more scenes without the play feeling too long.

Skyline has plenty of excellent moments, like the only scene between Jasper and Roxanne (a colourful character that’s underused) that shows how truly horrible Jasper is, and Roxanne’s need for a place she can put down roots. Rex’s desperation and Tanya’s resignation come to a head in a climactic final scene, just after Francesca and Jasper do the same. Even though there’s resolution, Bottomley skilfully alludes to the wider landscape and the struggles countless Londoners face due to the housing crisis in these final scenes. Roxanne’s gorgeous monologue that serves as an epilogue underlines the entire play, but dilutes the power in Tanya and Rex’s scene. It would work well earlier, maybe in the scene between her and Jasper.

Though Skyline is still in its development stage, it is remarkably polished and well-structured. A good cast own Bottomley’s rich language and the call for change is clear but not preachy. Some gentle development will whip this story into an even more powerful piece of political theatre.

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.

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, Camden People’s Theatre


(c) Giulia Delprato

Austerity sucks. People all over the country have had their benefits cut, work opportunities reduced and wages frozen. Austerity has badly affected young people at the onset of their careers, inhibiting the making of an independent, adult life. Young couples don’t have it any easier, even if one of the pair has a great job. For Bernadette and Oliver, life’s about to get even harder. They live in a Britain where the government isn’t just limiting welfare, arts council grants and junior doctors’ salaries. The newest austerity measure is on their speech – not what they say, but how much. Every individual is limited to 140 words a day in Sam Steiner’s Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons.

Steiner uses the word limit to frame Bernadette and Oliver’s journey as a couple and their efforts to overcome obstacles within their relationship. The audience sees them meet at a cat funeral, wake up together for the first time, make up coded abbreviations to use when the Hush Law comes into effect. They fight, they fuck, they count their words, and it’s lovely despite the dark premise. Euan Kitson (Oliver) and Beth Holmes (Bernadette) are charmingly intimate with each other, as they should be after their runs at Latitude, Edinburgh and Warwick Arts Centre. Fundamentally a love story, these two do their best to get by and stay together even though they’re chalk and cheese. Despite stylized blocking and choreography, and no physical contact for the entire play, these young actors are sweetly genuine.

The short scenes alternate between their pre- and post- speech limited relationship, with transitions well marked with movement and the use of microphones by director Ed Franklin. Steiner’s slow plot reveal keeps the audience keen, as do his conflicting characters trying to make it work one day at a time. The amount of time passing isn’t clear though, and there are logistical points that are ignored. Has the government installed internal speech limiters in everyone? If not, why don’t they ignore the law in the privacy of their homes? How does Bernadette go to work as a courtroom lawyer with a mere 140 words? How do they remember their word count? So many questions go unanswered which make the situation implausible, particularly with naturalistic performances.

Also jarring with the performance style is the abstract movement direction/choreography. With real-life dialogue and performance, the angular, distant movements provide visual variation that are pleasing to look at, but interfere with the actors’ connection to each other. In a world where words can’t be the sole means of communicating between a couple, there’s a blatant lack of contact even though they are often physically close. It makes sense to use movement to indicate scene changes, but the unfaltering style Franklin chooses is coldly repetitive. There’s a sense of showing off his cleverness or wanting to veer away from naturalism just for the sake of it. However, his sense of timing and interpretation of a script with little more than the dialogue and scene delineations is poignant and intuitive.

Considering production company Walrus are fresh out of Warwick uni and Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons is the creative team’s first professional endeavor, this slightly dystopian two-hander is an excellent piece of theatre. With no set and a focus on the words that the government brutally restricts, this tale of young love is wonderfully performed and an easy, touching watch.

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.

Film Review: Muse of Fire Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo + Juliet transformed a young generation into Shakespeare fans. Dan Poole and Giles Terera were training at Mountview at the time of the film’s release. They previously weren’t keen on Shakespeare’s plays what with their difficult language and having to read them at school. But, Romeo + Juliet changed all that. These avid Shakespeare buffs joined forces to make a documentary that explores why people don’t like Shakespeare, and to make the Bard more accessible to those ruling him out as boring or irrelevant. Over four years, Terera and Poole travelled around the world and interviewed prominent actors, audience members, people on the street and passionate theatre makers about their attitudes towards Shakespeare. Funny and relaxed, Muse of Fire feels more like a goofy road trip with your mates rather than a dry, academic film as the passion and love for Shakespeare’s work always shines through.

A mix of untreated, shaky home video and professionally shot interviews provides a good balance between the lighthearted and the more serious moments. There’s still a sense that a lot of time passes, and the four years was not all sunshine and roses for the pair. At one point when desperately low on cash, Poole takes on some building work to pay the bills. Then the car breaks down on their way to interview Dame Judi Dench. On the other hand, they travel to Germany to watch pioneering Shakespeare work with convicts, meet the great and the good from UK theatre and beyond, and make it to LA to interview the man that converted them to Shakespeare to begin with. It’s a feel-good film with a few overly sentimental moments, but these are forgivable what with their boundless, puppy-like enthusiasm.

The highlights of the 80-odd minutes are definitely the anecdotes and insight from actors like Dench, Tom Hiddleston, Ben Kingsley, Fiona Shaw, Christopher Eccleston, Ian McKellen and many others. Unfortunately, it feels like more of these prominent theatre makers are male than female (though I’d have to watch it again to count those who made it past the final edit). Audience interviews seem more balanced. Their opinions vary as to how to approach a script, deal with iambic pentameter and why they feel the plays are still relevant today but the range of views presented should reach even the most hardened skeptics.

Muse of Fire is a true joy to watch, particularly if you love Shakespeare and the work of some of the best, most established performers in the UK and abroad. Over an hour of extras also back up Poole and Terera’s goal of Shakespeare appealing to everyone, regardless of language, nationality and background.

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.

Claustrophobia, Hope Theatre


I imagine getting stuck in a lift is pretty high on the list of “Worst Things Ever.” Well, it’s obviously not as horrible as the death of a loved one, terrorism, cancer and a host of other things, but in terms of scary experiences that can ruin your day, it’s definitely up there. And, the longer you’re trapped, the worse it gets. In Claustrophobia, Aidan and Rachel are on their way home when the lift their in stops moving. As minutes turn into hours, their phones run out of battery and they run out of food and water. Mental and emotional deterioration sets in.

Playwright Jason Hewitt cleverly breaks down the play’s structure as the characters do the same, and employs an ending device that creates ambiguity and questions about what is and isn’t real. Though the script addresses the crisis effectively through its structure, the characters lack development and some of the scene transitions are clunky. Director Sharon Burrell does an admirable job with this well-performed two hander in an intimate space, but elements of the script let it down.

Michael Cusick and Natasha Pring play defensive, closed characters that don’t give much away about themselves for most of the show. They’re damaged people and often quite rude to each other, but their language conceals the inner workings of their minds. Their vulnerability comes through in abstract moments later in the play. Both attack the roles with commitment and energy that is amplified on the small, in-the-round stage and are a pleasure to watch.

Lighting by Tom Burgess and his projections (co-designed with Burrell) are rich and visceral during the character’s expressionist and dreaming moments. The projected video is abstract and wonderfully evokes specific moods that the lighting matches. This tech augments the language and adds clarity to sections of the script that veer from the previously established naturalism, but the transitions between these two styles are abrupt, and never fully explained; there is an unsatisfying lack of connection to the characters’ real life.

This is Hewitt’s first full-length play and even though it needs work, it shows his capacity for creative thought and a confidence to play with form. Burrell’s use of the space and staging is excellent and supports the script’s ideas, as do Cusick and Pring’s great performances. Though there are some issues, this is a polished production that shows promise.

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.

Spin Cycle, Theatre N16’ve seen “Mad Men,” or at least heard the clichés about cutthroat ad agency types. Competition for clients, drug and drink fueled late nights, ruthless bidding for commissions regardless of morals. Steve Thompson’s Spin Cycle uses all these ingredients, but the writing style doesn’t match director Stephen Oswald’s delivery. It’s either a farce that was delivered as naturalism, or a naturalistic piece (albeit with a liberal use of humour) that attempts a farcical production. All of the characters are pretty stereotypical with at least some degree of reinforcement from the script, causing the two hours of day-to-day office life to feel repetitive and lacking in depth. There are clear individual storylines, but everything that goes wrong is treated as a crisis that’s conveniently and speedily resolved. The performances are generally quite good in this strong ensemble, but the actors are unable to show much range or development due to a lack of character journey.

Jane (Anneli Page) is the boss, with a good balance of motivation and friendliness. Page easily adopts Jane’s quick wit but also shows some warmth and vulnerability; it’s a shame she is prevented from more than a bit of this. The character has an underlying humanity that is neglected in favour of style, but I chalk this up to a directorial choice. Ash Merat as Piers is the prodigal son with a dangerous edge, also well played. Both Mary Looby and Dan Shelton play three roles each and show excellent contrast between them. They are clearly skilled performers who deserve a shot at a meaty lead, but are excellent character actors as well.

My inkling is that the script is the issue here. It tends towards a circular structure with slow development and a few random sections of rhyming verse that don’t contribute anything other than questions about the reason for their existence. The storyline doesn’t follow a standard dramatic arc, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but the repetition employed quickly becomes tedious. The script could easily be halved and still make its point about the awfulness of the advertising industry, but at least the performances were good enough to get us through two hours of corporate rhetoric and pandering to the Tory party to make a buck.

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.

Live from Television Centre

On Sunday night, theatre people ( and hopefully others) up and down the country tuned in to BBC Four to watch Battersea Arts Centre and Arts Council England take over the former Television Centre, now a building site for luxury flats. Over two hours, four theatre companies streamed their work for live audiences in the comfort of their homes, to push the boundaries of theatre’s adaptability to the popular small screen and to challenge typical TV programming. I watched in bed and with twitter open so I could keep half an eye on #livefromTVC; it was a gloriously anarchic experiment that I hope ushers in a new era for telly and theatre even though not every element worked as well as it could have – but that’s the point of experimentation.

Gecko’s The Time of Your Life celebrates life cycles in a circular swirling movement with a “Truman Show”-style storyline of meta-television. The close-up nature of telly supports the characters’ intimacy and expressiveness well, but the narrow framing reduced their normally expansive work to a much smaller scale. I didn’t mind the spinning camera work, but twitter buzzed with complaints of dizziness. It was rough and ready, with limbs often out of the frame and movements ahead of the action, but that supports the “liveness”. Their piece wasn’t the most accessible and most suitable to open the evening either; Richard DeDomenici’s Redux Project would have been a more appealing start to non-theatre goers.

The long running Redux Project is adapted for the evening with joyfully irreverent recreations of classic moments from BBC television history. DeDomenici has a friendly, laid-back persona thinly veiling biting political commentary just as sharp as “The Revolution Will Be Televised”, but less blatant and without personal attacks. The live artist aims, “to disrupt the cinema industry by making counterfeit sections of popular films”; he satisfies with powerful alternative perspectives that are funny on the surface, but pose bigger challenges to cinematic convention underneath.

Common Wealth’s No Guts, No Heart, No Glory is a verbatim piece sharing the experiences of young women from Bradford who are Muslim boxers. It’s a powerful piece challenging stereotypes and giving voice to a demographic often ignored at best or stigmatized at worst. This worked brilliantly on telly, capturing the intensity and passion of the characters despite some strange camera angles.

Backstage in Biscuit Land by Touretteshero (Jess Thom) becomes Broadcast from Biscuit Land, the wonderful show that’s inclusive, informative, and contains plenty of biscuits and cats. Thom has a noticeable form of Tourettes that manifests in physical and verbal tics used for comedic effect in her show, and a reminder that understanding for people with disabilities is still lacking. In a more surreal moment, Thom reminisces about a particularly funny tic about Keith Chegwin in a quiet theatre; cameras then reveal Cheggers there in the live studio audience.

The variety of the evening reminds audiences of the power of live performance and its relevance to everyone. I’m certain that anyone who watched would be able to find something appealing in the evening, and hopefully discovered a company or artist previously unknown to them. Even if it was mainly theatre makers and goers that watched, TV can still reach audiences that are otherwise unable to travel to an individual performance. At best, those who don’t consider themselves theatre people will have found pleasure in the event, and there’s hope that the powers that be discover there is room for dancing biscuits, physical theatre and political performance on our small screens as well as our big stages.

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.

Measure for Measure, Young Vic’s a mountain of inflatable sex dolls on the stage. Shiny, blank faces with gaping, toothless mouths, spherical tits and gargantuan cocks everywhere. The pile is so big that the actors have to wade through the dolls, a metaphor for the seedy Viennese streets where Shakespeare sets his Measure for Measure. Director Joe Hill-Gibbins wrenches this world into the present with a symbolism-laden, visually orgasmic production designed by Miriam Buether, and a great performance by Romola Garai as Isabella. Live video feeds, projection and pulsing beats marry a space that has ghosts of Elizabethan theatre structures, but some choices don’t sit well. Though the visuals are relevant and bold, there’s a disappointing tendency towards shouting, and a dubious (to the point of discomfort) characterization choice for infamous pimp Pompey. As the characters physically and emotionally wrestle through the heavily edited, relentless two hours of sex and religion, there is still a strong feeling that this production values style over substance.

Most modernized Shakespeare I see tacks on a more contemporary setting through costuming whilst changing little else. These sorts of adaptations tend to not generate any new insight on the play, its story or characters. This production manages to escape that trap through fully integrated design that cleverly functions on both a practical and representational level. The sex dolls, the most jarring of the updates, are in turn Angelo’s repressed sexuality, the sinners that Isabella (a novice nun) rejects, prisoners, and the duke’s citizens. The live feed is the media and public perception (as it was in the Old Vic’s 2005 Richard II), the duke’s altered perspective of events, and creates clear boundaries between locations. It’s also very Big Brother, and the audience is the all-seeing, both on and off camera. These design elements are grotesquely amplified, with every pore visible as faces are broadcast and projected at a massive size, and the dolls, well, they’re everywhere and thrown around like a cheap commodity to be used and discarded.

The dolls eventually move to a back room, akin to an Elizabethan inner stage, that’s often sealed off by sterile sliding panels, but we are regularly reminded of their presence both on and off camera. The live feed doesn’t let the audience forget about the bad behaviour happening in the concealed prison where Angelo’s offenders await execution. Some of the characters linger on stage even when not in a scene, giving time and space a fluidity but one that is understood to be separate from the action in any given moment. This rejection of set also harks back to Elizabethan performance convention. Projections of medieval art gorgeously juxtapose whirling, close-up photographs of the dolls and projections from the live feed, two worlds colliding in Hill-Gibbins and Buether’s updated Vienna. This contrast pointedly comments on the hypocrisy of modern religious fundamentalism; pro-lifers who are so pro-life that they kill abortion providers immediately spring to mind, though there is a plethora of other examples.

Though Garai’s performance has the power and confidence that Isabella often lacks in more demure interpretations, others in the cast let it down. Zubin Varlo as Duke Vincentio is quick to shout; this soon becomes excessive and a loss of power. Though a great performance from Tom Edden as Pompey the pimp, it’s disturbing that he has been characterized as a stereotypical Jewish New Yorker obsessed with money. However, Ivanno Jeremiah is an excellent Claudio with a quietness that is great contrast to the fiery Isabella. The colour-blind casting proudly shows off the UK’s diverse talent, with a female Sarah Malin as Escalus, PA to the duke and his deputy. Paul Ready as Angelo, the floundering, conservative who covers Vincentio during has absence and tries to bed Isabella in exchange for her brother’s life is definitely despicable but also incredibly conflicted. It’s easy to almost feel pity for him at times.

There is no doubt that this production looks fantastic, particularly in the opening and closing sequences. It updates well and has contemporary relevance on several levels, but there’s little unity across the design elements. This reminds me of Baz Luhrmann’s 1990’s Romeo & Juliet – all angry and dystopian and fast. It’s non-specific to a time and place, just broadly Western contemporary. It’s diverse in race, gender and accent and could easily be London, Paris, New York, or any other sleazy, urban environment. This gives it universality, but also shows laziness. I wonder if the design was initially chosen because it looks lush rather than makes a specific comment. Despite my interpretation of the underlying meaning of the design, I can’t help but to consider that my mind is constructing meaning that isn’t actually there. This was a relentless unease that lingered for the duration of the performance, though it didn’t spoil the experience.

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.