in/out (a feeling), Hope Theatre

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Sometimes, simplicity in narrative structure is more effective than twists, heaps of characters and subplots. Storytelling has been a powerful medium for time immemorial. in/out (a feeling) starkly depicts young, Eastern European woman Blue working in a London brothel after promised a cleaning job. Her client Ollie is a coked-up, suburban lad out for his mate’s stag do, but their encounter changes both their lives, at least for a little while. This two-hander is a brutal depiction of sex trafficking and its uncomfortable nearness to us all, but unblinkingly focuses on the delicate humanity of these two characters through interweaving, storytelling monologues. Excellent performances and Andrew Maddock’s sophisticated wordplay and use of rhythm both captivates and horrifies in this outstanding production with few, if any, faults.

Nicholas Clarke and Alex Reynolds are Ollie and Blue. Though rarely addressing each other directly, their chemistry is still tangible. Clarke’s character has a more interesting journey, from lad’s lad to articulate romantic to devoted boyfriend; Reynolds’ is subtler but more devastating. Both have fearless, vulnerable presences and expressive eyes that pierce the audience to the core during extended sequences of direct address. This is a small, intimate play in a similarly sized venue, but these performers fill the room with intensity and then some. The audience feels like they really know them by the end: a remarkable feat.

Director Niall Phillips and lighting designer Çağla Temizsoy put the stage/bed in the round with harsh blue and red lighting. The set design, presumably by Phillips, is similarly harsh and animalistic: white paint slashes the black walls, strips of red fabric hang from the ceiling like intestines. It’s a nightmare to us, but it’s Blue’s reality. Small buckets, like the kind children play with at the beach, dangle at head height. They aren’t filled with sand, though. It’s Ollie’s perpetual supply of cocaine that he lovingly shares with Blue and frantically sniffs during descriptions of his all-night binges. By the end of this 70-minute play, there’s white powder everywhere.

Along with the performances, Maddock’s language is the star of the play. Evocative rhyme hints at spoken word at times, at others his prose dances with colours, imagery and Blue’s memories of a happier life. We meet several other characters through their storytelling: Blue’s pimp, Ollie’s friend Connell, and others. The double meaning and repetition of “in, out” innocuously describes breathing, then the other bodily function that dictates the rhythms of Blue’s existence. Maddock’s ability to wow the audience with his facility of word choice, sentence structure, rhyme and repetition easily tips into the terror that these characters experiences; this is proof of an extraordinary gift with words and evocative storytelling.

Though building awareness of the closeness of human trafficking is clearly the primary purpose of this piece (Do you actually know your neighbours’ isn’t a brothel? I don’t.), in/out (a feeling) could be about anything at all and the language would still have it’s power. This is a production that needs to be seen, but it feels it would lose its intensity in a larger venue. A good portion of the actors’ power hinges on eye contact, which is easily lost in a bigger space. But in/out (a feeling) needs to be seen by more people – by everyone. And it’s a stunning piece of theatre as well as a vital one.

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Shakespeare as You (Might) Like It, Rosemary Branch Theatre

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Four hundred years ago this April, Shakespeare died. A bunch of academics decided to take advantage of this bizarre anniversary and launched Shakespeare 400. It’s a great excuse for a nationwide Shakespeare celebration, but few of the involved events appear to acknowledge that the celebration is of his death and that he most definitely would write no more. Shook Up Shakespeare hasn’t let this fact bypass them, though. Their 45-minute Shakespearian cabaret mash up, Shakespeare As You (Might) Like It, is a quad centenary wake celebrating some of the Bard’s best female roles and the chaotic spirit of Elizabethan and Jacobean performance conventions.

Performer/creators Roseanna Morris and Helen Watkinson energetically and easily flip from Shakespeare’s verse to contemporary audience banter. Their show doesn’t have a plot, but involves party games, cakes, wine, singing and audience interaction as well as some cracking excerpts. In the intimate Rosemary Branch Theatre, it’s hard to hide but after the initial refreshments, party bags and taking a register, it feels more like a group of friends out for a laugh so people willingly volunteer. There’s a hint of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) but with less structure, though it doesn’t feel like it needs it at such a short length.

Morris and Watkinson, as well as being friendly, charismatic and unintimidating, are excellent performers. They perform three scenes and at a push, the Desdemona/Emilia scene is the best but the other two are still fantastically endowed with a seemingly-easy commitment. Though not the best of singers, they confidently carry the Willow song. They switch their tone on a pin, which is truly lovely to watch.

Shakespeare As You (Might) Like It is their debut show as a company and as fun as it is, it could use some developing. With more material it will probably need more shaping and a more clearly outlined purpose/message, but Morris and Watkinson are natural talents with clear passion for sharing Shakespeare’s work with joy rather than quiet reverence.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.