Eggs, Vault Festival

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Women get the raw end of the deal no matter how young or old they are, how mainstream or alternative. Two late twenty-somethings, acquaintances through a mutual late friend but with completely opposite personalities, end up bonding over important issues but with dry humour and restrained emotion. Despite the content, Eggs avoids catering purely to women. The frank honesty is stereotypically blokey, covering topics such as masturbation, one-night stands and careers – issues that are obviously relevant to women, just not often spotlighted so directly – as well as fertility, marriage and the fear of aging. Structurally episodic and a bit clunky, Eggs is also bitingly funny and poignant, particularly for those of us in our 20s and 30s feeling like we don’t really fit into the world.

Playwright Florence Keith-Roach uses the versatile symbolism of eggs throughout, albeit obviously. Even the set and costume by Clementine Keith-Roach and Lily Ashley are all white and yellowy-orange. It’s an interesting catalyst for written material, and Keith-Roach riffs in numerous directions from that starting point. Fertility is an obvious path, but egg shaped vibrators less so. This makes the events in the story nicely unpredictable, but Keith-Roach does a great job tying up the issues into a satisfying end.

Keith-Roach and Amani Zardoe are girl 1 and girl 2. Girl 1 is a hippy artist fighting the status quo; Girl 2 loves her corporate job and can’t wait to marry and have children. Both performances are heighted and somewhat ‘Sex in the City’-esque, particularly at the beginning, where they feel like chick lit but on stage. Fortunately, both actors settle into more naturalistic performances after a couple of scenes. Unlike the terrible television series, these unnamed women develop depth and genuine conflict, even though they are not the most likeable of characters. Their insecurities and flaws are believably human, as are their prickly, awkward encounters that evolve into a genuine care for each other.

Eggs is heart-warming without being cheesy, and substantial but does not preach. It provides gentle solidarity to women who feel like their lives aren’t everything they’re supposed to be, and even though the earlier scenes feel disconnected from each other, the last third of the play really rings true. It’s a good piece of theatre for a second play and is a pointed reminder of the fact that no one really has their life together.

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.

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What I Learned From Johnny Bevan, Soho Theatre; The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Jack Studio Theatre

Is revolution in the air? Or, are we all so broken and defeated by rising costs and a falling quality of life that all we can do is complain bitterly? Perhaps a bit of both? In any case, this is not the first time that I wonder if theatre is responding to the liberal sense of disaffection recently. Shortly before Christmas I questioned Dominic Cavendish’s assertion that theatre isn’t political enough, and my sentiment still stands, particularly after the coincidence of seeing two highly charged political pieces two nights in a row. Fringe theatre, like grassroots politics, is a place of community, a catalyst for change, and the foundations of revolt, as seen in Lazarus Theatre Company’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Luke Wright’s What I Learned From Johnny Bevan.

1997. The eve of the general election. Nick, who’s studying English Literature at a nameless uni stays up all night with his best mate, poet Johnny Bevan, to watch Tony Blair win. It’s the dawn of a new era and change is coming for the working class long oppressed by Thatcherite rule.  Fast forward fifteen years and Nick’s a journalist in London, but Johnny’s student aspirations didn’t come to fruition, and neither have Tony Blair’s. The story of these two lads’ friendship, written and performed by Luke Wright in a blaze of fiery spoken word, is an hour long tale of youthful vigour soured by the realities of adult life. Wright’s delivery and writing is fervent, topical and no moment is out of place in the trendy and on-point What I Learned From Johnny Bevan.

South of the river, an older revolution is taking place. In Soviet Russia, a group of peasants stages a play about a servant girl in Georgia raising the governor’s newborn baby that was abandoned during the family’s escape from a war zone. After a perilous journey, sacrifice for the sake of the infant, and a regime change, everything is put right again by a citizen judge. Lazarus Theatre Company, with its trademarks of a large cast and striking visuals, draws parallels between Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle and the despair of modern life – but “change is hope”. Energetic and in the round, the characters rally the audience to their side like they do in Wright’s monologue.

There’s optimism in both productions as well as despair, and an underlying current of discontent with the state of the UK’s current socio-political trajectory. Both display humanity’s capability for selflessness and selfishness, and the feeling that nothing has changed from Soviet ruled Eastern Europe, to Labour’s late-90’s victory, to present unviable economic conditions and Tory tyranny. We are undeniably flawed with a fickleness vulnerable to power and money, but as a society we are also deeply unhappy and feel that we lack the power to affect change. This sentiment now seems to be emerging in fringe theatre.

Though completely different in form and structure, both What I Learned From Johnny Bevan and The Caucasian Chalk Circle have plenty to say about the contemporary world from similar angles. What I Learned From Johnny Bevan is the better of the two productions, and  the more progressive. A solo performance delivered in spoken word accompanied by charcoal and watercolour landscape projections, most of the imagery in Wright’s language is precise and evocative. Brecht’s well-known play is linguistically stilted and stuffy in contrast, but it’s characters are just as colourful.

Performance poet Luke Wright is a singular tour de force and What I Learned From Johnny Bevan is politically charged and practically flawless. Lazarus Theatre’s performances vary, but of the ten-strong ensemble, no one was particularly strong or weak. Their choreography is well-rehearsed but director Ricky Dukes normally powerful movement sequences  lack impact in the round. The set components take up a lot of space and are used well occasionally, but otherwise clutter the stage with bright, industrial chaos. Neil McKeown’s sound design hints at atmosphere and mood, but is much too quiet to add the impact it could. It’s certainly not a bad production, but neither is it one of Lazarus’ stronger ones.

If theatre is a mirror held up to the world, then evidence is increasing that change is imminent. But what form will it take? Will the people rally as in The Caucasian Chalk Circle or will we either sell out or run away from it all like Nick or Johnny? Only time will tell.

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.

Poll Function, The Pleasance

Two West Country lads speed through the night as both cheerful teenagers and disillusioned twenty-somethings. They wear cheap fancy dress masks; one is Batman and the other small and indistinct – Robin, maybe?. Movement, voice and lighting states dictate time and place, with most of the action taking place in and around a car as they tear through the small town where they’ve spent their whole lives in this frenetic and occasionally unclear performance piece with a nod to performance art. Seeking to be a commentary on austerity and social responsibility, Poll Function comes across more as a general coming of age story where, though the protagonists are academically unmotivated, they struggle to come to terms with the realities of adulthood not even closely resembling the aspirations of their youth – a problem many millennials face. Though the intended message doesn’t particularly come across, the physical performances in Poll Function are excellent and the strongest feature of this work.

Greg Shewring and Jon Pascoe play these two unnamed young people. Pascoe is the leader, always behind the wheel, controlling where they go and how fast. He’s not the brightest bulb though, laddish “banter” sets the tone from the start. As the character ages and there’s an unfortunate encounter between a badger and the bumper of his car, the profundity of his language abruptly moves beyond, ‘Mate. Shut up. Slaaaags!’ and even includes frequent use of metaphor. Whilst his sentiment is lovely and captures the character’s inner frustration, it’s a dubious linguistic leap in Shewring’s script. Shewring as the quieter sidekick is the more dynamic and interesting character, and just as ably performed as his louder, dumber counterpart. Both Shewring and Pascoe show well-developed sense of physical performance, which could do with being further used in this non-linear piece.

As the car is completely mimed complete with vocal effects, it takes some time to work out if the boys are in an actual car, playing a game, or, what with the short, sharp scenes jumping back and forth through time, if the whole thing is more abstract than that. The lack of clear exposition is effective, but disarmingly unexpected and takes some time to settle into its own rhythm. Not that it’s a bad thing to wonder what’s actually happening for the first quarter of a performance, but it has the potential to be off-putting. Poll Function (a title that only tenuously comes through in the message) wouldn’t be entirely out of place in an experimental theatre venue or festival; the work reminds me a bit of Action Hero in tone and theme.

Poll Function is certainly an interesting work from new Bristol-based collective The Project, particularly as it’s their first production. Though it has some flaws, thy company are certainly off to a flying start.

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.

Firebird, Trafalgar Studios

Tia is fourteen and lives with her foster mum in Rochdale. She’s had a rough life growing up the care system, and no one seems to care about her. When she meets “youth worker” AJ in a kebab shop, he gives her a cigarette, offers to buy her chips and take her to a “party” in his flash car. A bit of attention and some small gifts, and Tia’s sold. She gets more than she expects in Phil Davies’ first full-length play, though. Manipulation and lies lead to her rape rewarded with new clothes, booze and fags. Not just once, but again and again. Firebird depicts the exploitation of this young woman with harrowing language and stark staging, reminding the audience that this abuse happens up and down the country. With child poverty on the rise and social media so vital to teenaged communication, the risk of this abuse is increasing; Firebird reminds us that this could happen to any young people we know. Davies’ script, episodic with large gaps in time, is sometimes lacking but good performances anchor this emotional work.

Callie Cooke is a brash, mouthy Tia with a fragile exterior often dissolving into tears. She spends a good portion of the play crying which, though she endures horrific treatment at the hands of a gang of middle-aged men and is fobbed off by police, feels superficial after a time and lacks character development. Tahirah Sharif as her new friend Katie is only in the first and last scenes set in the present that frame the abuse flashbacks, has much more depth. Phaldut Sharma is wonderfully despicable as AJ, the man who initially recruits Tia and keeps her bound to the unseen gang. Sharma also doubles as down-at-heel detective Simon who is not able to save her. More contrast between Simon and AJ wouldn’t go amiss, especially as Simon is only in one scene that Cooke dominates by crying.

Davies’ script has a simple and formulaic, but effective, structure that doesn’t interfere with the message; the gaps in time are reasonably spaced and spare the audience too much horror – but perhaps this is a bad thing? In the time he does give us, Davies manipulates audience emotions as much as AJ manipulates Tia. Again, this isn’t necessarily a negative what with the impact the show seeks to create. And the impact is a strong one. Sniffles and tears abound with unrestrained expressions of horror. In a particularly graphic scene, my normally sturdy stomach heaves at Cooke’s bloody body shakes in fear as she described to AJ what one of the men did to her. Tia’s appropriately desperate actions that land her in a wheelchair are also horrifying. With stark, bright lighting and an audience on four sides of the stage, being forced to experience audience expression in response to the action magnifies the experience.

After this seventy-minute show, I feel like I’d been put through an emotional wringer and need to lie down in a dark room for awhile. Despite the shortcomings in the script, it abounds with impact – as it should. As well as fostering awareness and understanding, Firebird is a promising piece of new writing with a couple of great performances that unveils the unimaginable horror of child sexual exploitation.

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.

Mirrors, Rosemary Branch Theatre

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Photography © Tim Smyth

Maybe the witch in Snow White isn’t that bad. Or, maybe her badness is justified, like she had a traumatic childhood or suffers from a mental illness. Siobhan McMillan proposes just that: Shivvers realizes she’s past her prime and, with insecurity taking over rational thought, she decides to hunt down the young woman who dethroned her from her position as the fairest in the land. This quest takes shape as a solo performance told in the third person, like a fairytale. McMillan regularly interjects with contemporary references and using sarcastic humour to great advantage, makes a strong comment on women’s insecurity about aging.

The use of third person narration is one of the more interesting features of Mirrors; it distances McMillan from the audience and herself. Her physicality and energy cannot be denied as she embodies the characters she simultaneously describes. The audience is told her story but has plenty to watch, and a liberal use of sound and vocal effects create a dynamic aural landscape, even if a touch too loud at times.

The use of an occasional live feed adds another visual layer by which the audience scrutinises Shivvers, but a backlight interferes. The intention shows good instinct by director Jesse Raiment. The set isn’t particularly dyanmic with its black flats and mirrors, save for the ornate frame mounted on a table centre stage – a symbol of modern obsession with female appearance and its dominance in Shivver’s life.

This feminist solo show is an excellent display of performance storytelling and a witty comment on modern life as a woman. Not just about aging, it also looks at female competition, the need to be desired and the perils of dating. With the opportunity of a longer run, Mirrors could upgrade its tech and design to create a more polished production matching its content, creating a piece great for touring small to mid-scale venues.

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.

One Under, Vault Festival

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Amy Fleming’s dad committed suicide when she was four years old. Fleming struggles with mood swings and wonders if she’s “mental,” like her dad. Luckily, she studied Molecular Medicine before becoming an actor so she understands how genetics dictates our characteristics. She also knows that talking about our problems and developing positive habits helps us overcome them. Combining her science and performance backgrounds, Fleming’s One Under is part conversational lecture, part interactive game. She relies on narration, humour and audience involvement to share her message, but the piece as a whole feels unfinished. It’s a nice idea, but it lacks theatricality and detail.

There’s no character, just Fleming and her generally cheerful honesty. She relaxes the audience straight away and easily facilitates discussion. After a frank introduction about her childhood and how genes are passed from parents to child; there’s some framing by her biography and a multi-round game/quiz with easily answerable mental health questions. These two elements aren’t solidly connected to each other, and the piece’s message isn’t spelled out until the very end. Structurally, it’s weak. By that point though, the message is less interesting that the journey we took to get there and the camaraderie that emerges en route.

This solo show isn’t very theatrical, but it’s lovely for its warm cuddliness and playful approach to form. Fleming is clearly passionate about helping people improve their quality of life and their mental health, which is a commendable mission. Her openness and her anti-performance make me feel uncomfortable writing any sort of negative judgement – it’s such a personal piece. But at an hour long, glossing over parts of her past with some audience debate over quiz questions about how to approach mental health issues at work, there’s a noticeable lack of depth.

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.

A Steady Rain, Arcola Theatre

Drip.

Two middle-aged men sit in a run down office. They’re police officers, Denny and Joey. This is Chicago in the 1990s, and Denny, a family man, does what he needs to do to support his wife and kids, both legal and completely illegal. He’s a stereotypical beat cop aspiring towards a promotion that he will never get because he’s racist, abusive and addicted to drugs and fucking the prostitutes he collects protection fees from.

Drip.

Joey’s his best mate, and the complete opposite; he’s sensitive, supportive, respectful and in love with the life that Denny has. Days pass. Denny and Joey are partners in work and in life, having grown up with each other. Joey tries to talk down Denny’s stupid choices, Denny abuses him, then invites him over for dinner. Wash, rinse, repeat.

…drip…drip…

Keith Huff’s script is narration heavy, isolated and flips back and forth in time, centering around key moments leading up to arsehole tragic hero Denny’s (Vincent Regan) eventual fall. Because you can only be a racist, abusive copper for so long before your power tripping bad decisions, all relating to a particular handful of criminals, double back and bite. The dialogue scenes are far better, giving the two men a chance to connect with each other rather than opine to the audience. The narrative arc is low and slow, only gaining momentum after the interval. Though it has a sophisticated structure, Joey (David Schaal) is awarded for being a good guy but denied the spotlight by the blustering, powerful Denny. Regan is despicable, but memorable. The nice guys always hover in the background, right?

Drip.Drip.Drip.

Design is simple, but planned with precision by Ed Ullyart and Simon Bedwell. A metal table is both benign and booming, the fridge is a fridge and an echo chamber, and the constant rain is a leaky pipe with a satisfying climax, albeit one that is over long.

Dripdripdripdripdripdrip

Huff’s language doesn’t hold back, and neither does Regan’s performance. There is a bit too much exposition, and empathy with the characters doesn’t kick in until the superior second half, but by the end Denny’s unraveling, which Regan captures exquisitely, and Huff’s grittily poetic descriptions have the audience by the balls.

A Steady Rain.

Torrential rain.

Drip.

And the rain passes. The air eventually clears. All is well, but the storm’s irrevocable damage will remain. Huff’s characters help compensate for the first part of his script, but this text-based play is longer than necessary. Fortunately the performances break through the clouds.

Silence. Sunshine.

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.