Leaper: A Fish Tale, Greenwich Theatre

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Our oceans are dying. Just yesterday, the news reported that 95% of the Great Barrier Reef has been bleached due to temperature rises. There are huge swathes of sea with high concentrations of microplastics that leach toxins into the water and the food chain. We are overfishing our oceans, causing a myriad of problems to human and sea life.

Tucked In is trying to change that through Leaper: A Fish Tale, an adventure story for families about a young girl’s discoveries in the world’s waterways. The unnamed daughter isn’t particularly interested in her dad’s fish farm and wreaks more havoc than anything else. But after falling into the stream in pursuit of a dropped crisp packet, she makes friends with Leaper the salmon on her journey from stream, to river, to ocean and back again. Good puppetry and movement keep younger ones engaged in this surprisingly complex story, though at times it feels a bit too convoluted and the lack of dialogue is unnaturally forced.

With an impressive array of animal puppets by Claire Harvey and Annie Brooks’ transformative set, there’s plenty to look at in the show’s recycled aesthetic. The larger puppets have an excellent range of movements, particularly the duck, seal and big fish. The rubbish monster is the most wonderfully inventive surprise, and the large jellyfish are poetry in motion. The smaller puppets are understandably simpler, but less dynamic with fewer moving parts. The baby fish, though sweet in the way the human characters treat them, are harder to see and not particularly interesting in and of themselves. The design really comes into its own in the middle of the ocean, with atmospheric lighting and sound to match.

Though the show wants to address both overfishing and ocean pollution, the littering is the primary focus. It makes sense as children may struggle with the concept of overfishing, but the plot points on the topic are consequently less engaging. There aren’t many of them though, and the focus is almost solely on the girl’s (Lizzie Franks) journey.

The performances by Franks, Philip Bosworth and Robert Welling are engaging and precise, though the reason for minimising speech is unclear. There are plenty of vocal effects, but character communication and actor impulses feel unnaturally limited. It doesn’t interfere with the story and the children in the audience aren’t bothered, but it doesn’t contribute to the production style.

Leaper: A Fish Tale is visually compelling with some great puppetry and an engaging story for children and adults alike. The performances are good and the story has all the necessary components of a satisfying adventure tale with a clear moral. Though there are some small issues, they don’t interfere with the overall enjoyment of the piece, and this show could play a powerful role in raising engaged, environmentally conscious young people.

Leaper: A Fish Tale is touring schools and theatres in April.

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.

Rave Space, Camden People’s Theatre

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A few hours before the start of the New Year, I found myself alone in a dark room in Battersea Arts Centre with two DJs, Will Dickie and Jeremiah Isaacs. The encounter was intimate, revealing and brief. Twenty minute long The Resolution Studio recorded individual participants’ resolutions for 2016, created a signature dance move, and the two djs and their audience of one had a quick groove session before rejoining the venue’s party. Though I felt self conscious at being the sole centre of these two artists’ attention, it was an event that stuck with me the past few months.

When I received an invitation to Camden People’s Theatre festival Sprint 2016 closing show, Will Dickie’s latest work Rave Space, I jumped at the opportunity to experience more of his work. With The Resolution Studio captivating me with Dickie’s charisma and sensuality for such a short time, I couldn’t resist the offer of an hour-long rave and text hybrid piece in the basement of CPT. I left confused and disappointed, though. There are definitely some wonderful aspects of Rave Space­. Interaction, dance and music meld to make a gig theatre piece with some audience autonomy, but with an actual runtime closer to 90 minutes and lengthy, muddled sequences of text and contemporary dance that only tenuously fit together (if at all), this new piece is much in need of further development.

One-by-one entry, whilst it adds atmosphere and interaction, takes a long time as we each have to ID ourselves and receive a hand stamp. Once we’re in, we can peruse the tiny stations with LED signs, turntables, and random objects assembled like shrines in the corners of the room. Some people are given laser pointers. It’s mysterious, cryptic and exciting, though there isn’t much to actually do or engage with. People are chatting, performers/stewards in hi-vis pepper the space and it feels like a gig is about to start rather than a theatre piece. There are no chairs, and it’s late. The lengthy build-up creates buzz and excitement, but what follows is an anticlimax.

When the music starts, spinning from a pentagonal structure in the middle of the space, a few people get really into it, most others bob heads, some don’t join in at all. That’s ok because there’s no judgement, but watching other people have a great time can be dull. Spoken text over a mic and pre-recorded monologues eventually kick in, but there is a detachment from the music, even though the content is often about music or rave culture. There’s no through-line or any justification for pairing that particular music with those text extracts. Comparing rave culture with the experience of going to church is the most interesting proposal, but it is not investigated further. Also disconnected from any of the topics discussed in the sections of text are sequences of contemporary dance in various styles, including what looks like Butoh. Though a display of adept, emotive physicality akin to a Rodin statue coming to life, these are also detached from everything that has occurred so far.

Though the concept of creating a piece that incorporates rave culture with performance is an excellent one, Will Dickie’s execution leaves much to be desired. There is no denying his charisma and talent, but Rave Space needs to consider its aims and its audience as it grows.

Rave Space was a one-off event at Sprint 2016.

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.

Comeback Special, Shoreditch Town Hall

In 1968, Elvis Presley was an ageing, faded icon, largely disregarded by the free love/anti-war youth of the 60s. Towards the end of a particularly rough year, he filmed the ’68 Comeback Special, an intimate studio gig that was later broadcast on television. Pioneering in form, it was filmed in the style of a live event but edited for TV out of several shorter sessions, each with a different live audience. 

Decades later, Texan live artist Greg Wohead watches this show on his laptop in a hotel room. A connection was made in that room that lead to the making of Comeback Special, and re-watching the broadcast recording hundreds of times. Wohead’s consequent intimacy with this programme creates an homage to The King at a crossroads. Through the simple use of repetition, narration and audience interaction, he creates a part-documentary, part-role play tribute act saturated with nostalgia for an event he never experienced.

Beginning as a monologue of the set up of the ’68 Comeback Special, Wohead narrates a detailed description of the artists, audience and staging. This telling is emotionless and clinical, but the anti-theatricality is compelling in its specificity. It’s easy to picture the scene he describes, especially considering the square stage he stands on with audience on all four sides mirrors his description. Timothy X Atack’s ambient sound bath quietly soothes with its timelessness, aiding the collective time travel to that moment in history. Wohead’s story zeros in on a singular sequence, repeating it again and again. The trivial becomes epic, the improvised becomes choreographed. 

The audience is both a witness and a participator in Wohead’s devotion. As he gradually transforms into Elvis, he assigns simple, repetitive actions in time with the dialogue we can hear, but not see. This is participatory arts at its best – Wohead needs the audience to create this piece, but doesn’t condescend. We are all equal, he just has a bit more practice than the rest of us. The final performance of this moment, though lasting about fifteen seconds, unites and warms the room. It’s a grand feeling.

In a world of reality television and constant documentation, Comeback Special is a reminder of the artifice in seemingly live, unscripted events, the importance of the insignificant moments and the need to bond with fellow human beings over the extraordinary act of performance making. Marvellously effective and simple, Greg Wohead turns a standard tribute show on its head. There is no cheese, no ill-fitting white jumpsuits or cheap wigs – just a man exploring a moment in the past with a bunch of strangers.

Comeback Special is touring various venues through 15th May.

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.

Twelfth Night, The French Protestant Church

Shakespeare productions in churches are similar to those at the Globe: the ornateness of the environment is a set in itself that gives the show grandeur and importance. Scena Mundi’s Twelfth Night attempts to emphasise these aspects by drawing on the fashion world, Elizabethan beauty and pagentry with rich costumes and self-indulgence, performed in a small Soho church. With some good performances and a gorgeous setting, this production has some great things going for it. On the other hand, some mediocre performances, a set element that clashes with the world of the court and at two and a half hours long with varying pace in uncomfortable pews, it also has some issues. 

Harriet Hare excels as Viola, focuses on the gentleness and wit of the vulnerable young woman disguised as a boy. Her love for Orsino (Pip Brignall) is sweetly believable, as is her fear of fighting and being found out. The attempts to genuinely disguise her as a man were minimal, though – trousers and a ponytail does not a man make, especially without any alterations to voice or posture. Martin Prest’s Malvolio matches Hare in ability, and is the only character to induce regular laughter. His dour expressions and posing in yellow stockings contrast well, as do his strops – a wonderfully versatile performance. The rest of the cast vary in energy, ranging from competent to disinterested – a choice by director Cecilia Dorland in line with her high fashion concept, but one that doesn’t translate to interesting or dynamic performances.

On that note, the incorporation of the haute couture world is otherwise unclear and minimal. A bright blue, vinyl catwalk runs from the stage down the centre aisle of the church, clashing with the colours in the building and costumes, which were generally period style. Narcissism and vanity are given in the script anyway, and adding stereotypical vocal affectation to some of the characters isn’t much of an influence. The costumes are simple with some sumptuous colours, but not high fashion or a particularly dominant feature of the production. Dorland largely focuses on the text and uses lighting to highlight dramatic moments, though the number of lighting cues is excessive and some fail to match the action. At The length it is, she cuts little – too little for the uncomfortable church pews.

With the lack of textual edits, the story is easy to follow and the grand backdrop of the church makes for striking stage pictures, but this is otherwise a run-of-the-mill fringe Shakespeare production. The chosen concept not really coming across and a mix of performance abilities isn’t much much of an issue in a 90-minute version, but at full length, these shortcomings are long to endure. 

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.

These Books Are Made For Walking, Jackson’s Lane

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Fabrice Dominici is a solitary librarian who takes great pleasure from the books he tenderly looks after. Gently stroking them, he flips to his favourite passages before giving them a sniff and balancing them on shelves made out of ladders. When a pile of books at the top comes to life, revealing a woman who has no intention of leaving and has a musician friend join her, the librarian tries everything to drive off these nonchalant interlopers. As his attempts continue to fail, this simple storyline of These Books Are Made for Walking starts to wander until it completely loses its way at an anti-climactic ending. Though visually dynamic and a nice premise for its aged 6+ target audience, the lack of distinct characterisation and a simple narrative arc is a disappointment to all ages.

Dominici’s nameless librarian draws on clowning to create a somewhat hapless but caring character who endears himself to the audience with his Wile E. Coyote determination. There are regular laughs, and his performance finds a lovely midpoint between over-exaggerated and underplayed. The other two performers lack personality, and it is never made clear what they want other than to hang out and make music on top of the rickety shelves. A love song gives away that they are a couple, but their relationship has no real bearing on the story.

Whilst the librarian’s attempts to get rid of his uninvited guests are entertaining and draw to a close before they become stale and repetitive, his sudden change of heart is inexplicable. He dashes around the stage with ropes and an audience volunteer to set up for the woman’s slack rope routine; after poking her musician friend in the bum with gardening sheers it simply doesn’t make sense. It’s a strange transition, but not as abrupt and unsatisfying as the show’s conclusion.

The set design, presumably by the three devising artists that also perform, is the highlight These Books Are Made for Walking. It’s instability naturally creates tension, though I would not want to be the person that had to risk assess the freestanding structure with performers clambering along the top. Books create a wonderful aesthetic, though watching them tumble to floor and then be trodden on cause several tiny heartbreaks. Christopher McGhee’s lighting works with the set well to create gentle shadows and focus points, though a moment of bright orange rays made the subjects hard to see as they were too close to the source to be lit evenly.

This second production from Bikes & Rabbits shows a promising use of narration in physical and visual theatre with additional elements of circus, but the spectacle’s temptation proves too much and is not properly integrated into the piece’s structure. It’s a lovely idea that doesn’t manage to follow through to a satisfying, clear conclusion.

These Books Are Made For Walking tours until 2 April at various 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.

The Rules of Inflation, Theatre N16

I hate balloons. Well, not balloons themselves, but the noise they make when they burst. After more than three years as a children’s entertainer that does balloon modelling, you’d think I’d be used to them, but no – if anything, it’s worse. When I walked into Theatre N16 to discover a floor covered with balloons and four actors gleefully throwing themselves around the space, I nearly left. I’m glad I didn’t though, despite numerous explosions. Rules of Inflation, a new performance art piece by Balloons Theatre, confronts socio-political issues by setting them at a children’s birthday party, complete with a deranged entertainer who demands his audience of four child characters participate in increasingly disturbing activities. Though my immediate violent revulsion towards the balloons and the job I know all too well intensified as time went on, the messages contained therein are cleverly presented. Even though they are not particularly unique to the stage, the kids’ party framework draws attention to how disturbing these global problems are.

From the start, it is clear this is not a normal children’s party. The creepy music, dark lighting and clown in a ripped, dirty costume (a disturbing Joshua Webb) create a distinctly foreboding, horror film-esque atmosphere, along with all those balloons that could burst at any moment. It’s not a unique landscape but it’s highly unsettling, and relentlessly so. As innocent childhood games become not so innocent, it’s a reminder of how seriously little ones take their play. Getting “out” actually makes them feel like they died, or that they’re gagged and bound. It also calls to mind child’s play in war torn countries, where games in a dangerous environment can result in injury, trauma or death, and the way the world’s politicians play at war without experiencing any direct consequences.

Four actors play four children with varying levels of maturity, who are prone to varying levels of exploitation. Clown targets serious and mature Blue (Nastazja Somers), and finally abandons her in a harrowing, violent end. It’s horrific to witness. Yellow (Bryony Cole) and Green (Emily Sitch) are too similar of characters, and Pink (Bj McNeill) also aligns with them. Whilst this could create an effective gang against Blue, who has a wonderfully defiant presence, this opportunity is missed and she is neither particularly isolated or supported by the kids as Clown abuses her. Instead, their youthfulness draws them to the clown, who eventually proclaims a party  winner even from their indistinctness. The piece is also a bit too long considering the straightforward format, but more abstract moments help add variation and a break from the relentless violence, abuse and manipulation. The actors’ vocal and physical energy was quite adult at times and would be more potent if the actors consistently kept to obvious depictions of children.

Rules of Inflation may not evoke such a visceral reaction in most people, but it’s aggressive displays of sexual abuse and objectification are still incredibly powerful. The piece needs a few tweaks to enhance its potency and theatricality, but not many. The balloons and kids’ party context can play on a fear of clowns as well, but this live art performance is a potent examination of power and child abuse in its own right.

The Rules of Inflation runs until 24th March.

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.

How To Survive a Swarm of Bees, Bread & Roses Theatre

The heaps of white pillows that cover most of the stage make How To Survive a Swarm of Bees look like a slumber party or a kids’ fort, something with a lot of fun and giggles. But Anna Crace’s short play is far from the happy cuddliness implied by the set. With a Scandi aesthetic in both design and dialogue, this austere piece of new writing gives little away except for the looming apocalypse Of a massive storm and a swarm of bees that threatens the existence of two young couples barricaded into their homes. The minimalist text bears more than a passing resemblance to Beckett, but it’s so sparse that there isn’t much depth or substance despite the interesting premise.

The unnamed hetero couples in their early 20s live separately, but their lives and conflicts parallel each other in the moment. Rather than the somewhat disappointing story, the most interesting feature is the intertwining scenes where the characters occasionally swap partners (not that way, pervert) without acknowledging the change. The device is gently disorientating, aiding the distance from reality that creates a state of reflection in the audience. These four are Every Men in the face of a crisis, with fear, anxiety and need that manifest in four different ways. We can relate to them all, but know they are not of our world.

The lack of action and a threadbare story is frustrating, through. The only thing the four do is talk around the problem and argue, and shift pillows around in their confinement. What exactly is going on in the world? Disappearing news broadcasters and friends choosing to live underground are never fully explained. Why is the world reacting so strongly to a storm? Why are these couples fighting about staying in their homes with the buzzing growing ever louder? They allude to consequences of nature creeping into the house and “the nets” failing, but what are these consequences? It’s never revealed, but easily could be by lengthening this script by another twenty minutes or so.

There is some distinction between the different characters, but other than Laurie Ogden’s agoraphobic young woman, the rest are very similar. Should we stay or go? How long can we realistically eat the soup we’ve stockpiled? How will our relationship hold up with our choice? What do we do if one stays and the other leaves? These questions are debated, but never really answered. The end of the play is abrupt and feels like an interval; some audience hang around for a while and then, confused, head into the night.

The four performances are fine, but tend towards minimalist reflection as well. Though inherently theatrical in structure, elements of this script would be great for telly. The intimacy works well in small fringe theatres, but would most likely come across as flat anywhere larger.

Anna Crace is certainly onto some interesting ideas and design concepts in How To Survive a Swarm of Bees, but the need further development and clearer means of communication.

How To Survive a Swarm of Bees runs until 20th March.

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.