Correspondence, Old Red Lion Theatre

It’s 2011. Ben and Jibreel are typical teenaged boys – obsessed with video games, worried about girls, school, friends and family. They regularly meet on X-box Live for lengthy gaming sessions and banter, though they’ve never met. Ben lives in Stockport and Jibreel in Daraa, Syria. As Ben learns about the increasing unrest, Jibreel begins to distance himself. Ben eventually takes action to fight the tyrannical regime with the help of a dubious sidekick, but as he carries out his mission, his mental health collapses. Though Correspondence touches on hot-button issues, it has a convoluted, disconnected plot that doesn’t give enough attention to any of the issues it confronts.

This is a play in three completely different parts, none of which flow into the other or have much of a thread. The first third of the play centres on Ben (Joe Attewell) and Jibreel’s (Ali Ariaie) friendship, with the deterioration of Syria discussed in between laddish chatting. Ben charmingly interviews about Syrian life for the school newspaper, and Jibreel wants Ben to help him with his English as they blast their way through Call of Duty. There are plenty of lovely, intimate moments in Lucinda Burnett’s script. We also meet Ben’s divorced parents Joanna Croll and Mark Extance) and pint-sized bully Harriet (Jill Mcausland) at his school, but Ben and Jibreel’s scenes are the focus, and the best ones in the play. It’s a shame the play didn’t follow this path, as it could have a powerful, humanising view of Syrian refugees who are victim of the war.

Unfortunately, Ben’s decision to go to Syria and find Jibreel after he stops showing up for the X-box sessions shifts the action solely to Ben’s fracturing brain. His short trip is sparsely detailed and neglects Jibreel as a character. The same happens in the final third of the play, where hardly anything happens after we suddenly find him back in Stockport. These could be completely separate plays with mental health as the focus, but instead, there’s no depth – just passing comments that feel forced.

The performances are good, though occasionally self-conscious during the sections of Burnett’s dialogue that feel artificial to the moment. Mcausland’s performance is excellent, aided by a clear and touching character journey. Croll and Extance have some great moments of prickly conflict, and Ariaie and Attewell have some gorgeous tender moments over their gaming headsets.

Bethany Well’s dominant white circle of a set looks great with Christopher Nairne’s lighting; it creates some good images but doesn’t contribute much to the story or its excessive number of messages. Blythe Stewart directs, but struggles with the muddle that is the script. 

It’s a most frustrating experience when a play clearly has loads of potential but doesn’t really come close to achieving it. Correspondence, despite good performances and some excellent stand-alone moments, struggles to hold itself together. Lucinda Burnett’s script tries to force too many unrelated issues into 90 minutes, where one will do to create a much more interesting story.

Correspondence runs through 2nd April at Old Red Lion Theatre. 

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 Marvellous Adventures of Mary Seacole, Rosemary Branch Theatre

I had never heard of Mary Seacole until I began working in UK schools, several years after my arrival to the UK. What a woman!  No wonder her entrepreneurial, caring Victorian spirit is on the National Curriculum and she has been the subject of several plays, including Rosemary Branch co-artistic director Cleo Sylvestre’s one-woman show, The Marvellous Adventures of Mary Seacole. With a simple narrative structure, Sylvestre’s piece focuses on characterisation and biography. It is well performed, though some adjustments to the script and tech could make this an even better solo show.

We are never told who we are, but Seacole treats us like a society or club she has come to lecture about her life.  She speaks in the past tense shortly after her return from the Crimea; we hear her life story starting with her childhood in Jamaica, helping her mother run their Hotel, Blundell Hall and learnt about her “remedies” from foraging. Continuing onto her London, Central America and finally The Crimean War, Sylvestre endows her with a confident, charismatic warmth – no wonder she was so popular with soldiers and civilians alike. Her performance peaks when recalling her mother first teachings her about plants, and later memories of battlefields heaving with wounded soldiers – her “boys.” These are lovely moments to witness, but some of the more mundane content is delivered on autopilot.

Structurally, the script is a simple, linear narrative. This would be an excellent piece to tour to primary schools, as it’s easy to follow and has plenty of captivating anecdotes. The content is interesting enough to hold an adult audience’s attention for nearly an hour, but it would be a refreshing experiment to see this piece as episodic, with more lighting and sound than is presently used to highlight pivotal moments. This is not a new show, and solo performance has evolved since its inception. Sylvestre’s imagery-laden work would suit regularly used bigger projections, detailed soundscapes stronger lighting changes. Even though this is an important story, it is not an innovative production, but it certainly has the potential to be.

Cleo Sylvestre’s performance is the highlight of The Marvellous Adventures of Mary Seacole, but this long-running solo performance needs some revisiting to give it an extra burst of life worthy of such a vibrant character.

Running at The Rosemary Branch, 9-11 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.

The Revenger’s Tragedy, Rose Playhouse

Cross-gender and gender blind casting goes a long way to fight the pervasive gender inequality in theatre. With male characters dominating Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, these casting approaches, along with all-female productions, are the only way to work towards achieving equality in classical productions. At the Rose Playhouse, director Peter Darney of Em-Lou Productions takes the absurd, vengeful world of Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy and completely swaps genders.

By endowing women with the stereotypically masculine, obsessive fighting and fucking that occurs in the play, the heightened ridiculousness draws attention to our ingrained perceptions of how men and women should and shouldn’t behave. Simultaneously freeing and unsettling, Darney’s production draws attention to imbedded patriarchal expectations of women as caregivers by turning them into ruthless, vengeful machines in a strikingly designed, competently performed production.

With a black and red colour scheme inspired by the dark pool preserving the Rose’s archeological remains and the red rope lights that outline its foundations, Darney and designer Nicki Martin Harper have imagined the play’s action taking place in a goth/steampunk/BDSM world. Surprisingly, it works incredibly well. The sexually suggestive, alternative look suits these characters driven by sex and violence to seek revenge. There’s a ruthless, devil-may-care mood, and the striking costumes draw attention away from the inability to have much set on the small stage.

Darney, of Five Guys Chillin’ fame, doesn’t shy away from sex and violence. From the start, we see the crime that sparks the cycle of revenge: Junior (Camilla Watson) rapes Lord Antonio (Kit Heanue) with the hell of her stiletto. Staged at the back of the site, the audience is spared any gory detail (though there is plenty to come), but it’s a hell of an image to start with. The murders are similarly graphic, with an electric drill, daggers and poison all wielded with ferocious venom and copious amounts of fake blood. Most of the fights are rather clumsy and simple; a fight choreographer could increase the violence tenfold. There is also plenty of seduction and revealing costume, though some of the 15-strong cast disappointingly resort to playing sexy rather than finding any of their characters’ depth. The script also loses momentum after the first batch of killings and takes some time to pick up again.

Rebecca Tanwen and Allie Croker as evil sisters Ambitioso and Supervacuo give sparky, spunky (albeit posh) performances as they pursue their agenda. More earthy and vindictive are Vindice (a spectacular Annie Nelson) and Hippolita (Brittany Atkins), who have an urban, estate kid urgency and resourcefulness as they go after the Duchess (Deborah Kearne) for previously poisoning Vindice’s father. The rest of the ensemble are generally energetic and confident, handle the text well, and are unafraid to directly address the audience and include them in their bawdiness. Darney and his cast punch the sexual innuendos in the script, adding comedy that, in turn, makes the violence all the more shocking.

With a cast of beautiful people, The Revenger’s Tragedy is visually rich, with an edited storyline that is easy to follow, even to those not particularly familiar with the play. Though some of the performances need developing and the supposedly 90-minute show is actually two hours, it’s an entertaining production that is most valuable for its comment on society’s expectations of women. Seeing an unrestrained depiction of them as selfish seducers and killers is shocking not because of the acts they commit, but that it is women committing them – a sign of ingrained expectations of behaviour that are the root of gender inequality.

Running through 27th March at Rose Playhouse, Bankside.

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.

Institute, The Place

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Say your only close friends are people you work with. Can you trust them to help you out if you’re struggling with your health? Martin’s mental health is deteriorating, so Daniel, Louis and Karl try their best to care for him despite their own inner demons and needing to be looked after as well. With a distinctive physical vocabulary and a masculine camaraderie, Gecko’s Institute is an absorbing look at a society made of lonely, needy people without the safety net that family can provide.

Rhys Jarman and Amit Lahav’s deceptively simple set of Victorian wooden filing cabinets is loaded with the possibility of discovery and serves as a convenient place for the characters to store their memories, good and bad. The moments that new items are revealed are a wonderfully surprising juxtaposition to the hulking, boxy structures. Lahav and Chris Swain’s lighting design dark and atmospheric, sharpened by the addition of otherwise unnecessary smoke. Both serve the choreography well, without drawing too much attention onto the design.

Lahav also directs this devised piece, and performs as Martin. Considering he is also the artistic director of the company, it is a true marvel, and a testament to his talent, that none of his production roles suffer. He seemlessly incorporates multiple languages and regular movement sequences that are tightly choreographed and emotive expressions of his characters. The characters puppeteering of each other is a powerfully visualised (and sometimes sinister) metaphor of helplessness at the hands of external forces and the support that peers can offer – or not offer. It’s a visually arresting comment on the support and limitations of others on our individual lives.

The strong sense of brotherhood imbedded in the choreography is a lovely thing to witness. There’s a physical comfort the performers have with each other that blends with the characterisation, making the moments where they treat each other badly all the more shocking. The single female character, Martin’s imaginary girlfriend Margaret, is inventively shown, through costume and movement, but her appearance in a plastic cube is anticlimactic. The whole piece starts to feel too long towards the end, though none of the scenes are gratuitous.

Institute is typical Gecko fare, but the character’s relationships and externalised emotions are the finest features in this physical theatre performance. It’s some of best, most reliable physical theatre work out there at the moment, and Gecko retain the ability to surprise as well as showcase their unique theatrical language.

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.

Gardens Speak, Battersea Arts Centre

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In Syria, Asad’s regime attacks the funeral services for rebel fighters. Rather than holding public burials, families bury dead martyrs in their gardens, usually with no tombstone. In tribute to these people, live artist Tania El Khoury has created an interactive sound installation with the stories of ten martyrs buried in gardens. An intimate audience of ten each hear the recorded monologue of an individual martyr who died fighting against Asad’s forces, but they have to experience some discomfort in the process. Gardens Speak lasts a mere 30 minutes but irrevocably alters the detached western view of Middle Eastern conflict, fostering empathy and despair for fellow man.

In a small room, we are asked to remove our shoes and socks, put our belongings to one side and don an over-sized raincoat. Once everyone is ready, the door is opened to a darkened room with ten tombstones lining the edge of a large wooden frame filled with soil. Each person is handed a postcard and a small torch. Following the instructions on the card, we each find the tombstone pictured. To hear the story of the person buried in that grave, we dig into the rich, peaty earth that scents the room. What with the competing sounds of other recordings, to hear properly we kneel or lie in the dirt.

The narration is a simple, unembellished tale of one man’s fight and fall at the hand of the tyrannical government. It’s neither overly graphic but neither does it hold back. The environment created by the set strongly influences the mood – there is a pronounced gravitas in the space. The whole effect doesn’t overwhelm, but imbeds itself internally, somewhere in the depths of the gut, along with the spirit of the young man who’s life spoke from the dirt I lie in.

We are lucky: the room is warm, and our clothes are protected from the soil. After the narrative of a man’s life, death and burial in his mother’s garden and a sound bath in Arabic singing, we can wash our feet (a reassuring ritual element that also adds to the aesthetic of the piece), collect our things and go home to our comfortable, little lives. Gardens Speak is both a little installation and one that encompasses the whole of humanity.

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.

Every One, Battersea Arts Centre

Mary Jane, Joe and their two teenagers, Maz and Kev, are happy. Even Mary Jane’s mum, confined to a wheelchair and trapped in her own mind by age and medication, is happily restful. Their lives aren’t perfect, but they love each other and relish their middle class, heteronormative, suburban existence. Joe’s a teacher, Mary Jane’s a tax inspector, Maz wants to study fashion and Kev is obsessed with video games. They are undeniably normal, until Mary Jane has a stroke whilst doing the ironing and the four of them are changed forever. Jo Clifford’s Every One, even with its nuclear family, takes a gently radical view of death through a metatheatrical structure that loosely parallels Everyman and thoroughly breaks hearts with the love this family has for each other.

Lengthy monologues by the five family members smash the fourth wall, creating an intimate space inclusive of the audience as well as each other. They immediately endear themselves to us with their personal anecdotes that set up the tiny, catastrophic fall that is the death of a daughter, wife and mother. Michael Fenton Stevens as Joe, Mary Jane’s husband, devastates us on witnessing the death of his wife and seemingly never ending grief. Mary Jane (Angela Clerkin) is so full of life both before and after her death. Her diminutive frame, alternatively longing for her family, whirling with joy and relishing a post-coital Saturday morning is so alive, making the impact of her passing all the more keenly felt. Nigel Barrett makes a wonderfully surprising appearance as Death, but he is a dapper, crush velvet-clad friendly chap who escorts Mary Jane to the underworld. Maybe death isn’t so bad, after all.

Director Chris Goode intuitively uses the space through a serious of wooden platforms at various heights that, with a smattering of potted plants, has a warm sense of life. Katherine Williams’ lighting design has a similar warmth, even in the underworld. The actors are constantly present on stage, further highlighting the bonds of this wonderful little family. Goode and Clifford wisely focus on the characters’ relationships rather than on Mary Jane’s death; she is very much alive to them one year after her passing.

Though Every One plucks at the heartstrings and leaves you wanting a cuddle from your nearest and dearest, it is just a shade too long. Two hours with no interval could easily be 90 minutes and still retain it’s impact. This is a script issue rather than one of pace. Goode’s nailed the pace and energy of the play, to increase either would cause the production to lose its impact.

Every One takes a celebratory view of life and death, but doesn’t glamourise it. A recitation of causes of death around the world reiterates its normalcy but draws attention to the horror that is constantly occurring abuse, famine and terrorism. Death is all around us, and this fantastically performed family’s experience of it is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. Chris Goode’s gentle interpretation of Jo Clifford’s 2010 play reminds us of our mortality but also calls on us to make the most of the time we have with those we love. Go see it, then tell your friends and family that you love them.

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.

All Your Wants + Needs Fulfilled Forever, Vaults Festival

I’ve never seen any theatre from New Zealand before All Your Wants + Needs Fulfilled Forever. Compared to British theatre, how similar or different would a show be from a company that has never worked in the UK? What themes and styles are classed as “innovative and imaginative” down there? Would the work have the same aesthetic that British fringe theatre has developed, and would it be to a British audience’s taste?

All Your Wants + Needs Fulfilled Forever bears some resemblance to British progressive theatre, but in other areas, there is clear difference. With a plot showing influence by “The Trueman Show”, “Inception” and other films that present a reality controlled by unseen, powerful individuals, it has a plot that I could easily imagine from a number of UK fringe theatre companies, but the major difference is that the production is slick. Like, REALLY slick. It doesn’t look or feel like fringe theatre. Eli Kent’s dystopian script is layered, has a perfectly formed dramatic arc and a balanced use of humour and pathos. Other than a slight excess of vague plot points, this is a provocative, progressive play that British fringe theatre could learn a lot from.

Simon (played by playwright Kent) recently lost his dad and is struggling to cope. A disembodied voice/robot/computer that we never see who has a trio of technicians at its disposal intervene to create a better narrative for Simon. The audience’s view is from backstage – rather than seeing Simon’s engineered world from his perspective, we see a blinding white box framed by microphones, computers, sound desks and random props that Joel Baxendale, Victoria Abbott and Hamish Parkinson (playing themselves) use to construct reality. It’s a unique perspective, and one that takes some time to adjust to. A toy gorilla is Simon’s stoner best mate, his mum is a pair of pink marigolds, and his girlfriend Alice is a mannequin that’s seen better days. All’s ticking along just fine, even with some glitches, until Simon’s free will trumps the science that attempted to control his life.

Live sound mixing is used more effectively in this play than in any others where I’ve seen it used. It fits this metatheatrical world to a T rather than trying to be invisible or be something it’s not. Marcus Mcshane’s lighting takes advantage of the smart lighting rig, adding mood and colour to the white cube that Simon functions in. The mid-1990’s costumes by Lizzie Morris juxtapose the contemporary tech and highlight the awkwardness of the characters and their inability to fit in. It all blends seamlessly with the storyline and no design elements dwarfs the others.

Clearly one of the factors of this show’s success is its funding. This isn’t a large scale show at all, but the tech and specially made set with its windows and flaps in just the right positions for the action won’t have come cheap. R&D wouldn’t have been short, either. Though fringe in spirit, All Your Wants + Needs Fulfilled Forever is definitely not fringe in appearance. If small scale theatre in the UK had more funding, this level of work would be much more common on the fringe: sophisticated, progressive scripts with a well-rehearsed cast and enough design to create a fully formed world rather than the predictable minimalism that restricts ideas to the familiar domesticity of a few tables and chairs.

This ninth production from The Playground Collective has been running off and on since 2014 so the cast have great chemistry and there are no apparent mistakes with any of the tech. No doubt the long run also plays a part in the polish of the show, but this is something that is also not possible without financial backing. Though thematically just as progressive as some of the small-scale British touring companies (Theatre Ad Infinitum’s Light is a strong parallel), it’s an excellent show that proves the potential of fringe theatre if it had access to decent levels of funding.

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.

Transports, Pleasance Theatre

1973, a village in rural England. Fifteen-year-old Dinah is placed in the care of 49-year-old, first time foster mother, Lotte (not ‘Lottie,’ that’s an English name!). As the two navigate the fallout that results from Dinah’s troubled past, Lotte’s life as a war refugee in England parallels Dinah’s experiences of the care system. With more similarities between the two than expected, Transports is a fantastically performed, personal view of the trauma of displaced with excellent design elements.

Juliet Welch (Lotte) and Hannah Stephens (Dinah) are also Lotte’s carer Mrs Weston and Young Lotte respectively, about 35 years ago. Both women showcase great range and emotional truth through scenes of tenderness sharply contrasting their clashes. Writer Jon Welch’s gentle unfolding and blossoming of these women in each other’s lives is more moving than most love stories, and beautifully developed. Lotte is feistier than expected, and Dinah has a fragile heart that eventually opens to Lotte despite her hard exterior. A bittersweet end doesn’t sugarcoat the harsh realities of life as a displaced person, but neither is it too bleak of a forecast – a great choice by Welch.

Welch also directs this two-hander. His careful partitioning of the space with Alan and Jude Munden’s design creates intimacy and a sense of homeliness. Clean, stylised transitions clearly indicate changes in character and time, but these are longer than need be and not consistently accompanied by occasionally projected dates. A video makes up a brief epilogue about Leisl Munden, a poet who was on one of the last Kindertransport trains to England and on whose life Transports is based. Though powerful to see that the story has some truth in it, it also has enough power to stand independently of this bookend.

Two railroad tracks dominate the set, serving as a reminder that none of these women are able to be static and take root in any one place. Projections are laid over the full-scale tracks, hinting at atmosphere rather than displaying it outright. At times this is frustrating, at others, the shadows are more evocative than a clear image. Little details show care and consideration of the characters, like Lotte’s cat figurines and chest of memories from the war. There’s a sweetness in the design, as well as strength and movement. The overarching picture is incredibly dynamic as a result.

Transports occasionally feels like it could be a play for young people, what with the central experiences revolving around teenagers. The message of acceptance and and understanding is a simple one, but the script’s structure adds depth and universality. The story is a lovely one and occasionally sentimental, but by not shying away from frank discussion it finds a good balance – a complete and well-rounded play with a powerful story.

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.

Mirando: The Gay Tempest, Lion & Unicorn Theatre

Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a love story, a swan song and a spectacle of supernatural life. It lends itself well to adaptation what with its complex, intertwining themes. In Mirando: The Gay Tempest, Martin Lewin turns the play into a solo performance told through a gay lens. Completely nude with a liberal coating of silver body spray, Lewin transforms Prospero’s daughter into a son and camps up some of the supporting roles. Though competently performed, there is too little focus on Mirando and Ferdinand’s blossoming love and in a solo performance, the relationships Lewin wants to focus on  are difficult to convey. It is certainly an interesting experiment, but one that does not completely follow through on its intentions.

Lewin is in the space and chatting with the audience as they enter; this immediately diminishes any awkwardness created by finding a naked man. Lewin’s use of text also draws attention away from his nudity and onto the story he tells us. With a triangle of colour-changing rope lights on the floor and a few wooden chairs, the audience focus is completely on him and his tale. Other than the play being set in on a wild island populated by all sorts of creatures, the justification behind Lewin’s nakedness isn’t clear. It didn’t create an issue, but neither did it add much to the production.

The edit Lewin created uses stage directions to add context and clarity; though initially surprising, they prove helpful.  His characters are often very similar, with little vocal variation. Some have distinct physical traits: Ariel has wings, Stephano is a constantly moving gym bunny and Caliban, in his bestial earthiness, cannot resist constantly fondling himself. There are both speeches and scenes, but the most powerful and moving moments are Prospero’s monologues and the two scenes between Ferdinand and Mirando. The comic characters are fine, but not the strongest.

Though there is no designer credited, the sound and lighting works towards supporting the atmosphere, but sound isn’t used nearly enough. Shakespeare’s rich description goes a long way in supporting the imagery, but the other senses are neglected, especially with this being a text-heavy piece.

Though not a bad piece by any means and Lewin’s characters are the best aspect, he tries to do too much in a minimalist one-person show. The concepts are certainly valid, but they need further clarity and justification to make this a great piece of theatre.

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.