Maggie and Pierre, Finborough Theatre

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It’s easy to see why Justin Trudeau is one of the darlings of world politics these days. This charming former teacher, actor and advocate, turning to politics after his father’s death, identifies as a feminist, wants to legalise marijuana, is pro-choice, gay friendly and committed to the rights of the First Nations and other minorities. Canada’s liberal prime minister attracts groups of screaming fans wherever he goes both nationally and internationally, like any pop star. But where did these attributes come from?

His parents. Maggie and Pierre Trudeau, who met whilst holidaying in Tahiti in the ‘60s when she was a mere 18 years old, were THE Canadian celebrity couple of the 1970s. Pierre was, like his son after him, the prime minister of Canada. Their relationship was flawed, though. Maggie, young, free-spirited and bipolar, soon felt trapped by family life as her intellectual husband busied himself with work. The press’s constant presence also took its toll on their relationship, which the public then poured over in microscopic detail. In 1979, Linda Griffiths’ and Paul Thompson’s Maggie and Pierre premiers, a solo performance tribute to this enigmatic couple. It runs off and on for many subsequent years, a testament to the pair’s appeal.

The script feels quite contemporary, but other than for the purpose of historical documentary, its purpose isn’t clear all these years later. Though the two meet, fall in love and navigate their relationship, life in the spotlight, and the press, there’s no overriding message. It’s unclear why this story needs to be told. It’s a solid narrative over many years with moving insight into these historical figures, but the social and political commentary are limited to brief reflection on their relationship with the press. Perhaps this play would be more satisfying to Canadians or those that already know of the Trudeaus, but for audiences that have never before heard of this couple, there is little impact. It reads like an autobiography. Outstandingly performed by Kelly Burke and worth seeing for her intricate work alone, there’s the feeling that without her, the play would be disappointing.

Burke plays Pierre, Maggie and journalist Henry whose career has hinged on his reporting of their every move. Even though director Eduard Lewis incorporates numerous costume changes to signify a character change, Burke’s physical and vocal mannerisms completely transform into each respective character. It’s a wholly compelling process, a masterclass in performance. Her energy and commitment never falters and her presence is magnetic.

Designer Sarah Booth’s set is simple, but a confusing mix of abstract and functional elements. A huge, bright red quilt with Pierre’s slogan takes up half the stage and is only referred to once, near the end. Its visual dominance is impossible to ignore but it has hardly any bearing on the story. However, Booth’s creation of a bed that’s revealed from a nondescript cupboard is a great device. Philip Matejtschuk’s composition and sound design adds further depth, emotion and context that the set avoids, giving the show a more rounded, polished feel.

As a documentary artefact, Maggie and Pierre is no doubt a learning experience. The couple’s history is an interesting one and the love story is universally relatable. Kelly Burke’s performance is a wondrous thing to experience though, and more than redeems any of the production’s inadequacies.

Maggie and Pierre runs through 5 July.

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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The Doctor in Spite of Himself, Drayton Arms Theatre

The Doctor in Spite of Himself (c) Ulysse Beauvois (3)

When the abusive, drunken woodcutter Sganarelle beats his wife one time too many, she takes advantage of passing strangers looking for a doctor to cure a young woman’s mysterious illness. Telling them she knows just the man, an eccentric but renowned man of medicine, sets the ball rolling on an absurd adventure of lust, remorse, and blagging it. Exchange Theatre, a French company based in London, have adapted Moliere’s The Doctor In Spite of Himself into a 75-minute contemporary version loaded with metatheatre, energy and good leading performances from a French cast. Plenty of slapstick, detailed design and Shakespearian influence make this a fun, easy to watch adaptation of the French classic.

Actor-director David Furlong plays Sganarelle with a goofy, watchable charm. His undeniable charisma is at odds with the unlikeable character, though his comeuppance and subsequent reform are a somewhat satisfying narrative despite the anti-feminist premise from the 1660s. Furlong is by far the strongest in the cast, but the others are generally good. Anita Adam Gabay as the mostly mute Lucinda exudes a sweet innocence, particularly in the opening montage where she discovers her betrothal to a man she doesn’t love. Matt Mella is the hilariously dumb Lucas, able to evoke laughter with a well-timed pause and a blank look. Some of the actors find it hard to connect to the language in English at times, but these jarring moments are fairly infrequent.

The edited plot occasionally feels rushed and overly compact, though it’s easy to follow and the translation uses relatively modern English. The excused wife beating is uncomfortably old fashioned, but at least it’s ridiculed – along with medicine and the gullibility of the upper classes. These themes translate fairly well to the modern day and English culture, especially considering the Shakespeare-esque comedy sequences that are likely to have drawn on the same commedia del’arte heritage that Shakespeare did. Furlong updates even further by adding in discreetly funny elements of self-reference, even if they don’t always work. The bust of Moliere as a weapon is cute, but characters dictating text to others from an anthology of Moliere plays isn’t as effective and causes energy to drop.

The design, presumably also by Furlong, incorporates an Elizabethan stage-within-a-stage to emphasise the metatheatre and clarify location. It’s clever and looks great, though it causes some difficulties with sightlines and narrows the playing area. Furlong’s overarching concept of using the metatheatre to create distance is a strong one what with its acknowledgment the absurdity of the story and the plot points that don’t work in a present day context.

This production of The Doctor in Spite of Himself is a funny, palatable adaptation of Moliere for London audiences. It’s a good laugh, a good length and has good performances. The company’s talent and vision is highly commendable and deserving of larger production values; their commitment to bringing audiences high quality French theatre in intimate venues makes them one to watch.

The Doctor in Spite of Himself runs through 17 July with performances in both French and English.

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 Alchemist, Rose Playhouse

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When butler Jeremy’s master goes out of town, he transforms himself into Captain Face and recruits his comrade in deceit, Subtle the Alchemist, to help him make a quick buck from gullible townsfolk. Aided by the local prozzie Doll Common, the three create bespoke schemes for each potential customer. Their plans spiral out of control and the risk of discovery becomes all too real in typical Jacobean comedy format, but also typical of the style, it all ends well – or as much as it can for the victims of their scams. With jokes that come quick and fast in this surprisingly straightforward story, it’s a fun, light-hearted play that needs clear direction to succeed.

Though The Alchemist can be considered Ben Jonson’s best play, it doesn’t get staged often. The slapstick comedy satirising a cross section of Jacobean society is swift, easy to follow and jolly so it deserves much more stage time than it receives. In Mercurius’ strongest of their last three productions, an energetic cast fully commit to the stock characters’ hijinks and trickery with clear staging and character doubling. Jenny Eastop’s direction is tight and precise, though altering the time period from the original is gratuitous and occasionally inconsistent with the text. This light production of a rarely staged play is a midsummer treat with few shortcomings.

The cast of eight are a generally tight ensemble with good chemistry. Peter Wicks as Jeremy/Captain Face has a commanding presence and wonderful speaking voice that is easily watchable. Benjamin Garrison as Subtle is a delightfully flamboyant foil but with the character having less to lose, he has less depth. Alec Bennie as Surly is the star of the supporting roles, playing the posh sceptic with a dry, steely wit. Charlie Ryall is strong as the feisty nun Ananias, but her disinterested Widow Pliant is harder to engage with.

Eastop’s choosing to set the play in the 1800s is justified in the programme notes, but with a play that is so undeniably Jacobean in its style, the costumes (that are in a poorly made/maintained state and betray a lack of time and/or budget) look out of place, particularly next to some set pieces that look much older. Nothing other than the characters’ dress indicate a change in time period, and as such, the adaptation contributes nothing to the understanding of the play. She also, nonsensically, reinvents two protestant characters as nuns who have derogatory dialogue about the Catholic Church. Despite the change in setting, this choice is painfully jarring. Otherwise, Eastop’s direction and choreography is well paced and takes advantage of the script’s inherent comedy.

This production suits the Rose Playhouse’s unique structure well, with the rear of the site being used occasionally for comic effect. Placing most of the action on the small stage in close proximity to the audience makes these larger than life characters all the more exaggerated, further emphasising the stereotypes that the play relies on for laughs. With a good cast and intuition for light comedy, The Alchemist makes for some excellent entertainment.

The Alchemist runs through 30 June.

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.

Karagula, Styx

Karagula at The Styx, courtesy of Lara Genovese @ Naiad Photography, Charmaine Wombwell

In a former ambulance depot in Tottenham Hale, Philip Ridley’s latest creation comes to life. This epic parallel world of wholly isolated nation states resembles the worst dystopias imaginable in contemporary fiction. Mareka is a 1950s America with laws enforced to the letter by the Grand Marshall, everyone wears pink, and milkshakes are consumed with religious zeal. Cotna is the future, where people are have numbers instead of names, and watching meteor showers without protective eyewear causes you to hear voices. Then, there’s a community of exiles in the mountains, living in caves, wearing skins, and praying to pre-Christian gods. A storyteller/historian in yet another time and place documents these people and their trials.

These kingdoms have a lot of detail, and a lot of emptiness. The story sprawls over three hours, zipping back and forth across time and place, leaving a swirl of slow understanding, further questions and obvious metaphor in its wake. The text is rich and beautiful, fragmentary and challenging, but it’s only partially reinforced by design. A scaffolding base reveals occasional moments of visual detail, but they generally pale against the language. Karagula is equally marvelous and horrible, an experience for all the senses with stories that enthrall and disturb in equal measure. But Ridley’s Tolkien-esque ambition never reaches its full structural potential.

Individual scenes are just as likely to delight as they are to be forgotten. If Karagula was a tapestry, it would be patchy and moth-eaten in some areas, others would have exquisite embroidery, and still others would be completely plain and ill-fitting. The gaping plot holes leave room for interpretation, but the better scenes feel all the more out of place. Ridley either needs to pare the script right back, or add another couple of hours to join up these worlds more fully. The whole experience is equally delightful and frustrating.

Nine actors play all roles in some exemplary multi-rolling. Producing company PigDog is committed to diversity in casting and audiences, and this cast is admirably so. Obi Abili is a terrifying brutal Grand Marshall in Mareka. Emily Forbes is the fiery leader of the mountain outcasts, initially motherly, then ruthless. Lynette Clarke is similarly versatile, as a flamboyant and vicious Marekan and a cold number in Cotna. None of the ensemble ever let their energy drop; their work is just as fantastic as Ridley’s best scenes.

Director Max Barton approaches the text with clear vision and choices that aid clarity, even in the muddiest sections of text. Designer Shawn Soh has moments of brilliance (beasts with coats of cable ties and a throne of gears and propellers for the narrator are fantastic surprises), but the shoestring budget is noticeable in the inconsistent application of detail.

Despite it’s issues, Karagula packs an emotional punch with social commentary and nihilistic fortune telling. Mareka foreshadows a Trump-led America, and Cotna is a land where technology has ushered in the loss of individualism. There are moments of wonder and horror, and sheer bafflement. Philip Ridley’s vision is commendable, but the execution isn’t quite there, leaving the audience partially sighted. It’s a wondrously alive and human production and like any given human being, it has it its faults and its virtues.

Karagula runs through 9 July.

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.

Gertrude – The Cry, Theatre N16

Shakespeare’s women never get the attention they deserve, even the more interesting ones. The deranged, damaged and dynamic are often maligned and infrequently on stage. Margaret, Lady Percy, La Pucelle, and so on have moments of brilliance, but are then hushed, relegated in favour of men. Howard Barker rescues Hamlet’s Gertrude from Shakespeare’s sidelining in his 2002 play, Gertrude – The Cry, but his depiction is hardly a favourable one. Though he places Hamlet’s mother at the forefront of his narrative, he paints her as an unfeeling, sex-crazed creature in a fetid nest of similarly awful people. Overt sexual acts and poetic, obscure language are plentiful, but this actually a rather dull and overly long script is hard to digest.

Director Chris Hislop utilises the irregularly-shaped Theatre N16 incredibly well with a small traverse stage, placing the action in the laps of the front row and evocative projections at one end. Felicity Reid’s set is white, with a minimalistic plinth functioning as various pieces of furniture and locations. Clean and stark, it suits the characters’ emotional detachment from everything other than their own ambition.

Liza Keast as Isola, Queen Mother to the dead King Hamlet and his brother Claudius (Alexander Hulme), and servant Cascan (Stephen Oswald) are supporting characters but give leading performances. Oswald in particular finds an honesty and depth not present in the desperation of the others. Isabella Urbanowicz as the titular Gertrude has a magnetic presence, but lacks chemistry with Hulme’s Claudius – though this is due to Barker’s script, not a lack of ability on the actors’ part.

The text is the production’s week point. At least half an hour too long, the dense, awkward language says little. Self-absorbed, maniacally driven characters who lack empathy and dimension rant and fuck, wash, rinse, repeat. Little actually happens, as if Barker didn’t really have a concrete idea on how to go about paralleling Shakespeare’s Hamlet from Gertrude’s perspective. Though Hislop’s choice to withhold an interval is the right one in terms of pace and energy, two hours with little linguistic variation and plot progression is an endurance test for both actors and audience.

Whilst Barker’s attempt to reconfigure Gertrude is admirable, this female-led play is hardly feminist. Her sexuality is her downfall rather than her freedom, and the men in her life entrap as much as they do in Shakespeare’s original story. Ragusa (LJ Reeves), the parallel to Ophelia, is essentially a sex slave purchased for Hamlet who is eventually driven mad by his infantile whinging and the abundance of malfunction in the household. Rather than presenting an alternative, progressive view on female sexuality, it comes across as crass and misunderstood.

This is a good production of a rarely-staged play, but it’s clear why it’s so obscure. Most interesting from an academic perspective, Barker’s Gertrude – The Cry isn’t a particularly good text.

Gertrude – The Cry runs through 30 June.

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.

Spill, Pleasance Theatre

Discovering sex is probably one of the most definitive moments of a young life. Good, bad or indifferent, everyone remembers their sexual awakening. Masturbation, losing your virginity, rape, fantasies, dating, sexual identity and a handful of other topics come up in Propolis Theatre’s Spill, with a cast of eleven young theatre makers from Bristol. This verbatim piece is sweetly naive, but wittily blends music, song and a bit of delightful puppetry into the edited interview text, effectively breaking up the interweaving monologues. Though the material isn’t cutting edge or particularly interesting to more “experienced”, older audience members, Spill is well executed and full of heart.

Verbatim theatre created from the answers to interview questions can be tedious to sit through due to the first-person narratives and lack of dialogue between characters. Even chopped up and interspersed, engagement between performers often feels forced, if it’s there at all. Actors can stand there actively listening to each other as much as they like, but there’s still no getting away from the perceived self-involvement that comes from talking extensively about one’s own experiences. 

Propolis uses this format as the base, but they effectively utilise music, spoken word and song to emphasise particularly poignant moments and counter any potential monotony. Abstract movement sequences give the eye something engaging to take in, particularly when they’re as well executed as they are here. These devices make the piece much more interesting and able to hold audience attention for its duration. This fluid, changing form they have created is by far the most dynamic aspect of the production.

The eleven-strong ensemble never looks crowded; their choreography and staging is pleasingly slick. A simple set is colourful and striking, finding the balance between overly simple and excessive.

There is nothing innovative about the script though, particularly for an audience past their early twenties. Spill feels like it could be a TIE piece for 6th formers or freshers who are more likely to immediately relate to the stories of self-discovery. They otherwise come across as adorably nostalgic, even played by the young cast. There’s a good amount of humour and reflection in the language, and it’s admirably diverse and inclusive. 

Spill is certainly a polished piece of theatre that employs a some great devices, but the form and structure is more exciting than the content. It has clear potential as a touring show, though it will resonate much more with young people.

Spill runs at Edinburgh Fringe through August.

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.

Sea Life, Hope Theatre

I always think life in a British seaside town must be idyllic. Quaint and friendly, with the smell of chips, ice cream and salt in the air, the sun always shines and people share a friendly smile as they pass families playing in the sand and surf.

I know the reality is completely different. Broken economies are driving young people away, there are instances of racism and small mindedness, as there are everywhere else inland. Lucy Catherine’s Sea Life, set near Dover, captures this stark reality with three disfunctional, adult siblings in a town that’s literally and figuratively falling into the sea. Roberta is the agoraphobic fantasist who runs the family’s bar that never has customers. Her inappropriately clingy twin Bob builds coffins to inter the local cemetery’s residents that must be cremated before the cliffside where they rest crumbles into the channel. Their lone wolf brother Eddie, a failed artist, is one of a team tasked with digging up the dead. Their long-dead mother’s looming reappearance, constant rain and an anonymous American company that’s taken over the town’s economy has pushed these three to a breaking point that results in poetic, disturbing tragedy of classical proportions that’s also really rather funny. 

Catherine’s script is full of punchy, ferocious dialogue, constantly pulled taut by Matthew Parker’s direction. The three characters have radically different ways of coping (or not coping) with their dead-end lives, causing a natural undercurrent of tension that regularly erupts. The storyline is wonderfully unpredictable and increasingly macabre, though never implausible. Catherine’s gift here is showing a scenario that both feels like a work of fiction, and something that could totally happen under the perfect combination of circumstances and personalities. A couple of false endings detract from what could otherwise be a brilliant script, but the cathartic ending keeps things from being excessively dark.

The trio of actors have good chemistry, particularly twins Roberta and Bob (Vicky Gaskin and Chris Levens) who are uncomfortably close. Jack Harding as Eddie is an extraordinary pressure cooker who’s explosion is satisfyingly horrific to take in. 

Laura Harling’s set design is a fantastically detailed example of the possibilities able to be achieved in a tiny performance space. There is some slightly cheesy movement work that could otherwise be communicated with sound and lighting, but this is brief and the overall visual effect certainly adds to the play’s truthfulness.

Sea Life is a polished little gem of a play, and an excellent showcase for actors and designers alike. It’s not perfect, but Catherine’s script and Parker’s direction are a near-perfect example of contemporary naturalism.

Sea Life runs through 11 June.

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.