Rotterdam, Trafalgar Studios

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No one stays long in Rotterdam. Boats, goods and people are always on the move in and out of the Dutch port city. Alice is an exception, an English immigrant whose ship washed ashore seven years ago and never took to sea again. She doesn’t like the city, but neither does she want to leave. Her ex-boyfriend Josh came with her, but after meeting his sister Fiona, Alice realised she was gay and left Josh for Fi. The women set up home in Rotterdam, couched in comfortable, domestic bliss for the last several years. Now a few nights before New Year’s Eve, Alice agonises over a coming out email to her parents back home. As she’s about to click send, Fi has her own coming out – she’s not a gay woman, she’s a man called Adrian trapped in a woman’s body.

Alice’s secure life begins to come loose from its moorings as she tries to support Adrian’s transition. Her brave face can only hold up for so long as she is left in his wake in Jon Brittain’s Rotterdam. The fragility of their relationship is much more moving than any televised exposé for the masses. Even though some scenes are a touch overwritten, the ebb and flow of this delicate situation is exquisitely captured.

Brittain’s use of perfectly balanced perspectives makes it impossible to take sides as Adrian and Alice’s issues become increasingly at odds – a commendable decision that’s difficult to execute in writing. Both are inherently self-absorbed, and both have genuine grievances with the other. The nuance in the storyline lies in their interactions, and two minor characters provide a wider view of their microcosm that feels devastatingly huge. All four characters have quietly powerful speeches and moments where they try to understand each other despite their needs being at odds with someone else’s experience. These characters are wonderfully flawed humans trying their best to navigate an unfamiliar situation; Brittain’s ability to foster audience empathy through their spectrum of emotions and occasional bad behaviour is spot on.

Alice McCarthy and Anna Martine as Alice and Fi/Adrian are phenomenal. Jessica Clark is Lelani, Alice’s much younger, distracting lesbian colleague full of energy, life and good intentions. Ed Eales-White as Josh has a lovely, quiet patience and dogged determination to stick by the couple even though he had been hurt so badly all those years ago.

Though some moments are a bit overly explanatory about family relationships and trans experience, they are easily forgiven in light of the fully believable characters. Though this isn’t an “awareness” piece per say, the humanity and insight into transgender transition Rotterdam provides is hugely important and valuable.

Rotterdam runs through 27th 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.

 

Two Little Dickie Birds, Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

You know those people who never stop talking, ever? The sort that will strike up a conversation with people at bus stops, in the supermarket or talk to themselves constantly? They thrive in customer service. They make brilliant pub landladies. They’re comforting if they’re your granddad. But as a solo performance character who encounters soap opera-esque levels of misfortune and has a story told through a terribly structured, stereotypical script? Being in their continuously monologuing presence for ninety minutes is excruciating.

Every second of Pauline’s journey of self-discovery from her pub in Oldham to Brazil in Two Little Dickie Birds is fraught with either ridiculous catastrophe or mundane daily life. The sappy, middle-aged blonde who is an everywoman completely lacks unique personality. She perpetually narrates the most minor of details as if the audience were mentally incapacitated and unable to work out any conclusions themselves. Dodgy dates, pub regulars, a fire, the death of a loved one and fights with technology are a mix of boring and absurd topics she covers. Imagine the most boring episode of Eastenders or Coronation Street performed by one person and you’ll be close to this play and its execution.

The script is a monotonous drip feed of linear information with no sense of pace or emphasis of key moments. She speaks to invisible characters, yet directly to the audience who are outside of her immediate reality. The three writers, David Allen, Jonathan Clay and Mandy Hester, seem to have no understanding of how solo performances are meant to work, and the fact that not one but THREE writers thought this script was fit to put in front of an audience is most worrying. The style and structure they employ is more suitable to children’s storytelling – it has no literary finesse, surprise, suspense or humour – despite being marketed as a comedy. The similarly advertised poignancy means a happy ending, but with a lack of empathy. This is the sort of material more appropriate to am dram than professional stages.

Performed in a consistent, even tone with no variation and with a voice that could strip wallpaper (also unvarying), the actor also appears to lack clear direction. Jeffrey Longmore seems to have no sense of a narrative arc, character journey or how to add light and shade to her delivery. Extraordinarily long pauses between scenes also show an incapability of handling transitions, as these last well beyond moving set and props around. There is also the bafflingly costumed stagehand who occasionally interacts with the audience, but not with Pauline.

Dave Benson’s set redeems the production somewhat. It’s detailed, grounded in reality and offers visual variation that the other production elements lack. Projections augment physical build, but these are unnecessary and some occasional CGI animation is downright awful.

Two Little Dickie Birds could snapshot Northern working class life, but the lack of compelling story and sense of how to tell it is the script’s downfall. A poor performance and direction exacerbate the poor text, making this production on par with the hobbyists at the village hall who speak volumes of little substance.

Two Little Dickie Birds runs through 30 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.

Mumburger, The Archivist’s Gallery

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Tiffany’s mum just died. Hugh’s wife just died. Together, this father and grown daughter that barely know each other anymore need to arrange a funeral. In the midst of their nonfunctional, chalk and cheese miscommunications, a mysterious delivery of uncooked burger patties arrives on the doorstep of their vegan home. The note on the bag makes them question everything they know about grief, each other and dietary choices.

Sarah Kosar’s Mumburger frames grief within an impossibly absurd scenario but rather than exploiting the potential for comedy, Kosar uses it to bring Tiff and Hugh closer and support their journey through grief and Hugh’s reluctance to let his daughter grow up. Though the episodic structure diffuses the day-to-day struggles, the structure snapshots moments of high tension incredibly well. Good performances support the script’s father/daughter tension that’s as much about a parent learning to let a child go as it is about losing a loved one.

Rosie Wyatt plays Tiffany as a gregarious go-getter with little patience for her non-communicative father (Lindon Alexander). Wearing her heart on her sleeve, her turmoil is completely and believably transparent and an excellent contrast to Alexander’s typically masculine introversion. They both have excellent emotional climaxes endowed with truth and keenly felt by those all too familiar with losing a loved one. Hugh is arguably underwritten for much of the play, though Alexander’s fantastically executed and intimate moment with the tiny slab of his wife’s remains is one the best recent moments on a fringe theatre stage.

Kosar’s script focuses more on the characters and their interactions, but just the right amount of external influence drives the action forward. Some moments feel too brief and the amount of time passing from scene to scene isn’t always clear, but the narrative arc is otherwise strong. The contentious burgers, as disturbing as they are, manage to not tip the entire play into absurdity – great work on the part of Kosar and director Tommo Fowler.

Ruta Irbite’s minimalist design is at odds with the naturalistic dialogue and considering the action solely takes place in one location, comes across as oddly sparse. A chest freezer in the middle of a bare, white stage and a few plain curtains on the back wall keep the budget low, but conflict with the text. Occasional bursts of projected video montages make more sense to the characters’ emotional states, but the lack of domestic furnishings is jarringly surreal.

Kosar’s script is without a doubt a good one, and the performances helped to emphasise its conflict. With clearer staging and transitions this promising one-act could really shine.

Mumburger runs through 24 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.

How to Win Against History, Ovalhouse

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British history is peppered with truly remarkable people. Kings, queens, writers, actors, scientists, athletes and military generals pepper school history books and cultural subconscious. Then there are the people like Henry Paget, fifth Marquis of Anglesey, who are largely forgotten, tucked away in the centuries-old folds of this country’s past. During his brief Victorian life, he became rather infamous for cross-dressing, blowing his family fortune, and turning the chapel of his estate into a 150-seat theatre where he played the leads in his own productions with which he later toured Britain and Europe.

Seiriol Davies’ How to Win Against History chronicles (and fictionalises parts) of Henry’s radical life, focusing on his theatre work and cross dressing, as a fabulous, form-bending cabaret/musical. This little show has a huge heart and needs further script development to smooth out the lumpy narrative, but sequins and silliness, destroying the fourth wall, clowning and contemporary political commentary makes for a powerfully subversive and hilarious production.

The lengthy introduction provides necessary exposition, but as it gives way to a song that focuses on the Marquis’ time at Eton, it becomes too long. The interesting plot points come once the character is of age, and these deserve more attention than they are given. The beginning also sets up the style that’s maintained throughout, of musical theatre songs punctuating scenes that are heavy on the sort of narration and banter that is found in cabaret and drag acts. It’s a wonderful act of genre smashing. Musical theatre, cabaret, vaudeville and pantomime make an engaging, energizing combination that fosters audience participation and celebration. If this is where popular theatre is heading, then bring it on – Seiriol Davies’ script is at the forefront of musical theatre innovation.

Once young Henry finishes school, action starts to pick up. After a mutually beneficial marriage to his cousin (that was reportedly never consummated) and teaming up with a actor Alexander Keith (Matthew Blake), he casts himself in several plays. When no one comes, they take the shows on the road, making hilarious changes as the audience becomes less enamored of his work. More could be made out of his marriage and his increasingly weird theatre productions; they are rushed and little sense of a timescale is provided. Between his awakening as a student to a touring theatre maker, there’s a feeling that a lot of plot is missing. He is suddenly a broken man in Monte Carlo being interviewed by Daily Mail journalist Quentin (a brilliant in-joke!) and whilst this is deliciously funny, there is yet another leap in time and place. More scenes could easily be written to fill in these gaps without disrupting the established style. Even though the cabaret influence comes though in the short sketch-like scenes, as a musical it feels underwritten.

Writer Seiriol Davies plays Henry, the fabulously flamboyant lover of sequined dresses and the theatre. His journey from naïve boy to the ill and impoverished 20-something is lovely and genuine, with songs that in turn capture his enthusiasm and anguish. Energy abounds from the other two performers, making the show feel a lot bigger than it actually is.

Though this new musical needs further development to give it the scale and narrative punch that matches the style, it is fantastically good fun. The political content and deconstructing of style and structure are fly in the face of historical erasure of controversial figures and dramatic conventions. But it evoked engagement and contribution from a willing audience that was eating out of the performers’ hands within the first few minutes and this in and of itself is a huge indicator of excellent work. How to Win Against History could easily have the scale of a West End show, and it deserves the attention that would garner it.

How to Win Against History runs through 28 August in London and Edinburgh.

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.

 

Monorogue: Seven Deadly Sins, Old Red Lion Theatre

The Salon: Collective are a grassroots group of artists that offer classes, workshops and produce work. United by American practitioner Sanford Meisner’s post-Stanislavskian technique, they have amassed a network of actors, teachers, directors and writers dedicated to supporting each other’s creative development. Monorogue is one of their latest endeavours, an evening of new writing linked by a prominent central theme. This month’s is Seven Deadly Sins, chaired by a judge and voted ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ by the audience jury. It’s a simple, effective format that allows actors to showcase characterisation skills and develop their writing, with a clear through line that makes it feel like more of a production than a showcase. Potential for variation in style and tone make this new writing night worth catching again.

John Jesper has created Judge Frank Goody, an east London geezer who blagged his way to the top of the courts. Whether or not it’s intentional, the character is a powerful comment on contemporary judicial corruption as he orders a trio of prostitutes between acts, drinks and falls asleep. He is supported in court by religious fundamentalist PD Callie Carter (written and performed by Rachel Stoneley) who killed her husband for committing sins against God and marriage. These two characters provide much needed levity in between more serious characters, though some of the people we encounter are more amusingly bizarre than encountered in real life.

Of the seven sinners on trial, the most interesting stories belong to Angela Harvey’s Mel, a business woman obsessed with the homeless man who camps out near her work, and the reverend who tirelessly fundraisers not for her church, but for local poor people. Helen Rose-Hampton’s character is easily forgiven by the audience even though she lost her job. These two feel like they could be central characters of bigger stories. The others are mostly fine, but only one of the seven didn’t work particularly well. Wrath is embodied by a Sun reader cracking formulaic jokes akin to a stand-up set culminating in a display of aggression that isn’t worthy of the sinful qualification.

The full theatre has a strong moral compass but one that is easily swayed by the grotesque. Almost unanimously condemning Edmund (Kim Hardy) for being in a consensual feeder relationship with Tammy and making a living through amateur porn, they then decide the young wife disappointed with her post-mastectomy boob job is free of pride. Neither is breaking any law, but the socially taboo is condemned in this arena. It makes for a social experiment that’s as interesting as it is a piece of theatre.

This new writing showcase and scratch night is certainly a unique one in its polish and format. Though each one so far has had a distinct theme and some will be more effective than others, it makes for a fun, interactive night out and a great showcase of emerging talent.

Monorogue: Seven Deadly Sins ran for 1 night only.

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.

Expectations, Theatre N16

Tate and Max live in Tate’s nan’s flat above The Bedford pub in Balham. They’re awkward, posh boys with little life experience, though they’d like to believe otherwise. When Tate brings Billie, a woman twice their age who falls in the pub, upstairs to get cleaned up, her carefree spirit captivates the two lads. Billie rents their spare room, resulting in learning experiences for the three and their travelling housemate who returns unannounced. In Matilda Curtis’ first full-length play, there’s an interesting premise but the follow through is weak. With underdeveloped and underplayed characters, the full potential for both comedy and conflict is present, but Curtis sticks too close to the mundanity of real life, preventing the idea from developing into a truly compelling story.

Of the cast of four, Dan Furlonger as socially inept to the point of autistic Tate is excellent. Furlonger captures Tate’s emotional turmoil and various levels of discomfort with empathy and ease, and he has a more pronounced journey than the others. Curtis has invested more depth and internal conflict in the character. In contrast, Billie has the potential to be a disruptive, life changing force for better or worse, but this power is denied her. Denise Stephenson does her best to inject the character with life, but the noncommittal, conversational dialogue lacks punch. Laddish Max is a dull stereotype with little emotional depth, and Evie (sensitively played by Adele James) is also not provided with the opportunity for profound change. The lack of character development and mostly flat narrative arc is incredibly frustrating, but easily changed with a script overhaul.

Director Grace Joseph uses the irregularly-shaped room well, and her set has some lovely details that accurately reflect a posh nan’s flat that hasn’t changed in decades. She has a good instinct for pace and timing in naturalistic work, but the final sequence feels forced – though this could be a script issue as well.

Expectations shows good potential; Joseph is a competent early-career director with a good instinct for space and casting. Curtis clearly has good ideas, but her execution needs refining. It’s a good attempt from emerging artists, but not a great one.

Expectations runs through 28th 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.

Valiant, So & So Arts Club

“War has changed, but it’s effect on generations of women hasn’t,” writes Sarah Berger, founder and artistic director of So & So Arts Club. Military history is mostly dominated by men, but Sally Hayton-Keeva gives voice to disregarded but valid female experiences of conflict. Valiant Women in War and Exile is her collection of stories spanning the generations of global conflict from El Salvador to Germany to the Philippines. Adapted for the stage by Lanna Joffrey, Valiant interweaves verbatim monologues that director Alexandra Rensetti places on a bare stage with intermittent textual projections. It’s so simple, but fantastic performances by four multi-rolling actors and a script that’s equally riveting and horrifying serves to educate, advocate and protest. This production is a vital contribution to women’s history, giving voice to those ignored in favour of patriarchal experiences of human suffering in times of war.

Lanna Joffrey, Diana Bermudes, Catherine Fowles and Gemma Clough each play several characters, at least three or four each. As impressive as their work is, much credit is due to their accent coaches, Joy Lanceta and Nicola Redman. There were hardly any lapses in accent and the actors integrated them in their performance rather than be inhibited by them. 

All text is delivered to the audience in a first-person narrative. Sometimes this is a lengthy section by one person, other parts are fragmented and shared to emphasise shared experience. These women are wholly uncensored and overflowing with emotion, whether that is violence towards the Nazis by the youngest ever Russian sniper, passion from a radical Afghani teacher teaching her students revolutionary poetry, or the numb devastation of a Northern Irish wife who watched her husband and daughter die in a car bomb. There are so many more, each as powerful and moving as the next. The pain and torture these women have endured is incomprehensible to most people, as is their strength. The actors’ ability to evoke empathy through complete commitment to these women and their stories gives this production its power.

Renzetti’s direction is simple and uses large text blocks of projection to add visual variation, but the actors acknowledgement of it before speaking unnecessarily breaks character. Joffrey’s script is a relentless barrage, but It should be – it drives the message home again and again. These stories are not isolated across space and time, they are everywhere. The amount of women introduced in the short space of time reinforces that women and children are often neglected in the wake of stories of wartime male heroism and that history’s narrative must change.

There is little to fault in this production and its message is loud and clear. If only Valiant were required viewing for politicians the world over who grunt and preen in luxurious, remote palaces like overweight performing monkeys, perhaps they may learn that war has an unimaginable but very real impact on the 99 percent. Soldier casualties are clear, mostly male numbers thrown about in political rhetoric but the often unseen consequences on women and girls must be acknowledged.

 Valiant runs through 31 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.