Danger: Memory, Theatro Technis

In 1986, Arthur Miller was in his 70s. He still had more plays and screenplays to come, but his most well-known works were already created and he was starting to slow his output. Danger: Memory is one of these late, lesser known works, and spotlights the worries of someone in the twilight of their life. Two unrelated and stylistically different one-act plays are thematically timeless, but the truncated length doesn’t serve Miller’s usually rich stories and characters particularly well. 

Leo and Leonora spend most of I Can’t Remember Anything bickering like an old married couple. Though that’s how they come across for much of the play, their relationship is never defined – a persistent bugbear. Leonora’s husband is dead and her grown son is in Sri Lanka, but the reason these two people (who don’t like each other much) spend every evening together is never made clear. Much of their moaning revolves around old memories, forgotten details and an existential view of life which, though relatable, says little. Actors Julian Bird and Deborah Javor have great chemistry and some touching moments of tenderness, but the script is less of a narrative and more of a casual conversation that barely conceals Miller’s politics. Their characters have a decent amount of development, but the story is lacking. Enjoyable in the moment and evoking plenty of laughs, the end result is rather forgettable.

Clara has more tension and action than I Can’t Remember Anything, but the characters have less substance. The 70s cop drama with a stunned Julian Bird as Albert and relentless interrogator Detective Fine by the excellent Anthony Taylor is punchy but still powerful. Albert struggles to recall details of people close to his now dead adult daughter, but memories of her childhood are vivid. Simeon Miller’s intermittent flashbulb lighting design startles the way a sudden recollection does; this piece draws the audience in more than the first. The flashbacks with Clara (Kristy Quade) are moments of calm amongst the rapid-fire questioning, but the content lacks weight. There’s a hint of Miller’s earlier family dramas in these moments, but they don’t go as far as they could.

Good performances and lovely individual moments hold attention for two hours along with the wonderful novelty of seeing this rare text on stage, but as individual pieces the snapshots they provide are somewhat unsatisfying. Miller does grand domestic conflict so well that these single acts with limited plot development and hints of complex characters leave the audience wanting more.

Danger: Memory runs through 15 October.

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.

Imogen, Shakespeare’s Globe

All praise Emma Rice! Under Dominic Dromgoole’s artistic directorship, The Globe’s commitment to innovation in Shakespeare production first established during Mark Rylance’s reign fell by the wayside in favour of new writing; his Shakespeare generally stuck to original practices (OP) that Rylance and his team developed and championed. Shakespeare under Dromgoole was largely in this safe, now established style. There is value to be had in OP productions without a doubt, but entire seasons of it year in and out could certainly put off a seasoned regular. OP productions are so helpful in providing context for exams and a novelty to those who’d never seen this sort of work before, but for someone who has seen a lot of Shakespeare, there’s nothing inherently interesting in yet another OP production.

Rice’s appointment made the old, middle class (usually male) academics positively apoplectic what with her lack of Shakespearian credentials, intention to innovate and blatant feminism. Others were ecstatic on hearing the announcement – finally, Shakespeare that’s fit for the 21st century and something unlikely to have been seen before on the Globe’s stage. Since the season’s opening, her heavily adapted productions have received mixed notices from the mainstream press who, like the academics that bemoan the death of tradition, are mostly middle aged or older men, white and middle class (there are obviously exceptions). 

Matthew Dunster’s urban Imogen, the final show of Rice’s inaugural season, is the opposite of the restrained and well-spoken Shakespeare that these scholars and press use as a benchmark for quality. This anarchic gangland update of Cymbeline is exceptionally alive, aggressive, dirty and unapologetic. If we want young people and the general populace to take interest in Shakespeare, this is the sort of relevant work we need – not another well-spoken, corseted rendition. This production will rile those aforementioned critics and scholars, but they are wrong. It’s an absolute, undeniable fact that Dunster’s Imogen is a necessary, vital work.

Most of the ensemble employ a contemporary urban/London accent that comes with an undertone of aggression and a ballsy edge. Its energy and rhythm still works within Shakespeare’s verse, even without the open vowels and carefully pronounced consonants. The use of contemporary additional lines and ad libbing is no different than what is likely to have happened in Shakespeare’s day, and furthers the production’s accessibility. It is the accent of youth, the working class and this country’s disenfranchised. Dunster’s small choice to use this accent gives entire demographics validation on stage – their stories and lives are important and worthy of attention.

Placing young princess Imogen at the centre of the story is an empowering choice – Maddy Hill plays a strong, feisty and independent young woman. She admirably fights off her laddish step-brother Cloten’s (Joshua Lacey) revolting advances and for her husband Posthumous (Ira Mandela Siobhan) that her dad Cymbeline (Jonathan McGuinness) banished. Her constant battling against patriarchal structures that keep her second place to men rings painfully true today. Hill is supported by an outstanding ensemble that is racially, ability, and gender-diverse.

Jon Bausor’s simple but evocative set is reminiscent of a slaughterhouse or meth lab. Plastic sheeting that wraps around all but the very front of the stage shifts the antechamber forward so it’s closer to the audience, and can be drawn all the way back in the name of flexibility and openness. Flooring drives action towards the middle of the stage unnecessarily, though the front corners are still used – just not with any regularity. This is one of the production’s only faults.

Conventional and aerial fight choreography by Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown doesn’t shy away from graphic tribal/gang violence and is of an appropriate scale for such a grand venue. Tracksuits and trainers are a functional uniform that’s easily colour coded to indicate Roman or English allegiance. This is a world where only the strong survive and the risk of betrayal is high, though there are gorgeous moments of tenderness, intimacy and brotherhood amongst the hardness. Shakespeare’s story translates remarkably well to this modern context, and the concept is imbedded thoroughly into the re-worked text, including the final jig. 

In Dunster’s Imogen, we see a Shakespeare that is hip, relevant and achingly alive. People from all walks of life can see themselves reflected in his modernised characters, not just the well-spoken middle and upper classes. Dunster’s commitment to Rice’s mission to make the Globe a place where audiences “ cheer and whoop and smell and feel the spit of actors on our faces” thorough, laudable and wholly necessary. 

Imogen runs through 16th October.

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.

Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), Royal Court

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American, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks doesn’t shy away from epic projects. Six years ago, she wrote a play a day to create 365 Days/365 Plays, then went on to write the nine-part Father Comes Home From the Wars. Parts one, two and three centre around Hero, a strapping young slave on a remote Texan farm. Spanning the Civil War, this epic story with influence from Greek myths and contemporary socio-political issues in Parks’ distinctive, poetic language takes its time to develop and has some discordant stylistic choices, but its narrative and historical interpretation is both compelling and important.

Each of the three parts has moments of profound brilliance and devastation, but Parks is in no rush to tell her story. The dialogue-driven script takes its time, meandering around a complex landscape of slavery, loyalty and race within this particular slave family. Though set in war time, there is little action – broader issues drive the conversation more so than current events. This is more of a kitchen sink drama than a wartime adventure story.

Part one solely takes place on the farm as Hero debates whether or not join his master in battle. The rest of the slaves take bets and try to persuade him one way or the other, but in the back of Hero’s mind is a promise from the Boss-Master – but is he likely to keep his end of the deal? Hero’s loyalty is split between his owner and his wife Penny, but the lure of the cast-off but smart uniform proves too much. Though little happens, the domesticity of part one has some of the tension that precedes a huge decision. Seeing a tall, strapping black man in the prime of his life wearing Confederate greys is most unsettling; this paired with the ingrained, accepted attitude that he is the property of his owner is a potent reminder that there has been insufficient progress in America’s attempts at racial equality.

Part two, though set at a particular moment in the midst of the war, has the calm of an eye of a storm and is by far the best of the three parts. Hero and Boss-Master have captured a Yankee prisoner whilst separated from their regiment during a battle. Hero’s loyalty is tested again, this time by his prisoner upon discovery of a secret that’s hidden in plain sight and only skin deep. Racial identity, individuality and freedom intertwine in an intoxicating allure of potential for Hero, who is still doggedly loyal to his owner. The powerful ending devastates in its frank depiction of ingrained attitudes of racial inferiority and liberal frustration with this mentality.

Part three is the more mature sibling to part one. The characters are older, wiser and more world weary in the face of Southern defeat. The pre-war certainty has given way to a chance at the great unknown of freedom, and for the first time they can choose where they live – anywhere in the great, wide world, or on the farm they have known forever. Penny and Hero’s devotion is destabilised in this irrevocably changed world that is now free, but cold and dangerous – and still is for black Americans today. The morality of freedom isn’t black or white here, but the ominous, thought-provoking grey of Hero’s, (now called Ulysses) uniform.

Neil Patel’s unforgiving desert of a set doesn’t have bells and whistles, but it’s sparsity highlights the richness of Park’s language and characterisation. Steve Toussaint is the remarkable Hero, painted with delicate light and shade. The rest of the cast are excellent in their own right, though lack the development of the initially appropriately-named lead.

Parks’ script is almost completely bedded in realism (that’s occasionally heightened), though a talking pet and some contemporary costumes slightly skew reality. Both are used sparingly and without any evident justification across the three parts so their inclusion feels jarring and unnecessary. The onstage musician, though very much a separate commentator, doesn’t clash the way these choices do.

For a play set during a war and a pivotal moment of America’s history, it is oddly detached from violence and conflict. Instead, Parks’ text goes after deeper themes within this transition from slavery to freedom. Though a greater sense of danger and looming dread would add needed further tension in parts one and two, the nuance that flows through the story is undeniably exquisite.

Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) run through 22 October.

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.

Layla’s Room, Theatre Centre

Layla is fifteen years old. She’s the cleverest girl in her year, writes poetry, and has a supportive mum. The trouble is, her best friend Monica’s got with a proper rude boy who launches a full-on campaign of abuse against Layla. As the bright, happy girl monologues her ordeal around short scenes, the focus splits – though her treatment at the hands of her peers is a horrific primary storyline, other concerns arise. Issues such as body image, friendship, gender pay gap, education, dating and alternative families all find their way into Sabrina Mahfouz’s script. Mahfouz makes Layla a rounded, complex character with potential for numerous stories rather than becoming a single-issue driven vehicle; an excellent cast and supporting characters give the play depth and an appeal to its teenage target audience.

Shanice Sewell plays Layla with vivacity and charm. She is the daughter every mum wants – a good kid with ambition and warmth. Emma White’s Monica is a great foil who, although a girly contrast to Layla’s sporty boyishness, doesn’t alienate audience members who focus more on fitness, fashion and boys than school. Alex Stedman plays several male roles in a skilled display of multi-rolling. There is some lovely chemistry developing between the three actors that is sure to grow as the run goes on.

Though Monica’s choices come with clear moralising, it isn’t too heavy handed. She’s more misguided than a bad girl, demonstrating how easy it is to be lead astray. Her boyfriend Joe is a nasty piece of work, but contrasted by Layla’s doting father and quiet boy Reece, who’s long fancied her. Mahfouz commendably paints almost all of the characters as flawed, but positive – she and Theatre Centre totally get that preaching to kids doesn’t work.

The hour-long running time is spot on for the format. More scenes and fewer speeches would make the piece more dynamic were it longer but as is, it works. Designer Ele Slade’s monochrome set hints at the young people’s London without diminishing their colourful characterisation.

Layla’s Room, though clearly pitched to a teen audience, appeals more widely through its easygoing characterisation and approaching the ideas without condescension. The story is warm and caring, setting realistic examples without over-egging the message.

Layla’s Room tours through 23 November.

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.

Feature: Silent Snacks

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Rejoice! If you are the sort of theatregoer who has signed the Theatre Charter, and is regularly outraged by the appalling behaviour from other audience members who may not have the same high standard of culture or upbringing as yourself, you will adore Today Tix’ latest initiative, Silent Snacks. No longer will you have to endure the incessant rustling of sweet wrappers, the crunch of crisps, the post-coke burps, the mobile phone lights, the whispers, the fidgeting, the breathing, the poor and the young wreaking utter havoc on your evening of cultural consumption in the proper Victorian fashion (I say, what did those Elizabethans know about theatre!). The selection of sophisticated, upper-middle class, white people snacks come delivered in red cloth pouches so at no point in the consumption process will they make a sound that could offend surrounding ears. They also contain enough elite ingredients to satisfy Whole Food shoppers, and are bland enough to not offend Home Counties and Middle England palates.

Available through the Today Tix app, savvy audience members can pre-order this etiquette cure-all that enables guilt free theatre snacking. It’s only too big of a shame that these snacks cannot be forced onto all audience members that dare to eat during a performance, especially the group of urban teenagers who never attended the theatre before.

First on offer are Quiet Pop(corn) bites. A base of ground popcorn and dates creates a truffle-y texture, but with the dates and coconut blossom nectar, they are more sweet than savoury. They don’t particularly taste of popcorn, but neither does any other flavour dominate. They lack a satisfying crunch, but are indeed silent. The crushed popcorn does tend to get in between the teeth, so there is potential for some discomfort until you are able to pick out the offending particles in private – we can’t have teeth picking in the stalls, obviously!

The flawless, leading lady of Silent Snacks are the Muffled Truffles: rich, dark chocolate indulgence. Instead of popcorn, smooth cocoa powder is blended with chewy dates. They are not one for commoners who prefer sweet, milk chocolate and are more substantial than conventional truffles due to the presence of the dates.Very classy and adult, like theatre audiences should be.

Silent Slices are dainty, soft slices of dried pear. Chewy and subtle, these tiny nibbles have no added ingredients and pear is such a delicate flavour that drying greatly diminishes it. Apple with a sprinkle of cinnamon would have a stronger taste, but the pear is less offensive to those with delicate constitutions and aversion to anything stronger than the blandest of foods.

These snacks would not be complete without a suitably refined beverage. The Anti-Gas Lime and Mint drink is a questionably lurid green concoction of grapefruit, lime, mint and water. Oral and anal gas expulsion is banished, as is the risk of noise in opening the container. A branded silicon cup is a smart vehicle through which to show off your culinary choices, despite terrible mouth feel and the bitter flavour of the drink.

Silent Snacks are available for a limited time only though Today Tix, so we can only hope that the entire theatregoing populace uses the app to procure their theatre tickets and sees the error of their noisily munching ways. Though we will mourn their eventual disappearance, we can hope their legacy lives on by serving to return theatre to it’s rightful, middle class audiences.

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.

Party Trap, Shoreditch Town Hall

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Politicians and members of the press are hardly the best of bedfellows. Unrestrained and violent, Ross Sutherland’s Party Trap explodes this relationship in a dystopian TV interview between journalist Sir David Bradley and MP Amanda Barkham after a landmark decision classifying political criticism as hate speech. Sutherland sets himself the challenge of telling his story through a script that’s an extended palindrome – an impressive feat, were it executed with more of a focus on storytelling rather than showing off a clever concept.

The palindromic writing isn’t particularly pronounced; instead it creates a haunting sense of deja vu once the script passes the halfway point. The shift in power and control from David to Amanda, and the action’s dark turn prevents it from turning stale, but the script structure is still more of a hindrance than a help. The language takes precedence over story clarity, so the plot soon muddies. The slightly futuristic premise becomes less and less tenable, to the point that the entire reality of the piece is called into question. There is little solid ground on which to build a sturdy plot line; language isn’t enough even though this experiment is certainly an interesting one.

The performances are one of the biggest disappointments. Cold and detached, they are couched in venomous sarcasm and violence. Simon Hepworth as Sir David Bradley has some nice moments of vulnerability and depth, but these are too little and too late. Otherwise, he and Zara Plessard are ruthless, calculating and distant. Video performances of other characters are relied on to fill in for news broadcasts and line managers with disturbing agendas; these characters are as self-absorbed as the two on stage.

The design elements are unobtrusive and tie the production together well, with Sutherland’s projections and video being particularly slick.There is no question that Party Trap is well-planned and thought out, but the concept is so prominent that it prevents a story from shining through. It’s a worthy experiment, but one that doesn’t work.

Party Trap runs through 1 October.

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.

dreamplay, Vaults Theatre

August Strindberg’s expressionistic A Dream Play has inspired theatre makers since it’s debut in 1901. In the otherworldly Vaults, BAZ Productions reinvents the innovative work for a modern audience. A collage of loosely connected characters flit back and forth through time and space, never quite fully formed but too visceral to be wholly in the mind. This is no linear, unified world, but one that traverses several planes of existence. Live music and interaction fosters inclusivity, though some of the content is far from warm and cuddly. This dreamplay is certainly surreal and atmospheric, but overly broad themes and the lack of a strong through-line makes for a generalised moodiness that leaves little lasting impact beyond striking imagery.

Laura Moody’s acoustic cello and operatic vocals add richness and depth to the piece, and are the most striking feature of dreamplay. Even the softest tones echo through the Vaults’ tunnels and quite possibly still linger there in the darkness. There is not enough music to form a soundtrack, but any more of her music would cause it to lose its impact.

Four actors form the rest of the ensemble cast who take on multiple roles. With impressive CVs behind each of them, their performances are suitably engrossing even though the script’s scenes deliberately evade connection to others. Jade Ogugua particularly entrances as the non-verbal dancing girl who wears her heart on her sleeve, and Jack Wilkinson’s stage door keeper elicits laughter from his attempts to wrangle defiant performers.

The script has lovely individual moments that are beautifully realised fully formed by director Sarah Bedi, but beyond satisfying visual appetites, it lacks substance. The text draws the audience in, but after we are spit back onto the surface of Lower Marsh, it mostly fades. Flickering images remain as if on deteriorating film stock, but with no coherent message – a disappointing effect after such striking execution, even if this is reminiscent of a dream.

dreamplay runs through 1 October.

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.