The Acedian Pirates, Theatre503

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Like Homer, Virgil and Ovid, Jay Taylor takes inspiration for his writing from the Trojan War. The decade-spanning conflict over one woman is relocated to a lighthouse in a Beckettian present day, where a handful of soldiers wait for orders, years after the war began. There is a woman upstairs – THE woman. Stories are told and tensions mount as time passes and the battle approaches. This is Taylor’s first play, an impressively polished statement on the effects of war on its soldiers. As the pressure increases on this merry band, some naive and some hardened, personalities clash and desperation increases.The Acedian Pirates is a slow burn of a character study with a fantastic ensemble cast and a potent message, through the script could use some clarity in plot and pace.

Cavan Clarke plays Jacob, a young solider newly stationed at the lighthouse. He’s literary, smokes to much and desperate wants to please his superiors. Taylor gives Jacob a slowly building character arc that Clarke carries admirably and with conviction. Rowan Polonski is the volatile Troy, the commander of this unit who is rarely seen but with a powerful, dangerous presence. Sheena Patel defies convention as the frankly speaking and harsh cigarette-smoking Helen. Taylor keeps her hidden for much of the script, which although it makes her presence all the more powerful it is a shame that the woman who’s abduction started this war is given so little time to share her female experiences within this masculine landscape.

The design is fantastic, particularly Helen Coyston’s set. There is plenty of detail, from the curved, mossy walls and the shallow staircase that indicates what floor they’re on by a simple, clever pivot around the round floor. Though the set and atmosphere is further detailed through lighting and sound, the set is the star of the design. Taylor and director Bobby Brook have a good instinct for the character conflict that keeps the story moving, through the beginning is still quite slow. The imagery and anecdotes only just save it from stagnating, and things escalate incredibly quickly at the end. A more even narrative arc would give the script a smoother, slicker feel.

Jay Taylor is certainly a writer to watch for his characters and storytelling. Even though this debut play has its issues, it’s a great start.

The Acedian Pirates runs through 19 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.

Knock Knock, Etcetera Theatre

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You are eighteen years old. Ready to leap from the cusp of adulthood, the world is at your fingertips and the rest of your life unfurls before you. You eagerly anticipate a heady combination of studying, partying, working, being invincible, finding your feet, falling down and picking yourself up again in those last couple of teen years.

Unless you’re Israeli. Born in a country with mandatory army service, turning eighteen means your life is put on hold for up to two years whilst you serve your country – and you might die doing so. This culture, where violence is part of everyday life and parents losing a child is a real possibility, inspires theatre maker Niv Petel’s Knock Knock. Through a solo performance from the perspective of a single mother of an only child, we see Elad grow from mewling infant to confident sergeant.

Petel’s performance is exquisitely detailed, particularly within the precision of his physicality. Though there are minimal props, his mimed actions are always immediately recognisable. Short, incongruous movement sequences break up the realistic, narration-driven scenes that make up the bulk of the story and whilst there is often an unclear connection to the text, they are a joy to watch. Though he plays a woman for most of the story, his depiction is sensitive and three-dimensional. There are moments where Petel gets a bit too close to panto, but these are rare and easily overlooked.

The linear story of a boy growing into a man is one of parenting rather than coming of age. It’s a valuable perspective, and one that is certainly unique given the story it tells. Some scenes work better than others as the person she speaks to changes – sometimes it’s Elad, sometimes an invisible friend, another time it is a video message. The transitions are always clearly marked with lighting and movement, though sound would also add another dimension to the play’s reality. The final moments are predictable and with an unrealistic timeline, but its point is devastating to consider.

Even though the stylistic disparity between the scenes and transitions creates some clunkiness, Knock Knock tells a great story from a perspective rarely considered in countries privileged enough to not have national conscription. Petel’s performance is also a privilege to watch and the piece isn’t far off being a sophisticated solo performance work.

Knock Knock runs through 6 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.

Interview: Lucy Basaba Explains the Theatre & Technology Awards

Do we need another theatre awards ceremony? Independent critic Lucy Basaba, founder and editor of theatrefullstop, thinks so. Earlier this year, she launched the Theatre & Technology Awards after spotting a gap in the otherwise abundant awards landscape. I spoke to Basaba about the awards and what makes them stand out from the rest.

Why are the Theatre & Technology awards needed? 

These awards are needed more than ever as we are living in an age where using tech is second nature. This is evident in theatre where lighting, sound and projections are a staple, and the professionals behind these innovations should be celebrated. Theatre is collaborative and a lot of what helps suspend the disbelief is the tech element. I’m not sure what to call our era of theatre making, but we are definitely living in a technologically enlightened time.

What do they include that other awards don’t?

These awards acknowledge both onstage [creatives] in lighting, sound and projection as well as offstage digital professionals [such as] photographers, podcasters, bloggers and poster designers. There are twelve categories in total; all help enhance the theatrical experience. It’s rare to watch a theatre piece [that doesn’t have] any of these elements.

What is the nomination and assessment process?

Established reviewers are invited to cast their votes from 1st July 2016 until 30th June 2017 for four of the categories: Best Sound Design, Lighting Design, Projections and PR company. Shows put forward must have been during the nomination period and must have had at least five showings at an established theatre. Voting will be opened to the public from April 2017 to June 2017 for eight of the categories. Voting will close on 30th June 2017 and judging by industry professionals will take place in July for each category. They will choose five of the top nominees, with a shortlist announced in August. 

When and where will the awards ceremony be?

The ceremony will take place on Sunday 22nd October 2017; the venue is yet to be confirmed.

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 Wicker Hamper, Old Red Lion Theatre

Inspired by 1973 cult horror film The Wicker Man and his love for comedy, young writer Ed Hartland tries to take a humorous approach to 1970s horror films in self-referential, metatheatrical mashup The Wicker Hamper. Set on Winterisle, a remote island off the Scottish coast, Marcie arrives to start a new job as Lady Winterisle’s PA. Staying at a hotel run by Norman Bates and his mysterious mother before her job starts, Marcie hears rumours about human sacrifice on the upcoming Samhain Day. With the island’s amdram company folding because of the budget cuts, stakes are particularly high amongst the desperate, twisted islanders and their renewed pagan belief system inspires them to pull out all stops to save their precious theatre company.

Drawing on numerous classic horror films for his story, Hartland lines up the gags like beads on a necklace. The plot is choppy and often illogical as he relentlessly goes for punchline after punchline, though hardcore, horror film fans will find the references funny. His theatre jokes come into their own in the final scene, but this isn’t enough to redeem the script of its cheap laughs. There are some voiceover characters that are never fully explained, and the rapidly changing locations are not always clear, occasionally leading to further confusion.

The cast of five are clearly having a great time, and there are some good performances. Sophie Hughes as hunchback Igore and the hotel receptionist is versatile and watchable, committing to her characters rather than solely playing up to the humour. Hannah Grace May (Marcie) shows good range as a sweet new arrival, and an angry victim fighting for her life.

Hartland has some nice ideas in The Wicker Hamper and his love for genre films and comedy is abundantly clear. The passion and fun are unwavering and lovely to watch, even though the script needs a lot of polish.

The Wicker Hamper is now closed.

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.

Moby Dick! The Musical, Union Theatre

In 1992, director Andrew Wright saw Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Moby Dick! The Musical as student in Oxford. Even after its subsequent West End flop, something about the show stuck with Wright all these years later. Maybe it was one of the soaring ensemble numbers, or maybe it was the plethora of dick jokes. Either way, this innuendo-laden, musical within a musical is an aggressively loud revival with few redeeming qualities. Dug up after nearly 25 years of obscurity, this show with a barely-there book and unfunny gags ought to have stayed in the archives of theatre history.

When St Godley’s Academy for Girls runs the risk of closing after a damning Ofsted inspection, the students and staff rally together to raise money and support for the school (as if that somehow changes the inspection results). Bookended by short school scenes, most of the story takes place within the performance of the musical that the geeky student playing Ishmael (Rachel Anne Rayham) wrote. 

The school play has no budget, so PE equipment gets a starring role as set and props, and their uniforms are costume with a few accessories. The line between the school girl characters and the Moby Dick characters is thin and porous, and the story hinges on the “it’s so bad it’s good” concept. The problem is that the script is just bad. There’s not much to it at all, and though there are some cracking tunes, the lyrics aren’t nuanced enough to smoothly progress the plot on their own. The gags are constant, massively inappropriate and unfunny.

Hereward Kaye and Robert Longden’s music, typical of large-scale late 80s and early 90s musicals, can be quite stirring. The first act finale is particularly good and Wright stages it well, though most of the show is approached with a scale and volume suitable for a West End house. All potential for subtlety is ignored, and even though the energy cannot be faulted, the entire production can be summed up as needlessly excessive.

There are some fantastic singers in the cast. Laura Mansell as Starbuck has one of the most powerful belts in small-scale musical theatre, and Anton Stephans (headmistress and Captain Ahab) has strength and presence even though his performance is otherwise more appropriate for pantomime. Rayham’s Ishmael is tenacious and spunky.

The beauty of fringe musical theatre is that it doesn’t have to be over the top. Wright tries to compensate for the book with energy, but that approach is too much for an intimate venue. He has some great talent in the cast, but the choice of show combined with the performance style makes for an exhausting evening.

Moby Dick! The Musical runs through 12 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.

Tomorrow I Was Always a Lion, Arcola Theatre

Schizophrenia is regarded as an incurable disease – once diagnosed, even if a person is able to lead a normal life, the medical community always considers them ill. Norwegian psychologist and PhD candidate Arnhild Lauveng defied this expectation; after a decade of living with Schizophrenia and a lengthy recovery, she was finally declared healthy. Her first of eleven books is a biography that documents life with her illness and the relentless drive that eventually made her well. Belarus Free Theatre brings this story of despair and hope off the page through outstanding storytelling and intense sensory stimuli, providing a voice for one woman trapped by mental illness in a world unwilling to accept medical miracles.

We meet Arnhild as a child who gradually loses her sense of self in a world that resembles a Picasso painting. Though her world may be colourful, it is also populated by sinister people. The first one she meets is simply called The Captain, a nasty piece of work that eventually leads to her years of hospitalisation. 

Rather than one actor playing Arnhild, the ensemble of five each take turns telling her story. Through this device, she becomes not just one person, but the one in four people who suffer from mental illness at some point in their lives. Arnhild’s story is a remarkable one of recovery, but also an everywoman representing 25% of the UK population. In and around the narration of her time in a mental health facility, shrill noises, confetti, water and striking projections uncomfortably bombard the audience with the experience of Scizophrenia.

Vladimir Shcherban’s adaptation is honest, moving and provocative. Though not as aggressively propagandist as their recent Burning Doors, Tomorrow I Was Always a Lion fosters an active understanding of life with severe mental illness and the systems in place that counteract recovery. Even though Arnhild is very much a victim, she is also a fighter with a distinctive voice who portrays her experiences with clarity and pathos. Scenes are short and episodic, often dreamlike and unreal. The format effectively conveys the lengthy time period without becoming tedious, and captures the ups and downs of the treatment and recovery process.

There is an element of criticism of the healthcare system, particularly the type of restraint used with vulnerable patients. Though BFT’s signature activism theatre is underplayed here in favour of Arnhild’s story. Her story is an excellent one, but the activism is often lost within the narrative. 

Though the staging tends towards simple, it allows the power of the story to shine through and the moments of physical discomfort to foster empathy. This is a sophisticated, sensitive piece of theatre that, whilst raising awareness, tells a wonderful story. 

Tomorrow I Was Always a Lion runs through 12 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.

Confessional, Southwark Playhouse

How does it feel to have never had something beautiful in your life?

In this reimagining of the Tennessee Williams’ one-act that later becomes the more fully-formed Small Craft Warnings, the flotsam and jetsam of a remote Californian coastal town are relocated to the Thames estuary. The ‘immersive’ staging spreads the actors amongst sections of the audience in Monk’s Bar, making the characters’ volatility all the more threatening to those in the midst of their fighting and fucking. But not a lot happens in this extended character study at a forgotten edge of the world. Tense, emotive performances and pretty language help hide the existential-ish script, but Williams’ lonely poetry leaves a lingering emptiness. 

Lizzie Stanton as the attention seeking, volatile Leona leads the cast of disparate and desperate characters. Stanton has a ferocious, watchable energy that dictates a sensitive and varied pace. It’s a shame Williams doesn’t grant her a role with more depth than poetic monologuing on her transient existence searching for the world’s elusive beauty. She is ably foiled by her lazy, townie live-in lover (Gavin Brocker) and weepy, nymphomaniac Violet (Simone Somers-Yeates). 

Though the characters translate rather well despite the decades and distance that separate them from the original, the vocabulary sits uncomfortably in their mouths. There are numerous giveaways that the text is American, and a dated one at that. It’s great that the concept grants this contemporary Essex seaside town the words to honestly and thoroughly express themselves, but the choice is unrealistic and initially confusing to the ear.

Director Jack Silver essentially stages in the round, with the audience tightly packed in. This disappointingly limits the actors’ use of space to designated paths – a shame what with their vivacity and heightened emotion. Justin Williams’ set is every inch the working men’s club or grotty housing estate pub to the point I instinctively check I’m not going to sit in any suspicious crumbs or liquids.

Williams’ characters are, without question, wonderful creations. But this one-act doesn’t live up to his masterpieces that balance characterisation with story. Watching someone drift through their life without purpose is only interesting for so long; watching half a dozen people carry on as such for over an hour pushes the limits of human sympathy.

Confessional runs through 29 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.

Possibilities, Theatre N16

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What if your life has endless parallel possibilities? What if Sliding Doors is true? What if every choice you make leads to your timeline fracturing into endless paths that just keeps multiplying? Possibilities frames this proposal with two people, displaying nearly an hour’s worth of incarnations of their relationship. It’s a nice idea, but one that doesn’t develop any of the individual moments or stories presented. With inconsistent performances and an idea that isn’t fully explored, Possibilities feels like just that – but without the script’s potential coming to fruition.

Jamal Chong and Kate Gwynn take to some scenes better than others. Their intimacy is awkward in some scenes, but their flirtation and sense of play in others is sweetly genuine. The inconsistency is frustrating, as the potential for great performances is there. Chong is also the writer and director – the choice to wear this trio of hats is undoubtedly the root of the issues with this play and production.

The design is minimalistic and functional, with monochromatic chairs and a bench being arranged differently for each scene. Switching on clip-on coloured lights one by one as an introduction is a nice visual touch, but one that doesn’t link to the script in any discernible way.

Other than an interesting question posing as a concept, Possibilities falls short of taking a stance on the impact such a world would have on the individuals that it places under a microscope. The rejection of a narrative arc in favour of a collection of scenes only related through their characters actively prohibits development of this piece, and there is a pronounced absence of dramaturgy. With a bigger creative team and any sort of answer to the concept question, Possibilities would be become a more well-formed reality.

Possibilities runs through 26 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.

Interview: Mark Brailsford on Staging Shakespeare’s Stories

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When Brighton Shakespeare Company’s press release for their Macbeth tour of historical churches in Brighton and Sussex landed in my inbox, I was sorry I couldn’t make it. Shakespeare productions in churches and cathedrals wonderfully hark back to the grandeur of private performances for noblemen and royalty in the 16th century. Shakespeare’s epic stories sit well in the sweeping architecture of these ancient buildings, and on a practical level it’s a great way for companies to save money on sets and reach audiences in rural locations.

Used to the plethora of venues that showcase small-scale, fringe and progressive approaches to Shakespeare in London, I was curious about BSC’s unusually traditional approach. I spoke to artistic director and founder of this new regional company, Mark Brailsford, about the company’s work.

Tell me a bit about Brighton Shakespeare Company and its mission.

The BSC’s ethos takes a character-led approach inspired by Ron Moody and Stephen Berkoff. The company’s aims are to bring individual, characterful actors to the classics in the style of the time the plays were written.

How do you approach Shakespeare? What concepts to you employ?

We are apparently called radical because we set our productions in the period, something not many companies seem to do these days and we’re happy with this label. Many companies, but not all, like to have directors impose their directorial vision onto the plays whereas my approach is to be true to the story and genius of the Bard himself. [I aim] to bring them to life by allowing the story to stand on its own terms. After all, it seems to have worked for 400 years.

Why stage Shakespeare for audiences today?

[The] story. The themes and narratives are as relevant today as they have ever been. Love and loss, pain and laughter, war and peace and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. These exist in day-to-day lives all over the world.

What are some of the obstacles you and the company face?

Lack of money! We’re unfunded and back our shows via crowdfunding and box office.

Shakespeare is known for not supporting diversity. What steps are you taking to redress the balance?

This is a myth as there was more diversity in Shakespeare than commonly thought, especially for his time. His women are very strong characters, Othello was black and one of the best take-downs of antisemitism was Shylock’s speech in Merchant of Venice. He also gave prominent parts to working class characters, not a theme of Elizabethan life at the time.*

What do you hope audiences take away from your productions?

Joy, a tingling spine and a thrilling comprehension of the play.

*These views are not representative of those held by The Play’s the Thing UK or its writers.

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.

Howl, Rosemary Branch Theatre

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With Halloween becoming more and more popular this side of the pond, horror theatre and live events are proliferating. The London Horror Festival is bigger than ever, new scare attractions appear all over the country every year and independent events like Frissonic’s Howl expand the otherworldly and terrifying offers for thrill seekers this time of year. A site specific, immersive performance for an audience of six, Howl is a considered, effective performance that induces plenty of jumps. Though the story of a disappeared sister and mysterious voices is patchy, it is well delivered, and combines audience manipulation with technology to create a delightfully creepy event.

The choice of a small audience generates fear from the beginning – there is less protection with fewer people, particularly when paranormal investigator Rory places us on isolated chairs around a large, long-abandoned storage room. We are there to help Rory look into a something he heard when he was recently alone in the theatre, and we use sound to try evoke it again. Wireless headphones, increasing pace and anxiety, and customised audio content create heavy tension and uncertainly ripe for scares.

The ending in a different room is too rushed and betrayed by the lack of a full blackout. Though there is a clear resolution, the reasoning leading up to that point is never fully explained. How does this voice connect to Rory’s sister who disappeared all those years ago? How did we find him and decide we want to help? Rory is very much a character of the present, but frustratingly little of his past is revealed.

Frissonic nail the scares in Howl with their tech and small-audience approach, but adding flesh to the skeletal story will hugely improve it. Currently running at 40 minutes, another 15 or 20 minutes of text will make this feel more theatrical and less reliant on the scares.

Howl runs through 31 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.