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.

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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.