Narcissistic Nativity, Fucking Little Elf Bitch, Rosemary Branch


After 20 years running the Rosemary Branch, Cecilia Darker and Cleo Sylvestre moved on to pastures new in June this year. Unattended Items, a company with a focus on interactive theatre and design-led work, took over and have been busy programming work that has similar practices to their own.

Their Christmas bill of adults-only shows is no different. Urban Foxes Collective’s Narcissistic Nativity is a feminist, live art piece fighting against the patriarchy; Mammalian’s Fucking Little Elf Bitch is a one-woman show on the perils of working in a grotto. Both break down the fourth wall and use non-linear structures, and both need some tweaking for the sake of clarity, but this pair effectively balance current issues and laughs.

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Feature: Top Ten of 2016


Though 2016 has been far from kind, seeing roughly 250 productions mostly in fringe and off-West End venues has made for a fruitful year in theatre. Choosing ten hasn’t been easy, but these productions had an impact that sets them apart from the rest.

10. Hamlet Peckham

A totally race, age and gender-blind production in found space The Bussey Building, this Hamlet focuses on storytelling and was executed with energy, undeniable passion and exceptional skill that puts it leagues ahead of most small-scale Shakespeare.

9. A Girl and A Gun

Louise Orwin’s unapologetic live art piece looks at sexualised female violence, gaze and control. The sophisticated work incorporates live technology and a different male actor each night who hasn’t seen the script until he sets foot onstage.

8. Lucy McCormick: Triple Threat

Lewd, rude and in your face, live artist Lucy McCormick takes on celebrities and their causes, the Bible and its women, and female sexuality. Be prepared to be shocked and amazed when she brings the show to the Soho theatre in 2017.

7. Extravaganza Macabre

Little Bulb’s Victorian music hall inauguration of the outdoor courtyard space at Battersea Arts Centre is filled with heart. The talented trio expertly use the space in the family show that approaches form and style with dedication and invention.

6. in/out (a feeling)

Isley Lynn was my new writing discovery of 2015; this year brought Andrew Maddock. The actor/writer/facilitator writes modern stories of everyday heroes, but in exquisite verse. in/out (a feeling) tells the story of sex worker Blue and one of her customers with poignancy and pathos.

5. Us/Them

Belgian company Bronks brought this unconventional telling of the Beslan school massacre to Edinburgh, and returns to the UK in 2017 at the National. This devastating two-hander replays the story from the perspective of two children taken hostage.

4. People, Places and Things

I missed this at the National, but the West End transfer captured the intricacies of depression with Denise Gough’s inimitable performance. It’s astonishing work that gets into the bones.

3. Counting Sheep

The immersive gypsy punk opera by Lemon Bucket Orkestra was one of the highlights of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Recreating the Maidan revolution in the Ukraine, the audience join in to recreate the people’s demand for change.

2. Bucket List

The extraordinary Theatre Ad Infinitum make my yearly list again, this time with their all-famle show attacking the US-made maquiladoras in Mexico’s border towns. Their distinctive physical theatre technique is showcased alongside an aggressive, unapologetic political agenda

  1. Imogen

Matthew Dunster’s extraordinary reimagining of Cymbeline under Emma Rice’s Globe leadership appealed to young urbanites and anyone who likes their Shakespeare fresh and alive. Dunster’s approach was thoroughly embedded into the text and story and tapped into the energy of Early Modern theatregoing.

Honourable Mentions: Skin a Cat, Tomorrow I Was Always a Lion, Wendy Hoose

These three narrowly missed out of making it into the top ten, but all are powerful pieces of theatre that are no less deserving of the accolade. All are driven by important socio-political issues and tell incredible human stories.

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.

Why the Whales Came, Ovalhouse

In 1914 on one of the Scilly Isles, young Gracie and Daniel defy their parents’ rules and local rumours by befriending the Birdman. He’s an ancient fellow known for carving sea birds and cursing the people he encounters. Though he lives alone on nearby Samson, their chance encounter with him that begins in fear evolves into friendship. 

There’s more to Why the Whales Came than this, though. Coming of age, grief, overcoming prejudice and the creation of myth are dominant themes in Danyah Miller’s solo adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel for young people. Though geared towards children, the complexity of the story and Miller’s engagement with the audience is infectious and appeals to all ages.

Miller begins her story with Gracie and Daniel, who love building model boats on their island home. It’s the search for a quiet place away from the bigger fishing vessels and Daniel’s nasty older brother Big Tim that leads them to bigger adventures. Their time with the Birdman teaches them lessons about both the kindness of strangers and doing good in the face of mob rule – inspiring messages for children and young people, even if not easy ones to execute in real life.

Miller’s grandmotherly warmth is engaging, and she’s an excellent storyteller. Her delivery is slick and confident; the children in the audience are focused throughout. Combined with Kate Bunce’s multi-level set packed with surprising doors and reveals, Why the Whales Came is far from quiet, sedate storytelling, though neither does it rely on energy alone to hold audience attention. The script is easy to follow but has enough threads to be interesting, but not so many that it becomes a mess.

Theatrical storytelling can be a difficult form to get right, especially with children who are now used to endless supplies of content across numerous devices. Michael Morpurgo’s stories are fantastic sources of material, and Miller truly makes this one her own.

Why the Whales Came runs through 31 December.

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.

A Christmas Carol – The Musical, LOST Theatre

Providing opportunities for aspiring and emerging actors is no doubt a wonderful thing. LOST Theatre has been doing exactly this since its founding in 1979 through its stage school and regular in-house productions. Their current production of A Christmas Carol – The Musical captures LOST’s ethos and the spirt of Christmas in all of its joyful, communal and tacky glory with a cast composed of both amateurs and pros, including children. Though the finished product is more like a child’s finger painting than the Mona Lisa, their joy in performing is undeniable.

Alan Menken’s 1994 musical is typical of its era – a big cast, barnstorming numbers and a commitment to musicalise the most non-musical of stories. There are some great ensemble numbers, though the mixed ability cast and unreliable sound levels diminish their power. Songs with fewer characters have more emotional reach, even though the sound still isn’t great. Choreography is inconsistent, with some songs tightly choreographed whilst others look like aimless wandering about. Co-directors Martin John Bristol and Mark Magill otherwise use the space well, though there is a fair bit of lengthy filler movement.

Though there is a blatant lack of racial diversity, the cast of 22 has 13 women and girls. The ghosts of Christmas Past (Katrina Winters), Present (Rebecca Westberry) and Future (Jessica Finn) are all women, and strong performers at that. Though Scrooge is the weak link out of the leads, he has a good voice in spite of a lack of emotion. Of the child actors, Kyrana Shea’s West End experience sets her apart from the rest of the kids, even though the tiny, Tiny Tim (Arthur Tidbury) is absolutely adorable. Richard Lounds and Toby Joyce are also excellent as Marley and Bob Cratchett.

The lighting and costume are the most glaring signposts of the semi-professionalism of the production. There’s an Edwardian dress here, a modern sleeveless top there, and a ruffled polyester blouse straight out of the 1980’s amongst the otherwise Victorian-ish garb. All the colours of the rainbow and smart-lighting gobos are used pretty much constantly, like a kids’ school disco from the 90s. It distracts from the performances and clashes with the undertone of the story.

Though A Christmas Carol – A Musical lacks polish and professionalism, it compensates with love for the work. This is great to watch, even if the final product isn’t notable in and of itself.

 A Christmas Carol – A Musical runs through 31 December.

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.

Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman, Soho Theatre

From a lectern in the corner of the stage, Dr Marisa Carnesky fights the social taboo of periods. Resembling a character from a Tim Burton film, the PhD holder in menstrual rituals and synchronicity shares her collective research with a group of performance artists she assembled, the Menstruants. Sideshow/cabaret Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman is a wonderfully quirky manifestation of sisterhood, womanhood and the wonders of the female body.

Every month on the new moon, Dr Carnesky and the Menstruants met on a beach in Southend to develop and performed rituals around their menstrual cycle. The Menstruants come from an array of backgrounds and sexualities, and their rituals are as unique and individual as they are. Through their performances, every woman’s personal experiences with their bodies is validated and celebrated.

The performances on show are distinctive and compelling. There is some spectacle: sword swallower MisSa Blue has a customised set of swords that suit her oesophagus shape each day of her cycle. Some of the work is more reflective and otherwordly, like Nao Nagal’s use of traditional Japanese masked performance. Molly Beth Morossa provides a creepy sideshow element with her twitchy, Victorian high tea. H Plewis performs a visceral movement piece with her menstrual jelly. Rhyannon Styles simply speaks to us directly about her experience of cycles as a trans woman. Fancy Chance, with the rest of the company, performs a phenomenal circus act as a finale, after an empowering, proud sequence of feminine reclamation. All of the acts celebrate female abilities and bodies without aggression.

In between the vulnerable, performative manifestations of female cycles, Dr Carnesky talks to the audience through an array of historical and cultural mores surrounding menstruation. She particularly focuses on myth and symbolism – death and rebirth, shedding of skin and female unity. Her tone is gentle and matter-of-fact; the the content may be revolutionary but she comes across as warm and supportive.

In a show that has the potential to come across as alienating, it is instead welcoming – no one in the audience (men included) seem uncomfortable, and the stories shared on the stage are supported from the house. Instead,this diverse, inclusive variety show is a divine honouring of the feminine mystery and a reclamation of one of the features that defines women, and a showcase of some excellent live artists.

Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman runs through 7 January.

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 Hound of the Baskervilles, Jack Studio Theatre

I’ve reviewed several Christmas shows this season and whilst I have nothing against pantomime,  coincidentally none are pantos. Some clearly betray an influence by the distinctly British style, which makes a lovely homage to the season but offer more choice to audiences. Jack Studio Theatre’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, adapted by Steven Canny and John Nicholson, is such a show. Performed by three actors who enthusiastically embrace physical comedy and metatheatre, this surprisingly faithful adaptation is spunky and fun with a few scares, but the performance quality occasionally fluctuates.

The cast directly introducing themselves to the audience and the inclusion of a health and safety disclaimer sets the tone for the evening – goofy, with a bit of danger. Karl Swinyard’s cartoonishly painted flats depicting a scary wood enhance the mood and add a cinematic influence, and there are regular metatheatrical interludes in the story. The script and style play with form and structure, though this is done with skill and panache – it’s never messy. Though there are plenty of laughs to be hand, the story is not a happy one. Kate Bannister’s production strikes a great balance between the dark and the light with plenty of physical comedy but doesn’t shy away from the scarier plot points.

Like panto, this production relies on stock characters for its comedy. Though this approach is often successful, some of the characters are too similar for this to be fully effective – Holmes, Watson and their client Henry Baskerville are all upper-class and urbane, often mirroring each other in comedic moments that can quickly feel repetitive. A trio of white men, though historically accurate, play all roles including the panto dame-esque Cecile. Though this is clearly an homage to melodrama and panto, in such a heightened, representational style there is no need for such casting when London theatre cries out for gender and race diversity on its stages.

The Jack Studio Theatre’s in-house shows are consistently high quality and innovative in form and style. This adaptation of a classic Sherlock Holmes story is a shining example of this, and the theatre’s commitment to new writing and reinterpretations of classics.

The Hound of the Baskervilles runs through 7 January.

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.

Stuck, Off Quay

By guest critic Rebecca Nice, @rebeccajsnice

In Stuck, four women alternate telling a story, reciting a monologue or presenting a speech. The work is loaded with satire that directly critiques the current political climate and societal struggles of sexism, patriarchy, immigration and oppression. Tamara Astor, Sophie Crawford, Lula Mebrahtuand Deli Segal are far from stuck; they are navigating a series of continual journeys. Although the themes cover many historical periods, the rich content of the text allows for critique and action from within. Dislocation and displacement are paramount but paralysis is not.

Contemporary and historical speeches from women form the structure of the work and director Andrew Brock, who runs the sound and lighting from behind a corner, appears at beginning and end in a Donald Trump mask. Speeches include those by Nancy Astor, the first female UK MPJosephine Baker, an American civil rights activist and suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst. They are woven between stories from a backpacker, or a refugee, a girl saying goodbye to her Dad or woman jumping on a bus in a new and strange community. Impassioned monologues, emblazoned by the drama of each story, juxtapose the famous and the unheard in a series of gender-based scenes of oppression. Through this mixture of historical cannon and genre as content, Stuck finds the heroic in the everyday.

Trump’s cameo is unnecessary; the speeches themselves are powerful enough to relate to an audience with its own cultural makeup and political woes. The characterisation of each woman is, on occasion, excessive but draws on the emotive content and context of each speech. The almost minimalist style of the lighting and set sits at odds with the sometimes excessive dramatization. A simpler delivery would make for a more complex play. This would work well alongside the uncomplicated design of the work. One long strip light sits on the floor at the back and is raised and moved by the performers, an over-head projector forms an up-light in the foreground and a series of torches shone against metallic paper allow the minimal style and function to sit hand in hand. 

My name and place of birth is taken as I enter the space and written on a sheet of paper. A tribal goddess adorned with a paper head dress scatters these papers one by one, to be picked up and silently read, one after another. As bodies chase, place and abandon each spot for the next one, a choreography of churning worlds, flying papers, moving bodies and stillness introduces the running theme of journeys, displacement, home and belonging. The movement-based tableaus often strengthen the ensemble and the message: The quartet works back-to-back for example, supporting each other through balancing, moving up and down with torches in hand whilst one of them is talking. An abstracted world or set of bodies in space create a context for movement or frame the speaker as a chorus might and allude to a team of like-minded individuals who are fighting to be heard, the audience included.

The piece itself appears to be displaced at a stop off point along its long journey like that of the first speech of a traveller stuck in limbo, waiting for a visa. Tucked away on the eighth floor of a tower block in East India Dock, ‘Stuck’ is surrounded by a shiny, beautiful, soulless micro-city, abandoned for the night by the suited office workers and temporarily inhabited by four passionate women. The audience felt like they had travelled far into the middle of nowhere to find them, and this critique of the very world it inhabits feels transient and temporary which surrounds its message with a greater sense of zeal and urgency.

Stuck 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.

Feature: Scenes From A Yellowface Execution

By Daniel York

Before we go any further, let me lay a couple of things out there:

Howard Barker is a first-rate dramatist.

The Print Room in Notting Hill is a great small-scale theatre.

But they have epically and catastrophically screwed up their casting choices in Barker’s latest offering, In The Depths Of Dead Love. According to the theatre’s website, the play is set in “Ancient China”, concerns an “Emperor” and “Imperial Court” and features characters called “Chin” and “Mrs. Hu”, with an entirely white cast who (without wishing to sound too ironically stereotypical) one would normally expect to see on TV taking tea with Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey.

It’s also doubly ironic that in post-referendum, post-truth Brexit Britain, we’ve spent the last few months being told that you simply cannot call people stupid or racist.

Well, here’s the deal. We don’t actually have to be stupid to do stupid things and we’re all perfectly capable of perpetuating systemic racism without actually being consciously racist. Yes, it’s a subtle one, folks, and interestingly, I can honestly say, hand on heart, I have never once heard the immortal words “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” said by any person of colour. Not one. Because people of colour are ten times as aware of racism as white people. It’s just a fact.

Now, what that hotbed of London fringe theatre that is the Print Room have done, in a play by one of Britain’s most eminent playwrights, is perpetuate the practice of “yellowface,” i.e. when a person who is not of East Asian descent plays a character of East Asian descent. Yellowface, like blackface and brownface, is a remnant of a time when actors of colour were simply not allowed on our stages.

There’s often confusion about a couple of things here. People like to kid themselves that blackface only ever happened in some bygone Edwardian hinterland and only then because there were no black actors around to play Othello. However, this isn’t actually true. The last blacked up Moor of Venice on our stages was as recently as 1990. The practice was only ended by protest from black actors.

Yellowface has lingered on a lot longer, unfortunately. We did however think we’d finally laid the culturally appropriated beast to rest (on British stages at least) in 2012 when, after the Royal Shakespeare Company elected to cast only 3 (out of a cast of 17) East Asian actors in minor roles (including a dog and a maid) in the Chinese classic, The Orphan Of Zhao, a mass social media protest that went viral globally caused considerable embarrassment to both the RSC and the British theatre industry as a whole.

Since then we have seen a whole slew of productions in major theatres: Chimerica, #AiWeiWei, The World Of Extreme Happiness, Yellowface, You For Me For You, P’yongyang, Shangrila, The Sugar-Coated Bullets Of The Bourgeoisie-in major venues, achieving enormous success with casts of real-life East Asian actors, not Caucasians doing an “ethnic turn”. We will also shortly see Snow In Midsummer, at the RSC no less, and Chinglish at the Park Theatre. These are cast with actors who can actually trace their roots to Eastern Asia.

The other confusion that lingers about yellow (and black and brown) face is that if you don’t have the make-up on, the taped eyelids and the dodgy Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany’s accent, this somehow ceases to be dodgy theatre practice and magically becomes instead a perfectly valid form of “colour-blind casting”.

But this is the deal. If you take an East Asian character and cast it with a white actor, you’re effectively saying there is no East Asian actor who was good enough/clever enough/talented enough/capable enough to play it.

Or they simply did not exist.

In other words: erasure.

 Daniel York (sometimes known as Daniel York Loh) is a mixed-race British East Asian actor, writer, filmmaker and musician. As an actor he has appeared at the RSC, National Theatre and Royal Court, as well as in the feature films The Beach and Rogue Trader. His short films have been seen in major film festivals where they have been nominated for awards. His first full-length play, The Fu Manchu Complex, ran at Ovalhouse in 2013. Along with composer Craig Adams, he won the 2016 Perfect Pitch award to create an original stage musical, Sinking Water, based on events around the 2004 Morecambe Bay Chinese cockle-picker tragedy, which is currently being developed under commission by Theatre Royal Stratford East. He is one of 21 writers of colour featured in the collection of essays, The Good Immigrant, which won the 2016 Books Are My Bag Reader’s Choice award. He is one-third of the alt-folk trio Wondermare whose self-titled debut album is available to buy on itunes. He has served on the Equity Minority Ethnic Members Committee, is a founder member of British East Asian Artists and has worked with Act For Change to promote diversity in UK media.

Christmas, Theatre N16

Christmas. What a cunt.

No doubt many of us feel like this as some point in the run up to the holidays, but there are those that find this time of year particularly hard. Simon Stephens immortalises a ragtag collection of down-at-heel, working class Londoners in his early-career black comedy, Christmas. Both funny and tragic, the one act play is a fantastic anecdote to typically saccharine holiday theatre and a potent reminder that there are those of us with much less privilege than others. 

A week before the holiday, Billy, Seppo and Charlie prop up Michael’s east London boozer. None of them are having an easy time at the moment, nor are the other drinkers that pop in over the course of the evening. These are the East End’s waifs and strays, with no where else to go and no one else who understands them. They find kinship and conflict over their drinks, gradually confessing one secret after another as the empty glasses accumulate. Though the ending lacks any sort of resolution or certainty, the script is a good balance between comedy and provocative seriousness.

The performances are generally consistent, with Jack Bence as bricklayer Billy and Christopher Sherwood as cellist-turned-postie Charlie standing out with their nuance and intensity. Director Sarah Chapleo intuitively takes advantage of the theatre’s former use as a private bar and rearranges the audience to create a more intimate setting. She and her cast have a good instinct for the characters’ varying rhythms and are able to evoke plenty of empathy from the audience.

Though it’s great to see theatre with emotional range and depth framing working class issues, it’s a shame that the narratives here are all straight, white and male. This doesn’t invalidate the stories presented, but class diversity on stage isn’t enough anymore. But despite the unease of an all-white, all-male cast, Christmas still has plenty of impact.

With not everyone able to have a cosy, indulgent holiday season surrounded by warmth, food and loved ones, this play has an important place in Christmas theatre ecology. The production is a particularly strong one with good performances and staging in an intimate space, and has enough humour to counter the misery but still drive the message home. 

Christmas runs through 22 December.

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.

A Christmas Carol, Above the Arts

There are several versions of Dickens’ classic story on stage at the moment including two at the same venue, but I’m pretty sure that Flanagan Collective’s is the only one that involves a a two-course Christmas dinner. Traditional dinner theatre may be dreadfully out of fashion, and deservedly so – pun laden, thinly plotted murder mysteries performed by third rate actors in fading rural hotels are torturous affairs – but this A Christmas Carol is cleverly constructed, interactive and wonderfully fun.

Upstairs at the Arts is transformed into Scrooge’s parlour, with a banquet table in the middle. There are some lovely details – the corner bar is bedecked with holly, a pub sign and frosted windows, walls are now book cases and a record of debts. Though the script diverges quite a long way from the book, the fundamental story is still there and the audience is fully included. There are some moments of excessive banter and waffling, and a few vague transitions, but this adaptation is generally clear and concise. The focus is much more on the show than the food – something that makes this very different from typical dinner theatre.

Marley and Scrooge are the only performers, with Marley guiding Scrooge on a narrative journey through his three ghosts rather than physically taking him to other worlds. A distinct change of tone leads Scrooge through the memories of his past that are described with a committed delivery of the imagery-laden text. The extended interval where the audience eats and plays games is the congenial, warm Ghost of Christmas Present, then concludes with the somber telling of Christmases yet to come if Scrooge doesn’t change his ways – which we all know he does. There are some naff devices that try to cover up the lack of other characters, like a torch following an invisible Bob Cratchett.

The performances are heightened, high energy and skilful. It is impossible to not be swept away with the joy and Christmas spirit that runs through this cautionary tale. There are Christmas carols and games, but the story is the crux of this event. Though some may view this production as common and frivolous, it has wide appeal and unites audiences rather than alienates with high art. And the food is delicious.

A Christmas Carol runs through 31 December. 

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.