Consumables, VAULT Festival

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by guest critic Gregory Forrest

A young drug-addicted porn star is looking for someone to kill and eat him. A clean-freak older man is looking for a good, tasty fantasy. So what happens to the carving knife? It’s a strong set up, and when cannibalistic fetishism is first introduced to Consumables – effectively delayed in Matthew Kyne Baskott’s’s script – the topic undoubtedly sticks in your throat.

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The War Has Not Yet Started, Southwark Playhouse

by Laura Kressly

We may not be living in a war zone, but everyday life is a series of battles to be won or lost. These tiny fights may be life or death in the moment, but can feel silly, meaningless or absurd from an outsider’s perspective. This isn’t lost on Mikhail Durnenkov, who presents a sample of vignettes addressing problematic aspects of modern life, from mobile phone overuse to airport security.

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The Poetry of Exile, White Bear

You can be who you want to be, right? Rob, a driving instructor in modern day Romford, believes himself to be an 8th century Chinese poet from the Tang Dynasty. When he finally chooses to live the sequestered life of a poet out on the marshes in a wooden hut, it has huge repercussions on his family and friends. The whole thing’s silly – sure, you can choose a career, or where you live, but contrary to what Rachel Dolezal and desperate sci-fi fans may think, we cannot chose our race or the century we live in.

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Ionesco/Dinner at the Smiths’, Latvian House


By guest critic Archie Whyld

On arriving at the front door of Latvian House I am by a very smart, besuited Italian butler who refuses to let me in and won’t really give me a clear reason as to why. Had the performance begun? He suggests I get a drink at the bar in the basement but won’t allow me to take the most obvious and direct route to said bar; instead I use the tradesman’s outdoor, wrought iron steps entrance. The bar seems to be in Riga, Latvia, what with all its eastern Europe chic. I stand at the bar waiting to order. No one comes. Meanwhile Latvian drinkers enjoy interesting looking beers, chat in hushed tones and completely ignore me. I stand, thirsty, with multi-coloured disco ball lights streaking across my face. Is this all part of the performance? Or am I in a dream?

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The Doctor in Spite of Himself, Drayton Arms Theatre

The Doctor in Spite of Himself (c) Ulysse Beauvois (3)

When the abusive, drunken woodcutter Sganarelle beats his wife one time too many, she takes advantage of passing strangers looking for a doctor to cure a young woman’s mysterious illness. Telling them she knows just the man, an eccentric but renowned man of medicine, sets the ball rolling on an absurd adventure of lust, remorse, and blagging it. Exchange Theatre, a French company based in London, have adapted Moliere’s The Doctor In Spite of Himself into a 75-minute contemporary version loaded with metatheatre, energy and good leading performances from a French cast. Plenty of slapstick, detailed design and Shakespearian influence make this a fun, easy to watch adaptation of the French classic.

Actor-director David Furlong plays Sganarelle with a goofy, watchable charm. His undeniable charisma is at odds with the unlikeable character, though his comeuppance and subsequent reform are a somewhat satisfying narrative despite the anti-feminist premise from the 1660s. Furlong is by far the strongest in the cast, but the others are generally good. Anita Adam Gabay as the mostly mute Lucinda exudes a sweet innocence, particularly in the opening montage where she discovers her betrothal to a man she doesn’t love. Matt Mella is the hilariously dumb Lucas, able to evoke laughter with a well-timed pause and a blank look. Some of the actors find it hard to connect to the language in English at times, but these jarring moments are fairly infrequent.

The edited plot occasionally feels rushed and overly compact, though it’s easy to follow and the translation uses relatively modern English. The excused wife beating is uncomfortably old fashioned, but at least it’s ridiculed – along with medicine and the gullibility of the upper classes. These themes translate fairly well to the modern day and English culture, especially considering the Shakespeare-esque comedy sequences that are likely to have drawn on the same commedia del’arte heritage that Shakespeare did. Furlong updates even further by adding in discreetly funny elements of self-reference, even if they don’t always work. The bust of Moliere as a weapon is cute, but characters dictating text to others from an anthology of Moliere plays isn’t as effective and causes energy to drop.

The design, presumably also by Furlong, incorporates an Elizabethan stage-within-a-stage to emphasise the metatheatre and clarify location. It’s clever and looks great, though it causes some difficulties with sightlines and narrows the playing area. Furlong’s overarching concept of using the metatheatre to create distance is a strong one what with its acknowledgment the absurdity of the story and the plot points that don’t work in a present day context.

This production of The Doctor in Spite of Himself is a funny, palatable adaptation of Moliere for London audiences. It’s a good laugh, a good length and has good performances. The company’s talent and vision is highly commendable and deserving of larger production values; their commitment to bringing audiences high quality French theatre in intimate venues makes them one to watch.

The Doctor in Spite of Himself runs through 17 July with performances in both French and English.

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.

Botallack O’Clock, Old Red Lion Theatre

Roger Hilton was an abstract artist working in Cornwall until his death in 1975. As alcoholism and ill health took hold, he confined himself to a basement bedroom and studio, prolifically churning out work in the middle of the night. Modelling Hilton’s experimental work, playwright Eddie Elks (of Mugs Arrows acclaim) has crafted an unconventional dialogue between an ageing, ill man finding late-night solace in his art, and his radio. Elks begins in naturalism, then surreal expressionism sets in like a lucid dream. The mind of an artist is an unusual, hard to pin down thing inventively captured and well performed in Botallack O’Clock, accompanied by the sadness of approaching death and the need to leave a legacy.

Ken McClymont’s set recreates Hilton’s studio/bedroom with excellent accuracy and detail, and a bit of theatre trickery further enhances the surrealism and absurdity. Photographic projections reinforce the authenticity of the set, complete with drying paintings strung around the periphery and paintbrushes everywhere. A 1960’s radio benignly sits centre stage next to a desk with paper and paints. With Dan Frost as an angular Roger folded on the corner of a mattress and the radio next to him, they become equals. The wardrobe on the back wall is also more than it appears, as are the walls themselves. Particularly bizarre but wonderful moments include the old man struggling to be reborn through the wall and Roger’s energetic bogey with a surprise visitor.

The power in this script is the juxtaposition of the profundity and truth in Roger’s dialogue with his radio, and the veering away from reality that happens soon after insomnia slowly wakes him. It surprises and disarms; Roger’s negotiation of this alteration is charming and confessional, provoking reflection on one’s own mortality. But it’s also deliciously funny and sweet, though begins to feel too long about fifteen minutes before the end.

Dan Frost is not an old man, but endows his physicality with the creaky weight of age. This is simply cast off, like his glasses, when he gleefully reflects on his art school days in Paris. Frost’s vocal rhythm is quick and short, forcing the audience to really listen to and process Elks’ script. Frost is complimented by the dulcet tones of George Haynes as the Radio. 

Botallack O’Clock is, in essence, a simple conversation between a man and his subconscious but Elks’ creativity and skill makes it seem like more than that.  There are some delightful surprises along the way and a range of styles are used to examine our intimate relationships with our work, our possessions and our inevitable deaths – a thoughtful, reflective piece is thinly veiled under the humour and Frost’s abrupt delivery. Though we empathise with Roger throughout, all of us are alone in our twilight years, and we are the sole leading players in our own narratives.

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.

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, Camden People’s Theatre


(c) Giulia Delprato

Austerity sucks. People all over the country have had their benefits cut, work opportunities reduced and wages frozen. Austerity has badly affected young people at the onset of their careers, inhibiting the making of an independent, adult life. Young couples don’t have it any easier, even if one of the pair has a great job. For Bernadette and Oliver, life’s about to get even harder. They live in a Britain where the government isn’t just limiting welfare, arts council grants and junior doctors’ salaries. The newest austerity measure is on their speech – not what they say, but how much. Every individual is limited to 140 words a day in Sam Steiner’s Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons.

Steiner uses the word limit to frame Bernadette and Oliver’s journey as a couple and their efforts to overcome obstacles within their relationship. The audience sees them meet at a cat funeral, wake up together for the first time, make up coded abbreviations to use when the Hush Law comes into effect. They fight, they fuck, they count their words, and it’s lovely despite the dark premise. Euan Kitson (Oliver) and Beth Holmes (Bernadette) are charmingly intimate with each other, as they should be after their runs at Latitude, Edinburgh and Warwick Arts Centre. Fundamentally a love story, these two do their best to get by and stay together even though they’re chalk and cheese. Despite stylized blocking and choreography, and no physical contact for the entire play, these young actors are sweetly genuine.

The short scenes alternate between their pre- and post- speech limited relationship, with transitions well marked with movement and the use of microphones by director Ed Franklin. Steiner’s slow plot reveal keeps the audience keen, as do his conflicting characters trying to make it work one day at a time. The amount of time passing isn’t clear though, and there are logistical points that are ignored. Has the government installed internal speech limiters in everyone? If not, why don’t they ignore the law in the privacy of their homes? How does Bernadette go to work as a courtroom lawyer with a mere 140 words? How do they remember their word count? So many questions go unanswered which make the situation implausible, particularly with naturalistic performances.

Also jarring with the performance style is the abstract movement direction/choreography. With real-life dialogue and performance, the angular, distant movements provide visual variation that are pleasing to look at, but interfere with the actors’ connection to each other. In a world where words can’t be the sole means of communicating between a couple, there’s a blatant lack of contact even though they are often physically close. It makes sense to use movement to indicate scene changes, but the unfaltering style Franklin chooses is coldly repetitive. There’s a sense of showing off his cleverness or wanting to veer away from naturalism just for the sake of it. However, his sense of timing and interpretation of a script with little more than the dialogue and scene delineations is poignant and intuitive.

Considering production company Walrus are fresh out of Warwick uni and Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons is the creative team’s first professional endeavor, this slightly dystopian two-hander is an excellent piece of theatre. With no set and a focus on the words that the government brutally restricts, this tale of young love is wonderfully performed and an easy, touching watch.

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PayPal.

Fred Strangebone’s Freakshow, London Horror Festival

Freak Show by Chris BrockI’m watching Ben Whitehead play a socially inept Victorian playing a half-walrus/half-man creature, indicated by the wearing of a hooded grey sleeping bag, blue swimming flippers on his hands, and paper tusks precariously attached to his face with a false moustache. I’m pondering the life choices I’ve made that led me to this moment as well as whether or not the character-based stand up/absurd solo performance/live art/Victorian freakshow satire/old-fashioned variety show that unfolds before me is one of the greatest pieces of theatre I’ve ever encountered, or the worst. It may possibly be both. I still haven’t decided, and may not ever do so, let alone by the time I finish this review. Fred Strangebone’s Freakshow violently mashes up genres in a bizarre yet often-hilarious piece that manages to be both straightforward and bafflingly random.

Whitehead’s narrator Fred Strangebone cuts an imposing figure in a dinner suit, black shirt, and velvet bowtie. His rigidity and demeanor remind me of Lurch in the original The Addams Family series from the 1960s, but more well spoken and deadpan. Fred tells us exactly what’s going to happen: he will perform some comedy, then tell us a tale of unspeakable horror, and then, time permitting, he’s going to kill himself. His tale of unspeakable horror is more of a speakable mystery (so he says), where Strangebone goes to the freakshow and meets the walrus man and other oddities affiliated with the travelling show. These characters are a fantastic platform for accomplished voice actor Whitehead to get stuck into, and an enjoyably grotesque one at that. After a failed attempt to impress the freakshow to the point that they invite him to join them, he fulfills his initial promise…or does he? The meta-theatre from the stand-up clouds the levels of reality within Fred’s world.

Each of Whitehead’s creations could be a piece in itself, but he connects them through an overarching storyline. This structure could do with some work, as the narration between characters is often thin, with a tenuous link from one character to the next. The dwarfish property developer with pink wellies chewing on a cigar made of chorizo, whilst hilarious, only loosely fits into the established story. A scriptwriter or script consultant could have a positive influence on the story. His comedy is achingly funny, using absurdity and grotesque imagery to generate laughter mixed with disgust. Like when the demon bin-babies vomit all over mute clown cleaner, Sid, after he breast-feeds them to a monstrous soundtrack. (That was another one of those existential moments for me I mentioned earlier.)

Despite the rough structure and the script with predetermined characters crowbarred in, Whitehead has a fantastic sense for the absurdly funny and Fred Strangebone’s Freakshow manages to pay homage to several earlier popular performance forms – including the freakshow (obviously), variety, cabaret and travelling circus. There’s some audience participation, but the piece is more presentational than interactive. The event is a baffling, bizarre and uniquely wonderful one that refuses to be classified into one particular performance genre and certainly a one-of-a-kind contribution to the London Horror Festival this year.

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PayPal.