The Bad Seed, Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

L-R Rebecca Rayne as Rhoda, Jessica Hawksley as Monica and Beth Eyre as Christine © David Monteith-Hodge

Rhoda is the picture-perfect 1950s American child. Obedient, clever and helpful, she is a dream for any parent. But after the death of a classmate who won the penmanship medal Rhoda coveted, mum Christine’s investigations into past “accident” uncover a dark secret from her own childhood that means Rhoda isn’t all that seems. The revelation ends in tragedy with serious implications for Rhoda’s future.

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Celebration, Florida, The Albany

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by guest critic Tom Brocklehurst

Shows incorporating technology have become more and more common recently. This experimental show, Celebration, Florida, features two unrehearsed performers wearing headphones. Greg Wohead, the creator of the show gives them instructions, dictates to them what to say and where to stand, and what accent to speak in. Most of the time they are speaking as him – they have to imitate his American accent (badly) and ask us to picture them as him, standing in his hotel room in his pants, thinking up ideas for this show.

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The Wild Party, The Other Palace

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Newly rebranded as The Other Palace and now part of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s empire, the former St Jame’s Theatre aims to focus on new British musical theatre. With Paul Taylor-Mills at the creative helm and two spaces in which to develop and showcase new work from the UK, their debut production is…(drumroll)…an American musical from 2000. An odd choice considering the Broadway production nearly two decades ago left critics unimpressed.

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Glockenspiel, Tristan Bates Theatre

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In the programme notes for Steven Dykes’ Glockenspiel, we are told that 40% of current personnel have been deployed more than once, and 27% of those veterans deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from anxiety disorders and/depression. A fifth of ex-service people are unemployed, and a fifth report cases of domestic violence. Male ex-service members are twice as likely to commit suicide than their non-serving peers. So it’s no secret that the US doesn’t look after its veterans very well. The play tries to look at the effects of service on those now finding their way in the civilian world, but Old Sole Theatre Company’s execution doesn’t deliver the power needed for this slowly-developing script.

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Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight, Ovalhouse

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Along with tickets, we are handed earplugs. Considering Christopher Brett Bailey’s first work This Is How We Die, I’m not surprised. A brilliant, relentless barrage of contemporary American myth followed by an encore of noise and light, Bailey isn’t known for doing things by halves, or even singular wholes. The slight, constantly startled-looking Canadian with gravity defying hair attacks performance making with the energy of a supernova. Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight has the same verve, but is otherwise a rather different beast. Whilst This Is How We Die was dominated by language, Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight has very few words – but the earplugs are definitely needed. This anthemic music and light show fills the room with sound, colour and vibration but is the difficult second album to This Is How We Die. Much more of a gig than a piece of theatre, it lacks the satisfaction of characters and narrative, even a hint of one. Bailey’s mind blowing poetry teases with a few tiny fragments, but otherwise leaves us desperately gagging for more of his words.

Though given earplugs, there is the choice of whether or not to use them. Notices state that the sound level is consistently over 100 decibels and that, “if you wear plugs the whole time you might compromise enjoyment of the show. and if you don’t wear them at all you will take home whistling ear canals”. Being one of those people sensitive to loud noises who constantly asks my other half to turn down the telly, I want to play it safe but I don’t want to miss out. So I opt for one plug in, with the other ready. This choice no doubt effects the experience – if I leave them out the whole time and feel discomfort, would I like the show less? Or would I like it more because it’s not actually ‘that’ loud? I use the plugs in response to the volume level – sometimes I have both in, sometimes none. It’s an interesting premise to consider that the experience and quality of the show hinges on these earplugs, adding an additional level of individual, subjective response.

Bailey’s voice, slow and unseen, repeats, “this is a hell dream” in a brief textual introduction. Violinist Alicia Jane Turner uses loop pedals to sculpt a cinematic score reminiscent of mid-90s rock anthems. Her work is wonderfully angry, sweeping and alive. George Percy and Bailey are both on guitar, forming a silhouetted triptych with Bailey soon in the middle – amongst the monolithic speakers and flight cases forming a brutalist, urban landscape, he cuts the figure of a scrappy dystopian overlord. It suits him. If this is what hell is like, it’s fucking glorious.

Behind each performer is a wooden panel of about a metre square made of deconstructed pianos and their strings. These are visually impressive structures in and of themselves; their music evokes the violence and community of tribalism. Combined with excellent sound-responsive lighting (that malfunctioned to the point that the show needing to be stopped briefly), the overall effect is one of epic, soul shaking community.

The title paired with the music evokes the American paradox of a friendly but violent people who love their guns as much as their families. The music’s scale captures the expanse and variation of the North American landscape, and the few words he shares on the experience of waking up from a nightmare to find the world unchanged darkly foreshadow Trump’s America. Whether or not this is an intentional message, it is certainly a powerful one.

Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight is certainly wide open to interpretation and shows Bailey’s ambition and range as a performer of work designed to push the senses to their extremes. His textual dexterity is certainly missed (particularly by the coked up, flailing pair of young women sat next to me commenting on how disappointing this work is compared to his first) and comparatively this piece is somewhat disappointing, but it absolutely has its merits as a visceral, “fuck you/I love you” performance piece.

Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight tours nationally through 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.

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.

Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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When fourteen-year-old boy Red starts at a new school after his parents’ divorce, his mum anxiously worries about him making friends. Soon, his mobile is constantly buzzing with texts and he’s out most evenings. Mum’s happy but she only sees the life Red constructs especially for her. Someone, or rather something, else has the privilege of an uncensored view – Red’s mobile. As the vulnerable boy is sexually exploited by his unsatisfied maths teacher, his phone sees everything and narrates the story around the characters’ interactions. This slick ensemble piece by NY theatre company One Year Lease seamlessly merges writing styles, design and physical theatre to tell a dream-like story of abuse veiled as love.

When Red’s maths teacher confiscates his mobile and accidentally takes it home with her instead of her own phone, she begins a downward spiral of communication that quickly becomes personal. Red’s parents separation is far from pleasant, and his teacher’s boyfriend is an unemployed layabout, with vague dreams of designing apps. This combination fosters a relationship where the teacher and the student inappropriately confide in each other, and she does nothing to stop it.

Suspicion helps propel the action upwards towards a climactic end, but a lack of consequence in Kevin Armento’s resolution is as disturbing as the story itself. The phone as narrator is a great device – it’s present enough to add context and framing, but is not overused to the point of becoming a gimmick. Abstract movement incorporating versatile set pieces adds a striking, dynamic visual and a disconnect from reality appropriate to a forbidden relationship. A live musical score by Estelle Bajou enhances the surrealism of the staging.

Mathematical equations coldly explain how their illicit affair develops, and minimalist design in black and white juxtaposes the intricacies of the complex lives that collide so inappropriately. Though the script avoids blatant condemnation of the relationship, Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally is a striking blend of visual and verbal storytelling.

Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally runs through 28th August.

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.