Dirty Work (The Late Shift), Battersea Arts Centre

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by guest critic Rebecca JS Nice

Esteemed company Forced Entertainment fill the council chamber of Battersea’s old town hall with an enthused audience who laugh and snigger at the text presented to them. The performers are framed by a false, red curtained, proscenium arch that forms, like the show itself a facade: a description of something without being either of itself or the thing it describes. An hour and fifteen minutes runs with Robin Arthur and Cathy Naden taking turns to speak.

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Bubble Schmeisis, Battersea Arts Centre

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Nick Cassenbaum grew up in London’s Jewish community and experienced all the cultural mores that go with it – Spurs games, dubious summer camps, trips to Israel and discovering his willy isn’t like the other boys’ at school. Like many young people as he got older, he hadn’t quite found his place in the world. Until he went with his grandfather, Papa Alan, to the Canning Town bathhouse.

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Songs For the End of the World, Battersea Arts Centre

 

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Jim Walters is the first person sent to colonise Mars. But when a global apocalypse occurs, trapping him in the Earth’s orbit and running out of oxygen, he and his guitar are left to broadcast music to the devastation below. Can anyone hear him? Are there any survivors? Will he ever know? Dom Coyote and his band the Bloodmoneys present a post-Brexit apocalypse in the gig-theatre Songs For the End of the World, a piece overly heavy on the ‘gig’ and reliant on a plot constructed of dystopian tropes. Though the story is thin, Dom Coyote’s songs are fantastically varied and plentiful, helping to gloss over any shortcomings in the script.

There’s rockabilly, 90s rock anthems, glam rock, and blues numbers with a touch of connecting story sprinkled in between. Set in Ashley Coombe, the village serves as a window into the attitudes of small, English towns of this dictatorial era – the elderly preacher woman who runs the place condemns foreigners, terrorists and space exploration whilst the rebels put on club nights in an underground bunker. The country is now called New Albion and rather than run by an individual, a corporation dictates all rules and procedures. These plot devices are predictable within a story of a dystopian future, but are simplistic enough to work within the gig-theatre format without needing much explanation. As these two tribes clash, Jim Walters is in space – a symbol of both human progress and arrogant dominion. It’s no surprise which side survives down on Earth, and that the future beyond the end of the show looks particularly bleak.

Though the story is overly familiar, the music is wonderfully varied. David Bowie’s promised influence is clear, but not limiting in style. All of the characters in this Little England kitsch/cold international corporation hybrid are suitably blown out of proportion, but feel eerily familiar in a fundamentalist-driven, isolationist Britain and a world where Donald Trump may become the next leader of its most powerful country. Staging is fairly static as per the usual gig-theatre approach, but there is some variation in movement and costume. The lighting design adds power and hope to the bleak, clinical setting.

A more substantial script and dynamic staging would lend more theatricality to the excellent set of tunes in of Songs For the End of the World; as is, it is overly driven by music and the narrative potential is neglected. That said, it would make a fantastic concept album, and the design is strong – an extra half hour of script would add polish to this fun, vibrant performance piece.

Songs For the End of the World 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.

Extravaganza Macabre, Battersea Arts Centre

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On 13th March last year, I couldn’t tear myself away from twitter as news of the Battersea Arts Centre fire spread. The night before, I had taken my school’s GCSE Drama students to see Gecko’s Missing. The students had never seen abstract, physical theatre before and though they had mixed reactions, they talked about it for days afterwards and drew on it as they devised their own physical theatre pieces. As someone twice their age who is drama school trained and a seasoned theatregoer, I still rely on the BAC to foster similar reactions in myself. Whilst there are certainly shows that aren’t to my taste, the venue has consistently expanded my knowledge and understanding of the theatre and performance.  To watch the fire unfold in real time over social media was devastating. Thankfully no one was hurt and I’m certain those that work/have worked there were affected much more than I was, but I thought I was losing a chunk of my own theatrical landscape.

As the news broke that the BAC would open the front part of the building the next day, my heart leapt to know that all was not lost. The resourcefulness, determination and camaraderie of theatre people pulled together to reopen and raise funds. Now, a bit more than a year later, parts of the building closed by the fire are reopening. First were the artists’ bedrooms, now the remarkable, new open-air space, The Courtyard, debuts with Little Bulb’s similarly spirited show, Extravaganza Macabre. Spunky, bouncy and full of heart, this Victorian melodrama with heaps of music, audience interaction, and unadulterated love for their work makes for a delightful opening of the new BAC performance space.

The complete lack of hipster irony makes this show a rare treat. Though heavily stylized with narration and over-the-top performances, the trio of performers fully commit to it rather than commenting on it from a distance. Daylight, fluid actor/audience boundaries and interaction wholly engages the audience with the story, and the reasonably complex structure that never fails to surprise. Songs, narration and scenes alternate and incorporate plenty of slapstick; these combined with the casual outdoor environment makes a fantastic example of popular theatre also suitable for family audiences.

None of the three performers can be singled out as weaker than the others. They are multi-talented actor musicians brimming with infectious joy and exuberance. They fearlessly throw themselves around the ground floor and the gallery, down stairs and trap doors. Their use of space and inclusion of the whole audience regardless of what level they were on is fantastic – no one feels left out, and every bit of the Courtyard is utilised.

The script they created is a bit convoluted, but the narration clearly signposts changes in time and location, as does their multi-rolling. It’s complex enough that adults won’t be bored, but young people in the audience enjoy the warm silliness of the physical comedy within the story. A storm is the catalyst for the separation of a family and an unrelated young couple, all of whom endure much peril and crossed paths in order for everything to be right again. There’s love, violence, grief and death, all of which are treated with extravagance and utmost importance. There are still peaks and troughs in the plot and the emotional range is varied enough that, even though overly exaggerated, doesn’t become mundane.

Both the BAC and Little Bulb display immense passion for their work, and the two marry perfectly to inaugurate the courtyard. Warmth and energy and love radiate from Extravaganza Macabre, and a heavy dose of innocent goofiness makes this production truly something special.

Extravaganza Macabre runs through 26th 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.

Hardy Animal, Battersea Arts Centre

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What happens when a dancer and performance maker loses the ability to dance due to chronic pain? She makes a solo dance piece with hardly any dance in it. A mix of emotive description, encounters with medical and health practitioners, and her own research tell the story of an injury and the subsequent pain that wouldn’t leave her body. Pointedly still and so quiet that she needs a mic, Laura Dannequin’s resilience makes a compelling piece of solo storytelling that mourns the dances her body wouldn’t allow her to make.

An impassioned monologue about all of the dances she wants to create is followed by a voiceover describing her dancing, whilst Dannequin stands perfectly still. Though her expression gives away nothing, she exudes a sense of loss; the simplicity and contrast between aural and visual imagery are captivating and heavy with grief. A sequence of small flexing movements of her bare back against a litany of treatments and diagnoses she sought from all over the world creates a similar effect, this one with added existentialism and frustration with a medical community that still knows precious little about the human body and its mechanisms. It’s captivating viewing in its simplicity.

Much of the piece examines Dannequin’s relationship with her body and her pain. It becomes a separate entity that she confronts with a range of emotions and dogged research to understand why hers is so persistent. There’s a scientific lecture on types of pain and her own educated theories, but like the rest of her piece’s components, there’s an emotional undercurrent that carries her words. A cathartic climax celebrates her mysterious recovery and the overarching effect is one of beauty and wonder.

Dannequin miraculously withholds the anger she is more than entitled to feel, instead she shares a grounded story of bodily rebellion imbued with emotion and strength. Hardy Animal is a piece of simple, quiet beauty that doesn’t let itself be bogged down with science or negativity.

Hardy Animal ran from 28-29 April and tours regularly.

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.

This Room, Battersea Arts Centre

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Laura Dean has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. She’s afraid she’s going to kill herself in her sleep so spends at least two hours before bed checking her house for anything she could use to self-harm. Scarves and tights are hidden away, as are knives and other sharp objects. She can’t sleep without her checking routine and after months of exhaustion, she’s had enough. An NHS diagnosis comes with a round of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy sessions that help her recover, but introduce several ideas that make Dean question the nature of her self. This Room is a gently communal experience where Dean provides insight into the recovery process. There are plenty of clinical reports, forms and questionnaires but Dean’s individuality is never drowned out by these or by the condition she fights.

The audience is in Dean’s bedroom with her as she works through the most commonly held thoughts by people suffering from OCD. She confesses that she wants to know what’s going on inside her head so she can understand what’s really wrong with her, something she still hasn’t quantified after the pages of documented appointments she reads at lightening speed. The clinical nature of her recitations is a lovely juxtaposition to the soft, confession-like anecdotes from her treatment, most notably the session where her therapist (with the perfect bottom) visits her at home to confront her fears, represented by a serpentine tangle of tights, head on. The whole piece is intimate, quiet and deeply personal.

Dean has a soft strength that’s immensely watchable, whether she’s sitting silently on the edge of the stage clutching her water bottle, or reading her medical notes into a stand mic. The audience immediately sides with her, and dutifully responds to her questions. The empathy is tangible, and a group hug would not be out of place after the curtain call.

This Room avoids sentimentality or an overabundance of awareness-raising. Instead, it’s a personal account of a treatment process and an individual response to it. Will Dean ever really be well? If so, does that mean she’s not really herself anymore? These are big questions that don’t have an immediate answer, but are examined in a wonderful format that is a privilege to witness.

This Room runs through 27 April.

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 Nation’s Theatre: Wail and The Beanfield, Battersea Arts Centre

For two months, theatre makers from across the country are coming to London to celebrate the state of British theatre. One of the A Nation’s Theatre venues is Battersea Arts Centre, currently hosting the double bill of Little Bulb’s Wail and Breach Theatre’s The Beanfield. Wail is an exuberant cabaret about whales and human expression; The Beanfield uses multimedia to examine the impact of police violence on peaceful people and the need to fit in. Though different from each other in content and tone, both Little Bulb and Breach play with performance conventions to create innovative new structures that are at the forefront of theatre performance.

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There’s a lot of science in Wail, and a lot of musical instruments. Actor-musicians Clare Beresford and Dominic Conway, performing as themselves, also have boundless enthusiasm and impressive music repertoires. With material ranging from folk to metal, they share their enthusiasm for whales through songs alternating with monologues of scientific facts. Their charisma and cheer keeps these sections engaging, particularly with the addition of audience interaction. Though the overall energy is light and positive, Beresford’s melancholy for never actually seeing a whale in the flesh provides a bit of contrast to the Male Whale Choir, a hilarious whole-audience exploration of whale songs that males use when on the pull in the coastal waters of Madagascar.

There isn’t as much material on the promised exploration of why humans wail, but a song about why they sing songs is a tender, poignant homage to feeling fragile. This fun, frivolous show is light on the gravitas that a bit more time on this topic could bring, but Wail is still a wonderful, joyful piece as is. The symphonic final number is a fantastic climax wrapping up an excellent contribution to A Nation’s Theatre.

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The Beanfield by Warwick University’s Breach Theatre wowed audiences at Edinburgh last summer, and understandably so. Drawing on the historic clash between new age travelers heading to Stonehenge and police fresh from the miners’ strikes, they add the framing device of a uni reenactment group researching the event in order to recreate it, and a counter narrative of a group of students going to Solstice. It’s a sophisticated script with plenty of absurdity to lighten the bleak depiction of police violence against unarmed civilians, but still serves as a potent reminder that this happens today in the UK and abroad. Part documentary, interview footage with witnesses on both sides is broadcast liberally; even though the inclusion of police is sympathetic, The Beanfield firmly supports the travelers. Rightly so – pregnant women and children were among the 600 or so attacked with truncheons and projectiles by 1000-odd police.

There is no explicit link between the Beanfield story and that of the contemporary, skeptical students at Solstice, but the inclusion of the latter provides some necessary humour. It’s not a needed subplot though, and detracts from the power behind the political statement of the Beanfield standoff. The script is a great collage of experiences past and present, the sweet naivety of students juxtaposing the atrocities that happened at thirty years previously. The Beanfield, a bit less polished than Wail, is still an excellent piece of theatre with some important thoughts on police brutality.

With multimedia at its forefront, The Beanfield captures the rapid-fire sensory bombardment of present day youth and the desire to instigate change as well as fit in with our peers. Wail, mostly analogue and much less angry, implies the importance of conservation and sympathy for all creatures, human and not. Both shows excellently address concerns of people in this country and experiment with performance, fitting contributions to A Nation’s Theatre.

Wail runs until 23 April, The Beanfield until 21 April then touring.

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.