Flights of Fancy, Soho Theatre

Fancy Chance was born in Korea, abandoned as an infant, adopted by a conservative American family, then moved to London. After working as a table dancer and then in a peep show in Seattle, she moved into burlesque, drag, cabaret, live art and circus. Her CV that’s more varied than her cultural make-up, Fancy’s latest endeavour is her first solo performance, Flights of Fancy. Drawing on current politics, cultural clashes and expectations, and her performance history, the show is a collection of sketches that create a quirky autobiography of sorts. Endearing and fun with a biting finale, the piece’s through-line is woolly with loose connections between individual moments.

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Wayward, VAULT Festival

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by guest critic Martin Pettitt

After enduring the disorganisation of the first night of Vault Festival, entering the performance space is an instant antidote. Through hallways of cluttered objects and draped fabrics, we are guided by the music into a cavernous, atmospheric space arranged with a hotchpotch of tables and chairs and twinkling decorations. This physical preamble is wonderfully relevant to the down-the-rabbit-hole story we are treated to.

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How to Win Against History, Ovalhouse

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British history is peppered with truly remarkable people. Kings, queens, writers, actors, scientists, athletes and military generals pepper school history books and cultural subconscious. Then there are the people like Henry Paget, fifth Marquis of Anglesey, who are largely forgotten, tucked away in the centuries-old folds of this country’s past. During his brief Victorian life, he became rather infamous for cross-dressing, blowing his family fortune, and turning the chapel of his estate into a 150-seat theatre where he played the leads in his own productions with which he later toured Britain and Europe.

Seiriol Davies’ How to Win Against History chronicles (and fictionalises parts) of Henry’s radical life, focusing on his theatre work and cross dressing, as a fabulous, form-bending cabaret/musical. This little show has a huge heart and needs further script development to smooth out the lumpy narrative, but sequins and silliness, destroying the fourth wall, clowning and contemporary political commentary makes for a powerfully subversive and hilarious production.

The lengthy introduction provides necessary exposition, but as it gives way to a song that focuses on the Marquis’ time at Eton, it becomes too long. The interesting plot points come once the character is of age, and these deserve more attention than they are given. The beginning also sets up the style that’s maintained throughout, of musical theatre songs punctuating scenes that are heavy on the sort of narration and banter that is found in cabaret and drag acts. It’s a wonderful act of genre smashing. Musical theatre, cabaret, vaudeville and pantomime make an engaging, energizing combination that fosters audience participation and celebration. If this is where popular theatre is heading, then bring it on – Seiriol Davies’ script is at the forefront of musical theatre innovation.

Once young Henry finishes school, action starts to pick up. After a mutually beneficial marriage to his cousin (that was reportedly never consummated) and teaming up with a actor Alexander Keith (Matthew Blake), he casts himself in several plays. When no one comes, they take the shows on the road, making hilarious changes as the audience becomes less enamored of his work. More could be made out of his marriage and his increasingly weird theatre productions; they are rushed and little sense of a timescale is provided. Between his awakening as a student to a touring theatre maker, there’s a feeling that a lot of plot is missing. He is suddenly a broken man in Monte Carlo being interviewed by Daily Mail journalist Quentin (a brilliant in-joke!) and whilst this is deliciously funny, there is yet another leap in time and place. More scenes could easily be written to fill in these gaps without disrupting the established style. Even though the cabaret influence comes though in the short sketch-like scenes, as a musical it feels underwritten.

Writer Seiriol Davies plays Henry, the fabulously flamboyant lover of sequined dresses and the theatre. His journey from naïve boy to the ill and impoverished 20-something is lovely and genuine, with songs that in turn capture his enthusiasm and anguish. Energy abounds from the other two performers, making the show feel a lot bigger than it actually is.

Though this new musical needs further development to give it the scale and narrative punch that matches the style, it is fantastically good fun. The political content and deconstructing of style and structure are fly in the face of historical erasure of controversial figures and dramatic conventions. But it evoked engagement and contribution from a willing audience that was eating out of the performers’ hands within the first few minutes and this in and of itself is a huge indicator of excellent work. How to Win Against History could easily have the scale of a West End show, and it deserves the attention that would garner it.

How to Win Against History runs through 28 August in London and Edinburgh.

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 Tiger Lillies: Love for Sale, Soho Theatre

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Founded in 1989, dark cabaret act The Tiger Lillies are still going strong. For their current show, in conjunction with Opera North, two of the current members reinterpret Cole Porter songs in a distinctive, understated style. The Tiger Lillies: Love for Sale is a quietly twisted affair, with two suited gents in grotesque face paint delivering Porter’s numbers with subtle bite. Martyn Jacques leads on vocals with a pursed, almost falsetto tone, backed by Adrian Stout. Both play multiple instruments under a projected moon and a cluster of filament bulbs reminiscent of a constellation, creating a sedate, relaxed mood with a sinister undertone. Though slightly too long without incorporating any major change in style or format, The Tiger Lillies: Love for Sale is still an enjoyable event.

Jacques’ draggy, pinched sarcasm is amusingly judgmental, giving upbeat tunes a whole new meaning – ‘You’re the Top’ being the best example of this from their set. Alternating these perkier songs with ballads makes a good, if formulaic mix. The slower songs are more heartfelt, but still have a bit of an edge to them, maintaining a unique interpretation on these vintage classics. The set has a mix of jolly innuendo, genuine mournfulness, comedy and joy – a great combination, though there is minimal exuberance. This isn’t an issue per say, but it feels off in a traditional theatre layout. Their style would be more suited to a relaxed cabaret venue instead of a space where bold theatricality is the norm.

That’s not to say that the visual they create isn’t striking. The rippling moon gives way to various other projections: leaves, headless mannequins, a fighting fish in a tank and others. Whilst there must be reasons for these particular images at the points they appear, it’s not obvious. The variation is welcome, though. The garish makeup and vintage suits shows Weimar and circus influence, a clownish manifestation of their music. An array of instruments is always pleasing to the eye and the lighting beautifully replicates a summer night under the stars.

Even with a more engaged encore that dialogues with the audience, The Tiger Lillies: Love for Sale lacks enthusiasm, but has plenty of skill and distinctive style. Perfect for a low key evening, this unique interpretation of classic songs is a welcome one.

The Tiger Lillies: Love for Sale runs through 30 July.

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.

Wonderations, The Canvas Cafe

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Sunday evening was a night of new discoveries. The Canvas Café, just off Brick Lane, serves homemade cakes and prosecco by the glass. It also has walls you can write on and a cosy downstairs performance space. In that space was Ivy Davies and her show Wonderations, a gentle, joyful blend of spoken word, songs from her EP and questioning whether or not Mickey Mouse is actually God. Though lacking in narrative, Davies’ performance shares issues that are particularly personal: aging and her search for identity and faith. With a touch of live art about it, Wonderations is a lovely celebration of self-acceptance akin to reading Davies’ journal.

This isn’t a visual show, but a totally aural one. It could easily be listened to through headphones or with eyes closed, though her soothing melodies and rhythms could lull you to sleep – it’s that relaxing. There are some powerful sentiments in her lyrics and poetry that deserve full attention, however. As Davies struggles to find her pre-marriage and babies self in theatrical songs and rhymes, one can’t help but to relate to her frustration with finding her true identity buried under all the nonsense life throws at us. We all find ourselves wasting hours on social media focused on constructing an image, or immersing ourselves in work and forgetting to just be present in the world for lengthy periods, but Davies exhorts us to let all of it go. She’s like a life coach, but a gentle one who uses cuddles rather than shouting.

This cabaret-esque structure feels conversational, but is precisely and satisfyingly scripted. There’s no plot to speak of, but with Davies wearing the form like her own skin, it works. Her spoken word isn’t the pounding, angry sort I’m accustomed to; it’s full of flowers, sunshine, rain and claiming her own ground. Davies has an immovable strength and presence, but one that overflows with positivity. Less connected from her celebratory songs and spoken word is what feels like an internal monologue where in looking for faith, she wonders if God is actually Mickey Mouse. He’s been seen around the world at the same time, and has plenty of purchasing power. It’s a wonderfully funny, and pointed, argument, though less clear on it’s place in the show’s structure.

Ivy Davies’ Wonderations is a hard show to pin down, but it doesn’t apologise for that. I’m pretty certain that she’s confident enough to not care what anyone thinks of her work, but the themes it contains are universally human presented in an easily digestible format. An excellent event for a quiet Sunday evening, particularly with a slice of cake and a glass of prosecco.

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.

La Soirée, Southbank Centre

rsz_1bret_pfister_image_by_bertil_nilssonSouthbank Centre has a spiegeltent in residence under the Hungerford Bridge; it’s a sexy, glam, velvet and mirrored thing miles away from shabby travelling circuses with tired acts. It’s a fitting home for La Soirée, a heady mix of circus, cabaret and variety performance from around the world. Each act has a distinct character combined with extraordinary skill sets, often leaning towards adult and edgier content. Though the characters created as a vehicle for the skills on display generally rely on stereotypes, this doesn’t diminish the impressiveness of the techniques. The sumptuous environment and range of talent on show makes for a frivolous, fun night of light entertainment with heaping dose of sex appeal.

Though not solely circus, La Soirée seems to focus on circus arts and use other performance styles to add variation. They also change the lineup on a regular basis, so any given night is unique. These artists are multi-skilled, too: The English Gents are a pair of balancing acrobats, who separately are a bubble artist and a pole dancer. Captain Frodo contorts himself through tennis racquets as well as doing a bit of comedy magic. My favourite is Asher Treleaven, who has a sexual Diablo routine as well as a side-splittingly funny stand up act around a Mills & Boon novel. Then there’s a hoop artist, an aerialist using a single strap and a hand balancer on a motorbike. A singer, and modern clown/comedian Mooky with a double act composed of herself and a willing audience member complete the lineup. All of these performances take place on a tiny round stage, no more than 2 metres across.

There’s plenty of subversion in the event, as there always has been in circus – the exotic on display for the everyday Joe to get a glimpse at those who are unwilling or unable to conform to the status quo. From large tattoos and a lesbian kiss, to deliberately dislocated joints and extreme flexibility, that “otherness” is still very much present, even though its more mild forms no longer shock us. That subversion is sexy, titillating and occasionally grotesque, making the groups of business people on corporate outings squirm as well as gasp. It’s so easy to be impressed by the physical abilities, but the additional layers of characterization make these acts stand out from others I’ve seen previously. I don’t see much circus, cabaret or variety, but La Soirée has such a high quality range of acts that it’s hard not to be impressed.


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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.