Around, Jackson’s Lane

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By guest critic Rebecca JS Nice

Short and sweet, this half hour lunchtime show feeds feisty and giggly kiddies with a banquet of characters performing a range of tricks. A bearded ring master charms a female acrobat snake out of a trunk, and two musicians run around in monkey and pyjama costumes as their underage audience scream and shout at them. Programmed for the Easter holiday, the work is a strong contender among the ever-growing popularity of children’s theatre in London. Particularly special is Jackson’s Lane support for circus, which enriches their programming and sets a precedent for accommodating circus in small theatres.

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Jeramee, Hartleby and Ooglemore, Unicorn Theatre

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Hartleby, Ooglemore and Jeramee are at the beach. It’s a beautiful, sunny day and the three are having a grand time, even though they can only use three words. The beach is full of potential for adventures – some happy, same scary, some frustrating. The language limitation doesn’t matter because it’s not what you say, but how you say it that matters. The colourful, clowning performance for kids ages 3 and up is a fun exploration of emotions without a storyline.

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The Ruff Guide to Shakespeare, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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There’s a good amount of Shakespeare-based work for children and young people at the fringe, which is a great way to introduce children to his work as well as give theatre makers a chance to experiment with different styles when approaching the bard’s text. The Ruff Guide to Shakespeare is a mashup of his most popular plays and characters with a biography of his life. There’s a lot packed into an hour, perhaps too much for the primary school middle years that are the target audience age. The show is otherwise well written, well performed and the story line constructed out of Shakespeare’s life gives it a solid grounding on which to sample extracts of his work.

Six Bristol Old Vic students perform Toby Hulse’s script. Though there isn’t a weak link amongst the cast, the strongest by far is Georgia Frost. She has a charisma and stage presence that the others lack, though they all show promise. The company handles their verse well, maintains high energy and warmly encourage the audience of children to join in.

The script is quick and punchy, most valuable for giving the young audience context about Shakespeare as a person in a easily digestible format framed by his “seven ages of man” monologue – a fantastic idea that parallels a short piece of text to a story. There are gags, games and songs that are interactive and playful, though more time could be taken within each activity in order to allow the audience to engage fully. The characters and scenes that are included are some of the most well known, kept short and explained well. There are a lot of them though, and the sheer amount is potentially overwhelming for the younger children in the audience.

Comparable to the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), this is a jolly, friendly romp through Shakespeare’s life and works that’s great for a young audience. Some tweaking to either cut some of the characters or pitch it to slightly older children would make this an even stronger piece, but it’s polished, slick and jolly good fun compared to similar shows on offer.

The Ruff Guide to Shakespeare runs through 19th 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.

Feature/Review: Children & Shakespeare, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Whilst there’s plenty of Shakespeare at the fringe, it doesn’t get much coverage. It’s understandable – the Bard doesn’t count as a potential Next Big Thing, and he’s favoured by student and international groups that usually have short runs and are deemed less worthy of critical attention. It’s obviously necessary to recalibrate expectations and vocabulary when evaluating children and young people’s performances, but directors and teachers can and should be held accountable for the quality of their own creative work and bringing out the best in their students or young cast. They do have the additional pressure of incorporating an educational element and ensuring that their work is suitable for the children and young people they are working with, but that specialism is no more or less different than any other in the performing arts.

To completely ignore young people’s work at the Fringe when sampling the Shakespeare on offer cuts out a large segment of the Shakespeare productions on offer, and considering that these are often international schools as well, the cultural differences can be considered when critiquing. Over one day at the fringe, I watched three distinctly different Shakespeare adaptations – a Scottish stage school including children approximately aged eight through sixteen that looks at Twelfth Night, an American university’s analysis of Shakespeare’s baddies and a Notts young people’s dance-theatre company’s deconstruction of Macbeth.

Admirable Fooling or What You Will by Little Shakespeare School’s Michelle van Rensburg had the most challenging remit in that it is a show suitable for performers over a big age range, but the show she invents is a nonsensical mess. When she sticks to her simplified script with sections of original text more the more able students, it is standard children’s fare – able to be followed, giving the kids a chance to show their skills and including everyone. The random sections from Titanic, though? Inexplicable. None of the children on that stage or in the audience would have even been alive when the film came out, so crowbarring in pop culture references that they wouldn’t understand is gratuitous and self-absorbed. There are also numerous off-text clowning sequences that are unconnected to the story, and a lengthy exposition setting up a storytelling premise that isn’t consistently followed through. The one, shining moment of kitschy, creative inspiration that epitomises fringe Shakespeare is the tiny blond girl who plays the letter Malvolio finds in the garden. She wears a bright yellow sack with felted letters on either side and enthusiastically delivers the text that Malvolio reads from the letter in Shakespeare’s original. She looks about eight years old, maybe nine, certainly no more than ten, and it is an adorable thing of wonder. There are some good actors who are confident and speak well, particularly the eldest girl who plays Olivia, but the show itself is a baffling construction with little through-line or sense.

Bad Shakespeare, by Oklahoma State University drama students, isn’t bad, but it’s just as much of a lecture as it is a performance. Showcasing their intensive summer Shakespeare studies, they work their way though Shakespeare’s development of his villains. The exposition that sets up their five act structure is too long, but the acts’ increasing complexity is a nice touch. Most of the ethnically diverse ensemble are good performers, and all bar one are women – great work towards increasing diversity from the programme director. They handle the language and verse with muscularity and confidence, though there is no evidence of work towards convincingly playing men. Their emotions tend to read more as upset rather than angry or vindictive, and their physicalities are distinctly feminine. The show’s director has chosen faux-period costume; some are in dresses and some in doublet and hose. Neutral, modern dress would suit much better, especially considering the large amount of instructing the audience with contemporary language and pop culture references. Bad Shakespeare is great for learning more about Shakespeare’s characters and some of the scholarship behind them in a relaxed, easy to follow format, but it’s more of a learning experience than a show. However, they wear their confidence and passion for Shakespeare on their sleeves, which is a wonderful thing to see.

Fortitude Dance Theatre’s Macbeth has potential to be the most promising of these three adaptations, and whilst it certainly has some great moments, there are also some misguided creative choices and interpretations, and an inconsistent application of style. The young company demonstrates competence in their dance and verse delivery, though as a whole, they struggle with achieving moments of emotional intensity and staging on a  thrust. The pace was great, but tone consistently conversational. Their opening sequence was a great capture of the 90’s club scene with text and contemporary dance obviously inspired by Frantic Assembly, but the dance element is absent until the discovery of Duncan’s body, about half way through this abrupt edit. There are missed opportunities to incorporate movement into Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s scenes showing their fluctuating power struggle. This dynamic between characters later between Macbeth and the witches inspires some good tribal, threatening choreography. Macduff’s monologue on hearing of his wife and children’s deaths is a stunning blend of movement and text that the company could to stylistically inspire their future work. They could also do with a stronger director, or dramaturg familiar with Shakespeare pronunciation, to confirm any line interpretations – “Out, damn spot” is not referring to blemishes on her face.

It’s brilliant to see young artists finding their way through making work and discovering styles and forms that work for what they want to communicate in their Shakespeare interpretations. Even though they won’t be up to professional performance standard unless they are extraordinarily gifted, their teachers and directors should be strive for clarity. Though none of these three productions quite reached that point, they each had their merits and watching children and young people discover and explore the joy of performing is a marvelous thing.

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.

 

Leaper: A Fish Tale, Greenwich Theatre

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Our oceans are dying. Just yesterday, the news reported that 95% of the Great Barrier Reef has been bleached due to temperature rises. There are huge swathes of sea with high concentrations of microplastics that leach toxins into the water and the food chain. We are overfishing our oceans, causing a myriad of problems to human and sea life.

Tucked In is trying to change that through Leaper: A Fish Tale, an adventure story for families about a young girl’s discoveries in the world’s waterways. The unnamed daughter isn’t particularly interested in her dad’s fish farm and wreaks more havoc than anything else. But after falling into the stream in pursuit of a dropped crisp packet, she makes friends with Leaper the salmon on her journey from stream, to river, to ocean and back again. Good puppetry and movement keep younger ones engaged in this surprisingly complex story, though at times it feels a bit too convoluted and the lack of dialogue is unnaturally forced.

With an impressive array of animal puppets by Claire Harvey and Annie Brooks’ transformative set, there’s plenty to look at in the show’s recycled aesthetic. The larger puppets have an excellent range of movements, particularly the duck, seal and big fish. The rubbish monster is the most wonderfully inventive surprise, and the large jellyfish are poetry in motion. The smaller puppets are understandably simpler, but less dynamic with fewer moving parts. The baby fish, though sweet in the way the human characters treat them, are harder to see and not particularly interesting in and of themselves. The design really comes into its own in the middle of the ocean, with atmospheric lighting and sound to match.

Though the show wants to address both overfishing and ocean pollution, the littering is the primary focus. It makes sense as children may struggle with the concept of overfishing, but the plot points on the topic are consequently less engaging. There aren’t many of them though, and the focus is almost solely on the girl’s (Lizzie Franks) journey.

The performances by Franks, Philip Bosworth and Robert Welling are engaging and precise, though the reason for minimising speech is unclear. There are plenty of vocal effects, but character communication and actor impulses feel unnaturally limited. It doesn’t interfere with the story and the children in the audience aren’t bothered, but it doesn’t contribute to the production style.

Leaper: A Fish Tale is visually compelling with some great puppetry and an engaging story for children and adults alike. The performances are good and the story has all the necessary components of a satisfying adventure tale with a clear moral. Though there are some small issues, they don’t interfere with the overall enjoyment of the piece, and this show could play a powerful role in raising engaged, environmentally conscious young people.

Leaper: A Fish Tale is touring schools and theatres in 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.

These Books Are Made For Walking, Jackson’s Lane

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Fabrice Dominici is a solitary librarian who takes great pleasure from the books he tenderly looks after. Gently stroking them, he flips to his favourite passages before giving them a sniff and balancing them on shelves made out of ladders. When a pile of books at the top comes to life, revealing a woman who has no intention of leaving and has a musician friend join her, the librarian tries everything to drive off these nonchalant interlopers. As his attempts continue to fail, this simple storyline of These Books Are Made for Walking starts to wander until it completely loses its way at an anti-climactic ending. Though visually dynamic and a nice premise for its aged 6+ target audience, the lack of distinct characterisation and a simple narrative arc is a disappointment to all ages.

Dominici’s nameless librarian draws on clowning to create a somewhat hapless but caring character who endears himself to the audience with his Wile E. Coyote determination. There are regular laughs, and his performance finds a lovely midpoint between over-exaggerated and underplayed. The other two performers lack personality, and it is never made clear what they want other than to hang out and make music on top of the rickety shelves. A love song gives away that they are a couple, but their relationship has no real bearing on the story.

Whilst the librarian’s attempts to get rid of his uninvited guests are entertaining and draw to a close before they become stale and repetitive, his sudden change of heart is inexplicable. He dashes around the stage with ropes and an audience volunteer to set up for the woman’s slack rope routine; after poking her musician friend in the bum with gardening sheers it simply doesn’t make sense. It’s a strange transition, but not as abrupt and unsatisfying as the show’s conclusion.

The set design, presumably by the three devising artists that also perform, is the highlight These Books Are Made for Walking. It’s instability naturally creates tension, though I would not want to be the person that had to risk assess the freestanding structure with performers clambering along the top. Books create a wonderful aesthetic, though watching them tumble to floor and then be trodden on cause several tiny heartbreaks. Christopher McGhee’s lighting works with the set well to create gentle shadows and focus points, though a moment of bright orange rays made the subjects hard to see as they were too close to the source to be lit evenly.

This second production from Bikes & Rabbits shows a promising use of narration in physical and visual theatre with additional elements of circus, but the spectacle’s temptation proves too much and is not properly integrated into the piece’s structure. It’s a lovely idea that doesn’t manage to follow through to a satisfying, clear conclusion.

These Books Are Made For Walking tours until 2 April at various venues.

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.

Inkheart, HOME

rsz_js78563653Meggie (Katherine Carlton) and her bookbinder father Mo (Paul McEwan) love books. They also share a fantastical gift that’s causing them to be chased all over the world (or Europe, at least) by fictional characters that aren’t very nice at all. Cornelia Funke’s young adult novel Inkheart is adapted for the stage by director Walter Meierjohann in a high-spirited production with inventive staging. The mountain of books and projections that make the set effectively reinforce the importance of the stories that drive the action. The plot is rushed and over-complicated though, particularly for a family show. Books generally have way more content than will fit into a reasonable timeframe, and Inkheart feels like Meierjohann tries to fit the entire novel into two hours on stage.

This is a great play for villains: Will Irvine is Capricorn, a ruthless, Dr Evil-like pursuer who needs Mo to help him bring his assassin, The Shadow, into this world. His stooges Basta (Darryl Clark) and Flatnose (Griffin Stevens) provide excellent comic relief with a dash of audience interaction. Rachel Atkins is the intimidating, book collecting Great Aunt Elinor and the nonspeaking figure draped in black, Mortola. They all provide an excellent foil to the protagonists, even though Meggie is feisty and temperamental (a fantastic role model for young girls struggling to assert themselves). Mo is gentle and kind, with a warm heart and an inner secret – a complex, developed character that adults can relate to.

The pace in the first act ticks along nicely but after the interval, there seem to be leaps in time and space caused by huge chunks cut from the original novel. There are several twists and reveals, making the second act crowded with information. The character development from the first act is neglected in favour of chucking plot points at us, one after the other. Though, this is a story about a long love affair with books and their power, as well as the power we have to write the stories of our own lives. It’s an adventure, a love story and a coming of age tale with great performances, and a flawed, unexpected narrative. Much like our own lives.


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.