Narcissistic Nativity, Fucking Little Elf Bitch, Rosemary Branch

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After 20 years running the Rosemary Branch, Cecilia Darker and Cleo Sylvestre moved on to pastures new in June this year. Unattended Items, a company with a focus on interactive theatre and design-led work, took over and have been busy programming work that has similar practices to their own.

Their Christmas bill of adults-only shows is no different. Urban Foxes Collective’s Narcissistic Nativity is a feminist, live art piece fighting against the patriarchy; Mammalian’s Fucking Little Elf Bitch is a one-woman show on the perils of working in a grotto. Both break down the fourth wall and use non-linear structures, and both need some tweaking for the sake of clarity, but this pair effectively balance current issues and laughs.

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Monorogue: Elf Off, Old Red Lion Theatre

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The Salon:Collective’s Monorogue is back again, this time with a Christmas edition. The monologue showcase is now in Santa’s workshop, where perky elf Gingersparkles is interviewing human candidates for a vacancy in the Lapland workshop. Seven lacklustre individuals who can’t otherwise find seasonal employment are created and performed by Salon:Collective actors in this spunky, lighthearted show where the audience gets to vote for the best performer/character. Distinctive characters and good performances are the trademark of this regular event, and the framework around the monologues makes for more palatable viewing.

The set is a simple construction of heaps of brightly wrapped presents, Christmas decorations and toys. It’s easy, cheap and hugely effective in the intimate blackbox theatre. Though perhaps unintended, it is also a lovely juxtaposition to some of the more down-at-heel characters.

The performances are generally good, though some of the characters tend towards stereotypical and miss opportunities for nuance. The standouts are Lucy Gallagher and Louise Devlin’s intense Scottish tomboy Mae, and Angela Harvey’s struggling mum of five Hayley. Rachel Stoneley’s confused but sweet stripper, Jade, is a great way to wrap up the candidates. Laurie Stevens is the adorable Gingersparkles, but she surprises with a ferocious climax that wraps up the evening well.

The scripts have a strong lean towards comedy, which suits the time of year, but some of them lack depth and choose to mock personality traits rather than empathise. Whilst there is nothing overtly offensive and the stereotypes created are identifiable and relatable, there is room for more variation.

Monorogue proves again that they offer an entertaining event that allows actors and playwrights to showcase their talents without taking the more common, in your face approach to self-marketing usually found in showcases. The theme sets the actor/writers a challenge and gives the audiences a needed framing device, and the performances are usually good.

Monorogue: Elf Off 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.

Bianco, Southbank Centre

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By guest critic Rebecca Nice @rebeccajsnice

NoFit State Circus takes London by storm with a big show in a big top with grand ideas and huge audiences. A must-see on the London tourist and art scene, the slightly ominous looking grey tent is nestled into a winter wonderland of overpriced bars with a ticket price to match but the raucous, everyone-welcome, ‘roll up roll up’ nature of circus emanates from the tent in boundless quantities. Programmed by the Southbank Centre in a key Christmas location, Bianco will undoubtedly reach new audiences – which brings a certain responsibility to the oeuvre. The show not only introduces circus to new and well-seasoned theatregoers, but it sits within a concentration of productions in Southbank’s multiple venues that all want to be the cream of the crop. Based on a series of short acts that each display a specific circus skill, Bianco is accessibly fast paced but disappointingly repetitive in its lack of dramaturgy.

The main attraction of Bianco is a set made of scaffold ladders and truss that are separated, wheeled about and reset between acts. Audiences can move at their will, see things close up, from behind or directly underneath. The crew happily holler ‘mind ya backs’ as they restage and point you in new directions. This makes for constantly changing viewpoints; you always have the best seat in the house as you watch from wherever you want to be. Four towers form a central square area where truss cross bars support trapeze acts and tightrope walkers accompanied by live music. The greater sense of agency makes for a work that is almost promenade and immersive in terms of the sensory landscape. This culminates in a final snow scene where glowing white (foam) snowflakes descend upon our shoulders.

The original music ranges from folk to lyrical, acapella to rock and pop, as singer-musicians Andy Moore, Annette Loose, Doug Kemp and Matt Collins swap microphone for guitars, saxophone to accordion and double bass to drums. The strong musical score sets the tone and atmosphere for each piece and holds the work together during down moments where scenery is being set.

No Fit State travels and lives together, erecting and dismantling the big top and their lives to pack them away for the next place. This traditional circus lifestyle is evident in the precision, communication and identity of the cast and this connection feeds through into performance both in terms of the mechanics of the show and the performative camaraderie between characters.

Artistic Director Tom Rack and Director Firenza Guidi work here with a cast of seventeen, each with their own act, and it is the stringing of these together like a never-ending list of circus skills that is a downfall for the work. Bianco is long and relentless with one person after another selling their wares. Any loose plot or theme to mesh these phrases together are lost and the sheer volume of content begins to hinder the success of the piece as each new act blurs into another and recalling previous ones becomes impossible.

Out of a whopping number of acts (over eighteen), from solos to full ensembles, few stand out in either creating striking visual compositions or containing themes and characters that allow the circus skills to be fully shown off. The female juggling solo may not throw the highest club or make the most complex siteswaps but the throws and catches between the legs, behind the body and into the audience make a vivacious, flirty and clumsy character fully realised and incredibly funny, firmly rooted in her choreography and clowning. The sheer volume of this company in numbers of performers and size of the performance space provides tableaus not seen before. Five ropes in line, each with an individual aerial performer who turn and ascend in unison are a feast for the eyes. The entire cast emerging from the dark, lit by flaming torches or a man spinning inside his cyr wheel flanked by four figures dangling from aerial hoops make for striking compositions. A solo female performer hangs upside down from a rope with her legs bent and toes facing the ceiling. As the loose end of the rope drapes on top of her feet in a perfect curve, she lets herself slowly down as if magically walking upside down along this arc. Gems like this unexpected delicacy in a fresh take on an old trick appear sporadically in Bianco, but are in danger of being lost with the acts being so short and so many. Hula hoops are spun and aerial hoops rotate, performers swing from swags of loose hanging rope or shimmy along a tightrope. Jugglers swing on a trapeze, two aerial silks support solo and duet. A trampoline is rolled out, there is a handstand act and a contortionist with a wine glass balancing act. Box frames spin on high with strings of beads creating sparkling halos and another trapeze act appears, this time with a dress embellished with fluorescent lights. Many acts like these are cut short before they reach their true potential.

I delight in the seaside swim scene with up to nine performers diving from the heights of the big top onto a central trampoline. Dressed in old fashioned striped bathing suits with arm bands or goggles, this scene is visually wonderful but could be stronger if the choreography and swimming motifs were tighter and crisper. Compositions of performers diving one after the other can be more tightly woven into mini sketches. What if someone wearing a shark fin dived in, or someone belly-flopped and bounced everyone out of the sea? What if someone was scared of the water and got stuck on the high hanging rubber ring? Scenes like these don’t quite reach a climax in humour and pacing of skills.

After two hours and twenty minutes of high energy, constant tricks and emotive portraits of people laughing, shouting, twisting and turning on high, both audience and cast are exhausted and elated. A sinuous male aerial act returns to close the show on a rope as his curly locks and chiaroscuro muscles form a Christ-like visage. The lyrical piece is an unapologetic show of human beauty as the Vitruvian man soars in circular flight as artificial snow falls from the darkness. It is this image that leaves an imprint in my mind, of hundreds of tiny people looking up to the dark depths of the tent top, dancing in the snow.

Bianco runs through 22 January.

Tickets arranged by Theatre Bloggers.

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.

Mirror Mirror: A Snow White Pantomime, King’s Head Theatre

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They are new to the King’s Head, but Charles Court Opera aren’t new to pantomime. This year’s Mirror Mirror: A Snow White Pantomime is their ninth “boutique” panto. Though an opera company, this show and cast of six are anything but stereotypical opera fare. John Savournin’s script is fresh and witty, the performances are camp and vibrant, and the re-written pop song soundtrack is so well sung that it deserves a cast recording. There’s plenty of typical panto interaction, made easier and more personal in a fringe venue but doesn’t overwhelm the space, either. Though the costumes are detailed and fun, the set is a bit analog and takes up a lot of playing space, restricting movement and choreography. Some of the performances were more genuine than others, but this remains a wonderfully current panto with excellent writing.

Savournin also directs and plays Snow White, the ditzy, ingénue widow of Barry White living with the seven dwarfs, all distinctly and energetically played by Matthew Kellet. Greedy queen Andrea Tweedale uses her mirror (Simon Masterton-Smith) to help her search for a husband, but her plans are thwarted when prince Larry Black (Amy J Payne) and his valet Harry (Nichola Jolly) show up looking for a bride and instead of being impressed by her beauty, Larry falls for Snow. The traditional story veers off in numerous contemporary directions from there, which adds to the audience’s delight and prevents the show from becoming stale or generic. The music is mostly cleverly reworked pop songs, but there’s a bit of musical theatre thrown in and the Act one Finale numbers are fantastic.

No individual performer overshadows the others, instead they are a balanced lot with clear strengths. Payne and Jolly are a charismatic pair, with Kellett’s range of dwarves a hilarious counterpoint to the leads. Savournin’s Snow is shallow but sweet and doesn’t fall short in any of the creative roles he takes on. Tweedale stokes the audiences’ booing and aww-ing brilliantly. The height difference between Savournin and Payne supports the comedy heavily peppering the dialogue, as does the cross-gender casting that goes beyond the dame and principal boy. There is some lovely chemistry between some of the characters but even though it’s a panto, there could be more between Payne and Savournin.

There’s loads of audience interaction and mess, the best being a Great British Bake Off-style competition that results in dough everywhere. Of course, there’s your usual panto call and response but not so much so that the script is otherwise flimsy. The unique visual gags Savournin employs are much more satisfying, anyway (pro tip: look out for Barry). A few give a nod to tradition, but this is definitely a language-focused script. This gives the performance a richness and depth missing from more traditional fare, hence the “boutique” label. Charles Court Opera is certainly onto a winning formula here within London pantomime offerings and is not one panto fans should miss.


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.

Jackson’s Way: The Christmas Top-Up Power Seminar!, Battersea Arts Centre

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Will Adamsdale’s standup/solo performance creation Chris Jackson is a motivational speaker and life coach, and the audience is at his seminar to learn his life changing methods. Jackson’s Way: The Christmas Top-Up Power Seminar! teaches you the importance of attempting meaningless or impossible actions, or “jactions”, in our lives that are otherwise filled with purpose. Adamsdale’s script has a clear narrative but somewhat lacking in follow through – we never really learn precisely WHY we should be filling our time with jactions, but the character’s detailed biography and emotional journey through the Christmas story is satisfyingly seasonal.

Just so you know, jactions have levels, can be compounded and done in groups or individually. You know you’ve succeeded when you have a mild feeling of nausea but manage to Push Through It (PTI). Some of Jackson’s most famous jactions include trying to move the floor, preventing a thrown towel from hitting the ground, and making your hand be in two places at once. The absurdity and existentialism are wonderfully funny, as is the conviction with which Adamsdale gets the audience to attempt jactions.

The autobiographical storyline and the use of projections add to the theatricality of the piece, as does Adamsdale’s immersion in the character he created and his sudden change of mood. Though the structure seems pre-formatted some of the content is improvised and there’s loads of audience interaction.

The ending is rushed but generates plenty of laughs with the character’s narcissism and has a degree of resolution. A bit more time on end and clearer goals for the seminar premise would give this already polished piece of performance more finesse, but it definitely isn’t lacking in humour that functions on multiple levels.

Adamsdale is clearly a skilled, charismatic (and sweaty!) performer with an innate sense of comedy and stage presence, as it should be for such a seasoned performer. Though English, his American accent is flawless. Running for over ten years now, it’s no wonder that Jackson’s Way has staying power in the performance and comedy circuits, and Jackson’s Way: The Christmas Top-Up Power Seminar! is a great variation on usual holiday theatre offerings and a reminder to enjoy the frivolity of Christmas rather than stressing out over its logistics.


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