The Cardinal, Southwark Playhouse

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Within 50 years of Shakespeare’s death, playwriting was changing quickly. Less flowery language and more powerful female characters are prominent in James Shirley’s rarely-staged The Cardinal, written in 1641. The plot is more streamlined, but some of the outdoor playhouse performance conventions linger along with the grandness of the king’s court. The story proudly flaunts influence from earlier revenge tragedies and is no less bloody, but easier to follow than some of those on stage a few decades or so earlier. In Southwark Playhouse’s smaller space with historical costumes, Justin Audibert’s production evokes the intimate atmosphere of indoor playhouses that were beginning to take over towards the end of Shakespeare’s career.

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Custody, Ovalhouse

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By guest critic Alistair Wilkinson

HOPE: A feeling of expectation and desire for something to happen.

How do we cope when we don’t get what we want? How do we beat a system that is set up to make you fail? Custody asks just these questions, as we are taken on a two-year journey of a family’s struggle for justice for their loved one, twenty-nine year old Brian, who died whilst in police custody. Through this eighty-minute narrative, we see four different individuals cope/hope, whilst their questions are left unanswered.

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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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Undead Bard, Theatre N16

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Professor Ashborn is on a mission to disprove Shakespeare’s existence, but the academics with leather patches on their elbows are trying to stop him. Following Ashborn’s lecture and an interval, Undead Bard creator Robert Crighton summons Shakespeare to talk to him about his life, work and death in an unrelated second half. This two-part show on Shakespeare in the modern world, bardolatry and the authorship debate certainly has some very funny moments of satire, but others are utterly bizarre and the poor execution of an idea. A significantly stronger first act sets up a reasonably enjoyable event, but the second is self-indulgent and anti-climactic in this overly long solo performance.

The paranoid Professor Ashborn’s lecture rips the piss out of Shakespeare academics, those that believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s works, those that believe someone else did under Shakespeare’s name and anyone with a love for Shakespeare’s plays. Crighton as Ashborn talks the audience through his various ridiculous authorship theories with energy and eccentric humour, evoking plenty of laughs. The script follows a natural rhythm of discovery, disappointment and eventual confession; it’s a story carefully crafted with intuition and skill.

Considering the second act, the first would be better served as a stand-alone piece. After what is quite a good piece of character storytelling, this random, rambling seance on the mundanity of Shakespeare’s life and afterlife is, well, mundane. The inclusion of toilet humour and sexual innuendo do not improve the piece. Shakespeare’s confusion at his legacy is cute, but it absolutely doesn’t warrant nearly an hour of discourse and disconnected pop culture references.

Crighton clearly has an aptitude for crafting a story, as evidenced in the first part of the show. Unfortunately, the rest of it is a muddled letdown that needs to be sent back to the drawing board or discarded completely.

Undead Bard runs through 13 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.

Team Viking, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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How far would you go for your best mate? Are there any limits, any lines, you wouldn’t cross?

What if your best friend was dying?

What if he asked you to ensure he had a viking funeral?

James Rowland does exactly that for his best friend Tom. He grew up as part of a neighbourhood trio that stayed close well into adulthood. As children, their favourite game was to play Vikings (as in the Kirk Douglas film). When Tom is diagnosed with terminal cancer at age 25 and given only a short time to live, he calls in one final favour from James and Sarah, the other third of their childhood gang. Tom doesn’t care about logistics and legalities, and his magnetic charisma convinces Sarah and James to do this for him, and James is here to tell us the story of their friendship through life and death.

Rowland’s engaging, laddish charm makes you laugh loads, then the tiniest change in pace and inflection turns on the tears. His script approaches death and friendship with respectful levity that does not gloss over the reality of grief, but neither is it too weighty. It’s a perfectly balanced emotional journey, and Rowland’s relaxed delivery draws the audience to him and to each other.

Director Daniel Goldman chooses simple staging – Rowland is on a small, bare stage with few props and tech, and the venue’s lighting is barely existent. The piece would work well in the round to foster it’s warmth and inclusivity. It’s simple, storytelling structure would also suit the intimacy of a circle.

Team Viking is an exemplary solo storytelling piece excelling in its honesty and simplicity. It’s a powerful tribute to his friends, but it’s not insular – it’s the complete opposite, and a truly delightful, heartwarming adventure story for those who have loved and lost.

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 Dream of Dying, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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On 16th June 2009, the body of a man was found dead on a beach near Sligo, Ireland. He had given his name as Peter Bergmann at his hotel, but postmortem investigations determined that was an alias. In the days running up to his death, CCTV recorded the man methodically moving around Sligo but taking advantage of cameras’ blind spots, he disposed of all items that could possibly be used to identify him. Monologue A Dream of Dying creates a young man who plans such a death in his future in an attempt to justify why Bergmann might have died the way he did. This quiet, reflective piece may not be the most exciting theatre at the fringe, but its subject matter is a sensitive look at life’s inevitability and the desire to control these final moments.

Lawrence Boothman embodies the fictionalised Bergmann, his friends and family from childhood through to recent graduate on the cusp of the rest of his life. As he contemplates what life will bring him – career, wife, children, grandchildren – he expresses the lingering fear that it could all go wrong. In either case, because life is so unpredictable despite the best laid plans, he is able to plan his death with mechanical precision. The calm rationale is both understandable and unsettling.

Boothman attacks the role with vigour, perhaps too much so in transitions that become rushed. Treasa Nealon’s text follows a natural narrative progression and Boothman tells it with instinct for its rises and falls, lingering over moments of tenderness and celebrating milestones. There’s an anti-theatricality to the piece, but it’s a good story well told.

Peter Bergmann’s true identity was never discovered. His remains evidenced late stage prostate and bone cancer so it is easy to draw conclusions as to why Bergmann chose to end his life. The saddest thing to consider is that whilst he worked hard to make himself unidentifiable, there may have been no one to look for him when he disappeared. A Dream of Dying, though not particularly theatrical, feels like a fitting homage to those that have died unknown and unclaimed the world over.

A Dream of Dying runs through 27th 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.