One Last Thing (For Now), Old Red Lion

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Families separated by war and conflict have kept in touch one way or another for time immemorial. Recently giving way to skype, texts and emails, letter writing is now largely neglected – but surviving relics betray heartache, fear and longing. International theatre company Althea Theatre draw on choral physical theatre and the intimate communications between family members from a range of global conflicts to create a moving tribute to love and patriotism.

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We Are Ian, VAULT Festival

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by guest critic Martin Pettitt

We enter into a long damp and dingy chamber, in the distance there is a flashing screen with 3 sets of legs beneath, feet bedecked in shoes with multi-coloured lights, gyrating and popping to the pronounced beat of the music. The screen blinks with various versions of the words: We Are Ian. In terms of stage set, that was it apart from a bulb hanging from the ceiling and a vast amount of digestive biscuits.

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Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight, Ovalhouse

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Along with tickets, we are handed earplugs. Considering Christopher Brett Bailey’s first work This Is How We Die, I’m not surprised. A brilliant, relentless barrage of contemporary American myth followed by an encore of noise and light, Bailey isn’t known for doing things by halves, or even singular wholes. The slight, constantly startled-looking Canadian with gravity defying hair attacks performance making with the energy of a supernova. Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight has the same verve, but is otherwise a rather different beast. Whilst This Is How We Die was dominated by language, Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight has very few words – but the earplugs are definitely needed. This anthemic music and light show fills the room with sound, colour and vibration but is the difficult second album to This Is How We Die. Much more of a gig than a piece of theatre, it lacks the satisfaction of characters and narrative, even a hint of one. Bailey’s mind blowing poetry teases with a few tiny fragments, but otherwise leaves us desperately gagging for more of his words.

Though given earplugs, there is the choice of whether or not to use them. Notices state that the sound level is consistently over 100 decibels and that, “if you wear plugs the whole time you might compromise enjoyment of the show. and if you don’t wear them at all you will take home whistling ear canals”. Being one of those people sensitive to loud noises who constantly asks my other half to turn down the telly, I want to play it safe but I don’t want to miss out. So I opt for one plug in, with the other ready. This choice no doubt effects the experience – if I leave them out the whole time and feel discomfort, would I like the show less? Or would I like it more because it’s not actually ‘that’ loud? I use the plugs in response to the volume level – sometimes I have both in, sometimes none. It’s an interesting premise to consider that the experience and quality of the show hinges on these earplugs, adding an additional level of individual, subjective response.

Bailey’s voice, slow and unseen, repeats, “this is a hell dream” in a brief textual introduction. Violinist Alicia Jane Turner uses loop pedals to sculpt a cinematic score reminiscent of mid-90s rock anthems. Her work is wonderfully angry, sweeping and alive. George Percy and Bailey are both on guitar, forming a silhouetted triptych with Bailey soon in the middle – amongst the monolithic speakers and flight cases forming a brutalist, urban landscape, he cuts the figure of a scrappy dystopian overlord. It suits him. If this is what hell is like, it’s fucking glorious.

Behind each performer is a wooden panel of about a metre square made of deconstructed pianos and their strings. These are visually impressive structures in and of themselves; their music evokes the violence and community of tribalism. Combined with excellent sound-responsive lighting (that malfunctioned to the point that the show needing to be stopped briefly), the overall effect is one of epic, soul shaking community.

The title paired with the music evokes the American paradox of a friendly but violent people who love their guns as much as their families. The music’s scale captures the expanse and variation of the North American landscape, and the few words he shares on the experience of waking up from a nightmare to find the world unchanged darkly foreshadow Trump’s America. Whether or not this is an intentional message, it is certainly a powerful one.

Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight is certainly wide open to interpretation and shows Bailey’s ambition and range as a performer of work designed to push the senses to their extremes. His textual dexterity is certainly missed (particularly by the coked up, flailing pair of young women sat next to me commenting on how disappointing this work is compared to his first) and comparatively this piece is somewhat disappointing, but it absolutely has its merits as a visceral, “fuck you/I love you” performance piece.

Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight tours nationally through November.

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.

Unreachable, Royal Court

Anthony Neilson didn’t come into Unreachable rehearsals with a script, but an idea – a director obsessed with finding the perfect light. From this starting point, the cast sculpted a modern satire of the film industry and the people that exist in that world. Over a six-week devising and rehearsal period, six actors worked with Neilson to create the play, a rarity in anything other than small-scale and student theatre. The end result is wickedly funny with on-point performances and, whilst the story isn’t anything remarkable, its execution makes for delicious relief from the chaos of modern Britain.

Maxim (Matt Smith) is Palme d’Or winning writer and director of Child of Ashes, currently filming in an unnamed location. He pushes the self-absorbed, whimsical artist stereotype to the limit with full-on strops, totally inappropriate comments and decisions that blow his producer’s budget. He is camp, temperamental and a fantastic physical comedian. His lead actor Natasha (Tamara Lawrence) is an unfeeling, blunt force of a sociopath who clashes with lead actor Ivan “The Brute” (a sidesplitting Jonjo O’Neill in ridiculous hair extensions). On his production team are the pragmatic producer Amanda Drew, frustrated DOP Richard Pyros, and deaf financial backer Genevieve Barr. Their grounded personalities create plenty of friction (literally, in some cases) by clashing with the flamboyant artists as the shoot goes over budget and over time. Some of the arguments are petty, others deserving, but all just as hilarious. Nielson mocks artists’ egos, but it’s not nasty – anyone working in the arts will have met at least a couple of these personalities in real life.

The comedy lies in the exaggerated characters and brilliant one-liners devised by Nielson and the cast. Even though the scenarios are fairly mundane and the story not particularly interesting in itself, it doesn’t matter one bit. There are some moments of poignancy and genuine intimacy, but Unreachable is really about the laughs. Even without familiarity with working in the arts, even the hardest, most cynical of hearts will find the outstanding performances hilarious. The scenes are often short and episodic, and half an hour could easily be trimmed, though the current two hours doesn’t feel overly long.

Chloe Lamford’s set is the reflectors, flight cases and lights of a film set until the final sequence, when she and lighting designer Chahine Yavroyan can pull out all stops in an impressive display of visual mastery. The only issue with this moment is the fox. Instead of a puppet or forgoing the image all together, an animal that should be in the wild or a sanctuary is paraded about on a lead. It’s a totally unnecessary and cruel device.

In these post-Brexit, unelected Torycore prime minister days where cracking a smile takes immense effort, Unreachable is welcome relief. Even though the play itself is nothing special, experiencing devised theatre in anything more than a tiny fringe venue that doesn’t go more than a couple of minutes without triggering a laugh is a welcome escape from real life.

Unreachable runs through 6 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.

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.

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.