Home, Ovalhouse

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Scarlet and Olive were left behind when the evacuation transport left their town without them. A dust storm has rendered their home a foreign landscape. They have five days until the transport will return to collect any stragglers, and news is due over the radio at any time between now the then. The resourceful young women must work together to find water and build a shelter so they can survive until someone comes back to get them, and the audience of people with profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD) is there to help.

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The Braille Legacy, Charing Cross Theatre

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Discovery of the evening: Louis Braille was a child when he developed the alphabet of raised dots into the writing still used by blind and visually impaired people around the world today. It’s an especially impressive feat considering the run down and under-resourced institution he attended, Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles in Paris. However, the prevalent hostile attitude towards disabled people was a constant obstacle towards the system’s adoption; even the belief that blind people could be academically educated was radical at the time.

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Day Three at Buzzcut Festival

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One of the durational works on Saturday afternoon is the six-hour Silent Dinner, where a group of D/deaf and hearing performers prepare a large meal without communicating in their native languages. There isn’t the rush of a professional kitchen, and sunlight streaming through the windows and lighting the rich colours of fresh ingredients is stunning in it’s peaceful simplicity. Watching them is a meditative exercise as they move around the rows of tables, silently and slowly preparing food that they will then eat together. It would be easy to sit with them all day as they take pleasure from the communal experience of cooking and eating.

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Freak, VAULT Festival

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A thing wot I learnt from theatre: there are people in the world that have a genetic disorder which gives them super stretchy skin. Whilst this is a great/horrifying party trick, historically it meant that people with this condition could join a travelling sideshow.

Nathan Penlington could be called a freak by those inclined to use such dated, derogatory language. He has a rare genetic disorder that, in him, manifests as hypermobility and chronic pain. But in other people it can make their skin stretch excessively. Penlington’s long-running fascination with sideshows combined with his own health issues, led him on a journey to a town in Florida with a unique history. His findings in the States, his research into sideshow culture and history, and a dash of disability rights combine to make solo performance/TED Talk work-in-progress Freak.

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People of the Eye, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Elizabeth has two daughters. Her youngest is “fine”. Her eldest has profound hearing loss. This diagnosis, in our able-bodied world with all its bias and privilege for those that are “normal”, is a hard one to take. Elizabeth wrestles with guilt, frustration and the never before considered world of adaptation to suit her daughter’s needs.

Theatre maker and actor Erin Siobhan Hutching grew up in a mixed D/deaf and hearing household. Collaborating with the Deaf & Hearing Ensemble, People of the Eye is her story, and those of families everywhere. It tells of parents, siblings, signing and secret languages. Projections and signing facilitates aid accessibility and support storytelling, creating a heartwarming montage of moments. The story is thin, but the message is clear: living in both the D/deaf and hearing world is a blessing.

Emily Howlett performs with Hutching as Elizabeth’s eldest. She signs as well as speaks and takes on several roles: a doctor, a sign language teacher and one of the two central characters. She and Hutching have a lovely chemistry and are generally believable as young siblings. Hutching also switches between Elizabeth and her younger daughter; these transitions are not always clear.

There is an added pedagogic element of Elizabeth taking a sign language class where the audience becomes the rest of the class. Though good fun, it is slightly forced – the story of this family is much more engaging than a lesson.

People of the Eye could certainly do with fleshing out, and its initial premise and structure are robust enough to withstand further development. The performances are engaging and they provide a lovely insight into family life with a disabled family member. The visual structure is a model for other productions seeking to increase their accessibility and can easily be applied to shows where deafness is not specific to the script. It’s a fantastic start with great potential.

People of the Eye 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.

Karagula, Styx

Karagula at The Styx, courtesy of Lara Genovese @ Naiad Photography, Charmaine Wombwell

In a former ambulance depot in Tottenham Hale, Philip Ridley’s latest creation comes to life. This epic parallel world of wholly isolated nation states resembles the worst dystopias imaginable in contemporary fiction. Mareka is a 1950s America with laws enforced to the letter by the Grand Marshall, everyone wears pink, and milkshakes are consumed with religious zeal. Cotna is the future, where people are have numbers instead of names, and watching meteor showers without protective eyewear causes you to hear voices. Then, there’s a community of exiles in the mountains, living in caves, wearing skins, and praying to pre-Christian gods. A storyteller/historian in yet another time and place documents these people and their trials.

These kingdoms have a lot of detail, and a lot of emptiness. The story sprawls over three hours, zipping back and forth across time and place, leaving a swirl of slow understanding, further questions and obvious metaphor in its wake. The text is rich and beautiful, fragmentary and challenging, but it’s only partially reinforced by design. A scaffolding base reveals occasional moments of visual detail, but they generally pale against the language. Karagula is equally marvelous and horrible, an experience for all the senses with stories that enthrall and disturb in equal measure. But Ridley’s Tolkien-esque ambition never reaches its full structural potential.

Individual scenes are just as likely to delight as they are to be forgotten. If Karagula was a tapestry, it would be patchy and moth-eaten in some areas, others would have exquisite embroidery, and still others would be completely plain and ill-fitting. The gaping plot holes leave room for interpretation, but the better scenes feel all the more out of place. Ridley either needs to pare the script right back, or add another couple of hours to join up these worlds more fully. The whole experience is equally delightful and frustrating.

Nine actors play all roles in some exemplary multi-rolling. Producing company PigDog is committed to diversity in casting and audiences, and this cast is admirably so. Obi Abili is a terrifying brutal Grand Marshall in Mareka. Emily Forbes is the fiery leader of the mountain outcasts, initially motherly, then ruthless. Lynette Clarke is similarly versatile, as a flamboyant and vicious Marekan and a cold number in Cotna. None of the ensemble ever let their energy drop; their work is just as fantastic as Ridley’s best scenes.

Director Max Barton approaches the text with clear vision and choices that aid clarity, even in the muddiest sections of text. Designer Shawn Soh has moments of brilliance (beasts with coats of cable ties and a throne of gears and propellers for the narrator are fantastic surprises), but the shoestring budget is noticeable in the inconsistent application of detail.

Despite it’s issues, Karagula packs an emotional punch with social commentary and nihilistic fortune telling. Mareka foreshadows a Trump-led America, and Cotna is a land where technology has ushered in the loss of individualism. There are moments of wonder and horror, and sheer bafflement. Philip Ridley’s vision is commendable, but the execution isn’t quite there, leaving the audience partially sighted. It’s a wondrously alive and human production and like any given human being, it has it its faults and its virtues.

Karagula runs through 9 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.

Schism, Finborough Theatre

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Chicago, 1998. Harrison and Katherine are both struggling. Harrison’s wife recently left him and he gave up a challenging career choice for a safer one as a Math teacher. Fourteen-year-old Katherine’s school cannot see past her cerebral palsy, so she’s not allowed to take “normal” classes. Schism begins when both characters reach breaking point: Harrison is mid-suicide attempt when Katherine breaks into his home to appeal for his help to move into his Math class. This initial meeting spawns a twenty-year long relationship between the two, but not a healthy one. Harrison constantly tries to manipulate and control Katherine, who fights for her independence with progressively underhanded methods. Athena Stevens’ script choppily covers the huge time period in sections, addressing several important issues: autonomy within relationships, abuse, life/work balance, failure and aspiration. A play featuring disability that pushes other topics to the forefront, Schism needs more fleshing out but its messages are loud and clear.

Twenty years is a lot of material to fit into a play and at just over an hour, a lot of the plot is left out. There are about four years between each scene, nicely signposted by a current affairs talk radio show, but pivotal transitions are missing. How does their romantic relationship eventually come about? What are the immediate consequences of his awful behaviour? How does her career develop? How did he manage to keep his job after Katherine, in her final year of high school, hang out at his home regularly? These are unanswered, but easily could be by the addition of more scenes. This wouldn’t effect the episodic nature of the script, but would make the story more satisfying. Despite the clunky narrative arc, Stevens’ dialogue still manages to crackle and easily creates tension. There are some great one-liners that spark belly laughs, and moments that are equally horrifying. As set pieces, the scenes are excellent pieces of writing.

Stevens also plays Katherine and displays a clear sense of ownership over the role. Whether or not there are elements of Katherine in her own life, Stevens performance is emotionally genuine and wholly committed. Tim Beckmann gives a nuanced Harrison who transitions from teacher to lover easily, and maintains an undercurrent of desperation. Alex Marker’s domestic design with the ever-present huge, architectural drawings peeking through the windows is a good reflection of the passion that drives both characters, and director Alex Sims displays a good instinct for portraying the journey of a relationship.

Disability issues are ever present and dictate many of Katherine’s choices, but Schism isn’t about her overcoming adversity. It’s part of who she is, but she has other, more pressing problems – university admissions, bidding for work, whether or not to start a family, and civilian objection to her building projects. Harrison does as well, but they are more psychological and harder to resolve. His inability to cope with Katherine’s success in the field where he failed, his inability to have children with his ex-wife and his inability to let Katherine be an independent woman slowly devour him. It’s compelling to witness. In fact, Schism makes more of a statement about feminism within heterosexual relationships than it does about disability awareness, which is hugely refreshing and shows great progress in theatre equality – Katherine’s disability is a part of her, but only a small one compared to her aspirations.

Schism is a provocative relationship drama that certainly resonates despite the holes in the story. This dysfunctional couple can be both delightful and painful to watch, much like anyone in a modern relationship dealing with the other’s baggage. With some further development, Stevens’ play could pack an even heavier punch.

Schism ran through 14 May.

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.