The Toxic Avenger, Arts Theatre

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I’ve seen sexist theatre. I’ve seen ableist theatre. But it’s rare to come across a show that is so openly and unashamedly both of these things.

Even more frustrating, these aspects of the story are heightened and played for laughs. There’s no commentary or condemnation, just the worst parts of cult movies rolled into one superhero story reliant on anti-women stereotypes. The performances are excellent and there are some great tunes, but the overtly offensive storyline overwhelms any of the production’s positive aspects.

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Part of the Picture, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Peppered across the North Sea, giant metal birds stretch towards the sky and drill into the seabed below, hunting for life-giving oils and gasses. Along their wide bellies, men work day and night to keep them moving in dangerous, dirty conditions. The money’s good, and the work is plentiful.

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World Without Us, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Imagine the world if the entire human population disappeared suddenly, without a trace. What would it look like after a day, a month, a century, an era? A lone performer from Belgian company Ontroerend Goed methodically describes how the theatre space we sit in would change as a focal point within the wider world’s transformation. Delivered in a near monotone on a stage bare except for a grey obelisk, World Without Us is a meditative account of our solar system’s lifespan, and humanity’s inconsequence in the great scheme of planetary existence.

Karolien De Bleser quietly narrates this epoch-spanning journey of our planet with matter of fact coolness. What she describes really is remarkable in its compressed state, but the almost total lack of inflection makes the text pedestrian even in its most dramatic moments. Her movement around the space is relaxed and random, to look for meaning in it feels silly what with the story she tells.

With the ability to focus on the story without the mind drifting to topics such as what to have for lunch, the overall effect is a sense of calm acceptance that our lives, whilst impacting the planet immediately, really don’t matter. Our absence has little effect other than the gradual decay and burial of the artefacts we leave behind. Even in periods of environmental turmoil such as we see in the planet’s history, the impact is meaningless.

Even though the sun eventually swells and engulfs the Earth before it dies, all is not lost. Lightyears away, a single human artefact remains with a friendly but assumptive purpose. Its contents are, depending on one’s world view, absurd or incredibly beautiful. Perhaps they are both.The whimsy of human invention is particularly poignant at this moment.

World Without Us is a lovely, contemplative piece of performance and would work particularly well as an audio recording. As theatre, it could come across as flat, or upsetting or remarkable, depending each individual’s world view. Calmly provocative, it is wonderfully wide open to interpretation and effect.

World Without Us 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.

 

Generation Zero, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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A nameless couple meet online, fall in love and build a life together. Their lives are comfortably boring, with day jobs, road trips to the beach, holidays in a Yorkshire cottage and lazy weekends snuggling in bed, listening to records. They are almost identical to any contemporary middle class, suburban couple, but something’s not quite right.

Their world is just a bit off. They run out of gas, but they can’t go to the shop to top up their gas meter – they aren’t allowed to exceed their monthly allocation. There’s talk of restrictions on travel in order to cut pollution levels. He’s ambivalent about the environment, but she’s a political activist who devotes more and more of her time to a local group campaigning for change. He wants to spend more time with her, but she’s always out in the evenings, planning actions with the group, so he takes action of his own.

Becky Owen-Fisher’s debut play Generation Zero looks at the battle over the environment through the lens of a young couple in a poetic, episodic script that unsettles through it’s familiarity and the complacency with which (most? some?) people approach political issues. The story doesn’t viciously attack climate change, but takes a gentle, sinister approach that gets into your bones. Owen-Fisher has a good instinct for dialogue and imagery-laden narration that easily flows in and out of naturalism, adding just enough variation in style to keep the audience lightly unsettled.

Director Tom Fox attacks the script with lightening fast transitions; these could be slowed a bit for the sake of keeping up with the actions and the to-ing and fro-ing through time. Without sound and lighting signifiers, they would be totally unclear. Some important moments are also rushed, particularly towards the end, causing the gravitas they should have to be glossed over.More stylised physicality would also be welcome to coordinate with the stylistic changes in text.

The two actors are excellent; Jordan Turk and Francesca Dolan have a gorgeous chemistry that’s lovely to watch, made more romantic by dream-like lighting. The sheets and pillows covering strip lighting on the stage’s edge creates a lovely ethereal effect, destroyed by their reveal at a pivotal moment that also reveals the truth of their relationship’s dynamic – a great choice.

Perhaps some adjustments could be made to the script to transform it into more of a propaganda piece and place a stronger emphasis on the environmental collapse that is merely hinted at, but to do so would cause the piece to lose its delicacy. This is a promising play from an emerging writer with an important message that deserves to be heard.

Generation Zero runs through 29th 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.

Human Animals, Royal Court

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I adore animals, certainly more than I like humans, and I think I missed my calling to be a zookeeper or conservationist. I can’t bear any depiction of animals being harmed on stage or film; even mentions of animal abuse is hugely upsetting. So, I found Stef Smith’s Human Animals a pretty horrible ordeal. Smith’s frantic, apocalyptic story captures society’s instinctive, “Must. Destroy. Everything.” response to the natural world threatening contemporary human sovereignty. As the government wreaks havoc on the natural world in the name of security, half a dozen civilians have a range of reactions to the animal population’s invasion of their homes. This visceral, destabilising drama blasts the audience with 75 minutes of shocking, reactive action as the infection spreads across species, but with the fast pace and constant suspense, it’s difficult to relate to any of the characters. Canny design avoids much mess and graphic depictions of the described carnage, but the narrated horror is all too easy enough to imagine from most modern nations, and his highly disturbing on several levels.

Lisa (Lisa McGrills) and Jamie (Ashley Zhangazha) are a young couple supposedly very much in love, though lacking chemistry. Lisa doesn’t like animals much, so isn’t fazed when the government starts killing off the wild ones who are trying to invade people’s homes. She’s had enough of birds smashing into her windows and either dying or injuring themselves. Jamie can’t handle the ruthless killing; his collapse is well written and convincingly performed. Lisa’s boss Si (Sargon Yelda) is one of “them”, a vile, slimy little man profiting from the disaster. Young activist Alex (Natalie Dew) has just returned from travelling abroad, but mum Nancy (Stella Gonet) still tries to treat her as a child. There’s a lot of gorgeous intimacy and tension between them, often diffused by their genial family friend John (Ian Gelder), who clashes with Si regularly in the local boozer. Otherwise, there is little contact between these conflicting personalities, but the reactions from each character to the growing destruction are heartfelt and saddening.

Smith’s best writing is her conflict scenes between the characters. The rest certainly isn’t bad at all, but the storyline requires either depicting the violent extermination of animals or copious narration. Her choice is understandable and, though well incorporated into natural dialogue, there’s a lot of describing. The design team (Camilla Clarke, Lizzie Powell and Mark Melville) work with director Hamish Pirie to break up the text effectively, with sound, lighting, projection and jets of paint constantly interrupting and surprising/startling the audience. Being constantly kept on edge for over an hour is exhausting, with the story causing additional trauma. As horrible as it is, the whole effect is intricately constructed and totes a powerful message.

Also of note is the set design. The cast and audience are inside a zoo-style animal enclosure, disempowering the characters and trivialising their problems because the outside world is dominant and ever watching. Though the set does not literally indicate the characters’ world and gives no hints of the government-ordered extermination and arson that they describe, its tranquillity is calmly sinister.

The production elements and dialogue are excellent, through the relentlessness of Human Animals can alienate – but that’s the point. It’s terrible, clever commentary on contemporary environmentalism, fear of social disorder and individuals’ reactions to what is effectively a civil war and its strong effect will be long remembered by this animal lover.

Human Animals runs through 18 June.

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.