Care, Courtyard Theatre

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by guest critic Harry McDonald

Time passes and we pass with it, but how do you measure getting older? Do you read wrinkles or responsibilities? Or did you never learn to read?

The Courtyard’s revival of Roy Mitchell’s Care, last produced in 1983 at the Royal Court Upstairs and now presented by the Angus McKay Foundation, interrogates a fraught young couple living in Birmingham in the 1970s. Childlike in their domestic play – bouncing between football, music,  comic books and sex – each lover attempts to survive the other’s presence over a long Easter weekend. And yet there is a third person present. Don’t children always make the scariest ghosts?

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Only Bones, Soho Theatre

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by guest critic Rebecca JS Nice

Short and sweet, classic and comical. Thomas Monckton performs a solo piece glued to his spot, centre stage beneath a low hanging lamp, which obscures his body from the shoulders up for at least half of the work. Only Bones is a classic example of body manipulation that playfully explores all the possibilities that a clown can find and make with only his body, one square metre of space, and one light. These creative boundaries have been stretched and tested but remain in performance to give the show a formal identity and context for Monckton’s shenanigans.

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The Doppel Gang, Tristan Bates Theatre

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By an anonymous guest critic

If you’re a Marx Brothers fan like myself, you might go to this production by the company JUST SOME THEATRE with some trepidation. Are these four performers going to do justice to the Brother’s brilliant form of slapstick comedy? It’s nice to report that the answer is yes. The company’s attempt to create new Marx Brothers material is actually the strongest part of this show.

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Feature: Scenes From A Yellowface Execution

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By Daniel York

Before we go any further, let me lay a couple of things out there:

Howard Barker is a first-rate dramatist.

The Print Room in Notting Hill is a great small-scale theatre.

But they have epically and catastrophically screwed up their casting choices in Barker’s latest offering, In The Depths Of Dead Love. According to the theatre’s website, the play is set in “Ancient China”, concerns an “Emperor” and “Imperial Court” and features characters called “Chin” and “Mrs. Hu”, with an entirely white cast who (without wishing to sound too ironically stereotypical) one would normally expect to see on TV taking tea with Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey.

It’s also doubly ironic that in post-referendum, post-truth Brexit Britain, we’ve spent the last few months being told that you simply cannot call people stupid or racist.

Well, here’s the deal. We don’t actually have to be stupid to do stupid things and we’re all perfectly capable of perpetuating systemic racism without actually being consciously racist. Yes, it’s a subtle one, folks, and interestingly, I can honestly say, hand on heart, I have never once heard the immortal words “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” said by any person of colour. Not one. Because people of colour are ten times as aware of racism as white people. It’s just a fact.

Now, what that hotbed of London fringe theatre that is the Print Room have done, in a play by one of Britain’s most eminent playwrights, is perpetuate the practice of “yellowface,” i.e. when a person who is not of East Asian descent plays a character of East Asian descent. Yellowface, like blackface and brownface, is a remnant of a time when actors of colour were simply not allowed on our stages.

There’s often confusion about a couple of things here. People like to kid themselves that blackface only ever happened in some bygone Edwardian hinterland and only then because there were no black actors around to play Othello. However, this isn’t actually true. The last blacked up Moor of Venice on our stages was as recently as 1990. The practice was only ended by protest from black actors.

Yellowface has lingered on a lot longer, unfortunately. We did however think we’d finally laid the culturally appropriated beast to rest (on British stages at least) in 2012 when, after the Royal Shakespeare Company elected to cast only 3 (out of a cast of 17) East Asian actors in minor roles (including a dog and a maid) in the Chinese classic, The Orphan Of Zhao, a mass social media protest that went viral globally caused considerable embarrassment to both the RSC and the British theatre industry as a whole.

Since then we have seen a whole slew of productions in major theatres: Chimerica, #AiWeiWei, The World Of Extreme Happiness, Yellowface, You For Me For You, P’yongyang, Shangrila, The Sugar-Coated Bullets Of The Bourgeoisie-in major venues, achieving enormous success with casts of real-life East Asian actors, not Caucasians doing an “ethnic turn”. We will also shortly see Snow In Midsummer, at the RSC no less, and Chinglish at the Park Theatre. These are cast with actors who can actually trace their roots to Eastern Asia.

The other confusion that lingers about yellow (and black and brown) face is that if you don’t have the make-up on, the taped eyelids and the dodgy Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany’s accent, this somehow ceases to be dodgy theatre practice and magically becomes instead a perfectly valid form of “colour-blind casting”.

But this is the deal. If you take an East Asian character and cast it with a white actor, you’re effectively saying there is no East Asian actor who was good enough/clever enough/talented enough/capable enough to play it.

Or they simply did not exist.

In other words: erasure.

 Daniel York (sometimes known as Daniel York Loh) is a mixed-race British East Asian actor, writer, filmmaker and musician. As an actor he has appeared at the RSC, National Theatre and Royal Court, as well as in the feature films The Beach and Rogue Trader. His short films have been seen in major film festivals where they have been nominated for awards. His first full-length play, The Fu Manchu Complex, ran at Ovalhouse in 2013. Along with composer Craig Adams, he won the 2016 Perfect Pitch award to create an original stage musical, Sinking Water, based on events around the 2004 Morecambe Bay Chinese cockle-picker tragedy, which is currently being developed under commission by Theatre Royal Stratford East. He is one of 21 writers of colour featured in the collection of essays, The Good Immigrant, which won the 2016 Books Are My Bag Reader’s Choice award. He is one-third of the alt-folk trio Wondermare whose self-titled debut album is available to buy on itunes. He has served on the Equity Minority Ethnic Members Committee, is a founder member of British East Asian Artists and has worked with Act For Change to promote diversity in UK media.

Tonight With Donny Stixx, The Bunker

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Donny Stixx is a teenaged magician with boundless dedication to his craft and desperation for fame. Rather than doing things that boys his age normally do, he spends hours honing his skills and tweaking the act he performs at kids’ parties, hospices, churches and for anyone else that will watch. The only thing he ever thinks and talks about is his magic. But Donny’s pretty obviously on the autism spectrum; this combined with his unstable upbringing and lack of an appropriate support system is a particularly deadly combination. Philip Ridley’s 2015 Edinburgh award-winning solo show explodes onto a bare, grey stage in a linguistically vivid documentation of fanaticism and social disorder with a phenomenal performance by Sean Michael Verey.

Verey is an unrelenting force with inimitable energy and charisma that shines through a character who has precious little social intuition. Though Donny is awkward and frustrating, Verey’s performance captivates. Having a totally plain stage that is anywhere and everywhere means it’s entirely on the actor to hold attention – but the performance makes it work and is never, ever boring.

Ridley’s text is dense and Verey races through it; it would otherwise be double the length. Though the pace is exhausting to take in, it’s necessary. The language and imagery richly creates a wonderfully detailed believable world. Director David Mercatali coaxes the nuance from Donny’s biographical story incredibly well despite the speed – the sparsely used pauses are devastating. When the pace finally lets up, it’s like cold air hitting a friction burn.

A clearly foreshadowed conclusion results in awed, uncomfortable silence. After a week that saw the broken American political machine elect an orange fascist for its next president, Ridley’s play is far from comforting. Whilst Verey’s depiction of Donny’s passion is delightful and his performance is nothing short of extraordinary, his vulnerability weighs heavily on bruised and helpless liberal consciences. There is no safety net, and fanaticism is the new normal in this dark play from the innocent days of pre-2016. It’s a hard show to sit through, but absolutely worth it.

Tonight With Donny Stixx runs through 3 December.

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.

The Beggar’s Opera, Brockley Jack

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By guest critic Michaela Clement-Hayes, @_mickychaela

London in 1728 was a dark and dangerous place. Highwaymen, hangmen and harlots roamed the streets and life was hard. John Gay’s satirical musical The Beggar’s Opera steps away from the traditional romanticised stories of heroes and villains, unrequited love, choosing instead to tell a tale of rogues and murderers. And a little bit of love, for good measure.

Polly Peachum (Michaela Bennison) has defied her parents and married the notorious highwayman Macheath (Sherwood Alexander) However, he has most certainly not forsaken all others. Wanted for his crimes, he leaves Polly with a promise to return.

Lazarus Theatre have taken David Gay’s story and brought it into the 21st century with a bang. Literally – there are party poppers. It’s a whirlwind of a tale – quirky and fun, transcending the centuries and combining modern day with the past.

Performances are strong from everyone, with the cast acknowledging the audience with intense stares throughout, involving them discreetly yet hardly breaking the fourth wall. The staging is simple yet effective, with ladders, coloured masking tape and a few pieces of furniture whisked on and off, and the cast adopting masks and a few props as they switch from key character to chorus.

Singing is good, but feels a little strained in places. However, this does not detract from the story (adapted and directed by Ricky Dukes), and the new lyrics (penned by Bobby Locke) are both clever and amusing.

It’s fun, fast-paced and funny – a very enjoyable show.

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.

Party Trap, Shoreditch Town Hall

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Politicians and members of the press are hardly the best of bedfellows. Unrestrained and violent, Ross Sutherland’s Party Trap explodes this relationship in a dystopian TV interview between journalist Sir David Bradley and MP Amanda Barkham after a landmark decision classifying political criticism as hate speech. Sutherland sets himself the challenge of telling his story through a script that’s an extended palindrome – an impressive feat, were it executed with more of a focus on storytelling rather than showing off a clever concept.

The palindromic writing isn’t particularly pronounced; instead it creates a haunting sense of deja vu once the script passes the halfway point. The shift in power and control from David to Amanda, and the action’s dark turn prevents it from turning stale, but the script structure is still more of a hindrance than a help. The language takes precedence over story clarity, so the plot soon muddies. The slightly futuristic premise becomes less and less tenable, to the point that the entire reality of the piece is called into question. There is little solid ground on which to build a sturdy plot line; language isn’t enough even though this experiment is certainly an interesting one.

The performances are one of the biggest disappointments. Cold and detached, they are couched in venomous sarcasm and violence. Simon Hepworth as Sir David Bradley has some nice moments of vulnerability and depth, but these are too little and too late. Otherwise, he and Zara Plessard are ruthless, calculating and distant. Video performances of other characters are relied on to fill in for news broadcasts and line managers with disturbing agendas; these characters are as self-absorbed as the two on stage.

The design elements are unobtrusive and tie the production together well, with Sutherland’s projections and video being particularly slick.There is no question that Party Trap is well-planned and thought out, but the concept is so prominent that it prevents a story from shining through. It’s a worthy experiment, but one that doesn’t work.

Party Trap runs through 1 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.