The Collector, Greenwich Theatre

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by guest critic Maeve Ryan

When the British army arrived in Northern Ireland, beleaguered Catholics came onto the streets offering them tea, biscuits and cake. How long did it take for the story to change to the one that we know today? In The Collector, Naseer joyfully swaps music CDs with the American soldiers who arrive into Iraq in 2003 because he hopes for democracy and change. He learnt his English by listening to American rap music and soon he becomes a valuable translator for the soldiers. The Collector documents the slow brutalization of the occupiers and the occupied through choices they make; choices that, in Henry Naylor’s play, feel inevitable.

 

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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.

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RED Women’s Theatre Awards, Greenwich Theatre

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This year sees the launch of a new playwriting competition, RED Women’s Theatre Awards. Co- produced by Edinburgh-based academic and playwright Effie Samara, Greenwich Theatre and Female Arts, the awards are “aimed at anyone who identifies as female who has an inspirational, questioning and challenging social and political voice.” There are three regional heats in the competition; the first was at Greenwich Theatre with staged readings of four plays. Completely differing in tone and style and at various stages of development, this heat showcases the huge variety of female voices in English playwriting.

I spoke to founder Effie Samara about the awards and her reason for founding them.

What do you hope to achieve with these awards?

When I first spoke about RED to James Haddrell, Artistic Director of Greenwich Theatre, I must admit, I was dreading that it was going to achieve absolutely nothing. As a theatre artist, he engages with that female-led theatre aesthetic by producing Broken Leg, Smooth-Faced Gents and now RED. Is he a revolutionary? I think he is. Is he an exception? He is a valiant exception but we are actually witnessing the beginning of an epoch in politics and in theatre. They follow each other. My view is that the State, its governance, its justice, its policing, its education and its performativity are about to undergo a female-authored revolution. RED positions itself at the forefront of this development.

What criteria did you use when selecting plays for the heat?

The award is for political theatre. Our first concern was to ensure the writer’s engagement with the notions of justice, resistance and her ability to problematise those dramatically.

RED Theatre Awards currently cover the south of England, Wales and Scotland. What are your plans for expansion in the rest of England? Is N. Ireland a goal as well?

Northern Ireland is absolutely a goal. In the first instance, we’re including N. Ireland in the Scottish round. We can’t wait to hear some loud Irish voices! Scotland is also underrepresented on a national level.      

What can theatre makers do now to counteract the gender disparity?

The solution is very simple and I’m afraid it begins with us women. Us, being able to handle our own freedom: express it in the ownership of our person, define it in politics, and dramatise it in our consciousness and on stage. Women who robotically follow institutional missions fuel that gender disparity through their own complicity with these structures. Numbers are on our side in this argument: There are a lot of us. Over 3 billion. If we meant business, if we did this together, actioning solidarity within our cause, this injustice could be culled in no time.

What message do you want to communicate with the RED awards?

Words are loaded pistols. And we, women, can cock a gun way better than any establishment pointing one at us. Throughout the history of humankind we have been told we’re not allowed to fathom our own course, to govern our own person, our own body, its production and reproduction. RED is here to provide a platform for women.

The four plays selected for this heat are Under My Thumb by Cassiah Joski-Jethi, Spurn the Dust by Sian Rowland, Dissonance by Isabella Javor and Gone by Kate Webster. Some are more blatantly topical that others, some look at broader female issues and group dynamics. All are short plays with potential for development and by female voices that have a lot to say.

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.

Hannah and Hanna, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

CultureClash’s debut production, Hannah and Hanna by John Retellack, is a perfect fit for company co-founders and actors Cassandra Hercules and Serin Ibrahim. It’s as if Retellack wrote it for them. Written and set in 2001, Hannah and Hanna takes place in Margate as the British government temporarily re-homes thousands of Kosovan refugees in down-at-heel seaside towns, causing predictable social backlash. Hannah is black British, Hanna is from Kosovo. Both are 16, love pop music and navigating life as teenagers. This production is ably directed by Greenwich Theatre artistic director James Haddrell, and well performed, but the sentimental script with a predictable story arc lets down the talent in the production.

The play is definitely still relevant to current immigration debate and highlights the absurd anti-immigration mindset through Hannah’s Afro-Caribbean heritage. She and her boyfriend Bull verbally and physically abuse Kosovan teenagers, after which Hannah returns home to her thick-accented Nan. The irony is blatant, but funny. Of course, constant violence is unsustainable in a two-hander about teenaged girls, so after a huge English v Kosovan fight, understanding is reached and friendship develops. It’s sweet. Not saccharine, there are still lovely ups and disturbing downs. Hannah goes through a radical transformation very quickly that her social circle struggles to cope with. Hanna has already encountered the horror of war before the play begins, so is the more mature one of the pair, but this is still a coming of age story for both girls.

Hercules and Ibrahim are wonderfully believable as 16-year-olds, and they endow their roles with commitment and energy. The script restricts them by being heavy with narration; the scenes between them are the best moments. They skillfully take on other characters using clear physical and vocal differences and have a lovely, watchable chemistry. Haddrell’s stylized fight choreography serves the narration and pop music theme, but they play’s message may have come across more consistently if the fighting would have looked realistic.

It’s a sensitively chosen showcase for the new company founders, but the script’s references are dated and the ending is revealed in the beginning. Smaller details are surprises, but it’s otherwise easy to see where the story will head. It still packs a potent message and is certainly worth seeing, and this is a company worth watching.


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So It Goes, Greenwich Theatre

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Hannah used to love running with her dad. When she was 17, her dad died and Hannah kept on running, silently and alone. She refused to speak about his death with anyone, including her family. So she decided rather than to navigate the burden of speech, she would create a silent play that tells her dad’s story and her process of dealing with his death. So It Goes is a sweet two-hander that manages to avoid over-sentimentality by focusing on the honest, deeply individual story of navigating life after the death of a parent.

Other than the last line, there is absolutely no speech in this play. All text is written on small whiteboards worn around the actors’ necks or on pre-made signs. This keeps written communication basic; it is rather like watching a comic book or graphic novel being written. This could occasionally feel slow and it was often easy to predict what was coming next on the whiteboard within a scene, but not overly so and not often. The set and props are also simple, with signage and symbolic items representing other characters and jumps in time and place. Most props are drawn outlines of objects, adding humour and a sense of youthful play to the story. The physical performance style matches- it is exaggerated but simplified, physical theatre but not ornate, embellished or for the sole purpose of showing the actors’ physical prowess. So It Goes wants to tell Hannah’s story as clearly and simply as possible, focusing on truthfulness and emotional honesty. The look of the play would certainly appeal to children, but accessing adults’ inner child makes the experience of losing a parent a journey that ends with positive reflection rather than the bitterness of loss.

The performances are equally lovely. Hannah Moss plays herself, and has “help” telling the story from David Ralfe, who plays her Dad and Mum. Ralfe in drag has an initial hit of comedy, but he taps into Mum’s outward expression of hopelessness that soon makes the audience forget that it’s a bloke in a dress. The two actors embody an exaggeration familiar to children’s theatre that is also in keeping with the cartoon aesthetic of the production, but is not crude. If they did not employ the exaggeration or humour in their physical comedy, it would make audiences want to slit their wrists. Instead, there was a lot of sniffling and nose blowing mixed in with laughter.

This is the third play I have seen about death in recent weeks. Each production used a dramatically different approach to convey the same message. Hannah spelled it out for us by writing that her dad “didn’t just die, he lived.” There’s an overabundance of factors in the world that can easily depress us and forget to look for the little moments of daily joy in our own lives, but So It Goes provides a celebratory reminder to do so through a pared down, visual-textual hybrid of physical theatre. Though the tour has now finished of their debut production, On the Run Theatre is certainly a company to watch.

Intention: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Outcome: ☆ ☆ ☆

Star Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, Greenwich Theatre

Merlin Holland is the ondorian-gray-700x455ly grandchild of Oscar Wilde. Determined to carry on Wilde’s legacy through research and writing, he adapted a new version of Wilde’s famous and infamous novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Touring since April as European Arts Company’s current production, it stops off at Greenwich Theatre for a few days before continuing its perky jaunt around the country.

And perky it is. With only a cast of four, this new adaptation is a largely faithful interpretation of the original story. There is a strong emphasis on artist Basil Hallward’s obsession with young Dorian, capturing the agony of Wilde’s creative and frustratingly closeted life. Played by Rupert Mason, he effectively parallels Wilde’s torment and the use of art as an outlet for homosexual expression, endowing his performance with pathos and depth. Guy Warren-Thomas is the androgynous, camp Dorian who begins as Wilde’s bright-eyed young thing making a vain, innocent wish but who slips into a life of debauchery after discovering his unintended immortality. Warren-Thomas manages to evoke some empathy in his later attempts to be good, but his corruption is a delicious downfall to witness. Gwynfor Jones and Helen Keeley complete the cast, with Lord Henry Wotton and Sybil Vane as their best roles. Warren-Thomas was the only actor to not multirole, but the others did so with great vocal and physical distinction. Cross-gendered performances provide some levity to the dark tale, as does energy and complete commitment to detailed characters.

Though the performances were excellent across the boards, there were some structural choices that did not effectively translate from page to stage. The first act was largely exposition, with Dorian only making the conscious choice to live for pleasure right before the interval. As consequence, the second half felt rushed and the effect of time passing was underplayed, though signified by grey hair in Lord Wotton and Hallward. There was also a jarringly out-of-place dream sequence that Dorian has upon receipt of a mysterious book from Wotton. Stylized and physical with coloured lights and smoke, it was unnecessary and the performers appeared uncomfortable and self-conscious.

The set provided simple but versatile atmosphere. The eponymous portrait was an empty frame that Dorian would grotesquely inhabit from time to time though often left empty and darkly lit. This is a device seen before, but an effective one as it fosters audience imagination. The costumes were sumptuous and indulgent, like Wilde himself and the characters he wrote.

This is a truly lovely production. Little is particularly inventive, but it is a classic story executed very well. The performances are certainly the highlight, as is the fact that Wilde’s grandson aided in the creation of the production. The flaws can certainly be overlooked in favour of focusing on the cast and their chemistry. It continues to tour for most of June, ending with a week at St. James Studio in London.


The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.

Shooting With Light, Greenwich Theatre

1930s Paris. Jewish Europeans are moving west to escape the rise of Nazism. Two of them meet: one of them is a Hungarian photographer, the other is a German activist. Both are full of youthful confidence and fearless in pursuit of their goals. Emerging company Idle Motion uses physical theatre, light, sound to tell the story of these young lovers, their legacy and the importance of photography.

Firstly, Shooting With Light is a loveShooting-With-Light_018 story. Two young people meet, fall in love and take the world by storm before ending in tragedy. These young people are Gerda Taro and partner Robert Capa (after they changed their names), pioneering photojournalists of the Spanish Civil War. Gerda and Robert start working together; Gerda is initially his assistant who supports him in reinventing his persona in order to make the professional contacts he needs to succeed. Her talent overcomes this role however, and she eventually develops an independent reputation for honest, brave documentation. Partly fictionalized but based on Gerta’s brief life, we see Robert teach her to use a camera followed by her passionate rise to renowned photojournalist needing to show the world the reality of life on the front lines. Alternating with this storyline is the time-jumping subplot of Robert’s brother Cornell and his assistant June, seeking to amalgamate Robert’s work after his death. They are frantically searching for a mysterious red suitcase Robert once spoke of in order to complete the archive of Robert’s work.

Interspersing the scenes of historical naturalism are transitions using visual and physical theatre, similar in style to Frantic Assembly. This is an on-trend performance aesthetic, but one that is visually appealing and provides another level of insight into the characters and their struggles. The most effective of these sequences show Taro and Capa falling in love over rolls of negatives towards the beginning, and Taro’s fight to access the front lines with her camera towards the end. The set is simple in appearance as several blocks and a white screen, but they transform using projections, light and a series of doors. Like their narrative, the structure is simple but highly effective and tells an excellent story. Projections of Taro’s work add further historical context and support the world of the play – the audience sees what she sees and experiences.

The company of five twenty-somethings work wonderfully together, and so they should as they met in secondary school. Shooting With Light captures the infectious enthusiasm and ambition of youth, no doubt mirroring their own attitudes that the world is theirs to have and success is a given if they work hard enough. It will be interesting to see how their work develops as they age and experience the challenges and hardships of working in the arts. As visually appealing as their work in now, it needs more depth of human experience. June and Cornell’s quest to locate Capa’s missing work is arguably the more interesting side of the story, but neglected in favour of Taro’s and Capa’s exciting lives and career progression. The ensemble also lacks diversity of age and ethnicity, something that I hope they increase in the future. Idle Motion have an obvious gift for storytelling and integrating various performance styles at this young age, so the world really could be their oyster as they continue to grow.

Intention: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Outcome: ☆ ☆ ☆

Star Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2


The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.