The Ferryman, Royal Court

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Nearly a decade after Jerusalem opened to universal acclaim at The Royal Court, Jez Butterworth finally gives us another masterpiece. A sprawling family/political drama taking place over one day in 1981 rural Armagh, The Ferryman barrels towards a predicable end. But the genius lies in the final scene, where the plot shoots off in a different direction like a rogue firework before exploding. Laden with familial craic, rebel spirit, the complexities of colonialism and rounded off with phenomenal performances, The Ferryman encapsulates the best of contemporary British playwriting.

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Nuclear War, Royal Court

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In his introduction to the Nuclear War text, Simon Stephens explains that as a playwright, he does not want directors and performers to revere him. Rather, he wants them to see his scripts as a starting point for their own creativity. The third line of the stage directions is, ‘a series of suggestions for a piece of theatre’; from these suggestions, choreographer-director Imogen Knight shapes a haunting landscape of physicalised despair.

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Custody, Ovalhouse

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By guest critic Alistair Wilkinson

HOPE: A feeling of expectation and desire for something to happen.

How do we cope when we don’t get what we want? How do we beat a system that is set up to make you fail? Custody asks just these questions, as we are taken on a two-year journey of a family’s struggle for justice for their loved one, twenty-nine year old Brian, who died whilst in police custody. Through this eighty-minute narrative, we see four different individuals cope/hope, whilst their questions are left unanswered.

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The Principle of Uncertainty, Draper Hall

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According to one of the theories of quantum mechanics we’re taught in The Principle of Uncertainty, we can be in multiple places at once. If only that were true. I could review way more shows than I can currently, go on holiday, live in multiple countries and hold down several jobs, all at once. It would be wonderfully productive. Dr Laura Bailey (Abi McLoughlin), the lecturer who explains the theory to us, has a simpler wish – to be able to see her daughter again.

We are Dr Bailey’s freshman class in Draper Hall, a housing estate community space in Elephant & Castle newly doubling as a performance venue run by veteran Italian polymath Stefania Bochicchio. The non-traditional space doesn’t have a lighting rig or backstage, so shows like this that defy theatrical conventions are a natural fit.

Closely resembling a lecture, this production takes time to get to its point but when it does, it breaks hearts. McLoughlin excels as the warm, enthusiastic Laura and utterly convinces as a scientist. Her gentle breakdown is a moving climax to a script as it begins to lose focus, with the attention shifting from equations and concepts to her own, personal story.

Dr Andrea Brunello’s script is science heavy, though it doesn’t matter if it’s understood or not. It takes awhile for the story to emerge from the lesson; though it doesn’t work if it’s earlier, this happens well after the question of what the performance’s point is arises. McLoughlin is fully engaging throughout even if it’s difficult to care about the content of the lecture.

The piece suits the space well, and takes a relaxed and accessible tone – a great choice for a south London council estate venue seeking to bring new audiences to theatre. An excellent performance in this a show that doesn’t feel like a show charms, educates, and provokes reflection on the important things in life.

The Principle of Uncertainty runs through 1 April 2017.

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.

My World Has Exploded a Little Bit, VAULT Festival

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by guest critic Michael Davis

My World Has Exploded a Little Bit is not your average show at the Vaults (or anywhere else for that matter). Developed in collaboration with director/dramaturg Donnacadh O’Briain, My World Has Exploded a Little Bit is Bella Heesom’s response to her parents’ deaths occurring within a few years of each other. That’s devastating at the best of times. For it to happen during your 20s will have a profound effect on one’s relationships and worldview.

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Save + Quit, VAULT Festival

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Joe and Steph are two lonely Londoners, and Cara and Dylan are dealing with grief in Dublin. The four young people, in two pairs of intertwined stories, disclose their anxieties and struggles in narrative monologues that are strong examples of moving storytelling. But they are only loosely linked thematically, and there is little that conveys a wider reason for placing these characters within the same work. The stories command attention as do the performances, but the question of why they are presented together never disappears.

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Be Prepared, JOAN, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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This year, four companies are receiving support from Underbelly to produce and market their latest work. Two of those are Milk Presents and Corner Shop Events, both offering solo performances but radically different in content and style. Each distinctive piece is vibrant and immediate, with moments of power and poignancy. Typical of new work at the fringe, both feel a bit rough and ready but they have a raw, honest emotionality that plucks the heartstrings.

Be Prepared transports the audience to a Quaker funeral for Mr Matthew Chambers, where a man who never actually met him has been invited to speak. Struggling with his own grief, writer/performer Ian Bonar takes on the awkward, unprepared man reduced to a child by his inner turmoil. The character’s biography interweaves with his unconventional encounters with Mr Chambers, spinning a muddled web of good intention that is sweetly moving and honest.

Bonar’s performance is excellent. There’s a simmering anxiety that drives him forward and erupts through the characters ideas that aren’t particularly well-thought through. His underlying focus on his father’s recent death is a constant presence that bubbles through his attempts to talk about Mr Chambers. His pace becomes more frenetic as his stories become increasingly muddled, though this textual choice occasionally interferes with understanding. The script has a seeping rawness that effectively captures the chaos of grief, though there are numerous loose ends that aren’t fully developed.

JOAN addresses rather different themes but has just as much intensity as Be Prepared. This modern Joan of Arc story resonates through it’s father/daughter relationship, and teenaged optimism and arrogance that backfires despite her intentions to save France. Her struggle with gender identity also gets hold of the audience’s empathy and doesn’t release its grip until the curtain call.

Lucy Jane Parkinson’s performance is exquisite. Joan’s hope, determination in the face of adversity and ultimate desperation is skilfully crafted by writer Lucy J Skilbeck. Parkinson fully embodies Joan’s emotional journey and has the audience in the palm of her hand from her initial impersonation of her father, to her final pleas for Saint Catherine’s help.

Though there is an element of drag in the show when Parkinson plays other characters, her depiction of Joan doesn’t come across as drag at all. The character is not sent up, and her struggle with taking on female behaviour and dress is wholly genuine.

Though JOAN is the stronger production of the two, Be Prepared is still a solid production with plenty of merit. Both are moving reflections of aspects of the human condition and powerful pieces of theatre in their own right.

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.