Hamlet Fool, Lion & Unicorn Theatre

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A lesson: always read press releases in full. Why? Because you might turn up to a show and discover it’s performed in Russian (when you don’t speak Russian). At least in this instance knowing the source material for Hamlet Fool, a one-woman street performance style retelling Shakespeare’s classic, provides a base knowledge.

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Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight, Ovalhouse

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Along with tickets, we are handed earplugs. Considering Christopher Brett Bailey’s first work This Is How We Die, I’m not surprised. A brilliant, relentless barrage of contemporary American myth followed by an encore of noise and light, Bailey isn’t known for doing things by halves, or even singular wholes. The slight, constantly startled-looking Canadian with gravity defying hair attacks performance making with the energy of a supernova. Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight has the same verve, but is otherwise a rather different beast. Whilst This Is How We Die was dominated by language, Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight has very few words – but the earplugs are definitely needed. This anthemic music and light show fills the room with sound, colour and vibration but is the difficult second album to This Is How We Die. Much more of a gig than a piece of theatre, it lacks the satisfaction of characters and narrative, even a hint of one. Bailey’s mind blowing poetry teases with a few tiny fragments, but otherwise leaves us desperately gagging for more of his words.

Though given earplugs, there is the choice of whether or not to use them. Notices state that the sound level is consistently over 100 decibels and that, “if you wear plugs the whole time you might compromise enjoyment of the show. and if you don’t wear them at all you will take home whistling ear canals”. Being one of those people sensitive to loud noises who constantly asks my other half to turn down the telly, I want to play it safe but I don’t want to miss out. So I opt for one plug in, with the other ready. This choice no doubt effects the experience – if I leave them out the whole time and feel discomfort, would I like the show less? Or would I like it more because it’s not actually ‘that’ loud? I use the plugs in response to the volume level – sometimes I have both in, sometimes none. It’s an interesting premise to consider that the experience and quality of the show hinges on these earplugs, adding an additional level of individual, subjective response.

Bailey’s voice, slow and unseen, repeats, “this is a hell dream” in a brief textual introduction. Violinist Alicia Jane Turner uses loop pedals to sculpt a cinematic score reminiscent of mid-90s rock anthems. Her work is wonderfully angry, sweeping and alive. George Percy and Bailey are both on guitar, forming a silhouetted triptych with Bailey soon in the middle – amongst the monolithic speakers and flight cases forming a brutalist, urban landscape, he cuts the figure of a scrappy dystopian overlord. It suits him. If this is what hell is like, it’s fucking glorious.

Behind each performer is a wooden panel of about a metre square made of deconstructed pianos and their strings. These are visually impressive structures in and of themselves; their music evokes the violence and community of tribalism. Combined with excellent sound-responsive lighting (that malfunctioned to the point that the show needing to be stopped briefly), the overall effect is one of epic, soul shaking community.

The title paired with the music evokes the American paradox of a friendly but violent people who love their guns as much as their families. The music’s scale captures the expanse and variation of the North American landscape, and the few words he shares on the experience of waking up from a nightmare to find the world unchanged darkly foreshadow Trump’s America. Whether or not this is an intentional message, it is certainly a powerful one.

Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight is certainly wide open to interpretation and shows Bailey’s ambition and range as a performer of work designed to push the senses to their extremes. His textual dexterity is certainly missed (particularly by the coked up, flailing pair of young women sat next to me commenting on how disappointing this work is compared to his first) and comparatively this piece is somewhat disappointing, but it absolutely has its merits as a visceral, “fuck you/I love you” performance piece.

Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight tours nationally through November.

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Fred Strangebone’s Freakshow, London Horror Festival

Freak Show by Chris BrockI’m watching Ben Whitehead play a socially inept Victorian playing a half-walrus/half-man creature, indicated by the wearing of a hooded grey sleeping bag, blue swimming flippers on his hands, and paper tusks precariously attached to his face with a false moustache. I’m pondering the life choices I’ve made that led me to this moment as well as whether or not the character-based stand up/absurd solo performance/live art/Victorian freakshow satire/old-fashioned variety show that unfolds before me is one of the greatest pieces of theatre I’ve ever encountered, or the worst. It may possibly be both. I still haven’t decided, and may not ever do so, let alone by the time I finish this review. Fred Strangebone’s Freakshow violently mashes up genres in a bizarre yet often-hilarious piece that manages to be both straightforward and bafflingly random.

Whitehead’s narrator Fred Strangebone cuts an imposing figure in a dinner suit, black shirt, and velvet bowtie. His rigidity and demeanor remind me of Lurch in the original The Addams Family series from the 1960s, but more well spoken and deadpan. Fred tells us exactly what’s going to happen: he will perform some comedy, then tell us a tale of unspeakable horror, and then, time permitting, he’s going to kill himself. His tale of unspeakable horror is more of a speakable mystery (so he says), where Strangebone goes to the freakshow and meets the walrus man and other oddities affiliated with the travelling show. These characters are a fantastic platform for accomplished voice actor Whitehead to get stuck into, and an enjoyably grotesque one at that. After a failed attempt to impress the freakshow to the point that they invite him to join them, he fulfills his initial promise…or does he? The meta-theatre from the stand-up clouds the levels of reality within Fred’s world.

Each of Whitehead’s creations could be a piece in itself, but he connects them through an overarching storyline. This structure could do with some work, as the narration between characters is often thin, with a tenuous link from one character to the next. The dwarfish property developer with pink wellies chewing on a cigar made of chorizo, whilst hilarious, only loosely fits into the established story. A scriptwriter or script consultant could have a positive influence on the story. His comedy is achingly funny, using absurdity and grotesque imagery to generate laughter mixed with disgust. Like when the demon bin-babies vomit all over mute clown cleaner, Sid, after he breast-feeds them to a monstrous soundtrack. (That was another one of those existential moments for me I mentioned earlier.)

Despite the rough structure and the script with predetermined characters crowbarred in, Whitehead has a fantastic sense for the absurdly funny and Fred Strangebone’s Freakshow manages to pay homage to several earlier popular performance forms – including the freakshow (obviously), variety, cabaret and travelling circus. There’s some audience participation, but the piece is more presentational than interactive. The event is a baffling, bizarre and uniquely wonderful one that refuses to be classified into one particular performance genre and certainly a one-of-a-kind contribution to the London Horror Festival this year.


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