Dark Vanilla Jungle, Theatre N16

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Andrea isn’t very well. In solitary confinement at some sort of secure facility, she has no one to talk to other than those who briefly visit and those who live in her head. It’s likely the audience is the latter, as her monologue reveals the story of a young woman unstoppably desperate to love and be loved. This desperate runs so deep that she conjures a past relationship with a vegetative amputee she encounters in passing at a hospital, and goes on to do Very Bad Things that land her in this facility.

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Made in India, Soho Theatre

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@hannahnicklin: Since reading this I keep on thinking in quiet moments ‘women are raped nightly so I can have tomatoes in winter’

We know we exploit foreign workers for cheap goods, because we’re liberal and aware. But does that stop us? Largely, no – because we can’t afford to. I buy my clothes from Primark and my fruit and veg from the stalls that line Peckham Rye because I work in the arts and I’m poor. I don’t give any thought to where they come from in the transactional moment, but am righteously moved by articles like the one above that Hannah Nicklin tweeted. Sure, this makes me a hypocrite. But I need only to look at the other people also shopping on Sunday mornings to reinforce that I am far from alone. Most of my fellow “liberal elites” (educated, urban and left leaning) are the same, and centuries of imperialism (obviously white, male and western-led) have established the systems that the whole of society (including the liberal factions) implicitly condones through consumerism.

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Hearing Things, VAULT Festival

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by guest critic Martin Pettitt

The subject of mental health and its lack of provision in the NHS is a hot issue and one I am close to myself. The recent announcements by the government of further plans and funding to tackle the problem have been met with skepticism from those in the profession. Hearing Things is a show that sets out to show how these issues are played out at ground level and how they affect those that manage and use mental health services on a day-to-day basis. Through extensive research and workshopping, the piece follows a handful of characters as they attempt to traverse the potholes of their own, and others, mental health issues.

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He(art), Theatre N16

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Chalk and cheese Alice and Rhys debate whether to purchase a painting in an art gallery. Simultaneously, siblings Kev and Sam hatch a plan to fund a life-saving procedure for their ill mum that the NHS won’t cover. Running at just over an hour, writer Andrew Maddock fits in the nature of art and its criticism, public health, social class, poverty and loyalty across two very different sets of characters in the same neighbourhood. It’s a lot for 65 minutes and whilst it’s not enough time to fully explore these themes, the play doesn’t feel crowded. Though the direction and performances are intuitive and finely tuned, Maddock’s outstanding verse poetry and use of non-naturalism is sorely missed in this surprising diversion from his trademark style.

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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 Inevitable Heartbreak of Gavin Plimsole, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Gavin Plimsole is a good enough guy. A bit geeky and nervous but well-meaning, maybe even a bit endearing if you like that sort of thing. After he receives a life-altering diagnosis from the cardiologist and realises his days are numbered, the audience (who have all strapped into heart monitors before the show begins), get to decide his fate. Part choose-your-own adventure, part poignant tale of grief morning people and times long lost, The Inevitable Heartbreak of Gavin Plimsole is a messy but touching reminder to make the most of every moment.

An ever-present projection of the audience members heartbeats overlays three energetic performers and a changing landscape of cardboard boxes. Gavin’s the sort that stores his life in tattered boxes labelled with masking tape, and these boxes now contain relics from his life. They aren’t particularly interesting, but a garden shed with a wonderful contraption that releases a large marble down a slide and into a box every 500 collective heartbeats, is ramshackle but dynamic. It cleverly represents our perpetual approach towards death with a drawn out clattering and eventual silence – a dying person’s last breaths.

Gavin monologues most of his thoughts; there are some interruptions by spunky, supporting actors that help break up the speeches but more of these would be welcome. A wiry (literally, as in made of wires) puppet makes one appearance and is similarly underused – a remarkable creature! The structure is understandable chaos that mirrors the the first couple of days after devastating news, though clearer transitions and a distinct style will help make sense of this emotional journey.

The use of the heart monitors and audience interaction unites the audience and performers, creating intimacy and empathy. It’s a sad story that manages to foster hope instead of gloom, and within the clutter there’s a lot of heart.

The Inevitable Heartbreak of Gavin Plimsole 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.

Hardy Animal, Battersea Arts Centre

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What happens when a dancer and performance maker loses the ability to dance due to chronic pain? She makes a solo dance piece with hardly any dance in it. A mix of emotive description, encounters with medical and health practitioners, and her own research tell the story of an injury and the subsequent pain that wouldn’t leave her body. Pointedly still and so quiet that she needs a mic, Laura Dannequin’s resilience makes a compelling piece of solo storytelling that mourns the dances her body wouldn’t allow her to make.

An impassioned monologue about all of the dances she wants to create is followed by a voiceover describing her dancing, whilst Dannequin stands perfectly still. Though her expression gives away nothing, she exudes a sense of loss; the simplicity and contrast between aural and visual imagery are captivating and heavy with grief. A sequence of small flexing movements of her bare back against a litany of treatments and diagnoses she sought from all over the world creates a similar effect, this one with added existentialism and frustration with a medical community that still knows precious little about the human body and its mechanisms. It’s captivating viewing in its simplicity.

Much of the piece examines Dannequin’s relationship with her body and her pain. It becomes a separate entity that she confronts with a range of emotions and dogged research to understand why hers is so persistent. There’s a scientific lecture on types of pain and her own educated theories, but like the rest of her piece’s components, there’s an emotional undercurrent that carries her words. A cathartic climax celebrates her mysterious recovery and the overarching effect is one of beauty and wonder.

Dannequin miraculously withholds the anger she is more than entitled to feel, instead she shares a grounded story of bodily rebellion imbued with emotion and strength. Hardy Animal is a piece of simple, quiet beauty that doesn’t let itself be bogged down with science or negativity.

Hardy Animal ran from 28-29 April and tours regularly.

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.