Den, Shoreditch Town Hall

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by guest critic Rebecca JS Nice

After working on Tristan Sharps’ Absent at The Shoreditch Town Hall in 2015, I have been given an education in the building’s rich maze of ballrooms and basements, shiny bars and crusty corridors, peeling paint and underground nooks and crannies that both delight and disorientate in equal measure. Dream Think Speak Company did just that, honouring the architecture of the building in a site specific work that set a precedent for work to come. As the evening of May 4th unfolds it seems that Cass Arts are unaware of their sophisticated forbears when they claim to produce “site-specific performances and installations on the themes of secrecy and disguise” in Den. As contemporary immersive theatre expands from the spectacle of Punch Drunk to the intimacy of Sheila Ghelani, Cass Arts have widely missed the context in which they have placed themselves.

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The Lock In, VAULT Festival

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It’s St Patrick’s Day at an Irish pub in London. We’ve been there for awhile, but the night is young. There’s a five-strong band more focused on arguing the facts of Irish history than playing music. This becomes the story – drunken frontman Eamonn (Ian Horgan) attempts to tell us the story of the venerable saint. Numerous diversions, interaction, songs and plenty of banter follows a convoluted path through the power of storytelling, national identity and the veracity of history.

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Ionesco/Dinner at the Smiths’, Latvian House

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By guest critic Archie Whyld

On arriving at the front door of Latvian House I am by a very smart, besuited Italian butler who refuses to let me in and won’t really give me a clear reason as to why. Had the performance begun? He suggests I get a drink at the bar in the basement but won’t allow me to take the most obvious and direct route to said bar; instead I use the tradesman’s outdoor, wrought iron steps entrance. The bar seems to be in Riga, Latvia, what with all its eastern Europe chic. I stand at the bar waiting to order. No one comes. Meanwhile Latvian drinkers enjoy interesting looking beers, chat in hushed tones and completely ignore me. I stand, thirsty, with multi-coloured disco ball lights streaking across my face. Is this all part of the performance? Or am I in a dream?

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Hotel Europe, The Green Rooms

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As populism rises and fascists are tightening national borders with physical walls and stricter immigration regulations, the revolution is gaining speed. Protests and rallies are the most prominent forms of activism, but there is a growing movement in DIY and small actions.

Theatre isn’t standing by, either. In five of the bedrooms at the recently opened hotel for artists The Green Rooms, Isley Lynn and Philipp Ehmann have installed binaural radio drama performances telling stories of migration. With each story by a different writer, solo listeners are treated to intimate, personal accounts of characters impacted by migration. Quietly subversive, each story snapshots a changing world and the vulnerable people affected by the right wing’s knee-jerk, xenophobic reaction.

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We Are Ian, VAULT Festival

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by guest critic Martin Pettitt

We enter into a long damp and dingy chamber, in the distance there is a flashing screen with 3 sets of legs beneath, feet bedecked in shoes with multi-coloured lights, gyrating and popping to the pronounced beat of the music. The screen blinks with various versions of the words: We Are Ian. In terms of stage set, that was it apart from a bulb hanging from the ceiling and a vast amount of digestive biscuits.

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Howl, Rosemary Branch Theatre

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With Halloween becoming more and more popular this side of the pond, horror theatre and live events are proliferating. The London Horror Festival is bigger than ever, new scare attractions appear all over the country every year and independent events like Frissonic’s Howl expand the otherworldly and terrifying offers for thrill seekers this time of year. A site specific, immersive performance for an audience of six, Howl is a considered, effective performance that induces plenty of jumps. Though the story of a disappeared sister and mysterious voices is patchy, it is well delivered, and combines audience manipulation with technology to create a delightfully creepy event.

The choice of a small audience generates fear from the beginning – there is less protection with fewer people, particularly when paranormal investigator Rory places us on isolated chairs around a large, long-abandoned storage room. We are there to help Rory look into a something he heard when he was recently alone in the theatre, and we use sound to try evoke it again. Wireless headphones, increasing pace and anxiety, and customised audio content create heavy tension and uncertainly ripe for scares.

The ending in a different room is too rushed and betrayed by the lack of a full blackout. Though there is a clear resolution, the reasoning leading up to that point is never fully explained. How does this voice connect to Rory’s sister who disappeared all those years ago? How did we find him and decide we want to help? Rory is very much a character of the present, but frustratingly little of his past is revealed.

Frissonic nail the scares in Howl with their tech and small-audience approach, but adding flesh to the skeletal story will hugely improve it. Currently running at 40 minutes, another 15 or 20 minutes of text will make this feel more theatrical and less reliant on the scares.

Howl runs through 31 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.

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.

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.