My Country; a work in progress, Theatre Royal Stratford East

https://cdn.thestage.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/10165417/My-Country-Dorfman-51.jpg

After 52% of 72% of the British voting population voted to leave the EU, Rufus Norris’s concern that London theatre was out of touch with the majority of British people drove him to launch a nationwide project of listening. He sent a team of ‘gatherers’ to all corners of these sceptered isles, and they collected 70 interviews from people up and down the country. The transcriptions combined with text by Carol Ann Duffy gave birth to My Country; a work in progress.

Continue reading

Hotel Europe, The Green Rooms

https://cdn.thestage.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Building-exterior-LOW-RES-700x455.png

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.

Continue reading

Remember to Breathe, Equations for a Moving Body, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

https://s3.amazonaws.com/wos-photos-production/107110.jpg

Two women, in two different shows set on opposite sides of the world, swim as if their lives depend on it. One is training for an ironman-length triathlon, the other never learnt to swim and is doing so to overcome a fear of water. Equations for a Moving Body is Hannah Nicklin’s solo performance telling the story of her decision to complete an ironman and the research she did to discover what would happen to her body as she trains. Remember to Breathe follows fictional Maeve away from the safety of family and a secure job in Ireland, to world travels that eventually find her in New Zealand. Though Hannah and Maeve approach swimming completely differently, the sport shapes who they are and how they deal with obstacles that come their way.

Maeve and her kiwi husband Grant are back in Ireland when the Christchurch earthquake hits. The Celtic Tiger has been and gone, and their business is struggling so they decide to head to the southern hemisphere to help rebuild. It’s here that Maeve discovers a pool in the wreckage, staffed by the relentlessly perky Doreen. In that pool, Maeve gently catalogues her life through her relationship to her father. He and Doreen fade in and out again like memories in this quiet, reflective piece on family and finding your place in the world.

Liz Fitzgibbon as Maeve has a calm strength and enigmatic presence. This everywoman of a character with relatable struggles trying to find peace is a reassuring story to witness, though the lack of outright conflict between characters makes for a sleepy pace.

Julie Sharkey as Doreen and David Heap has Maeve’s earthy, grounded father are great foils constructed by writer Orla Murphy. As well as Maeve’s personal journey that she comes to terms with through swimming, there’s a pointed throughline of the effects of the economy on the common man – a clever inclusion making the script universally relevant.

Maeve swims and came to it in her adult life, but Hannah is a swimmer and has been doing so since she was four. Hannah explains the difference between “I swim” and “I’m a swimmer” and the role goals and life events have in shaping one’s identity. Her decision to complete an ironman in the year she turned 30 becomes a part of who she is and how she lives her life, and Equations for a Moving Body is the moving story of the ups and downs of pushing your body to its limits.

The most engaging focus of Hannah’s story is the people she meets along her training journey. She has a gift for making John, Tom and the various scientists she meets along the way come alive, even if they only feature for brief moments. These encounters provide landmarks that make her story stand out from anyone else’s and excellent focal points of her narrative structure.

The story’s climax is the triathlon, with peaks and troughs that are magnified versions of those in her training. It’s a hugely satisfying and emotional end to a story of struggle, grief and triumph. Those who aren’t much for sport or fitness who find her initial goal baffling are on side at by the finish line.

Nicklin uses live internet use to support her story and add a visual element to the production. Though simple, it’s a great choice. These are almost all accompanied by her narrative, though one section is poignant in its silence and elucidates the source of the show’s name.

Hannah cements her sense of self through her training and its end goal, and Maeve finally finds the peace she is searching for. Both productions are lovely, if very different stories of personal discovery at Summerhall.

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.

Rotterdam, Trafalgar Studios

https://i0.wp.com/johnnyfox.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/for-webIMG_2634-700x455.jpg

No one stays long in Rotterdam. Boats, goods and people are always on the move in and out of the Dutch port city. Alice is an exception, an English immigrant whose ship washed ashore seven years ago and never took to sea again. She doesn’t like the city, but neither does she want to leave. Her ex-boyfriend Josh came with her, but after meeting his sister Fiona, Alice realised she was gay and left Josh for Fi. The women set up home in Rotterdam, couched in comfortable, domestic bliss for the last several years. Now a few nights before New Year’s Eve, Alice agonises over a coming out email to her parents back home. As she’s about to click send, Fi has her own coming out – she’s not a gay woman, she’s a man called Adrian trapped in a woman’s body.

Alice’s secure life begins to come loose from its moorings as she tries to support Adrian’s transition. Her brave face can only hold up for so long as she is left in his wake in Jon Brittain’s Rotterdam. The fragility of their relationship is much more moving than any televised exposé for the masses. Even though some scenes are a touch overwritten, the ebb and flow of this delicate situation is exquisitely captured.

Brittain’s use of perfectly balanced perspectives makes it impossible to take sides as Adrian and Alice’s issues become increasingly at odds – a commendable decision that’s difficult to execute in writing. Both are inherently self-absorbed, and both have genuine grievances with the other. The nuance in the storyline lies in their interactions, and two minor characters provide a wider view of their microcosm that feels devastatingly huge. All four characters have quietly powerful speeches and moments where they try to understand each other despite their needs being at odds with someone else’s experience. These characters are wonderfully flawed humans trying their best to navigate an unfamiliar situation; Brittain’s ability to foster audience empathy through their spectrum of emotions and occasional bad behaviour is spot on.

Alice McCarthy and Anna Martine as Alice and Fi/Adrian are phenomenal. Jessica Clark is Lelani, Alice’s much younger, distracting lesbian colleague full of energy, life and good intentions. Ed Eales-White as Josh has a lovely, quiet patience and dogged determination to stick by the couple even though he had been hurt so badly all those years ago.

Though some moments are a bit overly explanatory about family relationships and trans experience, they are easily forgiven in light of the fully believable characters. Though this isn’t an “awareness” piece per say, the humanity and insight into transgender transition Rotterdam provides is hugely important and valuable.

Rotterdam runs through 27th July.

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.

 

Cargo, Arcola Theatre

Cargo at the Arcola Theatre, Milly Thomas, Jack Gouldbourne and Debbie Korley,  Photo by Mark Douet

Civil war is raging in the formerly united, newly named Kingdom. Loyalists and rebels have divided up the charred, frightened remains. Religious fundamentalism and capital punishment are the law of the land. There are furtive rumours of a better life across the channel, and there are regular passages to Calais. Money can buy passports, or if you don’t have any of that, there are people who will help you stow away as Cargo that you can pay later. But safety isn’t a given once you’re on board. The holds of these ships are dark and full of desperate people with shady pasts and their own agendas, and a lot can happen in an 80-minute crossing. Tess Berry-Hart’s script is as much a thriller as it is rousing political theatre, and the diverse cast of four effectively capture a snapshot of the population effected by this tragedy. Though the story is overly convoluted by truths and lies, Cargo provides a timely reminder, like other refugee-themed work at the moment, that we are all human beings in need of a safe and secure life.

Joey (Millie Thomas) is there with her younger brother Iz (Jack Gouldbourne). They’re from the loyalist-controlled docks and have lost everything. Joey’s shrewd and resourceful, Iz is an optimistic innocent who dreams of being a waiter and is the only genuinely nice person on board. Gouldbourne is totally believable as the tween who sees the good in everyone, and is nicely balanced by Thomas’ maternal defensiveness. They meet Sarah (Debbie Korley), an elusive northerner played with brilliant intensity. John Schwab is the slippery American Kayffe, who’s ever-changing biography hides horrific experiences. Berry-Hart never fully reveals the objective truths of the world around them, which is frustrating but leaves plenty to the imagination. The fates of these people are a great unknown in a world where desperation forces people to solely look out for themselves.

Tense from the onset from fear of discovery, anxiety builds quickly though there’s little to do except wait to arrive. These characters have seen so many horrors that relaxing is impossible and anyone could be the enemy. The script is conversational, yet guarded, as the characters attempt to get to know each other. Barry-Hart incorporates believable conflict into the narrative that director David Mercatali approaches with varying pace. The unresolved ending is unsatisfying, but no doubt realistic.

The design team Max Dorey (set), Christopher Nairne (lighting) and Max Pappenheim (sound) create an immersive environment of simple pallets and packaging. The boat is a constant aural presence and the seating, whilst as uncomfortable as the play’s circumstances, is probably pretty accurate. The design exquisitely works together with Mercatali to destabilise the audience; married with the script’s uncertainties it is a most unsettling effect.

Cargo could still use some refining and clarity in order to allow the audience to take in the experience without focusing on following the veracity of the character’s experiences, especially towards the end. Despite this small issue, or really because of it, the experience feels all the more truthful to refugee experience. Even though the concept of re-contextualising it to British people is not new, it is certainly effective. Like other plays on the topic, it humanises displaced people, their need for sanctuary and their vulnerability to exploitation. If theatre repeats these messages enough, the world might start to listen.

Cargo runs through 6 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.

First Love is the Revolution, Soho Theatre

https://i2.wp.com/exeuntmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/love5.jpgRomeo and Juliet gets a modern, interspecies remix by Rita Kalnejais in the south London-set First Love is the Revolution. Awkward, lonely Basti (James Tarpey) is trying to make the best of his teen years in a broken home when he meets Rdeca (Emily Burnett), a sassy fox cub hunting on her own for the first time. With Rdeca’s family not the most functional either, the two black sheep find solace in each other when they discover they understand each other’s speech. Using a bold metaphor for the deliberate choice to alienate or accept of The Other, this urban adventure through back gardens and fox dens is simultaneously funny, brave and disturbing, whilst excellently performed and with writing that keeps the audience on its toes.

The cast of six with a 50/50 gender split is also commendably diverse in age and ethnicity. Hayley Carmichael leads the pack as the fox family’s fierce matriarch. Tarpey and Burnett are the only cast members who do not play multiple roles, though the skill in these young actors is evident in their charming chemistry. Lucy McCormack of performance art acclaim plays a wide array of roles from Rdeca’s hyper but affectionate sister, to the neighbourhood cat that taunts thuggish guard dog Rovis (Samson Kayo) and the prozzie who lives upstairs from Basti. Basti’s dad (Simon Kunz) who wants his meek son to uphold the fighting, womanizing “ideal man” is also Gregor mole and a delightfully gossipy old hen in a cardigan, tweed skirt and wellies on a never ending search for grass seed. Director Steve Marmion’s choice to use animalistic physicalities is just enough of a reminder that not everyone in this play is human, but the movement is not so overpowering that it interferes with the characters’ relationships.

Anthony Lamble’s set design is almost post-apocalyptic; it is certainly grim enough to reinforce the lack of comfort in all of the characters’ lives, human or animal. Human domesticity precariously sits on rolling black slopes that the actors nimbly climb over and tunnels they scurry through. Philip Gladwell’s lighting smoothly morphs through sunsets and sunrises that dictate the wild rhythm of Rdeca and Basti’s all-night adventures.

Kalnejais’ use of the animal/human relationship is a lovely idea, with Basti paralleling the open minds of those willing to see The Other as themselves; he is a citizen opening his home to a refugee rather than labeling her as a pest. The concept harks back to ancient fables and folktales, connecting our often-disconnected present from the rich heritage of our storytelling past. However, whilst I certainly don’t believe she is advocating bestiality, it is the first thing that springs to mind when Basti and Rdeca are caught in a compromising position. It’s not revolutionary, just gross. Maybe it makes me a prude, but I find fox and human sex damages the metaphor rather than reinforces it.

Regardless of acts that would have the RSPCA up in arms, this is a stunning production in Soho Theatre’s main house that brings the emotional scale of Shakespeare to modern day London, with a visceral fervor that celebrates the magic of young love and accepting those that are different from us.


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 PayPal.

The Gastronomical Comedy, Cockpit Theatre

whatthehell_pressNew writing based on classical literature, with the audience being served Italian food as part of the performance, sounds like a cracking way to spend an evening. The Gastronomical Comedy tells Dante’s story as he tries to be an actor in London but ends up working in his wife’s uncle’s restaurant, The Inferno, to pay the bills. It’s a timeless story of artistic struggle meant to parallel Dante Alighieri’s journey through hell, though the connection between the two stories was tenuous at best as the modern day Dante didn’t encounter particularly difficult opposition to his dreams. Despite good performances, it’s a concept that is good in principle but feels very much like a work-in-progress in need of quite a lot of script development before being a completed piece of theatre.

Paolo Serra’s script co-written with Jud Charlton and Gian Sessarego is quick and choppy, too brief to allow the story to unfold at a realistic pace but neither is it episodic. Dante quickly gets a role in a profit-share show, he easily finds a day job, and his wife gives him a bit of grief but nothing major. The play runs at just over an hour, but this is too short for the time frame covered and character journeys contained in it. Dante is the active hero of the story rather than Alighieri’s passive observer and some comedy and magic opens the evening, which although fun, doesn’t contribute to Dante’s story. As for the food, there was plenty of it served by an onstage waiter-magician to select ticket holders who got several courses of food at onstage tables. Some other audience members received samples of pesto pasta from Dante’s frantic on-stage kitchen, but the rest were unlucky. Disappointing, as it smelled fantastic.

The performances are good though. Sessarego is the optimistic but poor Dante who left his wife in Italy to pursue an acting career. Two additional performers, Jud Charlton and Louise Lee, play several other characters in Dante’s life. These people are extremely heightened, which could clash with Sessarego’s naturalism but effectively draws attention to his foreignness. Charlton’s fringe theatre director who casts Dante in an adaptation of The Divine Comedy is particularly good, as is Lee as Dante’s wife Patricia who the audience mostly sees through projected skype calls.

Set was a chair and a metal trolley for the kitchen, not helping the incomplete feel of the production. There are some well-designed projections and music in Dante’s restaurant, The Inferno, which helped combat the sparseness of the script. The performances also help alleviate the lack of substance, but for The Gastronomical Comedy to really push boundaries of genre and create a food/theatre performance event, the script needs to follow through with several courses rather than try to get by with a predictable starter and a side salad.


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.