Counting Sheep, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

https://i.guim.co.uk/img/media/23913cc392a98f67736cd3cdca806a6774c8940b/0_0_2048_1363/master/2048.jpg?w=620&q=55&auto=format&usm=12&fit=max&s=1feba80ccb7ff150a5842abd1e15ee76

Just over two years ago, a revolution in Kiev ushered in the downfall of the Ukranian government. Protests against the government’s refusal to sign pro-EU legislation lasting months had several violent outbursts that saw hundred of people injured and 780 killed. Toronto-based Ukrainian musician Marichka Kudriavtseva, in Kiev for work at the time, joined the protesters where she met Mark Marczyk, also based in Canada.

When the two returned from the Ukraine, they teamed up with Marczyk’s Lemon Bucket Orkestra to create Counting Sheep, an immersive “guerrilla folk opera”. A celebration of solidarity and the power of a collective voice, it also mourns those who died in the protests. Told from the perspective of the protesters, little is shared from the other side – but this rallying performance is fitting homage to not just the Ukranian protesters, but those fighting government tyranny around the world.

Some audience sit around a huge table, whilst others sit on the sides of the space and still others up in a balcony. Klezmer or folk music is playing as the audience enters; there is a convivial atmosphere as the show formally starts. This is a party, or a wedding, or some other huge gathering, until the three screens display news reports of riots and police enter. The tone abruptly shifts, and the world that has been established is dismantled. It’s a wonderful, unsettling surprise.

The space is consistently reformed and redrawn using movement, and the audience is physically moved in the wake of the protesters’ gains and losses. They are willing and unquestioning, the sheep of the title. Though the numbers here obviously pale to those at the actual protest, but incorporating the audience in acts such a building barricades and lobbing bricks at police fosters unity from disparate dozens. There is a hint of the solidarity and aggression found in protests, and joy and celebration from the audience who are keen to play. Being served food is also an important enabler that solidifies the unity the show aims to create.

Counting Sheep is hugely effective in its emotional manipulation, and also it’s storytelling through music, movement and projections. Choosing sheep as a metaphor is a curious choice, though. The benign but rather dumb livestock aren’t known for thinking for themselves and are susceptible to herding – otherwise, they wander around unproductively, getting lost and eaten by predators. Whilst the performers are the herders here, they are also in sheep masks, unempowered. Who then are the herders? The government? Unseen forces of political and social unrest? Whatever it is, us human beings are hugely susceptible to it when motivated enough, even if the metaphor isn’t totally clear.

Though sung completely in Ukranian, there is a clear storyline conveyed through projections and movement. There is little nuance in this piece, but it a playground for the sweeping emotions of popular theatre. It provides at least a hint of the experience that the Ukranian protesters endured, and powerfully unites the audience through the humanity of collective experience for a common goal. An excellent piece of theatre.

Counting Sheep 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.

A Fool’s Paradise, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

rsz_shakespeare-in-ecn

“Americans can’t do Shakespeare,” joke the five women from A Fool’s Paradise.

The self-deprecating, all-female company of players from Baltimore boot that myth out of the theatre with relish. Having learnt 45 scenes, speeches and moments from Shakespeare’s cannon, they promise to perform 30 of them in 60 minutes or else one of the actors gets a pie in the face.

In this delightfully raucous hour, the audience chooses what the actors perform from a bingo card that adds play to their autonomy, and they’re encouraged to take photos as well. The performances are a mix of styles, from emotionally committed and realistic through to outrageous slapstick. Some stick to Shakespeare’s text, some eschew it all together. Some use audience volunteers, some use props. The range is reminiscent of variety, vaudeville and US-style improvisation shows, creating a wonderful mix of theatrical traditions. It’s part-game show and part-celebration of Shakespeare teetering on the edge of total chaos. The atmosphere becomes wonderfully Elizabethan, with the actor/audience and actor/character boundaries heavily blurred.

Kids get involved in order to fill their bingo cards and win sweets, adults are swept away by playful joy. The performers’ response rate is lightening fast and each of them plays about a dozen or so roles. It’s a fantastic display of improvisation, multi-rolling, ensemble and physical skill, and the company are warm and charismatic, sharing enthusiasm rather than alienating through an acrobatic display of Shakespeare knowledge. The material isn’t all from his most popular plays, either – they include histories and the late romances though not all of the scenes include context, which makes it a challenge for even the most Shakespeare-familiar to keep up.

It’s a shame they aren’t here for the whole festival as it promises to be different each night and the exuberance of the company is a delightful celebration of Shakespeare’s greatest moments.

A Fool’s Paradise runs through 12th 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.

The Inevitable Heartbreak of Gavin Plimsole, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

https://theplaysthethinguk.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/05b71-gavin2bplimsole2b252812529.jpg?w=600&h=400

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.

One Under, Vault Festival

rsz_img_6902[1]

Amy Fleming’s dad committed suicide when she was four years old. Fleming struggles with mood swings and wonders if she’s “mental,” like her dad. Luckily, she studied Molecular Medicine before becoming an actor so she understands how genetics dictates our characteristics. She also knows that talking about our problems and developing positive habits helps us overcome them. Combining her science and performance backgrounds, Fleming’s One Under is part conversational lecture, part interactive game. She relies on narration, humour and audience involvement to share her message, but the piece as a whole feels unfinished. It’s a nice idea, but it lacks theatricality and detail.

There’s no character, just Fleming and her generally cheerful honesty. She relaxes the audience straight away and easily facilitates discussion. After a frank introduction about her childhood and how genes are passed from parents to child; there’s some framing by her biography and a multi-round game/quiz with easily answerable mental health questions. These two elements aren’t solidly connected to each other, and the piece’s message isn’t spelled out until the very end. Structurally, it’s weak. By that point though, the message is less interesting that the journey we took to get there and the camaraderie that emerges en route.

This solo show isn’t very theatrical, but it’s lovely for its warm cuddliness and playful approach to form. Fleming is clearly passionate about helping people improve their quality of life and their mental health, which is a commendable mission. Her openness and her anti-performance make me feel uncomfortable writing any sort of negative judgement – it’s such a personal piece. But at an hour long, glossing over parts of her past with some audience debate over quiz questions about how to approach mental health issues at work, there’s a noticeable lack of depth.

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.

Shakespeare as You (Might) Like It, Rosemary Branch Theatre

rsz_b551c7178d1c33dd1b480aca6c14387c3b89b05f2301913df15fd10fc38737bf

Four hundred years ago this April, Shakespeare died. A bunch of academics decided to take advantage of this bizarre anniversary and launched Shakespeare 400. It’s a great excuse for a nationwide Shakespeare celebration, but few of the involved events appear to acknowledge that the celebration is of his death and that he most definitely would write no more. Shook Up Shakespeare hasn’t let this fact bypass them, though. Their 45-minute Shakespearian cabaret mash up, Shakespeare As You (Might) Like It, is a quad centenary wake celebrating some of the Bard’s best female roles and the chaotic spirit of Elizabethan and Jacobean performance conventions.

Performer/creators Roseanna Morris and Helen Watkinson energetically and easily flip from Shakespeare’s verse to contemporary audience banter. Their show doesn’t have a plot, but involves party games, cakes, wine, singing and audience interaction as well as some cracking excerpts. In the intimate Rosemary Branch Theatre, it’s hard to hide but after the initial refreshments, party bags and taking a register, it feels more like a group of friends out for a laugh so people willingly volunteer. There’s a hint of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) but with less structure, though it doesn’t feel like it needs it at such a short length.

Morris and Watkinson, as well as being friendly, charismatic and unintimidating, are excellent performers. They perform three scenes and at a push, the Desdemona/Emilia scene is the best but the other two are still fantastically endowed with a seemingly-easy commitment. Though not the best of singers, they confidently carry the Willow song. They switch their tone on a pin, which is truly lovely to watch.

Shakespeare As You (Might) Like It is their debut show as a company and as fun as it is, it could use some developing. With more material it will probably need more shaping and a more clearly outlined purpose/message, but Morris and Watkinson are natural talents with clear passion for sharing Shakespeare’s work with joy rather than quiet reverence.

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.

Town Hall Cherubs, Battersea Arts Centre

rsz_c_alex_brenner_strictly_no_usage_without_credit_town_hall_cherubs__battersea_arts_centre__dsc5380

Dear Town Hall Cherubs,

I know we only met yesterday afternoon but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you since then. Concentrating at work today has been really hard – I couldn’t wait to leave so I could pen this missive, and I’ve been fighting the tiredness that comes with broken sleep filled with golden apples, inflatable little friends, snow and glitter. I’m off somewhere else tonight, but I’m still smiling at the memories of your gentle journey of discovery around Battersea Arts Centre. I’d love to keep you all to myself, but your warm, generous nature shouldn’t be caged, nor is it fair of me to prevent others, young and old, from experiencing the wonderful joy you evoke. So here’s a review for you to share with families far and wide:

❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄

The first generation of immersive theatre fans are growing up. The twenty-somethings who discovered Punchdrunk in their early days are 30-somethings. Now immersed in nappies and temper tantrums as well as non-traditional theatre, these new parents will have high expectations of children’s theatre. Pros arch, run-of-the-mill theatre isn’t enough for them, or their progeny. Fortunately, that first wave of immersive theatre makers is also starting families of their own. Merging interactive, immersive and promenade theatre to create a site-specific adventure for 2-5 year olds, Theatre Ad Infinitum and Sarah Golding from Battersea Arts Centre team up to create children’s show Town Hall Cherubs, a winter adventure that brings the building’s distinctive architecture to life among a landscape of sensory-focused design elements.

Dani (Danielle Marshall) gently rallies a group of children, parents and early years teachers in a cozy corner next to the BAC’s grand staircase. Soothing music and colouring in a drawing of a cherub warms the children to her before they head up the stairs to a discovery on the landing. They find a cherub (joyful and wide eyed Barra Collins) and a fabric garland that continues their music-accompanied journey through several rooms; each contains interactive, sturdy set and design. My favourite is a room full of “little friends”, inflatable blobs by Amy Pennington that the children can dance and climb cardboard mounts with, roll, cuddle and any other imaginative play they can create. The children also discover a giant kaleidoscope by Ted Barnes and Amy Pitt, and a replica of the BAC staircase that Deborah Pugh brings to life as Sarah, a dragon-seahorse creature that’s scared of falling down.

Though the kids won’t notice or care, the moral tacked onto the end feels unnecessarily teacher-y, and Cherub’s plan to go on an adventure and then return home could have been clearer at the beginning. These tiny potential improvements certainly don’t detract from the quiet, calming joy of the event.

This isn’t a high energy, raucous performance. It’s intimate, gentle and encouraging with the pace dictated by the group. As an adult without a child there, it was a joy to observe the children’s reactions to their discoveries and freedom to engage with their new surroundings without fear. It’s a powerful reminder to notice the tiny details around us and enjoy the pleasure of experiencing something new beyond our regular routines.

❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄

Thank you again, Town Hall Cherubs, for having me along on your gorgeous little adventure.


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 Devil Without, London Horror Festival

rsz_1devilHiding in a room above a pub in Camden, John is on the run from an archdemon that he initially believed was the angel Madimi, with whom he did a dodgy deal for his soul. This archdemon is so powerful that being in his presence is enough to kill a mortal. But don’t worry, everyone is safe as long as we follow John’s instructions and don’t go through the door. Arcane symbols and a circle of salt help protect us from harm, as does his wisdom and hundreds of years of life experience. We are there for a workshop of sorts, to learn how to augment our realities through the power of the liminal space that exists between realities and just happen to be caught up in the demon chase, so the audience must sign a waiver before entering the theatre. Part séance, part hypnotism show, part magic and part theatre, The Devil Without seamlessly merges genres and the occult in a frighteningly unpredictable show loaded with audience interaction.

It’s difficult to say much about this show’s details without giving away the elements that generate the near-constant surprise and suspense, but there is a storyline and a structure that definitely makes this a piece of highly effective theatre. Ian Harvey-Stone plays the character of the 500-year-old immortal, performing feats of mind control and magic that rely on audience participation, including four people taken on an out-of-body journey to see if it’s safe to emerge from the room. There are also guided meditations that are meant to reduce phobias and demonstrate the power of our own minds, which are uncomfortably successful. It’s certainly impressive as Harvey-Stone manages to fully convinces and disarms the audience. Logically I believe what he does must be trickery involving audience plants, but he’s so convincing that the seeds of doubts are there, especially with Harvey-Stone’s assurance that they aren’t and the show changes nightly – could it be real? After all, “magic features the power of words…speak something and it exists,” says John. This uncertainty contributes to the scare factor of the show; we are unsettled when logic cannot explain an occurrence.

Smoothly directed by John-David Henshaw, the use of light and sound emphasizes the paranormal with resonant tones and pulsing lights. Henshaw’s direction combined with Harvey-Stone’s performance makes them an impressive pair of suspense masters. As a former scare attraction performer and an aficionado of horror, it takes a lot to rattle me but The Devil Without is hugely unsettling. The fluid genre mash-up and Harvey-Stone’s committed performance combine to create a show that extends the genre of horror theatre in a wonderfully frightening direction.


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.