One Last Thing (For Now), Old Red Lion

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Families separated by war and conflict have kept in touch one way or another for time immemorial. Recently giving way to skype, texts and emails, letter writing is now largely neglected – but surviving relics betray heartache, fear and longing. International theatre company Althea Theatre draw on choral physical theatre and the intimate communications between family members from a range of global conflicts to create a moving tribute to love and patriotism.

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Snow in Midsummer, Swan Theatre

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In 2012, The RSC drew ire for its Orphan of Zhao casting in which there were a whole three East Asian actors. Though the production went ahead, RSC artistic director Greg Doran showed willing to listen and bring about change, meeting with Equity’s Minority Ethnic Members Committee. Now, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s modern adaptation of a Chinese ghost story with an entirely East Asian cast is on stage at the Swan. It’s commendable progress even though there’s still a long way to go in British theatre.

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Only Bones, Soho Theatre

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by guest critic Rebecca JS Nice

Short and sweet, classic and comical. Thomas Monckton performs a solo piece glued to his spot, centre stage beneath a low hanging lamp, which obscures his body from the shoulders up for at least half of the work. Only Bones is a classic example of body manipulation that playfully explores all the possibilities that a clown can find and make with only his body, one square metre of space, and one light. These creative boundaries have been stretched and tested but remain in performance to give the show a formal identity and context for Monckton’s shenanigans.

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Bianco, Southbank Centre

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By guest critic Rebecca Nice @rebeccajsnice

NoFit State Circus takes London by storm with a big show in a big top with grand ideas and huge audiences. A must-see on the London tourist and art scene, the slightly ominous looking grey tent is nestled into a winter wonderland of overpriced bars with a ticket price to match but the raucous, everyone-welcome, ‘roll up roll up’ nature of circus emanates from the tent in boundless quantities. Programmed by the Southbank Centre in a key Christmas location, Bianco will undoubtedly reach new audiences – which brings a certain responsibility to the oeuvre. The show not only introduces circus to new and well-seasoned theatregoers, but it sits within a concentration of productions in Southbank’s multiple venues that all want to be the cream of the crop. Based on a series of short acts that each display a specific circus skill, Bianco is accessibly fast paced but disappointingly repetitive in its lack of dramaturgy.

The main attraction of Bianco is a set made of scaffold ladders and truss that are separated, wheeled about and reset between acts. Audiences can move at their will, see things close up, from behind or directly underneath. The crew happily holler ‘mind ya backs’ as they restage and point you in new directions. This makes for constantly changing viewpoints; you always have the best seat in the house as you watch from wherever you want to be. Four towers form a central square area where truss cross bars support trapeze acts and tightrope walkers accompanied by live music. The greater sense of agency makes for a work that is almost promenade and immersive in terms of the sensory landscape. This culminates in a final snow scene where glowing white (foam) snowflakes descend upon our shoulders.

The original music ranges from folk to lyrical, acapella to rock and pop, as singer-musicians Andy Moore, Annette Loose, Doug Kemp and Matt Collins swap microphone for guitars, saxophone to accordion and double bass to drums. The strong musical score sets the tone and atmosphere for each piece and holds the work together during down moments where scenery is being set.

No Fit State travels and lives together, erecting and dismantling the big top and their lives to pack them away for the next place. This traditional circus lifestyle is evident in the precision, communication and identity of the cast and this connection feeds through into performance both in terms of the mechanics of the show and the performative camaraderie between characters.

Artistic Director Tom Rack and Director Firenza Guidi work here with a cast of seventeen, each with their own act, and it is the stringing of these together like a never-ending list of circus skills that is a downfall for the work. Bianco is long and relentless with one person after another selling their wares. Any loose plot or theme to mesh these phrases together are lost and the sheer volume of content begins to hinder the success of the piece as each new act blurs into another and recalling previous ones becomes impossible.

Out of a whopping number of acts (over eighteen), from solos to full ensembles, few stand out in either creating striking visual compositions or containing themes and characters that allow the circus skills to be fully shown off. The female juggling solo may not throw the highest club or make the most complex siteswaps but the throws and catches between the legs, behind the body and into the audience make a vivacious, flirty and clumsy character fully realised and incredibly funny, firmly rooted in her choreography and clowning. The sheer volume of this company in numbers of performers and size of the performance space provides tableaus not seen before. Five ropes in line, each with an individual aerial performer who turn and ascend in unison are a feast for the eyes. The entire cast emerging from the dark, lit by flaming torches or a man spinning inside his cyr wheel flanked by four figures dangling from aerial hoops make for striking compositions. A solo female performer hangs upside down from a rope with her legs bent and toes facing the ceiling. As the loose end of the rope drapes on top of her feet in a perfect curve, she lets herself slowly down as if magically walking upside down along this arc. Gems like this unexpected delicacy in a fresh take on an old trick appear sporadically in Bianco, but are in danger of being lost with the acts being so short and so many. Hula hoops are spun and aerial hoops rotate, performers swing from swags of loose hanging rope or shimmy along a tightrope. Jugglers swing on a trapeze, two aerial silks support solo and duet. A trampoline is rolled out, there is a handstand act and a contortionist with a wine glass balancing act. Box frames spin on high with strings of beads creating sparkling halos and another trapeze act appears, this time with a dress embellished with fluorescent lights. Many acts like these are cut short before they reach their true potential.

I delight in the seaside swim scene with up to nine performers diving from the heights of the big top onto a central trampoline. Dressed in old fashioned striped bathing suits with arm bands or goggles, this scene is visually wonderful but could be stronger if the choreography and swimming motifs were tighter and crisper. Compositions of performers diving one after the other can be more tightly woven into mini sketches. What if someone wearing a shark fin dived in, or someone belly-flopped and bounced everyone out of the sea? What if someone was scared of the water and got stuck on the high hanging rubber ring? Scenes like these don’t quite reach a climax in humour and pacing of skills.

After two hours and twenty minutes of high energy, constant tricks and emotive portraits of people laughing, shouting, twisting and turning on high, both audience and cast are exhausted and elated. A sinuous male aerial act returns to close the show on a rope as his curly locks and chiaroscuro muscles form a Christ-like visage. The lyrical piece is an unapologetic show of human beauty as the Vitruvian man soars in circular flight as artificial snow falls from the darkness. It is this image that leaves an imprint in my mind, of hundreds of tiny people looking up to the dark depths of the tent top, dancing in the snow.

Bianco runs through 22 January.

Tickets arranged by Theatre Bloggers.

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.

Two Man Show, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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RashDash are angry. Like, fucking furious level of angry. They’re fed up of patriarchal language and gender stereotypes that limit both men and women from expressing themselves honestly. So they made a show about it. Two Man Show has three women in it, music and dance, nudity and a lot of explosive energy. It’s part science lecture, part role play and part celebration of who we are without others’ judgment and categorisation based on gender expression. It’s a fantastic, “fuck yeah” explosion of pretty skirts, masculinity, tits, cockfighting and nonconformity. It’s also pretty bloody brilliant.

Out of an opening tirade on equality in the dawn of human history, Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen take on the roles of two brothers, Dan and John. They don’t get on, arguing almost constantly about caring responsibilities for their terminally ill father. Their fighting builds in between movement and dance sequences of surprising intimacy and tenderness.

The culmination to Dan and John’s tension is a fantastic eruption of John’s frustrated masculinity feeling limited by “man things”. His words twists through Abbi’s, the man-woman who is happy in her own skin but doesn’t really suit any of that girly shit. Helen’s feminine contrast powerfully reinforces the importance of choice and freedom and that a woman doesn’t need to be butch to be a feminist and a man can express his feelings and do “feminine things” without his heterosexual maleness being threatened.

Greenland and Goalen’s performances are endowed with conviction and energy, and both are skilled physical performers who can convincingly play men, even with their breasts unveiled. They are accompanied by a musician, who backs them up with unfettered tunes of frustration and celebration.

This is a truly feminist show. Rather than blaming men, Two Man Show looks at the conventions of language that aids female suppression and acknowledges that men are not served by this system, either. Fabulously sequinned and ferociously opinionated, this is not one to miss.

Two Man Show runs through 27th 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.

Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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When fourteen-year-old boy Red starts at a new school after his parents’ divorce, his mum anxiously worries about him making friends. Soon, his mobile is constantly buzzing with texts and he’s out most evenings. Mum’s happy but she only sees the life Red constructs especially for her. Someone, or rather something, else has the privilege of an uncensored view – Red’s mobile. As the vulnerable boy is sexually exploited by his unsatisfied maths teacher, his phone sees everything and narrates the story around the characters’ interactions. This slick ensemble piece by NY theatre company One Year Lease seamlessly merges writing styles, design and physical theatre to tell a dream-like story of abuse veiled as love.

When Red’s maths teacher confiscates his mobile and accidentally takes it home with her instead of her own phone, she begins a downward spiral of communication that quickly becomes personal. Red’s parents separation is far from pleasant, and his teacher’s boyfriend is an unemployed layabout, with vague dreams of designing apps. This combination fosters a relationship where the teacher and the student inappropriately confide in each other, and she does nothing to stop it.

Suspicion helps propel the action upwards towards a climactic end, but a lack of consequence in Kevin Armento’s resolution is as disturbing as the story itself. The phone as narrator is a great device – it’s present enough to add context and framing, but is not overused to the point of becoming a gimmick. Abstract movement incorporating versatile set pieces adds a striking, dynamic visual and a disconnect from reality appropriate to a forbidden relationship. A live musical score by Estelle Bajou enhances the surrealism of the staging.

Mathematical equations coldly explain how their illicit affair develops, and minimalist design in black and white juxtaposes the intricacies of the complex lives that collide so inappropriately. Though the script avoids blatant condemnation of the relationship, Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally is a striking blend of visual and verbal storytelling.

Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally runs through 28th 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.

Us/Them, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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On 1 September 2004, a group of terrorists stormed a school in Beslan, holding over a thousand people hostage on the first day back after summer holidays. Most of them were children. When the siege ended three days later, over 300 people were dead. Part history lesson and part dramatherapy storytelling, two actors playing unnamed children who were hostages in the crisis re-enact the events of those three days. The childlike seriousness, quiet bickering and playful staging in Us/Them provides an excellent, contemplative lens through which to view world disasters.

Gytha Parmentier and Roman van Houtven are a soft spoken girl and boy who take pride in their school and their education. They go to the best one in town, and it’s near a wonderful forest. On the other side of the forest is the border, and across the border, children don’t go to school, the men are pedophiles and the women have moustaches. They view the world in black and white, everything is simple and explained in a matter of fact delivery. Whilst they show little fear, as hours stretch into days, the heat and dehydration take a toll on their bodies. Through their tiredness, they try to make sense of the terrorists’ demands and work out what they have to make them let them go. Their naivety is both heart wrenching and warming, rather than condemn they want to please everyone and carry on living their lives in peace.

The script is mostly narration, with some quibbling between the two on how certain moments panned out. More dialogue between the two would be welcome, but the design choices keep the narration from becoming too repetitive. It is description heavy, accented with colourful, abstract staging – childrens’ coats hang on the back wall, a web of unravelled string slows them down so as not to startle the terrorists. Their movements are angular, with leaps, falls and physical play. The bombs they rig around the gymnasium where they are held are balloons. Whilst the imagery and text is childlike, the undercurrent of danger and horror is inescapable, and the quiet honesty is wholly riveting.

Children are so often the faces of global tragedies that rally sympathy and action. Think of the little boy washed up on the beach, the tiny Syrian airstrike victim staring into the middle distance in the back of an ambulance. Whilst their images are splashed across the news and social media, they are rarely heard from. Perhaps if they were given a platform to air their experiences and perspectives, the adults that run the world would be less inclined to mindlessly retaliate against violent acts. Us/Them, rather than having an in-yer-face aggressive, political agenda, intuitively uses text and staging to convey a powerful, lingering request to listen and be kind, no matter how foreign we are to each other.

Us/Them runs through 28th 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.