The Last 5 Years, Southwark Playhouse


By Joanna Trainor

Jamie Wellerstein is the ultimate fuckboi.

You know it’s true, but you always forget it until you’re watching the show. You’re all happy to be his Shiksa Goddess, and swooning over his proposal and then – BAM! “I’m sorry I slept with someone else, you should have paid more attention.” Well no Jamie, that’s not acceptable behaviour, is it?

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Anansi the Spider, Unicorn Theatre

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by Laura Kressly

They say that a long time ago animals could talk, just like people do now. Anansi the spider was the smartest of all these ancient creatures, and used his intelligence for all sorts of nefarious aims. His legacy of scheming lives on as a collection of stories from West Africa to the Caribbean. This new production presents three of them where the mythical trickster isn’t always the nicest, but directed by Artistic Director Justin Audibert for 4-7 year-olds, they are engaging morality tales with music, interaction and excellent performances.

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Chiaroscuro, Bush Theatre

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by Laura Kressly

Beth, Opal, Aisha and Yomi are working-class women of colour. They’re busy with dates, dinner parties, and games of pool at their local, over which they bond, confide and fight. Their stories are punctuated by soulful songs providing further insight into their fears, insecurities and loves. These women could easily be young Londoners today – but Jackie Kay’s gig-theatre show was written in 1986. This relevant, moving production addressing issues of sexuality and identity, and centered on characters that are often left out of theatrical narratives, is a vital and vibrant contribution to contemporary theatre.

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Burke and Hare, Jermyn Street Theatre

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by Laura Kressly

A story of two men who murder people in order to sell their corpses to doctors in 1820s Edinburgh shouldn’t work as a dark character comedy with music. But largely work it does and this three-hander, though somewhat structurally clumsy, is a good alternative to more typical Christmas theatre.

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Measure for Measure, Young Vic’s a mountain of inflatable sex dolls on the stage. Shiny, blank faces with gaping, toothless mouths, spherical tits and gargantuan cocks everywhere. The pile is so big that the actors have to wade through the dolls, a metaphor for the seedy Viennese streets where Shakespeare sets his Measure for Measure. Director Joe Hill-Gibbins wrenches this world into the present with a symbolism-laden, visually orgasmic production designed by Miriam Buether, and a great performance by Romola Garai as Isabella. Live video feeds, projection and pulsing beats marry a space that has ghosts of Elizabethan theatre structures, but some choices don’t sit well. Though the visuals are relevant and bold, there’s a disappointing tendency towards shouting, and a dubious (to the point of discomfort) characterization choice for infamous pimp Pompey. As the characters physically and emotionally wrestle through the heavily edited, relentless two hours of sex and religion, there is still a strong feeling that this production values style over substance.

Most modernized Shakespeare I see tacks on a more contemporary setting through costuming whilst changing little else. These sorts of adaptations tend to not generate any new insight on the play, its story or characters. This production manages to escape that trap through fully integrated design that cleverly functions on both a practical and representational level. The sex dolls, the most jarring of the updates, are in turn Angelo’s repressed sexuality, the sinners that Isabella (a novice nun) rejects, prisoners, and the duke’s citizens. The live feed is the media and public perception (as it was in the Old Vic’s 2005 Richard II), the duke’s altered perspective of events, and creates clear boundaries between locations. It’s also very Big Brother, and the audience is the all-seeing, both on and off camera. These design elements are grotesquely amplified, with every pore visible as faces are broadcast and projected at a massive size, and the dolls, well, they’re everywhere and thrown around like a cheap commodity to be used and discarded.

The dolls eventually move to a back room, akin to an Elizabethan inner stage, that’s often sealed off by sterile sliding panels, but we are regularly reminded of their presence both on and off camera. The live feed doesn’t let the audience forget about the bad behaviour happening in the concealed prison where Angelo’s offenders await execution. Some of the characters linger on stage even when not in a scene, giving time and space a fluidity but one that is understood to be separate from the action in any given moment. This rejection of set also harks back to Elizabethan performance convention. Projections of medieval art gorgeously juxtapose whirling, close-up photographs of the dolls and projections from the live feed, two worlds colliding in Hill-Gibbins and Buether’s updated Vienna. This contrast pointedly comments on the hypocrisy of modern religious fundamentalism; pro-lifers who are so pro-life that they kill abortion providers immediately spring to mind, though there is a plethora of other examples.

Though Garai’s performance has the power and confidence that Isabella often lacks in more demure interpretations, others in the cast let it down. Zubin Varlo as Duke Vincentio is quick to shout; this soon becomes excessive and a loss of power. Though a great performance from Tom Edden as Pompey the pimp, it’s disturbing that he has been characterized as a stereotypical Jewish New Yorker obsessed with money. However, Ivanno Jeremiah is an excellent Claudio with a quietness that is great contrast to the fiery Isabella. The colour-blind casting proudly shows off the UK’s diverse talent, with a female Sarah Malin as Escalus, PA to the duke and his deputy. Paul Ready as Angelo, the floundering, conservative who covers Vincentio during has absence and tries to bed Isabella in exchange for her brother’s life is definitely despicable but also incredibly conflicted. It’s easy to almost feel pity for him at times.

There is no doubt that this production looks fantastic, particularly in the opening and closing sequences. It updates well and has contemporary relevance on several levels, but there’s little unity across the design elements. This reminds me of Baz Luhrmann’s 1990’s Romeo & Juliet – all angry and dystopian and fast. It’s non-specific to a time and place, just broadly Western contemporary. It’s diverse in race, gender and accent and could easily be London, Paris, New York, or any other sleazy, urban environment. This gives it universality, but also shows laziness. I wonder if the design was initially chosen because it looks lush rather than makes a specific comment. Despite my interpretation of the underlying meaning of the design, I can’t help but to consider that my mind is constructing meaning that isn’t actually there. This was a relentless unease that lingered for the duration of the performance, though it didn’t spoil the experience.

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Four Minutes Twelve Seconds, Trafalgar Studios

rsz_four_minutes_twelve_seconds_-_kate_maravan_2_-_photo_ikin_yumWhat do you do if your teenaged son’s ex-girlfriend accuses him of sexual assault? What if her family refuses to go to the police and takes justice into their own hands instead? Di (Kate Maravan) and David (Jonathan McGuinness) don’t know either, and they’re living this nightmare every moment of Four Minutes Twelve Seconds. They have huge aspirations for their bright boy, hoping he makes it out of the Croydon that they themselves never managed to leave. But those dreams are teetering precariously on top of vicious rumours…or are they facts? Seventeen-year-old Jack who the audience never sees, may or may not have uploaded a film, that may or may not show him forcing himself on his girlfriend Cara (Ria Zmitrowicz) in the run-up to his A-level exams. As his parents try to discover the objective truth of the situation, some awful discoveries come to light. In short, fast scenes spanning several months, social class, parental aspiration and sexism influence the four characters’ choices in this riveting, dialogue-driven one-act.

This energetic first play by James Fritz, writer of the acclaimed Ross & Rachel at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, doesn’t shy away from honest, infuriating material confronting ingrained attitudes that interfere with rape convictions (at the end of the play I was so angry I was shaking with the knowledge that these sorts of things probably happen all the time). A ferocious Maravan leads with an intense, focused performance and a satisfying character journey. To see a mother cope with drastically altering perceptions of her own child is heart rending, particularly as her husband’s views often clash with her own.

This is definitely an “issue” play, albeit a sophisticated one, that looks at the role of social media and the selfie culture in the lives of young people who don’t fully understand the implications of putting every detail of their life on the internet. It also looks at consent, sexist definitions of rape and how police view rape accusations. There’s also the question of how to treat crimes committed within one’s own family, vigilante justice and taking responsibility for mistakes. It’s a packed script, but manages to not overwhelm with ideas. Fritz’s dialogue is advanced for a first play, if formulaic in its gradual revealing of information. He liberally uses humour and nuanced humanity to counter the dark subject matter; these characters could easily be portrayed as stereotypes, like the sort in a bad TIE play.

On that note, this would be an excellent production to tour to secondary schools, colleges and unis, particularly since this attitude is so prevalent:, this is a crucial piece of theatre that all young people growing up in our cyber-obsessed culture should see. With simple design elements that draw attention to the dialogue and story, it would be easy to tour this powerful production.

Four Minutes Twelve Seconds is hip as well as topical and provocative. Witholding Jack’s appearance draws attention to the wider impact of his actions rather than wallowing in his emotional state, a wise choice by Fritz. Excellent performances by the company and snappy dialogue keep our attention as well as enrage, but what would we do if we were in Di and David’s shoes? Though we all strive for justice for rape victims, we are but judgemental, selfish humans after all, and that is the real flaw in the system.

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.

First Love is the Revolution, Soho Theatre 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.

In the Heights, Kings Cross Theatre


Way up in Manhattan, so far north that it’s nearly the Bronx, is Washington Heights. You take the A or the 1 train to 181 Street to find this primarily Hispanic neighbourhood that’s not on any tourist radar. In the Heights shows the day-to-day struggles and celebrations of a group of residents on one block far removed from downtown prosperity with a soundtrack of salsa, hip-hop and poppy musical theatre.

The songs are the most innovative aspect of this mostly-sung musical with a stellar cast, but the book is rather sparse and the large cast of characters means it’s a cracking ensemble performance with frustratingly little development for any one character. The book and lyrics rely on stereotypes of Latino immigrants in New York City, though it both fulfills and destroys them within the diverse array of characters. The story feels rather tenuously squeezed around the songs with the dialogue serving as a plot point connector; most, of the scenes aren’t substantial enough to stand on their own. But, going back to the music, the songs make up the bulk of this musical and create a fabulous atmosphere complimented by excellent design. The Latin and hip-hop tunes are the best and most original, resulting in a fun evening and a memorable soundtrack.

This production is the same one that received numerous accolades and award nominations last year at Southwark Playhouse, and deservedly so. The Kings Cross Theatre suits this show well, with a wide traverse stage and audiences on either side, creating intimacy and suiting Drew McOnie’s circular, street party choreography. There are still design relics from The Railway Children, but Takis’ urban set and Gabriella Slade’s bright, revealing costumes pull the focus onto this completely contrasting world. With the performances practically in the laps of the front rows, it’s hard not to get up and dance. Some people do during the curtain call.

It’s not all a party, though. Nina (Lily Frazer), the first of the neighbourhood to go to university, has dropped out after her first year. Her father Kevin (David Bedella) hates her boyfriend Benny (Joe Aaron Reid) and is furious about Nina’s deceitful behaviour. Corner shop (or “bodega” in NYC lingo) owner Usnavi (Sam Mackay) and salon owner Daniela (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt) are getting priced out due to rising rents. Others came here for a better life only to find themselves cleaning houses and pigeonholed by poverty. The joy in this show comes in the characters’ ability to party and find solace in each other in the face of adversity – a powerful message for modern times.

I wanted to know more about these characters, though. This is a “slice of life” show that tries to fit in a lot of big personalities and backstories in a short amount of time, so the main characters and their tales have little space to grow. The storyline feels rushed and the ending, though a happy resolution, is a bit too “musical theatre twee” for a world that’s poor and gritty, albeit one soaked with colour and excellent music. It’s still possible to be pulled into this little stretch of Washington Heights in the height of summer and to want to dance the night away to this extraordinary blend of Latino, rap and musical theatre.

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.