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.

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.

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.