Identity Crisis, Ovalhouse

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Phina Oruche has had an extraordinary career. Growing up in Liverpool to Nigerian parents and desperately wanting to see more of the world, she let her best friend Amy talk her into doing a modelling photoshoot as a teenager. Soon she found herself living and working in London, then New York and LA. Eventually tiring of the high fashion world and feeling the pull of her home, she moved back to the UK where he career led her firmly into the film and telly world. Now a mum and conflicted about the cultural pushing and pulling on her life, she examines who she really is the self-penned Identity Crisis. The punchy tapestry of characters and experiences has messy and confusing moments and no clear resolution or story, but it’s brimming with heart and life.

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Home, Ovalhouse

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Scarlet and Olive were left behind when the evacuation transport left their town without them. A dust storm has rendered their home a foreign landscape. They have five days until the transport will return to collect any stragglers, and news is due over the radio at any time between now the then. The resourceful young women must work together to find water and build a shelter so they can survive until someone comes back to get them, and the audience of people with profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD) is there to help.

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Custody, Ovalhouse

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By guest critic Alistair Wilkinson

HOPE: A feeling of expectation and desire for something to happen.

How do we cope when we don’t get what we want? How do we beat a system that is set up to make you fail? Custody asks just these questions, as we are taken on a two-year journey of a family’s struggle for justice for their loved one, twenty-nine year old Brian, who died whilst in police custody. Through this eighty-minute narrative, we see four different individuals cope/hope, whilst their questions are left unanswered.

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Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight, Ovalhouse

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Along with tickets, we are handed earplugs. Considering Christopher Brett Bailey’s first work This Is How We Die, I’m not surprised. A brilliant, relentless barrage of contemporary American myth followed by an encore of noise and light, Bailey isn’t known for doing things by halves, or even singular wholes. The slight, constantly startled-looking Canadian with gravity defying hair attacks performance making with the energy of a supernova. Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight has the same verve, but is otherwise a rather different beast. Whilst This Is How We Die was dominated by language, Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight has very few words – but the earplugs are definitely needed. This anthemic music and light show fills the room with sound, colour and vibration but is the difficult second album to This Is How We Die. Much more of a gig than a piece of theatre, it lacks the satisfaction of characters and narrative, even a hint of one. Bailey’s mind blowing poetry teases with a few tiny fragments, but otherwise leaves us desperately gagging for more of his words.

Though given earplugs, there is the choice of whether or not to use them. Notices state that the sound level is consistently over 100 decibels and that, “if you wear plugs the whole time you might compromise enjoyment of the show. and if you don’t wear them at all you will take home whistling ear canals”. Being one of those people sensitive to loud noises who constantly asks my other half to turn down the telly, I want to play it safe but I don’t want to miss out. So I opt for one plug in, with the other ready. This choice no doubt effects the experience – if I leave them out the whole time and feel discomfort, would I like the show less? Or would I like it more because it’s not actually ‘that’ loud? I use the plugs in response to the volume level – sometimes I have both in, sometimes none. It’s an interesting premise to consider that the experience and quality of the show hinges on these earplugs, adding an additional level of individual, subjective response.

Bailey’s voice, slow and unseen, repeats, “this is a hell dream” in a brief textual introduction. Violinist Alicia Jane Turner uses loop pedals to sculpt a cinematic score reminiscent of mid-90s rock anthems. Her work is wonderfully angry, sweeping and alive. George Percy and Bailey are both on guitar, forming a silhouetted triptych with Bailey soon in the middle – amongst the monolithic speakers and flight cases forming a brutalist, urban landscape, he cuts the figure of a scrappy dystopian overlord. It suits him. If this is what hell is like, it’s fucking glorious.

Behind each performer is a wooden panel of about a metre square made of deconstructed pianos and their strings. These are visually impressive structures in and of themselves; their music evokes the violence and community of tribalism. Combined with excellent sound-responsive lighting (that malfunctioned to the point that the show needing to be stopped briefly), the overall effect is one of epic, soul shaking community.

The title paired with the music evokes the American paradox of a friendly but violent people who love their guns as much as their families. The music’s scale captures the expanse and variation of the North American landscape, and the few words he shares on the experience of waking up from a nightmare to find the world unchanged darkly foreshadow Trump’s America. Whether or not this is an intentional message, it is certainly a powerful one.

Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight is certainly wide open to interpretation and shows Bailey’s ambition and range as a performer of work designed to push the senses to their extremes. His textual dexterity is certainly missed (particularly by the coked up, flailing pair of young women sat next to me commenting on how disappointing this work is compared to his first) and comparatively this piece is somewhat disappointing, but it absolutely has its merits as a visceral, “fuck you/I love you” performance piece.

Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight tours nationally through November.

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.

How to Win Against History, Ovalhouse

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British history is peppered with truly remarkable people. Kings, queens, writers, actors, scientists, athletes and military generals pepper school history books and cultural subconscious. Then there are the people like Henry Paget, fifth Marquis of Anglesey, who are largely forgotten, tucked away in the centuries-old folds of this country’s past. During his brief Victorian life, he became rather infamous for cross-dressing, blowing his family fortune, and turning the chapel of his estate into a 150-seat theatre where he played the leads in his own productions with which he later toured Britain and Europe.

Seiriol Davies’ How to Win Against History chronicles (and fictionalises parts) of Henry’s radical life, focusing on his theatre work and cross dressing, as a fabulous, form-bending cabaret/musical. This little show has a huge heart and needs further script development to smooth out the lumpy narrative, but sequins and silliness, destroying the fourth wall, clowning and contemporary political commentary makes for a powerfully subversive and hilarious production.

The lengthy introduction provides necessary exposition, but as it gives way to a song that focuses on the Marquis’ time at Eton, it becomes too long. The interesting plot points come once the character is of age, and these deserve more attention than they are given. The beginning also sets up the style that’s maintained throughout, of musical theatre songs punctuating scenes that are heavy on the sort of narration and banter that is found in cabaret and drag acts. It’s a wonderful act of genre smashing. Musical theatre, cabaret, vaudeville and pantomime make an engaging, energizing combination that fosters audience participation and celebration. If this is where popular theatre is heading, then bring it on – Seiriol Davies’ script is at the forefront of musical theatre innovation.

Once young Henry finishes school, action starts to pick up. After a mutually beneficial marriage to his cousin (that was reportedly never consummated) and teaming up with a actor Alexander Keith (Matthew Blake), he casts himself in several plays. When no one comes, they take the shows on the road, making hilarious changes as the audience becomes less enamored of his work. More could be made out of his marriage and his increasingly weird theatre productions; they are rushed and little sense of a timescale is provided. Between his awakening as a student to a touring theatre maker, there’s a feeling that a lot of plot is missing. He is suddenly a broken man in Monte Carlo being interviewed by Daily Mail journalist Quentin (a brilliant in-joke!) and whilst this is deliciously funny, there is yet another leap in time and place. More scenes could easily be written to fill in these gaps without disrupting the established style. Even though the cabaret influence comes though in the short sketch-like scenes, as a musical it feels underwritten.

Writer Seiriol Davies plays Henry, the fabulously flamboyant lover of sequined dresses and the theatre. His journey from naïve boy to the ill and impoverished 20-something is lovely and genuine, with songs that in turn capture his enthusiasm and anguish. Energy abounds from the other two performers, making the show feel a lot bigger than it actually is.

Though this new musical needs further development to give it the scale and narrative punch that matches the style, it is fantastically good fun. The political content and deconstructing of style and structure are fly in the face of historical erasure of controversial figures and dramatic conventions. But it evoked engagement and contribution from a willing audience that was eating out of the performers’ hands within the first few minutes and this in and of itself is a huge indicator of excellent work. How to Win Against History could easily have the scale of a West End show, and it deserves the attention that would garner it.

How to Win Against History runs through 28 August in London and Edinburgh.

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.

 

Invisible Treasure, Ovalhouse Theatre

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Invisible Treasure has no script and no actors. It’s not a play, but a playspace. For this hour long part-video game, part-puzzle, the audience/participants must work together to interpret the cryptic tasks that pop up on a small screen in the sterile room where they are deposited by theatre staff. The sensors, cameras and microphones that monitor the group at all times determine whether or not you progress to the next level or not, and the chance of failure is very real indeed. A giant white rabbit sinisterly lurks in the corner, its unblinking eyes the Big Brother that is unseen but all seeing. As the levels get harder, group dynamics become more pronounced. Emotions build and there’s potential for rebellion, made more exciting by each group’s unique composition. fanSHEN’s installation/event/environment’s use of interactive technology gives audiences a high degree of agency, but is still a powerful reminder that we are never truly free.

Hellicar & Lewis’ technical design is hugely impressive, or at least it is to a tech Luddite like myself. Others may find it less so but the unification and application are still incredibly inventive. The levels’ tasks require both problem solving and play that the group, on the whole, enjoyed even though some went on a bit too long. Those that aren’t keen on audience interaction or are introverted may find it challenging to engage, but as everyone is in the same position, it also might not feel so threatening. With clear leaders and followers quickly emerging, it’s possible to not contribute ideas but not joining in doesn’t feel like an option. It’s fascinating to watch others, and easy to let go and remember the childlike joy of playing without knowing where the game will lead.

When describing the experience with a friend afterwards, he boldly stated that it doesn’t sound like theatre. To be honest, I still haven’t decided if it is. But it is incredibly theatrical. With practitioners constantly trying to push the limits of immersive and interactive theatre, Invisible Treasure is certainly at the forefront and will create a personal experience and reaction for each person that attends. It’s tempting to go again and see what differs.

On completion of the levels, bonus rounds and free play sections the group is released into an analogue liminal space to process their thoughts and feedback on their experience. This relaxed environment provides an opportunity to decompress and discuss, but could, for some, lessen the impact of the experience by discovering how it works. Though this project is still in the early stages of its development, its certainly furthering the merging of theatre and gaming to empower audiences, and a wonderfully fun experience.


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