Martin Creed’s Words and Music, Edinburgh International Festival

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by guest critic Tom Brocklehurst

This show does what it says on the tin.

We spend an hour in the company of Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Creed, who plays some of his songs, and talks through some of the things he finds troubling about modern life. In this respect, the show is more like a performance poet set – John Hegley meets Professor Branestawn.

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My Country; a work in progress, Theatre Royal Stratford East

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After 52% of 72% of the British voting population voted to leave the EU, Rufus Norris’s concern that London theatre was out of touch with the majority of British people drove him to launch a nationwide project of listening. He sent a team of ‘gatherers’ to all corners of these sceptered isles, and they collected 70 interviews from people up and down the country. The transcriptions combined with text by Carol Ann Duffy gave birth to My Country; a work in progress.

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The Poetry of Exile, White Bear

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You can be who you want to be, right? Rob, a driving instructor in modern day Romford, believes himself to be an 8th century Chinese poet from the Tang Dynasty. When he finally chooses to live the sequestered life of a poet out on the marshes in a wooden hut, it has huge repercussions on his family and friends. The whole thing’s silly – sure, you can choose a career, or where you live, but contrary to what Rachel Dolezal and desperate sci-fi fans may think, we cannot chose our race or the century we live in.

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The Toll, Half Moon

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Luke Wright’s jovial demeanour and impressive word hoard sit at odds with his smudged eyeliner and black leather jacket. The unassuming performance poet skulks to the mic, breathes, then unleashes a torrent of verbal acrobatics snapshotting British everymen and women. From a Georgian dine and dasher, to a bloke from Essex who swears he saw a lion roaming a campground, Wright’s depictions bring these characters to life. His dexterity and character-driven performance has a theatricality missing from most performance poetry, but the polished story present in What I Learned From Johnny Bevan is notably absent in The Toll.

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The Wild Party, Hope Theatre

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By guest reviewer Martin Pettitt

The Wild Party, a simple and to-the-point title, perfectly describes the show as well as the evening I experienced. There was so much to like about this performance. Adapted into a performance piece here by Mingled Yarn Theatre Company, The Wild Party was originally a book-length narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March in the roaring twenties. Initially deemed too racy to publish, it has since become a seminal work finding ever more relevance as we venture further into the 2000s.

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The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, Finborough Theatre

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In the first part of Tony Harrison’s The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, Victorian archaeologist Grenfell struts and frets around a group of silent Egyptians sifting through scraps of papyrus. He maniacally monologues on his quest to find Sophocles’ lost plays and works himself into such a frenzy that he begins to hallucinate. This triggers an inexplicable leap to ancient Greece where a satyr play is acted out and cloth phalluses abound, then another transition to a modern day street populated by homeless men.

Though there is some thematic consistency, the three stories are otherwise unrelated by plot and style. What initially appears to be a play-within-a-play turns out to be a disjointed and disappointing triptych, much like the fragments of papyrus that litter the stage.

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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.

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