The Magic Flute, King’s Head Theatre

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by guest critic Alistair Wilkinson

The King’s Head Theatre has been turned into a South American jungle, and we are invited to go along with the intrigued explorer Tamino, as he embarks on his journey to discover a world full of magical beings. In this world, and actually this performance too, nothing is what is expected.

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Celebration, Florida, The Albany

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by guest critic Tom Brocklehurst

Shows incorporating technology have become more and more common recently. This experimental show, Celebration, Florida, features two unrehearsed performers wearing headphones. Greg Wohead, the creator of the show gives them instructions, dictates to them what to say and where to stand, and what accent to speak in. Most of the time they are speaking as him – they have to imitate his American accent (badly) and ask us to picture them as him, standing in his hotel room in his pants, thinking up ideas for this show.

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Blood & Bone, VAULT Festival

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By guest critic Alistair Wilkinson (@alistairwilks)

A political satire, blended with sexualised humour, with a sprinkle of fertiliser-addicted plants that just want to have fun with their mates – what more could you ask for on a Wednesday night? The overriding rule of their way of life – do not leave the greenhouse. If you do, be prepared to fall prey to being a part of a hipster vegan’s Instagram post.

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The Marked, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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It’s so easy to ignore the homeless people that line the periphery of routine journeys and forget they are just as human as the rest of us, with passions, fears and often troubled pasts. The Marked puts homeless young man Jack at the centre of a desolate, urban landscape populated with pigeons, people who move him on and demons from his past. Masks and puppetry add a richness to his story, but not always warmth. In most of Jack’s encounters, be they real or in his head, he is believably under threat.

Peter Morton’s puppets are sweet and whimsical, with Jack’s pigeon companion being particularly lovely and with an excellent range of movement. Jack as a child has a sadness to him, emphasised further by familial alcoholism that we can assume eventually drives him away from home.

Grotesque masks by Grafted Cede Theatre are skilfully used to differentiate between fantasy and reality, with the haunted, oversized faces ever in the back of Jack’s eyes. Zahra Mansouri’s costumes make these figures larger than life and all the more threatening, rendering Jack helpless in their presence and the audience to empathise.

Devised by the cast of three and presumably with the support of director Allin Conant, the spoken text centres around Jack’s encounters with a homeless couple, Pete and Sophie. Here is where the show falls short: the potential for conflict and tenderness amongst the three isn’t fully realised due to too few, underwritten scenes. Though these human characters ground Jack in reality somewhat, there is also little focus on the dichotomy of reality vs. demons. There is real potential for a fight for Jack’s life or sanity between the two forces, but the script doesn’t capture as much of Jack’s struggle as it could.

Visually, this is a wonderful production that makes some powerful points on the mental health of homeless people. Jack becomes a fully realised person through the creatures that haunt him, but his encounters with other humans don’t do him full justice.

The Marked tours nationally through 2017.

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.

Scorched, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Jack, feeble in body and mind, wiles away the days watching news broadcasts from operation Desert Storm. The former WWII soldier, now safe and looked after in a care home, vividly recounts memories from his youth and on the front line. He may not be aware of the present, but his past is ever present and will not let me rest. Solo show Scorched is a moving and honest look at veterans’ experiences of combat and ageing, leaving the troubling feeling that society is not fulfilling its responsibility to this vulnerable demographic.

Lisle Turner’s script, inspired by her grandfather’s life, is an expressionistic snapshot of his thoughts at the twilight of his life. Stationed in Egypt during the war, we hear tales of heat, explosions, and beautiful women interspersed with memories from his childhood. The storyline is loosely constructed; it is episodic rather than wholly linear. This structure works well considering that these are Jack’s memories he plays out for himself rather than for an audience arbitrarily included in the action without being allocated any clear identity.

There are some beautiful design elements: Jack remembers tattooing himself and this is projected on his arm rather than shown with makeup. To see something normally considered permanent conveyed through an ephemeral form is a fitting reminder that nothing truly lasts forever and Jack is nearly at the end of his life. The loveliest of other whimsical projections is on a cascade of sand poured from a dinner tray. This sand is everywhere, like the memories that cling onto Jack’s deteriorating mind and are constantly discovered in unsuspecting places – a clever device either by Turner or director Claire Coache. A simple puppet is used well but not enough, as are mundane objects that transform into others more exciting – an umbrella becomes a fishing rod, a footstool is a motorbike. This object manipulation is a lovely surprise and suits Jack’s mental state well, so it could be utilised further to comment on the childhood of old age.

Robin Berry plays Jack with power and pathos, initially with a delicate frailty that gives way to a younger, more powerful man who enjoys boxing, horse riding, dancing and defending his country. Berry has a strong physical presence that is eminently watchable and a range that makes him believe both as the older and younger Jack.

Strengthening and streamlining the staging and theatrical devices will help make the script feel less like a random collection of memories, and reordering some of scenes would also have the same effect. Jack is a fantastic character and the play is a fitting tribute to elderly veterans, though also serves to pay homage to a generation that soon will no longer be with us.

Scorched runs through 29th 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.

Life According to Saki, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Author Hector Hugh Munro, otherwise known as Saki, is in WWI’s trenches. He and his men been out there for nearly a year, and they are long fed up with life on the front. To entertain his fellow troops, he tells the stories that have already made him a well-known writer. Life According to Saki mixes biography and fiction as Saki tells the audience about his life, interspersed with silly and bizarre anecdotes. The cast of six play both soldiers and the character’s in Saki’s stories with fantastic energy and physical commitment, but the structure of the play and Saki’s pontificating soon grows repetitive. An excessively long ending and too many stories ushers in eventual tedium despite a polished show with high production values.

Anna Lewis’ design is excellent; it clearly indicates the trenches and is flexible for the imagined worlds elsewhere. Costumes are WWI uniforms that fit the cast of women and men smartly – they are not frumpy, unaltered hire costumes. The puppets by Claire Roi Harvey and Suzi Battersby are also very good, with the cock being particularly charming with a great range of realistic movement.

The script is where it begins to fall flat a few stories in. Each one is very short, some only a few minutes long. There are about eight or ten altogether, and the constant shift from tale to tale is exhausting. The are performed with great physical comedy, accents and verge on the fantastical; each one is lovely but there are way too many. Episodes from Saki’s life are bland and dry filler, and the two styles feel forced to miserably cohabit in the same structure. The tacked-on conclusion preaches about how to live one’s life, then drags on even longer into a song and a poem. Though it blatantly states its message of living life to its fullest, the connection to the hour of stories preceding it is tenuous.

Three or four longer stories with depth and detail, and less of Saki’s biography (if any at all) would make this a much more engaging play. The premise of a soldier entertaining his troops is a fine one, but The Life of Saki comes across as self-centred and lecture-y with some silly, disconnected interludes.

Life According to Saki runs through 29th 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.

The Inevitable Heartbreak of Gavin Plimsole, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Gavin Plimsole is a good enough guy. A bit geeky and nervous but well-meaning, maybe even a bit endearing if you like that sort of thing. After he receives a life-altering diagnosis from the cardiologist and realises his days are numbered, the audience (who have all strapped into heart monitors before the show begins), get to decide his fate. Part choose-your-own adventure, part poignant tale of grief morning people and times long lost, The Inevitable Heartbreak of Gavin Plimsole is a messy but touching reminder to make the most of every moment.

An ever-present projection of the audience members heartbeats overlays three energetic performers and a changing landscape of cardboard boxes. Gavin’s the sort that stores his life in tattered boxes labelled with masking tape, and these boxes now contain relics from his life. They aren’t particularly interesting, but a garden shed with a wonderful contraption that releases a large marble down a slide and into a box every 500 collective heartbeats, is ramshackle but dynamic. It cleverly represents our perpetual approach towards death with a drawn out clattering and eventual silence – a dying person’s last breaths.

Gavin monologues most of his thoughts; there are some interruptions by spunky, supporting actors that help break up the speeches but more of these would be welcome. A wiry (literally, as in made of wires) puppet makes one appearance and is similarly underused – a remarkable creature! The structure is understandable chaos that mirrors the the first couple of days after devastating news, though clearer transitions and a distinct style will help make sense of this emotional journey.

The use of the heart monitors and audience interaction unites the audience and performers, creating intimacy and empathy. It’s a sad story that manages to foster hope instead of gloom, and within the clutter there’s a lot of heart.

The Inevitable Heartbreak of Gavin Plimsole runs through 29th 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.