Den, Shoreditch Town Hall

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by guest critic Rebecca JS Nice

After working on Tristan Sharps’ Absent at The Shoreditch Town Hall in 2015, I have been given an education in the building’s rich maze of ballrooms and basements, shiny bars and crusty corridors, peeling paint and underground nooks and crannies that both delight and disorientate in equal measure. Dream Think Speak Company did just that, honouring the architecture of the building in a site specific work that set a precedent for work to come. As the evening of May 4th unfolds it seems that Cass Arts are unaware of their sophisticated forbears when they claim to produce “site-specific performances and installations on the themes of secrecy and disguise” in Den. As contemporary immersive theatre expands from the spectacle of Punch Drunk to the intimacy of Sheila Ghelani, Cass Arts have widely missed the context in which they have placed themselves.

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DRINKS, Safehouse 1

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Tucked between the hipster heaven that is the Bussey Building and south London armpit Peckham bus depot, Basic Space Festival has taken up a brief residency at Safehouse 1, one of a collection of formerly derelict properties managed by Maverick Projects. Sophie Andrea Mitchell’s DRINKS, one of the site-responsive festival productions, is a sitcom-ish, millennial comedy on reconciling friendship with growing up.

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Electric Eden, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Tommy Eden, a pensioner with a love for street performing since he retired, is dead. Local entrepreneur Alexander Sheldon’s security guards are responsible. Sheldon didn’t like Tommy performing outside his high end spa and leisure centre, but when the guards manhandled him off his patch, Tommy’s 87-year-old body couldn’t take it. Local young people, angry at the rapid gentrification of their town and the death of a local treasure, organise a protest/party in the abandoned club across the road, and everyone’s invited.

Not Too Tame’s Electric Eden doesn’t manage to deliver much of a party, though. Shouty political slogans and several under-developed subplots give a vague picture of a bigger problem, and staging choices fight against the attempted audience immersion. The concept promises a dynamic execution, but the delivery disappoints.

Seven characters at the party are featured, including organiser Greg (Andrew Butler) and Tommy Eden’s granddaughter, Grace (Louise Haggerty). Their stories, as well as those of the other five characters, are gradually presented through disconnected scenes in between dance numbers and party games. The audience are sometimes invited to join the dancing, other songs are tightly choreographed.

An exposition of protest rhetoric delivered down a mic, petition signing and ordering drinks from the bar is too long. Each of the characters’ individual stories only gets a couple of scenes, so they come across as generic snapshots of character types rather than real people.

The audience are provided with chairs so even though director Jimmy Fairhurst wants to create a party atmosphere, inevitably the majority of the audience end up sitting and watching for the entire performance. Choosing a club as a venue adds little with such a clear distinction between the actors and the audience, and the continuous reiteration that this is a party comes across as forced and false.

The performances are fine and there’s some tight choreography, though this also feels out of place with the attempts to create an anarchic/punk atmosphere. Electric Eden tries to be both a genuine party and a play, but the two aesthetics are so diametrically opposed that neither ends up working within the piece.

The whole experience is frustratingly flat, though it shows such promise on paper. With a script overhaul and a clear vision as to what Electric Eden wants to achieve, it would be a stronger piece. As is, it comes across as a confused and undeveloped piece.

Electric Eden 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.

Foiled, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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It’s a big day at Bleach for the Stars. The Welsh salon has been nominated salon of the year by Clip Advisor, and dim-but-enthusiastic manageress Sabrina has a lot to do to prepare, like fill out the form to nominate the salon for the award and find money to pay the administration fee. Fed up junior stylist Tanisha does her best to pander to Sabrina’s whims and half-truths, but as the end-of-day deadline for the application looms and a last minute “celebrity” client arrives, Sabrina struggles to keep the business running to the standard that her dad, the owner, expects.

Foiled takes place after hours in a working hair salon, adding a genuine site-specific element to a script that draws on several styles of text-based comedy to entertain its audience. Puns, slapstick, one-liners and Sabrina’s regular misspeaking keep the laughs coming, and two scenarios that raise the stakes drive the action forward. There’s a token sprinkling of musical theatre numbers that feel a bit out of place, but help break up the action nicely.

The intertwining sitcom-esque scenarios hover on the verge of messiness, but writers Beth Granville (who also plays Sabrina) and David Charles keep just enough order in the story for it to not get lost. Staging is a challenge here with the actors racing up and down the narrow salon and sightlines oaccasionally blocked, but the salon is small enough that it’s always easy to hear the dialogue.

Though insubstantial and silly on the surface, Foiled makes pretty powerful comments on social mobility, class and privilege. Tanisha and Sabrina come from very different backgrounds and financial situations which, combined with the two primary plot threads manage to to not feel crowbarred. Foiled is a good laugh, well performed and has a lot to say.

Foiled 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.

Extravaganza Macabre, Battersea Arts Centre

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On 13th March last year, I couldn’t tear myself away from twitter as news of the Battersea Arts Centre fire spread. The night before, I had taken my school’s GCSE Drama students to see Gecko’s Missing. The students had never seen abstract, physical theatre before and though they had mixed reactions, they talked about it for days afterwards and drew on it as they devised their own physical theatre pieces. As someone twice their age who is drama school trained and a seasoned theatregoer, I still rely on the BAC to foster similar reactions in myself. Whilst there are certainly shows that aren’t to my taste, the venue has consistently expanded my knowledge and understanding of the theatre and performance.  To watch the fire unfold in real time over social media was devastating. Thankfully no one was hurt and I’m certain those that work/have worked there were affected much more than I was, but I thought I was losing a chunk of my own theatrical landscape.

As the news broke that the BAC would open the front part of the building the next day, my heart leapt to know that all was not lost. The resourcefulness, determination and camaraderie of theatre people pulled together to reopen and raise funds. Now, a bit more than a year later, parts of the building closed by the fire are reopening. First were the artists’ bedrooms, now the remarkable, new open-air space, The Courtyard, debuts with Little Bulb’s similarly spirited show, Extravaganza Macabre. Spunky, bouncy and full of heart, this Victorian melodrama with heaps of music, audience interaction, and unadulterated love for their work makes for a delightful opening of the new BAC performance space.

The complete lack of hipster irony makes this show a rare treat. Though heavily stylized with narration and over-the-top performances, the trio of performers fully commit to it rather than commenting on it from a distance. Daylight, fluid actor/audience boundaries and interaction wholly engages the audience with the story, and the reasonably complex structure that never fails to surprise. Songs, narration and scenes alternate and incorporate plenty of slapstick; these combined with the casual outdoor environment makes a fantastic example of popular theatre also suitable for family audiences.

None of the three performers can be singled out as weaker than the others. They are multi-talented actor musicians brimming with infectious joy and exuberance. They fearlessly throw themselves around the ground floor and the gallery, down stairs and trap doors. Their use of space and inclusion of the whole audience regardless of what level they were on is fantastic – no one feels left out, and every bit of the Courtyard is utilised.

The script they created is a bit convoluted, but the narration clearly signposts changes in time and location, as does their multi-rolling. It’s complex enough that adults won’t be bored, but young people in the audience enjoy the warm silliness of the physical comedy within the story. A storm is the catalyst for the separation of a family and an unrelated young couple, all of whom endure much peril and crossed paths in order for everything to be right again. There’s love, violence, grief and death, all of which are treated with extravagance and utmost importance. There are still peaks and troughs in the plot and the emotional range is varied enough that, even though overly exaggerated, doesn’t become mundane.

Both the BAC and Little Bulb display immense passion for their work, and the two marry perfectly to inaugurate the courtyard. Warmth and energy and love radiate from Extravaganza Macabre, and a heavy dose of innocent goofiness makes this production truly something special.

Extravaganza Macabre runs through 26th 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.

Lost, Voyager Business Park

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An invitation to review this different kind of theatrical experience landed in my inbox:

Different Breed Theatre invite you to come down to Gary’s Warehouse in Bermondsey and watch an elf (well…he says he’s an elf, the little shit) talk his way out of a hostage-taking situation. Enjoy Anthony Neilson’s hour-long dark Christmas comedy ‘The Night Before Christmas’ performed by West End actors at bargain prices. There’s food from local market traders. There’s beer from local breweries. There’s questionable secret Santa gifts, rude Christmas cards, music, and of course, an elf. You might even get to sit on Santa’s (mildly pervy) knee.

Sounds like fun, right? This will be my last London production before heading north for the holidays and it sounds like a hell of a finale. Instead, what results is a confusing, audience-led, anti-climax with a profound lack of promised food and entertainment.

The press release gives a clear, full address: Unit 3, Voyager Business Estate, Spa Road, Bermondsey, London SE16 4RP. I follow normal procedure by using Maps on my phone when I don’t know a venue. Voyager Business Estate! Sounds exciting, like the spaceship. I rush from Bermondsey Station about 20 minutes before curtain. Time is tight so tension is building prematurely. Surrounded by blocks of new-build flats in the Bermondsey Spa regeneration area, I overshoot the small industrial estate. Consulting Maps verifies this instinct, so I turn around. Triumph! There is a lull in the action driven by success. On the corner by the railway arch, high above my head, a sign: Network Rail Voyager Business Park, Units 5-8. The set placement, in conjunction with lighting, deliberately challenges the audience, particularly if they are short with poor night vision.

The lull doesn’t last long. Five – eight! No! I need number three. The street isn’t well lit and I cross over to check the dark warehouses across the road, as I can’t read the signage. No, they were called something else. It’s 10 minutes to blast off. I ring the contact number on the press release, no answer, so I leave a message. Confusion and stress is rapidly increasing in this immersive, site-specific piece.

Then it dawns on me. This is the moment where the penny drops within the slow plot reveal.

There is no hostage elf. The audience of one is the hostage. A hostage of time, a clever invitation and trendy warehouse theatre. Or am I? That seed of doubt is still present, but I now know that it is the product of years of honest, run-of-the-mill press releases that disclose more to press than they do to audiences. This is a progressive, cutting edge approach to marketing and press management, but one not particularly suited to objectivity.

A ha! Units 1-4, on the other side of the railway line. Another sign stoically sits at the top of the fence. No sign of a spaceship, though. The units are small small, set back in the railway arches. The gates are open so I can walk into the car park with a few vans, strategically using the space to block sightlines and further exacerbate audience tension. Low lighting helps generates a sinister environment.

I face Unit 3. It’s shuttered. No lights. It’s 7:27. The shutter is sturdy and dark, an effective aversion to potential trespassers, symbolizing the shutters around cynics’ hearts in the run up to Christmas. I phone again. Still no answer. I leave another message. I like the agency of using our own phones to make contact and the integration of technology, a powerful reminder of our dependency on mobile phones.

It’s at this point that the experience is a let down. There is no signage, no other characters, nothing. Just me, stood in a dark, empty car park. Do I wait? The plot starts to disintegrate. I explore the space. I even knock on the unit 3 shutter. Is this a test? A puzzle? Will I soon be met by someone who’s running late? Whatever this performance has become, it’s effectively evoking anxiety in the audience. A final phone call goes straight to voicemail. The performance started a few minutes ago but it already feels like it’s ended despite the promised hour-long running time. The sound also seems to malfunction, as there is no music. Stomach growls also pointedly comment on the obvious lack of food and drink. I decide to utilize my autonomy and head home.

As hours pass and puzzlement fails to dissipate, I question the message of the piece. It raises more questions than answers, but perhaps that is the entire point: sometimes, communications and events mysteriously malfunction, but it’s up to us to take control of the spaceship that is our life. A powerful thought.


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.

Town Hall Cherubs, Battersea Arts Centre

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Dear Town Hall Cherubs,

I know we only met yesterday afternoon but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you since then. Concentrating at work today has been really hard – I couldn’t wait to leave so I could pen this missive, and I’ve been fighting the tiredness that comes with broken sleep filled with golden apples, inflatable little friends, snow and glitter. I’m off somewhere else tonight, but I’m still smiling at the memories of your gentle journey of discovery around Battersea Arts Centre. I’d love to keep you all to myself, but your warm, generous nature shouldn’t be caged, nor is it fair of me to prevent others, young and old, from experiencing the wonderful joy you evoke. So here’s a review for you to share with families far and wide:

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The first generation of immersive theatre fans are growing up. The twenty-somethings who discovered Punchdrunk in their early days are 30-somethings. Now immersed in nappies and temper tantrums as well as non-traditional theatre, these new parents will have high expectations of children’s theatre. Pros arch, run-of-the-mill theatre isn’t enough for them, or their progeny. Fortunately, that first wave of immersive theatre makers is also starting families of their own. Merging interactive, immersive and promenade theatre to create a site-specific adventure for 2-5 year olds, Theatre Ad Infinitum and Sarah Golding from Battersea Arts Centre team up to create children’s show Town Hall Cherubs, a winter adventure that brings the building’s distinctive architecture to life among a landscape of sensory-focused design elements.

Dani (Danielle Marshall) gently rallies a group of children, parents and early years teachers in a cozy corner next to the BAC’s grand staircase. Soothing music and colouring in a drawing of a cherub warms the children to her before they head up the stairs to a discovery on the landing. They find a cherub (joyful and wide eyed Barra Collins) and a fabric garland that continues their music-accompanied journey through several rooms; each contains interactive, sturdy set and design. My favourite is a room full of “little friends”, inflatable blobs by Amy Pennington that the children can dance and climb cardboard mounts with, roll, cuddle and any other imaginative play they can create. The children also discover a giant kaleidoscope by Ted Barnes and Amy Pitt, and a replica of the BAC staircase that Deborah Pugh brings to life as Sarah, a dragon-seahorse creature that’s scared of falling down.

Though the kids won’t notice or care, the moral tacked onto the end feels unnecessarily teacher-y, and Cherub’s plan to go on an adventure and then return home could have been clearer at the beginning. These tiny potential improvements certainly don’t detract from the quiet, calming joy of the event.

This isn’t a high energy, raucous performance. It’s intimate, gentle and encouraging with the pace dictated by the group. As an adult without a child there, it was a joy to observe the children’s reactions to their discoveries and freedom to engage with their new surroundings without fear. It’s a powerful reminder to notice the tiny details around us and enjoy the pleasure of experiencing something new beyond our regular routines.

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Thank you again, Town Hall Cherubs, for having me along on your gorgeous little adventure.


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