Only Bones, Soho Theatre


by guest critic Rebecca JS Nice

Short and sweet, classic and comical. Thomas Monckton performs a solo piece glued to his spot, centre stage beneath a low hanging lamp, which obscures his body from the shoulders up for at least half of the work. Only Bones is a classic example of body manipulation that playfully explores all the possibilities that a clown can find and make with only his body, one square metre of space, and one light. These creative boundaries have been stretched and tested but remain in performance to give the show a formal identity and context for Monckton’s shenanigans.

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Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman, Soho Theatre

From a lectern in the corner of the stage, Dr Marisa Carnesky fights the social taboo of periods. Resembling a character from a Tim Burton film, the PhD holder in menstrual rituals and synchronicity shares her collective research with a group of performance artists she assembled, the Menstruants. Sideshow/cabaret Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman is a wonderfully quirky manifestation of sisterhood, womanhood and the wonders of the female body.

Every month on the new moon, Dr Carnesky and the Menstruants met on a beach in Southend to develop and performed rituals around their menstrual cycle. The Menstruants come from an array of backgrounds and sexualities, and their rituals are as unique and individual as they are. Through their performances, every woman’s personal experiences with their bodies is validated and celebrated.

The performances on show are distinctive and compelling. There is some spectacle: sword swallower MisSa Blue has a customised set of swords that suit her oesophagus shape each day of her cycle. Some of the work is more reflective and otherwordly, like Nao Nagal’s use of traditional Japanese masked performance. Molly Beth Morossa provides a creepy sideshow element with her twitchy, Victorian high tea. H Plewis performs a visceral movement piece with her menstrual jelly. Rhyannon Styles simply speaks to us directly about her experience of cycles as a trans woman. Fancy Chance, with the rest of the company, performs a phenomenal circus act as a finale, after an empowering, proud sequence of feminine reclamation. All of the acts celebrate female abilities and bodies without aggression.

In between the vulnerable, performative manifestations of female cycles, Dr Carnesky talks to the audience through an array of historical and cultural mores surrounding menstruation. She particularly focuses on myth and symbolism – death and rebirth, shedding of skin and female unity. Her tone is gentle and matter-of-fact; the the content may be revolutionary but she comes across as warm and supportive.

In a show that has the potential to come across as alienating, it is instead welcoming – no one in the audience (men included) seem uncomfortable, and the stories shared on the stage are supported from the house. Instead,this diverse, inclusive variety show is a divine honouring of the feminine mystery and a reclamation of one of the features that defines women, and a showcase of some excellent live artists.

Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman runs through 7 January.

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 Tiger Lillies: Love for Sale, Soho Theatre

Founded in 1989, dark cabaret act The Tiger Lillies are still going strong. For their current show, in conjunction with Opera North, two of the current members reinterpret Cole Porter songs in a distinctive, understated style. The Tiger Lillies: Love for Sale is a quietly twisted affair, with two suited gents in grotesque face paint delivering Porter’s numbers with subtle bite. Martyn Jacques leads on vocals with a pursed, almost falsetto tone, backed by Adrian Stout. Both play multiple instruments under a projected moon and a cluster of filament bulbs reminiscent of a constellation, creating a sedate, relaxed mood with a sinister undertone. Though slightly too long without incorporating any major change in style or format, The Tiger Lillies: Love for Sale is still an enjoyable event.

Jacques’ draggy, pinched sarcasm is amusingly judgmental, giving upbeat tunes a whole new meaning – ‘You’re the Top’ being the best example of this from their set. Alternating these perkier songs with ballads makes a good, if formulaic mix. The slower songs are more heartfelt, but still have a bit of an edge to them, maintaining a unique interpretation on these vintage classics. The set has a mix of jolly innuendo, genuine mournfulness, comedy and joy – a great combination, though there is minimal exuberance. This isn’t an issue per say, but it feels off in a traditional theatre layout. Their style would be more suited to a relaxed cabaret venue instead of a space where bold theatricality is the norm.

That’s not to say that the visual they create isn’t striking. The rippling moon gives way to various other projections: leaves, headless mannequins, a fighting fish in a tank and others. Whilst there must be reasons for these particular images at the points they appear, it’s not obvious. The variation is welcome, though. The garish makeup and vintage suits shows Weimar and circus influence, a clownish manifestation of their music. An array of instruments is always pleasing to the eye and the lighting beautifully replicates a summer night under the stars.

Even with a more engaged encore that dialogues with the audience, The Tiger Lillies: Love for Sale lacks enthusiasm, but has plenty of skill and distinctive style. Perfect for a low key evening, this unique interpretation of classic songs is a welcome one.

The Tiger Lillies: Love for Sale runs through 30 July.

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.

Fury, Soho Theatre

Sam is a young, single mum living in a council flat in Peckham. Having gone through the care system and her boyfriend leaving her after her second son was born, she has no one. When she meets socially inept Tom, an MA student in the flatshare above her, after losing her job as a cleaner, he creates an opportunity for friendship, sex and an escape from her kids. But Sam was born a victim, and a victim she remains. In this discourse on social class, parenting and gaslighting, playwright Phoebe Eclair-Powell incorporates Greek tragedy and a commentating chorus to expose the perils of growing up with no support network.

This is one of the young writer’s first full-length plays, and she’s still finding her feet. Fury has a great concept and characters, and the use of the chorus is a fantastic touch that adds depth and structural variation, but the execution if the ideas isn’t quite there yet. Some sections of the script don’t quite fit the main thread, like her beach outing with an old friend, and others rush the narrative progression. The chorus fills in information left out of the scenes, but this sticking plaster over the gaps is still unsatisfying and overly simplistic. The relationship between Sam (Sarah Ridgeway) and Tom (Alex Austin) escalates a bit too quickly to be plausible, though some slight extending would go far to rectify this.

Ridgeway is excellent as Sam, with a nervous energy and a risk of exploding into violence at any point, making Tom’s manipulation all the more believable to social services. Austin is slimy, awkward and initially seems harmless, but quickly reveals a dark interior. Though he plays the role well, it’s a challenging one because he transforms so quickly. His unlikely behaviour after his initial awkwardness is a powerful reminder that anyone is capable of committing horrendous acts, particularly against vulnerable people. The chorus of three (Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Daniel Kendrick and Anita-Joy Uwajeh) also play additional characters, flipping between them and non-characters with ease and agility.

Director Hannah Hauer-King uses a simple set by Anna Reid to focus on the text. Her in the round staging is a great choice that adds to Sam’s rising paranoia – everyone is indeed watching her every move. The chorus uses seats set into the audience, which although it keeps them ever present, it is unclear why the audience/actor boundary is blurred. She occasionally struggles to clarify space what with the mostly bare stage, but the dialogue usually explains well enough. Hauer-King taps into Eclair-Powell’s poetry with instinctual finesse, making some moments particularly moving.

Though the ended is rather different from the Medea that the show’s marketing compares it to, there is still senseless tragedy brought on by a man’s deliberate actions against a vulnerable woman. Fury shows much potential from the emerging writer and director, and contains some vital messages about growing up poor and female that, with some small adjustments, will be heard loud and clear.

Fury runs through 30 July.

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.

What I Learned From Johnny Bevan, Soho Theatre; The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Jack Studio Theatre

Is revolution in the air? Or, are we all so broken and defeated by rising costs and a falling quality of life that all we can do is complain bitterly? Perhaps a bit of both? In any case, this is not the first time that I wonder if theatre is responding to the liberal sense of disaffection recently. Shortly before Christmas I questioned Dominic Cavendish’s assertion that theatre isn’t political enough, and my sentiment still stands, particularly after the coincidence of seeing two highly charged political pieces two nights in a row. Fringe theatre, like grassroots politics, is a place of community, a catalyst for change, and the foundations of revolt, as seen in Lazarus Theatre Company’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Luke Wright’s What I Learned From Johnny Bevan.

1997. The eve of the general election. Nick, who’s studying English Literature at a nameless uni stays up all night with his best mate, poet Johnny Bevan, to watch Tony Blair win. It’s the dawn of a new era and change is coming for the working class long oppressed by Thatcherite rule.  Fast forward fifteen years and Nick’s a journalist in London, but Johnny’s student aspirations didn’t come to fruition, and neither have Tony Blair’s. The story of these two lads’ friendship, written and performed by Luke Wright in a blaze of fiery spoken word, is an hour long tale of youthful vigour soured by the realities of adult life. Wright’s delivery and writing is fervent, topical and no moment is out of place in the trendy and on-point What I Learned From Johnny Bevan.

South of the river, an older revolution is taking place. In Soviet Russia, a group of peasants stages a play about a servant girl in Georgia raising the governor’s newborn baby that was abandoned during the family’s escape from a war zone. After a perilous journey, sacrifice for the sake of the infant, and a regime change, everything is put right again by a citizen judge. Lazarus Theatre Company, with its trademarks of a large cast and striking visuals, draws parallels between Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle and the despair of modern life – but “change is hope”. Energetic and in the round, the characters rally the audience to their side like they do in Wright’s monologue.

There’s optimism in both productions as well as despair, and an underlying current of discontent with the state of the UK’s current socio-political trajectory. Both display humanity’s capability for selflessness and selfishness, and the feeling that nothing has changed from Soviet ruled Eastern Europe, to Labour’s late-90’s victory, to present unviable economic conditions and Tory tyranny. We are undeniably flawed with a fickleness vulnerable to power and money, but as a society we are also deeply unhappy and feel that we lack the power to affect change. This sentiment now seems to be emerging in fringe theatre.

Though completely different in form and structure, both What I Learned From Johnny Bevan and The Caucasian Chalk Circle have plenty to say about the contemporary world from similar angles. What I Learned From Johnny Bevan is the better of the two productions, and  the more progressive. A solo performance delivered in spoken word accompanied by charcoal and watercolour landscape projections, most of the imagery in Wright’s language is precise and evocative. Brecht’s well-known play is linguistically stilted and stuffy in contrast, but it’s characters are just as colourful.

Performance poet Luke Wright is a singular tour de force and What I Learned From Johnny Bevan is politically charged and practically flawless. Lazarus Theatre’s performances vary, but of the ten-strong ensemble, no one was particularly strong or weak. Their choreography is well-rehearsed but director Ricky Dukes normally powerful movement sequences  lack impact in the round. The set components take up a lot of space and are used well occasionally, but otherwise clutter the stage with bright, industrial chaos. Neil McKeown’s sound design hints at atmosphere and mood, but is much too quiet to add the impact it could. It’s certainly not a bad production, but neither is it one of Lazarus’ stronger ones.

If theatre is a mirror held up to the world, then evidence is increasing that change is imminent. But what form will it take? Will the people rally as in The Caucasian Chalk Circle or will we either sell out or run away from it all like Nick or Johnny? Only time will tell.

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.

Shifter, Crick Crack Club at Soho Theatre

Going to a Crick Crack Club storytelling event is a bit like joining a private members’ club. This club doesn’t have strict entry criteria, nor is it cold and exclusive – quite the opposite. A welcoming spirit of community and the use of ritual enhance Jan Blake’s and TUUP’s four globe spanning stories. The first half of the two-hour, four-story Shifter has sturdier narratives, but the tales of trickery and metamorphosis interspersed with simple call and response create a magical, engrossing evening despite a few structural shortcomings.

We begin in Scotland, where young prince Raymond on a hunting trip meets a beautiful woman in the depths of the forest. He takes her home and the two soon marry. After many years and the births of their ten children who all have some sort of foreshadowing deformity, the prince makes a surprising discovery after spying on his wife whilst she bathes one evening. After a public reveal, the myth quickly relocates to a chateau in France, where inexplicable marks on a high window ledge are made clear. The prince is very much the victim of his bride’s deceit, but their love is also held up for admiration. Told by TUUP, this story is particularly male focused, demonising the female but also giving her power. It would be an interesting experiment to see what a woman storyteller could bring to this story. The climax and denouement are rushed, but the final line satisfies. TUUP has a relaxed, magnetic presence and his delivery of this warped love story is endowed with empathy and respect.

Blake now takes us to the Gulla Islands off the coast of America, one of the first settlements by African slaves. This is a another love story, again with a man who falls in love with a powerful, shape-shifting woman. Mary is less friendly than Raymond’s wife, and the threat to hew new husband John is tangible in Blake’s telling. This unnamed tale alludes to Rumpelstiltskin and Sleeping Beauty with the prominence of a spinning wheel and mysterious nighttime happenings. The strongest of the four stories in Shifter, its madness and imminent danger give this story a thrill, heightened by the various percussive instruments TUUP uses to accompany.

After the interval, two tribal, pre-Christian tales evoke the savannahs of Africa and the prestige that comes with being a successful hunter. The morals in these stories aren’t about the fear of powerful women in the Christian West; they more broadly apply to all humanity – don’t allow yourself to lose sight of your life goals, and practice rather than magic will bring you success. This half has a more epic sense of coverage, but the narrative arcs are less familiar to Western stories. They are more rounded, with a greater sense of the world outside of the characters; this makes them initially unsatisfying, but more universal.

TUUP and Blake both have natural warmth and charisma that draws in the audience like a hug. They are energetic but not ostentatious, simply relying on the rhythms and language of their stories. Much of the pleasure from Shifter comes from their presence, though hearing these stories grants a comfortable sense of inclusiveness despite some rocky moments in the stories themselves.

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.

First Love is the Revolution, Soho Theatre and Juliet gets a modern, interspecies remix by Rita Kalnejais in the south London-set First Love is the Revolution. Awkward, lonely Basti (James Tarpey) is trying to make the best of his teen years in a broken home when he meets Rdeca (Emily Burnett), a sassy fox cub hunting on her own for the first time. With Rdeca’s family not the most functional either, the two black sheep find solace in each other when they discover they understand each other’s speech. Using a bold metaphor for the deliberate choice to alienate or accept of The Other, this urban adventure through back gardens and fox dens is simultaneously funny, brave and disturbing, whilst excellently performed and with writing that keeps the audience on its toes.

The cast of six with a 50/50 gender split is also commendably diverse in age and ethnicity. Hayley Carmichael leads the pack as the fox family’s fierce matriarch. Tarpey and Burnett are the only cast members who do not play multiple roles, though the skill in these young actors is evident in their charming chemistry. Lucy McCormack of performance art acclaim plays a wide array of roles from Rdeca’s hyper but affectionate sister, to the neighbourhood cat that taunts thuggish guard dog Rovis (Samson Kayo) and the prozzie who lives upstairs from Basti. Basti’s dad (Simon Kunz) who wants his meek son to uphold the fighting, womanizing “ideal man” is also Gregor mole and a delightfully gossipy old hen in a cardigan, tweed skirt and wellies on a never ending search for grass seed. Director Steve Marmion’s choice to use animalistic physicalities is just enough of a reminder that not everyone in this play is human, but the movement is not so overpowering that it interferes with the characters’ relationships.

Anthony Lamble’s set design is almost post-apocalyptic; it is certainly grim enough to reinforce the lack of comfort in all of the characters’ lives, human or animal. Human domesticity precariously sits on rolling black slopes that the actors nimbly climb over and tunnels they scurry through. Philip Gladwell’s lighting smoothly morphs through sunsets and sunrises that dictate the wild rhythm of Rdeca and Basti’s all-night adventures.

Kalnejais’ use of the animal/human relationship is a lovely idea, with Basti paralleling the open minds of those willing to see The Other as themselves; he is a citizen opening his home to a refugee rather than labeling her as a pest. The concept harks back to ancient fables and folktales, connecting our often-disconnected present from the rich heritage of our storytelling past. However, whilst I certainly don’t believe she is advocating bestiality, it is the first thing that springs to mind when Basti and Rdeca are caught in a compromising position. It’s not revolutionary, just gross. Maybe it makes me a prude, but I find fox and human sex damages the metaphor rather than reinforces it.

Regardless of acts that would have the RSPCA up in arms, this is a stunning production in Soho Theatre’s main house that brings the emotional scale of Shakespeare to modern day London, with a visceral fervor that celebrates the magic of young love and accepting those that are different from us.

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