Exactly Like You, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Things have never been easy for Abby. She doesn’t get on with her mum, she’s didn’t do well in school, she drifts from one shitty job to another without any purpose or goals. She misses her Nana, with whom she would spend long hours writing fantastical stories and listening to music. Nina Simone was their favourite. In Exactly Like You, Lotte Rice tells Abby’s story through a moving, passionate spoken word monologue on losing her way and finding it again.

Rice’s way with words makes Abby funny and relatable, the sort of woman you could sit down with over a pint or a cup of tea and natter about all and sundry going on in the world. She would always have a story or an anecdote to share that would make you laugh or think, or both. Her decision to make Abby a working class, down-at-heel character so expressive and articulate through spoken word is a fantastic choice rather than catering to the stereotype of working class young people as grunting cokeheads who only live for nights out on the piss. The piece is punctuated with soulful renditions of Nina Simone’s songs, effectively breaking up the dense text. Though Abby’s story isn’t remarkable in itself, the mode of telling it is hugely refreshing.

Designer Elouise Farley and lighting designer Zanna Woodgate work together to create a landscape of glowing bookcases, the sort that fit vinyl records. Though simple and subtle, they capture the inner warmth of Abby’s Nana who lived for music of all sorts. They are her memories of her time with Nana, always present and always driving her forward, and a lovely addition that makes the piece feel more polished than a bare stage.

When Abby hits rock bottom after yet another night out drowning her painful memories with too much whiskey, an unexpected helping hand appears. Fortunately, this is not some benevolent, condescending force sent to save her. Abby’s journey is one of reflective self-discovery told in an engaging, lively format with fantastic music to boot.

Exactly Like You runs through 28th 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.

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Lines, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Every Londoner has strong feelings about the tube. They love it, hate it, love to hate it, depend on it, avoid it, sometimes all at once. In Lines, Rose Bruford students pay homage to the underground by extracting individuals from the millions of faces that blur through stations each day. A collage of movement, narration and dialogue captures the diversity of the city with a lovely affection, but the tangled, underdeveloped plot threads that emerge aren’t followed through.

Writer Ian Horgan has numerous lovely ideas but none of them, even the fictional disaster that has the power to unite passengers, is chosen as the narrative spine. Whilst this adds to the montage effect of individual moments, it’s a format that only works for short periods of time. There are certainly some great stories of individual characters and any of them could be short plays in and of themselves, but here they are unsatisfying. The sections of spoken word vary in the quality of delivery, but this is a style that Horgan uses inconsistently. The use of live music is much more regular, and a great contribution to the piece.

There are some great performances, as should be expected from drama school students. No one stands out as a weak link and their time training together has formed a seamless ensemble. Lines also has the distinction of one of the more ethnically diverse productions of the fringe, which in and of itself is hugely commendable.

Though this affectionate tribute to London transport has plenty of potential, it falls short of true excitement or innovation in its current form.

Lines runs through 15th 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.

bare., Courtyard Theatre

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Three young women, three short solo performance pieces, three stories of vulnerability make bare., a thematically linked evening of new writing. Each of the three mini-plays has a distinct style and is performed by the writer. They vary in the quality of writing and inventiveness, and feel very new – more like scratch performances rather than finished pieces. bare. is a lovely concept – short, female solo performances that reveal hopes, fears, aspirations and conflict. It could easily become a regular event, giving women the chance to try out one-person work in front of an audience. As is, these pieces certainly need development but the three writer/performers show much promise and commendable initiative that, with development and experience, will certainly improve their work.

Kat Ronson is first, performing ‘IBZ’. This fragmented work follows a young woman’s journey from singledom into a loving relationship. The wild, drug fueled club nights transform into something more gentle and intimate, but her story does not end happily ever after. The young woman’s transformation is lovely, but the choppy writing makes for an unclear narrative and timeline. Ronson uses comedy punch lines and moments of reflective sincerity effectively, but this doesn’t balance out the vague writing. This piece would benefit from dramaturgical support and a hefty re-write, but the concept and central character are certainly workable.

American Steffanie Freedoff shows that yanks can handle their poetry and spoken word with ‘in the beginning there was Word’, a biographical monologue in verse about hating poetry as a teenager and growing to love it as an adult. This is also a coming-of-age story, but a much more positive one on self-discovery and confidence. It’s a bit cheesy and motivational, but the two stand-alone poems she ends on are angry, provocative and polished. The focus is on these pieces, which feel disconnected from the first part of the performance but add variation in style and tone. This second mini-play also needs development and shaping to find its overarching message, but it feels like it could be lengthened without becoming dull.

Madeleine Dunne brings a strong character piece to the trio with ‘Mind the Gap’, a piece that looks at the struggle of overcoming mental health issues. Lucy is a little girl terrified of breaking the rules and a young adult still limited by these fears. Told in two parts, Dunne’s gift for transformation is revealed in these two naturalistic monologues. It’s not clear who she is talking to and why in either section, but the character is a suitably interesting one. Lucy could also work well as the protagonist in a full play with multiple characters, perhaps even better with others to respond to rather than limited in a solo performance.

A quiet, sung finale wraps up the evening, a nice touch that adds some unity to these unrelated plays. bare. still feels like a scratch or showcase with a range in quality, but as a themed performance event, it is poignant and well curated. All three pieces need refining and/or expansion, though each shows at least some element of promise.

bare. runs through 16 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.

The Broke ‘N’ Beat Collective, Battersea Arts Centre

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Kids have it tough, especially if they’re poor. Decreasing social mobility, higher costs of education and living, and decreasing welfare are trapping our future generations in inescapable cycles of poverty. They are just as aspirational as young people from more privileged backgrounds and aware of the opportunities they don’t have. They are angry, frustrated and lack the opportunity to constructively express their feelings that often go completely disregarded by more comfortable members of society.

Theatre-Rites and 20 Stories High, seeing validity in their voices, worked with numerous young people in this demographic to devise a gig-theatre show that shares experiences of being a poor teenager in Britain today. The Broke ‘N’ Beat Collective is an empowering, important work that uses fantastic puppetry, mask and music to create a gloriously messy collage of young people’s concerns and issues. Structurally mirroring the rough and ready, fractured existence of urban youth culture, it rebels against theatrical and cultural preconceptions without apology for its flaws.

Elisha Howe’s (aka Elektric) soaring rhymes and Jack Hobbs (aka Hobbit) beatboxing energise the audience and establish a defiant, proud tone that carries through the show. They are not backing down, nor are B-boy Ryan Harson (aka LoGisTics) and puppeteer Mohsen Nouri. They literally zoom in on the tiny model tower blocks and street scenes of urban Britain, replicated in cardboard wonderfully extracted from the plain back wall, creating a landscape of alternating songs with monologues. These set pieces and puppets pass on the otherwise unknown life stories of young people they’ve met.

Omar is an insecure, confrontational grey hoodie that takes the whole show to find his voice. Jack’s a wannabe gangsta who knocks up Latifa (both with cartoonish, cardboard heads) and ditches her and the resulting child that reflects on how that’s shaped his life goals. Joanne is the Papergirl who cuts herself because her mum’s boyfriend abused her. There’s also the incredible Speaker Boy, a rotund, playful chap with a boombox for a head. Each puppet is as unique as the young person behind it, and just as inspiring. (Seriously, go look at the puppets’ photos in the gallery part way down the page; they are some of the most emotionally endowed bits of paper and foam I’ve ever encountered. All of these characters unashamedly demand attention with precise, evocative storytelling and a joyfully visualised presence. These stories are broadcast along side an ever-changing soundtrack with interjections of dance, banter and spoken word, simultaneously creating an atmosphere of celebration and seriousness. Though fun, it never loses the sense of the weight behind the work.

Despite the boldness in the work and the importance of its messages, there are some sloppy transitions that cause the piece to lose momentum. Elektric unnecessarily introduces each number by name, and there are some in-jokes between the performers that, whilst sweet, don’t carry energy with their small scale. This gives the whole piece a choppiness that makes it feel unfinished.

All four performers’ exemplary skillsets and vibrance are fantastic vehicles for the young people of this country seeking escape from the poverty that is so limiting to their ambition. Each moment connects to the next through a theme rather than a storyline, but the effect mirrors modern society: a bit messy, emotional and ambitious for a better life. The fun doesn’t override or trivialize the seriousness, and neither is it too weighty. The unpolished feel is very much ingrained in the gig-theatre style, and though it would be great to learn more about the characters presented, The Broke ‘N’ Beat Collective truly holds a mirror up to nature.

The Broke ‘N’ Beat Collective runs through 2 April.

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.

Wonderations, The Canvas Cafe

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Sunday evening was a night of new discoveries. The Canvas Café, just off Brick Lane, serves homemade cakes and prosecco by the glass. It also has walls you can write on and a cosy downstairs performance space. In that space was Ivy Davies and her show Wonderations, a gentle, joyful blend of spoken word, songs from her EP and questioning whether or not Mickey Mouse is actually God. Though lacking in narrative, Davies’ performance shares issues that are particularly personal: aging and her search for identity and faith. With a touch of live art about it, Wonderations is a lovely celebration of self-acceptance akin to reading Davies’ journal.

This isn’t a visual show, but a totally aural one. It could easily be listened to through headphones or with eyes closed, though her soothing melodies and rhythms could lull you to sleep – it’s that relaxing. There are some powerful sentiments in her lyrics and poetry that deserve full attention, however. As Davies struggles to find her pre-marriage and babies self in theatrical songs and rhymes, one can’t help but to relate to her frustration with finding her true identity buried under all the nonsense life throws at us. We all find ourselves wasting hours on social media focused on constructing an image, or immersing ourselves in work and forgetting to just be present in the world for lengthy periods, but Davies exhorts us to let all of it go. She’s like a life coach, but a gentle one who uses cuddles rather than shouting.

This cabaret-esque structure feels conversational, but is precisely and satisfyingly scripted. There’s no plot to speak of, but with Davies wearing the form like her own skin, it works. Her spoken word isn’t the pounding, angry sort I’m accustomed to; it’s full of flowers, sunshine, rain and claiming her own ground. Davies has an immovable strength and presence, but one that overflows with positivity. Less connected from her celebratory songs and spoken word is what feels like an internal monologue where in looking for faith, she wonders if God is actually Mickey Mouse. He’s been seen around the world at the same time, and has plenty of purchasing power. It’s a wonderfully funny, and pointed, argument, though less clear on it’s place in the show’s structure.

Ivy Davies’ Wonderations is a hard show to pin down, but it doesn’t apologise for that. I’m pretty certain that she’s confident enough to not care what anyone thinks of her work, but the themes it contains are universally human presented in an easily digestible format. An excellent event for a quiet Sunday evening, particularly with a slice of cake and a glass of prosecco.

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.

in/out (a feeling), Hope Theatre

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Sometimes, simplicity in narrative structure is more effective than twists, heaps of characters and subplots. Storytelling has been a powerful medium for time immemorial. in/out (a feeling) starkly depicts young, Eastern European woman Blue working in a London brothel after promised a cleaning job. Her client Ollie is a coked-up, suburban lad out for his mate’s stag do, but their encounter changes both their lives, at least for a little while. This two-hander is a brutal depiction of sex trafficking and its uncomfortable nearness to us all, but unblinkingly focuses on the delicate humanity of these two characters through interweaving, storytelling monologues. Excellent performances and Andrew Maddock’s sophisticated wordplay and use of rhythm both captivates and horrifies in this outstanding production with few, if any, faults.

Nicholas Clarke and Alex Reynolds are Ollie and Blue. Though rarely addressing each other directly, their chemistry is still tangible. Clarke’s character has a more interesting journey, from lad’s lad to articulate romantic to devoted boyfriend; Reynolds’ is subtler but more devastating. Both have fearless, vulnerable presences and expressive eyes that pierce the audience to the core during extended sequences of direct address. This is a small, intimate play in a similarly sized venue, but these performers fill the room with intensity and then some. The audience feels like they really know them by the end: a remarkable feat.

Director Niall Phillips and lighting designer Çağla Temizsoy put the stage/bed in the round with harsh blue and red lighting. The set design, presumably by Phillips, is similarly harsh and animalistic: white paint slashes the black walls, strips of red fabric hang from the ceiling like intestines. It’s a nightmare to us, but it’s Blue’s reality. Small buckets, like the kind children play with at the beach, dangle at head height. They aren’t filled with sand, though. It’s Ollie’s perpetual supply of cocaine that he lovingly shares with Blue and frantically sniffs during descriptions of his all-night binges. By the end of this 70-minute play, there’s white powder everywhere.

Along with the performances, Maddock’s language is the star of the play. Evocative rhyme hints at spoken word at times, at others his prose dances with colours, imagery and Blue’s memories of a happier life. We meet several other characters through their storytelling: Blue’s pimp, Ollie’s friend Connell, and others. The double meaning and repetition of “in, out” innocuously describes breathing, then the other bodily function that dictates the rhythms of Blue’s existence. Maddock’s ability to wow the audience with his facility of word choice, sentence structure, rhyme and repetition easily tips into the terror that these characters experiences; this is proof of an extraordinary gift with words and evocative storytelling.

Though building awareness of the closeness of human trafficking is clearly the primary purpose of this piece (Do you actually know your neighbours’ isn’t a brothel? I don’t.), in/out (a feeling) could be about anything at all and the language would still have it’s power. This is a production that needs to be seen, but it feels it would lose its intensity in a larger venue. A good portion of the actors’ power hinges on eye contact, which is easily lost in a bigger space. But in/out (a feeling) needs to be seen by more people – by everyone. And it’s a stunning piece of theatre as well as a vital one.

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.