Bechdel Testing Life, The Bunker

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Women don’t always talk about men.
Women don’t always talk about men.
Women don’t always talk about men.

It bears repeating because it’s often forgotten, ignored or not believed. Popular culture is particularly deaf to the sentiment, and theatre still likes to rely on this inaccurate gender trope. Whilst this has been slowly changing for some time, particularly on the fringe, it’s still a problem.

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The Enchanted, Bunker Theatre

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York and Arden are two men on America’s death row waiting to die. An investigator, known to the prisoners as The Lady, works night and day to save their lives. The similarly unnamed chaplain does the same to save their souls. As the two piece together the pasts of the men about to meet their deaths, a physical theatre ensemble and extracts from Rene Denfeld’s poetic novel The Enchanted creates a dreamlike, romanticised view of poverty-stricken rural America and the killers it breeds.

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Abigail, The Bunker

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Amongst the vocal campaigns fighting domestic violence against women and male rights’ activists misogynist responses, the fact that at least 4% of men are victims themselves is often overlooked. That 4% is reported abuse and no doubt there are many more cases that are never logged with authorities.

Fiona Doyle’s unnamed couple in Abigail aims to capture the universal potential for male domestic abuse, but misses the mark. Their relationship unfolds in non-linear episodes, but much is missed out and the fragmented structure causes a lack of variation in pace and energy.

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Tonight With Donny Stixx, The Bunker

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Donny Stixx is a teenaged magician with boundless dedication to his craft and desperation for fame. Rather than doing things that boys his age normally do, he spends hours honing his skills and tweaking the act he performs at kids’ parties, hospices, churches and for anyone else that will watch. The only thing he ever thinks and talks about is his magic. But Donny’s pretty obviously on the autism spectrum; this combined with his unstable upbringing and lack of an appropriate support system is a particularly deadly combination. Philip Ridley’s 2015 Edinburgh award-winning solo show explodes onto a bare, grey stage in a linguistically vivid documentation of fanaticism and social disorder with a phenomenal performance by Sean Michael Verey.

Verey is an unrelenting force with inimitable energy and charisma that shines through a character who has precious little social intuition. Though Donny is awkward and frustrating, Verey’s performance captivates. Having a totally plain stage that is anywhere and everywhere means it’s entirely on the actor to hold attention – but the performance makes it work and is never, ever boring.

Ridley’s text is dense and Verey races through it; it would otherwise be double the length. Though the pace is exhausting to take in, it’s necessary. The language and imagery richly creates a wonderfully detailed believable world. Director David Mercatali coaxes the nuance from Donny’s biographical story incredibly well despite the speed – the sparsely used pauses are devastating. When the pace finally lets up, it’s like cold air hitting a friction burn.

A clearly foreshadowed conclusion results in awed, uncomfortable silence. After a week that saw the broken American political machine elect an orange fascist for its next president, Ridley’s play is far from comforting. Whilst Verey’s depiction of Donny’s passion is delightful and his performance is nothing short of extraordinary, his vulnerability weighs heavily on bruised and helpless liberal consciences. There is no safety net, and fanaticism is the new normal in this dark play from the innocent days of pre-2016. It’s a hard show to sit through, but absolutely worth it.

Tonight With Donny Stixx runs through 3 December.

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.

Interview: Isley Lynn on Skin a Cat

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The upcoming opening of new venue The Bunker has certainly generated plenty of buzz, but what has excited me most about their debut season is that Rive Productions is bringing back Isley Lynn’s Skin a Cat for a three-week run. Hugely deserving winner of Vault Festival’s Pick of the Year, Skin a Cat is the coming-of-age story of Alana, a young woman who, like most young people, just wants to lose her virginity – but there’s something in the way. I spoke with writer Isley Lynn about the importance of Alana’s story, why stories like hers need to be told and how Lynn is working for more diversity in British theatre.

TPTTUK: Why does Alana’s story need telling?

IL: I’ve always been most interested in telling stories I haven’t heard before. I get so bored and frustrated when I see a show that’s beautifully produced/designed/directed/written/performed but tells me nothing I didn’t already know, or shows me nothing I haven’t seen so many times over. The bar really is so low for new stories – stories about differently abled people, women-centred stories, unconventional stories of anyone non-white, I could go on. Stories that give us new perspective are so important and exciting that I want to spend my time telling them. And the stories about sex – especially first sex – never matched up with my own experiences, so I figured I should tell mine. It really was as simple as that, but that’s also why it’s important.

TPTTUK: You use several dramatic forms and styles in Skin a Cat. Tell me a bit about these choices and the reasons behind them.

IL: To be honest, the play was so easy to write that it came out without too much thought. The stylistic qualities were organic to the material – and I had plenty of lived material to work with! I felt the direct address was important because it allows Alana to be honest and open with the audience in a way she isn’t able to be with the characters onstage with her. In a play about the pressures of how others see you and what effort it is to please, it felt crucial to keep this [play focused on] her story, her testimony, her voice.

So much of the action happens mid-coitus, and I had no idea how to put sex on stage. All credit to our wickedly brilliant director Blythe Stewart for its staging (this was definitely the most fun I’ve ever had in rehearsals, and I’m still impressed with how she managed to create a representational, physical language without resorting to silly hip thrusts).

TPTTUK: What would you like audiences to take away from Skin a Cat?

IL: We only had six performances at the Vault Festival, but after every one I had someone approach me and share their own embarrassing story, or their own experience of sexual shame or difference. That’s exactly the reaction I hope for at the Bunker – I want people to be able to see themselves in Alana’s story, and feel emboldened to talk about their experiences with strangers and friends and loved ones, because that’s the only way we can start to realise how we all “fall short” of the expectations placed on us – and not just with sex, but in so many other areas of our lives – and how unimportant and unhealthy those expectations can be.

TPTTUK: What are the biggest issues in the theatre industry today? Is your work combating them?

IL: I hope I am – I’m trying to. So many of the issues in our industry have their roots in the lack of representation. I’ve already talked about how important it is to have a diversity of stories and that’s a big part of it, but the responsibility for that is at the feet of everyone, not just writers – It’s important to create opportunities for underrepresented people on the stage, but it’s worthless if those individuals are not in a position to take opportunities available to them because they can’t afford to work for low or no pay, for example, or if they couldn’t afford the outrageous drama school audition [fee] in the first place. I have no idea how to fix that with unpaid work being the foundation for any career (certainly mine) and so much the norm.

Often, only people with strong financial support behind them can take full advantage of what’s out there. There are great one-off schemes, and great venues doing their part (like the Hope Theatre with their Equity house agreement on pay), but until the entire industry is a viable career option [for anyone], we won’t have a community that reflects the world we live in, and that’s the primary job of the arts.

TPTTUK: Isley Lynn fans are dying to know: what’s coming up next?

IL: I’ve been working with one of my absolute favourite actors on a one woman show that, if all goes well, should have a life at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe and hopefully beyond. It’s about a English-Egyptian woman who takes up pole dancing when her husband leaves her for the revolution in Cairo. It’s going to be a unique perspective on the battle over women’s bodies and what that means when you have to navigate two very different worlds, when you’re not fully on one side or the other.

Skin a Cat runs 12 October – 5 November.

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.