Dark Vanilla Jungle, Theatre N16

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Andrea isn’t very well. In solitary confinement at some sort of secure facility, she has no one to talk to other than those who briefly visit and those who live in her head. It’s likely the audience is the latter, as her monologue reveals the story of a young woman unstoppably desperate to love and be loved. This desperate runs so deep that she conjures a past relationship with a vegetative amputee she encounters in passing at a hospital, and goes on to do Very Bad Things that land her in this facility.

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Possibilities, Theatre N16

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What if your life has endless parallel possibilities? What if Sliding Doors is true? What if every choice you make leads to your timeline fracturing into endless paths that just keeps multiplying? Possibilities frames this proposal with two people, displaying nearly an hour’s worth of incarnations of their relationship. It’s a nice idea, but one that doesn’t develop any of the individual moments or stories presented. With inconsistent performances and an idea that isn’t fully explored, Possibilities feels like just that – but without the script’s potential coming to fruition.

Jamal Chong and Kate Gwynn take to some scenes better than others. Their intimacy is awkward in some scenes, but their flirtation and sense of play in others is sweetly genuine. The inconsistency is frustrating, as the potential for great performances is there. Chong is also the writer and director – the choice to wear this trio of hats is undoubtedly the root of the issues with this play and production.

The design is minimalistic and functional, with monochromatic chairs and a bench being arranged differently for each scene. Switching on clip-on coloured lights one by one as an introduction is a nice visual touch, but one that doesn’t link to the script in any discernible way.

Other than an interesting question posing as a concept, Possibilities falls short of taking a stance on the impact such a world would have on the individuals that it places under a microscope. The rejection of a narrative arc in favour of a collection of scenes only related through their characters actively prohibits development of this piece, and there is a pronounced absence of dramaturgy. With a bigger creative team and any sort of answer to the concept question, Possibilities would be become a more well-formed reality.

Possibilities runs through 26 October.

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: Chris Hislop on Barker’s Gertrude

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“It is impossible – now, at this point in the long journey of human culture – to avoid the sense that pain is necessity…that it is integral to the human character both in its inflicting and in its suffering…” – Howard Barker

Howard Barker is no stranger to sex and violence. His 2002 reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet places the prince’s mother and her sexuality centre stage in a divisive interpretation of the character who receives little attention in the original story. Rarely staged (most likely due to its relentless, sexually explicit subject matter), theatre PR Chris Hislop returns to directing with this upcoming production of Gertrude: The Cry at Theatre N16 in Balham. The play has fostered a huge range of opinions regarding its depiction of women, feminism and female sexuality and its director has a lot to say on the matter.

Why does this play need to be staged?

It’s a vital, powerful and fascinating piece that tackles feminism and sexuality from a very different angle. It’s also a wonderful dissection of Hamlet – considering the Shakespeare 400 celebrations, now is a great time to be giving the Prince of Denmark an overhaul. It’s also a largely forgotten and underperformed piece by a difficult and complex writer. We need more plays like this and writers like Barker, and if this production inspires anybody to think differently, I’ve done my job well.

Opposing views say Barker presents women in an empowering or negative light. What approach are you taking, and why?

Both – my favourite thing about this play is how it was written to empower an underwritten female character, and yet does such a piss-poor job of doing so. Or maybe it doesn’t – maybe Barker’s aggressive sexualising of Gertrude and blatant female nudity throughout is his attempt at female empowerment. Either way, he’s not a misogynist. Barker’s obsession with women has translated into some wonderful parts in his shows, and he’s always trying to write pieces that celebrate and empower them, just through a rather perverse lens. I don’t want to circumnavigate that entirely, just sand down some of the sharper corners.

What’s so appealing about the character of Gertrude in Shakespeare and Barker’s scripts?

She’s an utter mess. She doesn’t know what she wants, she doesn’t know how she’ll achieve it, and she’s governed by her wants and desires. She’s an incredibly human, rounded character. She’s a mother and a lover, neither of which are mutually exclusive.

Would you say this is a feminist play? Why/why not?

I struggle with the word “feminism”. Our world is defined by our language, and by defining an issue by a specific gender we’re generating responses that hinder as well as help. We talk about “racism” – defining someone by their race – so why don’t we call it “genderism”?

Anyway, I digress: I think this is a play about women, the role of women, and women’s sexuality – not exclusively, I think it has a lot to say about sex in general, but the fact that it does so from a female perspective is important. You could say that it’s not even really from a female perspective; it’s a script by a man, and it’s being directed by a man, but I find such comments painfully genderist. I wouldn’t expect only women to like Carol Churchill, or only men to like books by Ross Kemp.

So – is it a feminist play? Yes. Do I think that’s important? Not really. Do I think it tackles important issues around sex and gender? Yes. Is that important? 100%.

Gertrude: The Cry opens 12 June.

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 Rules of Inflation, Theatre N16

I hate balloons. Well, not balloons themselves, but the noise they make when they burst. After more than three years as a children’s entertainer that does balloon modelling, you’d think I’d be used to them, but no – if anything, it’s worse. When I walked into Theatre N16 to discover a floor covered with balloons and four actors gleefully throwing themselves around the space, I nearly left. I’m glad I didn’t though, despite numerous explosions. Rules of Inflation, a new performance art piece by Balloons Theatre, confronts socio-political issues by setting them at a children’s birthday party, complete with a deranged entertainer who demands his audience of four child characters participate in increasingly disturbing activities. Though my immediate violent revulsion towards the balloons and the job I know all too well intensified as time went on, the messages contained therein are cleverly presented. Even though they are not particularly unique to the stage, the kids’ party framework draws attention to how disturbing these global problems are.

From the start, it is clear this is not a normal children’s party. The creepy music, dark lighting and clown in a ripped, dirty costume (a disturbing Joshua Webb) create a distinctly foreboding, horror film-esque atmosphere, along with all those balloons that could burst at any moment. It’s not a unique landscape but it’s highly unsettling, and relentlessly so. As innocent childhood games become not so innocent, it’s a reminder of how seriously little ones take their play. Getting “out” actually makes them feel like they died, or that they’re gagged and bound. It also calls to mind child’s play in war torn countries, where games in a dangerous environment can result in injury, trauma or death, and the way the world’s politicians play at war without experiencing any direct consequences.

Four actors play four children with varying levels of maturity, who are prone to varying levels of exploitation. Clown targets serious and mature Blue (Nastazja Somers), and finally abandons her in a harrowing, violent end. It’s horrific to witness. Yellow (Bryony Cole) and Green (Emily Sitch) are too similar of characters, and Pink (Bj McNeill) also aligns with them. Whilst this could create an effective gang against Blue, who has a wonderfully defiant presence, this opportunity is missed and she is neither particularly isolated or supported by the kids as Clown abuses her. Instead, their youthfulness draws them to the clown, who eventually proclaims a party  winner even from their indistinctness. The piece is also a bit too long considering the straightforward format, but more abstract moments help add variation and a break from the relentless violence, abuse and manipulation. The actors’ vocal and physical energy was quite adult at times and would be more potent if the actors consistently kept to obvious depictions of children.

Rules of Inflation may not evoke such a visceral reaction in most people, but it’s aggressive displays of sexual abuse and objectification are still incredibly powerful. The piece needs a few tweaks to enhance its potency and theatricality, but not many. The balloons and kids’ party context can play on a fear of clowns as well, but this live art performance is a potent examination of power and child abuse in its own right.

The Rules of Inflation runs until 24th March.

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.

Goodnight Polly Jones, Theatre N16

The wonderful thing about new writing is the potential for discovering unknown gems, perfectly formed and ready for a transfer or a tour, or a piece that is still finding its shape but its promise is evident. There’s also the chance of having to endure work that, though trying its hardest, isn’t ready to be put in front of critics. Goodnight Polly Jones is the latter. In its current state, Andrew Sharpe’s script bears more resemblance to a GCSE issue-based devised piece than a play suited to a professional small-scale theatre. Isolated scenes at key plot points and painfully long transitions with busy sound design and terrible voiceovers turn sexual assault and rape into a banal one hour, exacerbated by a performance matching the script’s clunkiness.

Ben Keenan as the jumped up, inappropriately hired Peter provides some redemption. He handles the awkward dialogue and tenuous circumstances extraordinarily well, adding gravitas and emotional truth to the HR manager with a disgustingly flippant disregard for sexual consent. Polly (Victoria Morrison) at her youngest and most immature supermarket clerk manages to match him, but as the older accountant taking that supermarket into administration, she is self-conscious and awkward.

The root problem of this production is the script. Composed solely of four distinct scenes at different times, they show dramatic change in tone and character development, but the story is neglected. This is potentially an important, character-driven play, but there’s no subtlety to the plot – every progression is beaten to death with dialogue rather than shown. The transitions attempt to fill in some gaps, but they too are overt, too long and too cringy, with am dram worthy voice acting. The resolution is half-baked, and Sharpe’s propensity for signposting (that treats the audience as if they were children with ADHD and learning difficulties) misses a glaring, albeit predictable, opportunity to tie up loose ends in the final moments of the play. The scenes as individual units aren’t awful, but the connective thread between them is most thin indeed.

Goodnight Polly Jones doesn’t completely lack potential, but it is in such an early stage of development that it feels wholly inappropriate to stage it in front of a judging audience. A scratch night or a workshop? Absolutely. Though it needs extensive work, it addresses an important issue with some isolated nice moments.

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.

You Tweet My Face Space, Theatre N16

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David and Charlotte’s ten-year relationship is on the rocks. He’s struggling with an addiction that’s pushing her out of his busy life, but David’s social media and internet habits aren’t allowing him to give Charlotte the attention she deserves. When an indiscretion on a night out is immediately published and Charlotte leaves him, David vows to quit cold turkey. It’s not so easy though. As the personified apps crash his peace and quiet, this romcom takes a surreal, satirical turn. With bitingly funny moments, good comic timing and some good performances, this surprising one-act is a great giggle for those of us enslaved by technology.

Tom Hartwell is the bookish, quiet David who’s frustration becomes real and relatable. He’s wonderfully foiled by characters such as Hotmail (suave, aloof Hadley Smith), self-obsessed Instagram (girl next door Ellie Goffe with a heart of gold) and Facebook (subtly vicious Evan Rees). Tinder (Kate Okello), Farmville (the wonderfully dour Katie Dalzell) and a couple of others join in to try to persuade David to stay in the internet realm, and some glorious clashes ensue with plenty of digital pop culture in-jokes. Pacing is excellent, as is the energy and ensemble work of the cast.

Hartwell is also the playwright; he has good intuition for the relationship story arc that frames and justifies the chaos, though the moral is a rather obvious one and not particularly profound. His dialogue is punchy and fun, regularly inducing laughs. (It would be interesting to see what his serious material is like.) Director Anne Stoffels has her hands full with a large cast in a small space, but usually manages to keep the action moving without messiness.

For a social media comedy, You Tweet My Face Space is well crafted and even though some of the performances are weaker than others, it reminds us to take a break from our online worlds and interact with people face-to-face more often. It’s a fun, frivolous piece with some excellent moments and a bit of post-holiday season fun.

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.

Torn Apart (Dissolution), Theatre N16

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Love is one of the best things in the world, or the worst. It feels like floating, butterflies, warmth and fuzziness, or being trapped in a cage with no way out. Everyone wants to love and be loved, but when it backfires, the effects are devastating. For life, sometimes. Torn Apart (Dissolution) presents three interconnected relationships across generations and international borders. These people are broken at worst or dysfunctional at best, which makes for some good dramatic tension but the playwright BJ McNeill’s structure, style and storyline deteriorates towards the end. Some lovely set-piece scenes, a few good performances and a powerful set design help offset these issues, but new company No Offence Theatre need to continue developing their ideas in order to better showcase them.

The international company founded by two actors, Australian Hannah Kerin and Polish Natazja Somers is admirably diverse, and the play suits their strengths well. Complimented by Simon Donohue and Elliott Rogers, they form two couples that are related but never met. Rogers, at only twenty years old, possesses a presence and rich emotional range rare in a performer so young. He is excellent contrast to his carefree girlfriend Casey (Kerin) and the two fill the intimate Theatre N16 wonderfully. Somers and Donohue as Alina and an unnamed soldier have a more mature, world-weary energy that add another layer of contrast. Less developed are scenes with lesbian couple Holly (Katherine Eskenazi) and Erica (Monty Leigh), but they create a rare and commendable female-strong cast. The action flips between these three couples’ stories, revealing their connection at a good pace.

Szymon Ruszczewski’s set is simple but evocative. A bed with white linens sits in the middle of the stage, inside a white cube with threads creating walls the audience can see through – or thin bars, trapping the unhappy couples inside a generic, characterless bedroom. Ruszczewski has also designed the lighting, which is the most successful plot I’ve seen in this low-ceilinged theatre with several nooks and crannies that tend to cast stark shadows.

McNeill also directs. There’s a good use of diagonal lines so all sides can see, but some odd choices as well. Gratuitous female toplessness doesn’t add anything to the story. If the point is that the audience is witnessing private, intimate moments, why isn’t everyone naked when they’re having sex? He also doesn’t include a curtain call; this is incongruent with the naturalistic style of the piece that has a literal fourth wall. Several of the characters toy with the strings that make up the set walls, which makes their meaning jarringly ambiguous – are they walls, or are they bars, or are they just strings? Structurally, the last couple of scenes change style, and neither develops the plot. Ending with the last soldier/Alina scene would be abrupt, but a reinforcement of the horror that lurks in some relationships.

There is definite potential in this new company and their creatives, as well as scope to continue developing and refining their work. Their goal to create truly international work not limited by where their artists are from is a wonderful one that will garner them more attention with the overall increase in quality of their work.


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