Romeo and Juliet, Greenwich Theatre

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A self-described modern rep company, Merely Theatre is addressing Shakespeare’s  gender problem with 50/50 casting. Five male/female pairs each learn a set of characters in two plays, then on the night it’s decided who will perform. The result is a focus on clear storytelling rather than unimportant details such as the appearance or gender if individual characters. It’s a great device, and partnered with simple staging and a pace that doesn’t hang about, artistic director Scott Ellis has created a distinctive style of performance honouring the historical aesthetics of travelling players, though there’s a lack of nuance dissatisfying to modern audiences.

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Around, Jackson’s Lane

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By guest critic Rebecca JS Nice

Short and sweet, this half hour lunchtime show feeds feisty and giggly kiddies with a banquet of characters performing a range of tricks. A bearded ring master charms a female acrobat snake out of a trunk, and two musicians run around in monkey and pyjama costumes as their underage audience scream and shout at them. Programmed for the Easter holiday, the work is a strong contender among the ever-growing popularity of children’s theatre in London. Particularly special is Jackson’s Lane support for circus, which enriches their programming and sets a precedent for accommodating circus in small theatres.

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Spillikin, Pleasance Theatre

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by guest critic Alistair Wilkinson

You could easily classify this production as “the one with the robot” but there is more to Spillikin, currently on tour throughout the UK. Despite the high level of artificial intelligence on show, this is a human story depicting the world of a woman going through Alzheimer’s, the struggles she faces and how we as a society care for those who need support. Plays on these themes need to be put on more frequently, however Spillikin could tell this story better.

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Politic Man, Ivy House

What with growing up outside of the UK, my knowledge of British history is quite patchy. I can tell you a lot about the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean eras when Shakespeare was alive, but outside of these time periods, I know little. I quite like social history, so learning about new-to-me historical figures through theatre is an event of joyous discovery. What with my leftie sentiments currently battered, encountering someone from the past committed to social justice and equality adds to the excitement even if the play has its shortcomings.

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Interview: Mark Brailsford on Staging Shakespeare’s Stories

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When Brighton Shakespeare Company’s press release for their Macbeth tour of historical churches in Brighton and Sussex landed in my inbox, I was sorry I couldn’t make it. Shakespeare productions in churches and cathedrals wonderfully hark back to the grandeur of private performances for noblemen and royalty in the 16th century. Shakespeare’s epic stories sit well in the sweeping architecture of these ancient buildings, and on a practical level it’s a great way for companies to save money on sets and reach audiences in rural locations.

Used to the plethora of venues that showcase small-scale, fringe and progressive approaches to Shakespeare in London, I was curious about BSC’s unusually traditional approach. I spoke to artistic director and founder of this new regional company, Mark Brailsford, about the company’s work.

Tell me a bit about Brighton Shakespeare Company and its mission.

The BSC’s ethos takes a character-led approach inspired by Ron Moody and Stephen Berkoff. The company’s aims are to bring individual, characterful actors to the classics in the style of the time the plays were written.

How do you approach Shakespeare? What concepts to you employ?

We are apparently called radical because we set our productions in the period, something not many companies seem to do these days and we’re happy with this label. Many companies, but not all, like to have directors impose their directorial vision onto the plays whereas my approach is to be true to the story and genius of the Bard himself. [I aim] to bring them to life by allowing the story to stand on its own terms. After all, it seems to have worked for 400 years.

Why stage Shakespeare for audiences today?

[The] story. The themes and narratives are as relevant today as they have ever been. Love and loss, pain and laughter, war and peace and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. These exist in day-to-day lives all over the world.

What are some of the obstacles you and the company face?

Lack of money! We’re unfunded and back our shows via crowdfunding and box office.

Shakespeare is known for not supporting diversity. What steps are you taking to redress the balance?

This is a myth as there was more diversity in Shakespeare than commonly thought, especially for his time. His women are very strong characters, Othello was black and one of the best take-downs of antisemitism was Shylock’s speech in Merchant of Venice. He also gave prominent parts to working class characters, not a theme of Elizabethan life at the time.*

What do you hope audiences take away from your productions?

Joy, a tingling spine and a thrilling comprehension of the play.

*These views are not representative of those held by The Play’s the Thing UK or its writers.

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 Marked, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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It’s so easy to ignore the homeless people that line the periphery of routine journeys and forget they are just as human as the rest of us, with passions, fears and often troubled pasts. The Marked puts homeless young man Jack at the centre of a desolate, urban landscape populated with pigeons, people who move him on and demons from his past. Masks and puppetry add a richness to his story, but not always warmth. In most of Jack’s encounters, be they real or in his head, he is believably under threat.

Peter Morton’s puppets are sweet and whimsical, with Jack’s pigeon companion being particularly lovely and with an excellent range of movement. Jack as a child has a sadness to him, emphasised further by familial alcoholism that we can assume eventually drives him away from home.

Grotesque masks by Grafted Cede Theatre are skilfully used to differentiate between fantasy and reality, with the haunted, oversized faces ever in the back of Jack’s eyes. Zahra Mansouri’s costumes make these figures larger than life and all the more threatening, rendering Jack helpless in their presence and the audience to empathise.

Devised by the cast of three and presumably with the support of director Allin Conant, the spoken text centres around Jack’s encounters with a homeless couple, Pete and Sophie. Here is where the show falls short: the potential for conflict and tenderness amongst the three isn’t fully realised due to too few, underwritten scenes. Though these human characters ground Jack in reality somewhat, there is also little focus on the dichotomy of reality vs. demons. There is real potential for a fight for Jack’s life or sanity between the two forces, but the script doesn’t capture as much of Jack’s struggle as it could.

Visually, this is a wonderful production that makes some powerful points on the mental health of homeless people. Jack becomes a fully realised person through the creatures that haunt him, but his encounters with other humans don’t do him full justice.

The Marked tours nationally through 2017.

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.

William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged), Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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When I was a teenager, I discovered the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). My love for Shakespeare had already started to grow, and I thought the script was brilliantly funny and clever. I never saw a professional production of it, or any of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s subsequent plays, until their newest, William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (Abridged).

I found it hugely disappointing. The humour I found so witty and topical in the mid-90s, though updated, is bound in hackneyed and punny dialogue. The lack of fourth wall is great, but the panto-esque delivery feels cheesy, dated and over long. The script is fine in concept, but its execution is muddy. My tastes have clearly changed over the last twenty years and the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s work is no longer has the impact it once did.

However, the packed house laugh plenty so their style and concept are clearly still popular. Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor’s play is a mashup of most, if not all, of Shakespeare’s plays in one. Found in a Leicester carpark with a pile of bones, this is the never before seen script where Shakespeare tries to fit all his ideas in one in a totally nonsensical story.

Martin, Tichenor and Teddy Spencer are the three performers who play all roles. Their quick changes and timing are most impressive, though they rely on stale stereotypes and basic jokes to generate characters. Ariel from The Tempest becomes the mermaid, a handful of characters are inexplicably gay, and there’s even a joke about Viagra. (Are Viagra jokes even funny anymore?)

The show and the company are still popular after all these years, in spite of shallow, unsophisticated humour. Though the format clearly has staying power and wide appeal, it’s distinctive style in one for those with a penchant for comedy.

William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) runs through 29th August, then tours.

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.