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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Guards at the Taj, Bush Theatre

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Humayun and Babur have known each other since they were boys. Now the newest of emperor Shah Jahan’s imperial guards in Agra, the best friends work side-by-side on the night shift. Today is different, though. The first light of dawn will reveal the completed Taj Mahal, previously hidden from anyone other than its makers. Fit to burst with excitement, the two don’t know that the day to come will irrevocably change them as they fall prey to the giant cogs of the imperial machine.

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The Bad Seed, Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

L-R Rebecca Rayne as Rhoda, Jessica Hawksley as Monica and Beth Eyre as Christine © David Monteith-Hodge

Rhoda is the picture-perfect 1950s American child. Obedient, clever and helpful, she is a dream for any parent. But after the death of a classmate who won the penmanship medal Rhoda coveted, mum Christine’s investigations into past “accident” uncover a dark secret from her own childhood that means Rhoda isn’t all that seems. The revelation ends in tragedy with serious implications for Rhoda’s future.

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Bucket List, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Canada, the US and Mexico came into effect on 1 January, 1994. I was eleven years old. The agreement ushered in a degree of national prosperity for all three countries, but Mexico’s low minimum wage, lax environmental regulations and corrupt officials made a perfect storm for sweatshop conditions in the US-owned factories (maquiladoras) taking advantage of the exchange rate and unemployment in Mexican border towns. The maquiladora owners favoured female workers for their diligence and precision and employed girls as young as fourteen, who were better suited for working 12-hour days in harsh environments than older women or clumsy men. These girls, only a few years older than me, were assembling electronics and convenience items out of toxic materials for 39 cents an hour.

I’m American. Though I hide it well with a deliberately constructed accent and uniquely British habits and mannerisms that I’ve developed in the nearly twelve years that I’ve lived here, I still have the passport, the cultural history and the guilt to prove it. Normally that guilt is shaped like guns, healthcare or Trump, but it occasionally takes on other forms. This time it’s privilege. That privilege/guilt pours down my cheeks in hot, angry tears during Theatre Ad Infinitum’s Bucket List. The story of the women and girls’ lives dictated by the maquiladoras, some as young as me, is a horrifying contrast to the suburban middle-class upbringing I had, kept busy with school and music lessons and theatre rehearsals and ambitions. I may have had something that these girls made, some frivolous object bought without thinking in order to make my life easier or better, and I was totally oblivious to their hardship. I did not have to worry about my mother being killed for protesting the maquiladoras’ pollution, or about my auntie being raped by her manager, or getting cancer from the chemicals I encountered on a daily basis.

But for the women and girls in Bucket List, that is their life. The all-female, international cast, directed by Nir Paldi, devised a magical realism story of these desperate factory towns based on an idea from Mexican company member Vicky Araico Casas. Incorporating George Mann’s distinctive choreography and live music, Bucket List tells the story of Milagros (played by Casas), a girl growing up in one of these towns dominated by maquiladoras. Her generation’s experiences and those of her mother’s interweave, creating a landscape of labour, political protests, coming of age and revenge. It is a dense story covering a decade of these women’s lives, but Paldi’s script is easy to follow. Magical realism creeps in stealthily, and only at the end of the performance do certain events seem untenable and raise the question of whether or not they actually happened. Regardless of this fuzzy line between reality and fantasy, Bucket List is an anthem of strength that roars with political agenda and gives voice to the disregarded victims of developed nations.

Initially more of a montage of life experiences, Milagros’ story slowly begins to emerge. This could shift slightly earlier in the piece, but the exposition at the beginning gives wider context and does not feel extraneous. Paldi maintains a careful balance of these women’s lives and a wider, North American political picture that slightly tips in favour of the women, but there is enough of the outside world’s oppression and token assistance to inspire the characters’ rage and passion. Milagros’ tragic end adds fuel to the production’s fury against exploitation that comes out as a roar rather than a whimper.

There is hardly any set and technology on display, a dramatic change from their last adult show, Light. Instead, costume plays a bright but subtle role in the story – the five women playing the girls and their family wear coloured t-shirts with cartoon characters often idealised by young girls. Disney princesses, Batgirl and Alice in Wonderland offer them an American-created fantasy that they can strive for but will most certainly never achieve.

Juxtaposed against these pastel tops are quite vicious games demonising the powerful politicians and corporations that shape their lives. They also mock their working conditions, daily violence at the hands of men and threats to their lives. Milagros’ mother (Deborah Pugh) is a vocal political protester, demonstrating a ferocity also contrasting her character’s clothing. The excellent live score by Amy Nostbakken is more of a direct expression of the fighting spirit and sadness within these women.

Though a text-driven piece, Mann uses a series of motifs that soon become recognisable, indicating specific actions and locations. They enhance the understanding and often act as a substitute for words. Though used regularly, Mann’s choreography is one of the company’s trademarks and is unfortunately underused, especially considering the lack of set.

Even though NAFTA is over twenty years old, the maquiladoras are still there, employing women for long hours, polluting local rivers and creating environments ripe for exploitation. Paldi’s script aggressively demands awareness which may be unpalatable to some, but should be required viewing for every American blissfully unaware of their brothers and sisters across the border that are so often looked down upon with racist disgust. Bucket List is truly vital theatre in our age of disposable, thoughtless consumerism.

Bucket List runs through 29th 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.

The Master Builder, The Old Vic


Halvard Solness is afraid. He’s afraid of young people displacing him, and heights. But he is revered as the master builder of his town, a self-made man with luck on his side. The middle aged, unwell Halvard is surrounded by similarly unwell people: a wife who never recovered from past losses, a dying employee and a lovesick clerk. When a young woman he met ten years before arrives on his doorstep and disrupts his routine, the Everyman’s life goes into free fall. This dense, wordy production of Ibsen’s late work is a tightly coiled spring with exquisite design, but David Hare’s adaptation could use a good trim.

Luckily, Ralph Fiennes’ stage presence has been found some time between now and his Prospero at The Haymarket several years ago; Master Builder Halvard Solness flits around the edge of exploding for for nearly three hours and makes for captivating viewing. His tension isn’t alone, though. Linda Emond plays his wife Aline, a woman haunted by traumatic events in her past. Their cold, loveless marriage adds to the despair that hangs over the play. Even with bright spark Hilde Wangel (Sarah Snook), the foreboding and gloom still lurks on the edge of their existence.

Despite the grand performances, the set steals the show. Rob Howell’s design is grand and imposing, with symbolic elements that complement the play’s mood and tone. Curves and lines blend to create contemporary forms, but with a weight and scale that implies the architecture is not of this era. Hugh Vanstone’s lighting adds atmosphere and shadow, further emphasising plot points, but it could be used more often to create more visual variation. Though there are changes in both of the two intervals, the dominant elements remain until the climactic final moments; the sudden disintegration proves more surprising than the characters’ actions in the story itself.

Hare doesn’t skimp on language, but even though the two intervals prevent this production from feeling like its two hours and forty-five minutes, some of the scenes begin to lose momentum. Hare doesn’t attempt to make the language contemporary and maintains the script’s intellect, but neither is it hard to follow. There are just a lot of words, more than are actually needed. Snook uses her physicality most effectively, but the rest of the cast stick to the constraints of the text when extracting characterisation. Fiennes’ Halvard visibly relaxes in the presence of a younger woman, but outside of these infrequent moments, it’s all about the words.

Despite Matthew Warchus’ modern update of the Old Vic’s interior, this production of The Master Builder is firmly rooted in old fashioned realism. It’s a real treat for the senses with wonderful performances and a huge scope for interpretation – a most excellent production of a classic, despite its length.

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.