The Listening Room, Stratford East

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Can violent criminals be rehabilitated, and can their victims ever forgive them? The Listening Room says yes.

This verbatim piece tells the stories of three violent crimes, primarily from the perspective of the perpetrators. Some character background sets the scene for climactic moments where they commit their offences, but at least half of each of the five characters’ stories spotlights the rehabilitation process and mediation between the assailants and their victims.

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My Country; a work in progress, Theatre Royal Stratford East

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After 52% of 72% of the British voting population voted to leave the EU, Rufus Norris’s concern that London theatre was out of touch with the majority of British people drove him to launch a nationwide project of listening. He sent a team of ‘gatherers’ to all corners of these sceptered isles, and they collected 70 interviews from people up and down the country. The transcriptions combined with text by Carol Ann Duffy gave birth to My Country; a work in progress.

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A Year From Now, VAULT Festival

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by guest critic Jo Trainor

“Two or three people with guitars call themselves a band, they’re a group!”

Red Belly Black Theatre Company asked fourteen people where they think they’ll be a year from now, and have used their voices to create an hour of witty, beautiful and moving theatre.

Lip-synced verbatim is a new experience for this reviewer, and if you’re not used to it there is a brief moment where you need to get on board with the style. Luckily Red Belly Black are so precise with their movements and mannerisms that it’s impossible not to love A Year From Now.

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Tank, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Like their debut production The Beanfield, Breach Theatre’s second show Tank recreates a contentious historical event in a distinctive meta-theatrical mashup up forms and styles. In the 1960s, Dr John Lilley built a Caribbean villa to research cetacean communication with NASA money. Margaret Howe, a young woman with no qualifications who quite liked dolphins, decided she wanted to work there and, impressed by her observational skills, Lilley gave her a job. Their research soon became tarnished with Lilley’s experimentation with LSD and incidents that occured when Howe’s lived in isolation with one of the young male dolphins, Peter.

Breach trawled through hours of recordings documenting their experiments to form the base structure of the verbatim Tank, fleshed out with live sound effects, dance and narration. The production is multi-layered; on one level it’s a fascinating recreation of these experiments and on another, it’s a searing critique of American imperialism over not just other people, but other species that they deem inferior.

Two of the cast of four play Margaret and Peter. Speaking through microphones that distort Peter’s voice into dolphin sounds, there’s a scientific distance between them, and a condescending approach from Margaret. “Speak English, Peter. English,” she says, like a mother to a petulant child only willing to answer in noises, or a condescending local to a tourist. An idea dawns on her that living full time with Peter over a number of weeks in specially adapted rooms would create a fully immersive environment in which the dolphin is sure to make progress.

The weeks in isolation take a toll on them both. Margaret starts to show signs of psychological distress, and the adolescent Peter, normally around two female dolphins, becomes increasingly aggressive. This takes effects their lessons, so Margaret makes a decision that will later be leaked to the press – she manually stimulates Peter to relieve his sexual urges.

She wanks a dolphin.

Breach handle the topic without perverting it as the media did, instead they focus on her scientific thought progression and the fear that his aggression causes. Her focus is always on Peter and his welfare; there is nothing sexual in her actions whatsoever. The overall effect is glossed over in favour of emphasising darker themes – animal welfare, English language dominance and America’s need to rule literally everything in the Cold War era. The other two performers take on narrative and supporting roles, adding depth, context and debate.

The end is a fitting conclusion albeit somewhat of an anti-climax, but the show’s sentiment lingers. This is a more sophisticated piece from Breach, less shouty but with greater impact. The thoughtful, progressive piece more firmly cements their reputation as exciting, young theatre makers.

Tank ran through 20th August.

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Five Guys Chillin’, King’s Head Theatre

https://i2.wp.com/www.ayoungertheatre.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/5-Guys-Chillin.jpg“Netflix and chill” takes on new meaning in Five Guys Chillin’. Well, the “chill” part does, and is also substituted with “chill out”. Rather than awkward hetero teenagers using the word to arrange a sexual encounter, in this context it’s multiplied by whatever factor the host fancies to make a drug fuelled sex party, usually in someone’s home. The verbatim play, carved out of more than 50 hours of interview transcript, graphically details typical chill out behaviour as well as frank discussion of issues within the gay community. Despite many funny moments, some great staging, and the raising of important points, there is precious little plot; this makes the production more of a live interview with the questions omitted rather than a play that tells a story.

The performances are a mixed bag, and the script doesn’t support the actors by giving them many opportunities to respond. They speak in broken up monologues rather than dialoguing with each other; through they listen to what each other says, there is no natural conversation. It sounds rather fake and forced, because it is. Matthew Bunn’s J. is the notable exception, the hilarious host who loves drugs, but is unemployed and struggling with his HIV status. There are a couple of gorgeous sequences, by movement director Chris Cuming, that provide more atmosphere and characterisation than the script does; without showing explicit acts they express the drugged up, party vibe in the guys’ heads.

There’s a fair amount of gross-out humour, made all the more horrific by knowing that the events described actually happened at some point in real life. From drinking piss out of someone’s arse to having a preference for being pounded by gonorrhoea-ridden cocks because they’re self lubricating (#sorrynotsorry), there’s no shortage of bodily function nastiness. The predominantly male, and presumably gay, audience also find the descriptions repulsive. This is all balanced by serious talk about protection, STIs, drug addiction and the desperate search for intimacy within these casual encounters. Most culturally unique of the characters, Amrou Al-Kadhi plays character PJ of Pakistani decent who struggles to balance familial expectations with being an otherwise-out gay man. It’s a poignant reminder that people in this country still run the risk of being ostracised by their families because of their sexuality.

The confessional, eye-opening Five Guys Chillin’ is certainly a cultural experience for those not familiar with chill outs, but as a piece of theatre, the solely-verbatim script is a let down. Not that it doesn’t have some great moments, but a lack of dramatic arc and dialogue cobbled together from material that was originally solo doesn’t hold up for over an hour.


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Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 13 August: Part Two

Camilla Whitehill’s Where Do Little Birds Go? tells the true story of Lisa Prescott, an 18-year-old nightclub hostess kidnapped by the Kray twins in 1966. Re-named Lucy Fuller, Jessica Butcher tells Prescott’s story through this harrowing solo performance. Humour and music are used to break up the horror of Fuller’s imprisonment with an escaped murderer who rapes her for hours on end, but some of the music transitions feel forced. Lucy loves singing; Butcher shares this love with gusto. She also wonderfully and ever so slowly transitions from the bright eyed, bushy tailed girl from Hastings who moved to London with hopes, dreams and £5 in her pocket, to a quietly streetwise, mature young woman.

Whitehill’s script contains some witty one-liners but doesn’t shy away from graphic incidents, like Lucy adventures as a nightclub hostess who offers “afters” to her best clients, and her experiences at the hands of the Krays. Justin Nardella’s set is Winston’s, the Mayfair club where Lucy worked before her capture and after her release. It cleverly uses sturdy levels to break up Fuller’s movements, but some of director Sarah Meadows’ blocking feels arbitrary. Meadows does have a good sense of storytelling, but struggles with the script’s abrupt ending. The audience never learns the how Lucy regained her freedom, though Butcher’s excellent performance draws attention away from this issue. Overall, this is a good offering from Duckdown Theatre and Heavy Weather Theatre that with further script development could be an excellent play.

https://i2.wp.com/lovelettershome.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Love-Letters-Summerhall.jpgMy last production of the day is Katharine Rose Williams Radojičić’s Love Letters to the Home Office, which receives a one-off table reading at Summerhall. This is one of the most important plays of contemporary British theatre. Not because of innovation or style, but content: it exposes the consequences of the 2012 Home Office legislation that breaches the human rights of an estimated 50,000 families in the UK.

This new ruling states that in order for a UK citizen to bring their non-European spouse into the country, the UK partner must earn a minimum of £18,600 a year or have £62,500 in savings. With travel and technology connecting people unlike that in past generations, couples forming from all corners of the globe are becoming more and more common. The income requirement discriminates against the working poor, though. It means that if the UK partner earns the minimum wage, they must work 60 hours a week. People who work in many jobs vital to UK societal function would not be able to living in the UK with their non-EEA partners. Such roles include teaching assistants, cleaners, caretakers, administrators, technicians, support workers, receptionists, and so on. The non-EEA partner’s income and savings are not considered in the application. Basically, if you are poor, you better fall in love with someone that is a European citizen or you will not be able to live together as a married couple unless you leave the UK.

Love Letters to the Home Office uses verbatim theatre from real-life people affected by this ruling. It is a politically charged play with a clear agenda: to spread the word about this home-wrecking Tory ruling. The stories are heart rending. A little boy stranded with his mum in America calls his Samsung tablet Dada. A single mum who can’t earn the required income because she is caring for her daughter must wait until her daughter’s old enough to go to school before increasing her working hours. A woman from the Philippines is unable to attend her husband’s funeral in the UK because her visa application had been rejected. These stories go on and on. There’s also a lot of factual information in the script that quotes from government legislation and academic studies amongst the actual stories. I struggle to imagine a dynamic staging and want to hear more first-hand accounts, but the script content is still hugely powerful and a motivational call to action.

The programme contains advice on how to engage politically if you are moved to act. It also has links to the project’s website, with many more accounts from people affected by this law. The website also allows for contributions, which opens the play to potential of constant change. The script could alter with every performance in order to provide a voice for these oppressed people who did nothing more than fall in love with a non-European whilst earning less than £18,600 a year.


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