The Kid Stays in the Picture, Royal Court

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By guest critic Willa O’Brian

The American dream is a tantalising thing. Even the grubbiest kid from New York, the son of a nobody dentist, can become a film star and producer. This is Robert Evans’ story, the man responsible for pictures like ‘The Godfather’. Complicité’s Simon McBurney adapted the show from Evans’ autobiography, which paints a picture from a better time: when movies were pictures and hard boiled men tacked “see?” on the ends of sentences wreathed in cigarette smoke. It is visually sumptuous and the cast of eight are a constantly churning ensemble that whip the story into a froth and delivery a sensory overload of American tropes and history and multi-media tricks. Given the subject matter, the desire to incorporate all of these elements makes sense.

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Only Bones, Soho Theatre

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by guest critic Rebecca JS Nice

Short and sweet, classic and comical. Thomas Monckton performs a solo piece glued to his spot, centre stage beneath a low hanging lamp, which obscures his body from the shoulders up for at least half of the work. Only Bones is a classic example of body manipulation that playfully explores all the possibilities that a clown can find and make with only his body, one square metre of space, and one light. These creative boundaries have been stretched and tested but remain in performance to give the show a formal identity and context for Monckton’s shenanigans.

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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.

People of the Eye, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Elizabeth has two daughters. Her youngest is “fine”. Her eldest has profound hearing loss. This diagnosis, in our able-bodied world with all its bias and privilege for those that are “normal”, is a hard one to take. Elizabeth wrestles with guilt, frustration and the never before considered world of adaptation to suit her daughter’s needs.

Theatre maker and actor Erin Siobhan Hutching grew up in a mixed D/deaf and hearing household. Collaborating with the Deaf & Hearing Ensemble, People of the Eye is her story, and those of families everywhere. It tells of parents, siblings, signing and secret languages. Projections and signing facilitates aid accessibility and support storytelling, creating a heartwarming montage of moments. The story is thin, but the message is clear: living in both the D/deaf and hearing world is a blessing.

Emily Howlett performs with Hutching as Elizabeth’s eldest. She signs as well as speaks and takes on several roles: a doctor, a sign language teacher and one of the two central characters. She and Hutching have a lovely chemistry and are generally believable as young siblings. Hutching also switches between Elizabeth and her younger daughter; these transitions are not always clear.

There is an added pedagogic element of Elizabeth taking a sign language class where the audience becomes the rest of the class. Though good fun, it is slightly forced – the story of this family is much more engaging than a lesson.

People of the Eye could certainly do with fleshing out, and its initial premise and structure are robust enough to withstand further development. The performances are engaging and they provide a lovely insight into family life with a disabled family member. The visual structure is a model for other productions seeking to increase their accessibility and can easily be applied to shows where deafness is not specific to the script. It’s a fantastic start with great potential.

People of the Eye runs through 27th 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.

Macbeth: without words, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Shakespeare without words. What’s left? In Ludens Ensemble’s Macbeth: without words, plenty. Drawing on the aesthetic of silent films and Victorian gothic with the near-constant use of live sound mixing, a trio of performers playing all roles conveys the story effectively through movement and subtitles. This spooky adaption taps into the heavy darkness and supernatural elements of the story in an easy to follow and visually compelling production.

The design is the most striking element of the show. Greyscale, sexless costumes are the base for elements of victoriana – waspies, a skeletal skirt, capes and papery crowns. Large screens and dust sheets host an array of productions, from silent movie captions to abstract splodges of colour. Haze is used liberally, but it actually feels appropriate to this production to create fog over the heath. The dust sheets are also cleverly used to create ghostly apparitions and shadows, though these could be used more often as a design motif. Two microphones and prerecorded sounds are mixed live to create rich soundscape of suspense and violence, though silence is used to highlight powerful moments of suspense.

The two men and one women are strong physical performers evidently influenced by theatrical clowning and animal work. Their focus and intensity are unwavering, especially as Macbeth’s torment grows. Expressed outwardly, this becomes the centre of the story.

Though there are a few extracts of text, stage directions and summaries projected, Macbeth: without words would be hard to follow without knowing the story already. A freesheet with a plot summary would go a long way to ensure all audience members are catered for. Some of the scenes could use lengthening to reflect their importance to the story, particularly the banquet scene.

This is a visually stunning adaptation of Shakespeare’s play that in no way underserves the original by stripping away the text. Ludens Ensemble create a vocabulary of movement, images and sound that feels just as rich as Shakespeare’s.

Macbeth: without words 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.

Us/Them, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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On 1 September 2004, a group of terrorists stormed a school in Beslan, holding over a thousand people hostage on the first day back after summer holidays. Most of them were children. When the siege ended three days later, over 300 people were dead. Part history lesson and part dramatherapy storytelling, two actors playing unnamed children who were hostages in the crisis re-enact the events of those three days. The childlike seriousness, quiet bickering and playful staging in Us/Them provides an excellent, contemplative lens through which to view world disasters.

Gytha Parmentier and Roman van Houtven are a soft spoken girl and boy who take pride in their school and their education. They go to the best one in town, and it’s near a wonderful forest. On the other side of the forest is the border, and across the border, children don’t go to school, the men are pedophiles and the women have moustaches. They view the world in black and white, everything is simple and explained in a matter of fact delivery. Whilst they show little fear, as hours stretch into days, the heat and dehydration take a toll on their bodies. Through their tiredness, they try to make sense of the terrorists’ demands and work out what they have to make them let them go. Their naivety is both heart wrenching and warming, rather than condemn they want to please everyone and carry on living their lives in peace.

The script is mostly narration, with some quibbling between the two on how certain moments panned out. More dialogue between the two would be welcome, but the design choices keep the narration from becoming too repetitive. It is description heavy, accented with colourful, abstract staging – childrens’ coats hang on the back wall, a web of unravelled string slows them down so as not to startle the terrorists. Their movements are angular, with leaps, falls and physical play. The bombs they rig around the gymnasium where they are held are balloons. Whilst the imagery and text is childlike, the undercurrent of danger and horror is inescapable, and the quiet honesty is wholly riveting.

Children are so often the faces of global tragedies that rally sympathy and action. Think of the little boy washed up on the beach, the tiny Syrian airstrike victim staring into the middle distance in the back of an ambulance. Whilst their images are splashed across the news and social media, they are rarely heard from. Perhaps if they were given a platform to air their experiences and perspectives, the adults that run the world would be less inclined to mindlessly retaliate against violent acts. Us/Them, rather than having an in-yer-face aggressive, political agenda, intuitively uses text and staging to convey a powerful, lingering request to listen and be kind, no matter how foreign we are to each other.

Us/Them runs through 28th 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.

Unreachable, Royal Court

Anthony Neilson didn’t come into Unreachable rehearsals with a script, but an idea – a director obsessed with finding the perfect light. From this starting point, the cast sculpted a modern satire of the film industry and the people that exist in that world. Over a six-week devising and rehearsal period, six actors worked with Neilson to create the play, a rarity in anything other than small-scale and student theatre. The end result is wickedly funny with on-point performances and, whilst the story isn’t anything remarkable, its execution makes for delicious relief from the chaos of modern Britain.

Maxim (Matt Smith) is Palme d’Or winning writer and director of Child of Ashes, currently filming in an unnamed location. He pushes the self-absorbed, whimsical artist stereotype to the limit with full-on strops, totally inappropriate comments and decisions that blow his producer’s budget. He is camp, temperamental and a fantastic physical comedian. His lead actor Natasha (Tamara Lawrence) is an unfeeling, blunt force of a sociopath who clashes with lead actor Ivan “The Brute” (a sidesplitting Jonjo O’Neill in ridiculous hair extensions). On his production team are the pragmatic producer Amanda Drew, frustrated DOP Richard Pyros, and deaf financial backer Genevieve Barr. Their grounded personalities create plenty of friction (literally, in some cases) by clashing with the flamboyant artists as the shoot goes over budget and over time. Some of the arguments are petty, others deserving, but all just as hilarious. Nielson mocks artists’ egos, but it’s not nasty – anyone working in the arts will have met at least a couple of these personalities in real life.

The comedy lies in the exaggerated characters and brilliant one-liners devised by Nielson and the cast. Even though the scenarios are fairly mundane and the story not particularly interesting in itself, it doesn’t matter one bit. There are some moments of poignancy and genuine intimacy, but Unreachable is really about the laughs. Even without familiarity with working in the arts, even the hardest, most cynical of hearts will find the outstanding performances hilarious. The scenes are often short and episodic, and half an hour could easily be trimmed, though the current two hours doesn’t feel overly long.

Chloe Lamford’s set is the reflectors, flight cases and lights of a film set until the final sequence, when she and lighting designer Chahine Yavroyan can pull out all stops in an impressive display of visual mastery. The only issue with this moment is the fox. Instead of a puppet or forgoing the image all together, an animal that should be in the wild or a sanctuary is paraded about on a lead. It’s a totally unnecessary and cruel device.

In these post-Brexit, unelected Torycore prime minister days where cracking a smile takes immense effort, Unreachable is welcome relief. Even though the play itself is nothing special, experiencing devised theatre in anything more than a tiny fringe venue that doesn’t go more than a couple of minutes without triggering a laugh is a welcome escape from real life.

Unreachable runs through 6 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.