These Books Are Made For Walking, Jackson’s Lane

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Fabrice Dominici is a solitary librarian who takes great pleasure from the books he tenderly looks after. Gently stroking them, he flips to his favourite passages before giving them a sniff and balancing them on shelves made out of ladders. When a pile of books at the top comes to life, revealing a woman who has no intention of leaving and has a musician friend join her, the librarian tries everything to drive off these nonchalant interlopers. As his attempts continue to fail, this simple storyline of These Books Are Made for Walking starts to wander until it completely loses its way at an anti-climactic ending. Though visually dynamic and a nice premise for its aged 6+ target audience, the lack of distinct characterisation and a simple narrative arc is a disappointment to all ages.

Dominici’s nameless librarian draws on clowning to create a somewhat hapless but caring character who endears himself to the audience with his Wile E. Coyote determination. There are regular laughs, and his performance finds a lovely midpoint between over-exaggerated and underplayed. The other two performers lack personality, and it is never made clear what they want other than to hang out and make music on top of the rickety shelves. A love song gives away that they are a couple, but their relationship has no real bearing on the story.

Whilst the librarian’s attempts to get rid of his uninvited guests are entertaining and draw to a close before they become stale and repetitive, his sudden change of heart is inexplicable. He dashes around the stage with ropes and an audience volunteer to set up for the woman’s slack rope routine; after poking her musician friend in the bum with gardening sheers it simply doesn’t make sense. It’s a strange transition, but not as abrupt and unsatisfying as the show’s conclusion.

The set design, presumably by the three devising artists that also perform, is the highlight These Books Are Made for Walking. It’s instability naturally creates tension, though I would not want to be the person that had to risk assess the freestanding structure with performers clambering along the top. Books create a wonderful aesthetic, though watching them tumble to floor and then be trodden on cause several tiny heartbreaks. Christopher McGhee’s lighting works with the set well to create gentle shadows and focus points, though a moment of bright orange rays made the subjects hard to see as they were too close to the source to be lit evenly.

This second production from Bikes & Rabbits shows a promising use of narration in physical and visual theatre with additional elements of circus, but the spectacle’s temptation proves too much and is not properly integrated into the piece’s structure. It’s a lovely idea that doesn’t manage to follow through to a satisfying, clear conclusion.

These Books Are Made For Walking tours until 2 April at various venues.

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Beauty & the Beast, Polka Theatre

Beauty and the Beast - Polka Theatre - 20 November 2015 Writer - Charles Way Director - Roman Stefanski Designer - Laura McEwen Music - Julian Butler

Cold, dark days make me want to see feel-good theatre, especially in the run up to the holidays. Bonus points if it’s colourful, has some depth and at least some non-formulaic elements, even in a classic story. Polka Theatre’s Beauty & the Beast for ages 6-12 meets these criteria with a surprisingly complex storyline that keeps adult attention as well as kids’. Despite the target age range, there is some great humour and a touch of innuendo adults will appreciate (kids definitely won’t get it), sumptuous set and lighting and an adapted, relevant script. Some of the performances are wooden from the dated language and there are some dodgy movement-based transitions, but the school group audience was quiet and focused for most of the nearly two hours with interval.

Charles Way’s adaptation of the traditional story gives a much wider context than the Disney film and is more relatable to a modern, young audience. Belle is still the main character, but we get to know her father, Mr Godwin (Simon Holmes) and sister Cassandra (Géhane Strehler) well. Belle and Cassandra are complete opposites: Belle’s bookish, a visionary and frightened by most things; Cassandra loves boys, pretty dresses and adventures. The two bicker regularly and their money-driven merchant father is tired of it, a family dynamic that many children will recognize. Beginning in London and moving to the remote countryside when Mr Godwin loses his fortune, the girls also have to cope with big life changes and overcome adversity.

The women’s performances are consistently stronger than the men’s. Ritu Arya’s Belle is convincingly performed with a wonderfully dry sense of humour and an excellent character arc that isn’t overly saccharine. She carries the story and its energy well without being a stereotypical children’s performer, dealing with the old fashioned language brilliantly. Géhane Strehler is great contrast, giving young girls two opposite ideals to potentially relate to. Both have flaws, virtues and detail. Emma Cater is a sinister housekeeper for Jason Eddy’s Beast, a gentle man with stylized physicality and an imposing presence. Eddy doesn’t quite manage to carry that through after his transformation, but it’s so close to the end that it doesn’t matter much.

The set is layers of swirling panels that change colour and glow according to location, with the Beast’s castle the richest of them all. Laura McEwen’s set and Ian Scott’s lighting work together in wonderful harmony, with the occasional addition of puppets. Stage combat from RC Annie also adds a visual component, but the fights are slower that fight speed and brief. Some of the transitions lag and have abstract movement to fill the time, but this doesn’t contribute to the story and usually look pretty naff. Costumes, also by McEwen indicate the characters’ circumstances and changes in social class, but the highlight is the headdress and mask for the Beast.

Though there are still age and gender stereotypes, the adapted script empowers the young female characters. The detail and length will occupy adults as well as children and Way’s story is excellently constructed. With wonderfully visual design and a stirring score by Julian Butler, this is a lovely production harking back to the classical story without the glitz of Disney-fication or the panto cheese, and a solid option for a family holiday show.


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Claustrophobia, Hope Theatre

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I imagine getting stuck in a lift is pretty high on the list of “Worst Things Ever.” Well, it’s obviously not as horrible as the death of a loved one, terrorism, cancer and a host of other things, but in terms of scary experiences that can ruin your day, it’s definitely up there. And, the longer you’re trapped, the worse it gets. In Claustrophobia, Aidan and Rachel are on their way home when the lift their in stops moving. As minutes turn into hours, their phones run out of battery and they run out of food and water. Mental and emotional deterioration sets in.

Playwright Jason Hewitt cleverly breaks down the play’s structure as the characters do the same, and employs an ending device that creates ambiguity and questions about what is and isn’t real. Though the script addresses the crisis effectively through its structure, the characters lack development and some of the scene transitions are clunky. Director Sharon Burrell does an admirable job with this well-performed two hander in an intimate space, but elements of the script let it down.

Michael Cusick and Natasha Pring play defensive, closed characters that don’t give much away about themselves for most of the show. They’re damaged people and often quite rude to each other, but their language conceals the inner workings of their minds. Their vulnerability comes through in abstract moments later in the play. Both attack the roles with commitment and energy that is amplified on the small, in-the-round stage and are a pleasure to watch.

Lighting by Tom Burgess and his projections (co-designed with Burrell) are rich and visceral during the character’s expressionist and dreaming moments. The projected video is abstract and wonderfully evokes specific moods that the lighting matches. This tech augments the language and adds clarity to sections of the script that veer from the previously established naturalism, but the transitions between these two styles are abrupt, and never fully explained; there is an unsatisfying lack of connection to the characters’ real life.

This is Hewitt’s first full-length play and even though it needs work, it shows his capacity for creative thought and a confidence to play with form. Burrell’s use of the space and staging is excellent and supports the script’s ideas, as do Cusick and Pring’s great performances. Though there are some issues, this is a polished production that shows promise.


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Tamburlaine the Great, Tristan Bates Theatre

That which goes up must eventually fall. Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great tells of the title role’s rise from common thug to emperor of Persia and Africa. A precursor to, and probable influence of, Shakespeare’s ruthless Richard III, the man is needlessly brutal: he orders rivals’ remains displayed on city walls, women and children killed, manipulates others to join his cause and then betrays them. Fate eventually catches up with Tamburlaine after he sets fire to books, including the Qu’ran, and proclaims himself more powerful than God.

Lazarus Theatre Company returns to form after a disappointing Henry V with a modern, concise presentation of Marlowe’s play depicting Tamburlaine as a violent, string vest wearing hood rat transformed into a suited and booted world ruler. Social mobility is the dominant theme, emphasized through Rachel Dingle’s costume design in this rags to riches tale. With visually arresting movement sequences, skillful use of light, and pointed similarities with Middle Eastern politics, immigration and Western meddling in the region, this is a relevant, well-crafted adaptation of the Elizabethan original.

The defining feature of this Lazarus’ adaptation is the extended movement sequences, with a powerfully striking one opening the show. A large cast use militaristic stylization and East Asian performance techniques to slowly travel across the stage, setting the tone for Tamburlaine’s merciless and unfeeling crusade. The choreography is precisely angular and even though the actors are well-rehearsed and the effect is visually stunning, there are hints of restrained self-consciousness from some of the company. Accompanied by deep, tonal sound design by Neil McKeown with the actors smartly dressed in modern suits, it reflects the contemporary Western political machine that coldly invades other countries. These sequences are used throughout, enough to be effective but not so much that they lose their power. No choreographer is credited, so they are assumed to be a product of co-directors Ricky Dukes and Gavin Marrington-Odedra.

Performances from the company of 15 are good, with delivery occasionally broken and overindulgent. These moments are rare and don’t affect the pace or energy of the cast as a whole. Particular highlights are Kate Austen as the aggressive, trackie-bottomed Techelles who is Tamburlaine’s number two. She never loses her fierceness, even when Tamburlaine’s success means she has to wear a fitted dress. Robert Gosling is the simpering, camp Mycetes, Emperor of Persia. He’s a great contrast to Prince Plockey’s earthy Tamburlaine. Alex Reynolds is the captured prisoner Zenocrates that Tamburlaine woos and makes his bride. Her transition from victim to doting wife is a disturbingly good example of Stockholm Syndrome, reinforcing Tamburlaine’s power and manipulation. Lorna Reed plays three smaller roles, with a calm strength and subtly powerful voice. She would make an excellent Hermione or Lady Anne. The bombastic Bajozeth, Emperor of the Turks, is played by Alex Maude and is a joy to watch, particularly when imprisoned and force fed by Tamburlaine.

There are few weaknesses in this Lazarus production, but those that are present are minor. Tamburlaine’s final speech has too many pauses and the use of five identical crowns can cause confusion as to which character is the most important at any given moment. There was also an unsatisfying lack of blood considering the play’s violence. However, fringe productions tend to not have a dry cleaning budget; having the Mads Mikkelsen-as-Hannibal Lector suits cleaned daily would cost a small fortune. Artistic director Dukes’ flair for updating classical theatre with contemporary relevance and visual staging is at its finest in Tamburlaine the Great and is certainly worth a watch, particularly as it’s a play rarely staged.


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Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 21 August

Two radically different solo performances make up my day: a joyful, music-based reimagining of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Summerhall entitled Titania, and Total Theatre Award shortlisted physical/visual theatre piece, Oog at dancebase. Oog is the more polished and complete of the two, a non-verbal expressionist work depicting a broken soldier at the end of some unknown war, alone in a cellar. Titania is a sexy, celebratory, aural experience with audience participation that focuses on the fairies’ story.

Anna-Helena McLean uses live mixing, voice and cello performance in an impressive display of vocal dexterity to evoke the fairy kingdom. She often uses Shakespeare’s text, with spoken-word style delivery, and simultaneously creates atmosphere through sound. The effect is a rich, aural bath that can easily be absorbed with eyes closed. Rather than ethereal, this forest is earthy and sensual. McLean takes on a range of characters through fluid transitions and vocal differentiation, disregarding a narrative. More physical distinction between characters would have been welcome and in a piece entitled Titania, there isn’t as strong a focus on the fairy queen as expected.

At points McLean has the audience singing, snapping their fingers and joining her on stage. The scene where Titania seduces Bottom involves four audience members, one as Bottom and the others as fairy attendants; this scene is so sexually charged as she undoes Bottom’s shirt and strokes his chest that my rapidly-repeating inner monologue consists of, “OMG THEY’RE ALL GONNA START FUCKING”. As well as the sexual overtones, there is celebration and laughter. This piece could easily develop into a larger, club-style performance with additional actors, that seeks to create the forest through participation rather than the audience passively watching for much of the show.

Though using Shakespeare’s work as a launch pad for new styles of work is brilliant, to make a fully effective reimagining of the original, the artist must provide a clear, specific comment or interpretation on an aspect of the text. I’m not sure what McLean seeks to say about Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; there is no evident overriding message in this piece. The grounded, sexual aspect of the fairies is a starting point, but it isn’t enough. That said, Titania is a piece I wholly enjoyed, even though it needs additional development.

Oog is an entirely different beast, using fast, twitchy movements to exhibit the trauma of war experienced by soldiers. There is no speech, but the character replays happy moments from civilian life mouthing conversation, memories of battle, and intermittently gazes up the ladder leading to his freedom that he cannot bear to climb.

Like a video sped up, performer Al Seed is relentless and tense. Oog is captivating to watch with a range of movements and styles; the expressionism lends itself to a range of interpretations. His Beckettian struggle feels like he has endured it forever, and will continue to do so for time eternal. There is little that signposts him as a soldier, though. Without the programme notes, I don’t know that I would have determined the production concept.

The design is stunning. Side lighting and smoke create strong visual angles and the electronic soundtrack enhances the tension in Seed’s body and mind. His coat is huge and sculptural, a presence in and of itself. Even though the performance is only 40 minutes, it could have been shorter and still conveyed the same intensity, particularly with the cyclical nature of the piece.

These radically different one-person shows experiment with form and style, showing the possibility of character-driven, non-narrative live performance. Both have their merits and both have their flaws, and both are worth seeing for their interpretations of timeless stories.


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Henry V, Union Theatre

I’ve known Lazarus THTP-037-4heatre Company and artistic director Ricky Dukes’ work for a long time. We first met back in 2010 sharing a venue at Camden Fringe when I was a fledgling producer. Since then, I’ve seen several of their shows and reviewed others, including The Spanish Tragedy (my first review for everything theatre) and last summer’s Troilus & Cressida. Dukes is visually inventive, with a solid grasp on the challenges of classical theatre. He boldly reconceptualises plays, honouring the language but ensuring productions are energetic and a feast for the eyes and ears. I expect Lazarus shows to provide a creative, unique perspective on the play, with high quality performances. Until this Henry V at The Union Theatre, they have always fulfilled these expectations.

The all-female, barefoot cast is rendered androgynous by identical navy blue boiler suits, emphasising Lazarus’ dedicated ensemble approach. Whilst this easily allows for multi-rolling, there is no visual distinction between characters. This hinders understanding of the story, particularly with the sweeping cuts to the text. The dark colour is a striking contrast to the dominating white table in the middle of the thrust stage, covered in religiously symbolic items, all white or light coloured: candles, an ornate bible, an alter cloth, a bowl of water for ritualistic washing, and Henry’s crown. These objects justify Henry’s contentious claim to France. A stack of self-referential Arden scripts is tucked under the table. There is no other set, save for black metal chairs ringing the playing space for actors to sit when not performing. The cast are on stage the entire time, a Brechtian technique used to emphasise the narrative aspect of theatre. Additional visuals include a creepily masked French herald, bright pink gift bags filled with the Dauphin’s luminous green tennis balls and a single pink helium balloon. These remain on stage for the duration, as well as the balls, which are thrown about the space upon delivery, causing the actors to tread warily. The overall look of the production harks back to the 1960’s.

The colour combinations and excellent lighting design looks fantastic. Dukes and the actors use the stage effectively, playing to all sides of the audience. Any individual moment could be photographed and it would make a striking image. The issue is that none of these visual choices supports the production concept. Dukes wants the audience to question whether Henry really has the right to invade France. Clutching at straws, I connected the boiler suits to mechanics, or builders – perhaps these characters are tearing down England and rebuilding it to be bigger, faster and stronger? This is tenuous, at best.

I really want this production to be as good as Lazarus’ past productions I’ve seen. Adaptations of Shakespeare should give the audience new insight into the play and provide a clear level of understanding, but this time Lazarus did not succeed in doing so. Other than it looking great, the reason behind the design choices remains unclear and they do not support the production concept.

The ensemble has some excellent performances. Colette O’Rourke is a feisty Northern Henry that holds attention throughout her lengthy trademark speeches. She is grounded, but with a volatile, pent up aggression. Her performance is reminiscent of Clare Dunn’s Hal in Phyllida Lloyd’s Henry IV at the Donmar last year. Just as watchable is RJ Seeley as Fluellen, who has some great scenes with Emily Owens’ Pistol. Nuala McGowan is vibrant and dynamic as the disturbing French herald and Captain MacMorris. The rest of the cast struggle to distinguish themselves from each other, delivering the text with nearly identical rhythm and pace.

Other devices that add distinctive features but no further clarification to the production concept include a loud hailer through which Henry rallies his troops, but it flattens delivery. Some speeches are delivered in prayer, emphasising the driving force of religion in Henry’s mission. Direct address is used copiously as it should be, but not excessively so. The St. Crispin’s speech is a wonderfully intimate interpretation. Pistol adds in some “fuck you’s”, which although gratuitous, suit the character. The diverse female cast, whilst laudable for diversity reasons, also provides no unique insight into the play, as their costume and performance style does not pander to any particular gender identity.

This Henry V is certainly not a bad production, but it is not up to Lazarus’ usual standard of excellence. A great performance from the title role and striking visuals help hold audience interest to some extent, but the lack of concept and design unity prevent total audience engagement.


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So It Goes, Greenwich Theatre

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Hannah used to love running with her dad. When she was 17, her dad died and Hannah kept on running, silently and alone. She refused to speak about his death with anyone, including her family. So she decided rather than to navigate the burden of speech, she would create a silent play that tells her dad’s story and her process of dealing with his death. So It Goes is a sweet two-hander that manages to avoid over-sentimentality by focusing on the honest, deeply individual story of navigating life after the death of a parent.

Other than the last line, there is absolutely no speech in this play. All text is written on small whiteboards worn around the actors’ necks or on pre-made signs. This keeps written communication basic; it is rather like watching a comic book or graphic novel being written. This could occasionally feel slow and it was often easy to predict what was coming next on the whiteboard within a scene, but not overly so and not often. The set and props are also simple, with signage and symbolic items representing other characters and jumps in time and place. Most props are drawn outlines of objects, adding humour and a sense of youthful play to the story. The physical performance style matches- it is exaggerated but simplified, physical theatre but not ornate, embellished or for the sole purpose of showing the actors’ physical prowess. So It Goes wants to tell Hannah’s story as clearly and simply as possible, focusing on truthfulness and emotional honesty. The look of the play would certainly appeal to children, but accessing adults’ inner child makes the experience of losing a parent a journey that ends with positive reflection rather than the bitterness of loss.

The performances are equally lovely. Hannah Moss plays herself, and has “help” telling the story from David Ralfe, who plays her Dad and Mum. Ralfe in drag has an initial hit of comedy, but he taps into Mum’s outward expression of hopelessness that soon makes the audience forget that it’s a bloke in a dress. The two actors embody an exaggeration familiar to children’s theatre that is also in keeping with the cartoon aesthetic of the production, but is not crude. If they did not employ the exaggeration or humour in their physical comedy, it would make audiences want to slit their wrists. Instead, there was a lot of sniffling and nose blowing mixed in with laughter.

This is the third play I have seen about death in recent weeks. Each production used a dramatically different approach to convey the same message. Hannah spelled it out for us by writing that her dad “didn’t just die, he lived.” There’s an overabundance of factors in the world that can easily depress us and forget to look for the little moments of daily joy in our own lives, but So It Goes provides a celebratory reminder to do so through a pared down, visual-textual hybrid of physical theatre. Though the tour has now finished of their debut production, On the Run Theatre is certainly a company to watch.

Intention: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Outcome: ☆ ☆ ☆

Star Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.

Domestic Labour, everything theatre

“…the performance was much more theatre than dance. It addressed a range of themes and ideas drawing on the experiences of the Iranian-British male author: feminism, domestic responsibility/burden, motherhood, revolution, sex, bicycles and headscarves…

“…The dark stage was peppered with old-fashioned hoovers and appliances each lit with a small spotlight. It was a striking visual. As the performance started, three women interacted with these props in a range of ways, from cradling them like a baby to holding them like guns. They showed both affection and aggression, much like the emotional life of a vintage housewife. This sequence showed subtle influence by contemporary dance…

“The performance was incredibly visual, though not without some technical hitches. The lighting design seemed well intentioned, but did not always suit the staging. For example, one moment had the performers’ faces in darkness whilst the rest of them was lit. In another, a light box was not big enough to light all three…These problems were countered by stunning moments, such as creating a stationary bicycle using a small heater, a hoover full of dust and a bike…

“The show was non-linear, passing back and forth through time. An Iranian man marries an English woman in the present day, but Iranian women are emancipated in 1936. Several characters experience a revolution and discuss the withdrawal method of birth control. These women, though indistinct characters, still provoked audience empathy…

Read the entire review on everything theatre here.

Light, for everything theatre

“…At the start of the show, an announcement warns us that the ushers will be watching us at all times should we have any trouble with flashing lights. This announcement, whilst concerned with health and safety on the surface, suitably forecasts the world of the play where the government monitors the thoughts of every citizen.

…Light is inspired by Edward Snowden’s revelations of government spying. It gives us a world where technology is king and the government supposedly keeps us safe from terrorism. The story follows Agent Dearden in a world where speech is redundant, as every human being has an implant that allows him or her to transmit thoughts directly to the receiver’s brain…

“Whilst the story itself is typical example dystopian Big Brother fare, it balances a wider worldview with an intimate portrayal of one family. What makes this production truly compelling and unlike anything I have ever seen is its use of light and sound…The actors use precise and detailed movements to indicate character, and location, often appearing to manipulate the beams of light…Surtitles, rather than speech, contribute to the lighting element and add character and plot information, though this is used only when absolutely necessary.

“This production is part of the London International Mime Festival for a short time and then goes on tour nationwide. To experience innovative theatre that takes the art form to new heights, see this show.”

Intention: ☆☆☆☆☆

Outcome: ☆☆☆☆☆

Star Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆

Read the entire review on everything theatre: http://everything-theatre.co.uk/2015/01/light-the-pit-at-the-barbican-review.html