Us/Them, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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.

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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.

These Books Are Made For Walking, Jackson’s Lane

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.

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.

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


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.

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 PayPal.

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.

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.