The Last Five Years, St James Theatre

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The most moving performances are often largely removed from our day-to-day lives. But every so often you come across a piece of theatre that, whilst it may not be the objective best thing you’ve seen, encapsulates your life so well that you can’t not fall in love with it.

The Last Five Years is good though, even if it’s been a favourite of mine since I discovered it as a student back in 2002. The Jason Robert Brown musical, now 15 years old, is a wonderfully simple (albeit heteronormative) tale of boy and girl meeting, falling in love and falling apart. Framed by the late 90s NYC arts world (that I watched as a teenager in the suburbs and later joined as a drama school student), his story is told in chronological order and hers in reverse. There are two performers; the only time they interact directly is at their wedding, making the songs function more like reflective monologues. Though there is hardly any book, Brown’s lyrics tell the story clearly and sensitively. Dynamic staging and committed performances, like those in this anniversary production that Brown directs, are necessary to keep this quirky little musical from falling flat. It’s a powerful, disarming show when executed effectively, and this production may well be its new definitive.

Jamie is a writer and Cathy is an actor. They are 23 when they meet; neither has had any success yet but both are wide-eyed, bushy tailed, and ready to fall in love. Jamie quickly becomes a bestselling novelist whilst Cathy is left in his wake, waitressing and doing summer theatre in the depths of the Midwest. It’s within this career disparity that their relationship deteriorates, and I find Cathy painfully echoes my own life as a failed actor. The isolation and jealousy that Brown fosters in his songs is wholly believable and all too familiar.

Both characters are flawed but generally likeable and despite reservoirs of love, it’s not enough to save their marriage. Though both characters can be irritating in their own way, their good intentions and fundamental incompatibility also ring true to anyone that’s endured the heartbreak of an ended relationship or marriage. Here is yet another parallel to my past, but this time I’m more like Jamie – I married young and naive and was divorced by 30 as a result of my own mistakes.

Samantha Barks and Jonathan Bailey are Cathy and Jamie. Barks is a stronger singer, but Bailey’s full of charisma and confidently flirts with the audience – it’s a lovely touch. Both have great emotional range and their chemistry is undeniable. Their performances, layered with Brown’s storytelling, reduces many to tears. Sniffling and eye wiping is plentiful in this intimate house.

The small scale of the show is fleshed out with some delightful video design by Jeff Sugg and Derek McLane’s set. These provide the context that’s missing from the script and grounds their story in a real time and place, though its Gabriella Slade’s costumes that indicate the 1990s setting. The videos are simple and cartoon-like, a sweet and charming addition that Brown underuses.

Though more of a song cycle with hardly any spoken dialogue (if you were to listen to the soundtrack you would hear almost the entire show) and arguably rather insubstantial, this one-act show has the ability to burrow into the depths of your guts. It’s a heartfelt love letter to the countless New York City artists doing their best to get by and find meaning in each other, and to everyone that’s every fallen in and out of love. The poignant, timeless story of youthful love and loss has the sorts of songs that you play on loop whilst crying in bed with a heart broken by your own failures (I’ve done this more than I care to admit), and those you can dance to after a brilliant first date or a career win. With the excellent performances and slick design of this production, it’s not one to miss – even if you cry through it.

The Last Five Years runs through 3 December.

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.

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Undead Bard, Theatre N16

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Professor Ashborn is on a mission to disprove Shakespeare’s existence, but the academics with leather patches on their elbows are trying to stop him. Following Ashborn’s lecture and an interval, Undead Bard creator Robert Crighton summons Shakespeare to talk to him about his life, work and death in an unrelated second half. This two-part show on Shakespeare in the modern world, bardolatry and the authorship debate certainly has some very funny moments of satire, but others are utterly bizarre and the poor execution of an idea. A significantly stronger first act sets up a reasonably enjoyable event, but the second is self-indulgent and anti-climactic in this overly long solo performance.

The paranoid Professor Ashborn’s lecture rips the piss out of Shakespeare academics, those that believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s works, those that believe someone else did under Shakespeare’s name and anyone with a love for Shakespeare’s plays. Crighton as Ashborn talks the audience through his various ridiculous authorship theories with energy and eccentric humour, evoking plenty of laughs. The script follows a natural rhythm of discovery, disappointment and eventual confession; it’s a story carefully crafted with intuition and skill.

Considering the second act, the first would be better served as a stand-alone piece. After what is quite a good piece of character storytelling, this random, rambling seance on the mundanity of Shakespeare’s life and afterlife is, well, mundane. The inclusion of toilet humour and sexual innuendo do not improve the piece. Shakespeare’s confusion at his legacy is cute, but it absolutely doesn’t warrant nearly an hour of discourse and disconnected pop culture references.

Crighton clearly has an aptitude for crafting a story, as evidenced in the first part of the show. Unfortunately, the rest of it is a muddled letdown that needs to be sent back to the drawing board or discarded completely.

Undead Bard runs through 13 October.

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.

Interview: Isley Lynn on Skin a Cat

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The upcoming opening of new venue The Bunker has certainly generated plenty of buzz, but what has excited me most about their debut season is that Rive Productions is bringing back Isley Lynn’s Skin a Cat for a three-week run. Hugely deserving winner of Vault Festival’s Pick of the Year, Skin a Cat is the coming-of-age story of Alana, a young woman who, like most young people, just wants to lose her virginity – but there’s something in the way. I spoke with writer Isley Lynn about the importance of Alana’s story, why stories like hers need to be told and how Lynn is working for more diversity in British theatre.

TPTTUK: Why does Alana’s story need telling?

IL: I’ve always been most interested in telling stories I haven’t heard before. I get so bored and frustrated when I see a show that’s beautifully produced/designed/directed/written/performed but tells me nothing I didn’t already know, or shows me nothing I haven’t seen so many times over. The bar really is so low for new stories – stories about differently abled people, women-centred stories, unconventional stories of anyone non-white, I could go on. Stories that give us new perspective are so important and exciting that I want to spend my time telling them. And the stories about sex – especially first sex – never matched up with my own experiences, so I figured I should tell mine. It really was as simple as that, but that’s also why it’s important.

TPTTUK: You use several dramatic forms and styles in Skin a Cat. Tell me a bit about these choices and the reasons behind them.

IL: To be honest, the play was so easy to write that it came out without too much thought. The stylistic qualities were organic to the material – and I had plenty of lived material to work with! I felt the direct address was important because it allows Alana to be honest and open with the audience in a way she isn’t able to be with the characters onstage with her. In a play about the pressures of how others see you and what effort it is to please, it felt crucial to keep this [play focused on] her story, her testimony, her voice.

So much of the action happens mid-coitus, and I had no idea how to put sex on stage. All credit to our wickedly brilliant director Blythe Stewart for its staging (this was definitely the most fun I’ve ever had in rehearsals, and I’m still impressed with how she managed to create a representational, physical language without resorting to silly hip thrusts).

TPTTUK: What would you like audiences to take away from Skin a Cat?

IL: We only had six performances at the Vault Festival, but after every one I had someone approach me and share their own embarrassing story, or their own experience of sexual shame or difference. That’s exactly the reaction I hope for at the Bunker – I want people to be able to see themselves in Alana’s story, and feel emboldened to talk about their experiences with strangers and friends and loved ones, because that’s the only way we can start to realise how we all “fall short” of the expectations placed on us – and not just with sex, but in so many other areas of our lives – and how unimportant and unhealthy those expectations can be.

TPTTUK: What are the biggest issues in the theatre industry today? Is your work combating them?

IL: I hope I am – I’m trying to. So many of the issues in our industry have their roots in the lack of representation. I’ve already talked about how important it is to have a diversity of stories and that’s a big part of it, but the responsibility for that is at the feet of everyone, not just writers – It’s important to create opportunities for underrepresented people on the stage, but it’s worthless if those individuals are not in a position to take opportunities available to them because they can’t afford to work for low or no pay, for example, or if they couldn’t afford the outrageous drama school audition [fee] in the first place. I have no idea how to fix that with unpaid work being the foundation for any career (certainly mine) and so much the norm.

Often, only people with strong financial support behind them can take full advantage of what’s out there. There are great one-off schemes, and great venues doing their part (like the Hope Theatre with their Equity house agreement on pay), but until the entire industry is a viable career option [for anyone], we won’t have a community that reflects the world we live in, and that’s the primary job of the arts.

TPTTUK: Isley Lynn fans are dying to know: what’s coming up next?

IL: I’ve been working with one of my absolute favourite actors on a one woman show that, if all goes well, should have a life at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe and hopefully beyond. It’s about a English-Egyptian woman who takes up pole dancing when her husband leaves her for the revolution in Cairo. It’s going to be a unique perspective on the battle over women’s bodies and what that means when you have to navigate two very different worlds, when you’re not fully on one side or the other.

Skin a Cat runs 12 October – 5 November.

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.

Feature – Should Bloggers Strive Towards Income?

Money has always been an issue in the arts, and artists have stereotypically always been poor. Post-recession, this issue has worsened to such an extreme that the possibility of earning a living wage from theatre has become nearly impossible. Opinions on the issue vary from Douglas McPherson’s right wing tirade against government arts funding and Jonathan Jones bizarrely comparing crowdfunding to The Crusades, to Lyn Gardner’s examination as to just how badly paid we are in theatre and Equity’s “Professionally Made, Professionally Paid” campaign. Those who work in theatre believe they should be paid fairly, or at least this is how I assumed everyone thought about their time. On Tuesday night, I discovered a sub-group of people in the theatre industry where a number of them don’t believe they deserve to be paid for what they do, or think that pay is ever going to be a possibility – theatre bloggers.

Whilst taking part in a twitter chat for a fellow blogger’s MA dissertation research, my response to the question, “Where do you see the future for blogging in regards to West End theatre? Grow in popularity, decline, more impact, etc.,” agreed with another comment about how blogging is rising in popularity due to the fall in printed media. I then posed a question: if blogging is becoming more popular, what can bloggers do to generate income from their writing, or what changes can be made in the system to open revenue streams?

And, then it all exploded. I discovered my desire to earn a living from my reviewing is not only rare, but incredibly controversial, at least within this particular group of bloggers. It hadn’t even occurred to me that others would have such conflicting thoughts on the issue. Surely everyone wants to be paid for the time they put their skills and knowledge to use? A few agreed that money would be nice, but that it would never happen. Of course the likelihood of becoming a paid critic is incredibly slim, but so is making a living in other areas of theatre. What I found saddening is the certain belief that being a paid critic is utterly impossible. Others believe that complimentary tickets are payment enough.

One point that several people made repeatedly was that they didn’t initially go into reviewing to make money. Honestly? I didn’t either. I wanted to see more theatre, but couldn’t afford to do so. I thought it would be a good way to put my education and years of working as an actor/director/producer to good use during a career break that, at that time, I thought was permanent. Just because that was my original intention about three years ago doesn’t mean that my writing and career goals cannot change. I have always viewed myself as a theatre professional, so why can I not see my writing the same way? The opinion that another couple of bloggers shared was that we shouldn’t expect to be paid because there are so many of us. Does that mean actors should not be paid either?

The most extreme opinion came from one writer who adamantly insisted that any surplus funds in theatre (Ha!) should go to emerging companies and artists because they deserve it more. She finds it heartbreaking that fringe companies often operate at a loss. Even if bloggers are provided with press tickets, the time spent writing our responses operates at a loss. How is this not equally heartbreaking? An actor can no more pay their rent with an unpaid performance than a blogger can pay their rent with a review. If a critic thinks of herself as not deserving of payment, or less worthy than the artists who make the theatre, what can we expect the rest of the industry and its audiences to think we are worth?


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